Southwest of Zurich and Birg, the car-free town of Zermatt is the snowboarding base for the infamous Matterhorn Ski Paradise. This well-known and very popular ski area combines several interconnected mountains and even provides access over Kleine Matterhorn to a pair of Italian ski areas.
Zermatt is the perfect base for exploring the Matterhorn Ski Paradise and is surrounded by 30+ mountains over 4,000m. This charming Swiss village at 1,620m elevation hosts over 2 million visitors each year, and very few of the tourists are from English-speaking countries (<4% US and <11% UK). While you may encounter very few Americans or English, everyone here seems to know a little. But it is still recommended to know some German as well. The area is a mix of cultures with much French and Italian influence. You may start a conversation with a German greeting of guten tag, then hear some French, and then end with an Italian ciao.
The Matterhorn Ski Paradise is truly an epic destination for freeriding snowboarders, especially if you are looking for 1,000m descents on ungroomed pistes on and off marked runs. Just looking around, you will see countless, untracked, above-treeline alpine bowls waiting for you to explore. And, there are plenty of maintained runs along panoramic ridges leading deep down into the glacial valleys below. Most of the skiers tend to say within the marked, groomed runs. The few snowboarders that do come here tend to be a little more adventurous and willing to deal with the numerous traverses needed to get in and out of the ungroomed runs.
The Matterhorn Ski Paradise consists of the northern Swiss-half centered around Zermatt and the southern Italian-half center around Cervinia/Valtournenche. Nestled under the shadow of the infamous Matterhorn (4,478m), the combined interconnected ski resorts have 149 pistes totaling 358km that are served by 57 lifts. The Zermatt ski area has 80 pistes totaling 200km that are served by 34 lifts. The Cervinia/Valtournenche ski areas have 64 pistes totaling 158km that are served by 69 pistes. The marked pistes offer a range of difficulty: 69km blue (easy), 188km red (moderate), 18km black (difficult), and 38km yellow (marked but ungroomed and not patrolled). In addition to the marked pistes, there are probably about the same amount of unmarked off-piste routes to explore with a guide. There are also 21km of marked pistes on the glaciers for summer usage. The Matterhorn Ski Paradise has a range of trams, gondolas, chairlifts, t-bars and even a railway to get you up to the lifts.
The Matterhorn Ski Paradise is made up of several interconnected mountains and lift systems accessible from one lift pass. These areas include the following from northeast to southwest: Rothorn Paradise, Sunnegga Paradise, Gornergrat, Riffelberg, Schwarzsee Paradise, Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Cervinia (Italy), and Valtournenche (Italy). From Zermatt, you will need to take a gondola or train up to one of three starting points: Sunnegga Paradise, Riffellberg or Furi (just below Schwarzsee Paradise). You will need to pass through one of these to get up to the higher lifts and pistes. Matter of fact, there are limited runs down from these points. Most people end up taking a gondola or train back down the mountain from these points at the end of the day to avoid long, flat traverses and walks back into town.
With that said, you will most likely not have 2,200m vertical laps all day long (or ever). Although the elevation difference between the uppermost summit and town is 2,200m, it is typically not practical to make runs of this vertical due to closed runs, flat traverses or long walks back to the base lifts or town. For example, if it has been snowing, Piste #62 and Piste #62 at the bottom of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise area will most likely be closed due to avalanche concerns thus preventing a top to bottom run.
Therefore, here is the maximum vertical you can expect. The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise has a maximum vertical drop of 2,200m if the Trockener Tram AND Pistes #62/69 are open (but the last 200m vertical below Furi requires a lot of walking). However, if Piste #62 is closed, which usually occurs after snow, then the vertical drop is only 700m. In the Gornergrat/Riffelberg area, the maximum vertical is 1,200m. In the Rothorn Paradise area, the maximum vertical is about 1,100m.
Matterhorn Ski Paradise is also interconnected with the Italian ski resorts of Cervinia and Valtournenche. If you feel like checking out the Italian slopes, just take the gondola to Furi and then take the tram to Trockener Steg and then the tram up to top of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (if its open) at 3,883m. From up there, it is possible with a little traversing down over Plateau Rosa to descend all the way down into Valtournenche (1,524m) or 11.5km down into Breuil-Cervinia (2,050m). Getting back up is another matter, especially from Valtournenche, from here you will need to no less than six lifts to get back up to Plateau Rosa in order to get over to Zermatt. While up on Plateau Rosa near Theodul Pass, check out cafe Bontadini for an espresso.
The Matterhorn Ski Paradise is also known for having the longest ski run in Switzerland at 20.4km. You will only want to attempt this if you are ready for a lot of flat traverses to walk. There is also the Matterhorn Ski Safari which is a designated route linking most of the lifts to provide 10,000m of vertical in a day if you want to make it all the way to Cervinia or 12,500m of vertical if you want to go to Valtournenche. There is a separate mountain map that shows the combination of runs and lifts to follow this safari.
If you are looking for a family-friendly zone, the Rothorn Paradise, Sunnegga Paradise and Riffelberg areas tend to attract more families and beginners. For families heading higher up, the Gravity Terrain Park is located up on the Theodul Glacier at 3,000m.
However, if you are looking for some challenge, check out the yellow ungroomed runs, such as Piste #16/17 off Rothorn Paradise or Piste #67/68/69 off the Matterhorn or Piste #59/60 off the Schwarzsee Paradise. Another very popular area to explore is the Stockhorn / Triftti area on the east side, but this area can be closed early season, maybe until mid-February, due to avalanche concerns.
