Crans Montana in the Valais region of the Swiss Alps is a hidden gem of high-altitude shred. Words by Matt Ray
If you’re looking for high-altitude adventure, big mountains, fresh air and descents that last for days, you’d be hard pushed to find a better mountain bike destination than Crans Montana in Switzerland. Boasting epic amounts of beautiful trails, plus a bike park, it’s hardly a surprise that the Enduro World Series hosts rounds in the region. This adventure is a taste of the delights the area offers.
Need to know
- Location: Switzerland, Vallais
- Bike park: Crans Montana bike park
- Trails: Natural, manmade and bike park
- Tourist board: myswitzerland.com, crans-montana.ch
Snow, mountains and bikes
My tyres roll across the icy snowfield with a sound like the popping of gritty bubble wrap. I’ve already taken one slam but I’m determined to make it back onto the grass, as my back wheel drifts and I teeter out of the saddle, shifting my weight back and forth to avoid losing the front end.
I use a hollow in the crystalline snow to rail my bike around and hammer through the boggy margin, back onto rocky but less treacherous ground with a whoop that bounces off the high stone walls around us.
I’ve just ridden the Creux de La Tieche, at 2,250m above sea level, a long gulley below an imposing ridgeline of sheer grey stone. Our guide has never seen snow up here in July but extreme weather the week before brought the white stuff down from the 2,800m Glacier de la Plaine Morte to our elevation.
OK, so it’s the only patch of snow we come across in our 23km cross country ride, but who can pass up an opportunity to go snow biking? It’s testament to the astonishing variety of terrain that riding at Crans Montana, in the Swiss Alps, offers you.
It isn’t a resort that pings on UK riders’ radars, but that’s about to change after the organisers of the Enduro World Series got wind of the high quality steeps, paid a visit and promptly invited themselves to hold a race here for the next three years. Oh, and the 2025 UCI World Champs XC event will be held here too…
But away from the pro racing scene, what sets Crans Montana apart is the well-maintained network of natural, signposted trails, linked by fireroads and accessed by the many gondolas that run 365 days a year. The trails are shared by hikers and walkers, but the light traffic means we hardly come across anyone all day. The bike park with its long blue, red and black runs are similarly quiet, a blessing when compared to the usual suspects, such as Les Gets.
Crans Montana’s enduro scene is well catered for in terms of bike rentals and guides, so I pick up a 2021 Lapierre Spicy 4.9, enduro specced with 29inch wheels and 170mm of travel. It’s a bluebird day and the psyche is high – bike shop banter comes courtesy of local rider Alexis Fauellet: “This place is the best for enduro! There are so many trails and you can go from super-steep to flow, climb to an amazing view and then you’ll ride around a corner to a huge waterfall. The whole area is really developing.”
This place is the best for enduro! There are so many trails
Our BikeVS.ch guide Julien Paganelli rocks up and we’re off on a route that goes up up the Arnouva lift and along a trail past Vermala, then onto the mid station of Cabane des Violettes (called Les Marolires). The top of that gondola is above the treeline and the cobalt blue skies stretch from horizon to horizon, picking out the distant, snow-topped peaks of the 4,506m Weiss Horn.
From there I pick up a steep singletrack through the high alpine meadow, dotted with wild flowers, and flow down the slope past sheer grey cliffs of granite and gneiss. I’m going to log a lot of descent today, but first I have to earn it…
Into Thin Air
As soon as I start to climb, the blood seems to flee my legs and start pounding through my vital organs as I haul massive lungfuls of air in – in these balmy, calm conditions it’s easy to forget that I’m over two kilometres above sea level. It doesn’t matter how many laps of the woods you get under your belt, nothing really prepares you for riding in the Alps.
I stop for a quick refuel before the steepest, longest section of the day’s main climb, up to the highest point of the ride, the summit of Petit Mont Bonvin at 2,397m. Climbing up from the top of the main gondola does give you a real sense of being ‘out there’ and taking on a massive challenge.
