The Matterhorn Ski Paradise is a very big winter sports area that is comprised of the Zermatt-Matterhorn area in Switzerland and the Breuil-Cervinia area in Italy. They sit between 5,315 ft (1,620 m) and 12,790 ft (3,899 m) above sea level, making it the highest winter sports area in the Alps. It’s open 365 days a year for skiing and snowboarding.
A complex system of escalators, elevators, travelators, stairs, funiculars, chairlifts, cable cars, gondolas, and even a cog train provide skiers with the ability to traverse multiple valleys and ski between the two countries with [somewhat] ease.
There are a combined total of 54 uplift systems that connect the pistes (148 slopes in total). And although the two countries are connected by the uplift systems, it is only possible to ski between them when (a) the weather is behaving itself and (b) you’ve paid the access fee.
We purchased our 7-day ski passes online about a week before we departed for Switzerland and “upgraded” our ski passes to include access to Italy for a small fee.
For this post and to keep things simple, I’ve divided the Ski Paradise into four sections. Sections 1-3 are in Switzerland and section 4 is in Italy (Breuil-Cervinia and Valtournenche).
Our home base was in Zermatt at the base of the Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular which is section 1 on the map below.
Little by little and day by day, we slowly explored our way from section 1 to section 4.
Weather affected our plans but not as often as it did in Austria two years ago. The biggest impact on this vacation was the 24-hour snowy period that caused the closure of all but a few lower lifts and runs in the Sunnegga-Blauherd section (#1). Life sometimes works in predictable ways and that snow day was the day we planned to ski to Italy (#4) but a skier can never complain about snow!
The wind was a constant factor in the Ski Paradise all week, especially as it related to the upper lifts (lift systems on the top half of mountains).
Without the upper lifts running, there was only so much “section-traversing” we could do. The upper lifts are, in some instances, the only way to traverse one section to another (e.g. Zermatt to Italy).
In the Skicircus (Austria), we ran into the issue where the upper lifts would randomly close early due to inclement weather. Things worked differently in the Ski Paradise.
If there was a potential for inclement weather in the Ski Paradise, the affected lifts would not open that day. The upside was that we would not get stuck in Italy because the access to Italy was closed. The downside was that the upper lifts may have been closed unnecessarily, limiting the skiable terrain.
We will never know if the days that the upper lifts were closed were necessary or not but the upper lifts connecting Zermatt to Italy (and vice versa) were closed on three of our seven days.
So let’s get down to the details on how to navigate this big and somewhat disconnected winter sports area, shall we?
Here’s a list of shortcuts if you’re looking for specific information regarding navigating the Matterhorn Ski Paradise.
- Day 1 – Sunnegga-Rothorn (section 1)
- Day 2 – Gornergrat (section 2)
- Day 3 – Snow day
- Day 4 – Gornergrat & Schwarzsee (sections 2 & 3)
- Day 5 – Cog train to Gornergrat (section 2)
- Day 6 – Italy (section 4)
- Day 7 – Sunnegga-Rothorn (section 1)
Section 1 (officially “Sunnegga-Rothorn”) is divided into lower, middle, and upper terrains, the middle being Blauherd.
The only direct access from Zermatt city centre to section 1 is via the Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular.
Fun fact: The Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular is the longest funicular in Switzerland. It opened in 1980, was modernized in 2013, and is entirely underground.
The funicular runs from Zermatt city centre to Sunnegga station (lower terrain). To get to Blauherd (middle terrain), passengers must take a chairlift or gondola from Sunnegga. To get Rothorn (upper terrain), passengers must get to Blauherd and then take the cable car from Blauherd.
The distance from the funicular station entrance (at the street) to the funicular platform is about 100 yards via an access tunnel.
At the end of the extremely long access tunnel is the funicular platform. The platform is a long staircase of ~100 stairs which feels like 1,000 in dressed in ski gear and carrying skis.
I can honestly say that the first time we reached the end of the access tunnel and saw the Stairs to Nowhere, I stopped and yelled, “Nooooooo!”
The photo below was taken two-thirds of the way up the Stairs to Nowhere.
Think you can avoid the Stairs to Nowhere? Think again.
Passengers must climb the full set of stairs – it’s just a matter of if you want to climb them before or after your funicular journey. You can split the climb as 50/ride/50 or 20/ride/80 or 90/ride/10.
You can slice and dice ’em however you want.
