Following the route of Austria’s and Switzerland’s pioneering Walser people provides a memorable walk through scenic mountain valleys, dramatic gorges and historic Alpine villages.

The marigolds never stood a chance. Twice a day in summer, 120 goats pass through the Swiss Alpine village of Hinterrhein on their way to and from pasture, and they behave with a very un-Swiss lack of respect for others’ front gardens. Johann Egger has been up since 5.30am tending to his herd – the source of the wonderfully pungent cheese maturing in his cellar. “We have to prepare for seven months of winter in just three months of summer,” he says. Outside, he points to a mark on the wall showing the highest recorded snowfall. In 1888, the snow came so high, people had to use their attic windows as front doors. After a day feeding on the high pastures, the goats return to their stalls, pails full with the day’s milk cooling in a fountain outside.

This scene is 700 years in the making. Around 1286, this village of thick-walled farmhouses was founded by settlers from the west. In the valleys of what is now the Swiss canton of Valais, small groups of farmers left their villages and set off east across the mountain passes in search of new lands. Today, the descendants of these pioneers call themselves the Walser (pronounced ‘Vall-zer’), after the name of their old homeland. They live in a scattering of villages in Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy, and some still speak the Walser German dialect. In a parody of smallness, even the tiny principality of Liechtenstein has its very own Walser enclave.

It’s still a mystery why the first Walser migrated in the 13th century. Romantically minded historians say they were a freespirited people, eager to shake off feudal rule, but they could simply have been producing too many babies for the upper Valais to support. Western Europe’s time of great migrations had almost ended, so the Walser sought out the remote tracts in the higher valleys, which were uninhabited or used only by passing herdsmen. The settlers worked hard, clearing the forests along the valley floors, and making their living from livestock in a region where few crops grow well, but Alpine meadows are pasture for goats and cattle which produce unrivalled milk and cheese.

Hinterrhein, with its population of 75, is one of the smaller villages they founded. It doesn’t normally get many visitors, but now Johann Egger is opening up his kitchen to small groups of walkers. As a tribute to the first Walser settlers, Alpine walkers in the 1980s set up the Walserweg (‘Walser way’) – a series of hiking trails linking the old settlements, and stretching from the Valais to the Austrian-German border, where the Walser migration ended. The full route takes around 30 days, depending on which variant you follow. Like the people it celebrates, the Walserweg seems reluctant to be pinned down and regulated. I have been coming to these mountains since childhood, but have only seen one small part of this Alpine archipelago. Now I am keen to find out how much of the Walserweg I can travel in a week.

Seven miles down the valley from Hinterrhein, Splügen is an untypically grand Walser village, grown rich from its position on the old trade routes south across the Alps to Milan and Venice. Most traditional Walser houses are of the sturdy farmhouse type, built out of wood, stone or plaster in styles particular to each valley. But in Splügen the houses at the top of the village have Italian airs and graces, with wrought-iron window-guards and front doors that would suit a palazzo. Splügen was not the only Walser settlement to gain unexpected wealth from its location. With the 20th-century boom in winter sports, the unloved blankets of snow that stifled the Walser each winter suddenly became white gold, and villages such as Davos, Klosters and Lech grew into famous ski resorts.

The village of Juf, however, feels much like it must have done to the early settlers. At 2,126 metres, it is said to be the highest year-round settlement in Europe. Six families live here above the tree line, the valley bare except for Alpine grasses and bilberry bushes. Nina Feldhofer is Austrian and one of Juf’s seasonal inhabitants. She spends her holidays from university working in Switzerland as a cowherd, dealing with the awkward combination of large animals and steep slopes. “Cows are always going up but never down!” she says, carrying her grandfather’s old binoculars, which she uses to seek out wilful strays. She points to some small white flowers – yarrow – good for healing cuts, and wild caraway used to flavour the local schnapps. I let Nina return to her wayward charges. The barn at the end of the village is the sunburnt colour wooden buildings quickly acquire in the local climate. To the untrained eye, a 50-year-old house looks much the same as a 500-year-old one. At the valley’s end, the grass fades to ash-grey slopes crowned with remnant snow.

In little over 20 miles, the stream that traces a few turns in Juf has joined others to carve out one of Europe’s greatest gorges. Since Roman times it has been known as Via Mala – the Evil Road. Twin bridges span a gap between cliff faces as tall as skyscrapers and less than a metre apart in places. From a rocky overhang, a toppled tree, still anchored by its roots, points down into oblivion. Via Mala is an extreme example of why the Walser preferred to travel over mountain passes rather than along river valleys.

Fifteen miles to the east, one of these old Walser walking trails links the villages of Monstein and Sertig in just over five hours – considered a short hop before the days of sealed roads. Thomas Gadmer from the local Walser society joins me for the walk. “Alpine peoples never went walking for the view,” he says. “The early Walser thought that climbing mountains for no reason provoked God’s anger, and many peaks didn’t have names until recent times.”

We begin in morning mist – the breath of the forest. Through this, the dimmed sun throws a magical aura over the path ahead, as if marking out the mountains as another realm. Three deer dart out from the trees. I feel a slight sense of trespass on reaching the Oberalp – the old summer settlement used when the cows are on the higher pastures. Today, it is utterly silent.

