Stage 5 – Linthal (Braunwald) to Urnerboden
After two back-to-back 14-mile days—both with over 5000 feet of vertical ascent—we (Elain and me) looked forward to today’s kinder, gentler terrain. Stage Five of the Via Alpina 1 includes the path from Linthal (Braunwald) to Urnerboden. We love Braunwald—we don’t ever want to leave—and we love the high start at 1256m. Our route today is less than ten miles and we should be able to do it in under 6 hours. Also, it’s relatively flat with only about 127m of net elevation gain.
Much of the route is on a Tarmac road shared by farm vehicles, cyclists, and walkers. We’re close to the timberline (tree-line), so the route alternates between shaded strolls through the forest, then breaking out onto a high belvedere trail. Waterfalls and dozens of smaller cascades plunge from the peaks above and cross the route—Sometimes we have a footbridge, and other times it’s an easy stream crossing.
Urnerboden – Switzerland’s Largest Alp
Soon we arrive at a high point where we can see our destination of Urnerboden in the distance. Urnerboden sits at the top of an immense trough-shaped valley with grassy pastures. Alps, as they are known, ascending the slopes on both sides of the valley. The lush alpine pastures, which all drain into the Fätschbach River, stretch for 13km up the valley.
This high valley is Switzerland’s largest alp, is capable of grazing up to 1200 cows. This is astounding when you consider that the human population of Urnerboden is only 40. An alp of this magnitude is such a novelty and source of pride for Swiss farmers that they come up to Urnerboden in tour busses to sit on the terrace of the Gasthof Urnerboden and enviously gaze out over this immense pasture.
What is an Alp?
When a Swiss farmer says “I’m going up to the alp” he’s referring to the high meadows, often above timberline, where he grazes his cows, sheep, and goats during the summer. He’s practicing an ancient agricultural lifestyle known as Alpine transhumance. This involves grazing livestock in the lower elevation valleys in winter then migrating into the high mountain pastures in the summer. Most of these high alpine pastures (alp or alm in German, alpage in French) are at an elevation between 200 m and 2500m. The alp season often starts in May at a lower mountain elevation, then moves up to successively higher elevations over the course of the summer.
For the cows it’s a summer vacation—a buffet of wildflowers and rich alpine grasses. The cows up on the alps are more productive and produce a better quality of milk. Farmers say they can taste the difference between cheese made by cows on the alp versus those cows eating hay down in the valley. A cow up on the alp will often eat 200 pounds of grass and quaff 20 gallons of water per day. Farmers command higher prices for alp cheese. Swiss consumers are willing to pay considerably more for it, just as you might pay more for organic products or grass-fed beef.
At the end of the alp season, when the grass runs out and stops growing, the cows descend to the valley. They are often bedecked in flowers and accompanied by local Alpabfahrt festivities (Désalpe in the French-speaking regions of Switzerland.) These festivals are worth seeking out if you’re in Switzerland in late September.
Wildflowers: Globeflowers dominated the meadows, but dandelions are in their prime at the higher elevation. Dandelions, a wildflower? Yes. What you may consider a noxious weed, an invasive species, is a glorious wildflower when it’s not springing up in the middle of your manicured lawn. So where did the name “dandelion” originate? It comes from the French name dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth.” Dandelions (Taraxacum) are members of the aster family and are entirely edible. More importantly, dandelions are one of the most vital early spring nectar sources for a wide host of pollinators in the Alps. So next time you see one in your lawn, give it a little respect.
Food Tips: Stop by the Urnerboden Alpkäserei for some of their Urnerboden Alpkäse, and don’t forget to pick up some yogurt while you’re there.