Stage 8 – Engelberg to Engstlenalp – Via Alpina 1

Via Alpina – Stage 8 – Engelberg to Engstlenalp

The Via Alpina stage from Engelberg to Engstlenalp offers lots of options. There are cable cars from Engelberg to Trübsee, from Trübsee to the Jochpass, and from Jochpass to Engstlensee. If we had taken advantage of all these mechanized options, we could have reduced the hike from 5½ hours to about 30 minutes. But the lovely lakes and the alpine flora above treeline—particularly from the Jochpass to Engstlenalp were just too enticing.

Set in an alpine basin at an elevation of 6020 feet (1834m), Engstlenalp lies along a scenic route between Engelberg and Meiringen.  Arriving on foot made our stay all the more welcoming. On the west, we have dreamy views of the Wetterhorn in the Bernese Alps and on the east Mount Titlis in the Uri Alps. With entertainment on many summer weekends and working farms and cheesemaking on site, Hotel Engstlenalp has a busier, livelier demeanor than some other Berghotels, but nothing that detracts from its restful and relaxing setting.

Stage 8 of the Via Alpina
Vintage Engstlenalp, Photo Courtesy Engstlenalp

Since the early Middle Ages, Engstlenalp has been an important base and staging point for mule trains going over the Jochpass, which provided a direct and reliable route from Bern to the Gotthard Pass. A mountain hotel was built in the 1860s and the current hotel, built in 1892, and with a major renovation and addition in 1995, still retains all its Victorian appeal, even though it’s accessible by car and has the advantage of electricity and cell service.

When it’s time for dinner, we walked into the elegant dining room with its solid knotty wood paneled walls and ceiling. We were instantly swept back into the Belle Epoque. The four-course dinner was traditionally plated, with table linens and attentive service. The sparkling water was sourced right at Engstlenalp, and we ordered a bottle of alcohol-free apple cider—then purchased a second bottle to take with us in the morning. The restaurant offers both a la carte dining or set menu (halfboard) evening meal.

Like other hotels from the same period, the Hotel Engstlenalp started life as a Kurhaus or sanatorium, primarily for the treatment of tuberculosis—but those days are long gone. Today they offer 24 nostalgic rooms with a bathroom down the hall, and 6 modern rooms with ensuite bathroom. We had room 39, a corner room on the top floor with high timbered ceilings and windows on two sides. The enormous down comforters ensured that we fell into a deep sleep moments after climbing into bed.

No visit to Engstlenalp is complete without a visit to Schaukäserie Engstlenalp, about 50 meters from the hotel. It’s a demonstration dairy where you can watch local milk being turned into cheese and buy other daily items in their shop (see more under “Food” below). 

Stage 8 Engelberg to Engstlenalp hotel
Hotel Engstlenalp, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

Traditional Berghotels and Berggasthauses in the Alps

Engstlenalp is a fine example of the traditional Swiss mountain hotels known as Berghotels—also referred to as Berghaus or Berggasthaus. “Berg” is the German word for “mountain,” so these inns are “Mountain Hotels” or “Mountain Guesthouses.” For the Swiss some of the most treasured Berghotels are hidden away in remote alpine valleys or on mountaintops inaccessible by car. We were delighted to know that some of our nights on the Via Alpina included a stay in Berghotels.

These mountain inns are beloved by the Swiss—a national institution of sorts. Berghotels are simple accommodations in spectacular mountain settings. They offer both private rooms and one or more large dormitories or a Matrazenlager.

Berghotels are a step up from Swiss Alpine Club huts which rarely offer private rooms. These inns are privately owned and operated and usually open during a short summer season. Most Berghotels are over a hundred years old and may be on the shabby and tattered end of the rating scale, but they are filled with traditional alpine charm and authenticity. Many have creaky wooden floors, and a limited menu. Some have electricity others do not. And if not, there will be a candle on your bedside table to provide a flicker of light to read by before you go to bed. You’ll have a basin and filled water pitcher in your room, along with a hand towel, but the shared bathroom is down the hall. And don’t plan on having a shower or tub in the bathroom.

There’s nothing quite like a Berghotel in the States, and probably hasn’t been for over 80 years. They are a uniquely Swiss institution and many Swiss will walk miles on a remote mountain trail in the rain to spend a night at a Berghotel. We did. What makes them so cherished by the Swiss are the breathtaking locations and spectacular views. Many are on mountaintops, by a lakeside, overlooking immense valleys, glaciers, or plunging waterfalls.

There is no directory of Berghotels in the Swiss Alps. Don’t even bother looking for them on Trip Advisor or Google. Some of them don’t have phones or email and making reservation can be a bit of a challenge. These charming mountain guesthouses are generally known only to locals—and even then, only to those who answer the call of the mountains.

Alpenrose on the Via Alpina, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

Wildflower: Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) is not a rose, but as the Latin name reveals, it’s a rhododendron, and related to azaleas. This evergreen shrub is abundant on the heath around Engstlensee and found throughout the Alps, generally at or near the timberline. Glorious pink blossoms appear early, but are usually gone by mid to late July.

Food Tips: The Schaukäserie Engstlenalp is an essential visit on any stay in Engstlenalp. They’re best known for their Hobelkäse, a hard alpine cheese that’s normally aged two years then served shaved. It travels well, but unless you have the plane to shave it, buy it from the dairy’s cheese shop already shaved. In addition to cheese, the shop sells some delectable dairy treats like ice cream, yogurt, and butter, as well as some you won’t find anywhere else. Try their milkshakes, or better yet, their Molken-Drink, a whey-based beverage in fruit flavors like mango and blood orange.

Hobelkase, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

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 9 – Engstlenalp to Meiringen

Greg Witt
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