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For the hardcore adventurer, Switzerland is truly paradise. It offers a seemingly endless list of exhilarating outdoor activities worthy of any bucket list. Even with so much competition, the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail above Zermatt is one that belongs at the top of the list. Part of the hike’s appeal is that it offers jaw-dropping views of the Matterhorn up close, yet doesn’t require climbing or any technical skill. As long as you’re not afraid of heights, the trail is readily accessible to any able-bodied hiker who’s reasonably fit.
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 you can camp in the shadow of one of the world’s most iconic peaks.
Travel Tip: In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, this trail is referred to as the Hörnlihütte-Matterhorn. In English, vowels like "o" and "u" with the umlaut (two little dots above it) are spelled "oe" and "ue." For simplicity, we've shortened special characters in this post to just a single vowel, ie Hörnlihütte is Hornli Hut.
Arriving in Zermatt, Switzerland
Since Zermatt is a car-free town for tourists, the best option for transportation for independent travelers is to either take a train or to drive and park your car in the nearby town of Tasch, 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 Tasch and walk the short distance to the station.
The most convenient option for parking is the Matterhorn Terminal Tasch, which is where we parked for the three days we hiked and camped in the area. The Matterhorn Terminal Tasch has 2100 parking spaces and costs about 15 CHF to park for an entire day.
You can buy train tickets for the short ride from Tasch to Zermatt right at the Matterhorn Terminal Tasch. 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 conveniently drops off passengers right in the middle of town.
Cable Car from Zermatt to Schwarzsee
Once you’re in Zermatt, you still have to walk the short distance to the Matterhorn Talstation to buy tickets for the Matterhorn Express cable car. It first stops at the Furi Station, but for the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail, stay on the Matterhorn Express until the very top. You’ll get off at the Zermatt- Schwarzsee Station.
When you fall into line to buy tickets for the Matterhorn Express, be prepared to cringe at the rather hefty price tag. Full price for a single adult ticket was 50 CHF (roughly equivalent to 50 USD or EUR) at the time of this writing. If you’re concerned about the cost, check their website for updated prices before you book any travel!
Travel Tip: 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 Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail. We would never encourage anyone to hike in unsafe conditions! On the other hand, 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 Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail was open, the ticket seller told us it was still closed due to poor conditions – snow and ice covering part of the trail. She didn’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 then asked if we could camp at the base of the peak, she looked perplexed. She was quite clear that there were no overnight accommodations available.
We explained we were experienced in the outdoors and came prepared. We had a suitable tent, warm clothing, food and water, and emergency gear. We were more than prepared to camp beneath the Matterhorn. She remained skeptical as to why we’d want to camp up there, but almost almost grudgingly acknowledged that it was allowed.
Cha-CHING! We were in business.
What to Know About the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail
1. Schwarzsee is the official start of the trail.
When you reach your final summit on the Matterhorn Express, you’ll step off the cable car and almost immediately see Schwarzsee, or Black Lake. The Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail officially starts from Schwarzsee – not to be confused with a lake by the same name in Fribourg canton.
On a calm summer day, the lake will likely be perfectly still. Even the direct rays of an intense summer sun can’t quite chase the chill from the air in late June.
Travel Tip: Make sure to bring warm clothes for the hike, even if it's warm in Zermatt.
Schwarzsee is nestled among the Swiss peaks at an elevation of nearly 2600 meters. Before the Matterhorn Express cable car 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 Express whisked us up the slope, I marveled at the altitude it covered in just 10 minutes.
2. The Maria zum Schnee Chapel is worth a peak inside.
A small, simple country chapel is the only structure on the shores of Schwarzsee. You can get to the chapel via a short trail not far from the Zermatt-Schwarzsee station. Make sure to walk down to the water’s edge before taking a peak inside the chapel.
The chapel, which means “Our Lady of the Snows,” was built in the early 1700s. Two locals became lost on a nearby glacier in thick fog. After they were rescued, they built the chapel as a sign of their gratitude. Nowadays the chapel is commonly visited by pilgrims and mountaineers who stop by to give thanks after a successful ascent of the Matterhorn. Some say that a shrine to the Mother of God stood on this same spot long before the chapel was built, a testament to the deep respect locals have always had for this mountain and her dangers.
Travel Tip: Make sure to keep the chapel door closed to keep out the local sheep!
3. Kids can do the hike!
A few minutes after starting up the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail, we passed a couple with a tiny baby on their way down. The baby made eyes at Touille, our rat terrier. She’s tiny and looks like a chihuahua so she tends to be a kid magnet. Touille fell in love immediately since eye contact is an invitation 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 precarious trail and the additional effort it must take for them to do the same kind of hikes we love. I had to give them props for their sense of adventure.
If you have kids and are wondering if this hike is doable, it is – at least according to the two families we met on the trail (which is almost everyone we met on the trail).
4. Keep an eye on the time if you need to catch the cable car down.
Hikers who want to allow enough time to do the entire Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail in one day should plan to start early in the morning. We recommend that overnight campers take the lift up later in the evening. That way you’ll have the trail largely to yourself because as you’re hiking up, you’re likely to pass only a few people – the last few stragglers hiking down. With luck, you’ll also be treated to a nice sunset over the peak.
