Going through green valleys, rocky landscape, high alpine passes and two beautiful yet very different lakes, milky blue Lago Bianco and the dark coloured Lago Nero, the trail leads up to the fantastic vantage point of Sassal Mason hut with the views of Piz Palü glaciers, its heart-shaped lake and Val Poschiavo.
Hike in the canton of Graubünden
Standing on top of the mountain, I feel like a golden Madonna atop Monte Moro Pass, her hands reaching gracefully forward into Italy and her back turned to Switzerland. We are in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, and Italy looks meters away. For some reason, I recall the French saying “I have seen the Virgin”, which basically means you are crazy.
Graubünden is the “hiking canton”. This sparsely populated region of eastern Switzerland is renowned for its wild, dramatic nature and quaint alpine villages. Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein, the locals speak Swiss-German, Italian, and about one-sixth of them speak Romansh, a regional language close to Latin that originated in ancient Rome. Even the German name Graubünden comes in a variety of forms: Grisons in French, Grigioni in Italian, and Grischun in Romansh.
Pontresina is one place to hear the language in action. “Grüezi!”, meaning “Hello”, and we immediately realise we are in the Swiss-German speaking part of Switzerland. “Allegra!”, or “Welcome!” reminds us we are in Graubünden.
From Pontresina to Sassal Mason
The journey from Geneva to Graubünden isn’t short, the canton lies on the opposite side of the country. We head towards Val Poschiavo, a remote valley on the Italian border. Our destination is Pontresina. Internet mostly proposes the trails to the Sassal Mason hut starting from Ospizio Bernina, Alp Grüm or Cavaglia. But they are too short to our taste. Used to long hikes, we decided to start from Pontresina, a picturesque mountain town, a less pretentious version of neighbouring St Moritz.
The trail, flat and easy, goes through the forest to Surovas and continues through the meadows before reaching the Morteratsch railway station. People come here to see the Morteratsch Glacier. Our hike is referred to as a long hike, and knowing how long it usually takes us to reach a hut, any hut, we reserve the glacier for our way back.
From Morteratsch, the trail starts to climb. We pass by the Cascata da Bernina, a waterfall, where the river Ova da Bernina cascades down over 50 meters. Now the trail becomes a succession of turns. Going through the verdant valley and along the river towards Bernina Suot, the landscape becomes less green and rockier. Its austerity is softened by little pink alpine flowers.
The trail goes through Diavolezza, where the famous red trains of the Bernina Express pass by at regular intervals, its rails almost touching our hiking trail. The views of the mountains and the glaciers are splendid. The peacefulness and quietude of the place is only interrupted by mountain bikers who descend down at full speed and then take a train up. At places, bikers and hikers share the road, but both species still get along with each other. The land here is barren, treeless, and scarred with rockfalls.
The footing is a gravel well-marked path, which becomes rocky and zig-zags frequently. We come across Black Lake, or Lej Nair in Romansh. The lake received its name because of the black colour of its water. When the sun disappears for a while, the colour looks really black.
We arrive at White Lake, or Lago Bianco in Italian. Sitting at an altitude of 2.234 m, it’s not a natural lake. It was formed by the two dams, Scala and Atlas, on the site of two natural lakes (Lago Bianco and Lago della Scala), and the water is used for generating electricity. With its milky blue colour, this lake-reservoir is stunning. It’s motionless and silent, with the snow-capped mountains reflecting in its waters. Similar to Black Lake, the colour of its water gave the name to the lake. The watershed between Lej Nair and Lago Bianco is also the language frontier between the Romansh-speaking Engadine and the Italian-speaking Val Poschiavo.
Now it’s a pleasant stroll along the gravelly shores of Lago Bianco with ever-changing views. In this high mountain landscape, modern bright red trains of Bernina Express passing by look surreal. The path remains flat while we contour the lake and it leads us to the dam with medieval-looking stone walls at the southern end of the lake. From here, you can either go down via Alp Grüm into Poschiavo or up to Sassal Mason.
Sassal Mason refuge
A short climb brings us to Sassal Mason, both a refuge and a thick-walled mountain hotel. Built at 2,355m, its views stretch over Piz Palü glaciers, the heart-shaped Lagh da Palü (Palü Lake), Alp Grüm, and Val Poschiavo. This is the place, where Switzerland ends and Italy begins.
We virtually have the mountains to ourselves. The sound of cowbells drifts lazily across from the other side of the valley. It’s pastoral and peaceful. Sassal Mason itself looks more like a small cosy hotel. There is a choice between double rooms and dormitories. We settle for a dormitory. We feel fortunate, there is no one but us.
In the late afternoon, when the pinkish light envelopes the surrounding mountains, we realise we are starving, and we head to the restaurant. With its antique wooden furniture, the restaurant looks like somebody’s dining room. We order several glasses of “crotto” wine and hearty plates of polenta with mushrooms, the local specialty of Val Poschiavo and Valtellina.
Crotto wines come from the stone caves typical of the mountainous regions in Lombardy and Swiss Alps, in particular, Val Poschiavo, the Italian-speaking part Graubünden, Ticino as well as Valtellina, Valchiavenna and Lake Como, Lombardy region of northern Italy, bordering Switzerland. With a large amount of cool air passing through and keeping the same temperature year-round, the villagers learned long ago that “crotti” are the perfect place to store cured meat, cheese, and wine. Here, in Sassal Mason, the wine comes from two round, domed structures resembling an igloo built next to the hotel. Made of stone, these “crotto”, or rather “crot” in Poschiavo dialect look similar to the “trulli”, limestone dwellings found in the southern region of Puglia.
