Zermatt, Switzerland: It's all About the Mountains in Zermatt. Ski trip vacation paradise.

Zermatt, Switzerland

An independent review from Scott Leach

Ski / Snowboard > Skiing Overview

Since the Zermatt ski resort stretches across three individual mountains that rise over 10,200 feet (3,100 meters), there's an incredible amount of skiable terrain here. These three mountains have a northern orientation and they're quite high, so the winter ski season here, which lasts from late November through early May, is longer than most other resorts in Europe. There is summer skiing as well, but not all the lifts and slopes are open throughout the year.

While the trail map modestly states that there are only 46 trails at Zermatt, this number is vastly understated. For example, there are numerous runs that are over five to eight miles (eight to 13 kilometers) in length, going from the top of the Klein Matterhorn into the village.

In order to cover all of this skiing territory, Zermatt has a huge lift system unlike anything in the United States, with one cog-railway with 18 railcars, a high-speed underground cable railway, 13 aerial cable cars/trams, 7 gondola ski lifts, 18 chair lifts, and 31 surface ski lifts. 90 percent of the trails are above the tree line.

There are excellent options here for both intermediate and expert skiers, ranging from wide-open cruisers to moguls to powder and off-piste trails.

Another drawback is that some of the expert slopes don't open until January or early February, when there is sufficient snowfall. Despite this, if you are a serious skier, Zermatt is the place to go. On a good day with fresh powder, nothing can rival it.

The best time to ski Zermatt is during the spring months of March and April when the days are warmer - and longer. These months still see fresh dumps of powder during the night and are combined with warm weather and sunshine during the day.

During the summer, Zermatt has far and away the most skiable terrain with 15 miles (25 kilometers) of trails, one half-pipe, and nine ski lifts open for most of the day. Unfortunately, most of the beginner terrain that is available in Zermatt is located on the glacier, where all the summer skiing takes place. For this reason, the summer skiing is not as challenging as most would hope.

Ski / Snowboard > Snowboarding

While Zermatt has not taken the pro-snowboarding attitudes that some of the North American resorts have (New England ski resorts especially), it also has not taken an anti-snowboarding attitude (like Alta). As a result, snowboarding at Zermatt is neither catered to nor frowned upon.

The mountain offers two ski schools for snow boarding: Swiss Ski & Snowboarding School and Stoked Snowboard School. There are also two snowboard parks and half-pipes—one at Blauherd, the other between Trockener Steg and Furggsattel.

Yet the terrain is the same for both skiers and snowboarders alike, and the vertical drop does not change just because you are riding on a snowboard. As a result, snowboarding the terrain - whether it is intermediate or expert - is very exciting. Like skiing, the best time to catch the least crowds and best skiing is during the off-holiday winter season (late November through late December 20 and early January through mid-March) and during the weekdays.

While you can snowboard during the summer, the terrain does not get harder than the advanced intermediate level. There is also a half-pipe open during the summer near Plateau Rosa.

Ski / Snowboard > Snow Conditions

When it comes to snow conditions in Zermatt, there's a big difference between the upper and lower slopes. The division between the two can be roughly placed at 2,000 meters/6,578 feet, and is evident in the annual snowfall between the two sections.

The monthly winter season average for the lower slopes is 17 inches (44 centimeters), while the monthly average for the upper slopes is 76 inches (192 centimeters). This brings the annual winter snowfall to approximately 355 inches (900 centimeters).

To put this number in perspective, Vail gets roughly 300 to 350 inches of snow per year. While there is a great difference in snowfall between the upper and lower slopes, the majority of the lower slopes are equipped with over 55 kilometers of snowmaking in order to compensate for the lack of snow.

On average, 25 percent of the winter season is made up of powder days, while 50 percent of the winter season is sunny. For the days that do not start with a fresh dump of powder, the snow conditions range from packed to hard packed snow, but the area still lacks the icy conditions found in New England resorts.

