What better location for backpacking than where it all more or less began: the Alps. Home to 50 peaks more than 13,000 feet high, the Alps rise from low valleys to form steep, majestic faces. The relief can be mind-boggling as peaks reach high above the snowlineoften for 7,000 vertical feet or more above the valley floorsgiving hikers bated breath and towering views of Europe's magnificent beauty. Stretching north of the Italian Peninsula to Slovenia in the east, and spreading through France on the south and western borders, the Alps offer one of the few places in Europe where you can certainly beat the crowds. Backpacking the mountain range is almost unheard of as a result of many trails, cable cars, and trains that grant day-trip access to some of the range's most stunning locales. Accordingly, most of the hiking you'll find isn't backpacking so much as mountain strolling because of the "hiking without luggage" system that is well-established throughout Europe. The idea is simple: hike for a few hours and then head to a quaint European inn or chalet-style lodge (not exactly the standard U.S. "hut") where your baggage awaits you. With trail signs, local tourist offices, and guides, arrangements for a do-it-yourself trip are easy to make. They'll choose trips based on your ability level and your budget.
The Hiker's Haute Route, Ryder Walker's self-guided tour from the Mont Blanc region to the western Swiss Valais, is an adventure that crosses remote mountain passes and lush green meadows of the Pennine Alps. Throughout the trek you are surrounded by dramatic scenery such as the Matterhorn and other toothy peaks. You'll begin this ten-day trip in Chamonix just below the 15,774-foot Mont Blanc and some 71 glaciers. On day four, hikers will climb along the Glacier du Trient to a mountain pass almost 9,000 feet high with views of the Trient Glacier and the Swiss Val Ferret where bearded vultures and golden eagles often swoop through the skies. You'll stay overnight in a charming three-star, chalet-style hotel in the lakeside village of Champex, such as Hotel du Glacier, an alpine retreat built in 1895. Reward yourself after the long hike with freshly baked pizza on the terrace of the hotel restaurant and enjoy the view. Other accommodations throughout the trip range from simple hostels to turn-of-the-century hotels. Because of the length of this trip, you'll want to carry a few changes of clothing. The rocky terrain consists of many mountain paths that are seldom maintained, so make sure you're equipped with sturdy hiking boots, a first aid kit, a day pack, and a little grub for instant energy. To enjoy the trek, you should be able to hike 11 miles per day with an elevation gain up to 4,000 feet. The Hiker's Haute Route begins at $1,625 per person, which includes nine nights of lodging, and breakfast and dinner each day. You'll be provided with route descriptions, maps, and a daily itinerary. The trip is available from mid-July through September (ryderwalker.com, 888.586.8365).
If scenes from The Sound of Music is more of what you envision, sign up for a tour of the Alps in Austria. Beginning in Salzburg, home of the Von Trapp family and birthplace of Mozart, you'll be guided through skyrocketing limestone peaks and lush green valleys all the way to Innsbruck, covering over 70 miles of terrain. This nine-day hike travels through central Austria's most vivid landscapes such as the largest nature reserve of the Alps, Hohe Tauern, and Krimml Falls, one of Europe's highest waterfalls at 1,246 feet. After resting your weary body in high mountain hutssome of which are located near glacial ice-filled lakesyou'll dine on wienerschnitzel, with a little bier und wein to wash it down. Besides the majestic scenery, you'll be touring ancient churches like the Salzburger Cathedral, ascending mountain passes at up to 3,700 feet, and touring the cobblestone streets of each village before moving on to your next destination. Most days average about six hours of hiking, so if you're up for exploring, bringing a stocked daypack is a must. This package begins at $2,650 and includes lodging, guide, and all breakfasts and dinners (rei.com/adventures/trips/europe/innsbruck.jsp, 800.622.2263).
Amy A. Clark