22 July 2014

Golm Mountain Resort for Family Fun and Adventure

Summary: family-friendly mountain resort with fun theme trail and other attractions

Golm Austria is an all-star of family-friendly mountain resorts. It has a theme trail with play equipment, a super fast alpine coaster, a ropes course, a crazy long zip line, multiple playgrounds, etc. The whole place is geared to family fun. Plus you're in the mountains with beautiful nature all around you. Below, I've detailed our visit from 2011, but things may have changed since then. So see the Golm website for current information. Golm is part of the Montafon area, which has many other great resorts with family activities (like the Gargellen Smugglers Trail). It would be a nice place for a long weekend or summer holiday.

Car: 2hrs from ZH Trail: 3.5 downhill Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: local buses Stroller: no Fire pit: yes
Cost: medium Theme: nature exploration Playground: yes

Details. Drive to Vandans, Austria as shown in the above map and follow signs to the Golmerbahn. There is dirt car park next to the Vandans Golm cable car station. First, let's get oriented. I couldn't find a trail map on the website, so I've scanned in an old map I have from 2008. Obviously, things have changed since then but the basic elements are there.

This first cable car takes you from Vandans to the middle station Latschau (you can also drive here, I'll let you figure that out). The alpine coaster starts here and you'll find the ropes course and Flying Fox zip line nearby. More about that at the end of this post. For hiking, take the cable car from Latschau up to Grüneck.

You can buy tickets for each piece separately. If you are doing the Golmi Exploration theme trail, there is a ticket specifically for that, which includes the appropriate cable cars. See current prices here. But there are discounts if you combine activities, like trail with ropes course and alpine coaster. See combi offers for details.

We started the day by riding all the way up to Grüneck (shown below). Here's you'll find a restaurant with a big terrace and lots of playground equipment.

My pics of the playground are quite terrible, sorry! There's lots to keep the kids busy here. There are slides, sand pit, climbing wall, bouncy castle (at least when we went in 2011), slack line, swings, etc.

The Golmi Exploration Trail (aka Forschungweg) starts right next to the restaurant. Follow the blue trail signs as shown below. Start by snapping a pic with Golmi, the blue cartoon marmot. There's a human-sized marmot hole (shown below right) where kids can crawl in and look out the window. My kids said it was a little dirty in there, spiderwebs and the like.

This nature exploration theme trail has 21 stations, a mix of education and play. Happily, the text appears in both German and English. It's recommended for children over 6, as some of the quizzes and games are targeted to older children. But our 4 year old enjoyed it as well. It is not stroller-friendly; although it starts as a wide gravel path, it has rough sections that would be tough to navigate with a stroller. It's downhill and not particularly difficult, but it might be a little long for very small children. Be prepared to carry them at the end.

A sample of the views at the top. There are other non-themed trails that head off into this wilderness.

A couple of the stations. The signboard below has the kids match the animal with their home, a green light illuminating if you make a correct match.

A water play station and picnic area.

A few animal sculptures along the way, a little beat up and need of repair.

One of our favorite stations where you try to jump as far as the animals can.

I don't know what we learned at this station, but we sure enjoyed teetering back and forth on this seesaw that filled water buckets on each side then spilled the water across the see saw to the other side.

Adorable station where you can play songs by hitting the correct bells. There's sheet music in the book telling you which bells to hit.

On the left, a sample of a rocky portion of the trail, no strollers here. On the right, the restaurant at Matschwitz, the middle station of the Latschau-Grüneck cable car. You could continue walking down the mountain, but the Golmi theme trail ends here. We ate a hearty meal here then rode the cable car back down to Latschau.

Back at Latschau, you'll find various amusments. The ropes course and Flying Fox zip line are in the forest, on the far side of the big (not attractive) reservoir, about a 10 minute walk. We didn't do the ropes course, but it looked good. There are three levels of difficulty. Kids with a height of 100cm-130cm can do the lowest level course. Kids over 130cm can do the other courses, accompanied by an adult. It can get very busy, so they recommend making a reservation ahead of time.

The Flying Fox is a super long zip line (565m) that starts on a hill in the forest and crosses the entire reservoir, reaching speeds up to 70km/hr. My husband and 7 year old did it. I was more nervous than them, especially watching his little body sail far, far away high above the ground and water. My husband went first so he could help my son on the other end. I sent him off, then walked back with my 4 year old.

