This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

As the dusky ‘alpenglow’ blushes the peaks above, Ronnie the cat curls tighter into my lap and we share a contented sigh. Beyond the trickling sound of the trough in the gardens of Berghof Brändlen, the mountain farmstead I’m spending the night at, I can hear the soothing tinkle of cowbells. Suddenly, between timber barns housing hay and scythes, two rows of lights twinkle to life on the ground. They flank a path that slopes down the mountainside to a cable-car, the sole means of transport to the village of Wolfenschiessen, some 2,952ft below.

Brändlen is one of 26 mountain farms without road access around Engelberg. The valley is set in Switzerland’s German-speaking heart, between the cantons of Nidwalden and Obwalden, where much of the landscape is covered by forest, mountains or glaciers. This inaccessibility qualifies places like Brändlen to operate farmers’ cableways, known as Buiräbähnli, which transport people, supplies, equipment and the occasional cow up and down sheer slopes.

A far shot view of a Walenpfad, one of switzerlands most scenic high-altitude routes. A lake can be seen in the foreground, whilst in the far background a mountain can be seen out-of-focus.

The Walenpfad is one of Switzerland’s most scenic high-altitude routes.

Photograph by Engelberg-Titlis Tourism

The density of Buiräbähnli in Engelberg is unparalleled, lending it the moniker of ‘valley of the cable-cars’. And despite their number having more than halved in 15 years — as roads replace them and new generations choose not to invest in maintaining them — these lifts remain a lifeline for many. The farmsteads at their top, in the folds of pastures or atop lofty ridges, are rarely glimpsed by Swiss residents, let alone non-natives. But a 29-mile circular route, the Buiräbähnli Safari, enables walkers to hike to nine such lodges.

It’s part of this trail I’m exploring as I set off from the historic town of Engelberg to Brändlen. For the first seven or so miles, the path follows the Walenpfad, one of Switzerland’s most scenic high-altitude routes. It meanders through wildflower pastures, zigzags up grassy peaks and hugs precipitous cliffs, the narrow stone path washed away at times by small waterfalls.

Dotting the route are eight gondolas, some dating to the early 1960s and designated as cultural assets. “Caring for the lifts is part of life,” says Ueli Schmitter, a third-generation farmer with a shrug. He works with local Buiräbähnli owners to ensure the lifts pass annual inspections and a complete safety assessment each five years. “I whisper sweet nothings to mine each night.”

I meet him and his wife Isabelle at Chrüzhütte, where they serve brotkas (home-baked bread and cheese) and Älplermagronen (macaroni cheese). As I plunge a sprig of mountain mint into an elderflower cordial, chickens peck at my feet and Isabelle hums, kneading dough for the next loaf to be baked in her centuries-old oven.

Walks of life

Leaving the Schmitters and the well-trodden Walenpfad behind, I find myself entirely alone on the narrow path to my first Buiräbähnli. While each cableway functions on an on-demand basis, some are self-operated while others involve dialling up the farmer. The two-stage, vintage Sinsgäubahn falls into the latter category.

I find a steel box nailed onto the timber wall of the top station. Inside is a Bakelite-style telephone, which I use to call the owner, farmer Josef Durrer. After a brief conversation down the crackling line, he sends up a lift. It’s reminiscent of an American truck, with an enclosed gondola daubed in sun-bleached green paint and an open flatbed fashioned from timber slats.

A close view of a cable car docked in a village in Switzerland. In the distance, mountains can be seen with the suggestion of snow.

The sole means of transport from Brändlen to the village of Wolfenschiessen is by cable-car.

Photograph by Engelberg-Titlis Tourism

I clamber in and float slowly down the valley. The cable-car inches into the mid station, a small timber hut near a geranium-bestrewn farmhouse, and I see Josef. “How was the ride?” he asks with a smile on his sun-worn face. Josef’s raised cows on these pastures his entire life; these days, he rarely even rides the lower section of his gondola. “No one can remember the last time I went to the valley. It’s too much for me down there. I just ask the hiking guides to bring me what I need when they pass through.” Currently, he tells me, he spends his days on wildheuen, the time-honoured Alpine tradition of harvesting late-summer, wildflower-rich grass to dry into nutritious hay for livestock. 

When the telephone jangles with another request, I hop into the second stage to continue my descent to the hamlet of Oberrickenbach. Even its quiet roads make for a jarring contrast after the tranquillity of the hiking trail, and I’m happy to soon board my next gondola, complete with hand-embroidered cushions and a sticker reading: ‘Don’t honk, driver dreaming of Swiss cows’.

My hike resumes with knee-breaking hairpin bends, following hard-to-spot trail markers. I lose the path a couple of times, and once I’m set straight by a young female farmer using a leaf blower — a modern approach to wildheuen. I spend two hours climbing through dense forest, the air pungent with mushrooms. By the time I reach Brändlen, eight hours after setting off, it’s dusk and I’ve covered — with the help of the cable-cars — 6,680ft of ascent and 6,050ft of descent.

 “You must be Gabriella,” calls Rita Schmitter, guardian of Brändlen and daughter of Ueli and Isabelle, while painting the shutters in an outbuilding. “Grab a seat in the garden, I’m nearly done.” Soon, she brings me a beer and home-cooked rösti, served with a homegrown salad topped with mountain clover. She mentions I’m her second English-speaking guest of the year, and I tell her about my day. She raises her eyebrows at my anti-clockwise direction of travel; the trail’s official direction goes the opposite way. “I prefer hiking that way, towards Engelberg,” she says. “It means I can always see Titlis.” I had, indeed, found myself pausing regularly to look back upon the snow-topped, 3,239m mountain, which towers above the town. It seems the beauty of the valley isn’t lost on those accustomed to seeing it every day.

Published in the Alps guide 2024, distributed with the May 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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