Photo Essay: Zermatt, Switzerland
In the Swiss Alps, picture-perfect high-alpine trails are now complemented by a new influx of lower-valley trails. The ability to teleport would come in real handy right now.
When I first started going to Zermatt, Switzerland, to ride two decades ago, the trails were raw, and so was the reception from hikers we encountered on remote stretches of singletrack high above the valley floor. Zermatt’s insane views and ease of access into the alpine were a huge draw, but the ski resort’s reputation as ritzy, yet conservative and frankly boring, was holding up. Despite that, it was worth going back every year—we found endless singletrack and, with almost 40 peaks above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), the vistas as we pedalled in the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn were mindblowing; the trails skirting past glaciers so close you could hear the ice melting.
In the years since, I’ve watched mountain biking transform from an outsider sport, cast aside in favor of traditional tourism aimed at trekkers and mountaineers, to being on the receiving end of $13 million over five years to build numerous flow trails throughout the mountain . These new trails complement the high-alpine trails reached by boarding the train at the Gornergrat station—the largest open-air railway in Europe—and being whisked 1,500 vertical meters (5,000 feet) to what feels like the top of the world. In the alpine, numerous opportunities exist to connect into the well-established Haute Route that links Zermatt to Chamonix, France, or bikepack between several of the nearby huts, like Monte Rosa, Gondegg and Flualp.
But the options down below inside the boundaries of the ski resort have historically been very limited. And the attitude from the resort was one of indifference: Any trail was technically legal to ride, but mountain biking wasn’t promoted.
The car-free Zermatt is one of the oldest and most classic villages in the Swiss Alps, with its heart in modern alpinism. Its trajectory toward becoming one of the most well known mountain destinations in the world started in 1865, after Edward Whymper, a young British climber and artist summited Matterhorn, one of the last peaks in the Alps to be reached (at least in the modern era of mountaineering). After his fatal fall on the north wall during a disastrous descent that killed three of the seven on the expedition, the mountain’s allure grew and Zermatt landed on the tourism map for British aristocrats to climb and hike, eventually leading to Zermatt’s massive industry shaped around visitors from Europe and beyond.
And even though mountain bikers had been riding the trekking and cow trails above Zermatt for years, the resort didn’t start investing in an official mountain bike program until 2016. While other resorts in the Alps like Morzine, Pila and Lenzerheide capitalized much earlier on the economic boost of a built-out bike park, Zermatt was still deciding whether it was worth the money to develop specific mountain biking trails.
But once Zermatt hit ‘go,’ they fully committed to one of the largest mountain bike development projects in the world
“We got involved here in Zermatt in 2016 when the resort decided they were ready to create a better mountain biking product,” says Adrian Grenier, strategic director of Bike Plan, the company hired to execute a master plan for the Zermatt bike park. “Until then, there were just a few trails designated for mountain biking, and they were not very good. It was essential to build some purpose-built mountain bike trails and make sure bike-and-foot traffic became separated as much as possible. That was a big problem before.”
Besides a growing number of purpose-built mountain bike trails—both machine-built flow trails and more natural singletrack—there is now regular maintenance, good signage all over the mountain and a genuinely welcoming attitude toward riders. Zermatt also hosts the Trail Love festival, which doubled as a stop on the Enduro World Series circuit in 2019 and 2020. So, it is more than just a marketing push and a few bike trails.
Since Zermatt decided to become a real riding destination, Grenier has kept a team of up to 20 trail builders and regular maintenance crew busy in Zermatt during the snow-free part of the year. So far, that work has resulted in a handful of long machine-built flow trails with berms and jumps, as well as improvements to many old hiking trails to eliminate drainage issues and to create better flow. These trails now function better for both biking and hiking, an important balance in a place with such a deep trekking legacy. There are also bike-specific trails in order to reduce the inevitable conflicts between riders and walkers.
“We fixed up one of the oldest trails in the valley, the Smuggler Run from Trockner Steg down to Furgg, for the Enduro World Series,” he says. “That is a 500 vertical meter trail (1,640 feet) that was used already in the Roman era. We could put some money into rebuilding this old trail because of the event and make it much more bike-friendly. Now it has so much better flow, and you can enjoy it even if you are not a pro rider.”
Once Zermatt hit ‘go,’ they fully committed to one of the largest mountain bike development projects in the world.
Zermatt now has 100 kilometers (62 miles) of bike-specific trails, and more are in development. And since mountain biking has become more popular and more accessible to riders outside if just core downhillers, Zermatt is setting itself up to appeal to larger numbers of riders and families that already come to ski in the winter.
That also means better acceptance out on the trails, an issue that’s always plagued Alps because trekking is so highly prioritized over riding. But that’s finally started to change.
The progression throughout the Alps has been years in the making, and as more destinations finally view mountain bikers as a legitimate group of tourists, not just the grubby second fiddle to skiers, trekkers and mountaineers. For a place as iconic and influential as Zermatt to commit so many resources to trails reflects a changing attitude—one that is just noticeable on the trail as it is off.
Text and photos by Mattias Fredriksson