Last, but not least, the alpine coaster. This is a different class of alpine coasters than others I've ridden in Switzerland. It's 2.6km long, the entire length of the cable car down to Vanduns, and reaches speeds up to 40km/hr. A little scary, but super fun! The cars are sturdy, comfortably fit two people, and surprisingly have seatbeats. Children must be 3yrs old to ride with an adult, 8yrs old and 140cm to ride alone. Just do it!

21 July 2014

Gargellen Smuggler's Trail

Summary: mountain trail with interactive stations along old smuggler's route

Another theme trail, this time just over the border in Austria in the Montafon area. The Gargellen Smuggler's Trail follows an old alpine smuggling route, with ten interactive play stations, educating little hikers about smuggling. The area is beautiful, the play stations creative and fun, the playground large, the food tasty, the prices moderate: all the ingredients for a fun family outing.

Car: 2hrs from ZH Trail: 2.8km loop Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: difficult from ZH Stroller: yes Fire pit: yes
Cost: low Theme: smugglers Playground: yes

Details. Drive yourself to Gargellen, Austria. The area is served by local buses, but public transportation from Zurich would be rather complicated. There are a couple large parking lots next to the cable car station and overflow lots a short walk down the road. Make sure to pick up a SmuggiLuggi trail brochure, which includes a map, history of smugglers, and a short description of each play station. It's in German only, but maybe you can use the images below to translate beforehand.

At the top of the cable car, you'll find a big restaurant with lots of outdoor seating and a big playground. You could spend a couple happy hours simply lounging while the kids run wild. We had a delicious hearty Tirolean meal at half the Swiss prices, always a treat.

The 2.8km trail starts near the restaurant through the Smugglerland gate shown below. It's impossible to miss. Almost immediately, you'll reach the first station, Schleichweg, which is a barefoot path, including mud and water. I didn't want to lose momentum or have wet clothes/shoes ruin our hike, so we skipped this station and went back at the end since it's a loop trail. There's plenty of fun coming up, so don't worry.

The second station is a goat stall (shown below), a typical place where smugglers would hide.

The trail is a wide gravel path, suitable for all-terrain stroller. The trail starts slightly downhill, wraps around the hill, goes uphill for a bit before looping back downhill to the restaurant.

At the Fernblick station, you try to spot SmuggiLuggi the smuggler on the mountain. This was surprisingly difficult. It took a long time to find but we were quite proud when we finally did. The brochure to note what SmuggiLuggi has in his hand and report back at the restaurant to receive a smuggler's badge. I didn't read this note until just now while writing this post, so I can't tell you what he has in his hand or what you might receive from the restaurant. So leave a comment if you do.

At the Kraftprobe station, there are rocks of different weights, representing bundles of salt, that you can try to pick up. Based on this test, I would have been a terrible smuggler.

At the Am Wasserand station, you are encouraged to fill up your water bottle in the stream. What??? Do not do this! There are cows grazing and pooping upstream. You do not want to get sick!!!

At the Auf der Flucht station, there are two footprint paths along the rocks and you're supposed to race each other like a smuggler trying to outrun the fuzz. This was our favorite station.

At the Kletterbaum station, you walk on this tree trunk. We made a game of trying to walk across the length without touching any of the branches, harder than it might look.

At about the 2km mark, the Marend station has a picnic area with a grill pit and firewood. Above this, there is a small, not particularly attractive, reservoir shown below. FYI, "Marend" means "Jause" which means "a meal or snack consisting of bread, cold cuts, cheese etc., usually between breakfast and lunch or in the evening."

The last station, In Sicherheit (aka Safe at Last!),  is back at the restaurant, where the kids can play and you can rest in the lounge chairs.

For extra credit, you can hike Smuggler's Circuit, a loop trail that connects Gargellen, Austria to Madrisa, Switzerland. They provide a GPS device to help you find hidden stuff along the trail. It looks like a challenging hike, but they website says "perfect for families!" The package includes an overnight in a mountain hay loft and "smuggler's feast." It's definitely on my To-Do list. Let me know if you do it.

