Ways to Have an Alps Adventure (Besides Skiing)
With over 1,000 ski resorts in the Alps — Europe’s most famous mountain range that stretches from France to Slovenia — it’s no wonder that multitudes of skiers and snowboarders flock there annually. But adventure travel in the Alps doesn’t begin and end on the ski slopes, so getting your runs in isn’t the only reason to plan a trip to the region. This stunning mountain range has something for every type of traveler — from the very extreme to the decidedly more relaxed. If you’re looking beyond the slopes, here are eight alternative adventure ideas to consider for your next trip to the Alps.
Tackle the Via Ferrata Routes
This may be the world’s coolest form of public transportation: Networks of cables and ladders facilitate safe and easy mountain climbing on the via ferrata (“way of iron” in Italian). A section of the northeastern part of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites has one of the most robust and interconnected via ferrata systems in the world. It has been around since World War I, when the government installed it to help soldiers get from one hard-to-access alpine location to another. Now, the iron trail is open to anyone, and all you need is a helmet and a harness to get going. You can explore via ferrata in other parts of the Alps, too. France’s Chamonix has several of them, from the family-friendly Via des Evettes to the experts-only Saint-Gervais.
Hike From Village to Village
One of the Alps’ coolest offerings is the ability to ski from one village to another. Luckily, you are able to do so by hiking, too — though you’ll have to visit in summer instead. On the 125-mile Haute Route, which stretches between France’s Chamonix and Switzerland’s Zermatt, travelers pass across international borders and through beautiful and historic towns such as Champex, Arolla, St-Luc, and Gruben. Stay for one night and keep going, or trek longer and explore as much as you like — these towns are used to accommodating hikers, and there are many shorter day trips to explore once you’re there.
The Tour du Mont Blanc — or TMB, as it’s called by those in the know — is another famous village-to-village route, running a little over 100 miles through Switzerland, France, and Italy. The entire trip tends to take about five to 10 days, and is considered to be a bit easier than the Haute Route. In either case, hikers need not tackle the entire thing in one go — trekking from one town to the next takes about one day.
Camp Out in a Rustic Mountain Hut
A popular alternative to descending into the Alps’ quaint villages is posting up in the region's celebrated — but admittedly more rustic — mountainside huts. In France, visit the renowned Albert Premier Hut for sweeping views of Le Tour glacier. In Switzerland, the Britannia Hut, maintained by the renowned Swiss Alpine Club, is also popular. And in Italy’s Dolomites, you’ll find unforgettable mountain huts ready and waiting to provide rest and relaxation after some serious via ferrata adventuring. The Rifugio Nuvolau, for example, sits prominently atop the rocky peak of Mount Nuvolau, and is the oldest mountain hut in the region.
At times, securing reservations at these huts is part of the adventure — some take advance bookings and operate websites, while others are decidedly old-school, meaning you’ll just have to show up and hope for an opening.
Spelunk in Ice Caves
Brave enough to explore an ice cave? If so, all your Frozen dreams will come true in Austria’s Eisriesenwelt. Unexplored for much of history, the Enriesenwelt (or “World of Ice Giants”) is located inside a mountain in the Tennengebirge section of the Austrian Alps. It is the largest ice cave in the world. And in Switzerland, you can visit the newly opened Ice Cathedral, high above the ski resort of Les Diablerets. Though this ice cave is smaller than the Eisriesenwelt, it’s harder to access — requiring a chairlift and a short hike — promising a spectacularly unique experience.
Snowshoe Through a Winter Wonderland
The practice of snowshoeing is thousands of years old, and remains one of the most meditative ways to traverse snowy terrain. And unlike skiing, snowshoeing is widely accessible — the Alps contain miles of gorgeous trails to explore. In France, there’s Vanoise National Park, a massive, protected area where you can spot the Alpine ibex. Or try Ecrins National Park, where you can trek to the incredibly scenic heights of Le Plateau de la Coche. At Italy’s Livigno, you can rent snowshoes — or drezola, as locals call them — to get around impeccably marked and maintained trails, which vary in difficulty, elevation, and length. Guides are ready for hire in most alpine towns, although they’re not always needed. In many spots, you can simply grab a map and a few helpful pointers, and set out on your own.
See Sights — and Heights — Via Train
You may have heard of the Glacier Express, the train that runs eight hours between Switzerland’s ski towns of Zermatt and St. Moritz. This, and some of Switzerland’s other train routes, are more than just ways to get from place to place. They’re experiences in and of themselves. On the Glacier Express, you’ll take in sweeping views of the Matterhorn Valley and watch the Rhône river flow by. The slower, more historic Jungfrau train will take you to Europe’s highest railway station, from which you may be able to spot both Germany and France on a sunny day. And thrill-seekers can buy a ticket on the Pilatus, the steepest cogwheel railway in the world.
Board a Cable Car in the Sky
Many of the ski resorts in the Alps have gondolas and aerial trams that welcome skiers and non-skiers alike, but few of these rides are as breathtaking as Switzerland’s Titlis Rotair. Located in Engelberg, a beautiful Swiss alpine town, the Rotair takes you to the top of the Titlis Mountain, located about 10,000 feet above sea level. Even more impressive, the Rotair is the first aerial tram to rotate 360 degrees en route, which affords panoramic views of the Engelberg valley. Aiming to get even higher? Head to Chamonix, where you can ride the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car to over 12,000 feet — the highest mountain peak served by an aerial tram.
Glide From Peak to Valley
Wherever there’s a ski resort, you’re likely to find a paragliding outfit, too. A sport that lets you descend from jaw-dropping heights at a relaxed pace, paragliding blends the best of adventure and leisure travel — and it’s a fantastic way to see the Alps. Paragliding novices get teamed up with an expert pilot, who will glide with you on a tandem ride. You can also learn to pilot your own glider: Verbier Summits, an English-language paragliding and hang-gliding school in Switzerland has a reputation for seamlessly turning beginner flyers into fearless, expert pilots.