Trail Running Guide
A Collection of the Best Trail Runs in Switzerland's Valais Region
The Valais region of Switzerland has the best trail running in the Alps - in our opinion. The quality of the trails, beauty of the landscape, and character of the region make it the all around winner for the top running destination.
That’s a big statement. But you already know the Valais - it’s home to the Chamonix to Zermatt Ski and Summer Haute Routes, the Swiss section of the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Via Valais, trail races like Sierre-Zinal, and of course one of the most famous mountains in the world, the Matterhorn.
When people imagine the Swiss Alps they are most likely imagining the Valais; flower covered, green hillsides beneath towering, glacier covered peaks. But what makes the Valais so special for trail runners is the trail quality. The geology provides for an almost soft, fine soil that covers the trail surfaces. Combine this with the absence of too many tree roots and you’ve got super-trails lacing the dramatic landscape.
The region is divided into French (Valais) and Swiss German (Wallis) speaking areas. There is a very clear difference and for visitors, it’s fun to compare and contrast the characteristics of the two on and off the trails.
The Valais has become a focal point for runners all over the world. They’re coming to run beneath the big peaks and glaciers, for the races, to run the Via Valais, and to experience what is surely the quintessential Swiss Alps.
Get the Valais Collection
This collection provides GPX files for some of the very best runs from around Valais that’ll keep you on some of the smoothest single track in Switzerland.
Runs included: Aletschhorn, Alpjuhorn, Balfrin Traverse, Col de Balme, Diablon des Dames, Dôme, Fionnay - Col des Otanes, Grand Muveran, Grand Saint Bernard - Lacs de Fenetre, Gspon Mattwaldhorn, La Ruinette, Lagginhorn, Mettelhorn, Pointe Ronde, Saas Fee Glacier Trail, Saas Fee Hannigalp, Schafbärg, Simplon - Wasenhorn, Täsch - Oberrothorn, Val Ferret, Valsorey - Vélan, Weissmies, Wiwannihorn
Note that the Via Valais, Glacier Haute Route, and Run the Alps Switzerland Book Runs are not included in this collection. (Arolla Aiguilles Rouges, Barrhorn, Bettmeralp Aletschgletscher, Dents Blanches, Dent de Morcles, Lac de Louvie, Lac de Moiry to Pigne de la Lé, Saas Almagell, Simplon, Zermatt 2 Day, Zinal Petit Mountet)
Detailed GPX Tracks
Download the GPX Files and import the routes into your phone's mapping app and/or your watch for the full turn-by turn.
Your purchase supports the team at ALPSinsight to keep these runs coming.
VALAIS TRAIL RUNNING: WHAT TO EXPECT
While the Valais probably offers the Alps’ best overall package of trail quality, views, and peaks to climb, it’s not the center of the Alps’ trail running scene. That, of course, is just across the border in Chamonix, France. But where Chamonix is a densely packed area of trails in one dramatic valley, the Valais is a huge region with several potential basecamp towns scattered around. This allows the crowds to spread out and for runners to have a more solitary mountain experience.
Where to go, which runs to target, and to basecamp vs. roam around the region are the big decisions visitors need to make.
The runs in the Valais are a big mix of classic running tours, peak climbs, and sightseeing trails. Most all of them include big climbs, lots of running, mountain skills, and abundant hut stops for Euro-style refueling.
Like all mountain regions of the Alps, summer and fall are the time to dig into the big terrain. Depending on the winter snow quantities, the higher trails begin opening up in mid to late June, right about the time the huts also open.
If the winter had significant snowfall, trails may still be covered into July on high or north facing aspects. Once the trails open, the main concerns for trail runners are stable weather and not getting caught out in thunderstorms, which can turn very serious very quickly.
MeteoSwiss is your constant companion and should be consulted obsessively, each day as you make plans. Be sure to learn how the animations for weather and cloud cover work as the forecasting tool can be very precise at a regional level.
In a “normal” summer season, June starts to be good, but with snow patches still around. July can be fantastic with wildflowers carpeting the landscape. August is hot, thunderstorms are likely, and the trails can be as busy as stirred up ant hills. Moving into fall, September is when things quiet down and the weather stabilizes. Finally, October is the best month of the year as larch, grass, and even the light turn gold. But, as good as October is, it’s also when the door may slam shut at any time with snowfall or bigger storms. November is typically a great time to not be in the Alps.
