The IMBA Epic trail is a hard tag to come by, with scant few trails around the globe earning such a title. So when you're close by to one, such as the Bernina Express in Switzerland, there is little else to do but head straight for it.
Words: Mike Blewitt Photos: Mike Blewitt and Graubünden Bike
In 2014 we all became familiar with what an IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) Epic trail was, with the opening of the Alpine Epic Trail in Mt Buller. And while IMBA are reassessing their trail and ride centre categorisations, to this date an Epic trail had to be 80% singletrack, over 32km in length and take riders through a natural setting over demanding terrain.
IMBA have rated trails as ‘Epic’ around North America, with few beyond the borders of the United States and Canada. A few notable trails beyond North America did get Epic status though, and one such trail truly deserving that title is the Bernina Express, in Switzerland. It is the only ‘Epic’ rated trail in the Alps – but I can assure you there are enough epic rides in those mountains to last a lifetime of summers.
The Bernina Express is based in Graubünden, the Swiss Canton that covers the majority of the east of Switzerland. It sits in the Upper Engadin Valley, and we covered much of the riding in the area in our last issue, when we explored just some of the mountain biking around St Moritz.
When you move into higher mountains and valleys, near borders, areas that have been lived in and fought over for centuries, the scope for trails and adventure riding explodes. This was at least my 5th visit to the area, and still I found new trails, and heard about even more possibilities, enough to whet my appetite to come back again for another visit.
The beauty of the Bernina Express trail, like much of the mountain biking in Graubünden, is how well marked it is and how easy to navigate. So sure it’s an adventure, but it is quite achieavable. It can be as simple as following the bright red signs from either Samedan or Pontresina train station, or you can go online and find the map, or download the GPS data to your device for easy navigation.
The route roughly follows the Bernina Express train line, and chances are this will be your trip home unless you love climbing. It is mostly a directional trail and the route back should be up the road until the pass – which is an amazing climb if you’re up for it. The narrow gauge train line was opened in sections from 1908, and linked St Moritz to Tirano in Italy. As the Albula line links St Moritz to Thusis further north, this was an important connection for people living in the high mountain communities. UNESCO even listed the two rail lines as they were technically, architecturally and environmentally outstanding. Both train trips are fantastic experiences in themselves, and the Bernina Express opens what is essentially a really long shuttle descent!
The trail starts at Samedan, and over the next 53km it climbs 765m to 2253m near the Bernina Pass, before starting a long descent, dropping to almost 1000m at Poschiavo, just before the Italian border. It takes you along some cycle paths at first, moving alongside the river and up to Pontresina – one of the towns where people used to come for the healing waters and mountain air. You might be surprised to learn the whole area was popular in summer before winter.
Beyond Pontresina, you keep climbing up the valley on open singletrack, and although in general the climb is a gentle gradient there are a few steep pinches.
Don’t miss the photo opportunities where the trail crosses near the Rhaetisch Bahn railway, the views to the immense glaciers hanging off the Bernina group, or near Lago Bianco over the pass.
Above Alp Grüm, you have a great view to Poschiavo and the beautiful lake – and the Alp is an excellent place to stop for lunch. Sitting just before the Italian border, the lakefront at Poschiavo has a very Mediterranean feel, and will undoubtedly be warmer than where you started the ride. Have a gelato and check the train timetable for your trip back.
You can get to the start in Samedan from just about any village in the Engadin Valley, and to get there – you’ll be flying to Milan or Zurich most likely. Flights go daily from most Australian capitals, and Zurich has the best train connections right from the airport to St Moritz, Samedan, Celerina or nearby.
In general this is perfect for any intermediate rider, there are no big drop offs, but a few steep sections, rock gardens, and a few tighter sections of singletrack. Given it can be a long day, you do need to be fit. Much of the trail is above the tree line and rocky and exposed, so it is worth taking a look at the weather forecast and being prepared for changes. But overall the Bernina Express ride is a fantastic high alpine ride with easy accessibility
You’re in some very high mountains, so take a jacket, food, water, local currency, suncream and your regular spares. The trail passes between about 4 or 5 places to get food and drink such as train stations with a Kiosk but they aren’t equipped for problems with your bikes.
The total distance is 53km from Samedan station to Poschiavo station. If you want to ride less, you could start at Pontresina, or even closer to the pass. If you want to ride more, look up the trail to Tirano, and get out at the Ospizio Bernina stop on the way back to ride the descent back to Samedan.
The Bernina Express trail is the main route through the valley, but there are old smuggling routes hidden as well. Some research might dig up some .gpx tracks to follow.
BEST TIME OF YEAR
Summer comes late to the high passes, so consider no earlier than the very end of June. But St Moritz residents say September through to mid-October are often overlooked. The prices are lower for accommodation, the colours are lovely, and the mountains aren’t so busy.
WHILE IN THE AREA
Ride your bike some more! There are endless mountain bike adventures around. Look up some of our previous features or use the resources listed below to get some ideas. But don’t forget to take in some of the attractions that the area is known for, like the spa therapies, and alpine hikes.
LOCAL BIKE SHOPS
Bolliger Bikeshop is right in Samedan at the start, but you’ll find Bernina Sport in Pontresina, or Engadin Bikes, amongst others, in St Moritz.
There is a lot to do on a mountain bike in the greater area, so check out the sites below for logistical information, trail details, accommodation suggestions and more:
Toilets: Yes, at each station you pass by.
Drinking water: At most stations and the Kiosks on the route. Treat the mountain water if you need to fill up on the trail.
Trails signposted: Yes, clearly signposted with a mountain biker.
Mobile reception: Yes, although you will be connected to a Swiss network – get a local SIM.
Shelter: Yes at each train station and mountain restaurant.
Accommodation: Get in contact with interhome.com.au for suggestions of where to stay in the area.