Exploring Switzerland’s green legacy – on foot

One hundred years after the creation of the country’s first – and only – national park, Switzerland’s conservation efforts are anything but idle.

In 1914, Switzerland stamped itself as a leader in European conservation, creating the first national park in the Alps, and the first on the continent outside of Sweden. One hundred years later, the country remains at the forefront of environmental protection efforts, with the world's highest recycling rate (52% of all waste is recycled) and one-third of its area covered in forest (despite sitting at the heart of a crowded continent). This year, Switzerland also ranked first on Yale University's Environmental Performance Index, which rates 178 countries across 20 national-level ecological indicators.

But in a place where eco credentials are so readily evident, Swiss National Park – the country’s first, and only – continues to be a relatively hidden treasure, with a landscape that is just as dramatic as Switzerland’s more famous show-stopping mountains and a wildlife population that is far more diverse. I set out to explore the park in its centennial year, hoping to see how one of the country’s greatest symbols of environmental achievement continues to reflect its legacy.

The idea to create a Swiss national park came before any decision about where it might be located. In the early 20th Century, the area in the eastern Graubünden canton that now makes up Swiss National Park was denuded and degraded by centuries of logging, as well as iron and chalk mining. It was selected for its remoteness, rather than its pristine condition.

Today, slopes that were once bare rise in layers of regenerating forest. Animals that didn’t exist here in 1914, such as red deer and ibex, can now easily be seen along the mountains’ grassy ridges. In fact, today there are an estimated 250 ibex and 1800 red deer inside the 170sqkm park, which has been awarded the highest level of protection – Strict Nature Reserve – set globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"It's classified as a wilderness area," said park guide Martin Schmut, as he and I hiked a beautiful 6km trail across the plain of Champlönch to the alpine meadows of Il Fuorn. "There's no human intervention, apart from the walking tracks."

The trail to Il Fuorn, which passes under the slopes of the rocky peaks of Piz Laschadurella and Piz dal Fuorn, is part of an 80km web of hiking trails that runs through the park. It’s just a hint of the more than 60,000km of hiking trails and 9,000km of cycling routes that exist country-wide.

Almost everywhere you go in Switzerland – from town squares to high, remote passes – you see yellow hiking signs and red cycling signs. Trails range from short strolls to the 15-stage, 340km Alpine Pass Route, which traverses the country from the Liechtenstein border to Lake Geneva, passing famed mountains such as the Eiger, Jungfrau and Schilthorn along the way. The 150km Graubünden Route, one of nine marked National Cycling Routes that cover more than 3,000km, skirts the edge of Swiss National Park, as does the 140km Around the Swiss National Park cycling route.

Inside the national park, my hike on the Il Fuorn trail journeyed through pine forest and alpine meadows to reach the Hotel Parc Naziunal, one of just two accommodation options inside the park. Surrounded by grassy plains that fill with grazing red deer each evening, this riverside spot below the Ofenpass has been the site of buildings – first workers' accommodation, now a hotel and restaurant – since at least the 17th Century.

It's a scene so familiar in Switzerland, where the Alps are stitched with old and new infrastructure. And yet, in keeping with its environmental sensitivities, the country maintains a comparatively light touch on the land. Where once there were only barren slopes, dotted with ovens used to produce chalk, forest now grows down to the hotel's edge. The park's second accommodation offering, the Chamanna Cluozza, can be accessed only on foot – a basic wooden cabin sitting unobtrusively in pine forest along the popular Val Cluozza hiking trail.

On the opposite side of the country, on the slopes of Monte Rosa, the Alps' second-highest mountain, the Monte Rosa Hut gets 90% of its power from the sun; its water is sourced from a reservoir filled by glacial melt. The hut may well become a benchmark for future Alpine huts, with its designer, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, continuing to research its energy and resource use.

Even now, 100 years after the creation of its first national park, land conservation is back at the forefront of the discussion

in Switzerland. In the southern Ticino canton, plans to replicate the success of Swiss National Park are well advanced.

First proposed 14 years ago, the Locarnese National Park Project aims to encompass the heavily forested mountains and deep valleys that run west from the shores of Lago Maggiore. Covering an area of 220sqkm, it will become the largest protected area in Switzerland, as well as the country's second national park.

Touted as a new-generation national park, it will protect the landscape as well as the cultural heritage of the 13 villages that sit inside its proposed boundary. In fact, village authorities first touted the idea.

A vote will be taken in the villages in 2016, with a yes vote bringing the national park into existence the following year. It'll be a sequel 103 years in the making, in a country whose conservation story has been anything but idle.