Notes from a lay naturalist

From high above Ernen’s neighboring village of Mühlebach, the hike down from the lovely Chäserstadt may not be one for wobbly knees, but it certainly stands its ground for beauty.

Starting from the restaurant terrace, where the Upper Rhone valley spreads out beneath you like a rich tableau, the marked path leads down to the road and follows it some 200 meters before steering off to the right and into the woods. It’s from there, starting from the edge of the forest, that a visual feast of wildflowers, rocks in mottled colors, and vegetation in every state of growth and decay begins. The natural forest is a wonderland.

At the bottom of that first hill, Wanderwegschilder (signage for hikers) suggest two ways back to Ernen. I may have taken the “road less travelled by” in choosing the longer one, which would take some 2 hours from there. Rather than heading straight down, it again followed the road for a good 10 minutes, then veered off to the left at an inconspicuously stamped evergreen. Granted, the tree trunk had a small Wanderweg (hiking trail) plaque, but could have been easily overseen. That said, in approaching it, you could spot the path from the road over your left shoulder.

From that designated point, the path backtracked and passed behind two power masts, then wound its way down through a mixed forest of trees. At one point, I stopped to pick up two handfuls of small fir cones, delicate in their slight symetries. Another spot was heavily endowed with a mottled green stone, which made a particularly beautiful contrast to the ochres and greys of its neighbors. The trail twisted and turned as it descended, and eventually, I spotted the rooftops of picturesque Mühlebach, where—rather than heading towards its scenic chapel or suspension bridge—I headed for the old Backhaus (bakery) to crossed a small footbridge over the racing stream. From there, it was only a few meters up the incline to come out of the gentle canopy of trees and find the welcome of a broad wooden bench. From there, the view back to the Ernen church and the fields between, irrigated by the ghostly apparition of rotating sprinklers, convinced me the world was truly my apple. 

A pair of good hiking shoes or boots for the descent from the Chäserstaat is mandatory; open shoes or sandals would be an invitation to stubbed toes or possible trouble. There are some slightly precarious spots on the trail that require good balance, but nothing in the way of dangerous drop-offs or sketchy slopes. Sometimes the formation of the natural rock base takes on the look of carefully laid steps, a call to the imagination that conjures up hundreds of elves working long nights to lay them.

But most impressive for me was the sheer variety of vegetation along the way: rugged near the top of the hike, increasingly gentler as one descended. Fallen timber was left in its place to decay, thistles and flowers proliferated along the path, and spread out among a thick carpet of grasses. At one juncture, I found a small cache of wild strawberries, at another, a craggy fallen tree trunk with its dozens of naked branches seeming to call for redemption. In any case, this lovely downhill hike was a visual and sensory treat of the very first order.

Sarah Batschelet, July 14, 2019

Note: the Chäserstadt Seminar Lodge (at 1770 m.) also has eight rooms for travelers. Guests can hike up or request transportation. (Tel. +41 27 971 23 98). For guests in the dining room and on the terrace, Chef Janos Schweizer draws on local produce, and his freshly- prepared cuisine is both imaginative and beautifully presented.