Originally, we hadn’t planned on visiting Switzerland. After leaving Trieste, Italy, we were supposed to go east through Croatia, but we came across a hiccup in the travel plans when the only affordable route from Trieste to Croatia was through FlixBus, which required a carseat for Leila. They didn’t rent or sell them and we didn’t have one with us, so we scrapped it and headed west instead.
When we decided to pass through Switzerland, there was one place I wanted to go. I’d read about, I’d seen pictures, I knew it would be difficult to get to but I didn’t care. We were this close, it was happening. We were going to Gimmelwald.
With some help from a kind attendant at the train station, we were able to plan the entire trip from Trieste to Lauterbrunnen. We arrived late at night, and made our way to our house following the walking path Google maps laid out from the train station that took us off the main road and down winding footpath and gravel trails. In the dark. With luggage and a sleepy toddler.
What hit us first was the sound. Even late at night, with the lights off and no one about, it was loud. Not sounds of the street, but sounds of water. Everywhere. In the dark we couldn’t make sense of it, but in the morning it was clear why: Lauterbrunnen is in a valley with over 70 waterfalls, many of them running right through the middle of town! As we were making our way in the dark, we were simultaneously crossing over thousands of gallons of rushing water, while we were also surrounded by waterfalls high above our heads. Just from the front window of our room we could count 8 visible waterfalls. It was surreal.
The next morning, we began our trek to Gimmelwald, starting with an aerial tram up the mountain to Grutschalp, and then a mountain train over to Mürren, a car-free town of about 450 people. We exited the train, and the first thing we saw was a trough of crystal clear running water. I’d heard about these; essentially they’re public water fountains created to dissuade people from packing plastic water bottles, and it works. We didn’t see a single plastic water bottle anywhere. Not on the ground, not in the trash, anywhere. A welcome (yet sadly surprising) site for a US citizen.
We left the main path often to explore Mürren, but signs were clearly marked all over town, so getting back on track was no problem at all. Plus, since all of these towns are car free, I didn’t have to worry about Leila playing in the streets. She could walk where she wanted. I couldn’t believe how much of a relief this was!
There are two hikes down to Gimmelwald: one for adrenaline junkies that’s much steeper and crosses a skybridge, and another with an easy, paved path and plenty of switchbacks to keep a gradual grade. With a toddler, we had no choice but to take the easier route, but this definitely worked out in our favor. Allowing Leila the freedom to run and and down the path was exactly what she needed on this trip. Cities have rules: don’t play in the puddle, stay on the sidewalk, watch for cars, hold Mama’s hand. Here she could just be a child. It was perfect.
On our way down we passed some amazing sites. One was the shop called MischMasch, with a sign out front that clearly identified it as “The smallest shop with the greatest view,” and they weren’t lying! Across the path was a small pen where a few ponies were kept, and of course we had to pet them.
You’ll notice in the pictures with the ponies, my daughter has no pants on (or has a shirt wrapped around her). Turns out even the most potty-trained of toddlers has an accident now and then. I didn’t pack a set of backup clothes because I figured, hey, we’re in the woods, she can go anywhere! But apparently she was just too excited to notice, and by the time she said, “Mama, potty!” she was already going.
It was a nice enough day that I strapped her wet pants and underwear to my backpack, and in the meantime I just let her run around, bare-assed, until they dried. I tried wrapped her in a shirt, but that was a complete shit-show, so I just gave it up and let her be her naked little self. We passed some people that gave us some odd looks but who cares. She had fun, her clothes dried, and now I have some great photos of her petting ponies, bare-assed in the Swiss Alps. I can’t wait to whip them out as soon as she starts dating.
Along the way we also met a friendly kitty who came out from under an old shed, because of course we would find a cat in the middle of nowhere. I’m a professional cat whisperer. No matter where I am, they come out of the woodwork!
As we descended onto Gimmelwald, the peaks of the Alps grew larger and larger, and soon we found ourselves among the tiny wooden cabins nestled deep in these enormous mountains. To be honest, it reminded me a lot of home. Montana is known for our mountains (‘Montana’ is Spanish for ‘mountain’, after all), and though ours are quite different than the Alps, it still felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer.
