For the hardcore adventurer, Switzerland is truly a traveler’s paradise. From a seemingly endless list of exhilarating outdoor activities, the Hörnlihütte-Matterhorn Trail above Zermatt is one that’s absolutely worthy of any bucket list. Think you’ve got what it takes to tackle this daunting trail? Read on to find out how much it costs, how to access the trail, and the best time to visit. Plus we’ll share our secret about where we camped in the shadow of one of the world’s most iconic peaks.
Since Zermatt is a car-free town for visitors, the best options for transportation if you’re not traveling as part of a tour group are to either take a train or to drive and park your car in the nearby town of Täsch, which is 5 km from Zermatt. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can park in one of the structures that’s further from the train station in Täsch and walk the short distance to the station.
The most convenient option for parking is the Matterhorn Terminal Täsch, which is where we parked for the three days we hiked and camped in the area. The Matterhorn Terminal Täsch has 2100 parking spaces and costs about 15 chf to park for an entire day.
You can buy train tickets for the short ride to Zermatt right at the Matterhorn Terminal Täsch. If you know your travel dates and times in advance, you can book your tickets on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn online. Expect to pay 16.80 chf for a round-trip adult ticket, unless you have the Swiss Half-Fare card or one of the Swiss Travel Passes. The ride to Zermatt only takes 10-15 minutes and conventiently drops off passengers right in the middle of town.
Once you’re in Zermatt, you still have to walk the short distance to the cable car station for the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. When you fall into line to buy tickets for the cable car, be prepared to cringe at the rather hefty price tag. Full price for a single adult ticket is 50 chf (roughly equivalent to $50 or euros). Again, we can’t stress enough that it’s worth it to buy the Swiss Half-Fare Travelcard or one of the other discount cards in advance. It’ll likely end up saving you a decent chunk of change on transportation throughout Switzerland.
While you’re buying your cable car tickets, it’s a good idea to ask about the current trail conditions for the Hörnlihütte-Matterhorn hike. If it’s early in the season, be prepared for dire warnings about the conditions on the train. Take them with a grain of salt!
When we first asked if the trail was open, the ticket seller told us the trail was still closed due to poor conditions – snow and ice covering part of the trail – and that she wouldn’t advise it. “Wouldn’t advise it” isn’t the same as closed, though, so we asked if it was possible to hike any part of it or if it was completely impassable. She conceded that it was possible to start up the trail and just turn back when the conditions became “unsafe.”
When we asked if we could camp at the base of the peak, she looked perplexed but was quite clear that there were no overnight accommodations available . We explained we had a tent, warm clothing, food and water, and emergency gear. She remained skeptical but didn’t say we couldn’t camp. Cha ching! We were in business.
The hike officially starts from Schwarzsee, or Black Lake (not to be confused with a lake by the same name in Fribourg canton). Schwarzsee is nestled among the peaks at an elevation of nearly 2600 meters. Before the lift opened in 1956, folks had to walk from Zermatt up to Schwarzsee, a hike that would typically take several hours and climb nearly a thousand meters from Zermatt’s base elevation of 1620 meters.
Since we’d tackled the 5-Seenweg (Five Lakes) Hike the day before, we were more than happy to catch the lift from Zermatt to Schwarzsee. As the Matterhorn Glacier Express cable car whisked us up the slope, I marveled at the altitude it covered in just 10 minutes.
Schwarzsee is visible as soon as you step off the lift. On a calm summer day, the lake will likely be perfectly still in the deceptive coolness of late June despite the direct rays of the intense summer sun.
If you’re like us, you won’t be able to resist taking a few minutes to poke around the shore. We followed the short side trail down to the water’s edge where the Maria zum Schnee Chapel (Our Lady of the Snows) cast the only reflection on the lake’s surface save for clouds. Entering, I smiled at the sign on the door requesting we close it behind us so as to keep out the sheep.
Some say that a shrine to the Mother of God stood on this same spot long before the chapel was built in the early 1700s. When two locals became lost on a nearby glacier in thick fog, they built the chapel in gratitude after they were saved. Now, it’s commonly visited by pilgrims and mountaineers who stop by to give thanks after a successful ascent of the Matterhorn.
A few minutes after starting up the trail, we passed a couple with a tiny baby on their way down. The baby made eyes at Touille (our dog is tiny and looks like a chihuahua so she tends to be a kid magnet), so Touille fell in love immediately (eye contact is all it takes to win her heart). While Travis chatted with the nice Swedish couple, I marveled at their moxie in taking a 3-month old on such a strenuous, precarious trail and the amount of effort it must take them to do the same kind of hikes we like to do. I had to give them props for their sense of adventure!
