Ticino Valley Hikes

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  • Post last modified:July 10, 2022
  • Post category:Switzerland
  • Reading time:20 mins read

I love Ticino. Hands down, it’s one of my favorite places to be in Switzerland – the fact that you can sit in a tunnel for 20 minutes and then suddenly you’re out of the grey skies north of the Alps and into the sun in the south makes Ticino one of the nicest spots in Switzerland.

After one of our recent trips there, we were inspired to put down some of our favorite hikes in Ticino’s spectacular valleys. Starting in the west, the first three and arguably the most famous valleys all go up from Locarno, namely Centovalli, Valle Maggia and Val Verzasca. After that you’ve got another three valleys that pinch out of Bellinzona. The first is Valle Leventina which takes you up to the Gotthard pass. It is also the valley through which the Ticino river flows. Then you have Val Calanca and Valle Mesolcina, the latter of which leads up to the San Bernadino pass. Truth be told these last two valleys are actually part of the canton of Graubünden. However, they are Italian speaking, on the south side of Alps and easily accessible from Ticino and so though they’re not Ticinese we’ll be covering them since they’re in the same geographic area 🙂

In this post I’ll describe one hike per valley, starting in Ticino in the west and moving eastwards into Graubünden. There are many more valleys in Ticino than we’ve covered here – but hey, gotta start somewhere, right? You will also have noticed that the word valley has various different spellings in the region: valle, val and valli, which we think are maybe masculine, feminine and plural. In any case, we’ll try to stay true to the Ticinese names! 

One last note on travelling through these valleys. The Centovalli and Valle Leventina are the only ones served by trains (though you’ll find old railway stations in Valle Maggia and in Valle Mesolcina if you keep your eyes peeled – they both used to have railways). The rest have busses going up and down them. If you’re using public transport we’d recommend checking when the last bus is beforehand. Some popular valleys, like Val Verzasca, are relatively well served whereas others, like Val Calanca, are less so.  Depending on whether we’re doing a loop or point to point hike we’ve taken a mix of cars and public transport for these different hikes. Parking spaces can be very limited and so on busy days having a car may be more inconvenient than you’d like.

But without further ado, here we go! 

Overview of the Valleys we’ve Covered in this Post.

Contents

Merchant’s Way – An Old Trading Path along Centovalli
Valle Onsernone – Pizzo Zucchero aka Peak Sugar
Valle di Vergeletto – Onsernone’s smaller twin
Valle Maggia – Ponte Brolla & A Short Hike up to Lago del Sambuco
Val Verzasca – The James Bond Dam & A Famous Double-Arched Bridge
Valle Leventina – The Gotthard Stretch
Val Calanca – A Laidback Walk down the Valley
Valle Mesolcina – Italian-speaking Graubunden
Valle Morobbia – Collecting Chestnuts along the Strada Vecchia

Merchant’s Way – An Old Trading Path along Centovalli

Centovalli Merchant's Way

To get to the start of this hike, you’ll need to board the Centovalli Express, a train with an old-timer feel that snakes out of Locarno and winds slowly up Centovalli. You’ll be aiming to get off in Camedo, the last stop before the Italian border. From Camedo follow the signs for route 631: La Via del Mercato or Merchant’s Way. This hiking path is actually an old mule track. It was the only connection between Locarno and this valley until a road was built in the 1800s. Imagine carrying all your goods for trade up and down this valley on a donkey’s back every weekend? 

Suffice to say, the only mule work we did was carry our backpacks filled with water and food as we strolled in and out of the various scenic stone villages along this path. Though we ended our hike in Corcapolo, the path ends in Intragna, a traditional Ticinese village which sits at the entrance of the valley and is probably well worth a visit on its own!

Time: 4 h
Distance: 12 km
Altitude: 650 m ↑ 850 m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium)
Popularity: 3/5
High point: 820m
Start: Camedo Train Station
End: Intragna Train Station
Season: Apr-Dec

Valle Onsernone: Pizzo Zucchero, aka Peak Sugar

Pizzo_Zucchero_Ticino_Hikes

Just getting to the beginning of this hike is an adventure in itself. The only way in is a road (either by car or by bus) winding up the steep sides of the Onsernone valley from Locarno. The first bit of the road is relatively normal, but as you go further it gets impossibly windy and narrows to a single track, threading past cliffs and through tiny villages.

As for the hike, the first part heads steadily up through a mix of meadows and woodland. As you near the top the views open out across remote valleys, with steep tree-covered slopes and peaks all around.

See here for our more detailed post about this hike.

