In this article, I will try to give you a few tips on how to photograph the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. Moreover, I will also add a few pieces of advice on how to plan a trip to Zermatt. Matterhorn, located in south Switzerland on the border with Italy, is one of the most famous European Alps peaks. It towers to 4,478 meters above the sea level and is marked by its sharp pyramid shape. Its pronounced shape has always attracted many tourists and photographers. How shall you plan your trip to Zermatt and where to go to get nice Matterhorn photographs and not leave with your wallet ruined?
Photographing From the Swiss Side
I will focus on the Swiss side of this mountain, as it is from here (north-east side) where the most beautiful viewpoints are. Matterhorn can be climbed from the south Italian side, but there are no vista points where the emblematic pyramid shape of this mountain would be clearly discernible.
The beauty of Matterhon is also a bit of a curse, since Matterhorn and the nearest Swiss Alp-resort Zermatt has become one of the most visited places in Europe. The place is full of tourists and lately it has been especially swarming with Japanese and Chinese tourists. To put it bluntly, Zermatt is expensive as hell. So if you come as a low-budget photographer, you will immediately notice that the average tourist here is a pretty well-off person who can easily afford to travel to such destination.
You can still plan a relatively low-budget trip to some of the best locations, if you are willing to backpack and sleep in a tent or walk during the early night hours with a headlamp. This has two advantages: you will not only be at the right (i.e. photogenic) places, you will also be there at the right time – around sunset and sunrise. You will avoid crowds no matter how busy the season is, and most importantly, you will not have to book the very expensive Zermatt hotels.
The first thing to pay attention to, is that Zermatt is a completely car-less city. To access this location, you must leave your car in Täsch, the closest village down the valley. At Täsch, there are huge garage parking places available (for a fee) and you can take a regularly (every 20 minutes) pending train (for a fee again) to Zermatt. Or you come by train all the way from some other Swiss city (beware, trains in Switzerland are expensive, however the rides tend to be very pangrammatic).
Where to Go in Zermatt?
Zermatt is an Alpine village with many wooden houses overlooked by the majestic mountain in the background. The fact that Matterhorn can be seen only after reaching Zermatt gives this place something extraordinary. Apart from that, these are the same small places with tiny shops and restaurants, a church and a posh shopping street with all the luxury brands. For some, Zermatt may have its charms, but for me as a lover of unpopulated mountains, there was nothing to do there, so I had to leave this place as quickly as possible.
Where to Go in the Mountains?
First of all, we are not talking about hiking up to or climbing Matterhorn. With its height and prominence, this peak is one of the most demanding ones to climb, even for experienced mountain climbers. So it is definitely not an attraction to easily hike to for tourists, let alone photographers. But why should we even attempt to climb a mountain which shall be the main subject of our photos anyway? We want to go to places with nice views to create beautiful compositions. Where would we find such spots? Below are my most favorite locations:
If I were to recommend only one location, I would go for the 5-Seenweg (the 5-Lakes Trail) and specifically for Stellisee. Stellisee is a mountain view that offers perfect mirror reflections of the Matterhorn peak located some 15 km (air distance) southwest. Except for afternoon times around 3-6 PM in Summer, the sun is in a very favorable position for good photographs throughout the day. This location is perfect for both sunrises and sunsets. In late summer and early autumn, the Milky Way will be visible from here right around the peak of Matterhorn. In late autumn and winter, the sun will be setting near or behind.
What is more, Stellisee has some lake banks with huge boulders at very convenient positions. You can find quite a few different composition options here.
How to get to Stellisee
One option is to walk all the way up, following some marked trails from Zermatt. While you will enjoy some very photogenic spots and vistas on the way, Matterhorn most of the time will be behind your back, so I actually recommend taking this route on the way back.
On the way up, the most convenient and fastest way to get up is taking the Sunnegga-bahn funicular. The Sunnegga-Rothorn valley station lies about 10 minutes’ walk from Zermatt railway station. The tunnel-train will take you up to the upper funicular station Sunnegga. Here, at the altitude of 2,280 meters above the sea level, you can either start hiking the 5 Lakes trail, which at first climbs up some 250 height meters along the ski lift and get to Stellisee after roughly 90 minutes of a nice walk, or you can actually take this ski lift and get to the Unterrothorn station at the altitude of 2550m. From here, reaching Stellisee is fairly easy and takes about 30 minutes.
The second lake to be admired in the 5 Lakes trail is Grinjisee. Although this lake also reflects the Matterhorn peak on its surface, the location and setting of Grinjisee is very different compared to Stellisee. It is much smaller, it is in a relatively deep valley, and its southwest shore is lined up with nice trees (larches). This is the place to be in autumn. There are some huge boulders close to the lake and behind the lake a steep slope enables making compositions from the higher perspective. The best time to shoot is roughly 1 hour after sunrise and 1,5 hours before sunset (if you want to have the foreground around the lake lit by sun).
The Riffelsee lake might be more famous than the previous two, but I do not find photos from this lake more appealing. The reason why most of the photos available in different online galleries and stock databases are from here is simple: this place can be easily accessed by a famous cog railway called Gornergrat Bahn. A little nice train takes you higher and closer to the summit compared to the 5-Lake Trail. But the trails here are very crowded.
When I visited Zermatt, this lake was still partly frozen and I decided to go to Stellisee and Grindjisee instead. Gornergrat Bahn is very expensive (around 100 USD one way). The good news for photographers: this train operates from early to late hours. For more information about this lake and the railway, visit this website.
4) Ze Gassen
Ze Gassen is a tiny old-looking village on the slope near Zermatt. This village is passed when walking back to Zermatt from the 5 Lakes trail. Some of the wooden cottages and houses are very picturesque.
5) Findelbach Bridge
Just a few hundred meters below the Ze Gassen village there is a deep valley spanned by a railway bridge. This is a good spot to wait for the train and get a shot with Matterhorn in the view.
Fluhalp is a mountain hut just a few hundred meters from Stellisee (at 2,606 meters). Do not miss this place when hiking the 5-Lakes Trail – you can have a nice lunch there and get some nice composition with the hut in the foreground.
Being There at the Right Place and at the Right Time
This is obviously crucial for any landscape photographer. As you could see above – all of the places I recommended are high up in the mountains. Most of them are accessible via funiculars, ski lifts or cog railway trains. But these do not operate around sunset and sunrise hours (at least not in summer).
So my recommendation is simple – stay in a tent and sleep near one of the lakes, preferably the Stellisee. By doing this, you will gain a lot. You will:
- have plenty of time in favorable light conditions (golden hour, blue hour, possible also some night shots)
- skip the crowds and enjoy some more “intimate” moments with the landscape and wildlife around (no dangerous wildlife to worry about)
- get calm lake surface in dusk and dawn hours (it is usually windy during the day)
- save money by not spending on hotels in Zermatt
If free camping and some backpacking is not an option for you, then I would take the last cable car / lift / train (just before the closing time) and stay for sunset, walk down during the blue hour, reaching Zermatt at night with a headlamp. There are no bears and no real hazards to worry about – perhaps some summer storms and some rocks that you could stumble on.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If have been to Zermatt before, please share your thoughts or perhaps even some tips below!