The world is your oyster with the Stairs to Nowhere, however, there are preferred funicular carriages based on your final destination (e.g. Rothorn) which I’ve detailed here.
Day 1 – Sunnegga-Rothorn (section 1)
Our first ski day was a Saturday which was a transfer day in Zermatt. This meant that there were very few people on the slopes because people were either arriving or departing Zermatt. It was wonderful!
Saturday was also one of our best weather days with blue skies and warm sunshine. We’ve had acceptable weather (read: not a lot of rain) this winter in the UK but it’s rare to see blue skies and feel warm sunshine so I was all for getting sunburnt.
The plan for the week was to explore one section per day with the ultimate goal of skiing from Zermatt to Italy. We penciled in our Italy trip for day 3.
We began exploring section 1 by taking the funicular from Zermatt to Sunnegga (lower terrain) where we skied one run down to the valley between sections 1 and 2.
The valley had very little snow and there were people hiking along the trails with dogs which I found to be a completely strange thing to do in the middle of February high up in the Alps.
We took the chairlift from the valley back up to Sunnegga and then took a second chairlift up to Blauherd (middle terrain).
From Blauherd, we skied down to Zermatt which was a waste of our time but was valuable from a learning perspective. We learned two important things.
First, run #3 in the lower terrain where it connects to run #2 is very dangerous. I actually saw this junction from my window seat on our train to Zermatt and commented to Peter that there was a run that “hung off of the side of the mountain.”
At this junction, there are cargo nets attached to the side of the mountain to catch people who “come in a little too hot” and would otherwise fly off of the mountain. A longer but safer end-of-the-day run is run #2 which is the arterial run to run #3.
Second, the end of the skiable terrain in section 1 is on the mountain, high above Zermatt. If you look at Google Maps, the skiable terrain ends abruptly at Cervo Mountain Resort.
The only way to get off of the mountain in section 1 is to dismount and take an elevator down to the Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular access tunnel. There are three elevators that ferry passengers from Cervo to the tunnel and there are big queues at the end of the day.
Note: A Ski Paradise employee manned the queue at the elevator platform.
Protip: Treat yourself to après ski at Cervo and wait out the queues if they are too long.
I admit that we were seriously confused the first time we skied to Zermatt in section 1. It was the first time we’d skied where the end of the skiable terrain was not in the village/town.
We dismounted, took the elevator down, and boarded the Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular back up to Sunnegga. From Sunnegga, we continued our journey up the mountain to Blauherd and then Rothorn (upper terrain).
We ate lunch on the massive deck at the pizzeria opposite the Rothorn cable car station. The views of the Matterhorn from this restaurant are some of the best in the Ski Paradise.
We skied a couple more hours after lunch and eventually skied down to Zermatt for the second time that day. We stopped at Cervo for après ski before taking the elevator down and trodding our way back through the funicular access tunnel to Zermatt city centre. That tunnel is so long. I hate that thing!
Day 2 – Gornergrat (section 2)
Our second day was spent exploring section 2.
We uplifted from Zermatt to Rothorn and then skied the backside of Rothorn via run #19 to the valley between sections 1 and 2 and took the Gant-Hohtalli cable car up to the upper terrain of section 2.
Run #19 was one of our favorite runs in the Ski Paradise. It’s wide, it was never icy, and it was super long. As a bonus, the Matterhorn was almost always in view.
From Hohtalli, we skied run #44 to Gifthittli (upper terrain, section 2), It felt like a different world in that area but I can’t put my finger on why it felt this way.
We then proceeded to make a huge mistake by dining at the buffet restaurant (read: cafeteria) in Riffelberg.
It was our worst dining experience of the week. It took 30+ minutes for us to get through the self-serve cafeteria (battlefield of aggressive people) and the food was expensive and awful.
After lunch, we took the chairlift up to Gifthittli and skied to the purpose-built igloo.
Note: Getting to the igloo on skis is very easy. Getting to the igloo on foot is doable but complicated.
The igloo was very cool.
The igloo window cannot be seen from outside of the igloo so I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the igloo.
I walked through the door and turned the corner and it was a total wow factor. The window of the igloo had been carved in the same shape as the Matterhorn.
I immediately got to work taking photos but there was one problem – there were two kids climbing on the exterior of the igloo and sliding through the window into the igloo. Every time I tried to take a photo, their little heads would pop into the window from the outside of the igloo.