17 July 2014

Trümmelbach Falls

Summary: glacial waterfalls inside cavern with walking path

If you are in the Interlaken area, the impressive Trümmelbach falls are a must see. Since the visit takes less than an hour, it's an easy add-on to other activities you might be doing in the area. These falls drain the glacial melt from the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch, with up to 20,000 liters/second rushing through caverns cut into the mountain. It's a beautiful sight. This is a fine activity for children as the falls can be safely viewed from a cement path through the cavern, with high railings and plenty of overlooks. Small children will need assistance, as there are lots of stairs, mostly wet. But it's not particularly difficult and it's well worth the effort. Be aware that it is very noisy, with the pounding water, and often quite dark, which may scare some children.

Car: ~1:50 from ZH Trail: 45 mins Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: 2:42 from ZH, 3 changes Stroller: no Fire pit: no
Cost: low Theme: waterfall Playground: no

Details. Drive to Lauterbrunnen and keep driving on the main road through town (taking a couple sharp turns) and up the valley, toward Stechelberg. About 5 mins after you leave Lauterbrunnen, you'll reach a large parking area (free) for the Trümmelbachfälle. Next to the parking lot, you'll find a self-service cafe with outdoor seating overlooking the valley. Make sure to use the toilets behind the restaurant as there are no toilets at the falls themselves.

The falls are not appropriate for strollers, as there are many stairs. Instead bring your favorite child carrier for little ones that aren't ready to walk the whole thing. The path isn't super long and there is an elevator that takes you up part of the distance. But there are lots of stairs and very small ones might fade quickly.

Important: Remember to bring proper footwear for the entire family. My friend was wearing flip flops and the guard threatened to turn us away. He said that he routinely turns visitors away for wearing sandals, heels, flip flops, etc, requiring them to come back with more appropriate shoes. I don't know why he let us through but I wouldn't want you to get turned around. The path was very wet, but it's well maintained and not particularly slippery or dangerous. But this is a big tourist destination and perhaps they've had unprepared and litigious visitors slip and fall. I don't know why the big fuss over footwear, but better safe than sorry.

Also, bring light rain jackets as it can get cold and wet inside the caverns. I found myself taking my jacket on and off several times as we dipped in and out of the caves.

From the cafe, follow the short path (less than 5 mins) up to the entrance to falls, where you pay an entrance fee (in 2014 it was 11sfr/adult, 4sfr/child). The park is open from early April through early Novemer, 9:00 to 17:00, in July and August from 8:30 to 18:00. It can close during bad weather. Check their website for current information.

After entering the park, you will see this map of the falls. There's water the whole way, but 10 main falls to see. You can take an elevator partially up the falls so you don't have to walk the whole way up. From the top of the elevator, you will walk father up to see falls 7-10. Then you walk down (instead of taking the elevator again) to see falls 1-6. The whole visit will take about 45 minutes.

Happily the railings and barriers are quite safe for small children. I've been to many attractions in Switzerland that have railings with wide gaps (I'm looking at you Säntis!), so I was pleased with the relatively safe railings here. But still, keep your children close and don't do anything stupid like perch your child on a railing for a picture. Stop the madness!

Once you've taken the elevator up, follow the path up to falls 7-10. Here's a bit of what you'll see. It is spectacular and difficult to describe. The amount of water thundering through the twisting rock is memorizing.

If you want a good picture, bring your tripod or buy a postcard. It's dark and wet in there and hard to capture the beauty of moving water.

After you reach the top (still inside the caves), retrace your path back down towards the elevator. Take a moment to enjoy a view of the Lauterbrunnen valley before continuing down.

Don't forget to take the short detour to fall 6 before continuing down the stairs to visit falls 5 thru 1 on your way to the back to the valley. Here's a bit of what you'll see on the way down.

Well, that's it. It's short but very sweet. To fill out the rest of you day, consider one of these:
- a walk or bike ride through the Lauterbrunnen valley
- ride up the nearby Stechelberg-Schilthorn cable car to Murren, then a short funicular to Allmendhubel, where you'll find a playground with an amazing view and a children's adventure trail
- go back to Lauterbrunnen and ride the train and cable car up to Männlichen for a short, easy hike with amazing views

See this post covers various things to do in the Lauterbrunnen area, including those mentioned above.

06 July 2014

Hiking Safely with Cows

friend or foe? cow at Engstligenalp

In Switzerland, you are never far from cows, especially in the alps in summer. I've never had any problems on the trail; we always considered cows a fun addition to the trail. But this summer, I had two scary encounters with aggressive cows in the same week. I think both incidents were because of mother cows protecting their calves, which we hadn't noticed until the mother intervened. I don't want to scare you or discourage you from hiking. I'm simply sharing my experience to help you stay safe on the trail.

