Want to find out more about Switzerland’s icy glaciers? This detailed guide will tell you everything about the country’s most popular glaciers!
Switzerland is known for its countless towering peaks, which attract many hikers, climbers, skiers, and other outdoor adventurers to this alpine country. The glaciers that wind between them are an integral part of those tall summits, and they’re some of the most impressive natural landmarks you will find in this land-locked country.
Global warming is taking its toll on the glaciers in Switzerland, so plan a visit as soon as you can. The Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network confirmed that 2022 has been the worst year so far in terms of ice melt records, and the country’s glaciers are slowly disappearing thanks to increasing temperatures and our ever-increasing carbon emissions.
This detailed guide covers everything you need to know about the best-known and most popular Swiss glaciers, so you can plan a visit while they’re still there.
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Morteratsch glacier is the largest glacier in the Bündner Alps, more specifically in the Bernina Range area. It is a typical valley glacier with its pronounced ice front, and it is truly a spectacular sight.
What makes this glacier special is that it is accessible to skiers in the spring months. When the weather warms up a bit and the ice starts to melt, a 10-km-long ski run on the glacier becomes accessible to more experienced skiers.
The run leads from Diavolezza aerial tramway all the way to the Morteratsch inn, with a total altitude difference of 1,100 m. It’s as exciting as it sounds, and an attraction not to be missed if you’re an avid and skilled skier.
Grand Aletsch Glacier
Weighing in at 10 billion tonnes, the Grand Aletsch glacier is perhaps the most impressive and famous of all the Alps glaciers. It’s part of the Aletsch-Jungfrau UNESCO World Heritage Area and it’s surprisingly easy to access considering that it is the largest glacier in the country. You can easily see the Aletsch glacier from the top of a gondola from Fiesch, which takes you directly to the starting point of the glacier hike. There are also great viewing points above both Bettmeralp and Riederalp too.
It’s worth noting that you can only hike on the glacier with a guide. Unless you are an experienced mountaineer that is! Unguided access to the glacier is not allowed, so be sure to contact local guides if you’re planning to explore this wonderful area. Guides will usually meet you at the top station of the gondola, so you can start exploring as soon as you get out of the cable car, provided you have all the necessary equipment.
Interestingly, the Aletsch glacier actually starts from three glacial firns, one of which is the Jungfraufirn, which begins on the Jungfraujoch. So, if you head up to the Jungfraujoch and look down the back, you will see the start of this magnificent icy river.
The Gorner glacier is another one of Switzerland’s valley glaciers. It’s located above the car-free village of Zermatt, in the Monte Rosa mountain massif. There’s an entire glacial area related to the actual Gorner glacier, and it is the second-largest glacier system in the Alps, right after the Aletsch glacier.
Gornersee is one of the most popular sights in this glacial system. It’s located right at the confluence of the Grenz and Gorner glaciers, and the lake fills and drains every summer. It’s one of very few lakes that exhibit this type of behavior, which is exactly what makes it so special.
You can ride a train from Zermatt to the Gorner glacier, a ride which takes around 35 minutes. It’s worth noting that crossing this glacier (with a guide) is part of the Monte Rosa hut hike, one of the most popular long-distance hikers in this part of Switzerland.
The Rhone glacier is situated in the Urner Alps, near the Furka Pass. Yes, that is the alpine pass made famous by James Bond. The location makes it easily accessible, so this glacier is very popular with outdoor adventurers in Switzerland. Rhone glacier is actually the source of the river Rhine, as well as one of the main contributors to the impressive Lake Geneva.
The 100m long ice cave under this glacier is one of the most popular attractions in the area. It’s carved out anew every year, and it takes about 30 minutes for visitors to tour it. The cave is easily accessible by car from the Furka Pass road, and the best thing about it is that you can visit it without a guide.
There’s also a viewing platform near the ice cave, which offers beautiful panoramic views of this glacier. Because of the ease of access, this is by far the best glacier in Switzerland for travelers who want to admire such a remarkable phenomenon but are not exactly keen hikers.
The Fiescher glacier is one of the lesser-known Swiss glaciers. Its also right near Fiesch, just like the Aletsch glacier, but in a side valley you need to hike to. It’s the second-longest Swiss glacier, with a total length of 16 kilometers.
