This is part of a series of posts dedicated to the exploration of Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona, a UNESCO World Heritage site covering an entire area of 32,850 ha. The next few paragraphs will be about the site’s universal value (the reason why it is inscribed on the World Heritage list) and a brief introduction to various hiking trails and excursions recommended by IG Tektonikarena Sardona. If you have already read some other posts related to the property, please click here to jump directly to the main content of this one.
As the UNESCO comments:
The Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona in the north-eastern part of the country covers a mountainous area of 32,850 ha which features seven peaks that rise above 3,000 m. The area displays an exceptional example of mountain building through continental collision and features excellent geological sections through tectonic thrust, i.e. the process whereby older, deeper rocks are carried onto younger, shallower rocks. The site is distinguished by the clear three-dimensional exposure of the structures and processes that characterize this phenomenon and has been a key site for the geological sciences since the 18th century. The Glarus Alps are glaciated mountains rising dramatically above narrow river valleys and are the site of the largest post-glacial landslide in the Central Alpine region.
In order to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten Criteria for Selection. Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona, which enjoys the same award as the Grand Canyon in the USA, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, meets
Criterion (viii) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features, because
- nowhere else are the results of the processes that led to the formation of mountains as evident as they are here. For example, the “magic line” – Glarus Thrust can be identified immediately and is easily accessible;
- for more than 200 years, scientists from all over the world have been studying features that indicate mountain-building processes on this site, and their research results have revolutionized and are still revolutionizing the theories about how the Alps were formed;
- this region has a large variety of rocks, terrains and landscapes, which provide ideal habitats for various wild animals and plants and form the basis for biodiversity.
What is tectonics?
Tectonics is a specialized field in geology and concerns the process that controls the structure and properties of the Earth’s crust and its evolution through time. In particular, it describes the processes of mountain building, the growth and behavior of the strong, old cores of continents known as cratons, and the ways in which the relatively rigid plates that constitute the Earth’s outer shell interact with each other.
Within the property, there are many fabulous peaks such as Piz Segnas, Trinserhorn, Ringelspitz, Hangsackgrat, Pizol, Foostock and so on, but why is it named after Piz Sardona?
Sliced by a clear and sharp line (Glarus Thrust) on its surface, Piz Sardona is located at the center of the property, which is also the border area of the three Swiss cantons of St. Gallen, Glarus and Graubünden. Symbolically, it marks the cooperation among the Swiss federal government, the three cantons and the thirteen towns in the long-term conservation of this valuable site.
The reason why I love this site is that I can not only enjoy breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps but also gain insights into geology, in particular the formation of mountains and valleys. During the collision between the African and European continental plates, do you know how the Alps were formed and where it happened? Were the Alps created by folding or overthrust? Do you know the formation of the Alps is an ongoing process and is still happening nowadays? Why is the magic line – Glarus Thrust so important and what does it tell us about the creation of the Alps? Why are older rocks on top of younger rocks? How many different kinds of rocks can be found in the arena, where did they come from and how old are they? Do you know rockslides also contributed to the formation of the Alps and the largest rock avalanche in the Central Alps is the Flims rockslide? To find answers to most of the above questions, I propose to you three ways. The first one, which is my favorite, is to set your foot in the region and read the info panels on site while witnessing the actual miracles. The second one is to visit Visitor Center Glarnerland and Visitor Center Elm, which host permanent exhibitions related the geological history and knowledge of the property. If it’s inconvenient for you to reach the site, please click here to visit the official website of UNESCO – Sardona, which in my opinion provides a comprehensive introduction to the property and, accompanied by pictures and graphs, vivid explanations for the spectacular phenomena.