Since it was nearly 5 pm already, very few hikers were left on the trail, and we passed just a few stragglers and one very chatty family from Utah. The husband regaled us with tales of their vacation in Switzerland, of his exploits on the trail, and of their extensive travels for quite some time. Next to me, Travis was fidgeting, appearing increasingly antsy. I thought he must be either ready to continue hiking or he had to pee. Finally, he gently interrupted the gentleman to let him know they were about to miss the last cable car of the night back to Zermatt and that unless they wanted to spend the night up there with us, they might want to scoot. After a few seconds of stunned silence, the husband thanked us heartily before the foursome broke into an anxious dash down the steep trail. We didn’t see them anywhere on the trail later that evening or the next day, so presumably they made the lift.
With the descent of the friendly Utah family, silence returned to the mountains. We labored up the steep trail, finally besting the worst section – a nearly vertical incline on a heavily graded gravel road. Less than a kilometer past that, we branched off onto a right proper trail again with switchbacks set into the rocky cliff face.
Some sections of the trail along here are bridged with metal grating and handrails where you can look straight down hundreds of feet to the gravel field below.
Other sections with smaller gaps in the trail are merely traversable via a couple of rough-hewn boards laid out side by side.
Though the distance we covered wasn’t far, we hiked for over an hour before cresting the very lower portion of Hörnli Ridge. The main trail to the hut continued at a more gradual incline in a direct line between us and the Matterhorn before again rising in a series of sharp switchbacks above us in the distance. We could see the trail disappear in stripes of snow and ice along this section.
With no likely camping spots in sight further up the trail, we sat for a few minutes to consider our options. I had had my heart set on reaching the hut and camping there. Though the mountain hut typically hosts hikers and mountaineers overnight, we knew it was currently closed for renovations and likely deserted. I was disappointed to realize we clearly wouldn’t make it up to the hut, not only because of the trail conditions above, but because the wind was likely far more ferocious at the hut’s 3200+ meter (10,700 ft) elevation and exposed location.
Another option was to hike back down to camp in one of the grassy fields far below near Schwarzsee. In doing so, we would drop nearly 300 meters (1000 feet) of elevation and possibly escape the brutally cold wind that was whipping along the exposed ridge.
Or we could try to find a place for our tent somewhere along the ridge but protected from the wind. Realizing both of us very much wanted to camp in the shadow of the peak, we chose the latter optoin. Venturing off the trail a ways onto a knife-edge shale slope, I settled in the sun to wait with Touille while Travis scouted along the ridge for camping possibilities.
Within a few minutes, he was back. Sporting a huge grin, he gestured for me to follow. Literally, just feet from us on the other side of the ridge where we were resting, a long, narrow, grassy meadow ran part of the length of the ridge. It seemed quite bizarre to both of us to find such an alpine meadow in the midst of the desolate rock landscape surrounding us, but there it was!
We had found our home away from home for the night, so we set about exploring our ridge before setting up camp. Far, far, far across the valley, a mystery building, possibly a chapel, was visible on the adjacent mountainside. (The building is the speck of white roughly in the middle of the photo – it’s more visible when you zoom in). I was amazed by both its location on the impossibly steep slopes and how it was thoroughly dwarfed by the massive 4000+ meter peaks surrounding it.
After scoping out the area, we realized that despite the grassy meadow, the back side of the ridge was still quite sloped. The flattest spot just happened to be towards the end of the ridge where it narrowed, sandwiched between the ridge line and a steep drop off. Since the ridge sheltered us from the wind considerably and we had a comfortable buffer of solid ground surrounding our tent, we were in no danger of getting blown off the ridge. The location was positively incredible!
I set up the tent while Trav boiled water for dinner, the last of our Backpacker’s Pantry meals we’d brought with us from the States. We followed it up with our last BP dessert, something we’d been saving for a special occasion: a dark chocolate cheesecake crumble. Pure Heaven.
As we watched the sun set, I kept feeling like I needed to pinch myself.
It just didn’t seem real that a place of such incredible fame and beauty existed, that we were there, and that we were able to appreciate it without crowds of other people.
Utterly exhausted, we finished dinner, brushed our teeth, and snuggled up in our cozy sleeping bags before it was even dark, a rarity for us. I couldn’t bare to zip the fly closed, though, instead peaking out frequently to see the mountain as it changed with the setting sun. Views of this Mountain of Mountains framed in our tent flap were my last before it was enveloped in inky darkness.
That night turned out to be one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had.
Perhaps stricken with a touch of altitude sickness, unable to sleep and all too aware that a cliff lay just the other side of our tent, I heard ever soft whoosh of wind as a hurricane-force gale. Sure we’d be blown off the ridge at any second, I had no doubt the wind was driven by Zeus himself, intent on shucking the ridge of us, or at the very least, ensuring that we’d remember his fury and never return.
