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Western Rhaetian Alps

There are 2,007 named mountains in the Western Rhaetian Alps. At an elevation of 4,049m Piz Bernina is the highest and most prominent mountain. It is the only 4,000m peak in the Eastern Alps. Along with Piz Bernina, there is another Ultra mountain in the range: Piz Kesch.

Piz Bernina
Piz Bernina

There are three “Rhaetian” mountain ranges in the Alps. Along with the Western Rhaetian Alps there are the Southern Rhaetian Alps and the Eastern Rhaetian Alps. The word Rhaetian comes from the Rhaetian people. They were a confederation of Alpine tribes. Since at least 500 BC, they have inhabited many Alpine regions, including the northeastern Italy. The Rhaeti tribes, together with their Celtic-speaking neighbours to the north, the Vindelici, were subjugated by the Imperial Roman army in 15 BC and their territories were annexed to the Roman empire. So, the Roman province of Raetia et Vindelicia was formed.

The Western Rhaetian Alps range almost entirely belongs to the eastern tip of Switzerland with some territories of northern Italy and western Austria, as well as the whole state of Liechtenstein.

The rainbow mountains as seen from the top of Weissfluhgipfel above Davos
The rainbow mountains as seen from the top of Weissfluhgipfel above Davos

The Engadine is a long high Alpine valley region at the core of the Western Rhaetian Alps stretching from southwest to northeast. It follows the route of the Inn (En in Romansh) river from its headwaters at Maloja Pass running roughly northeast until the Inn flows into Austria, one hundred kilometers downstream. The Inn is the only Swiss river to drain into the Black Sea as it is a tributary of the Danube which runs into the Black Sea.

There’s an interesting place here - the point where three water basins meet is at the Lunghin Pass. The north-west side gives birth to a stream ending in the Gelgia, a tributary of the Albula, which itself is a tributary of the Rhine. The Rhine runs into the North Sea. From the south-west side the water flows towards the Mera in Val Bregaglia, a tributary of the Po. The Po runs into the Adriatic Sea. Finally, the Inn originates from Lägh dal Lunghin below the peak, east to the pass, to contribute its waters to the Black Sea via the Danube.

With 173 glaciers, the Engadine is one of the most glaciated areas in the Eastern Alps. The undisputed #1 is the Morteratsch glacier. Being about seven kilometres long, it is the longest glacier in the Engadine. There are many walks leading to glaciers and spectacular viewpoints above them.

One of the most picturesque glaciers in the world - a curve leading to the Piz Mortel summit
One of the most picturesque glaciers in the world - a curve leading to the Piz Mortel summit

The area of the Western Rhaetian Alps despite the long history and presence of world famous resorts like Sankt Moritz and Davos is lacking highways, which helps the territory to remain in a better shape due to remoteness and pristine nature in many places.

Founded in 1914, the Swiss National Park was one of the first national parks in Europe, and to this day remains Switzerland’s only national park. Thanks to the strict conservation rules in place, visitors are prohibited from veering off the marked footpaths, allowing a plethora of wildlife to be seen in an unspoiled environment. It is a part of the worldwide UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Sankt Moritz and Upper Engadine lakes
Sankt Moritz and Upper Engadine lakes

In addition to traditional Alpine entertainments such as skiing, hiking, MTB, the region is rich in thermal sources. Health treatment traditions are going back for many centuries. The thermal and therapeutic spas are fed by hot springs which have been known since times immemorial.

The iconic Sankt Moritz had begun as a spa town before it attained world renowned status as a ski resort. The bathing culture of Sankt Moritz reaches back to 1400 BC. The mineral springs with their ferrous and aerated waters enjoyed great fame and appreciation during the Middle Ages under Pope Leo X and the naturopath Paracelsus.

Another example is Bad Alvaneu, where people have been taking the water since the 16th century, or the Andeer bath house, which has been in use for 700 years by now. In Bogn Engiadina Scuol, the water was deemed medicinal by historic scientist Paracelsus himself.

A SPA treatment after a spectacular hike turns a wonderful day into a perfectly ideal one!

A bench above Livigno
A bench above Livigno

Bernina Express circulating between Italian Tirano and Swiss Sankt Moritz under the operation of the Rhaetian Railway is another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Western Rhaetian Alps. If you want to make an Alpine postcard quality photo then Landwasser viaduct might be the best place to go.

In order to close the topic, having mentioned two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Western Rhaetian Alps, we feel obliged to let you know about the third one - the Abbey of Saint John at Müstair. It is an ancient Benedictine monastery which due to its exceptionally well-preserved heritage of Carolingian art has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If everything above isn’t enough to lure you into the region, check out the picturesque Swiss castles like Schloss Tarasp and Schloss Crap da Sass which look like jewels in the crown.

Schloss Crap da Sass
Schloss Crap da Sass

Major Trails and Hiking Areas

The Swiss National Park

Everything is nature-oriented in the Swiss National Park. There are 80 kilometers of hiking paths, nature trails and excursion destinations for children and families. Founded in 1914, the natural park is the oldest in the Alps.

In the park, it's not allowed to leave marked paths, light a fire or sleep outside the Chamanna Cluozza. It is also forbidden to disturb animals or plants, or to take home anything found in the park. Dogs are not allowed, even on a leash.