As you can see from the map above, this site covers a large area (32,850 ha) and similar to another UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in Switzerland – Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, it can be visited and explored through numerous hiking trails and excursions. When I visited Elm, I got from the Visitor Center a brochure called “UNESCO World Heritage Tectonic Arena Sardona – Hiking and Excursion Tips”, which provides a brief introduction to the property and presents the famous Sardona World Heritage Trail, which allows hikers to walk through the core of the site and learn about geology in 6 days, 6 Geo hiking trails, 6 Geo excursions and 6 Geo phenomena, etc. As far as I know, the Heidiland holiday region, the Elm holiday region, and Flims are particularly popular among visitors. In the autumn of 2016, I hiked around Pizol, but because the peaks were almost all covered in snow, I planned to revisit the area. In 2018, after hiking from Tschinglenalp below the famous Martinsloch (Martin’s Hole) to Firstboden and back, and taking the “Höhenweg Naraus – Segneshütte – Alp Nagens”, on which the entire Flims Valley, the lower Segnesboden (the most beautiful braids of Flims) and the Glarus Thrust can be seen clearly, I retook the Pizol Panorama Höhenweg and successfully challenged the famous 5-lake hiking trail. Please don’t think that you can only explore Tectonic Arena Sardona from the three regions I mentioned above. In the north of the site, you can see the “Riesendoline Helloch“, which had originally been a cave but collapsed later, and at Skihütte Mülibachtal, you can see the Gipsgrat, a beautiful mountain range.
1. Pizol Panorama Höhenweg
In 2016, in the Pizol region, I visited the water park at Furt, which is particularly popular among kids in the summer, hiked from Pizolhütte to Laufböden, which is half of the Pizol Panorama Höhenweg, and took the Heidi Path, which is designed based on the children’s fiction – Heidi by Johanna Spyri and features 12 wooden goats, a barefoot walking trail, a wooden house, a fire place, book houses, a panorama viewing platform etc. If you want to know more about the water park and Heidi Path please click here. In 2018, shortly after taking the 5-Seen-Wanderung (5-Lake Hiking Trail), I visited the region the third time. There are a few reasons why I like Pizol a lot. Firstly, it’s quite close to Zürich and very convenient and cheap to reach. For example, I always took a direct train from Zürich to Sargans and then a bus from Sargans to Wangs Talstation Pizolbahnen, which runs quite frequently. Sometimes I managed to buy the supersaver ticket for the train just one day in advance and it cost only 5 francs one way (the bus costs 2.6 francs one way). Secondly, this region has lots of interesting themed trails which enrich the hiking experience with knowledge and fun. Thirdly, it is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site Swiss Tectonic Area Sardona and on its hiking trails, a lot of info boards introduce in an easy-to-understand way this priceless geological treasure. Last but not least, the staff are surprisingly friendly here and the view is undoubtedly among the best in the whole of Switzerland.
1.1 Practical information
In Pizol, there are many cables cars and chairlifts taking you to various mountain stations but the ones I used during the specific hike were cable cars between Wangs Talstation Pizolbahnen and Furt and chairlifts between Furt and Pizolhütte. Alternately, if you want to start and finish the hike from Laufböden, you need to use the cable cars between Bad Ragaz Matells (Talstation) and Pardiel and chairlifts between Pardiel and Laufböden.
Operation hours and ticket prices:
For information about the schedule of cable cars and chairlifts in Pizol (Wangs – Bad Ragaz), please click here.
Pizol Panorama hiking ticket is available and it costs:
- Adults: CHF 44.-
- Children (6 – 17 years old): CHF 22.-
- Adults with GA or Halbtax card: CHF 22.-
- the trail is open both in the summer season and winter season;
- during lunchtime, all the cable cars and chairlifts will stop running for an hour so make sure you don’t need to use them at that point;
- at each cable car or chairlift station, you should see a board showing the time of lunch break (for example between Wangs and Furt the lunch break is 12:00 – 13:00 and between Furt and Gaffia the lunch break is 12:20 – 13:20 etc.) and of the last cable car or chairlift going down;
- pay attention to the time when the last cable car or chairlift goes down and do NOT miss it;
- keep the ticket with you because you’ll need it to exit the lower cable car station at Wangs;
- the ride on the way is rather long and it takes around 1 hour to reach Pizolhütte from Wangs and another hour to go back;
- most of the chairlifts are open (exposed to the air) so if you visit Pizol in the early spring or late autumn, make sure to wear warm clothes and even hats and gloves if necessary;
- if you want to know the prices for single rides, family cards, one-day or multi-day passes, seasonal passes etc., please click here.
