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Distance: 7.5 miles/12 km one way
Duration: 4-5 hours
The late 19thcentury must have been an exciting era for residents of Zermatt. After the dramatic and fateful first ascent of the Matterhorn in1865, worldwide interest in this alpine hamlet spread quickly. Zermatt was connected to the Morse telegraph network in 1872. Mark Twain arrived in 1878 and wrote his comic story "Climbing the Riffelberg." The first train arrived in 1891, and just 7 years later in 1898 the Gornergratbahn went into operation, taking visitors into a glacial paradise unlike any other.
Today access to the crest of the Gornergrat (10,134 ft / 3089m) is made by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually on the Gornergratbahn railway, a 29-minute ride on a cog railway with stops at Findelnbach, Riffelalp, Riffelberg and Rotenboden. At the Gornergrat summit, a hotel, restaurants and shopping center await arriving passengers, but the real attraction is the view of the Gorner Glacier and over a dozen 4000 meter peaks. Hikers in search of a more authentic outdoor experience can hike from Zermatt to the top of the Gornergrat or combine their hike with the train, and take the train up, down, or for any portion of the route. The train is expensive-especially if you purchase a round trip ticket to the top-but it's enjoyable, immensely entertaining, and well worth purchasing the ticket for the portions of the trip you don't necessarily want to hike. Hiking the entire distance round trip from Zermatt would be 24km/15 miles and require 1500m/4920 ft. of elevation gain and loss. The primary reward on this hike is the iconic and breathtaking mountain views, so plan this hike for the clearest and best weather day of your stay in Zermatt. For my money, I prefer taking the train just one way, and also avoiding the ski utility roads and the busiest sections of the trail. The following makes for a full day outing, consisting of between 5-8 miles: First, board the train Zermatt and enjoy the ascent, which offers splendid views of the Findeln Gorge and the Matterhorn. Once you pass the station at Riffelalp, ascend above the treeline, and the views become spectacular. Get off the train at Riffelberg.
From the Riffleberg station take the wide, well marked trail to the south in the direction of Riffelsee. Throughout your ascent you'll have unobstructed views of the Matterhorn. In about 30 minutes from the station, you arrive at a small unnamed lake that offers wonderful reflective views of the Matterhorn and far less crowded conditions than the Riffelsee, just five minutes up the trail. Continue on to Riffelsee, which also offers great views. From Riffelsee you can walk about 5 minutes up the hill to the north and reboard the train at the Rotenboden station for the Gornergrat. But if you're up for an adventure and an ascent of another 300m/1000 feet, consider continuing on by foot to the Gornergrat. Rather than taking the well-trodden path that parallels the train, consider taking the trail to the south that parallels the Gorner Glacier and continues eastward in the direction of the Monte Rosa.
This trail keeps a fairly level contour above the glacier. You pass mountaineers returning from their climb of the Monte Rosa and other 4000 meter peaks in the region. You'll see the high-tech Monte Rosa Hut on the lower flanks of the massif and the trail descends-leaving you wondering if you're really on the right trail. Finally you come to a junction and the trail begins its switchbacked ascent to the Gornergrat. You arrive at the Gornergrat from the backside to the surprising stares of admiring onlookers who never imagined there was a way up other than the train.
From the summit you can certainly take the train all the way back to Zermatt-you deserve the relaxing ride. But if your legs are ready for a descent, take the train back to the Riffelalp station. From the station cross the tracks that lead onto a steep forest trail, which eventually brings you to farms and scattered homes on the outskirts of Zermatt, then to Winkelmatten and finally into Zermatt proper. This hike is featured on Alpenwild's Best of the Swiss Alps, Swiss Bliss, and all Haute Route trips.