All Alone in the Alps: Hiking with the Cows High Above Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Gimmelwald — that perfect alpine village, perched on a meadow-draped cliff facing a panoply of cut-glass peaks — is a sleepy time warp…most of the time. But as summer nears its end, Gimmelwald snaps to life. By the second half of September, the cows are about to come down from the high alpine pastures…and there’s lots of work to be done.

My visit to Gimmelwald actually begins in the next village over, mile-high Mürren. I cross the street from my hotel and hop on the Allmendhubel funicular, which zips me in less than four minutes up to 6,200 feet and grand views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks.

I thought I was just coming up for a quick peek. But now that I’m here, I start paging through our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook (which I’m here to update, for our upcoming tenth edition). It turns out that one of Rick’s favorite hikes — the North Face Trail — begins from right where I’m standing. It’s mid-afternoon, and my work is done for the day…why not?

Following the book’s instructions — and the blue North Face Trail signs — I gingerly let myself through the electrified cattle gate and head down into Blumental…the “Valley of Flowers.” In the early summer, this meadow bursts with wildflowers. But today the flowers are mostly gone, the cows have chewed the grass down to the nub, and fall is nearly upon us.

Over my head, a packed-to-the-seams cable car silently makes its way up to the Schilthorn. Seeing all those excited faces pressed against the cabin’s windows, selfie-sticks glancing off the scratched and smeary glass, I realize there are far few people in this entire meadow than there are in that one little cable car.

I rode that cable car up to the Schilthorn earlier today. It’s hard to be cynical about the Schilthorn — it’s a spectacular alpine panorama. But it’s also commercialized to the hilt, making the utmost of its connection to the James Bond movie filmed there 50 years ago. This theming — once just a kitschy footnote to a visit — is getting out of control. The cable car itself is emblazoned with a hot-pink 007 logo, the observation deck is scattered with George Lazenby cut-outs to pose with, and “Bond Girl” silhouettes shimmy on the bathroom stalls.

For my part, I’m very happy to be out in a pristine meadow, rather than inside that cable car. Taking in a deep breath of thin-and-fragrant alpine air, I make my way across the meadow to the rustic little hut called Suppenalp.

This is a proper “alp” — a high-mountain meadow where cows spend their summers grazing. In the interest of preserving this traditional bit of culture, the Swiss government subsidizes this work to the tune of about $5,000 per cow. In many rural communities, parents fret over the next generation leaving for the bright lights of the big city. But here, they have the opposite problem: Kids fight over who gets to take over the family herd.

The cows’ owners hire cowhands to tend the herd for 100 days each summer in the high alps. The cowhands get up every morning at 5 o’clock to milk the cows and take them out to pasture, and then bring them back and milk them again in the afternoon. Because it’s impractical to haul heavy cans of milk down the mountain, they make the Swiss mountain cheese right here. For these cowhands, it’s a lifestyle choice: spending summers at 6,000 or 7,000 feet — working hard, yes, but ensconced in alpine splendor, while steering entirely clear of the modern rat race…a high-altitude summer sabbatical.

At this alp, the cows are in their pen, contentedly munching and mooing, but the hut itself is closed so the cowhands can take a much-needed rest day. Monntag und Diesntag Ruhetag, says the chalkboard. No cheese samples for me…yet.

From the hut, I head up a steep, rocky path, curving around the midsection of a ridge toward an alpine pasture that my book tells me is just around the next bend. Another crammed cable car sails over my head as I head for a new row of snow-covered peaks. I pass through a little stretch of alpine forest before breaking through into a pristine pasture, stretching like an infinity pool toward the sheer granite cliffs on the far side of the valley. Someone has positioned a split-log bench just so to take in the panorama.

Crossing this alp, at what feels like the top of the world, I make my way down to a humble gathering of huts called Schiltalp. This is where the majority of Gimmelwald’s cows spend their summers. But summer is nearly over, and very soon — when the last of the summer sun fades and the autumn clouds close in — the cowhands will herd their charges together, strap big ceremonial bells around the cows’ necks, bedeck them with pretty wildflowers, and parade them back down through town to their barns for the winter.

You never know exactly when the cows will come down, but I was lucky enough to see this spectacle years ago, in the super-traditional village of Appenzell. It remains one of my all-time favorite Swiss memories: an impromptu folk-life parade where the bovine grand marshals were cheered like returning war heroes.

