Stage 1 – Vaduz to Sargans – Hiking the Via Alpina 1

Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein

Stage 1 – Vaduz (Gaflei) Liechtenstein to Sargans, Switzerland

What an adventure! Hiking across Switzerland from Liechtenstein on the east to Lake Geneva on the west. It’s 370km/230 miles conveniently cut into 19 scenic stages. But this isn’t a flatland stroll—It dishes out over 80,000 feet of vertical ascent/descent—the equivalent of climbing Everest base camp to the summit seven times—albeit with a little more oxygen in my brain and cheese in my stomach.

Elain and I started on June 15, 2019—a sunny day with temperatures in the mid-70s—so we figured we would see lots of other hikers on the trail, also hiking the Via Alpina. But were surprised to find ourselves alone. Even the locals, the hoteliers, bus drivers, and taxi drivers we spoke with, were unfamiliar with the route. So there was a lot of figuring out we had to do on our own.

Remember the comic line?—”If you’re going to start cross-country skiing, start with a small country.” For a cross-country hiker, tiny Liechtenstein is a great starting point. You can cross the entire country in a couple hours.  

Starting Right

We stayed the night before our start in the town of Triesenberg Liechtenstein, a short bus ride up the mountain from the capital city of Vaduz (Fah-DOOTS). It was the perfect choice for a pre-hike overnight. It enabled us to take in the mountain views, do some last-minute shopping, and still get an early start and a high start on the trail. But that plan collapsed when our bus departing Triesenberg was late and we missed connecting with the bus on to the trailhead at Gaflei (Gaf-LIE).

With some hiking and a bit of hitchhiking we made it to the high alpine village of Masecha where we were able to hail a taxi that took us to Gaflei for CHF 6. Gaflei doesn’t even qualify as a hamlet—It’s more a bus stop on a high alp overlooking the Rhine Valley. At the Gaflei bus stop there’s a large, modern medical clinic which appears to be a convalescent-type facility. In front of the clinic is a cluster of the familiar yellow Swiss trail signs indicating the starting point for this stage of the Via Alpina at 1483 meters above sea level. 

The hiking highlight of the day occurs in the first three hours as we descend through a spruce forest on a narrow trail set on a steep slope. It’s barely one person wide, making passing a real challenge. And there are some steep drop-offs, so trekking poles are highly recommended. The trail consists of dozens of switchbacks snaking down the steep mountainside. Even if you’re in good shape, the descent is hard on toes and knees.

Castles on the Rhine

After 636 meters of toe-pounding descent, the castle ruins at Wildschloss are a welcome rest stop where we took in the spectacular views over Vaduz below and across the Rhine Valley. Wildschloss is the first of three castles along today’s route. Off in the distance to the northwest we could see the peaks of the Appenzell Alps, including the rounded dome of Altmann and the antenna-capped peak of Säntis, the highest peak in eastern Switzerland. 

Wildschloss, Liechtenstein
Wildschloss, Liechtenstein. Photo credit: Greg Witt

From Wildschloss down to Vaduz the trail become a wide tarmac road leading to 14th century Schloss Vaduz. It’s an impressive looking castle and we were fully expecting to stop and tour it, but it’s not open to the public, since it’s the private residence of the Princes of Liechtenstein. The castle is best viewed and photographed from the top rather than from the valley floor. And even though you can’t tour it, there are lots of interpretive signs in German, French, and English which give details about Liechtenstein, its history, government, economy, and ruling family.

Schloss Vaduz, Liechtenstein
Schloss Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Photo credit: Greg Witt

Once in Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital city with a population of just 5,000, there are plenty of restaurant choices for lunch. It’s still five hours of flatland walking to cross the Rhine and along the valley floor to Sevelen. After that,  a slight incline through the woods to Gretschins, Fontnas, Azmoos, and Vild, alongside the Gonzen peak before arriving in Sargans, home to our third castle for the day—Sargans Castle. Since the route from Vaduz to Sargans can be pretty industrial and modern, you’d be forgiven if you took the bus on to Sargans—after all, the jaw-dropping views from the Liechtenstein alps are well behind you. 

Food tips: The cheese of the day is Liechtensteiner Fürstlich Gut (Princely Good), a mildly aromatic semi-hard mountain cheese made right in Liechtenstein. We also feasted on wild strawberries which thrive on the shaded mountainsides above Vaduz.

Wildlife: Lots of snails—watch your step. But if we had harvested them and cooked them in butter and garlic, they would have also been a marvelous culinary highlight.

Liechtensteiner Snail. Photo credit: Greg Witt

Wildflowers: Columbine are abundant on the woodland slopes

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

Next: Stage 2 – Sargans to Weisstannen


Greg Witt
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