Though not as high or as steep as Switzerland’s famed Jungfraujoch Railway, the cogwheel train from Zermatt to Gornergrat is more than spectacular enough to warrant a side trip to Zermatt. Unlike the Jungfrau line, which spends much of its journey inside tunnels, the GornergratBahn clings to mountainsides all the way to its terminal, an icefield lookout station 3,131 meters (10,272’) above sea level.
There’s a shelter house with restroom facilities for hikers and, if you’re willing to walk 150 yards or so uphill, a restaurant. The Matterhorn itself is still several miles away and 2,000 feet higher up.
The trip starts with a bit of a surprise: At the first stop, more people get OFF than on. Turns out that this is a popular hotel, on a steep hill overlooking the town, and that the railroad is the most convenient way to get there.The trains serve many other lodges and trailheads, so people are constantly getting on and off as we work our way upward. Grazing cows, used to the frequent trains, gaze languidly at us. Hikers, many of them families or groups with small children in tow, wave joyfully as we pass. Think "Trapp Family" in the mountain scene from "The Sound of Music." The trip up takes 42 minutes; the return, 44. A brochure hinted that an open-air observation car would be available, but there was none this July day.
At the Gornergrat lookout, I meet a man who’s both a hiker and a photographer. He plans to walk back down, photographing the Matterhorn from various angles and viewpoints as he goes.
"In late afternoon," he said, "The trail follows the sun all the way down." He guesses it will take him 2-1/2 to three hours to return. He’ll be lucky to make it before dark. I let the first train leave without me, but I make sure I’m on the one an hour later. There’s still plenty of sunlight on the mountains when I get back to Zermatt, but the main street is already in deep shadow.
The photos below say it all: This has been one of the most satisfying afternoons of my European adventures.
If the Gornergrat lookout isn’t high enough for you, you can take a series of aerial tramways to the Glacier Palace Viewing Platform on Kleine Matterhorn, 3,883 meters (12,740’) up. For information on all the various mountain transportation services, and money-saving passes for using them, try going to www.zermatt.ch.