Bryce, Sharon and Lee find out if there is lift serviced, all-mountain alpine singletrack epics in Switzerland. Follow them in this six part series as they document how a bunch of North Americans find their way around Switzerland.
Stay tuned each coming week for the next installment of Switzerland for Dummies
Often it’s not until you return from a trip that you have the chance to really reflect on the journey. You unpack, decompress, and download and as you fall back into your normal routine it all sinks in. Memories evolve like molten earth, eventually forming an impression that will remain somewhere in your mind forever. And yet, months after returning from a 23 day bike trip to the Graubunden and Wallis canton of Switzerland we still felt muddled about our time there. We had no tales of hardship, of adventure gone awry, none of the usual travel detours to stand out and solidify that impression. Instead we found amazing lift-accessed high alpine singletrack in an area steeped in rich traditions. So, what kind of impression does that make? We'll have to call it paradise.
Approaching the Nagens rift valley and the Glarus overthrust geological formation - a UNESCO world heritage site in Flims Laax
This trip started out just like any other - planning, preparing, purchasing, and packing. We are alpine singletrack addicts and our goal was to find out if the stories of quality lift-served, downhill-oriented singletrack were true. It started innocuously enough with a Friday departure from Vancouver, a stop over in Dusseldorf, and final arrival in Zurich at about 11am on a Saturday. Within one hour we had managed to buy Swisscom SIM cards to get a phone running (useful for checking transport schedules and travel arrangements). Shortly after that we were stocked with groceries from the Migros supermarket at the airport (Flims - Laax is a small town with a market that closes at 5pm on Saturday, and doesn't re-open until Monday). We transported our bikes using the Mitch Chubey patented hockey bag method, thus saving ourselves approximately $100-150 per bicycle (dedicated bike cases usually get charged extra). This unfortunately meant that we had to fight off jet-lag and put bikes together outside a very nice Zurich cafe by the Fly-Away Hotel as bemused patrons looked on.
I know, you want to hear more about the endless alpine trails. But first you must be bored with with more details about how mind blowing it is to travel with Swiss public transit. Perhaps for Euros this is not a big deal, but for us North Americans who are married to our vehicles it is almost unheard of for such efficiency and user-friendly customer service. Suffice it to say that from Zurich Airport, we were navigating first the Zurich city train, then on to Zurich main central station to the regional capital of Chur (100km SE of Zurich), all with our bikes and backpacks. Then friendly staff helped us to our bus transfer to Flims (which is about 17km west of Chur) where we had to figure out whether to stop at multiple stops in Flims and Laax. All the while, still groggy with jetlag.
"10 Things I Have Learned About Mountain Biking". Beautifully filmed by Tom Malecha of Zurich in various places in Switzerland. Used with his kind permission, it spoke to me because it embodied the joy of mountain biking and the beauty of Switzerland trails and scenery"
Switzerland's reputation for beauty, reverence for history, and culture is well-deserved. We found out through this trip that the mountains are magnificent, the people are friendly, and if the alpine towns were any more seemingly perfect you’d pretty much have to be in 'Vegas. But where the Swiss really stand out is in their attention to detail and efficiency. The Flims Laax resort operators (Weisse Arena Gruppe) put us up in the RocksResort bike hotel. This concept is one that seems to be particularly common in Graubünden lift-served resorts. Mountain bikers are put up in accommodations which offer bike-friendly services such as breakfast, lift-tickets, bike maps, bike storage, tools and laundry. It means that mountain bikers are not treated like an inconvenience, but as valued guests. Our accommodations, their comfort, proximity to lifts (literally 1 minute walk) and the fact that the Swiss are so dialed made for an easy check-in, restful sleep and prepared us for our coming days of riding.
The Flims Laax resort operators kindly provided us with accommodations at the Rocksresort hotel in Laax-Murschetg
Interior of the Rocksresort Hotel
Flims- Laax is popular for skiing in the winter and as a local mountain bike and hiking destination in the summer. Flims - Laax are two distinct villages and areas but are quite close together, with populations of approximately 6000 people in the winter and 3000 in the summer. Lifts run in the summer to transport recreationalists into the alpine. The area contains 200km of hiking trails (wanderweg). Graubünden (and Wallis for that matter) have adopted formal policies where mountain bikers can ride on hiking trails; note that this is not universally true of all other areas in Switzerland.
Separating Flims and Laax is an ancient slide that gave rise to the Ruinaulta - the Rhine Gorge (or the “Swiss Grand Canyon" as the tourist brochures will relate). Also created by this event are underground springs that create a chain of lakes - Caumasee, Laaxersee and Crestasee - deep-blue through to turquoise-coloured mountain lakes. After September 1st the Laax gondola only runs on the weekend for bikers and hikers. Hiking is more popular on the Flims side than biking. Mountain bike trails on the Laax side are more DH-oriented, where on the Flim side trails are more enduro-oriented.
Summary: We took the Laax gondola to Crap Sogn Gion, rode about 20 minutes up the road and down a rocky switchback trail (trail nos 363 into 364 to 356/7 to 314 - Part of Maxi Avalanche to 358) through Plaun Ualgonda then to the free-ride Runca trail. This is a good introductory ride that we could have made longer by riding higher (weather curtailed our adventuring). The alpine trails are relentlessly technical so you should have your game on to do this ride. The middle trails involve extensive road and doubletrack, but at least it's fast. Lower trails have quality and are interesting - it was cool for us to see the Runca "freeride" trails. Total ride is 14km distance with a 1200m descent and minimal (<100m) of climbing.
Murky alpine day on Crap Sogn Oign. A quick ride up the Laax gondola with our guide Linder brought us from 1080 meters to 2220 meters. Downhill was a sinuous rocky path, deeply worn into the hillsides from decades, if not centuries, of passage
We inched around tight switchbacks and pointed it through rough chutes, all interspersed with sections of buffness where we could relax momentarily to take in the amazing views
Summary: From the Station Flims Bergbahnen we took two chairlifts: - Foppa and Naraus to 1800 meters, to ride a Panoramaweg traverse and then ride back down to Laax. Distance is about 14km, with 200m of rideable and hike-a-bike climbing to start, then culminating with a 1000m descent. This trail really showed us the goods of Flims/Laax and had us regretting the shortness of our stay. Beautiful views, interesting trails, cool geology. Even a ridge line descent then capped off with fun, fast and flowy downhills through the tree line. Indeed wunderbar!
The easiest way to describe alpine riding in Switzerland to a North American is this: take your favorite Rocky Mountain national park, mix in some quaint towns, sprinkle a few gondolas around, add a generous helping of bike-accessible singletrack and you've pretty much got it.
As the sun burned off valley fog, Linder led us on a gorgeous alpine traverse that offered incredible views of the entire valley.
A wide, rock-strewn remnant moraine trail dropped gradually, then became a gradual descending singletrack allowing us to stay off the brakes and carry more speed over smoother lines.
As we approached the tree line we wove through the sparse conifers, aware we still had over 600m to descend.