But for today, the cows remain up on the alp. I can tell they’re still here before I see them, because those big ceremonial bells are still hanging high from the roof beams of the biggest hut. The Schitalp hut has a little “self-service” fridge, where visitors like me are welcome to leave a few coins in exchange for a bottle of water or beer, or a little wedge of alpine cheese.

The outdoor tables are enjoying some late-afternoon sun, but the only people sitting there are four extremely rough and grizzled old-timers nursing beers, giving me suspicious looks. I’ve clearly crashed some local party.

Trying to break the ice, I experiment with the local Schwyzerdütsch greeting: “Grüezi!” After 20 years of traveling to Switzerland, I’m still trying to master the pronunciation: “GREWT-see!” In Swiss cities, that does the trick. But in the countryside, singsongy Swiss German gets even singsongier.  And up here, each village — or even each farmhouse — has its own idiosyncratic greeting.

As usual, the four old-timers respond with what — to my ears — are four entirely different ways of saying the same word:

“GRÜÜÜÜÜ-zeh!”

“Khhruh-suh!”

“Grut. [pause, pause, pause] Si!”

“Khhhhrew-tzee!”

They return to their beers, making it clear that our conversation is now complete.

I drop a few coins in the jar and help myself to a wedge of mountain cheese. It has a pungent aroma but is still soft: not quite fresh, not quite aged, and speckled with little bubbles.

I saw a little chunk off of the slab, mount it on a hunk of rustic bread, and take a bite. The texture is as smooth and creamy as the flavor is sharp and searing — filling my mouth with the taste of hay and wildflowers and a tannic kick and deep, deep Swiss tradition. Strange as this may sound, it marries well with the aroma of freshly cut hay and day-old manure that hangs heavy in the air…in a good way, I swear to you. It’s easily the best cheese of my trip, if not my life.

I munch my way through the slab of cheese, savoring each bite. When it’s gone, craving just one last taste, I whittle a curl of delicious cheese off the rind and pop it in my mouth…the dairy equivalent of sucking the meat off the bones. The flavor will linger on my palate for hours.

Recharged, I bid my fellow alp hut patrons a cheery Adieu! and head on down the path.

Within moments, I’m immersed in a bucolic landscape of grassy hills, wooden barns, and mooing cows. And then, in the distance, I hear cowherds hooting and whistling. The mooing becomes more agitated. The cows are on the move.

Riveted, I watch as the cowherds crest the undulating land and come into view. It’s a family — dad, mom, and a couple of kids — working together to bring their herd in for the night. They’re dressed in modern clothes — shorts, T-shirt, trucker hat — but they enact a timeless routine of man and beast: insistently moving huge animals, many times their own size, with nothing more than insistent yelps and a big stick.

And then, all of a sudden — I’m surrounded. Cows on all sides of me, cowherds behind them, trying to move them up the gravel road I’ve just come down. A little frightened by the thousands of pounds of agitated beef headed my way, I stand still — a rock in a stream of livestock.

Once the cows have passed, I carry on down the path, leaving the slow-motion stampede behind me. I’m buzzing from the moment I just experienced — one of those beautiful travel serendipities where it feels like every decision I made today conspired to put me in the perfect place, at the perfect time.

Continuing on down the path, I pass through yet another alp settlement — Spilbodenalp — where the cowherd is also out, wrapping up a busy day’s work, while a few lazy cows doze in the front yard.

From here, I make my way steeply down on a switchbacked trail through a thick forest, then down precarious steps carved into a cliff to slip under the thundering waterfall called Sprutz. Grabbing the metal cable drilled into the cliff, I climb back up the other side, then make my way up through another thick forest until I finally emerge at the top of a near-vertical meadow. Below my cow pie-scuffed shoes are the rooftops of an idyllic alpine village: Gimmelwald.

I make my way steeply down through the pasture toward the tiny settlement — following narrow ruts, barely wider than my shoes, through the lush green grass toward the rustic rooftops. The fields around me are alive with farmers, out harvesting hay they’ll use to feed those cows when they come back to earth from the high alps a few days from now.

Crossing a narrow, paved road high above town, I dodge out of the way of a tractor as it zips past — racing to wrap up chores before they lose the sun. Scanning the rooftops below me, I can see that this little village — normally sleepy — is a beehive of activity. A visit to Gimmelwald just before the cows come back teaches you what they mean when they say, “Make hay while the sun shines.”