Return by Bernina Express
The next morning, we feel fortunate with the weather. It’s a clear day, and we have the most impressive view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, both Swiss and Italian. We can probably see the town of Tirano, the terminus of the Bernina Express on the Italian side. After a coffee on the terrace with a view of the Palü Glacier and its lake, we begin our descent to the Alp Grüm station. We decide to take a train to have another perspective on Lago Bianco and to see for ourselves if a ride on Bernina Express, one of the most iconic railroads of the world, lives up to the hype.
From Sassal Mason we start our descent through the alpine meadow towards Alp Grüm, a railway station on the Bernina Express line, where the railroad does the most acrobatic loop on the edge of the plateau. Alp Grüm has two things – a fantastic setting and pizzoccheri, a regional specialty made from buckwheat pasta served at its hotel-restaurant.
With its dramatic viaducts, tunnels, tight bends, and twists, all integrated harmoniously in nature, the luxury Bernina Express is a masterpiece of engineering classified as a UNESCO heritage site. Switzerland has a tradition of running trains up vertiginous slopes as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. But the railroad, which runs from Chur in Switzerland down to Tirano in Italy is in a league of its own. The 122km journey on this 100-year-old railway brings the passengers over 196 bridges, 55 tunnels, and the spectacular scenery of dark green valleys, snow-capped Alps, quaint churches, and postcard-looking houses. The station names and even the passengers’ voices change along the way, and all of a sudden, the Swiss-German becomes Romansh and then Italian.
As the first-class panoramic seats on the Bernina Express must be booked in advance, we buy regular second-class tickets. But that doesn’t matter as our carriage has large windows, which look like projection screens. As the train zigzags its way down, from my seat I watch the lakes and the glacial plains with a rocky, tree-free land if I was watching a film. It looks surreal.
At the Bernina Pass, the train skirts the edges of milky blue Lago Bianco and the dark coloured Lago Nero near Ospizio Bernina station. Here, surrounded by glaciers and bare cliffs, the train reaches the altitude of 2’253 m, the highest point of the line and Europe’s highest train crossing.
An old Japanese couple, who got on the train at Diavolezza station, seem very excited. I bet they took a cable car up the Diavolezza viewing platform in search of the snow-capped peaks and fondue at 3,000 m. Today, we skip Diavolezza and get off at Morteratsch, another scenic station with a charming hotel. In less than one hour, a gravel road brings us directly to the glacier snout. The glacier tongue, an awesome spectacle of ice and tumbled rock, looks like a frozen river of ice with fabulous views of the jagged Bernina Range. Although the Morteratsch glacier is the third longest glacier in the eastern Alps, it has receded dramatically and there are information boards with photos along the Morteratsch Glacier Trail showing how it looked over the past 100 years.
We arrive at the empty parking lot when the late afternoon light started to fade. It was a beautiful and easy hike but what struck me more is that the cliché “Switzerland is a paradise for hikers” translates the essence of the country at its best. The Swiss Alps being what they are, in one day, we experienced the mountains, the plains and the lakes, walking and riding a train, polenta, rösti and capuns, three languages, the grandeur and the splendour, and no falls.
Access: The Sassal Mason hut is located in Switzerland in the canton of Graubünden. It’s accessible from Pontresina, Ospizio Bernina, Cavaglia and Alp Grüm.
Hiking Time: Pontresina – Sassal Mason hut: 4h15, Sassal Mason hut – Pontresina: 3h40. Alternatively, from Sassal Mason you can go to Alp Grüm (35 min) and take Bernina Express to Pontresina or walk to Ospizio Bernina (1h40) and take Bernina Express from there.
You can also descend from Alp Grüm to Cavaglia by train or by foot – either directly (1h) or by a little detour to the Lake Palü (add 1-2 hours) and visit Marmitte dei Giganti (Glacier Garden of Cavaglia), holes in rocks carved by water and stones.
You can also hike from Pontresina to Ospizio Bernina (3h30), from Ospizio Bernina to Alp Grüm and Cavaglia (3h), and from Cavaglia to Poschiavo (1h45). Pontresina’s website offers a good choice of hiking trails.
For if you want to see Morteratsch glacier, you can also hike to the nearby Boval hut website and stay there overnight.
Difficulty: The hike from Pontresina to the Sassal Mason hut is easy: T1 (easy hiking), mainly flat but long, 18km.
Accommodation: UPDATE as of 2021: Unfortunately, the Sassal Mason hut is currently closed for an indefinite period. However, you can still do the same hike but stay overnight in the nearby hotel Alp Grüm or the hotel Ospizio Bernina further down towards Pontresina.
The Sassal Mason hut Facebook is open from the end of June to October. Accommodation in individual rooms or dormitories with mattresses, pillows and blankets. The hut offers half-board (evening meal, overnight stay, breakfast). Reservations required.
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Written by ANYWAYINAWAY
Olga and Errol are the Swiss-Russian couple behind ANYWAYINAWAY. Passionate about unique culture and traditions, they decided to take career breaks and explore the world with the intention to expand awareness and provide new perspectives to the understanding of ethnic minority people, customs, traditions and culture. They also show the beauty of our planet and try to find something interesting in the ordinary.