Roughly 10 minutes after I entered the igloo, I surrendered to the kids and met up with Peter who had scored two chairs in the igloo’s “yard”. We drank beers and stared at the Matterhorn. It was magical.
We finished day 2 by skiing a couple more runs in section 2 and then headed back to section 1 via run #29 to the Gant-Blauherd chairlift located in the valley between sections 1 and 2.
From Blauherd, we skied to Zermatt via runs #9 and 2. This “return home” route ended up being our go-to route because it was easy to memorize: 29-9-2.
Day 3 – Snow day
We planned to ski to Italy on our third ski day but it started snowing around midnight the night before and continued to snow for 24 hours. This caused the closure of all but a few lower lifts and runs in the Sunnegga-Blauherd section.
Here’s what was open on the snow day.
Peter chose to ski a half-day on the snow day whilst I explored Zermatt.
Day 4 – Gornergrat/Schwarzsee (sections 2 & 3)
Our fourth day was spent inching toward Italy but not quite making it there.
We had a late start to the day because the middle/upper terrain uplift systems opened later than normal and there were A LOT of people wanting to hit the slopes and play in the fresh snow.
It took us over an hour to get from Zermatt to Rothorn in section 1. The bulk of this time was spent queuing for the funicular in Zermatt. The tunnel was backed up from the platform to the street entrance.
It was nearing luncheon by the time we reached Rothorn so we decided to ski to Adler Hitta for coffee, beer, and a bite to eat.
Adler Hitta is a deceivingly large restaurant with an outdoor bar and outdoor/indoor restaurant dining. Reservations are highly recommended for the restaurant but the outdoor bar seating and a few seats along the deck railing in the restaurant are first come, first serve.
Protip: If you can’t find a table in the bar, look up – there’s an upper deck that is somewhat hidden behind a retaining wall. There’s also a patio below the restaurant’s deck that has a few chairs and great views of the Matterhorn.
We sat in the outdoor area which was self-service for both drinks and food. The restaurant menu is not available in the bar but they have a BBQ shack where you can order hearty dishes like pulled pork sandwiches and chili con carne. The BBQ shack got the job done.
I appreciated the ample helmet parking at Adler Hitta.
After lunch, we traversed to section 2 and skied to the end of the skiable terrain near Furi station. Unfortunately, a valley severs the end of the skiable terrain from Furi station and the only way to get to Furi from the end of the skiable terrain is via a gondola.
Protip: The gondola station at the end of the skiable terrain in section 2 has two levels. To go back up the mountain to Riffelberg, climb the metal exterior steps and board a gondola. To cross the valley to Furi station, enter the lower level (basement) of the station, ride the escalator up, and board the gondola at the top of the escalator.
We alighted at Furi station and were immediately confused – there was so much going on and the signage was not obvious at first.
Furi station is a five-spoke station. There are three gondola lines and two cable car lines that converge at this station.
With the help of a station attendant, we finally boarded the Furi-Schwarzsee gondola to section 3.
The Furi-Schwarzsee gondola is busy because it begins in Zermatt and the cabins were already 50-75% full by the time it reached its first stop at Furi.
Note: It was the norm in the Ski Paradise for families and groups to refuse to split up their group and board in separate gondolas or on separate chairlifts. This caused long and unnecessary queues.
We rode the gondola for two stops to the end of the line at Schwarzsee (section 3, middle terrain)
We skied run #55 which brought us to the Zermatt letters.
The space between the letters and the Matterhorn in real life is a much shorter distance than it looks in the photo.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the Zermatt letters and so we knew that was as far as we were going to be able to go that day. We continued to ski run #55 which took us to 53 and then to 52 and then with a lot of effort, we uphill skied on downhill skis back to Schwarzsee station and took the gondola down to Furi station.
So, let’s talk about the worst run in the Ski Paradise, run #52.
Run 52 is not a ski run. It is a cross-country trail that has mistakenly been included in the Ski Paradise as a ski run.
Run 52 is mostly flat with some uphill sections – a description you do not want to hear when talking about downhill skiing.
There were at least two sections of run 52 where everyone removed their skis and walked uphill. There was a lot of profanity in a lot of different languages being shouted at the same time which I appreciated.
At the top of every hill, we’d hoped that a long downhill section would follow but no, this was not the case. There were flat sections at the top of the hills where we exhausted ourselves cross-country skiing on downhill skis. If you know, you know.
