South of the Rhone Valley, starting near the town of Visp, is a long valley that forks in two as it heads towards Italy. In one branch of this valley lies the resort of Zermatt, famed for it’s views of the iconic Matterhorn, looking just as it appears on the Toblerone packet. We weren’t going there. Mostly because we have been before, but also because you have to park at Tasch, some distance from the traffic free resort.
However, down the other fork is another ski resort, maybe not quite so well known as Zermatt. Saas-Fee is the resort and we were heading to the Saas valley, also known as the Saastal. The suffix of ‘tal’ means valley in German.
It was a Sunday and traffic was light. We had a longish road tunnel to take us into the Visp valley and then a nice easy drive up the valley. It was a Sunday and we weren’t sure which shops would be open, so when we saw a Migro fuel station with a shop we picked up some bread.
Motorhome parking in Saas-Fee
Almost the first thing you see as you get to Saas-Fee is an enormous multi-story car park. All visitors have to park here to keep the village as free of traffic as possible. The motorhome parking is down behind the multi-story on a bit of rough ground.
On the slope down to the parking is a barrier where you have to take a ticket to enter the parking. A large sign by the barrier told us that there was a half hour of free parking but the price quickly ramped up and 24 hours would cost 60 CHF. This was a little scary, but we’d been assured on SearchforSites and the local website that this would be reduced to 25 CHF once we had paid our tourist tax.
A number of reviewers of the parking had complained about the rough ground, it’s building site nature and the view of the multi-story carpark. Maybe they had been here when there were a lot more motorhomes and the parking was more restricted, but we were able to orient ourselves with our windscreen pointing out towards the valley and our door opened to views of the glacier covered mountains. Perfect.
Along with parking there was a toilet block with scaldingly hot water to the basins (so hot we filled up our washing up bowl rather than boil our kettle to do the washing up) and the option of electric hook up as well as water and waste services. We didn’t need hook-up but signs informed us that you had to visit the parking office and pay a deposit for a key to unlock the door and access the electricity.
The Saastal card
After parking, our next objective was to pay our tourist tax and get the Saastal card. We had to go to the tourist office with ID and our parking ticket and pay 7 CHF per person per night. Not cheap on top of the parking but in return we got a print out with a QR code that would get us free lifts, free public transport and a whole bunch of other discounts.
From the motorhome parking we walked into the basement of the multi-story and got the lift to the top where it was a level walk into the centre of the resort. The tourist office was shut for lunch so we took ourselves for a wander and some lunch before going back to pay our tourist tax. The town was busy with Sunday tourists sitting outside cafes in the glorious sunshine. One of the supermarkets was open so we needn’t have worried about buying bread on the way. Walking through the town were skiers, an anomalous sight on such a warm day, but summer skiing is open here and there was a youth training camp in progress while we were visiting. We saw families playing crazy golf and heard the screams of people on the zip line over the gorge.
We returned to the tourist office after lunch. Apart from a bit of bureaucracy, paying for our Saastal cards was very straightforward. It was very liberating to know that we could use the lifts without any constraints. It meant we didn’t have to plan a long walk or bike ride to make the most of our money. We could just ride the lifts, view the landscape and generally bimble around. Of course walks and bike rides were also on the cards, but this afternoon we were definitely in the mood to bimble.
Bimbles and Marmots
There were three main lifts running from the town of Saas-Fee. The Spielboden and Plattjen lifts leave from the same point but go to opposite sides of the valley. The Alpin Express goes straight up towards the head of the valley. We could get ourselves unlimited free rides on any of them.
That afternoon we decided to take the Spielboden lift and then go even higher using the Längfluh lift (also free). This took us all the way up to the edge of the glacier where we wandered out on a marked path that took us from desolate glacial moraine to bright white ice. With so much sun on the glacier we weren’t keen to go onto the unmarked ice, although plenty of people were. Further out on the glacier a group were practising crevasse rescues and we didn’t want to become a real life situation.
We got the lift back down to the half way point where we got out for another wander. This time we were on steep grassy slopes. One of the ‘gimmicks’ in Saas-Fee is Marmot feeding. We had seen it advertised in the tourist office with sales of small bags of Marmot food. I had assumed that this was an activity involving pens or cages but down here we saw that a few people were trying to coax Marmots out of their burrows on the hillside. When Paul noticed that someone had left a half finished bag of marmot food on a bin we couldn’t help ourselves and we spent an extremely pleasant hour encouraging Marmots to partake of the carrot and peanuts that we had found.
The following morning we ventured up the Alpin Express lift This took us up to a lift station where we walked out onto more stark stony glacial till. Ski resorts can look extremely ugly when they are bare of snow and this was one of those occasions. The buildings on stilts above the grey stony slopes, the pylons and the additional vehicles working to ready the area for winter skiing made it all feel very industrial.
From the top of the Alpin Express we thought there was another lift but couldn’t see it anywhere. Maybe we should have guessed from it’s name. The Metro Alpin is an underground funicular to the topmost area of the ski resort earning the records of highest funicular in the world and highest underground railway This wasn’t included in our Saastal card and we decided not to pay the extra 45 CHF each to ascend. There is an ice pavillion at the top and a revolving restaurant AND it is a few metres higher than the so-called ‘Top of Europe’ but none of that was very enticing to us.
