After spending the previous day enjoying the serene landscape of Bern , I woke up with the insatiable urge to go hiking. Growing up, I was never particularly fond of “the great outdoors," but after a few years of living in Manhattan, I craved the occasional escape from the concrete jungle. Once I experienced the joys of hiking and camping, I couldn't ever seem to get enough. Since no trip to Switzerland would be complete without at least one hiking trip into the Alps, the decision was obvious.
Time to go hiking!
Over breakfast, I researched day trip hikes in the region around Bern and berated the reception desk with a multitude of questions. While I did waste a bit of time figuring out my trip that morning, I couldn't shake the feeling of exhilaration at planing the whole thing at the last minute. It's usually more expensive (and stressful for most people) to travel this way, but the pure spontaneity of it all is intoxicating. I eventually settled on a trek up Niesen Mountain that came highly recommended by the hostel as a great day hike from Bern. With my destination firmly in mind, I timed out the trains, tossed a water bottle and left over sandwich into my backpack, put my shoes on, and I was off to the races.
Total time spent: <2 hours (including breakfast).
Niesen Mountain is absolutely spectacular! Since arriving in Europe almost two months ago, I've experienced just one incredible hike after another. From Ponta de Piedade in Lagos to the phenomenal calanques of Southern France, I honestly couldn’t have picked up hiking at a better time in my life! Words cannot fully explain how beautiful the scenery was during my trip up Niesen mountain. Numerous times throughout the day I was forced to stop and refocus simply because I couldn't believe my own eyes. I felt I was walking through a painting hanging in the Louvre! The hike up Niesen was the most intense excursion I've ever completed - literally three and a half hours of brisk hiking straight up a mountain. The picturesque views more than made up for it, but the blisters I discovered the following day led me to question my decision. I kept thinking a "philisopical" quote a friend back in NY frequently used, “We all chose our choices.”
I stand by my decision. Just not right now... my feet really hurt.
The receptionist at the hostel recommended I take the cable car trolly to the top of the mountain and hike down so I could spend more time at the top of Niesen enjoying the view, but once again my stubbornness came through with flying colors. At the base of the mountain I vividly recall standing in front of the trolly station debating what I should do. Unfortunately, immediately to the right of station was a bridge leading to a trail with a sign reading “Niesenbaugh - 5h.” I stood there for a good minute, but in the end the decision came down to one thought...
"I bet I can make it in under four."
It was an absolutely perfect day for a hike. Within 20 minutes of starting it was one spectacular view after another for four straight hours. The sky was crystal clear with miles of visibility in every single direction. Enormous bleach white cumulus clouds dotted the sky and happily floated on by without a care in the world. All around me were beautiful rolling hills covered in vibrant green grass divided into a patchwork of small fields resembling a giant manmade quilt. Dozens of little homes were scattered along the tranquil countryside, each with a single path connecting them to the main road. Just like in the old town of Bern, here it seemed humanity lived in harmony with the surround environment.
Off in the distance, on the other side of the valley I saw the various levels of the mountainous landscape. From the base, the erratic plots of farmland slowly gave way to a dense conifer forests halfway up the mountains which in turn became bare, desolate rock outcroppings before reaching the radiant, snow covered peaks. From Niesen, the adjacent mountains appeared easily scalable, but when compared to the minuscule homes and cottages in the valley below, I began to fully appreciate how enormous these massive natural monuments truly are.
As I continued my trek up Niesen, I quickly found myself in the dense forest that lied at the base of the mountain. I already spent quite a bit of time hiking, but if the mountain on the other side of the valley was any indication, I was only 1/4 of the way up. The shade was a welcome relief from the overbearing sun. I was drenched in sweat from my perpetual uphill climb and the shade, coupled with the refreshing breeze, served to cool me down substantially. It was at this point I realized my one little water bottle wasn’t nearly enough for a climb of this intensity, but there was no turning back now.
Hiking through the forested terrain reminded me strangely of Endor. For those of you even vaguely familiar with the Star Wars saga, it is the forest planet where the fighting teddy bears (Ewoks) live. The ground was covered in short, stubby little ferns spread out along the entire side of the mountain. The dense canopy high above shielded the area from the intense sun, but small rays of light still managed punctuate the thick blanket of branches and sustain these ferns. In every direction I was surrounded by hundreds of various brown tree trunks limiting my visibility substantially, but the lush greenery both below and above me created a delightful ambiance.
If you’re not familiar with Star Wars, you will be. There are many more references to come.
Higher and higher I climbed for the next several hours. Periodically, there were openings in the forest canopy that teased me with incredible views of the neighboring mountains on the other side of the valley. Even with a partially obscured view, these scenes were mesmerizing and constantly pushed me to climb higher to get a better vantage point. Eventually the forest cleared away, but I still had a great deal of ground to cover. Every so often, I'd reach what appeared to be the edge of the cliff (which I assumed was the top) only to find out there was more mountain behind it. Only after making my way across several precarious ledges, a few crumpled old stairs, and a soggy marsh held together only by the trees did I finally make it to the top of Niesen Mountain.
Total Hike Time: 3.5 hours (I beat the 5 hour estimate!)
Total Elevation Gain: ~1,670 meters (~5,480 feet)
Total People I Saw: 5
When I arrived at the Niesen Mountain Observation Deck my legs were throbbing in pain, but I hardly noticed over the mind-blowing view. Based on the nearby mountains it appeared I was just a few meters shy of the cloud line and from this altitude I could see all the way to Interlaken. To the west of Niesen, the deep, royal blue waters of Thunersee lake perfectly reflected the sky above while the mountain range to the east appeared to go on endlessly. The contrast between the green vegetation, grey rock face along the mountains, snow covered peaks, and vibrant blue sky above is something that cannot be adequately captured in a picture or blog post, but is something I will never forget. I didn’t really know what I could do to fully appreciate the scenery, so I just sat down, took out my sandwich, and enjoyed the most picturesque lunch of my life.
I dubbed it my “victory sandwich."
Sadly my time on the summit was cut short thanks to the limited trolly schedule. Given the condition of my legs, I was in no position to spend another four hours hiking back downhill especially now that the sun was beginning to set. Begrudgingly, I paid the unsurprisingly exorbitant fee and what took me three and a half hours to climb up on foot required a mere fifteen minutes to return to the bottom with the trolly. As I exited the station I began chuckling when I walked by the sign I saw earlier that afternoon reading “Niesenbaugh - 5h.” While my body is very unhappy with me, I couldn’t be more thrilled to finally hike in the Alps! Yet another incredible bucket list item I get to mark off!
For those of you wondering, I will not be posting anything on Zurich. It's a great city, but sadly it was nothing to write home about (see what I did there?) since Zurich is more of a working town that feels strangely like Milan to me. Take my advice for what you will, but if I had the opportunity to redo my trip through Switzerland, I would avoid the cities and instead solely focus on hiking… that is really the best way to experience this region of the world.
I guess that means I’ll have to just come back to Switzerland! I suppose there are worse things in life!
I've included both my pictures from Bern and my hike as well as Zurich below. Enjoy!