It was nearly 5 pm by the time we started the hike near Schwarzsee, so we ran into just a few hikers and one very chatty family from Utah. The husband regaled us with tales of their vacation in Switzerland 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. Unless they wanted to spend the night up there with us or hike all the way day, they might want to scoot.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, the husband thanked us heartily, then 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.
5. The trail conditions are steep and rough.
With the descent of the chatty 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, you’ll branch off onto a right proper trail 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.
6. Hornli Ridge is the final ascent to Hornli Hut.
Though the total distance of the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail isn’t particularly long, it’s slow going.
We hiked for over an hour before cresting the very lower portion of Hornli 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’d 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 option. 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.
Camping Beneath the Matterhorn
1. Options for camping along much of the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail are extremely limited.
Those who want to camp beneath the Matterhorn should know that options for pitching even a tiny two-person tent along the trail are not great. Much of the trail is narrow, bordered on one side by a sheer cliff straight up and on the other by a sheer drop straight down. A sign further up the trail warns that camping is prohibited, though it’s allowed along the trail below the sign.
I was still mulling over the likelihood we’d have to backtrack to find a camping spot when Travis reappeared over the ridge. Sporting a huge grin, he gestured for me to follow.
Literally, just feet from us on the other side of the ridge where Touille and I had been 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.
Travel Tip: We happened to luck out in finding a place to pitch our tent, but our advice for anyone following in our footsteps is not to camp along this ridge. Either continue to Hornlihutte for the night, or plan to camp in the grassy fields below.
We had found our home away from home for the night, so we set about exploring the ridge before setting up camp.
If you make it to this point along the trail, pause to look far, far, far across the valley. On an adjacent mountainside, a mystery building – possibly a chapel, is visible. The mystery building is just a speck of white roughly in the middle of our photo below.
We were amazed by both its location on the impossibly steep slopes and how it’s 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. Probably.
2. Pack in plenty of food.
There are no restaurants or services of any kind anywhere near the ridge, so if you’re planning to camp for even just one night, pack in plenty of food. Always bring more than you think you’ll eat in case you decide to stay longer, you end up hungrier than you expected, or in case of emergency.
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 US. We followed it up with our last BP dessert, something we’d been saving for a special occasion: a dark chocolate cheesecake crumble.
As we watched the sun set over the Matterhorn along Hornli Ridge, I kept feeling like I needed to pinch myself.
Utterly exhausted, we finished dinner, brushed our teeth, and snuggled up in our cozy REI sleeping bags before it was even dark, a rarity for us. I couldn’t bear 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.
Travel Tip: There are NO facilities anywhere near. Be prepared. Bring everything you need, and pack out all your trash!
3. Be prepared for nasty weather.
Ironically, that night turned out to be one of the worst nights 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 every 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. 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.
If you plan to camp near the Matterhorn or even just tackle a day-trip, watch the weather. It changes fast year-round, and summer storms aren’t unusual. You could go to sleep after hiking on a warm summer day and wake up to snow. I might’ve dreamt the midnight gale-force winds, but they really can come on suddenly and unexpectedly.
Travel Tip: Make sure you have appropriate outdoor gear and emergency supplies before staying on the mountain overnight.
4. If you make it to Hornlihutte, do NOT pitch your tent on the hut’s helipad.
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 Hornlihutte on the flanks of the Matterhorn. 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!
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 starkly visible against the deep blue sky. We knew that the hut was closed for renovations, but it hadn’t occurred to us that someone would actually be working on it up there, that they’d need supplies, and that the only way to get them up there would be by chopper.
5. I’ts possible to hike the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail with dogs.
Long before we reached Schwarzsee, the weather began to turn and blue skies gave way to grey. At each section of metals grates in the trail, we picked up Touille and carried her across. Her paws are so small, it wasn’t possible for her to walk across it on her own. Her legs would’ve gone right through.
Most of these sections aren’t terribly long, but if you have a big dog, it’s better for them to have protective footwear.
With our eye on the angry grey clouds rolling in, we made good time on the trail down.
Critters that you might see along the trail include foxes, marmots, red deer, ibexes, and herds of chamois – beautiful wild goat-like animals that are incredible climbers. We saw a small herd of chamois from Hornli Ridge at sunrise and watched in amazement as they ran horizontally across the steep shale slope below us.
Along the trail, also keep your eyes peeled for the adorable Valais Blacknose sheep. Unlike sheep in the US that usually have docked tails, these woolly little guys have long black tails.
End of the Hornlihutte Matterhorn Trail
Arriving back at Schwarzsee, we again hiked down to its edge. This time we soaked our tired feet in the cool water before refilling 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 to nibble our fingers, I tentatively lowered my feet into the water and enjoyed a free fish pedicure. More than anything, it just tickled.
When we were done playing with the fishies, the Matterhorn Glacier Express whisked us down to Zermatt.
Treat Yourself Before Leaving Zermatt
We walked 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 were about to miss our train and 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, hiking the Hornlihutte Matterhorn 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.
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Know Before You Go
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 Tasch is the nearest and most popular place for people to leave their cars.
Parking: 31 CHF for 3 days at the Matterhorn Terminal Tasch. You can pay less by parking further from the train station in Tasch.
Train from Tasch to Zermatt: 12 CHF for 1 half-fare round-trip adult ticket. With no discounts, expect to pay 24 CHF per adult ticket.
Matterhorn Express cable car ticket: 25 CHF per round-trip 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 taste really good but are pricey at 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.
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.