As we ride up the rough doubletrack I see the hollows and lips of a natural snow park where skiiers and snowboarders send jumps and tricks in the winter months. It’s a welcome distraction to the punishing gradient.
As soon as I crest the climb and come to the summit I know the effort was worth it. The view from Petit Mont Bonvin is awe-inspiring. To the left, towering cliffs rise grey and snow topped, their flanks scattered with loose scree, evidence of the fracturing forces of wind and ice that haunt these high places.
Patches of green cling to the precipitous mountainsides, cut through with a wavering line of singletrack, parts of which have been washed away by storm-triggered scree slides, often above uncompromisingly sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of meters into the fissures below.
To the right, a muscular ridgeline flanked by snow and topped by the green and gold of grass and wildflowers, marches up out of the ravine to meet yet higher rocky peaks on the other side. My route takes me along the narrow band of singletrack and down into the ravine.
Riding along this trail, barely wider than a single tyre, tests your nerve, especially after I’m told that a rider fell here recently and almost lost his brand new bike over the drop… The only reason that the trail is even here is that it’s regularly refreshed by hand by work gangs paid for by the local commune – a single rain storm or rock slide can scrub them from the landscape like they never existed.
The Roaring Mountain
I make it across the sketchy, cliff-top singletrack and switch back into the loose boulder field below, my tyres bouncing off sharp-angled rocks and sliding around the scree-filled corners. It’s demanding because you cannot relax for a second, but riding at pace in this environment really lights up my brain, as the freshly re-arranged rocks force you to pick your line and maintain your balance as they shift under your tyres.
As I ride further down my eardrums are pummelled by a constant roaring that seems to shake the whole mountain. I turn a corner to see a huge waterfall spouting out of the side of the mountain, sending thrashing white water to boom and crash amongst the rocks below. It’s called La Tieche waterfall and the recent snow and rain have cranked it up to massive proportions.
I turn a corner to see a huge waterfall spouting out of the side of the mountain
I stop for a moment to drink in the scene and suddenly appreciate how insignificant my presence is in the face of millions of tonnes of water and hundreds of metres of oblivious stone, all in perpetual change.
Further down, the trail becomes more cohesive with rocky slabs bursting from the topsoil, and large, wheel-eating holes that you need to be ‘eyes up’ to spot. Here, speed is your friend, so long as you stay four moves ahead!
The rock gardens give way to a riotous carpet of alpine grass and wildflowers and then, before I know it, I’m back in amongst the trees, threading down fast, muddy, rocky chutes. The trail has widened from single to doubletrack but I’m glad of extra line options. Bikes ride these trails all the time but they are natural rather than purpose-built, so you need to search out and ride the best lines.
By the time I hit the bottom my face is covered in muddy spray and I’m grinning like a pirate. It’s been an exhilarating run but now it’s time to eat, so I stop at the ‘locally famous’ La Cave, a family-owned mountainside restaurant that does a killer raclette and other traditional Savoyard dishes. My rustically delicious dish of rosti (grated potato) with goat’s cheese and lardons doesn’t disappoint – when you’re negative calories you can eat what you like!
After lunch I hunt out a local flow trail below the village of Montana, which was built and maintained by the local commune, to hit some berms and pop off some jumps – it’s the perfect end to a ride with a bit of everything – high mountain singletrack, grippy downhill, switchbacks, snowbiking, charging through the trees, and flow trail. Dropping through the different bands of terrain is like diving through a multi-layered cake of trail-riding goodness…
Fade To Flow
Speaking of flow, Crans Montana is no slouch in the bike park department with long, well-crafted runs that take advantage of the elevation gain and are served by a fast, uncrowded gondola. It’s mostly bikers who use it and not in large numbers, even in the height of the holiday season. In fact, the only time I had to momentarily queue was when crates of wine were being sent up to a restaurant, high on the mountain – vino first!
