The Western Alps
The Western Alps, primarily located in Switzerland and France, rank as one of the highest mountain ranges in Europe. Certainly, the mountains of the Eastern Alps are also quite high, but most of the 4,000-meter peaks are on the western side of the majestic Alps.
Especially among hikers and winter sports enthusiasts, the mountains in the Western Alps are extremely popular. This probably comes as no surprise. After all, the gigantic height of each peak makes for many a breathtaking panoramic view.
But what else is special about the Western Alps? Keep reading to find out. Learn where exactly you will find the Western Alps, how they are subdivided, and the most important areas to see.
What are the Western Alps?
As the name suggests, the Western Alps are simply the western part of the Alps. More precisely, it refers to the part of the Alps beyond the imaginary line drawn from Lake Constance to Lake Como.
Most of the Western Alps are in France and Switzerland, but the microstate of Monaco also has a share in this huge mountain range. Except for Piz Bernina, all 4,000-meter peaks of the European highland are in the Western Alps. This means that the mountains in this huge range are among the largest of the entire Alps, the highest being Mont Blanc in France.
Subdividing the Western Alps
As the Western Alps are a huge mountain range across more than one country. To precisely subdivide them by country is difficult, as many state borders run exactly along the main ridges. Thus, some of the highest peaks belong to two countries, such as the Dufour Peak, which is part of Switzerland as well as Italy.
For this reason, the Western Alps are not subdivided by country. It would require listing almost every larger mountain twice, which would be a bit confusing and certainly monotonous. So, it is more common to subdivide the Western Alps into individual mountain groups.
Most Popular Regions
The Valais Alps
The Valais Alps are the largest mountain range in the Western Alps. They are primarily in the Swiss canton of Valais, but the Italian regions of Aosta Valley and Piedmont also have a share in this mountain range.
Of all the mountain ranges, the Valais Alps are the most glaciated. This group of the Western Alps also holds other records. It is home to the most mountains over 4,000 meters in altitude, for example. With an altitude of 4,634 meters, the Dufour Peak is the highest mountain in the Valais Alps. In total, the Valais Alps have 41 4,000-meter peaks, which accounts for half of all the mountains in the Alps. Most of them are in the Monte Rosa Massif, where the Nordend, Schwarzhorn, and Ludwigshöhe peaks are, in addition to the Dufour Peak.
Thus, it is no wonder that there are so many tunnels in the Valais Alps. As a driver, it would be very inconvenient to constantly climb four kilometers in elevation and then descend again. Besides, you can’t build a road into every mountain anyway, and roads would probably be very serpentine. Travel distances would be at least twice as long. So, building a tunnel through the mountain is much easier.
Because of the heavy glaciation, some mountains are not accessible by car at all. Motor vehicles struggle between the Simplon Pass and the Great St Bernard Pass. However, these places are ideal for hiking, provided you have the right equipment.
One of the most popular long-distance hiking trails in the European mountains crosses the Valais Alps: the Via Alpina. It runs in about 20 stages through Switzerland and Italy, but the route remains on the Italian side for the most part.
Unlike the Valais Alps, the Bernese Alps are entirely in Switzerland. In addition to the eponymous canton of Bern, the cantons of Valais and Vaud also have their share of the Bernese Alps.
Due to their proximity, the Valais Alps and the Bernese Alps share some similarities. The strong glaciation and the accumulation of numerous 4,000-meter peaks connect these two regions of the Western Alps. Most of the glaciers are on the southern side of the Bernese Alps and merge directly into the Valais Alps.
The highest mountain in the Bernese Alps is the 4,274-meter-high Finsteraarhorn. Other well-known peaks are the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Together they form the most famous mountain trio of the Swiss Alps.
