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The Swiss have a word for it: Alpenbegeisterung, literally "Alps enthusiasm." It's a highly infectious urge to set out on a mountain trail in search of stunning scenery-jagged peaks girded with glaciers, deep-cut valleys laced with surging waterfalls, and moist fir forests topped with wildflower-spangled meadows. Casual visitors to Switzerland's Jungfrau region are unlikely to leave without having caught at least a mild case of Alpenbegeisterung, and the only cure seems to be a return visit that allows more time to explore this treasure of splendid alpine scenery and culture on foot.
The Jungfrau region is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's a glistening mountain landscape and home to the Alps, highest concentration of glaciers. Here you'll find exquisite hiking trails, hundreds of dazzling waterfalls, and legendary peaks like the Eiger with its fearsome North Face. Located in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, and most easily accessed from the city of Interlaken, the Jungfrau region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized worldwide for its stunning natural beauty and cultural heritage.
But with all its beauty, finding solitude and an escape from the tourist trail can be difficult in the Jungfrau. With millions of visitors pouring into the region annually, resorts like Grindelwald, and even smaller villages like Mürren and Wengen teem with tourists in both summer and winter. For those itching to ditch the crowds-and willing to take off on foot-Obersteinberg may be the last untrammeled corner of the Jungfrau.
The route to Obersteinberg begins in the village Stechelberg at the head of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. It's the world's most spectacular glacial valley, so you can't help but be awestruck. It's an impressive sight, especially in the spring and early summer, as 72 waterfalls pour off its upper rim into the valley floor below, while shimmering icy peaks loom overhead.
From the final PostBus stop at Stechelberg take the paved footpath upvalley on the left bank of the already-raging Weisse Lütschine. Crossing the river, you'll continue uphill following signs to Trachsellauenen, a small guesthouse and restaurant near a 300-year-old mining site. Continuing on, the path narrows and steepens considerably, becoming a series of over fifty shaded switchbacks. Arriving at the Hotel Tschingelhorn, views to the valley open up and signal that you're nearing Obersteinberg. Within about 2 ½ hours after leaving Stechelberg, the Swiss flag, flapping from a pole in front of the hotel, appears in view, along with some small farm buildings, a pig sty, happily grazing cows, and the traditional-style hotel dating to the 1880s. Obersteinberg sits at an elevation of 5833 feet, a full 2850 feet of vertical ascent from your Stechelberg starting point.
Gazing across the valley from the hotel you'll have spectacular views of hanging glaciers perched above waterfalls that cascade down the valley walls. Of all the waterfalls, Schmadribachfall is the showstopper with a height of nearly one thousand feet. This waterfall has been captured on canvas by noted landscape artists going back to the 1820s, but due to its remote location, more people have seen the paintings than have actually seen the falls.
Obersteinberg is set within a protected area, where many alpine species that were once hunted to near extinction are now making a welcome comeback. Sightings of ibex, chamois, and red deer are frequent and always thrilling. Sheep and cows graze the rich alpine grasses in summer, as they have for hundreds of years. The adjacent farm is a working dairy, and though alpine summers are short and workdays are long, the farmhands are justifiably proud to show visitors the time-honored cheese-making process.
Dinner at the hotel focuses on traditional Swiss dishes—simple, hearty, and well-prepared—while breakfast is adorned with fresh butter and Alp Cheese from the neighboring farm. A night at the hotel can be enjoyed in either a dormitory or a private room. Since there is no electricity at the hotel, you'll be provided with a candle to illuminate your room and a smothering eiderdown comforter to keep you warm on potentially chilly nights. Bathrooms are down the hall and each room has a pitcher and basin for washing up in the morning.
When it comes time to depart, you can always return the way you came. But for the adventurous, ascend the slope behind the hotel and follow the contour of the mountain to the north as is ascends to Busenalp before dropping into the charming village of Gimmelwald, a walk of about 3 hours. From Gimmelwald you can return directly to Stechelberg by tram or continue on to Mürren and back to Lauterbrunnen.
From Obersteinberg you can also walk to the upper glacial basin in about an hour, where Oberhornsee, a deep-blue tarn rests in the shadows of snowcapped Grosshorn, Breithorn, and Tschingelhorn. Sitting in this upper basin, remote and removed from the valley bustle, you sense that you've discovered the source of the Jungfrau's water and natural beauty—the mother lode of the Jungfrau.