The Swiss Alps
The Alps are a mountain range across France, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Slovenia. The Swiss Alps are often characterized as the most spectacular part of the Alps. It's almost needless to say that the Alps are what Switzerland is famous for. They cover about 60% of the country.
The Swiss Alps attract lots of tourists. Mountaineers climb the Swiss peaks since the early 19th century, and they still do. Nowadays, most tourists do not visit Switzerland for climbing, but rather for winter sports, or to enjoy the amazing scenery by hiking, scenic trips and sightseeing.
What's so unique about the Swiss Alps?
There are countries with higher mountains, larger glaciers and more lakes than Switzerland has. Unique for Switzerland, however, is the fact that there is an enormous diversity of landscapes and nature in a relatively small area. Just make a train trip with the Bernina Express to see for yourself: within a few hours you will see fresh meadows, bare icy mountain scenery and sunny villages with palm trees and vineyards. That's typical for Switzerland: diversity to the highest pitch in nature, culture and weather.
Additionally, Switzerland has a relatively high population density, and the Swiss Alps are a very popular holiday destination. This results in an excellent network of (cogwheel) trains, funiculars, cable cars, post cars and boats. Unlike many other mountainous regions, it is very easy for anyone to experience the Swiss Alps up close, and visit places that used to be accessible to mountaineers only.
A great example of exploring the Swiss Alps the luxurious way is the Glacier Express. Since 1926, this train allows people to enjoy the mountain scenery from the comfort of their train seat, and even wine and dine along the way.
The northern and southern Swiss Alps
Simplifying the layout of Switzerland at large, we can say that larger cities and industrial activities can be found in the relatively flat north and west (excluding the Jura mountains). Particularly the surroundings of big cities like Basel, Zurich and Geneva are examples of that. The Alps can be found in the southern half of the country. This is where nature is most impressive.
Again greatly simplified: there are two types of landscapes in the Swiss Alps. North of the highest mountain tops, the landscape looks fresh and green. The Bernese Oberland and the northern half of Graubünden are good examples. The landscape south of these tops is drier and rougher. For instance, this holds for the Valais and the southern half of Graubünden: the Engadine. Both types of landscape have their charm. If you plan a tour across Switzerland, we would certainly advise to visit both.
Wildlife in the Alps
There are many different animals in the Swiss Alps. Some examples are wildcats, badgers, bats, salamanders, frogs, squirrels, rabbits, vipers and many birds. Like in other parts of western Europe, larger wild animals have been almost or completely extinct in Switzerland. However, wildlife organizations managed to re-introduce animals such as the ibex, the fox, the lynx and the wolf.
Wolves have been extinct from Switzerland for quite a while, but they are back. Wolves are not as dangerous as you may think. They avoid human beings and at the most they will protect themselves while being hunted. The chances of seeing one are slim. There aren't many wolves in Switzerland and they are shy. If you do see one, it will usually hide in the bushes quickly. Humans are simply not a prey to wolves. To keep them as shy as they are, it is important not to feed them. Do not approach them either. Dogs should be kept on the leash at all times.
Bears were extinct in Switzerland for the entire 20th century. Since 2005, a few European brown bears have returned to the Swiss Alps. Brown bears do normally pose no threat to people. Humans are not a prey to them and they prefer to avoid people. Seeing a bear in Switzerland is a really rare event. To prevent any problems, do not dispose of trash in the outdoors. Dogs should be kept on the leash at all times. And if you see bear footprints, don't follow them but hike in a different direction.
If you do encounter a bear, this is how to behave:
- If you see a bear cub, immediately return. The mother will be around and she'll defend her cubs.
- If you see an adult bear, he or she apparently hasn't heard or smelled you before. So he/she may be freightened or curious. Slowly walk back and make sure the bear can escape.
- Bears may make a mock attact to scare off potential enemies. This especially happens with mother bears. They may run toward you and stop at a few metres' distance. Stand still, remain calm and wait until she's gone.
Source: CAA leaflet as linked by www.sac-cas.ch.