In Switzerland, discovering the source of the Rhine River

Coordinates 46°37′57″N 8°40′20″E

Watches, chocolates, bank vaults and landscapes like out of a postcard are some of the images that come to mind when thinking of Switzerland.  However, this small country in the European continent is also rich in natural resources perfect to satisfy the adventurous spirit.

Switzerland is synonymous with water, because even without direct access to the ocean, this element represents its greatest resource.  Some of the most important currents in Europe are born in the Swiss Alps, as is the Rhine River (Rhein in German).   This river, part of the most important waterways in the continent, which flows thru Germany and Holland, has its spring in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden: precisely what inspired our trip.

A well stocked backpack, a camera and good boots

This tour can take two to five days, depending on the time you have and your starting point.  We started at the Oberalp Pass, one of the many routes that can be found in the Alps mountain range; where it is possible to follow identified paths to various destinations. The Oberalp Pass is easy to reach by auto, public transportation, bicycle or walking. Ober is the German word for above, as this route stands already at 6,706 feet above sea level; five times the height of the Empire State Building.

As the source of the Rhine is located literally “Up in the Alp”, this route is an ideal starting point for experienced and non-experienced hikers, like us: an experienced Swiss, a rookie Puerto Rican and our five-year-old son.

During our ascent, we enjoyed the amazing landscape, the Alpine flora and the unexpected concert offered by the neck bells used by cattle in these zones.  While a good map is enough, we also used for orientation the painted stones found along the path.  Walking uphill with backpacks prepared for three days required us to take some breaks; thus we used the valleys and flat areas to rest and recharge with snacks. 

Plaque in German that reads “Rhine Springs” 1320km up to the mouth. Photo: Marco Dettling

Plaque in German that reads “Rhine Springs” 1320km up to the mouth. Photo: Marco Dettling

After an hour and a half walk, we found the Maighels Mountain House, our base for the next three days. Houses like these represent the typical hostel where you can share a room and a meal with fellow hikers, in an affordable, cozy and clean environment.   Besides, at these heights you cannot find many lodging options.

The Mountain Houses are the perfect places to share stories, exchange tips for a more pleasant hike and refill your water bottle with the invigorating and 100 % natural Wandertee: travelling tea. 

At dinnertime, we were organized in tables of six.  We shared ours with two 65-year-old Swiss men who are childhood friends. Since one lives now in the Italian part of Switzerland and the other one in the German, they have made the Maighels House their annual meeting place.  They recommended we take advantage of our proximity to the Maighels Glacier and go with our son to collect crystals and quartz.

A natural pool

The next day, after spending the morning in the glacier, we arrived at the Rhine River spring, officially known as the Tomasee (Toma Lake) and located at 7,693.57 feet.  You must go up a steep stretch to reach it, where it is not uncommon to run into a sheepherder with his playful flock, as it happened to us!  At first, we saw two sheep and in a matter of seconds, the entire flock surrounded us.  This made it all much more interesting for our son whom started to follow the sheep who, as experts, were climbing very fast.

The effort was totally worth it.  Hidden and protected by the Piz Badus Mountain, appears a stunning natural pool with a temperature of about 39° F (the freezing point is 32° F).  Being there is experimenting an unspoiled Nature, not touched by progress.  It is a space that moves you towards reflection, and for those courageous enough, like my husband and son, towards a cold but reinvigorating dive. 

View of Lake Toma or Lai da Tuma, as it is known in Romansh, the language spoken in this area. Photo: Marco Dettling

View of Lake Toma or Lai da Tuma, as it is known in Romansh, the language spoken in this area. Photo: Marco Dettling

Going down from the top

You can follow the currents born in the Tomasee and use the trip to explore the Surselva region where they are located.   This area is one of the few in Switzerland where most of the population speaks Romansh; the country’s fourth official language.  We not only learned some words in this beautiful language (Bun di is good morning), but also got to taste some specialties and discover its small and interesting communities.

The Ruinaulta is one of those paradises through which the Rhine tributaries flow and our next stop.  The name Ruinaulta is composed of two words in Romansh:  Ruina (stone querry) and aulta (high).  This canyon was formed over 100,000 years ago after a rockslide in the city of Films, which up to this date is considered the biggest slide in the Alps. 

The Maighels Glacier is presently divided in two parts; due to the decline altering glaciers in the region.  Photo: Bruny Nieves

The Maighels Glacier is presently divided in two parts; due to the decline altering glaciers in the region.  Photo: Bruny Nieves

At this canyon, besides walking, one can swim, make a campfire or learn river rafting.  To appreciate it from a different perspective, one can also take a train from the Rhätische Bahn line that goes through or a cable car from the city of Films towards Cassongrat and reach the spot where the slide happened.  After all the walking, we decided to finish our trip with a nice dive.   


Conscious Travel Practices:

1. Note the animals and respect them.

2. Learn about the history of the place.

3. Meet the locals and other tourists.

4. Promote the economy in the local lodging.



Sights:

Maighels Glacier

Pro-Siat Climbing Park

RiverRafting en Ruinaulta

Surselva Regional Museum