ORIENTATION: VALAIS GEOGRAPHY
The Valais is an interesting region in that many of the key destinations are tucked into side valleys that run north-south off of the massive, east-west oriented Rhône Valley. Many of the major attractions are located just north of the Italian border and between the towns of Chamonix and Zermatt along both the skiers' and hikers' Haute Routes which are typically crossed west to east. These routes are a series of massive ups and downs as they cross over north-south valleys.
Valais Valleys and Regions
There are many other areas beyond the Chamonix to Zermatt zone with equally good running, but the bulk of the running tours are in this region.
Traveling through the Valais requires moving through the Rhône Valley, by train or car, and then splitting off to your objective, typically deep into the valleys. Travel is slow, connecting buses to trains and back to buses is the game, so moving from one valley to the next, even with your own car, can take a good portion of a day.
First time visitors to the Valais should decide if they want to base themselves in one spot, move about and see different areas, or do the Via Valais to sample it all.
Here are the key areas within the Valais, the towns and mountains they’re known for, and their style of terrain:
GRAND SAINT BERNARD / VAL FERRET / VAL DE BAGNES / VERBIER
The Valais’ westernmost region along the French border is home to the Swiss section of the Tour du Mont-Blanc, and the town of Verbier, where the Via Valais starts. These French-speaking areas are accessed from Martigny before splitting into the three distinct valleys.
Besides the TMB and Verbier, this region is the least populated and quietest of all the areas within the Valais. All three valleys offer superb running in big terrain.
Also French-speaking, the Val d’Herens is probably the least known of all the areas of the Valais, and a bit more rugged. Home to Arolla, a famous, or infamous, bailout on the skiers Haute Route, it also accesses one of the Alps’ most beautiful 4000-meter peaks, the Dent Blanche. The Val d’Herens is home to the Aiguilles Rouge run and is crossed by Stage 3 of the Via Valais.
VAL D'ANNIVIERS / ZINAL
One of the Valais’ most densely stacked areas with both quality running and some of the biggest terrain, the French-speaking Val d’Anniviers is a hotspot for experiencing the very best of the Alps. Home of the Sierre-Zinal race, an overnight on the Via Valais, and access to the most Himalayan-looking area of the Alps (See the Dôme), the Val d’Anniviers is certainly a major trail running destination worthy of a lengthy stay.
MATTERTAL / ZERMATT
You’ve crossed the fabled Röstigraben, the invisible boundary separating the Valais into French-speaking and Swiss German sides. Valais has become Wallis, and you’ve probably noticed that everything just got that much more Swiss.
The Mattertal is home to Zermatt and the icon of the Alps: the Matterhorn. The valley is deep and dramatic and your neck can't even tilt back far enough to take it all in. Here, the trails plummet into the valley alongside waterfalls and glaciers from high above. Zermatt, which, as expensive, hectic, and amusement park-like as it is, really does need to be seen. From town is one of the single best peak runs in the Alps, the Mettelhorn and the Via Valais takes a victory lap above town to finish in Zermatt.
SAASTAL / SAAS-FEE
Just one valley east, and very close to the madness of the Mattertal, the Saastal is a wholly different experience. Famous as a winter sport destination, the Saastal’s high villages; Saas-Fee, Saas-Grund, Saas-Almagell, and Saas-Balen are relatively mellow in the summer season. They are also one of the best basecamps in all of the Valais to stay and tick a collection of extraordinary runs packed into one spot, including two 4000-meter peak runs: Lagginhon and Weissmies.
ALETSCH ARENA & SIMPLON
The Aletsch Arena lies north of the Rhône Valley and outside the zone stretching between Chamonix and Zermatt. Its star attraction is the Aletschgletscher, the biggest glacier in the Alps. At 23 kilometers long, the Aletschgletscher, no matter how many times your eyes have stared at it, still makes you swoon in awe at the size and beauty of such a thing in little Switzerland. Here, the trails are smooth and you get panoramic views of all the Valais’ famous peaks towing above the valleys already listed.
The Aletsch Arena area also loosely includes the Wiwannihorn, one of our favorite fall runs with arguably the best singletrack descent you’ll ever flow down.