Once the winter season ends, the only part of the resort that is open is the Klein Matterhorn, where skiing is available on the glacier above 3,000 meters/9,867 feet. Due to the warmer weather and longer daylight, the spring is by far the best time to ski Zermatt. Even through April, there can be storms that dump fresh powder on the mountain.

Ski / Snowboard > Lifts

To accompany its grand skiing area of three mountains, Zermatt has created an extensive lift system that is made up of trains, trams, surface lifts, and chairlifts. The 73 different ways to get up the mountain are made up of one rack railway with 18 railcars, a high-speed underground cable railway, 13 aerial cable cars/trams, 7 gondolas, 18 chairlifts, and 31 surface ski lifts. This impressive lift system has the capacity to bring 75,180 skiers per hour up the mountain. Unfortunately, none of the chair lifts are high-speed quads or six-man chairs.

Due to the fact that no internal combustion cars are allowed in the entire valley, there is a system of buses that brings visitors around the village and up to the ski lifts. This is one main complaint about Zermatt - the extensive walking that has to be done to get to the ski lifts while wearing ski boots.

Many people also complain about the long lift lines. During the holiday season and weekends, you might have to wait up to an hour-and-a-half to get up the mountain. This is especially true at the base of the mountain for the Klein Matterhorn and the Gornergrat train - the two main ways to get up to the middle of the three different mountains.

The morning lines begin to get bad around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., but fortunately for the early skier the lifts open at 8:00 a.m. So for those skiers who are willing to get up early, the reward is no lift lines and two good hours of skiing free of crowds.

In the summer, this area offers one of the only places in Europe to ski; Zermatt operates its eight lifts all summer long.

Ski / Snowboard > Rentals

In the village of Zermatt, you can rent a wide range of equipment at reasonable prices, considering that Zermatt is a high-end ski resort. You can also rent all sorts of skiing equipment, including snowboards, skis, test skis, high performance skis, monoboards, and snowblades.

The prices vary from place to place, but for high performance ski and snowboard rentals the cost per day is approximately $36 (CHF 60), while cross-country skis can be rented for $16 (CHF 28). For a week-long rental the cost is about $120 (CHF 200).

As recently as two to three years ago, much of the resort only took cash (this included lift tickets), but now many of the stores allow payment with major credit cards. There are decreased rental rates for junior skiers and multi-day rentals.

If you are traveling to Zermatt during the summer months, ski equipment can also be rented at the slightly lower price of $26 (CHF 43) for boots, poles, and ski. You can also rent all types of different summer outdoor equipment such as hiking boots $26 (CHF 43), mountain bikes $21 (CHF 35), or rollerblades $11 (CHF 19).

Ski / Snowboard > Lessons

Since Zermatt is an internationally-renowned ski resort, it's not surprising that there are a variety of ski lessons available here ranging from preschool day care to adult private lessons.

The four main classifications of the Zermatt ski lessons are for young children (ages four to six), children (ages six to 12), young adults and adults (ages 12 and up), and private lessons. The ski school is called Swiss Ski & Snowboarding School; the majority of instructors speak English fluently.

There is also daycare available at Kinderparadis for children two years and older. Kinderparadis is an indoor playground where parents can drop off their children for the day at a cost of $51 (CHF 85) per day. The children are supervised by multi-lingual teachers who fill the day with activities. Lunch and snacks are provided.

Swiss Ski School also provides ski daycare called Snowli-Club Riffelberg for children ages four to six. The program costs $61 (CHF 75) per day, and caters to children who want to ski during part of the day, but are still too young for an all-day, or even half-day lesson. It last from 9:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day. Twice during the day, children are brought out on to the slopes for a two-hour supervised period of games and lesson in the kids' snow park.