My itinerary was: Zurich HB – [train + bus] > Wangs Talstation Pizolbahnen – [cable car] > Furt [chairlift] > Gaffia – [chairlift] > Pizolhütte – [hike] > Laufböden – [hike] > Pizolhütte – [chairlift] > Gaffia – [chairlift] > Furt – [cable car] > Wangs Talstation Pizolbahnen – [bus + train] > Zurich HB.
- The total distance of the trail is 3 km, which lies between 2,222 and 2,275 m above sea level and takes around 1.5 hours to finish. The difference in altitude is: ascent 53 m / descent 53 m;
- for children, its possible to rent strollers free of charge at both Pizolhütte and Laufböden stations;
- this is a round trip so you can either start and finish at Pizolhütte (Pizolhütte – Laufböden – Pizolhütte) or at Laufböden (Laufböden – Pizolhütte – Laufböden);
- highlights on the way are the Wangersee (Wanger Lake), the “Tagweidlichopf” viewpoint with its incredible panoramic view and photo spot for the Grand Tour of Switzerland, and the World Heritage info boards providing insights into the world of geology;
- for optimal viewing of the famous Glarus Thrust and other geological phenomena, I recommend you taking the trail in the morning and before the first snow falls on this region;
- compared to the 5-Lake Hiking Trail, this one is very easy, and can be easily managed with normal sports shoes. However, I would say hiking shoes are more comfortable;
- at Furt, Gaffia, Pizolhütte and Laufböden there are restaurants, and at Gaffia and Wangs Talstation Pizolbahnen there are public toilets.
- this is a relaxing trail and there are many benches on the way. For me, either taking some snacks and enjoying them on one of the benches or having a normal meal on the terrace of one of the restaurants will be a good experience;
- I hiked on a sunny day (19th October 2018) but the temperature was quite low. On the way between Wangs and Pizolhütte and during the hike, I was wearing a thin winter jacket, scarf and gloves;
- sun cream is a must;
- the cable car and chairlift rides take quite some time (around 1 hour one way);
- at Gaffia chairlift station, I saw brushes at the entrance, with which I cleaned the dust off my hiking boots.
1.3 On the panorama trail
On the way up to Pizolhütte, I transferred at Gafia station, which in my opinion is a monumental mountain station. Why? Admittedly it doesn’t look special but it stands out because of its location. At the end of the 5-Lake Hiking Trail, I saw an info board introducing that the station is standing right on the world-famous geological phenomenon – the Glarus Thrust, which is clearly visible on Piz Sardona and Pizol but unfortunately not here because it’s buried under colluvial deposits and vegetation. It goes along the valley’s sidewall almost all the way down to Sargans. Close to the station (where the info board stands) is the starting point of the multimedia GEOTour Garmil, which lies mostly inside the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona and allows visitors to have easy access to the world of geology. Though I didn’t take the whole trail, I became interested in it firstly because of the clear mountain streams and beautiful rocks with amazing colors, and secondly because I could learn more about the World Heritage site. As I read from the official website, the hike can be experienced through multimedia, which means at nine station, you can use your the smartphone to listen to and watch exciting information about the geological history of Garmil. The app recommended is called “Wanderapp“, on which unfortunately the information is only in German. Some other information that I learnt from the official website and you might be interested in is:
- route: Gaffia – Basürla – Garmil – Fürggli – Vollenplangg – Furt
- distance: 6.6 km
- altitude: 2,002 to 1,505 m asl
- difference in altitude: ascent 283 m / descent 628 m
- hiking time: 2.5 hours
Next to the Pizolhütte station, you will find two benches, where you can sit and enjoy a great view of the Churfirsten mountain range in the Canton of St. Gallen, the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen and on a clear day, even Lake Constance. Between the two benches you will see a signpost showing in which direction and how far from here some of the famous cities such as Geneva, Tokyo, Vienna, Munich, Madrid, New York and San Francisco are.
The trail starts at the terrace of Restaurant Berg-Panorama where you have a good view of the mountains in the south. Close to the terrace there’s an info board helping you recognize them. As I mentioned in the Tips section, the hike is very easy and from here to the lake (Wangersee) there’s basically no ascent or descent. Now, let’s walk in the direction of Laufböden and soon we will see Wangersee.