Time: 5 h
Distance: 11 km
Altitude: 950 m ↑ 950 m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium but good fitness level needed)
Popularity: 1/5
High point: Pizzo Zucchero 1898m
Start: Comologno, Cappellino Bus Stop
End: Comologno, Cappellino Bus Stop
Season: Jun-Nov

Valle di Vergeletto – Onsernone’s smaller twin

Val Vergeletto to Val Campo
Looking back down the valley towards A Porcaresc

The Vergeletto Valley is a side valley of Onsernone, making it even more out of the way than Onsernone! After getting a bus most of the way up into Onsernone, we changed to another bus for the short trip up through Vergeletto itself. From the very last bus stop, we continued on up the ‘main’ valley, which is surprisingly flat at this point considering how steep the access roads were to get here… After the initial flat section though, the path slowly got steeper and narrower all the way up to A Porcaresc, a small hamlet perched above the treeline. From here the path finally flattened out a bit again for the last section up to the small lake at the Cavegna Pass. As you can see from the picture above, there’s not much up here – this is a fairly remote corner of Switzerland!

The way down the other side of the pass is equally remote, heading through thick trees at the top end of the neighbouring valley (Campo Valley) before a short uphill section into Cimalmotto, where we sat and enjoyed the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains before another bus ride back down towards home!

Time: 5h 30min
Distance: 15 km
Altitude: 1200m ↑ 800m ↓
Difficulty: T2/T3 (medium/difficult)
Popularity: 1/5
High point: 1977m, Passo della Cavegna
Start: Vergeletto, Funivia Salei Bus Stop
End: Cimalmotto Bus Stop
Season: Jun-Nov

Valle Maggia – Ponte Brolla & A Short Hike up to Lago del Sambuco

View of the canyon near Ponte Brolla
An icy Sambuco lake

This is a popular valley with steep sides and many offshoots to keep you busy. It’s also a really impressive drive through and so this time we deviated from our typical one-hike format. At the entrance to the valley, we stopped off at the impressive canyon at Ponte Brolla (it might be tricky finding parking – we managed because we were early) where you’ll probably find many cliff divers in the summer! After stretching our legs around here, we were back in the car headed up the valley. We ended up driving the length of the valley and followed an offshoot known as Val Lavizzara up the Maggia river to Fusio, nearly 1000 meters up from Locarno. 

In Fusio, we were back on our feet for a short hop up to the Sambuco Dam. The lake is surrounded by steep mountains and in the summer, you can walk along the length of it. We were there in spring before the lake melted, and the weather had just turned cloudy giving it an icy feel!  Still absolutely gorgeous though. After soaking up the views we looped back down to the car and got ready for our drive back down into sunny Locarno.  

One tip, if you’re looking for a quieter version of the famous Val Verzasca bridge then Ponte della Merla which you’ll pass on your drive through Val Lavizzara is a good option! It’s does not have a perfect double arch but it’s still two arches and is pretty neat. 

Time: 1h 30 min
Distance: 4.5 km
Altitude: 200m ↑ 200m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium)
Popularity: 5/5 Ponte Brolla, 2/5 Sambuco Dam
High point: 1463m Sambuco Dam
Start: Fusio, Paese Bus Stop
End: Same – Loop Hike
Season: May-Nov

Val Verzasca – The James Bond Dam & the famous Ponti dei Salti double-arched bridge

That Famous Bridge – ‘nuf said

This is a valley you’ve seen on the front page of MANY Ticino brochures! It’s got that famous double arched stone bridge that perches over emerald, green waters. And of course, like for many others, it was this bridge that inspired our hike. We started off with a picnic lunch at the bridge itself, officially knowns as the Ponte dei Salti, or jump bridge in English. There’s lots of place to sit on top of the giant canyon rocks that the river has cut through to enjoy the bustle of the place. In the heat of the summer, you’ll see people swimming around. It’s still fairly cold water (10-19C in the summer) as it’s glacial melt water so we leave it to you to decide how cold you like it :P. 

For the actual hike, follow signs for route 74 towards Mergoscia. It’s about 7km of undulating path that takes you past quieter banks of the river, abandoned stone villages, the village of Corippo where only 12 people live and towards the sunny town of Mergoscia. From Mergoscia route 74 takes you all the way down to Locarno. We were more interested in ending the hike earlier at the Verzasca dam. So we peeled off the main path and headed to the dam. You can often find adrenalin seekers bungee jumping into a dizzying chasm. Both James Bond (Goldeneye) and Bollywood blockbuster Dhoom III have taken advantage of this spot for action shots. I guess it just felt right to have started and ended this hike with, for a lack of better words, famous stuff :P.  

