Stage 6 – Urnerboden to Altdorf – Hiking the Via Alpina 1

Asch Switzerland

Stage 6 – Urnerboden to Altdorf

Alpine Passes

Here we are traversing Stage Six of the Via Alpina; it leads from Urnerboden to Altdorf. As the Via Alpina marches through Switzerland it crosses 14 classic alpine passes. Indeed, the Via Alpina is more about connecting and experiencing the passes than it is about connecting one town or canton with another. Most of these passes, even today, are footpaths used primarily by Alpine hikers. The highest and most challenging of these passes, such as the Hohtürli (2778m) or the Bunderschrind (2385m) are reserved for the fittest of hikers and alpinists. There will never be a road over these passes. Their craggy ascents are protected by fixed chains, railings, stemples and ladders. 

Other less rugged passes were used traditionally as local trade routes—one farmer taking his cheese or sausage over the pass by foot or by mule train to villages on the other side of the pass. As commerce developed, the footpath often developed into a mule track, an oxcart road or even a carriage road. The lower and more easily-crossed Alpine passes became car roads. Road passes played an important role in Alpine history, military movements, commerce, and the development of tourism in the Alps.

Alpine passes were often at the saddle or crossed a low ridgeline between mountain peaks on either side. They often marked the boundary between one canton and other. They formed cultural, linguistic and political divisions.

The Strange Story of the Klausenpass

Road over Klausenpass
Road over Klausenpass along the Via Alpina. Photo credit: Greg Witt

The Klausenpass, which connects Linthal in canton Glarus with Altdorf in canton Uri, is a lesser known road pass with an interesting history. The Klausenpass was originally a cattle track, which by 1196 was controlled by a customs office in Bürglen—That’s even before Bürglen’s most famous resident, William Tell, appears on the scene. The pass allowed goods from Glarus to have a more direct access to the road over the Gotthard Pass and on to Italy.

While alpine passes often form the boundary between two cantons on either side of the pass, that’s not the case with the Klausenpass. The cantonal boundary is about 8 kilometers down the hillside toward Linthal, with the town of Urnerboden in the canton of Uri 

As the story goes, the border between Glarus and Uri was determined in 1315, following prolonged disputes. The two cantons agreed that at first cockcrow, two runners would start from Altdorf and Linthal, respectively, and the border would be where they met. The people of Glarus decided to feed their cock well, so that it might be sympathetic to their cause, while the people of Uri gave theirs nothing to eat at all. The result was that the Glarus cock overslept, while the Uri one, driven by hunger, crowed exceptionally early, and the runner of Uri crossed the entire Urnerboden before the Glarus runner even set out. On the pleading of the Glarus runner, the man of Uri agreed to let him carry him back uphill as far as he could, and the present border between Uri and Glarus is where the Glarus runner fell dead, exhausted from carrying the runner from Uri.

In 1590, a hospice was built at Urnerboden, and the maintenance of the pass was shared between the cantons of Uri and Glarus. In 1870, a road was built from Altdorf to Unterschächen, and in 1893-99 the road over the pass was complete from Linthal to Altdorf.

Today the road over the Klausenpass is a popular route for cyclists and motorcyclists, and there is regular PostBus service over the pass. Due to heavy snowfall, the pass is closed from October to May. Fortunately for hikers, the road and the hiking path take different routes, and only occasionally kiss, cross, or parallel one another. In fact, you can walk for miles without ever seeing the road, allowing hikers to experience the amazing scenery that those two trail runners experienced over 700 years ago  

Wildflower: The vivid blue hue of Spring Gentians (Gentiana Verna) is a color found nowhere else in nature, They are abundant around the pass and last long into the summer season.

Spring Gentians flower
Spring Gentians flowers are plentiful along the Stage 6 portion of the Via Alpina trail. Photo credit: Greg Witt

Food Tips: As you’re hiking up to the Klausenpass, make a quick stop at Alp Steigärtli in Vorfrutt. They have tasty dried meats and a sturdy alp cheese to get you over the pass.

Join us on the Via Alpina next summer on either of two exciting tours, the Via Alpina or Bernese Oberland Traverse.

Next: Via Alpina Stage 7 – Altdorf to Engelberg


Stage 5: Linthal to Urnerboden

Stage 4: Elm to Linthal

Stage 3: Weistannen to Elm

Greg Witt
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