This is the first in a series of articles on Swiss national parks and nature reserves.
This year’s bountiful grape harvest has been brought in, the migratory birds are gathering and the leaves are turning. Whether for bird-watching or simply to take the family on a Sunday hike, this is a superb time to enjoy the offerings of Switzerland’s (and neighbouring France’s) numerous and exceptionally diverse nature reserves.
The Swiss tourism website (MySwitzerland) and the Vaud Lake Geneva Region site have excellent suggestions on where to go. ProNatura can pinpoint nearby reserves and also organizes weekend excursions, events and children’s outings. This is a good place to start, particularly if you wish to observe birds as they migrate south with stopovers along the various lakes, ponds and swamps.
The Ela nature reserve (10) in eastern Switzerland is the country’s largest, but is probably not what visitors who know American and Canadian national parks would expect. This is not an isolated “wilderness” area, but incorporates 19 communes and includes pristinely preserved ecosystems. It also features also ancient Romansch villages combined with modern-day, environmentally honed agriculture.
The Lake Geneva region has an excellent choice of reserves, such as the Parc Jura Vaudois (15), which stretches from St Cergue to the medieval town of Romainmôtier. Offering a network of 523 kilometres of trails, both for walking and biking, the park hosts an array of forests, pastures interlaced with old stone walls, and mountain chalets with cheese making and cafés. The wildlife is also exceptional with deer, chamois, wild boar, badgers and hawks.
On beautiful days, there is a superb view of the lake against an incredible panorama of the Alps. Even in winter, when you can go cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, it’s still great for walks. You can reach most parts by car, but there is also a train from Nyon or from Morges. You can cross over into the French Monts Jura park, or take the F bus from Geneva to Gex. Check with the French Nature Reserve site www.reserves-naturelles.org, which can help direct you to various locations in the Franche-Comté or the Haute-Savoie. The 430-hectare Lac de Remoray park, in the Doubs Valley in Franche-Comté, is one of France’s most exceptional reserves with diverse animal and plant life in swampland, prairie and forest settings.
The National Arboretum at Aubonne, near Morges, is an easily accessible reserve. Located above steep vineyards, it boasts nearly 4,000 trees, bushes and plants in a rural and forest landscape, with footpaths that take you along the river. There is also an ancient orchard with old fruit varieties no longer grown today, plus a Wood Museum that explores traditional forest and woodworking crafts.
A good weekend excursion is the Pre-Alp La Pierreuse Nature Reserve above Château-d’Oex. Currently managed by ProNatura, La Pierreuse serves as a rugged mountain eco-area with steep rock faces for horned Ibex, but is known also for its traditional Alpine pastures producing Etivaz cheese. An early morning or late afternoon trek will almost guarantee you glimpses of chamois, three-toed woodpeckers, owls, and even royal eagles, but probably not the elusive lynx or black grouse. The closest this writer has ever managed are footprints in the snow.
Further up the Valais, you can visit the Binntal Nature Reserve (7), particularly before the snows. This used to be a smugglers’ haven but is better known for its mineral wealth. Virtually every mineral in Europe can be found here. There is superb hiking but also exceptional gastronomy in its historic villages.
For those interested in migratory birds, there is the Sauge Nature Centre in Cudrefin on Lake Neuchâtel, the first Swiss reserve to conform to the international convention for the protection of humid areas. This is where the Sauge flows into the lake and it is characterized by shoals, marshlands and forests. Attracting ducks and migratory waders, it is an established winter site for rare birds, such as the merlin hawk. In summer, Scottish cows graze the marshlands to prevent woody vegetation from spreading. There is also a 500 metre trail with observation platforms, plus an exhibition about the Grande Cariçaie, Switzerland’s largest lakeside marshland, which hosts more than 800 plant and 10,000 animal species.
At the mouth of the Rhône river where it flows into Lake Geneva is Grangettes, a preserved area of reeds, marshes and alluvial forests. Marking the former course of the Rhône before it was channelled into a more manageable form, this is the only significant reserve on the shores of Lake Geneva. A two-hour hiking path takes you along the river to the Grangettes biotope, where you can observe egrets, kingfishers and various migratory bird species. There are also beaver and European pond turtles, but you’ll need patience and a good eye.