When you are ready for lunch, there are several great places on the mountain to enjoy. Three of the better high up restaurants include Restaurant Riffelberg, Bergrestaurant Edelweiss and Vis-a-vis at Gorner Grat. Also, make sure not to miss heading down to the quaint village of Findeln (just south of Sunnegga Paradise) and visit the Findlerhof. It offers amazing views and the menu has all the Swiss classics. If you can move after lunch, head back up to the famous moguls at the Triftji glacier on the eastern side of the Matterhorn Ski Paradise.
For dinner, try Whymper Stube or Schwyzer Stubli (traditional). If you are looking an amusing dinner, make sure to head over to Chez Heini, which is kind of a cult favorite due to its madcap decor and live entertainment from the chef.
The apres ski scene usually depends upon where you are coming down or where you are staying. For apres ski, try the Papperla Pub, Olympia Stubli near Sunnegga, Zum See near Furi, or Simi near SimiMax. If you are still not satisfied, then check out Elsies, Postli, or Hennu Stall. Keep in mind that apres ski is pretty mellow on Sunday evenings as there is usually no live music. Speaking of music, this is a pretty low-quality affair.
For some nightlife, try the Pink Elephant, Grampis, Papperla Pub (younger crowd), Old Zermatt (older crowd), Elsies Bar, Panorama Bar on top of Nicoletta Hotel or Le Broken. After midnight, make sure to take in the dancing at Schneewittchen which is next to Papperla Pub at Bahnhofstrasse.
It is important to keep in mind that there are plenty of glaciers, cliff, rocks and avalanche zones within these ski areas. Therefore, unless you really know where you are going, you should stick to the marked, groomed pistes. When off-piste, the hazards such as glacial crevasses, rock faces and rocks will most likely not be marked and are extremely hazardous. If you really want to go off-piste, there are many local guides who will gladly share with you their favorite runs and this is highly recommended. It is also highly recommended to always have appropriate avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel, first aid) and always travel in a similarly equipped group. You can hire a Swiss mountain guide at the Alpin Center for tour of Schwaztor (black gate) across glacier covered with deep pow and seracs. That tour finishes with a narrow ice canyon and an ice cave. Or, Air Zermatt provides helicopter access to several peaks, including Monte Rosa (4,250m), Alphubeljoch (3,782m) and Plateau Rosa (3,479m).
In light of the avalanche hazards, the Zermatt Ski Paradise ski safety staff takes snow safety very seriously here. As they should with the huge peaks and big snowfall you will find here. Therefore, with any significant snowfall, you find that the steeper, more challenging pistes and related lifts will be closed. If you find a lift or piste that is not open at the start of the day, it will most likely not be open that day. Moreover, if there has been serious snow overnight, you can forget about going over to Italy. The final tram up is usually closed, as are the high lifts of Cervinia leading back up to the Plateau Rosa. And, with snow overnight, plan the start of your day carefully since Piste #62 coming down from Matterhorn Glacier Paradise will probably be closed, as well as the Stockhorn / Triftti area. So, if you arrive in snowy period and want to get over to Italy at some point, make sure to go as soon as possible, like on your first day.
Tip: Since most people coming to Zermatt arrive on Saturday and depart on Saturday, the slopes are empty on Saturdays. So, if you want first tracks and to have the place to yourself, it is highly recommended to arrive and depart such that you can be up on the mountain on Saturdays. Also, keep in mind that the lifts do not come into the village. Therefore, you really need to pick the location of your hotel carefully to be either close to the town center or close to your preferred lift.
The Hotel Rex Garni is located nicely close to town but within a quick walk to the better lifts. It is a quaint and comfortable four-star hotel with spacious double rooms (some even have kitchens). There is a complete sauna onsite, a nice bar, wifi in the lobby and a complete sumptuous breakfast. Their polite staff is quite helpful and even provides complementary rides to and from the train station. Even with their convenient location (and right next to the Papperla Pub!), it is still quiet at night.
Basics: Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels and restaurants, and ATM machines are plentiful. You will find that many hotels have wifi available, though usually only in the lobbies. As of February 2012, the dining was very expensive, and you will find many menus with the traditional Swiss dishes of Rosti and Fondue. Also, smoking is still permitted in restaurants and bars in Switzerland, and there are usually a lot of smokers.
To reach the Zermatt snowboarding by train, plan to take one of the many international connections to Birg or Visp, which is south of Zurich or southeast of Bern. From Birg or Visp, transfer to the narrow-gauge Matterhorn Gotthard railway, which only leads to Zermatt. From the Zermatt Bahnhof, there are plenty of electric taxis or horse-drawn carriages to assist you to your final destination.
To reach Zermatt by car, you will need to keep in mind that Zermatt is car-free. The closest parking is in the town of Tasch, which is 5km from Zermatt. The major roads in southern Switzerland and the Lotschberg Tunnel from the north all lead to the town of Visp. You may want to park in Visp and take the train into Zermatt. Otherwise, you can drive south from Visp to Tasch to park. From Visp or Tasch, take the narrow-gauge Matterhorn Gotthard railway, which only leads to Zermatt. From the Zermatt Bahnhof, there are plenty of electric taxis or horse-drawn carriages to assist you to your final destination. Note: there are 2,900 covered parking spaces in Tasch.
Note: If you plan to head to Zermatt for snowboarding by train, here are two great options offered by the Swiss train system SBB. First, there is the discounted Swiss Transfer Ticket which provides a round-trip train ticket from an airport directly to the town near the ski area, plus 50% off any additional train or bus tickets. Second, there is the Snow-N-Rail ticket which provides a round-trip ticket from anywhere in Switzerland combines with a ski lift pass for as long as you need at a total 20% discount (see: http://www.sbb.ch/snownrail ).
Overall, Zermatt is the 1st most popular snowboard & freeride destination of all 68 snowboarding resorts in Switzerland.