Uri is one of Switzerland’s most scenic cantons – yet it remains one of the country’s least visited. A jagged wall of 2,000m-tall Urner Alps blocks it from neighbouring member states, and few tourists know what lies on the other side: a paradise of inky and rare Alpine orchids, swimmable cobalt alpsees (Alpine lakes) and unfettered views of alpenglühen (the pink glow that illuminates the mountain tops in morning and evening). Not to mention the snow-capped peaks, bell-clad cows and open-air cable cars of Swiss fantasies.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that in many ways this is the birthplace of Switzerland. Swiss-German speaking Uri was one of three original “forest cantons” that broke away from the Hapsburg Dynasty, establishing what many consider to be the world’s first democracy, and it is here in Uri’s Rütli-Meadow that Switzerland’s founding Confœderatio Helvetica oath was sworn in 1291.
Having hiked Uri several times in the last four years, my favourite season for a trek remains late spring – when the flora are so bright and the scenery so silent it almost feels like snorkelling. Be aware, however, that to the Swiss, a “hike” is no mere nature excursion; instead, it is a quick-paced four- to eight-hour trek that requires mountain boots, handkerchiefs, swim trunks and nourishment like chocolate and landjäger (sticks of smoked beef and pork). Stopping to smell the flowers? Subordinate. On my first time out, I spied gorgeously mottled Alpine orchids, buttery globe-flowers and cobalt gentian – but while taking pictures, I quickly fell behind my Swiss friends.
For Uri’s most scenic trails, start on the eastern side of Lake Uri at the open-air gondola, which travels to the Ober-Axen trailhead. The car is self-operating, so use the wall-mounted phone to ring the mountain station before boarding, then pay the 13 Swiss franc round-trip fare as you exit. The seven-minute ride brings you to the three-hour, 5km Eggberge trail, where you’ll encounter hermetic farmers, mossy fairy tale forests, fragrant pinewoods and sloping meadows with plenty of room for frolicking. The first 800m are an intense vertical climb through Alpine meadow, but the trail levels out at an altitude of 1,500m and the rarefied views of Lake Uri are worth the sweat. In autumn, this is ground zero for watching the mysterious nebelmeer (fog seas that fill the valleys); spring brings warm, dry föhn winds, said by locals to cause madness.
My local friend Hansruedi Herger has guided me on most of my hikes, many of which finished at his home in Bürglen, just 4km away, over ländlermusik (traditional Swiss folk music) and plates of his mother’s deliciously gooey älplermagronen, a regional macaroni-and-cheese served with speck and applesauce. If an invitation from locals is hard to snag, take the five-minute Sittlisalp cable car (runs every 30 minutes; 10 francs return), located 12m east of Bürglen in Unterschächen, to the Sittlisalp Alpkäserei, an easy and relatively flat 3km gravel-covered loop that leads to a hydroelectric-powered cheese, dairy and shepherd’s cooperative of nine family farms. The young cheese-maker working there when I visited taught me the basics of Alpkäse, a cheese made with milk from cows grazing above 1,100m that tastes like wildflowers, is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and has been given the label of Appellation d’Origine con Controlee (a controlled designation of origin). I sampled several kinds before purchasing a hunk of creamy, Camembert-like mutschli nature, along with a tub of herb butter, yogurt, and a whey drink called molke. Alpkäse is popular with tourists and locals, but the more astringent Alpine-butter, also sold at the farm, is an acquired taste.