“When I got lost, as I knew I would, could I surmount the Swiss/German language barrier to ask for help getting back on track? Would somebody send out a search party if I failed to show up at the night’s hotel?”
Like so many who read the bestseller or have seen the movie, “Wild,” I imagined myself in Cheryl Strayed’s boots. I envisioned hiking alone in exquisite wilderness, savoring silence, solitude. I saw myself conquering the ups and downs of a renowned trail all on my own.
However, the “Wild” I envisioned was uniquely my own. It didn’t include Strayed’s horribly blistered feet or “Monster,” her impossibly heavy and overstuffed backpack. It didn’t include sleeping in a tent – especially one I had to carry and set up myself. And forget freeze-dried food.
What I wanted was “Wild” for wusses.
I signed up for a solo hike with SwissTrails, a company that arranges hiking and biking trips throughout the country. I asked for what the Swiss call “soft” hiking on a relatively flat route. We agreed I’d do the 6-day Lake Lucerne Circle Hike. The company arranges nightly lodging and transfers luggage each day.
When I received my itinerary, I was excited – and more than a bit intimidated.
Could I really do this alone? Hike 10-plus miles a day, with daily elevation gains of up to 4,500 feet? In addition to hiking, my itinerary had me taking trains, boats, cable cars and buses.
When I arrived in Zurich and met Swiss Trails founder Ruedi Jaisli for my one-on-one pre-hike briefing, he did his best to reassure me: “This is one of the most spectacular tours you can do in Switzerland,” he said. “It’s a hike, not a climb. It’s self-guided; go at your own rhythm.”
“Easy is a relative term,” he shrugged when I asked about the steep elevation gains and drops. So, finally I understood: Hiking 4,000 feet up, then 4,000 feet down meant my route was “relatively” flat.
As Jaisli reminded me to place my luggage in the hotel lobby by 9 each morning and to carry that night’s hotel voucher in my daypack each day, I scanned the trail maps he provided. The print was microscopic.
When I got lost, as I knew I would, could I surmount the Swiss/German language barrier to ask for help getting back on track? Would somebody send out a search party if I failed to show up at the night’s hotel?
“From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., you can call the help line,” Jaisli said. “We’re here seven days a week.
“And don’t worry about the weather,” he continued. “They’re predicting rain, but in Switzerland it’s always better than it’s forecast. Besides, bad weather also has its charm. Just go, go, go.”
I decided to hire a guide – just for the first day.
A guiding light
Jaisli recommended Rene Welti, a Swiss-born hiking maestro who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and lived most of his life in the U.S. In 2010 he moved to Lucerne and two years later started ECHO Trails, leading guided hikes in the area. Lonely Planet named him their local outdoor expert.
Welti agreed to meet me early the next morning near the Lucerne dock where we hopped a ferry to my kick-off point. Our day together encompassed so much more than hiking. It’s true that Swiss trails are well marked – but Welti taught me how to read the marks. I learned that squat yellow rhombuses were my friend: They lead to generally easy, flat trails. When a red-on-white stripe is added to the mix, I’m headed for a “mountain trail,” a greater challenge – steeper, narrower, often uneven. I learned to avoid blue-on-white signposts that lead to what the Swiss call “Alpine routes” – trails that might have been mapped for mountain goats.
When we stopped for a mid-morning snack at a mountain chalet, Welti taught me how to game my itinerary – how to customize my hikes with alternate routes using public transport (including boats, aerial trams and even a cogwheel railway). It gave me confidence knowing I could take my time on the trail – be distracted by village bakers, mountainside cheesemakers, drop-dead gorgeous scenery – and still easily make it to my destination before dark, or in time to shower on the afternoon I’d booked a massage.
Before our day was over, Welti had me lead the way on the trail – and after steering us wrong twice, I began to get things right. Could I have managed the week without his expertise? Probably. But it wouldn’t have been so easy – or half the fun.
When I reflect on my week on the Circle Trail, a whirlwind of sensory images fills my mind.
I see a narrow, worn track that undulates across lush rolling farmlands, meanders across trickling mountain streams and beside the crystal waters of Lake Lucerne. I inhale the scent of cut grass, rotting wood, sodden peat, the perfume of towering pines that appeared like ghosts on fog-shrouded Mount Rigi. I hear the clang of cowbells – a sound that came to mean security for me; it meant civilization was nearby. But mostly I hear the silence, interrupted only by the crunch of my own boots on the trail.
My hours of solitude were a unique gift. Being alone allowed my mind’s eye to see in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have. In open meadows, I saw myself as a child on a wide porch swing, snuggled beside my beloved aunt; I heard the birds that once twittered in her garden. Along sunny ridges, I felt the warm embrace and unconditional love of my long-gone grandmother. I could see both shaking their heads, warning of the dangers of hiking alone. Then I saw their smiles. They shared my joy as I nestled into now as if I were climbing into their soft inviting laps.
Step by step
My days started with breakfast, which was included at each hotel along my route. I gathered my lunches on the trail.
In Seelisburg, I stopped at Aschwanden Kaserie, where I watched the cheese-making process begin a few hours after cows had been milked. The way Californians taste wine, I learned to taste cheeses – sampling a half-dozen varieties to pick my favorite: Klewa, from the mountain where I’d hiked the day before. “It’s a distinct taste because the cows there graze on flowers that are different,” explained cheesemaker Urs Aschwanden.
To simplify matters, I booked dinner reservations at each of the hotels where I stayed. At Hotel Sternen in Fluelen, where my postage-stamp-size room had a twin bed and a parking meter, the chef helped me master the hotel’s wifi – and explained that he used his grandmother’s recipe to prepare my traditional German meal. At City Hotel in Brunnen, where I landed a spacious room with a deep bathtub, I was trail-sore and sorely tempted to skip dinner. I’d have missed a scrumptious platter of lake perch sautéed in almond butter. My dessert was a long soak in that delicious tub.
Day 4 was dedicated to Mount Rigi – at almost 6,000 feet elevation. But instead of hiking up an 8-mile trail, I hopped a cogwheel train from Arth Goldau to Rigi Kulm, the mountain’s peak. This was the first mountain railway in Europe, transporting riders since the 1870s to the panoramic view up top. I rode with an Indian family; we had a common passion: Swiss chocolate.
Atop Rigi Kulm, we disembarked into a cloud. Fog was so thick I could see only a few feet of trail in front of me. Snow was expected. I zipped my jacket, put on woolen gloves and set out on a 5-mile up-and-down hike to Rigi Kaltbad – where I had a hot date.
Wild and wonderful
By mid-afternoon, I was sinking into the warm healing waters of Rigi Kaltbad. The mineral springs here have drawn visitors for six centuries – and as fans around the world attest, the place is reason enough to visit Switzerland.
The spa is housed in a sleek, contemporary temple designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Bathers luxuriate in an indoor/outdoor pool equipped with an extravaganza of feel-good massaging jets that make magic