When the last of the winter snow melts and spring cascades into waterfalls, the Swiss Alps roar into action, writes Andrew Conway.
Ski and hiking enthusiasts know that Switzerland is at its best in winter and summer, when alpine peaks are covered with thick, powdery snow and lush valleys are blanketed by fresh grass and delicate wildflowers.
But nature blesses this beautiful country in more ways than two, not least when the first warm rays of spring start to melt the last of the seasonal snow.
Fed by pristine glaciers and vast tracts of snow and ice, Switzerland’s waterfalls suddenly spring to life, thundering over impressive cliffs and deep gorges and cascading down to the lakes, rivers and waterways that are the lifeblood of this landlocked country.
Countless falls – large and small – can be viewed across the country, offering active travellers the chance to get up close and personal with nature at its raw and powerful best, and many can be accessed easily via Switzerland’s excellent rail, boat and bus networks.
Following tectonic shifts during the Ice Age, the Rhine River was forced into a new riverbed more than 15,000 years ago. The waterfall emerged at the transition point where hard chalk turned to soft gravel, with a vast rock as its centerpiece.
Spanning almost 150 metres, the falls have a water flow ranging from around 250,000 litres per second in winter to 600,000 litres per second in summer, creating a constant roar. The central rock can be reached on a circular tour of the falls, where spectators can stand on platforms that jut out and appear to hover over the river and falls.
The Schloss Laufen visitor centre features a ‘Historama’ offering an interactive exhibition about the river and falls, while a dual lift system and Belvedere Trail offer closer access to the falls for more intrepid visitors.
About two hours southwest of Zurich in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region lies the Lauterbrunnen Valley, home to 72 waterfalls tumbling over near-vertical cliffs, some of which are more than 400 metres high.
Hikers embarking on the delightful walking trail from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg are treated to many natural wonders, including the standout Staubbach, Trummelbach and Murrenbach waterfalls.
When the renowned German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited the Lauterbrunnen Valley in 1779, he was apparently so fascinated and moved by the Staubbach Falls that he penned his famous Song of the Spirits over the Water, bringing worldwide attention to the region.
Rising almost 300 metres, Staubbach is the third highest waterfall in Switzerland and appears to spray in all directions, the droplets of water giving the brook and fall their names (staub translates to dust).
The trail’s halfway point delivers more drama with the Trummelbach Falls, Europe’s largest underground waterfalls. Inside the mountain, the falls drop over 10 cascades which can be viewed via a labyrinth of steps, galleries, tunnels, paths and platforms.
Fed by the meltwaters of the imposing Jungfrau Glacier, the waterfall gushes at a rate of 20,000 litres per second, carrying more than 20,000 tonnes of natural debris a year in its wake and making the mountain appear to rumble.
The walking trail continues past the Murrenbachfall, Switzerland’s highest waterfall, which tumbles from the 417-metre Murrenfluh in five cascades. Murrenbachfall is especially dramatic in the early spring and during thunderstorms in summer; at other times it’s a mere trickle between the cliff faces.
From here, the path winds around the glacial Lutschine River to Stechelberg, a tranquil resort town where a cable car ascends to the Schilthorn, one of Switzerland’s most scenic alpine summits.
This glorious outpost is home to Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant immortalised in the James Bond 007 novel and movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The panoramas of mountain peaks, including the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau among others, are breathtaking. A bus returns to Lauterbrunnen from Stechelberg to complete your trip.
Other Swiss waterfalls attract visitors in spring and summer. The Rosenlau Glacier, south of Meiringen in the canton of Bern, may be small compared to its Jungfrau cousin, but it feeds the beautiful Reichenbach Falls.
On the northeastern shores of Lake Brienz, the Giessbach Brook tumbles in 14 stages from the Faulhorn-Sagis Valley before turning into the pretty Giessbach Falls which cascade into the lake.
Historic Grand Hotel Giessbach, dating to 1874, is located in 22 hectares of gardens and parklands at the base of the falls, accessed by the Giessbachbahn, Europe’s oldest funicular. The hotel is a charming place to view the waterfall and lake.
Bavona Valley, near the border with Italy, is home to the dramatic Foroglio waterfall; Betlis Village, east of Zurich, boasts the Seerenbach Falls and Rin Spring, while the Klausen Pass, east of Lucerne, delivers the thundering Berglistuber Linthal.
Main image: Berglistueber © Andreas Gerth/ Switzerland Tourism
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