The Alps surrounding the town of Zermatt, Switzerland offer lots of great options for hiking. One of the most popular is the 5-Seenweg, or Five Lakes Trail. Part of its popularity lies in the fact that it isn’t terribly difficult, a cable car in Zermatt offers easy access to the loop hike, and the trail offers stunning views of the Matterhorn from where it circles around five charming alpine lakes.
If you’re anything like us, you probably already spent some time exploring the town of Zermatt, the gateway to the Matterhorn. And if you’re like us, after just a day or two of city sights, you’ll be ready for a break from the bustle of town to hit the mountains!
Like so many of the hikes in Switzerland, the 5-Seenweg is accessible via lift. The one you’ll want to take is the Zermatt to Sunnegga lift, or you can opt to hike up instead. Since we’d missed the last tram to Sunnegga for the evening, we had no choice but to hike. Most folks vacate the slopes and trails with the last lift of the day, so our decision gave us the opportunity to enjoy the trail with very few hikers.
Not entirely sure how to find our new trail-head on the outskirts of Zermatt, we followed Christine, a Swiss friend, as she expertly wound her way through narrow, unnamed streets, only occasionally referring to her map for guidance. We walked with her as far as the trail-head on the upper outskirts of Zermatt, then parted ways.
Within minutes of leaving Zermatt, we passed a small group of smartly dressed party-goers returning to town from a wedding in the mountains. Many of the women were walking barefoot, high heeled shows slung loosely in hand, kids in tow. I didn’t envy any of them, hiking in the heat of the evening in painfully uncomfortable attire, but they were friendly and jovial, stopping to say hi to our rat terrier, Touille, and smiling at us in greeting. We delighted at their British accents, grinning at each other after they’d passed and firing back and forth bad impersonations of our favorite British lines from movies.
After about an hour of hiking, you’ll come to a bench, perfectly placed just off the trail with superb views of the Matterhorn. It’s a great place to stop for lunch or a snack.
Famished, we needed no further encouragement to take a break, savoring generous chunks of marinated pork and veggies we’d packed from home. Somehow, leftovers always taste better when we’re adventuring.
The sun skipped from cloud to cloud as the shadows grew long in our valley. Mobs of mosquitoes and flying insects finally drove us to hastily re-pack our bags and get back to the trail.
Clearing the treeline, we hiked through the tiny alpine community of Findeln. Blackened timbers from village chalets that have endured countless winters give little indication of their true age.
I suddenly felt like we were back in the US when we passed a row of tri-color cowhide chairs that resembled Texas Longhorns more than the docile Brown Swiss that’re so common in Switzerland.
Just above Findeln, we were excited to see our first glimpse of Valais Blackneck goats making their way along the steep grassy slopes. With their distinctive half black, half white markings, Travis dubbed them “happy halfsies.”
The breed is native to Switzerland. It’s no surprise that they’re quite popular with tourists, and during the summer months, a small herd of them is paraded twice daily through the streets of Zermatt.
Though ours were too far away to attempt a decent photo, we were thrilled to see them in the peaceful solitude of the mountains and just stood and watched them until they disappeared over the ridge.
From the hamlet of Findeln, the trail angles down to cross Findeln Creek, then zigzags up the adjacent slope until it meets a gravel road.
Rather confused at the lack of signage and abrupt disappearance of our trail, we turned right and followed the road for a ways until it reappeared on the left, almost immediately taking us past Grünsee, one of the five lakes along the hike. Though the tip of the Matterhorn had reappeared in the distance, we were disappointed with the lake’s diminutive size and proximity to Berghaus Grünsee, a restaurant and mountain lodge that would likely be swarming with tourists in the morning.
Crossing our fingers, we decided to press on even further to the third lake, Grindjisee, knowing we’d have no choice but to hike in the dark. The trail once again turned into a decent sized gravel road, plainly visible in the darkness, and we continued at a decent clip to the lake. From there, only the dark outline of the Matterhorn was visible in the distance, but we knew we’d found our camping destination for the evening.
Finding a grassy spot large enough for our small tent, though, turned out to be a challenge. The only flat areas were sogged with water from the stream flowing to the lake, and the steep hillsides tumbling directly into the lake were rife with boulders. Finally breaking out our headlamps, we scoured the area until we found probably the only circle of grass in the entire valley that would accommodate our tent. Grateful as always for our REI Half Dome tent, we assembled our castle for the evening mostly by feel within a few minutes, tossed in our bedding, and were asleep in seconds.