One of the most scenic hikes in the park is a demanding trail to Munt Baselgia. From the summit of Munt Baselgia, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the town of Zernes down below and the Macun plateau of lakes.

Another spectacular location in the Swiss National Park is the summit of Munt la Schera. One of the trailheads is at the Swiss border control parking area. It takes less than 3 hours and 800 meters of elevation gain to reach the summit.

Besides Munt la Schera, the only peak lying completely within the Park that is accessible to visitors is Piz Quattervals.

Engadine

Being extremely popular due to its beauty and spectacular landscapes, the area of Upper and Lower Engadine is a hiker’s paradise.

One of my favorite trails starts from Muottas Muragl top station and first leads to the high-altitude pristine alpine lake Lej Muragl at the foot of Piz Vadret and Piz Muragl. The next stage is the hike to Chamanna Segantini (a mountain hut) for a lunch with a view over the high peaks of the Bernina Group. The final part of the journey is the descent to the Alp Languard chairlift station which runs down to Pontresina from there you can take a bus to Punt Muragl if you happen to have left a car at the parking lot.

Lej Muragl
Lej Muragl

Another Upper Engadine highlight is the trail above Surlej to Fuorcla Surlej which offers especially spectacular views of sunlit Bernina peaks late afternoon. Those interested in having a closer look at Roseggletscher (Piz Roseg) could trek farther to Chamanna Coaz.

There are many glacier related trails in the region. One of the most popular and entertaining is the family trail from Morteratsch station to Morteratsch glacier.

Bernina

From the top station of the Diavolezza cable car, there are trails leading to panoramic peaks of Piz Trovat and overlooking the Morteratsch Glacier Munt Pers. In wintertime, there’s a glacier ski route.

On the opposite side of the Bernina pass there’s the Lagalb cable car. From the top station you can easily scale Piz Lagalb offering an amazing 360 panoramic view.

Davos Klosters

Famous for the World Economic Forum, the area is barely known for its hiking opportunities. Nevertheless, there are plenty of them for various interests and skill levels.

Starting from the top station of Madrisa cable car at the foot of Madrisa Horn there are trails leading to Austria, including the summit of Madrisa.

Swiss-Austrian version of Tre Cime is called Drei Turme. The highest peak of the group, Grosser Turm, and the middle Mittlerer Turm are reachable with the trails.

A walk from Gotschnagrat to Weissfluchjoch is a classic hike above Davos with many picturesque locations and panoramic views.

A hidden gem of the region is the little known Jori lakes, a group of Alpine lakes located west of the Jörifless Pass and north of the Flüela Wisshorn. The turquoise lakes surrounded by wildflowers and framed by rocky peaks can’t fail to impress any outdoor enthusiast.

PeakVisor 3D map of Jorihorn and Joriseen
PeakVisor 3D map of Jorihorn and Joriseen

Cable Cars and Cog Railways

Here are the major lifts in the Western Rhaetian Alps.

Sankt Moritz

There are many alpine transport means in one of the most famous ski resorts in the world. Probably the most popular are Piz Corvatsch (literally, a raven), Piz Nair, and Muottas Muragl.

Klosters

Somewhat overshadowed by world elite gathering host Davos, the small village of Klosters features two cable cars. The first one is Madrisa. There are many hiking trails starting from the top station and leading to high altitude Swiss-Austrian border region. The second cable car runs to Gotschnagrat which is a perfect start for the Weissfluhjoch excursion.

Gotschnagrat

Davos

There’s an option to scale the very summit of Weissfluhjoch which boasts a spectacular panorama in the very center of the Western Rhaetian Alps.

Weissfluhgipfel

Arosa

Aroser Weisshorn is another perfect panoramic location high above surrounding mountains with unobstructed 360 view.

Chur

The capital of Graubunden, Chur is one of the oldest settlements in Switzerland. The Brambruesch cable car quickly carries you to the ridge walk trail where you can go all the wayup to Fulhorn.

Livigno

A popular Italian resort in a very remote location. It takes 5 hours of a mountain drive to get to the place from Milan but it is totally worth it. There are many cable cars and even more outdoor opportunities in the area.

Bernina Pass

Apart from the world well known red alpine train with the same name (Bernina Express) the place boasts of amazing cable cars with alluring names in Romansch language: Lagalb (white lake) and Diavolezza (she-devil). Piz Lagalb offers a spectacular view over the whole Bernina Group. At the same time, Diavolezza provides a much closer look into the heart of the group and its glaciers.

Valmalenco

Near the town of Sondrio in Lombardy, there’s little known yet not less spectacular remote valley of the Valmalenco, the south of Bernina group.

Scuol

At the eastern end of Switzerland, there’s a small town of Scuol. The cable car running to Motta Naluns is a convenient starting point for the Piz Minschun excursion featuring amazing panoramic views of the Lower Engadine, Swiss-Austrian rock border, and Swiss National Park to the south.

Major Cities and Resorts

  • Klosters Davos, Switzerland
  • Sankt Moritz, Switzerland
  • Chur, Switzerland
  • Livigno, Italy