Cow attacks do happen, but they are quite rare. Cows are usually docile and normally pose no problem on the trail. But it's always better to be informed.

I'm not an expert on cows, so I prefer to direct you to a few sites that I found helpful:

Please read the full information from these sites. But in short, these sites tend to agree that when walking among cows, you should:
  • avoid calves and do not get between a calf and its mother
  • keep dogs on a leash and give cows a wide birth
  • walk slowly and calmly, without any sudden moves or loud noises
  • but also, do not surprise cows, talking quietly while approaching and make sure they see you
  • if the cow comes closer, face the cow and walk backwards, do not run
  • if a cow attacks, use your hiking sticks as a weapon (I hope it never comes to this!)
This weekend I was happy to see a sign (shown below) warning hikers to steer clear of mother cows and their babies. In all my years in Switzerland, I've never seen this sign. Perhaps this is becoming more of an issue. In spring and early summer, it's baby cow time so mama cows are very protective and may charge anything they see as a threat. Calves grow quickly and often just look like smaller cows, not babies. So you, like us, may not realize at first that you are near a calf. Be observant and err on the side of caution.

Just for fun, I'll quickly tell you my stories. In the first case, I was hiking in Stoos with a friend and a cow on the trail stopped grazing, stared us down, then started to approach us. She had been standing with another slightly smaller cow, which in retrospect, must have been her calf. We kept walking slowly past, but she turned and started snorting at us and shaking her head and nudged us a long, just inches from my head. I didn't know what to do, so I stopped to make friends and let her smell me while I spoke calmly and cheerfully. She licked my arm for awhile (yuck!) and seemed friendly. But she clearly wanted us out. So as soon as we started walking again, she walked fast right behind me, nudging me and snorting. It was very scary. Luckily, we quickly reached the cow gate and safety. As soon as we crossed the gate, she turned and went back to her calf. We were lucky.

A few days later, I was hiking with my kids in Engelberg. The trail entered an area with cows and I was wary from my previous experience. So I had us walk along the cow fence, a single electric rope that we could easily duck under. I saw two cows by the barn and another cow very far up trail. As soon as we entered the field, the cow up the hill started running down the hill. I immediately had everyone duck under the cow fence so we were separated from this cow. The cow didn't approach us but ran all the way to the other two cows by the barn. When she reached them, it because obvious that those two cows were slighter smaller than the running cow and must have been her babies. When she was far enough away, we ducked back under the cow fence and continued on the trail. She watched us the whole way but didn't approach us. Unfortunately I got shocked when ducking under the fence when my backpack caught on the rope. It was scary and hurt a bit but not too much. But I wouldn't recommend it.

we successfully shooed these cows from the picnic area in Riederalp, 
but we probably should have left them alone

Happy hiking and stay safe!

23 June 2014

Bike (or Hike) along Sernf river near Elm

Summary: bike ride or hike along river in the mountains

I'm on a roll, literally, preferring biking to hiking these days. We did this Glarnerland bike ride a couple weekends ago, riding from Elm to Schwanden along the Sernf river. Most of the ride was great, but it wasn't a perfect ride for our family: a little too steep in parts for our crew so we had to walk a couple sections (some up, some down). It's not particularly difficult but better for confident child bike riders, probably 8 and older. But still, we really liked it and will probably go back, if only so we can visit the magical little river spot near the end of the ride (see end of post for pics). I hesitate to even tell you about it; I kinda want to keep it a secret. But we're friends, right?

Car: ~1:10 from ZH Trail: ~14km one way Restaurant: in towns
Train/Bus: easy, 1:45 with 2 changes Stroller: all-terrain only Fire pit: yes
Cost: free, except bus fare Theme: no Playground: no

View Larger Map

Details. Using the map above, get yourself to Elm and park near the Elm, Station bus stop. If you turn left immediately after the bus stop, you'll find a few free parking spots. We rode from Elm to Schwanden, locked our bikes at the train station, then took the bus back to Elm get our car, then drove back to pick up our bikes. It's about a 30 min drive bus or car from Schwenden to Elm. The bus only runs once an hour, so plan your trip accordingly. The bus stops at the various towns along the way, so you could hike or bike a smaller section of the whole path outlined here. Total biking time is about 1:40, total walking time is about 4 hours.

