The Haute Route, widely known as “The Most Beautiful Walk in Europe,” stretches from Chamonix to Zermatt, linking Mont Blanc with the Matterhorn. Along the way, hikers pass by 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Alps. It’s a daily visual feast of mountain vistas, glaciers, expansive valleys, larch forests, and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. The natural scenery is so impressive, that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the cultural, historic, and man-made charm of the Haute Route.
The Haute Route links villages-dozens of them-that have preserved and nourished a traditional mountain way of life for hundreds of years. Many of the villages trace their roots to the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Walser peoples first entered the area to settle the higher alpine meadows and upper valleys. From many of the mountain passes and high slopes on the Haute Route hikers can gaze down into the Rhone Valley or Martigny where Romans established outposts and first planted grapes on the sunny slopes.
As you make your Haute Route plans, here are a few of the villages you won’t want to hurriedly bypass. Instead, you may even consider planning a short detour or altering the normal arrangement of stages to spend the night in one of these choice locations:
Champex. The village of Champex on the shore of Lac de Champex is set at the foot of the Mont Blanc Massif. It’s a great hiking town as it offers direct access to many surrounding huts and mountain routes. Set in the midst of forests, Champex has attracted tourist in search of a bucolic setting for nearly 150 years, and the town has never exchanged its peaceful quality for large-scale mass tourism. For a more off-the-beaten-path attraction, visit Military Fort A46, an underground town, which was built as part of the hidden Swiss defenses during WWII to protect the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, and remained classified as a “secret” until 1998. The town’s alpine garden contains over 3000 species, many of which you’ll see along the Haute Route.
Verbier. Admittedly, modern Verbier is anything but quaint. It’s the premier ski rutas de senderismo resort in the Swiss Alps and the enormous bowl that rises above the village is laced with lifts. Most Haute Route hikers try to escape it as quickly as possible for the Upper Val de Bagne Nature Reserve or the wild reaches beyond Mont Fort. But if you have an ear for classical music, the Verbier Festival during the last two weeks in July attracts some brightest stars and an audience of over 40,000. Free concerts, street performances, and jazz quartets in local bars and restaurants bring the village to life. If you plan on arriving during the festival, make sure you have advance hotel reservations.
Les Hauderes. Along with the nearby village of Evolene Les Hauderes is one of the best preserved villages in the Swiss canton of Valais, with a majority of the houses built between the 16th and 19th centuries. This picturesque village is remarkable for its traditional alpine architecture-sun-burnished timber houses and granaries on stone bases, surrounding carefully tended garden plots. Note that many homes are built in two sections-a multistory living area made of wood and an adjoining masonry kitchen. A colorful coat of arms appears on many houses. The residents cling fast to tradition, and many local women can be seen wearing their embroidery-trimmed black dresses and hats. If you find yourself in Les Hauderes on a rainy day pay a visit to the town’s geological center in which you’ll discover that the village is located at the intersection of the African and the European tectonic plates.