For children ages six to 12, all-day ski lessons are provided starting at 9:15 in the morning and lasting until 4:00 p.m. These lessons are broken up into two different times during the day where children go to either the Sunnegga-Blauherd or Gornergrat-Riffelberg areas. Both these lessons and the younger children's daycare should be arranged prior to the start of the lesson. Once again, these lessons cost $33 (CHF 55) per child per day.

For young adults and adults, ski lessons are broken up into two different seasons - the high season and the normal season. For both seasons, the ski lessons are divided into six different ski levels ranging from beginner to advanced.

During the high season, the lessons last for three hours per day (10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.) and cost about $171 (CHF 210) per person for three days and $240 (CHF 295) per person for five days . Zermatt marks the ski lesson high season during the last week of December, the last week of February, the first week in March, and the middle two weeks in April. During the rest of the winter ski season, the ski lessons are all day (10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.).

Private lessons take place in the area of the Zermatt resort of your choice at a cost of about $268 (CHF 330) per person for an all-day private lesson. Private lessons can also be taken for one, two, or three hours at a time. It is important to note that if for some reason a private lesson has to be cancelled, the reservation has to be cancelled by 5:30 p.m. the previous day, or else the lesson is still charged in full.

Swiss Ski & Snowboard School and Stoked Snowboard School are two snowboard schools that offer lessons with approximately the same cost. For ages nine and up, snowboarding lessons last two hours long and can be taken at three different times a day at a cost of about $60 (CHF 75). Private snowboarding lessons are also available for two, or three hours, or all day. The lessons cost $130, $179, and $175 (CHF 160, 220, and 269) respectively for one or two persons.

The ski and snowboarding schools do not operate during the summertime.

Ski / Snowboard > Trails > Beginner

The combination of the three summits that make up Zermatt ski resort offer approximately 15 easy trails that are marked in blue on the trail map—a low number compared to the amount of skiable terrain that exists here.

About 23 percent of the slopes on the entire mountain are beginner trails, with the easiest slopes high up on the glacier in the Klein Matterhorn region. There are also some beginner trails located in the Gornergrat region on the Stockhorn mountain.

Beginners should note that because Zermatt is so big, trails often starts out as beginner trails, but they quickly advance to the intermediate level. Plus, there are no beginning trails that connect the three mountains, so if you're a beginner skiing from mountain to another, be prepared for some challenges.

Due to snow making, most of the beginner trails are open through March. By mid- to late April comes, the trails closer to the village (below 2,000 meters/6,578 feet) start closing and so do many of the beginner trails.

One nice aspect of summer skiing at Zermatt is that the glacier offers advanced beginner terrain. Any beginner with about three or four weeks of skiing experience should be able to make the trip up to the Klein Matterhorn and get amazing views of the real Matterhorn, no matter what time of year. This area also offers access across the border into Italy to ski on Cervinia.

Overall, Zermatt is not a perfect resort for beginner skiers.

Ski / Snowboard > Trails > Intermediate

The intermediate trails at Zermatt make up the majority of the ski runs across the three mountains. These trails offer a wide range of sights and skiing. While skiing along trails that range from relaxed intermediate to advanced intermediate, the views of the three mountains highlight both the Matterhorn and the 4,000-meter (13,100-foot) surrounding peaks.

Approximately 44 percent of all the trails at Zermatt are classified as intermediate level and can be identified by the red marks on the trial map. The wide variety of intermediate level skiing spread across the resort makes Zermatt a great place for mid-level skiers.

Intermediate skiers also have the option of skiing across all three mountains during one day, and most runs are long stretches of varied terrain ranging from wide open to forested.

For those who wish to stay in one area, the Klein Matterhorn Ski Area, or "Little Matterhorn" offers the most concentrated number of intermediate runs in the resort.

For early morning skiing, try the trails from both Gornergrat and Hohtälli to Gant. When skiing the Sunnegga region of the resort, try the five-kilometer/three-mile Kumme run, or if you want something on the easier side, try the trails above Riffelberg on Gornergrat.

