Stage 3 – Weisstannen to Elm – Hiking the Via Alpina 1

Cows at Gmeinmad

Stage Three (3) – Weisstannen to Elm

As we hiked up from Sargans to Weisstannen, I thought the Weisstannental was one of the most beautiful alpine valleys I’d ever hiked in—But it gets even better in Stage Three beyond Weisstannen. It becomes wilder and more ruggedly beautiful. The waterfalls become more abundant, the stream crossings more perilous, and the ascents longer and steeper. Today dishes out over 5,000 feet of vertical ascent and descent over the course of 14 miles.

The first two hours of Stage Three lead through alpine meadows with two large and modern dairies. On Alp Vorsiez the milk is pumped directly from farmers to the large dairy. Like Schwendi down the valley, this is a prosperous alp—The farm vehicles of choice are Land Cruisers and Rovers.

Foo Alp
Foo Alp. Photo credit: Greg Witt

Into the Glarus Alps in Stage Three

Today is the first true alpine stage of the Via Alpina, as we make our way slowly above the timberline to high alpine pastures then on to a rocky alpine pass—the Foopass (FOE-pass). 

For most hikers—even avid Alps hikers—just identifying the region as “the Swiss Alps” is enough. But the locals like to get very specific about the subrange they’re hiking in. Most Americans are familiar with some of the subranges, like the Bernese Alps, host to the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. And if they haven’t heard of the Pennine Alps, they are certainly familiar with the Matterhorn—the most famous of the Pennine peaks, although only the fifth highest peak in that range.

In our case, today’s hiking takes us into the heart of the Glarus Alps (Glarner Alpen in German). The Glarus Alps are primarily in the canton of Glarus, but spill over into St. Gallen, Graubünden, and Uri. In the Glarus Alps you’ll see 350 million years of earth’s history very close to the surface. The core of the Glarus Alps started developing 350 million years ago. Then, 100 million years later it sunk to the bottom of the ocean, only to be lifted up in a major thrust fault. That thrust fault which we witness in today’s stage is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona.

Glarus Alps Map Stage Three Via Alpina
Glarus Alps map.

I love everything about the steep-sided Weisstannental, so leaving is hard, but I shall return. I have a lot more here left to discover. I thought the beauty and natural wonders of the Weisstannental might dwindle as we crossed the Foopass and descended into Elm—but such was not the case. The Raminer Valley descent into Elm with some of Switzerland’s highest waterfalls was thrilling at every turn. The views alone Stage Three are quite the sights to behold.

Cows at Gmeinmad
Church in Elm along Stage Three of the Via Alpina. Photo credit: Greg Witt


Wildflowers: This is a spectacular day for wildflowers. The abundance and specimen quality of gentians, crocus, and globeflowers was astounding. But the big treat was finding a Lady’s-slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) on the trail about 30 minutes beyond Weisstannen. There are about 25 different varieties of orchids in the Alps, but this is the first time I’ve see this beauty in the wild. 

A Lady’s-slipper Orchid flower spotted along the Via Alpina. Photo credit: Greg Witt

Food Tips: Weisstannental Alpkäse is a sturdy mountain cheese, well-suited for backpacking. You’ll have a chance to buy cheese at Alp Vorsiez—and their herbed alp cheese is great, but a bit softer and not the best choice on a warm summer day. Arriving in Elm, there is a large mineral water plant which produces Elmer mineral water, and it’s equally famous Elmer Citro, a lightly sweetened citrus soft drink made with all natural flavorings—lemon peel and citric acid. Enjoy at bottle for a celebratory arrival at the end of a tough day of hiking.

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 4 – Elm to Linthal

Read more:

Stage 1 – Vaduz to Sargans

Stage 2  – Sargens to Weisstannen

Greg Witt
Latest posts by Greg Witt (see all)

9 Replies to “Stage 3 – Weisstannen to Elm – Hiking the Via Alpina 1”

  1. Greg Witt says:

    Yes, lots of great options. I really depends on your interests and abilities–how strenuous you want the hiking to be. The Jungfrau Region is very popular and rightfully so. We can show you some off-the-beaten-path parts of the Jungfrau which are incredibly beautiful, but not as overrun with tourists. Also the Appenzell Alps and the Glarus Alps are great hiking areas, and see very few American tourists.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’ve got to get over there! If you only had one trip for hiking the Alps in your travel plans what would you pick as an American wanting to come away with a sense of the Swiss Alps? I’d like to spend more time than one trip but there are so many destinations globally that I’m not sure when I’ll get back again so I need to make it count!

  3. Andre Jõgi says:

    No snow anymore? A month ago starting from foo alp (farm) was all the foopass covered with snow which was to the knee.

    • alpenwild says:

      Hi Andre! At the time Greg was crossing, there was still a little snow. Stage 4 was particularly snowy but conditions cleared and Greg was able to traverse Stage 4 as well.

  4. Bob Louthan says:

    We are following your Via Alpina trek!
    Happy Fourth from Colorado.
    Bob & Ann Louthan

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