Finally I reach Gimmelwald’s upper road, where I’m greeted by four perfectly positioned benches — gazing across the gaping chasm of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, to the black-and-brown-streaked, deeply pitted face of the Schwarzmönch mountain across the way.

Just up the road, I swing by the Hotel Mittaghorn — also known as “Walter’s,” for the Swiss gentleman who has run the place since, I have to assume, the last Ice Age carved out the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Nothing ever changes at Walter’s — he makes darn sure of that. If it was good enough 30 or 40 years ago, it’s good enough today.

Out on the front porch sits perhaps the only relaxed person in Gimmelwald: Tim, the Englishman who’s been Walter’s trusty right-hand-man for the last 20 years or so. I sit and chat with Tim for a while, getting the latest gossip on this Gimmelwald institution. Tim tells me that Walter is now 95 years old, and opens his hotel only three months a summer — when Tim can be here to essentially run the place for him. They close the hotel more or less when the cows return; the cooler weather that brings the cows down from the alps also keeps the sun-seeking tourists away.

While Tim and I are chatting, the relentless bleating of goats in a pen next door intensifies. One of the goats finally jumps the fence and starts wandering around in the road. Tim, the good neighbor, hops up to herd the goat back home. I try to help, but I’m even less of a shepherd than he is. All I can do is hold the little gate open while Tim grabs the goat and bullies him back into the pen.

“Those two goats are sick,” Tim explains. “That’s why they keep them down here while they take the rest of the herd up to the upper meadows during the day.” He explains that, while the cows are way up at the high alps, they keep the goats closer — simply to provide local families with fresh milk through the summer. Sure enough, a few minutes later, our conversation is interrupted by a chorus of bleating and tinny, off-key bells as a couple of village kids march several more goats down the path to join their two sick friends in the pen.

Before I move along, I head into the hotel kitchen to say hello to Walter — still with that same twinkle in his eye, all these years later. Many, many years ago, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours spent the night at this dusty, rustic firetrap of a high-mountain hotel. The only way we could fit the entire group was to squeeze six couples — that’s 12 paying adults, close to half the group — into one big sleeping loft in the attic. They shared a toilet and a coin-op shower…not just down the hall, but down the stairs. (Our tour guides mastered the art of identifying which dozen people were best equipped to tolerate, or even enjoy, that experience.) Understandably, our tour members came to expect a higher level of comfort, and about 20 years ago we stopped using Walter’s. But, I swear to you, the tour members who stayed here absolutely adored the experience. When they talk about it, they get a twinkle in their eye…just like Walter’s.

I bid farewell to Walter and Tim and head into town. Across the street from Walter’s, steps lead down into the heart of Gimmelwald: the main intersection with the overly enthusiastic directional signs, the two little guesthouses, and the youth hostel and cable-car station just around the corner.

I go for a lazy lap through town, following the main street past busy barns, log-cabin-style homes, perpetually flowing faucets that fill carved-tree-trunk cow troughs, lovingly tended flower boxes, and bazillion-dollar views.

The people of Gimmelwald are firewood artists — stacking a winter’s worth of fuel with the precision of a master engineer. But I also see piles of just-split wood, waiting to be stacked.

At one point, as I’m lost in the glorious views across the valley, a towheaded, cherry-cheeked teenager pops up over a hill in front of me, pulling a giant tarp filled with freshly scythed grass. He dumps the grass by the front door of his house, theatrically wipes his brow with a handkerchief, then grabs the empty tarp and heads back down over the hill for another load. If Norman Rockwell were Swiss, he’d paint what I just saw.

I head back through town, fantasizing about living in a cliff-hanging cabin, filling my bottle at the fountain, and dodging a couple more tractors that come rumbling up the road. Back at the cable-car station, I watch the lift arrive from the Schilthorn high above. Dozens of day-trippers pour out of the cabin and cross the platform — blowing right through this sweet, intoxicating village — in their rush to the connecting cable car back down to the valley floor, and their awaiting tour buses.

I think back on those entirely unpopulated high-alpine meadows, those stunning mountain views savored all alone, and the feeling of being the only non-Swiss human being out on a vast and lonesome alp, entirely surrounded by cows. And I wonder why someone would pay a hundred bucks to squeeze into a tiny box and ascend to a James Bond-themed revolving restaurant, instead of experiencing what I just experienced…for free.