Due to its elevation and location in the Alps, Zermatt is close to being the perfect skiing resort for any intermediate skier throughout the entire year (this includes the summer). The majority of the Klein Matterhorn is a glacier that offers a 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) vertical drop even during the summer months. During the winter ski season, of course, there's a wider variety of intermediate ski trails available.

For those skiers who are looking to get as many runs as possible in during a stay at Zermatt, it is best to go during the off-peak seasons (late November through December 20 and post-holiday January) and during the week, since the mountain does tend to get crowded during the weekends and holiday seasons.

Ski / Snowboard > Trails > Advanced

Zermatt is best known (and visited) for its expert terrain. Located in the shadow of the Matterhorn and on one of the highest ski resorts in all of Europe, there is enough expert terrain on the three mountains to occupy a lifetime, let alone one vacation. While the resort only officially marks the expert terrain at 33 percent of the mountain, the quality of expert trails and off-piste options make this figure modest at best. These trails can be found by the black marks on the trial map.

For those skiers looking for moguls, the trails of National, Gant, Aroleid, and Triftj located on the Stockhorn mountain offer great bumps.

Triftj is the site of the "Bump Bash" over Easter weekend - a mogul competition that brings the best European mogul skiers to this difficult trail. Due to its location between 3,400m and 2,700m (11,182 and 8,880 feet), the snow on these runs always make the moguls light and forgiving.

Along with great moguls, the Stockhorn area is regarded as the one of the best expert areas in Zermatt. Great runs can also be found off of the gondola going up to Blauherd.

There are great off-piste areas to ski in, as well as marked expert trails located on the top lifts of each mountain. Even though most of the expert terrain is located above the tree line in wide-open spaces, expert skiers exploring the off-piste areas and unofficial runs should be aware of sudden drop-offs and cliffs that appear suddenly. For this reason, anyone who is interested in skiing off-piste should employ a guide.

Unfortunately, unlike in Val-d'Isère and Méribel, Zermatt does not offer daily guided off-piste skiing groups. Instead, a private guide must be hired (which is expensive), or you'll have to join a fairly large-sized tour group (the Ski Club of Great Britain usually goes on one off-piste trip here per year).

Furthermore, due to the terrain on the glacier on Klein Matterhorn, the level of expert skiing declines during the summer months, so the best time to find the expert terrain at Zermatt is during the winter season. It is also important to note that the best expert trails often don't open until February, because a good snow cover is need to cover the rocks and cliffs.

Ski / Snowboard > Trails > Competition

Other than the races that the ski school offers, Zermatt does not have any races or racing trails. The reason for this is that the village of Zermatt feels that racing detracts from the enjoyment of the skiers that have paid to ski there.

Ski / Snowboard > Other Skiing > Night Skiing

There is limited lift-operated night skiing in Zermatt. Put on warm clothing and return to the snowy, fairy-tale mountain world of the Rothorn in the evening. Enjoy a fondue in a cozy atmosphere before leaving for a romantic moonlight descent. Valley descents accompanied by the Piste & Rescue Service.

Ski / Snowboard > Other Skiing > Heliskiing

Heliskiing is available in the area surrounding Zermatt, but it's not as good as the heliskiing in Colorado or Canada. In fact, some of the terrain that can be accessed by helicopter can also be found by off-piste skiing with a local guide.

Despite this fact, Zermatt is the Alps biggest heliskiing center and the helicopter pad in the village is very busy during the winter months. There are only three main drop-off points, so there is the chance that at any one point there could be multiple groups. The runs do not require excellent skiing ability. And the scenery is spectacular, especially the famous Monte Rosa, at over 10,200 feet (4,000 meters), which brings you all the way down to Furi.

In this regard, it is important to note that the ski patrol in Zermatt and many European ski resorts do not hold the same out of bounds attitude as in the United States. Skiers can go out of bounds without worrying about being hassled by the ski patrol or having tickets clipped, but once out of the ski resort's boundaries, each skier is responsible for his or her own safety.