As soon as the first morning rays hit our tent, I was awake, curious to see our surroundings in the light of day.
Perfectly reflected in the opposite end of the lake, the mountain lay suspended between a heavenly blue sky and the otherworldly depths of the lake, which still lay in shadow.
Leaving Travis to sleep, I sat for some time in the stillness above the lake and watched the sun climb higher, golden rays creeping ever closer to our tent.
Boiling some water for coffee and a breakfast of chicken and rice, Trav joined me, and we climbed up a giant boulder to enjoy the views while we dined.
Since I typically am too lazy to backpack with my full-sized tri-pod and always forget our GorillaPod, we propped our camera on the rock for a quick selfie before returning to our tent to break camp.
While breaking down our tent, we were both rather surprised to see a hiker step out from behind our breakfast boulder.
It was barely 8 am yet, and the lack of visitors all morning had leant us an erroneous sense of privacy.
With his hands already moving to unzip his fly, it was clear that the poor hiker was even more startled to see us and hastily moved on after an embarrassed wave. Several hikers followed him as we finished packing our bags, and as we returned to the trail to continue on the 5-Seenweg, we could see a trickle of folks on the trail high above us. It was clear that the lifts had started running, depositing their first batch of hikers for the day.
At the falls, you have a couple of hiking options. One option is the main gravel trail of the 5-Seenweg. The second is a side trail that cuts across the slope and is likely to have fewer hikers.
We decided to detour off the main trail, which isn’t as pleasant for hiking, in favor of “the road less traveled.”
If you’re hiking with dogs, this side trail is also a nice option.
Touille was happy to be off leash, running ahead and snuffling every inch in her never-ending quest to find the elusive Swiss squirrel or the much more common marmot. The savvy little critters always disappear in a hole long before she reaches them.
We saw few enough people on the trail that we were actually grateful to run into a couple of gals hiking together. Asking if they’d take a quick photo of us, we returned the favor and took one of them, then continued the last few kilometers of our hike.
The 5-Seenweg loop trail ends at the Sunnegga underground train station. If you already have a round-trip ticket that you purchased in Zermatt, you can just board the next available car back to town.
Since we had hiked up rather than taking the lift up, we arrived at Sunnegga and were stumped as to how to buy a one-way ticket down. After thoroughly searching around the entire building, we finally just got on the next train. It wasn’t until we reached the bottom that we realized the station is only manned at the bottom. Before we could exit the turn-style at the station in Zermatt, we had to pay for our one-way ride down from Sunnegga.
Back in Zermatt, we wandered past the Mountaineer’s Cemetery before wearily dropping our packs under a shady tree in an adjacent park. We gratefully pulled off our sweaty hiking boots, and I burrowed my feet in the soft, cool grass with a sigh before throwing together a quick cold lunch from our packs.
We were both so tired at that point that we debated about whether to head home or maybe even camp in town. I still really wanted to hike at least part of the way up to the Hörnlihütte, though. The chalet is the last alpine hut on the route to summit the Matterhorn that’s accessible without technical climbing gear. Though I don’t think Travis gave a whit at that point about the hike, he knew how much I wanted to do it, so he sucked it up for me. Shouldering our packs, we set off across Zermatt in search of the lift that would take us up to Schwarzsee. From there, we would hike the Hörnlihütte Matterhorn trail, which would end up being the most stunning and memorable hike (and night of camping) of our entire year in Switzerland.
Know Before You Go
Total distance for our hike: 13.7 km (8.5 miles)
Actual hiking distance for 5-Seenweg when taking the lift from Zermatt to Sunnegga: 9.3 km
Cost: 8 chf per one-way adult ticket to take the Sunnegga lift to Zermatt with the annual Swiss 1/2 Fare Card. With no discounts, expect to pay 16 chf.
Note: We did not stay at an official campground, and we did not have amenities where we camped. It should go without saying but if you opt to dry camp, please remember if you pack it in, pack it out. Leave no trace you were there, and if you can, pack out what others have left behind.
Map of the 5-Seenweg and Hornlihutte Matterhorn Hikes