The Blue run, like most Blues everywhere, has been built to be rollable. It’s shorter than the Red, at 2km, so you have to ride a stretch of fire-road down from the gondola. Once it does begin, there are the usual low rollers and moderate berms that offer a good warm up. The lower section is tighter once it drops into the trees and it spits you out into a dual-line section of berms and jumps made stony soil packed with rock chips. It’s a fun section that draws you into really railing the berms and popping off the jumps, and there’s a bigger line to the right with a meaty drop at the end.
Back at the top of the gondola, the Mont-Lachaux Red run is the longest of the bunch, at 3km, which starts at Cry d’Er (2,253m). As in keeping with the vertiginous surroundings, there’s a lot of vertical drop to burn through, descending from 2,253m to around 1,500m.
After bumping into rider Alexis Fauellet and his riding buddy, Laeticia Chardon, the Valais local has offered to give me a wheel to follow. “This Red is really flowy with some long jumps, so it’s great to ride when you want to have fun. The Black is more DH race, straight down with some gaps, and it’s quite rocky too.”
We roll through the start gate above the treeline and thread the sandy yellow band of dirt cutting through the exposed green of Mont-Lachaux’s long ridgeline, popping over tabletops and sending it off a rocky slab as the wind buffets around us.
Crans Montana provides the perfect launch pad for enduro rides that send you high into the untamed wilderness
We may be following a yellow trail through fields of green but we’re still at 2,140m and as the trail drops into a series of steep, fast berms a fantastic view of the valley far below us opens up, glimpsed through the dust of Alexis’s back wheel as we accelerate down into the treeline.
Earlier on, I bumped into the man responsible for the trail shaping at Crans Montana Bike Park, Manuel Navenot. “The Red is a very fast track – you don’t need to pedal! But on the black you need to use your brakes because it’s very steep and technical,” he tells me.
He’s not kidding about the speed. When you’ve got this much elevation to play with you can send the trail down to maintain speed, making for effortless flow, punctuated by a constant stream of features. These include jumps, tabletops and a couple of bigger drops, which require a bit more of a commitment, but are still amenable. And there’s even a cheeky road gap, if you have the sand and skills to hit it.
The trail is so fast that I catch some serious alpine air going over something that’s not much more than a knuckle in the track, but the landing is long, straight and at a super-friendly angle so it comes up to kiss my wheels, and lets me charge on without having to grab fistfuls of brake.
There’s something about the Swiss Alps that always seem to ratchet up the intensity of high altitude adventures. And Crans Montana provides the perfect launch pad for enduro rides that send you high into the untamed wilderness, as well as a Bike Park ready to sharpen your skills for when they matter the most.
In a few days you can cover the whole gamut of Alpine riding from snowfields to scree slopes, boulder fields, wildflower meadows, forests and vineyards, past rushing waterfalls and green meltwater lakes. It’s more than a breath of fresh air – it tastes like freedom.
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Essential travel information
Here’s all the information you need to recreate this adventure for yourself.
How to get to Crans Montana
Fly into Geneva and then walk for ten minutes from Arrivals to the train platform in the airport to catch the train to Sierre. Another 10-minute walk connects you to the funicular that takes you straight into Crans Montana. My eight-day Swiss Pass ticket was also valid on all local trains, useful for connecting enduro rides.
Where to stay in Crans Montana
The Hotel Eldorado has a secure basement bike store and washing/ maintenance station. Like most Swiss hotels the standard of accommodation is high with a varied buffet breakfast. Don’t miss Friday’s ‘Raclette Night’, best washed down with a bottle of Swiss Petit Arvine wine.
Bike hire and guiding in Crans Montana
A guide is highly recommended to make the most of the signposted trails, as well as some well-guarded local secrets. Bikevs.ch provides group and individual guiding. Best Wear has a good stock of 2021 enduro bikes but booking ahead is essential.