With this said, the skiing off-piste and out of bounds at Zermatt is excellent and though expensive, it is worth it. Heliskiing runs anywhere from $98 (CHF 120) to $407 (CHF 500) per person per day. One company which offers such a service is Zermatt. You can also contact Air Zermatt, which offers flight with or without a guide.

Like many of the expert trails, the heliskiing is case-sensitive to how much snow is on the mountain at the time. The best times to go are in the late winter and early spring when the snow is still firm, the weather is warmer (around freezing), and it stays light longer.

Ski / Snowboard > Other Skiing > Cross-Country

The majority of the cross-country trails offered in Zermatt are located below the tree line, where skiers are sheltered from the wind and other elements. Unfortunately, since these trails are also located on the lower section of the mountain near the village, the cross-country skiing season is much shorter than the downhill season. This is entirely due to the trail's reliance on natural snow that falls during the winter months (November through March). On the upper slopes, there is a good snow cover through May, but the cross-country trails are usually only open from late December through March.

Zermatt offers fairly limited options for cross-country skiing, with only a few different loops and trails. The three designated areas for cross-country skiing are a four-kilometer/two-mile loop at Furi; a three-kilometer/2.5-mile trail near the bottom of the gondola to Furi; and another 12- to 15-kilometer/7.5- to 9.3-mile trail down at Täsch, where there is not always snow.

There are also 18 miles (30 kilometers) of walking trails that can be skied on. Cross-country skis can be rented at most of the local rental shops for about $23 (CHF 28).

Ski / Snowboard > For Children > Ski / Winter Activities

While Zermatt can boast world-class views and restaurants, it's lacking when it comes to catering to children. The majority of visitors here seem to be above 40, so children are definitely in the minority. Yet if you look, you can find childcare and children's services available in various locations in the village. Fortunately, these services do get good reviews.

As a whole, Zermatt is naturally a child-friendly village, especially since there are no cars allowed here. The one main street called the Bahnhofstrasse is wide-open and full of stores, and thankfully, unlike in other ski resorts, parents don't have to worry that children will wander into traffic-clogged streets. However, the streets can get icy during the winter, which can be a bit worrisome.

Also, while the trip up to Zermatt is filled with magnificent views, the relatively long travel time (five hours from Zürich, four hours from Geneva) and the train changes required along the way can be tiresome, especially for children.

For childcare during the day, the Nicoletta and Ginabelle hotels offer good nurseries for both people who are and who are not staying there. Kinderparadeis is another daycare service that is available for children two years and older. Kinderparadis is an indoor playground where parents can drop off their children for the day at a cost of about $51 (CHF 85) per child per day. Multi-lingual teachers fill the days with exciting activities for kids. Lunch and snacks are provided.

For children ages four to six who want to ski during part of the day, but are still too young for a full-day, or even half-day lesson, Zermatt ski school (Swiss Ski and Snowboard School) provides a ski daycare called Snowli-Club Riffelberg that costs about $61 (CHF 75) per child per day. It lasts from 9:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day. Two times during the day, the supervisors bring the children out to the slopes for a two-hour session of games and lesson in the kids' snow park.

For children ages six to 12, all-day ski lessons are provided starting at 9:15 in the morning and lasting until 4:00 p.m. These lessons are also broken up into two different times during the day when children go to either the Sunnegga-Blauherd or Gornergrat-Riffelberg areas. These lessons cost about $61 (CHF 75) per child per day. Both these lessons and the younger children daycare should be arranged prior to the start of the lesson.

There is no ski school available during the summer skiing season, but child daycare groups are available with all day activities.

All children who are under the age of nine ski for free, all children between the ages of nine and 16 can buy a pass for 50 percent off the adult price. Also, most ski and snowboard rental shops offer discounted rates for children at $8 (CHF 9) for skis only and $15 (CHF 18) for snowboards only per day.