It’s not easily accessible, but there are a few hiking trails that offer great views of the Fiescher glacier that only take about 2 hours to walk. There’s also a hiking trail that begins at the chairlift station in Richenen, which heads towards the Fiescher glacier valley and offers magical views of the area.
The Roseg glacier is located in the Bernina Range of the Alps, in the Swiss canton of Graubunden. This is one of the small glaciers that’s slowly disappearing, so if you want to see it in person, you better make plans to travel to the area as soon as possible.
This glacier is easily accessible by hiking trails in the Roseg Valley, right near the popular destination of Pontresina. There’s also the Hotel Roseg Gletscher just three kilometers away from the Roseg glacier, and you can enjoy panoramic vistas from the comfort of your hotel room.
You can also take a more romantic option for arrival here and use their horse and cart. I have not done it, but while hiking there many years ago I was surprised to see people arriving this way!
Lower Grindelwald Glacier
The Lower Grindelwald glacier is in the Bernese Alps, southeast of the lovely village of Grindelwald. If you happen to travel to the area, definitely don’t miss out on the chance to see this incredible glacier.
You should also make plans to visit this glacier as soon as possible, considering just how fast it is shrinking. It was originally 8.3 kilometers long, and these days it’s shrunk to around 6 kilometers.
You can visit the Grindelwald Glacier Canyon and follow a one-kilometer path through a gorge. The place boasts incredibly stunning nature, and it is truly a highlight of any trip to the Grindelwald area. There is a cool 170 m2 spider web at the end of the walk, which is also fun for kids if you traveling as a family.
The Forno glacier is situated in the Graubunden canton, more specifically in the Bregaglia Range. In the 1970s, this glacier covered an area of 8.72 square kilometers, but it has been slowly shrinking for years.
The glacier is accessible to avid hikers and trekkers via challenging trails. The most popular trail to the Forno glacier starts at Maloja, from where hikers ascend Lägh da Cavloc and Alp da Cavloc. The trail passes through hilly landscapes, across the Muretto Pass, and through the Forno Valley, where you will actually reach Forno’s glacier forefield.
The Corbassière glacier is situated in the Pennine Alps in the canton of Valais. This glacier is accessible by hiking trails, several of which include crossing the Corbassière glacier. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to do this without a guide, as long as you have good hiking shoes that offer plenty of traction on icy terrain.
The hike starts at the Brunet hut, goes over the Col des Avouillons, and takes you to the Pannossière hut. Hikers are encouraged to stop at the Cabane Pannossière, for extensive panoramic views of the Corbassière glacier area. The entire trail is some 10 kilometers long, and it’s best to hike it in the summer.
Otemma glacier is another one of the many receding glaciers in the Pennine Alps. Decades ago, this glacier covered an area of 17.5 square kilometers, but it has shrunk significantly because of the effects of global warming.
This glacier is easily accessible by hiking trails, and it’s actually part of a long-distance hike from Chamonix to Zermatt. Most hikes that pay a visit to the Otemma glacier are multi-day hikes, so plan to spend at least a couple of days in the area, admiring the spectacular nature.
Why Are The Glaciers Melting in Switzerland?
The glaciers in Switzerland are melting because of the same thing that’s making Venice slowly disappear underwater – climate change. The temperatures in the Alps are increasing by nearly twice the global average, and the key to reversing this change is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To be more specific, exceptionally low winter snowfall is one of the key reasons why the glaciers are getting smaller every year. When warmer weather comes, the ice starts to melt a little bit. Come winter, the snowfall replenishes ice lost during the spring and summer, and it also helps protect glaciers because the fresh new snow is capable of reflecting the sunlight back into the atmosphere, thus preventing further melting.
The problem is that there is less and less snow every year, so ultimately the Alpine glaciers are just getting smaller. It is expected that the glaciers in the Alps will get reduced by as much as 80% if the greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase annually. Some cannot be saved at all regardless of any new measures that might be implemented, because global warming baked in earlier emissions, and this is especially true for the small glaciers.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the increase in temperature is causing further issues for the scientists who are trying to tackle this problem. Many have had to conduct all sorts of repairs in the various stations in the Alps, predominantly because the melting ice risked dislodging the various measuring poles in the area, and thus tampering with all their data.