Wangersee is the starting point of the famous Pizol 5-Lake Hiking Trail, which is one of the most famous and beautiful hiking trails in Switzerland. If you have proper hiking boots and clothes, finishing it will be an unforgettable experience. For more information, tips and pictures, please click here to read my previous post.
Next to Wangersee is a World Heritage Sardona info board, which explains where the water of the lake came from. When the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, its surface was so warm that there were no lakes, seas or rivers. All water was held as water vapor in the atmosphere. When the earth cooled down gradually, it started to rain around 4 billion years ago. It kept raining for about 40,000 years and oceans, lakes and streams formed. So did the Wangersee. I really love these info boards because they explain the history of the earth and spectacular geological phenomena in an east-to-understand way, which gives the entire hiking experience an educational touch. Now, let’s hike up a little bit and get a better view of the lake.
On the way up, remember to look back in the direction of Pizolhütte and you will probably notice that the mountains in the background are rough, sharp and rugged while the terrain in the foreground is strikingly gentle and hilly. There’s a simple geological explanation for the difference. The mountains are made up of verrucano rock while the terrain consists of flysch rock. Verrucano and flysch were shaped differently by the force that shaped the landscape. When flysch erodes, fine silt is formed, which is one of the reasons why the Wangersee exists. It seals the ground so that water can only seep away to a limited degree. Another interesting fact about the lake is the municipal border between Vilters-Wangs and Bad Ragaz runs through the middle of it.
After another moderate ascent (5-10 mins), you will arrive at the “Tagweidlichopf” viewpoint, which is my favorite part of the entire trail. A new photo spot was added here for the Grand Tour of Switzerland with a view of Pizol and its glacier. Undoubtedly the panorama was amazing, but what interested me the most was the information written on the 360-degree info board (as you can see in the 1st picture above). Even though I never studied geology, the words were easy to understand, satisfied my curiosity and made me admire the Alps even more.
The rough, sharp and rugged rock making up the mountains in the background is called verrucano, which formed around 250 – 300 million years in a hot desert area. It is one of the oldest types of rock in the region and only the rock in the Vättis region is older – over 300 million years old.
Pizol is the highest mountain found completely within the border of the canton of St. Gallen at 2,844 m asl while Ringelspitz at 3247 m asl is the highest peak in the canton. As you can see in the picture above, along the clearly visible Glarus Thrust, which is the most significant thrust in the world, layers of rock several kilometers thick are stacked on top of each other. When we continue our hike to Laufböden, I’ll tell you more about the famous thrust at a slightly better viewpoint.
From a geologist’s view, the rock on this mountain side is young, which formed around 35 to 50 million years ago in a deep sea trench, hundreds of meters below the ocean surface.
In the picture above you can see the Calanda mountain (the left one in the background). At one time, gold was mined in the Calanda. Nowadays golden beer is being brewed at its foot.
In the middle of the Grisons, parts of the African plate can be found. For example, in the form of Piz Kesch (the one standing out in the middle at the background) above Bergün.
The African plate once overlapped almost the entire area that you can see in the picture above, but erosion has taken away most of it. In the area of Klosters and Davos there are some visible remains.
The European plate was pushed under the African plate millions of years ago and the Schesaplana (the mountain that you see under the cloud in the picture above) and Matterhorn are relics of the latter. They are monumental memorials of the former collision of continents.
Around 24,000 years ago, mighty glaciers from the ice age pushed themselves through the Rhine Valley. At that time, they filled the valley completely and only the mountain peaks were visible. On the way from Laufböden back to Pizolhütte you will get a better view of the valley and read more information about it.
For almost 2000 years, people dug innumerable tunnels through the Gonzen (the mountain on the right in front), which made it like Swiss cheese. By doing so, they mined more than 2.7 million tons of iron ore. Nowadays, dark alpine limestone is mined for the construction industry.
During my hike, the valley got a bit foggy (as you can see in the 1st picture above) so above I also attached a photo I took of the Churfirsten mountain range during the 5-lake hike, where you can see more clearly how the landscape is influenced by the rock. Steep rock walls consist of hard rock while soft rolling alps consist of soft rock. The Churfirsten is a very famous mountain range in Switzerland and its standard “seven peaks” are Selun (2205 m), Frümsel (2263 m), Brisi (2279 m), Zuestoll (2235 m), Schibenstoll (2234 m), Hinterrugg (2306 m), and Chäserrugg (2262 m). Formed by erosion, they have remarkably uniform heights within just above a 100 m difference.