Leaving the larches behind, the path comes to open moorland, marked only by a few deserted byres, the low hum of grasshoppers and the distant cry of a marmot. Stopping for a drink at a fountain outside a cabin, I notice its absent owner has planted edelweiss – these curious white flowers are rarely seen growing wild. Then, a final climb to reach the Fanezfurgga. From the top of this pass, a barren U-shaped valley is revealed. We follow the trail down past marmots sunning themselves and scree slopes dotted with deep-blue gentians to one of the most perfect villages in the Alps. The houses of Sertig form neat clusters despite the breadth of the valley, leaving open fields between them. A waterfall and a triple crown of mountains provide the backdrop to the village – a mix of gentle and severe that is typically Alpine.

Most of the stages on the Walserweg can each be fitted into a day, beginning and ending in a village. Mountain huts, however, help to break some of the longer stretches. One such refuge is the Carschinahütte, on the walking route from Partnun in Switzerland to Brand in Austria. The word ‘hut’ is quite misleading for a place that can sleep more than 80 people and serves hot meals to thousands of walkers every year. This is the third summer season that Tom and Heidi Solèr have run and manged the hut. “It’s the best moment when you come up in spring to open the hut for the first time,” says Heidi. Night falls outside, but the tables of increasingly merry walkers lessen the sense of isolation on the shoulder of the mountain. Heidi and Tom bring supplies up from the valley once a week: “Here, you learn not to forget things,” adds Heidi.

Morning reveals the mountain wall behind the hut that marks the border with Austria. Less than two hours’ walk away, there is a chance to make a crossing at the Schweizertor (the ‘gate of Switzerland’) where the sheer rock face is briefly broken. In the last ascent to the pass, iron handholds and steps appear in the steeper parts. At the top, a discreet stone post marks the border. To prove the point, I sit down to eat my sandwich with one foot in each country. The old customs hut on the Austrian side looks long-deserted when I rejoin the path. Two hours after my last glimpse of Switzerland, it’s a relief to see the cold blue waters of the L��nersee, above the village of Brand. For the last stretch, I decide to take the cable car down from the lake. After all, it was also built by the Walser.

The migration of the Walser reached its end in what is now western Austria. From around 1400, the climate turned colder and the high pastures didn’t beckon the way they used to. Lech was one of the last valleys settled by the Walser before this Little Ice Age began. As in most other Walser settlements, the village founders struck a deal with the feudal lords who held title to the land. The barons were eager to see their sparsely settled territories filled with industrious farmers who promised to serve them in times of war. In return, the Walser could now boast that they owned their own land, unlike their lower-lying neighbours. Lech hosted a kind of mini Walser parliament in the old ‘White House’ – several centuries before the one in Washington DC, as locals point out.

The village has grown to become one of the bigger ski resorts in the region, but has been spared the glut of concrete that mars some Alpine villages. The pattern of life in Lech is almost the reverse of what it used to be when the village was a cow and haybased economy: intense activity during the winter, and a more relaxed pace in summer.

Elmar Walch was head of the village ski-school for 20 years, but remembers the time before the village got its first ski lift. Sitting by the tiled stove in his family’s hotel, the Hotel Angela, he is surrounded by hunting trophies. Most are red deer, a staple of local restaurant menus, but there are also chamois and ibex horns. The ibex became extinct in the area in the 18th century, when many people believed its heart was a talisman of health and good fortune. Reintroduced and managed more responsibly, there are now around 400 living in the mountains around Lech.

“There is this connection between the Walser across borders,” says Elmar. “I went with my children to the Valais and we could still speak with the people there in the old dialect, after 700 years.” There are regular get-togethers. Even Italian-speaking Walser in Milan come to these events, swapping Armani for the 18th-century-looking Walser folk costume, worn on special occasions.

Walser identity is at once hard to define and deeply felt. Today it is less to do with the Walser dialect, which, like many dialects, is fading. Nor is it much to do with blood ties, after centuries of intermarriage. The 40,000-odd population of the traditional Walser settlements includes many non-Walser, especially in the town of Davos. Resourcefulness, individualism, a certain allergy to authority – all these are said to be Walser traits. But I think memory explains much of it. In the long-settled lands of Western Europe, there are few people who still tell the story of how their villages were built, and who preserve the pioneering spirit of their ancestors.

On the last day, I catch a bright blue village bus from the covered bridge in Lech to the lake at the end of the valley. A statue of an ibex perched atop a boulder marks the beginning of the route. Following the stones painted with whitered- white waymarks, the path runs beside the River Lech for eight miles before reaching its namesake village. In a dry summer it’s hard to tell where the river rises. A frog hops past, presumably in search of water, unseen by a group of jays. As I walk on, the riverbed slowly fills. The open valley turns to a forest of tall fir trees, many hung with moss. The path passes by a feeding station for deer, then comes to a large clearing around a farmhouse where dozens of walkers are stopping for lunch.

For Walserweg purists, the route ends just north of here in the valley of the Kleinwalsertal, a territorial oddity joined to Austria but only accessible by road from Germany, and an inconvenient place to finish my journey. For me, a more fitting end to the route is in the hamlet of Bürstegg, built on a gentle rise above the gorge that runs downstream from the village of Lech. It was inhabited year-round as late as 1900, but declined as Lech grew. Today it is the bare minimum of a village: one house, a tiny chapel and half a dozen barns.

I set off to reach it before sunset. Behind Bürstegg is the Biberkopf. This perfect, pyramid-shaped mountain marks the border with Germany and the final stop on the Walser’s long path. One day I hope to stand at the foot of another mountain – the incomparable Matterhorn, back in the Valais, where the Walser set off all those centuries ago. Perhaps I can find a scene just like this one. Dusk is falling, but there is still enough light for the walk home.

Rory Goulding is the editorial assistant at Lonely Planet Magazine.

The article 'Hiking the alpine Walserweg' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.