The Bernese Alps play an important role in tourism. The village of Grindelwald is one of the most popular destinations among visitors who want to see the breathtaking Swiss mountains. From there, you quickly reach the most impressive places in the Bernese and Valais Alps. Besides, the western edge of this mountain range of the Western Alps is home to numerous large ski resorts. It is certainly one of the hotspots for winter sports in Europe.
But such a picturesque landscape with snow-capped mountains attracts not only winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world, it is also a great place to go hiking. With nine 4,000-meter peaks, mountaineers certainly get their money’s worth there. In addition, the regions outside the developed ski areas boast predominantly unspoiled nature, because many of these landscapes are under nature protection.
When it comes to size, the Appenzell Alps cannot compete with the mountains of the two ranges mentioned before. The highest mountain is the Säntis, which, at around 2,500 meters, seems quite small compared to the Dufour Peak.
Nevertheless, this does not make the Appenzell Alps, which form the border between the Western and Eastern Alps, any less interesting. The wide valleys provide a wonderful landscape and invite for a hike. Since 2,000-meter peaks need less space than 4,000-meter peaks, you can also admire a panorama of many more mountains from one of the summits of the Appenzell Alps.
These mountains are also interesting for mountaineers. Sometimes, even a smaller mountain is challenging. But beginners also have some options here, as some summits are quite easy to climb. The only thing missing in this mountain range are the huge glaciers. Because of the lower altitude, the Appenzell Alps have smaller glaciers, such as Blau Schnee and Gross Schnee.
The greatest advantage for tourists in this part of the Western Alps is the location. It is in the middle of one of the largest populated areas in Switzerland and southern Germany. Additionally, the weather is often nice here, as the 4,000-meter peaks further west keep away many of the rain clouds. This results in high visibility, which allows you to see all of Switzerland’s neighboring countries.
Hikers really love the Appenzell Alps, and there are quite a few designated trails here. These include the Via Alpina long-distance hiking trail, which also runs across the Valais Alps. However, in our opinion, the most impressive one is the St. Gallen Hiking Trail, which is 60 kilometers long and runs through some of the most idyllic scenery in Switzerland.
Mont Blanc Massif
This mountain range is the part of the Western Alps where three countries, France, Switzerland, and Italy, meet; yet this is not the only thing that makes the Mont Blanc Massif so interesting. It is also the location of the eponymous Mont Blanc. At a height of 4,810 meters, it is the highest peak in the Alps.
Most of the mountain range is on French territory, mainly in the Département Haute-Savoie. In Italy, the mountains cross the Aosta Valley, and in Switzerland, the canton of Valais.
As the Mont Blanc Massif is the highest point in Western Europe, you might think that there are many other mountains of the same size. But interestingly, this is not the case in this mountain range; only a few of its mountains exceed the 4,000-meter mark.
As the Mont Blanc Massif is at the western edge of the Alpine arc, strong winds occur in this mountain range. The Savoy Prealps directly opposite the Mont Blanc Massif offer little protection from the wind due to their smaller size. When the Alpine föhn (a warm, dry wind from the south) blows, severe snowstorms can occur on the higher peaks, even if the sun is shining in the lower regions of the massif.
The largest glaciers of the Mont Blanc Massif are on the northern side. Among the largest of them are the Bossons Glacier and the Mer de Glace. As these advance rather quickly due to the steep slopes, numerous crevasses form along the glaciers.
The Western Alps cover a huge area that you can admire best while hiking and mountaineering. As some of the highest mountains in the entire Alps are in the Western Alps, they are without a doubt one of Mother Nature’s best gifts.
Nevertheless, the Western Alps are so huge that it’s best to subdivide them into different regions. One possibility is to do that by country. However, many national borders run along the mountain ridges. For this reason, a subdivision into demarcated mountain ranges is more common.
Especially the Valais Alps, the Appenzell Alps, the Bernese Alps, and the Mont Blanc Massif are at the top of many hikers’ bucket lists. It isn’t easy to say which of them is the most beautiful. You can be sure that you won’t go wrong if you visit any of these regions.