By now we’ve finished visiting the “Tagweidlichopf” viewpoint and let’s continue the hike towards Laufböden.
Not far from the viewpoint, you will see another info board introducing the globally unique Glarus Thrust, which shows itself as a line on the rock faces. If the first snow hasn’t arrived yet and you are here on a sunny day, you can see one segment of the thrust very clearly. For optimal viewing, I recommend you taking the trail in the morning. Over the course of millions of years, varied types of rocks deposited themselves on top of each other on the earth’s surface in valleys, lakes, seas and deserts. During this process, younger layers usually lie atop older ones. However, in the Tectonic Arena Sardona, the rocks are upside down. This is because during the formation of the Alps in the earth’s crust, old verrucano rock (250 – 300 million years old) was pushed onto the young flysch rock, leaving such a striking line with unparalleled beauty testifying to the geological process of mountain building.
In around 10 – 15 mins, you will arrive at Laufböden mountain station, close to which a restaurant called Laufbodenstübli is located. You can have a drink or a simple meal on its terrace, which offers an amazing view of the mountains in the north and east. Laufböden marks the middle point of the panorama trail and now we will go back to Pizolhütte. Please note, this is a round trip so don’t take the path where you come from.
On the way back from Laufböden to Pizolhütte, you should see three info boards and have a great view of the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen and even Lake Constance on a sunny and clear day. Unfortunately, in the afternoon of my visit, it got foggy and I couldn’t see the valley clearly. The two pictures above were taken when I took the 5-Lake Hiking Trail and Heidi Trail.
The first info board introduces that the Rhine Valley was once a lake valley. As the Rhine Glacier shrank during the end of the last big ice age, the Rhine Valley Lake formed in its valley. It is assumed that the lake stretched from Chur to Lake Constance and was connected to Lake Zürich via the Walensee, which was considerably larger then than today. If the huge lake between Zürich, Chur and Constance really existed, it was only short-lived. This is because the glaciers in the Alps had accumulated numerous amounts of rock debris during the ice age and the streams and rivers continuously flushed the material into the valley, filling the lake with large delta and alluvial fans. By looking at the viewing window of the board, you can get an idea of the approximate size of the former Rhine Valley Lake.
The second info board is about the threat of the untamed Rhine and the map on it shows how far the river spread on the valley floor of Sargans during the flood of 1817. After the flood, engineers realized something alarming. In case of a deluge, the Rhine could break out in the area of Sargans and flow in the direction of Walensee and Lake Zürich, which could lead to catastrophic damage in the shore areas of the two lakes, in particular, Zürich. Based on the realization, the Rhine was extensively corrected between 1862 and 1900, not only in the Sargans area but also between Bad Ragaz and Lake Constance.
The third info board is attached to a rock standing next to the trail and talks about lichens, which are a valuable aid in classifying rocks because many of them only grow on certain types of rock. For example, the flysch rock (as you can see in the pictures above), sand-limestone to be precise, which consists of quartz sand grains and lime, will first be host to species of lichens that depend on its lime content. As soon as the lime content is washed out of the surface, lichens that are comfortable with only the quartz from the sand grains will settle on it.
Soon you will see the Wangersee emerging in front of you, and in around 10 mins you’ll be back at the Pizolhütte chairlift station. As I mentioned many times already, this is an easy trail and can be managed by most of the people. Whether you are interested in doing some easy exercise while surrounded by numerous magnificent mountains, learning some knowledge about geology, or simply spending some relaxing time with the family, I believe the Pizol Panorama Höhenweg is a good option.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the UNESCO World Heritage site Swiss Tectonic Area Sardona covers an entire space of 32,850 ha and can be explored by numerous hikes and excursions. In this post, I focused on the Pizol Panorama Höhenweg, which is beautiful, relaxing and educational. In the future, I’ll keep discovering new, interesting and impressive hiking trails and destinations in and around the property, and I’ll make sure to keep you updated. To be continued…