On our way back down we managed to get caught up with large numbers of teenagers descending for their lunch break. They swarmed around us, cramming us into a corner of the descending lift. The lift attendants took a very hands on approach to managing the queue, pulling people out of the lift doors when they tried to wedge themselves in with their friends. It was a bit smelly packed in with the sweaty overheating teenagers and we were glad to escape when we got to the bottom.
We then popped up the Plattjen lift, just because we could, and had some lunch sitting on the rocks overlooking the Saastal.
Three Villages of the Saastal
That afternoon I (Becky) took a walk from the motorhome parking down to the valley floor. The path out of the car park eventually meets a bridge across the deep gorge of the Feeru-Vispa river, a bridge we had crossed a few times on our walks too and from the lifts.
After crossing the bridge and turning left the path follows the other side of the gorge before heading downhill through woodland and across pasture towards the main valley, via a farm and restaurant where there were goats and sheep and llamas (or maybe alpacas – I’m not that sure of the difference ) in the fields.
At Saas-Allmagel I walked to a waterfall where there was a very inviting pool. Sadly I didn’t have my swimming gear. Then I descended back to the main river valley and walked downstream towards Saas-Grund.
Before reaching the main part of the village I crossed the river and walked past a campsite before taking a pretty and rock trail up above the gorge to take me back to the start point. This part of the route was marked by several small shrines before reaching a church built against a rock face just below the motorhome parking.
Mittaghorn Via Ferrata
One of our reasons for visiting the Saas valley was the Mittaghorn Via Ferrata. This was a slightly different climb than previously as it was a climb to a mountain summit.
The Mittaghorn is a small mountain compared to the glacier shrouded 4000m peaks surrounding us, but at 3143m it wasn’t to be sniffed at. We could see the cross on the top of the rocky peak from our parking spot and had sussed out the beginning of the route on the previous day’s trip up the Alpin Express.
To start we went up to the halfway station on the Alpin Express. Then we could walk north towards the ridge. The walk across the slopes here was one of the hardest parts of the day, picking a route through and over the large rocks was a bit tedious and required concentration and balance. Luckily it wasn’t too long until we met a ridge and we could escape the rocks briefly. There was some protection placed to help the climb over this ridge but it was quite straightforward so we decided not to get our via ferrata kit on.
Then we had another walk over the boulder field to the next ridge. This was the ridge we would be climbing and started with a straightforward ascent to the top of the ridge and some intermittent walking and protected sections that ascended gently and with little difficulty. Around us were marvellous views of the valley.
The route soon got a bit more exciting with some vertical ascents. We could feel our breathing starting to get more laboured and hoped it was the altitude rather than the exercise. The sun was beating down on us on the ridge, but in the crevices alongside us we could see icicles and even sections of glacier.
Finally we reached the top. It was nice to be on a summit for a change and we sat, eating our lunch and and chatting to a couple of antipodeans who had been in Switzerland for a conference and were hanging around to do some mountaineering. They were heading for the Allalinhorn the following day, at over 4000m that was probably a little beyond our capabilities.
I had been concerned about the descent on the other side of the mountain, thinking there might be some scree (a pet hate), but it wasn’t too bad. The path was well worn and easy to follow down towards the Plattjen lift and there were amazing views of the Mattmark reservoir.
Views of the Mattmark reservoir
It had taken us about 4 hours in total and was definitely the easiest route we had tackled so far but was definitely worth it for the views and getting to an actual summit.
Cycling in Saas-Grund
Despite having a great time in Saas-Fee there was one thing that wasn’t on offer – mountain biking. We’d been told that the best mountain biking was in Saas-Grund so we decided to use our last day of free lift access to explore the trails on the sunny side of the valley.
We toyed with the idea of cycling from the Saas-Fee parking but couldn’t bear the thought of the ride back up hill at the end of the day so instead we drove down. This meant paying our dues at Saas-Fee. It was quite straightforward to use the pay station at the top of the car park. The machine had English language translation and we just had to insert our parking ticket and then scan one of our Saastal cards to get our discounted parking.
We drove down to the large parking area at the Saas-Grund cable car and found ourselves a spot where we were level. I popped into the ticket office to buy a top up ticket for our bikes (15 CHF per bike) and check that we were ok to stay the night. Just one night was the answer after they’d checked we had a Saastal card. According to some reviews I’ve read they do tolerate parking for longer but you cant get a Saastal card unless you’ve got a parking ticket for the Saas-Fee aire.
We then had a great day on the trails. There is one main flow trail, about a blue level I would say, that goes from Kreuzboden to the halfway station at Trift. I think we did that trail about 6 times gradually getting faster and more confident. There are also three short ‘skills trails’ that use a conveyer belt lift. These are all different difficulties and are a great option for kids to ride. Nearby there is a swimming lake, some small paddling pools and a play area so overall it’s a great spot for families and big kids like us.
We cycled all the way back to Bertie once, following the flow trail and then the Furwald single track. We vowed we would never do it again, it was so rough with multiple sharp switchbacks. Paul’s spine was not very happy.
That evening we heard the bellowing of a cow from the streets near us. We ventured out to investigate and found a small crowd around a garden where a cow had ravaged someone’s cabbages and sunflowers and was now rubbing themselves against an unfortunate small tree. I wish I’d taken my camera. No-one seemed to know what to do but eventually someone must have come to claim the cow. We didn’t hear any further disturbance that night.
The following morning we payed for our parking and started our descent back to the main Rhone valley. The Saas valley had been one of our favourite places to visit with such a good variety of things to do and sights to see. But then I think we’ve said that about everywhere we’ve been so far.