The Valais to the French speaker, or Wallis to the German speaker, is an arid canton with many of Europe’s highest, glaciated peaks. Typically, the weather is sunny and dry, making a hiker’s paradise. Numerous trails follow ancient bisses, or handbuilt irrigation channels, that cross the hillsides and link farming hamlets and high pastures, or alps, and carry the hiker back in time.
The Valais is home to the world famous destination of Zermatt, with its icon of adventure, the Matterhorn, towering over the quaint, bustling and overbuilt village, blessedly car free. Some touristic destinations are crowded; others are crowded and fabulous. Paris is an example of the latter. So is Zermatt. The hiking is extensive, offers unparalleled scenery and is accessible not only by foot but by a highly developed lift system. Views include the Matterhorn, the Monte Rosa, the Mischabel group and the Gorner Glacier, Europe’s second largest glacier.
Of course Zermatt is not the only resort in the Valais. Saas Fee, just over the Mischabel ridge, is another fully developed resort town. Set beneath tumbling glaciers with spectacular mountain views and a full range of hikes, Saas Fee is a slightly sleepier cousin to Zermatt, and two of the Alps’ finest high level walks, the Grachen Hohenweg and the Gspon Hohenweg, terminate there.
If you prefer to get more off the beaten path, consider visiting the Lotschental, a valley that time forgot, just north of the Rhone. The tiny villages of Kippel and Wiler offer accommodations and access to the valley’s few peaceful and spectacular hikes. Otherwise, travel into the French speaking portion of the canton south of the Rhone. There, the hiker can find unspoiled Valaisian villages with original, blackened timber houses, citizens (especially the older generation) in traditional costume, plenty of miles of untrammeled hiking, and fabulous and unusual views of the snowy, glaciated Pennine Alps. The villages of Arolla, Les Hauderes, Grimentz and the quirky artist’s colony of St. Luc offer primarily simple accommodations and access to hundreds of miles of good trails: but come prepared with maps and map reading skills!