Time: 4h 15 min
Distance: 12.5 km
Altitude: 675 m ↑ 750 m ↓
Difficulty: T2
Popularity: 5/5
High point: 890 m 
Start: Lavertezzo, Paese Bus Stop
End: Diga Verzasca Bus Stop
Season: May-Nov

Valle Leventina – The Gotthard Stretch

Valle Leventina Ambri to Faido

This valley stretches from Airolo, just south of the Gotthard pass, all the way down to Biasca. The hiking path along it is known as La Strada Alta, the high route. Though it’s listed as one of Ticino’s classic hikes it’s probably not as famous as the valleys mentioned above. We’ve hiked nearly all 45 km of it and can recommend the stretch from Ambri-Piotta to Faido. We did parts of that stretch in winter with a bit of snow around and it was absolutely beautiful. In fact, this valley was one of our go to hiking spots on weekends where it’s cloudy in Zurich but sunny in Ticino. The mountains are high, the path isn’t too strenuous and you get some pretty amazing views of the railway zipping in and out of tunnels, under and over the highway as it inches its way down the valley. 

Time: 4h 30 mins
Distance: 14 km
Altitude: 600m ↑ 850m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium)
Popularity: 3/5
High point: 1346m, no peak
Start: Ambrì-Piotta Train Station
End: Faido Train Station
Season: May-Nov

Val Calanca – A Laidback Walk Down the Valley

Strictly speaking this valley is an offshoot of Valle Mesolcina but it offers a very laidback stroll up or down the valley past traditional villages and chestnut forests. It’s not the most obvious hike to do in Ticino but it’s a very relaxing one and you’re unlikely to find many tourists around here. You’ll be following signs for Route 737, the Via Calanca or Calanca Way. You could walk the entire length of this valley in about 7 hours but we reckon the best bits are from Rossa to Molina Damn which is about a 4-hr stretch. If you’re hiking in Oct / Nov time and are a fan of sweet chestnuts take a bag along to collect some.

Time: 3h 30 min
Distance: 14 km
Altitude: 200m ↑ 550m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium)
Popularity: 2/5
High point: 1070m, no peak
Start: Rossa, Villaggio Bus Stop
End: Buseno, Paese Bus Stop
Season: Apr-Dec

Valle Mesolcina – an Italian part of Graubunden

Straddling these two southern valleys of Graubünden, Valle Mesolcina and Val Calanca, is an impressive ridge that stretches all the way from the San Bernadino pass down to the end of Valle Mesolcina. It’s a 3-4 day ridge hike along Route 712 which has a fair few steep bits for those with vertigo! We really enjoyed the section from San Bernadino (the town not the pass) to Pass de la Cruseta and back in a loop to San Bernadino. It’s very rocky at the top and the views are breath-taking!

Time: 5h 40 min
Distance: 14 km
Altitude: 1100m ↑ 1100m ↓
Difficulty: T3 (difficult) – including a couple of steep sections
Popularity: 4/5
High point: 2456m Pass de la Cruseta
Start: San Bernardino, Villaggio Bus Stop
End: Same – Loop Hike
Season: July-Oct

Valle Morobbia – Collecting Chestnuts along the Strada Vecchia

Lush Green Valley Sides of Ticino
Chestnuts along the path. Warning: the outer husk is very prickly! Stamp on it to open it…

OK, so this is for you sweet chestnut lovers out there. We found tonnes, literally tonnes, of chestnuts lying on the forest floor. This narrow valley stretches all the way to the Italian border from Giubiasco, a satellite town near Bellinzona. We only did a small chunk of hiking through here and may perhaps come back one day to head up Marmontana, a 2315m peak, that sits on the Swiss-Italian border. 

From Giubiasco station you walk up through a hillside village before hitting up the hiking trail leading into the forest. This hike doesn’t have a specific view point. Instead, you’ll get glimpses of untouched forested valley sides and a sense of the gorge cut out by the river Morobbia. Once in the forest it is sweet chestnuts galore! They literally litter the path. We saw folks drive up to the closest possible parking spot and load their trunks with sweet chestnuts. No idea what they did with that many but hey ho – it was entertaining. Once you’ve collected to your hearts content head back down into Giubiasco. We ended up roasting our loot at home. YouTube and other blogposts had some good advice on how to clean and roast them. Happy hunting! Oooo and I should say, the best time to collect them is in October / November. 

Time: 3 h
Distance: 9 km
Altitude: 550 m ↑ 550 m ↓
Difficulty: T2 (medium)
Popularity: 2/5
High point: 618m, no peak
Start: Giubiasco Train Station
End: Same – Loop Hike
Season: Apr-Nov (Chestnut Season Oct-Nov)

The End

So there you are folks, 9 different hikes up 9 Ticino valleys. And even after that there’s so much to do and see and I can only hope to share more of our adventures in and around Ticino in time to come!

Happy hiking. 

Your laidbackhikers!

Centovalli Merchant's Way
Some bonus views from Centovalli