Summer & Winter

This bustling Alpine village offers a wide range of holiday activities ideal for families, novices, keen amateurs and professionals – turning every stay into an unforgettable experience.

On the right path

The yellow sign by Engelberg railway station indicates that it takes two hours and 35 minutes to walk to Grafenort. The sign is almost lost among myriads of others, such as those for “Obermatt”, “Untertrübsee” and about 30 other destinations. But the trail to Grafenort, which leads along the Eugenisee lake and over the Aa gorge, is not only one of the most beautiful in Engelberg, it is also a place that stands for positive energies, tireless dedication, and a special connection with nature. But let’s begin at the beginning.

If you had ventured along this route any time before the 20th century, you would probably have got lost in the middle of nowhere before too long. There were no signposts back then, so good cartographical knowledge was essential. In those days, explorers, natural scientists and English mountain climbers in the Alps were often sneered at, but in around 1900 the desire to get close to nature grew exponentially. Suddenly, hiking routes were peppered with signposts, and soon the situation became increasingly unmanageable. A proper signage system was urgently required. The Swiss Hiking Trail Federation was founded in 1934; it was responsible for devising the yellow signs with black markings we see today. But the signs were taken down almost as soon as they were put up – during World War II, locals didn’t want to help the enemy find their bearings, so the signpost project was put on hold for a while. Guided tours emerged as an alternative, and these continue to be popular today.

When the war ended and the signs were put back up, a second problem arose: a growing network of roads was spreading across the entire country and many hiking trails had been tarmacked, meaning that numerous hard-won routes were wiped out. This situation gave rise to a unique law being passed: since 1979 all hiking trail matters have been regulated in the Swiss Federal Constitution, and since 1987 in the Federal Law on Footpaths and Hiking Trails. Thanks to these regulations, it is no longer possible for individuals to simply tarmac hiking trails in Switzerland as they see fit.  

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The new legislation and introduction of standardised signage across Switzerland provided a solid foundation, but maintenance of the trails remains the responsibility of the cantons and municipalities. This brings us back to the signposts at the station, which is where Patrik Emmenegger’s work begins today. Patrik almost always sports mountain boots, trekking trousers, and a robust jacket. Despite his young age, he has been responsible for Engelberg’s hiking trails as district manager for seven years – signposting, checking and maintaining them. He is smiling, and radiates satisfaction: “That comes from enjoyment of my work,” he says. Patrik says he feels good out in the natural landscape; it provides him with energy and plenty to keep him busy. Engelberg alone has 100 kilometres of hiking trails, and Patrik’s work even extends across the border to the neighbouring municipality of Wolfenschiessen. Patrik often meets with Wolfenschiessen local representative Sepp Hurschler, even though things are done differently across the border. In fact, few municipalities have a system like Engelberg’s: Patrik and two colleagues are employed by the municipality and are exclusively responsible for hiking trails; in other parts of Switzerland there are cantonal organisations, tourism associations, or teams of volunteers.  

Patrik often starts his working day at Engelberg railway station. In spring, when warm rays of sunshine gradually melt the blanket of snow and nature gets into gear after a long winter, preparations for the upcoming hiking season begin in the lower sections of the valley and gradually move upwards as the snow melts. Just as foxes and hares shed their winter fur, the signs change colour – from pink in winter to yellow in summer. Some even get white-red-white or white-blue-white markings to show that they are mountain paths or Alpine routes. The outdoorsmen assiduously work their way along the paths, putting benches in place, installing hand ropes, and rebuilding smaller bridges. For safety reasons, almost everything is removed from the trails in winter.

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Patrik and his colleagues also rely on volunteers to help them keep an eye on the huge network of trails. The “Wanderweggöttis” watch over the trails and report any problems, e.g. if a tree has fallen, rocks are blocking the path, or a path is flooded. And without helpers like this, the trail to Grafenort across the roaring Aa gorge would be a thing of the past. Engelberg was badly affected by heavy rainfall across Switzerland in summer 2005; torrential mudslides from the Aa river destroyed the road at the entrance to the village and thus the hiking trail to the Aa gorge. When the canton and municipality failed to supply sufficient funds to rebuild the trail, the Aa Gorge Adventure Trail interest group was formed. Sepp Hurschler, who was retired but fit, played a key role in the initiative. His face lights up when he talks about it, and the enthusiasm shows in his voice: “It was unbelievable!” he says. More than 30 volunteers put in countless hours to reconstruct the path and, with the support of the Fritz Carl Wilhelm Foundation, to repair and rebuild nine stone, metal and hanging bridges.The work was completed in 2011, when the group handed the trail back to the municipality and parted ways to look for their next challenge.

Patrik and Sepp have a passion for nature and the local region, which is reflected in their daily work. Patrik has long been busy digitising maps and aligning local, regional and national routes. The overview of all hiking trails must be as clear as possible for users: “It’s no good knowing that seven routes lead to Rome; they want to know which one is the most beautiful,” he says. But the new maps won’t be ready until autumn, which Patrik and Sepp are already looking forward to. Autumn is their favourite time of year: the bulk of the work is done, it’s not so hot anymore, leaves rustle underfoot, the Alps are quiet, and nature is preparing itself for winter. And because they have less work to do, they’re left with more time to hunt, take in their surroundings, listen to the sounds of nature and, best of all, walk across the roaring Aa gorge without a care in the world.

Hiking highlights: the Aa Gorge Adventure Trail and the Buiräbähnli Safari