The cable-car door closing jolts me awake, and I look down as I fly over the rooftops of Gimmelwald and the steeply switchbacked trail tethering it to Mürren. I catch one last glimpse of Walter’s rooftop just before I’m swallowed up by the Mürren cable-car station.


I’m in Switzerland working on the next edition of our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook — where you’ll find all the details about visiting Gimmelwald, hiking to a remote alp, and even — if you choose — heading up to the Schilthorn (with tips for avoiding the crowds).

Or join us on a Rick Steves’ Europe Tour. Our Best of Switzerland in 12 Days Tour is ideal for those wanting a full itinerary of experiences like this. But we also spend time in this part of Switzerland on several other tours: Best of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 14 Days; Best of Europe in 14 Days or 21 Days; Best of Family Europe: London to Florence in 13 Days; and My Way Alpine Europe in 12 Days. (Come to think of it, it’s hard to find a tour that doesn’t stay in this part of Switzerland.)

While this was an idyllic late-summer/early fall visit, I also had a wonderful Christmas in this part of Switzerland once with my family.

28 Replies to “All Alone in the Alps: Hiking with the Cows High Above Gimmelwald, Switzerland”

  1. We were just in Murren and Gimmelwald in early May; you have filled my heart with longing. And Appenzell? We fell in love. I know there are lots of beautiful places to see in the world, but, once you’ve been to Switzerland, it is so hard to resist returning over and over again!

  2. Thank you for this magical blog post. Five years ago, my bride and I had our past Rick Steves adventure. Two years later, I nearly died from an autoimmune lung condition that took me about a year to beat – but I did.
    Now, we are preparing to return to Europe with y’all again in 2020. Thinking about that possibility was amazing medicine for me when I was sick! Thank you!

  3. We did this very same hike in August 2017! So beautiful. Strangely though we didn’t see anyone in Gimmewald save for one other tourist. The trough was refreshing and we bought some Alpkäse by simply placing a few Euros in a jar, honor system style. What a concept.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed your vivid description of such an amazing area. My wife and I have visited Switzerland five times over the years and this area in particular three times, including Gimmelwald. You painted a beautiful picture of the mountains, animals and people who call that location home. I almost felt I was back there again myself.

  5. I lived in a tiny village in the Swiss Alps for a year 12 years ago. I was ill at the time, and I think of that year as my Heidi cure. ;) While I couldn’t do any strenuous hikes, I often sat on benches like the ones you described, and when stronger wandered often on the mountain. One of my treasured memories is of becoming surrounded by a herd of cows as they were coming down from their summer grazing, very similar to what you described. And cows often grazed right outside my bedroom window, close enough to touch, even though I was renting the top floor of a three story chalet—those mountains are steep! It took a long time to get used to sleeping without the clang of cow bells when I returned home; I had found them comforting, and reassuring, and knowing their gentle selves were right outside my window helped me feel not quite so alone. Thank you for writing such a deeply felt piece about the real CH!

  6. Thanks for the trip! I enjoyed a mini-vacation through your prose, imagery and photos. I have hiked that trail down from Murren to Gimmelwald once, and this took me right back! The scents and sights, and even Walter and Tim! I stayed at Olle and Maria’s.
    Well done, Cameron. Thank you again.

  7. We were just in Mürren and Lauterbrunnen on September 24, the day before they were going to bring the cows home! We saw the leaflet in a local store window.
    Unfortunately we had to leave Grindelwald the next day.
    We spent a whole day walking the all trails encountering cows and goats;! I recorded their bells ringing.
    We bought cheese and honey from an honor-based pay stand by the trail.
    Best 5 days in Switzerland ever.

  8. Brings back so many wonderful memories! I can taste the fantastic cheese, and smell the freshest air! Was there in 2016, and loved every minute.

  9. Thanks Cameron for sharing so many great photos – looks like the perfect alpine day. Makes me proud to be both Swiss and American – reminding me of my family trips as a kid and recent trips as adult. You can always find that authentic alpine awe experiences even today!
    Your artistic twitch story and photos bring it home strong – get off the tourist path and experience the real deal. Thanks again
    Tom in SoCal

  10. Kudos for this fantastic post that makes my heart sing. Thanks for using your gift to take us all back to one of the most amazing places on the planet. Bless you!