Gimmelwald itself also had the same feel as a small Montana town. The wooden buildings, the farm equipment, the wildflowers, and of the course the complete lack of people when compared to the number of goats, horses and cows. We were there on a Sunday, and only saw a handful of residents throughout town.
Even though it was closed, we had to stop by the famed “Honesty Shop”, a business run entirely on the honor system. We also frequently stopped to refill our water bottles. Even though they were already full, the experience of stopping by a fresh trough of water was something we just couldn’t pass up. Leila was especially excited to refill her green sippy cup every time.
After hours of exploring, we ended up near the aerial tram to take us back to Mürren, and while we waiting we played at the children’s playground next door. Complete with swings and toy animals to ride, it was perfect for young children. However, I do have to mention on thing: the playground has a slide, and it’s insane.
I wouldn’t normally dedicate this much space to a slide but this thing is not as it seems. It’s a large tube slide that looks as unassuming as any other piece of playground equipment. Leila held my hand as she climbed the stairs to the top. I climbed in, sat her on my lap, said “Ready?” and gently pushed on the sides, expecting an uneventful ride to the bottom.
Instead, you’re quickly accelerated to 160 miles per hour while the slide itself morphs into the boatride from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You’re rocketing through a dark tube, twisting and turning with no idea where you are or what happens next. We shot out the bottom with the force of a canon, where we stood frozen, just grateful to be alive. And then we went down again.
The playground is adorable with what I’m sure is the best view in the world, but just be aware of the killer slide. Go on it, but be ready.
We caught the last tram of the day back up to Mürren, then hustled back across town to catch the train back to Grutschalp and the last tram back to Lauterbrunnen. Leila was exhausted, Rachel and I were exhausted. We had done good.
The next day we explored Lauterbrunnen, and once again found a field of flowers Leila could run through and snuggle. We hiked up one of the roads on the far side of town, counting more waterfalls as we went. There were some nasty storm clouds brewing and it had been raining off and on all day. If there’s anything living in Montana has taught me about storms, it’s to never underestimate when and where a good lightning strike is going to hit. I wasn’t about to get stupid now, so we decided not to venture too far from the house.
Leaving Lauterbrunnen was bittersweet. Actually I take that back; it was bitter. It sucked. I wanted to stay forever. I couldn’t easily put a down payment on a house…or a shack or even just a cardboard box if that’s what it took. It was beautiful, the people were nice, the mountains were amazing, and it felt like home.
And this isn’t even their busiest season. The busy season is the 8 months of winter. All these tiny towns are known for their legendary skiing locations, so we weren’t even getting to see the best they had to offer. Even so, I was still hooked, and so was Leila. Take a look at this photo of her when I told her we had to go. She wasn’t having it. The most I could do was give her a hug and say, “I know honey, I know.”
If you get a chance to visit Switzerland, consider a stop in Lauterbrunnen and a day trip to Mürren or Gimmelwald. It’s cheap, it’s beautiful, it’ll leave you with a greater appreciation for our world.
And if you’re lucky, it might just convince you to give up using plastic water bottles all together.
Tips for visiting Lauterbrunnen, Mürren and Gimmelwald:
Take the hike. The path from Mürren is a piece of cake. Even the most amateur of hikers will be able to handle it. Let the kids run free and enjoy yourself! You can take a stroller if you need to, but it might be annoying to constantly hold it from rolling down the hill, since the path is not completely flat. If your kids are old enough to walk, let them! There are no cars and the trail is plenty wide enough. They’ll enjoy the extra freedom!
Pack only one refillable water bottle. There are plenty of fresh, public fountains along the path and throughout Mürren and Gimmelwald. We never came close to running out of water, and even on a blistering day you’d find plenty of places to refill. Make sure it’s a high quality one while you’re at it. The whole point is to cut down on plastic waste; filling up a plastic water bottle made me feel slightly guilty.
Don’t worry about the food. People don’t come to Switzerland for the food and drink, they come for the scenery and exploration. Pack a bunch of granola bars, bring your hiking boots and get out there.
Be respectful. Gimmelwald isn’t a city full of attractions, it’s a residential area where people live. Don’t go climbing on buildings or trampling on peoples’ lawns. These are private homes, not public parks.