The Grand Canyon of Switzerland

After a whirlwind trip to Colorado (with a really fun Paddlefest in BV which included seeing all kinds of old friends and the opening of the Surf Chateau restaurant and hotel) and the West Coast, I headed back to Switzerland. Juerg had promised that we would do a paddle trip somewhere new this year and believe it or not, in the tiny country of Switzerland, there is a lot to discover – especially when it comes to mountains and rivers! Only 3.5 hours drive away from our home valley of the Simmenthal and the Simme – bezi river, we arrived at the Vorderrhein and the Grand Canyon of Switzerland.


Found in the canton of Graubunden near a ski town called Flims, there is a 20 kilometer section of the Rhine river that is big and wild and sits deep in a old limestone canyon. Though the snow covered peaks were still easily visible in early June, the valley where Grand Canyon of Switzerland is found has a very wide open feel. The green mountainsides are covered with Swiss Brown cows and small charming villages dot the landscape here. Also, there is incredible local cheese, bread and honey – all found at the local grocery store!


To get to the put in for the easier section of the run and the take out for the more difficult section, you drive down to the rivers edge deep into the Grand Canyon itself otherwise known as the Rheinschlucht. There in the town of Versam – Satien, there is a Kayak shop, Kanu school (called the Kanuschule Versam), rafting base and train station pretty much rapt into one! Since the road does not run alongside the river, all shuttles are done by train. Both you and your kayak need a ticket to ride the train but both are good for the whole day and its such an easy way to get around! There are only a few places where the train actually runs right next to the river so once you are down on the river, you feel like you are very far away from everything!!


Most surprising is how easy it is to get to this place and how little effort it takes to feel like you are a million miles from everything. Before I actually knew that this section of the Rhine was called the Grand Canyon of Switzerland, I said to Juerg that the power of the river and the feeling of being deep in big canyon reminded me so much of paddling in the Grand Canyon. And the water is freezing – just like the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The whitewater is quite similar too though the rapids are much more continuous and close together. There are some massive undercut spots that you can see thousands of years of water pounding away on the limestone has carved out. Lots of catch on the fly waves, big eddy lines and just fun mellow rapids. You feel like a tiny speck in this huge canyon. It is very impressive and beautiful. 5 kilometers down from Versam is the next train station in Trin, and 5 kilometers down from Trin is the next take out in Reichenau. We paddled all the way to Reichenau and had an easy walk through the town and across two bridges to the train station – our shuttle vehicle. On the way to our take out, we passed a sign way up on the canyon wall that marked two floods – one of 1927 and one of 1967. The sign was high enough up that its hard to imagine how many thousands of CFS were screaming through the river canyon at that time – no doubt it was high enough to have taken out some bridges along with a bunch of cows, boulders and houses as well!


This section of the Rhine is also very popular for SUPing and we ran into an intrepid couple with Hala boards in toe who were getting on the train with us. We all road with our kayaks, boards and paddles in the train car that was traditionally reserved for transporting cows and milk – it was awesome! After we returned to our put in and then headed back to our campsite, it already felt like we were in a completely different world! We stayed in a fantastic campsite called Camping Carrera who ironically was founded by one of Juerg’s examiners in his mountain guide exam, a really nice guy named Werner. We were camping on a hillside right next to some gorgeous Swiss Brown cows whose bells lulled us off to sleep at night. We had a spectacular view of the whole valley and the mountains across and down into parts of the valley below. We were also right next to hiking trails. Funnily enough, the hiking trail right behind us went straight up to a great look out point where you could scout the big rapid known as the black hole from way above.
The next day, we drove to Versam again and did our shuttle by train the opposite way – we took our kayaks up to the top by train – to the town of Ilanz and started from there. Our take out would be Versam. This section of the river was great. The gorge was narrower and the rapids were more fun – all with a wonderful big water feel that included big boulders in the river, big holes, big waves, and big eddy lines. I kept thinking that paddling this river would be great prep for the Nile – if one had never been and was planning a trip! Everything was easy read and run. Juerg and I were very comfortable doing the entire thing in our play boats. We knew from our very high above scouting of the “black hole” that there was some kind of river construction going on at that spot. Huge bulldozers and earth movers were in the river apparently cleaning up after a massive flood. Once we got to the Back Hole, we got out to have a look around the corner and also to tell the bulldozers to not drop rocks on our heads as we paddled by! Lucky for us, they were having a lunch break when we arrived and it was easy to paddle by. That rapid and the rapid directly after it were the most fun of the trip. Big fun waves and a couple things to avoid but with plenty of options of lines through. This 10 kilometer run flew by and before we knew it we were at our take out.


We had plenty of time to explore more of the area that afternoon. We drove up to the town of Vals alongside the Glenner river – which looked like a great river run not for a play boat! Vals is home to a famous spring and thermal bath. The movie “Youth” was filmed there. We did another great hike through an old original Swiss tunnel and mountain road from the cobblestone age. Finally we finished with a soak in the thermal baths – so incredibly nice after a fantastic day of paddling and hiking. If you want to see a new gorgeous river that will help improve your big water skills but won’t push you over your limit, I can’t recommend the Vorderrhein, the Grand Canyon of Switzerland, enough!

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