If we had to do run 52 all over again we would not ski it but if we made a wrong turn and ended up on run 52 again, then we’d take the chairlift (near Stafel restaurant) to Hirli and ski run 53 to 56 and take the Furi-Schwarzsee gondola (aka Matterhorn Express gondola).
From Furi station, we uplifted to Gifthittli and skied our preferred “return to home” route, 29-9-2.
Everything was going swimmingly well until Peter took a bad tumble. I blame run 52 for consuming all of our energy and leaving us running on fumes by the time we got close to Zermatt.
I thought he broke his leg but it was his shoulder that was the problem. A nice fellow helped me retrieve Peter’s gear that had been strewn all over the run and I delivered it to Peter who had slid down the run a long way.
When we eventually returned to Zermatt, Peter went to the emergency clinic (only $500!). An hour later, he returned to the hotel with x-rays, his arm in a sling, and a diagnosis of a bruised bicep (he said it felt like a dislocated shoulder).
We got drunk and ordered room service. WHAT A DAY.
Day 5 – Cog train to Gornergrat (section 2)
Peter took day 5 off due to his injury and since I’m not comfortable skiing by myself (see: Peter tumble), it ended up being a day off for me as well.
We walked to the Matterhorn viewing platform after breakfast. We then got a coffee. Our coffee purchase was the first time we had attempted to pay in cash and we were told that we had old notes and had to exchange them at the bank for new notes because businesses are not allowed to accept old notes. Except he did accept our notes. We kindly thanked him, drank our coffees, and went to the bank.
We had a long lunch in Zermatt city centre and then I hopped on the Gornergrat cog train to make a second visit to the igloo.
Visiting the igloo on skis is 800x easier than visiting it on foot and I don’t recommend visiting it on foot, however, if feet are your only option, then here’s how you achieve that.
- Take the Gornergrat train to Rotenboden station.
- Walk BEHIND the station depot (small wooden building).
- Walk through the tunnel (under the train tracks).
- Follow the snow plowed path and Iglu-Dorf signs.
The hike to the igloo takes 15-20 minutes at a brisk pace. Snowshoes are recommended.
Getting back to the Gornergrat train is more complicated. It is not feasible to hike back up to Rotenboden station so the only other option is to hike down to Riffelberg station and it is a long way down. Fast on skis. Slow on foot.
On the day of my visit, there was a snow plowed path but there was no signage. The path was like an arterial route to the ski runs and, therefore, was a very indirect route. It took me a brisk 20 minutes to walk from the igloo to Riffelberg station. My feet often sank into the snow up to my knees.
If I had to do my hike from the igloo to Riffelberg station over again, I’d walk on the edge of ski runs #45 or 37. This sounds like a dangerous venture but it’s not. No one skis on the edge of the runs – you’ll be fine.
It took me a little over two hours from the moment I boarded the Gornergrat train in Zermatt to when returned to the Zermatt station.
Day 6 – Italy (section 4)
We finally made it to Italy on our sixth day! You can read about that here.
Day 7 – Sunnegga-Rothorn (section 1)
Our seventh and final day of skiing was a low-key day. We skied in the morning and arrived at Adler Hitta around 11:30am for luncheon. We did not have reservations and we knew from our prior experience that we had to arrive before 11:30am to get a seat along the railing on the restaurant’s deck.
We ordered coffee in an attempt to stall any ordering of food. The staff had obviously seen this tactic before and put no pressure on us to order food before we were ready. I appreciated their patience… and their perfect English.
Adler Hitta is known for its roasted chickens which are cooked over an open wood fire. The chicken looked delicious but, unfortunately, it did not live up to its reputation – not a lot of meat (it’s a mini chicken) and somewhat dry.
We ordered one full chicken and a bowl of goulash soup to share. The soup was tastier and had better value for money than the chicken and if we had to do it over again, we’d order two big bowls of goulash soup. I’d also order a beer and be prepared with a hat, scarf, and sunglasses.
Following lunch, we took the Eja chairlift up to Sunnegga and skied down to Zermatt, arriving at our hotel around 2pm. I regret not skiing a full day on our last day but we just didn’t have the energy to do so.
In summary, seven days was the right amount of time for us and is what I would recommend for visitors who have not skied the Ski Paradise. Fewer than seven days and you may not make it to Italy. More than seven days and you may yearn for new terrain, or a new ski resort altogether.