To start the ride, turn left immediately after the bus stop, cross the bridge over the river, then turn left, following signs for bike path #83. The path is well-marked with bike path signs the whole way. But before we get to the pictures, let me summarize the ride as shown on the bike map below.

The first section from Elm to Engi (8.5km), is easy and suitable for most families. The path follows a river down a beautiful open grassy valley surrounded by mountain peaks. On this section, the path is mostly wide, sometimes paved, sometime dirt, mostly downhill, very easy. This part took us about 1 hour to ride, with lots of breaks.

View Biking with Kids - Glarnerland in a larger map

The next section, from Engi to Schwanden (5.5km), is more difficult. It's still a dirt service road, but it's more lumpy, better for a proper mountain bike than our city bikes. From Engi, the path starts with a steep incline (which I walked up), then down, down, down for the rest of the ride. Some of the downhill was steep enough that I didn't quite trust my city-bike brakes and I walked some of it. Also, at the end of trail, you have to ride for a few minutes on the main road, with no bike lane: scary and dangerous for small kids. This section took us about 40 mins to ride with breaks and some walking.

However, the best part of the trail is on this second section, right before you join the main road. You can access the river there, with lots of beautiful pools you can play in and plenty of picturesque picnic places (sorry, I can't resist alliteration). It's worth the ride just to access this little spot.

Now for some pictures of the trail. Here's the view from the car park at the start of the path.

Here's the start of the bike path, shown by the red bike signs. The path starts on a paved road.

The path turns into gravel/dirt. Sometimes it's right next to the river, sometimes it veers into the farm fields.

Just showing some more variation of the trail.

Looking back to Elm from the path.

One of the fire pits along the way. I've marked this one on the bike path map above.

Sometimes the path narrowed to a single track as shown below, not appropriate for bike trailers.

After passing the town of Matt, you'll start seeing signs for the Suworow-Weg, which is the path the Russian army took through Switerland in 1799 on their way to fight the French.

When you get to the town of Engi, you'll cross a bridge to your left and take the dirt road up a steep incline. I lost momentum pretty quick and had to walk up. It was short, but tough even walking it, since my son was asleep in the child seat and I had to push him up too. Once you pass the little pitch and putt golf course, the trail evens out. There are a few little uphills after this, but nothing big. Pretty soon you'll start the long descent back down into the valley. It's not scary steep, but you'll need good brakes to control your speed. I also had city bike tires, which didn't have great traction on the gravel road. So I walked down the steepest parts, just to be safe, especially since my son was riding on the back. The pictures below show this part of the trail, but don't really capture decline. A few mountain bikes passed us on this section, zooming very fast down.

Eventually you reach the river again and the train flattens out. The river is beautiful and you'll want to stop to check it out. But...

...keep going until you get to this part shown below. Unlike higher up the trail, you can easily access the river here and there are lots of spots for little ones to explore without falling in a dangerous spot.

We were there in early June and the water level was just right for playing around: deep enough in parts to swim around, but not too deep that you'd get swept away. But no matter what, respect the water and use common sense and caution. Kids can drown in very shallow water.

This was our favorite part of the ride and made up for the hard work on the second half of the trail. We  arrived here at about 17:30 and stayed well past 19:00. It was a super hot day and the sun luckily stayed late in this little spot.

From this river spot, it's only about 10 mins to reach the Schwanden train station. Unfortunately, you have to join the main road and ride on that for a couple minutes before you reach town. Luckily, there was no traffic on the road when we were on it. I would have felt quite nervous to have my kids riding on this section. I might have had my husband go get the car and pick us up there instead. As I said above, we parked our bikes at the Schwanden train station and took the bus back up to Elm to retrieve our car. Remember the bus only runs once an hour, so stay at the river until close to the bus time.

Overall, it was a nice ride, with some bumps along the way.

I found this bike ride in a book, Velotouren für Familien: Band 1-Alpen (or here). I wouldn't say I love this book, but it has it's good points. The maps and description were helpful. I particularly liked the summarized info section, which notes important points like riding time, difficulty rating, elevation changes, type of bike needed, special attractions for families, etc. I would have liked more pictures, so I had a better idea of what the path was like. But lucky you, I'll give you those here as a free add-on. The rides in the book are spread all over Switzerland, so the book is of limited use for day-trips. I need something more region-specific. I'm curious to see what rides are in the Band 2-Mittland (possibly out of print) and SlowUp - autofreie Ausflugsziele books by the same publisher.