  11. Just hiked the North Face Trail 2 weeks ago including the detour to Sprutz waterfall. It was my favorite hike in the Berner Oberland. Looking down on the village of Mürren was amazing. Was a little early for the cows so might have to go back.

  12. Cameron, you have an amazing gift for travel writing and your passion shows through. My wife and I did the Rick Steves GAS tour two years ago and we were absolutely floored by the beauty and people of Switzerland. Your blog post has awakened those memories and I want to go back as soon as possible. Thanks for such a wonderful recap, and I look forward to reading new blog posts from you.

  13. Our first trip to Europe was in 1995. Rick Steves was our inspiration. We planned a one month tour with his book on our own. Walter’s place was one of the highlights of that trip. We stayed in the room with the pay shower. Back in the day we made our reservations via telephone (not to be confused with cell phone) and talked directly to Walter. He was such a gentleman, it was a joy to stay in his rickety chalet. What a wonderful place Gimmelwald is. Am hoping to visit once again in 2020. Recommend it to all!

  14. We stayed at Walter’s twice in the ’90’s, but we had our own room, which was very inexpensive. The loft was one option, but not the only option. Staying at Walter’s and visiting Gimmelwald are definitely among the highlights of our years of travel. Absolutely stunning beauty and relaxation. We only wish we could visit more often. Hopefully we’ll make it back someday…

    Thanks for the great writing and reminder.

  15. I did that North Face walk solo about 3 years ago on a crystal clear Sept day. I went home and told folks that now I can die happy. It was amazing!

  16. I am planning a trip which will include Appenzell. I grew up on a Brown Swiss dairy farm in Colorado and dream of seeing the big brown cows come down the mountains for the winter. How can I learn what day the cows come down in September 2020 in Appenzell? Thanks for your story and pictures

  17. About 10 years ago my husband and I visited Murren and decided to walk down the paved path to Gimmelwald. When we arrived there and enjoyed a walk through the lovely town, we discovered the cable car was closed for maintenance which apparently is common in May.
    We ended up hiking all the way down to the valley to catch a bus. My legs were bending ways I never knew they could and we were exhausted, but it is one of our favorite travel memories. Not everyone hikes in the alps!

  18. On our first trip to Switzerland in May of 2014, my husband and I got off the gondola at Gimmelwald, coming from the trip to the Schilthorn, to hike down the alps to Stechelberg.
    The alpine flowers were coming into bloom, capped by snow filled peaks above. We were greeted by a Swiss gentleman sunning on a bench, with ”gruetzi” greetings, wound our way down the magical narrow path, joined part way by a friendly neighborhood cat. We felt like we were in a gorgeous movie with amazing scenery, tinkling cowbells the only music needed. The only people we met going down the path were a young couple hiking upwards. The path dropped into lush forests down to the little village of Stechelberg. Our tired feet took us to the guilt garden terrace of the Hotel Stechelberg, where we lunched on Swiss wine, sausages and good bread. It was a perfect rest stop before continuing on foot to Trimmelbach Falls, most of which is inside the mountain, carved by thundering water for eons.
    In May of 2019 we spent time in Appenzell, one of my favorite villages. The scenery is right out of a Swiss painting, the small village steeped in culture and history. One evening took us to Gasthaus Linde for the best rosti around. Local folks gathered for an impromptu evening of yodeling. We felt surrounded by friends, and being of Swiss descent, my heart was filled with joy as the evening progressed. This felt like home.

  19. I was in Murren and Gimmelwald exactly 1 year ago – early October 2018 on a solo trip. The weather was perfect, there were very few people, trees were beautiful autumn gold, the Chamonix were grazing peacefully around town, and the locals were so extremely nice. I also had an excellent beer made in Gimmelwald, Schwarz Monch! Your lovely photos were a close match (but much better quality) to many of mine – and transported me back to that quiet, wonderful Swiss journey I took. Such a wonderful place and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

  20. I read that the Allmendhubel funicular is closed during the time I will be in Murren in April 2020. Is there an alternate way to reach the North Face trail?

  21. 17 years ago, we had the privilege of staying in Walter’s sleeping loft with our four children and a very good (and patient) friend. We still talk about those days in beautiful Gimmelwald as among our favorite travel memories ever made. Reading your words took us right back to the sounds and smells and stunning views. Thank you.

  22. My heart is so full after reading your blog. Dreams do come true and I can’t wait. The picture you’ve written will be in my mind till we travel next Sept.

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