When sunlight finally filtered through the pale yellow of our tent, my eyes were already intently glued on the ceiling. The wind that in the dark of night had roared maliciously, gently rustled the canvas overhead. Convinced that it was still windy, I emerged from our tent to the splendor of the Matterhorn surrounded by blue skies and utter silence. Not a single bird cheeped, and not a breeze stirred. Travis still claims it was dead calm all night and that he didn’t hear a thing. Which makes him crazy. There’s no other explanation.
Once again, I enjoyed the solitude of morning while Travis slept in a bit longer. We had just finished breaking down camp when we heard the monotonous thwap-thwap-thwap of a helicopter. Wondering if it was a rescue chopper, we sat and watched as it buzzed almost directly overhead in a course for Hörnlihütte. It hovered briefly over an open area near the hut before landing, taking off again just a few minutes later. Travis and I turned to each other, eyes wide – that’s where we were planning to camp up there last night! Note to self: do not pitch your tent on a Swiss alpine hut’s helipad. They won’t like it.
As we started back down the trail, we watched a steady stream of choppers delivering supplies to the hut. Though some appeared cargo-free, many hauled massive netted cubic bundles that were starkly visible against the sky.
Long before we reached Schwarzsee, the weather began to turn and blue skies gave way to grey.
Carrying Touille across the grated metal walkways, we made good time on our way down. Even as we dropped elevation, the Gornergletscher (Gorner Glacier) remained visible in the distance, cutting a path into the valley.
A herd of adorable Valais Blacknose sheep largely ignored us as we hiked past with the exception of one particularly interested individual. It still startles us to see sheep in Switzerland with long tails – in the States, they’re typically docked.
At times, our trail resembled nothing but a jumbled mass of broken rock. This was our kind of trail!
Arriving back at Swchwarzsee, we were greeted with even more spectacular views of the lake than when we’d left it the day before.
We again hiked down to its edge, this time to soak our tired feet in the cool water and to refill our water canisters. We were delighted to see swarms of fish fingerlings, hungry little baby fish.
Travis excels at catching flies out of the air, so he started tossing them to the voracious little buggers. Since they were hungry enough that they’d nibble our fingers, I tentatively lowered my feet into the water and enjoyed a free fish pedicure, though it tickled more than anything.
When we were done playing with the fishies, the Matterhorn Glacier Express whisked us down to Zermatt.
We walked back across town, staring wistfully inside bakery windows and coffee shops with our stomachs growling painfully. Back at the train station and unable to ignore our desperate need for coffee any longer, we popped into the adjacent restaurant, Ristorante Pizzeria Non Solo Treno. Ordering a couple of their apfelstrudels and the largest cups of take-away coffee that we could, I fidgeted at the counter in anticipation. We also were about to miss our train, and we really didn’t want to have to wait another hour for the next one. The server saw me glancing at the clock and reassured me that they just needed another few minutes to finish heating the strudels and not to worry, the train would sit on the platform a bit before leaving.
Sure enough, we made our train with our very late breakfast and coffees in hand and sank gratefully into the comfy seats.
Not only were the strudels twice as big as we expected, but the flaky layers of pastry dough were drenched in a creamy, sweet apple goo. Normally the slowest eater in any room, I wolfed mine down before Travis finished and had only the coffee left to savor on our 2 1/2 hour drive home.
The four days we spent exploring Zermatt, hiking the 5-Seenweg trail, and camping in the shadow of the Matterhorn still seem like a dream. Though we typically prefer to travel to less touristy destinations and shy away from places surrounded by hype, we’re glad we didn’t avoid Zermatt and the Matterhorn region. It’s surrounded by hype for a good reason. It simply is as rugged, beautiful, charming, and unforgettable as everything you’ve ever heard about it.
- Total hiking distance: 4.3 km (2.7 miles)
- Zermatt is a car-free town for visitors, which means you’ll need to park your car (if you’re driving) and train in. The town of Täsch is the nearest and most popular place for people to leave their cars.
- Parking: 31 chf for 3 days (you can pay less by parking further from the train station in Täsch)
- Train from Täsch to Zermatt: 12 chf for 1 half-fare roundtrip adult ticket. With no discounts, expect to pay 24 chf per adult ticket.
- Matterhorn Glacier lift ticket: 25 chf per roundtrip adult ticket from Zermatt to Schwarzsee with the annual Swiss 1/2 Fare Card. With no discounts, expect to pay 50 chf per adult ticket.
- Food – We packed regular groceries from home and threw in a couple of dehydrated Mountain House backpacking meals we’d bought in the States (which are amazing and cost about $6 each). Costs will vary a great deal depending on your travel style, but expect to pay high prices at the restaurants in Zermatt and along the hiking trails.
- Official site for Zermatt tourism
- 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.