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One of the most scenic destinations in Switzerland, the Creux du Van boasts a fabulous location in the Jura Mountain area of the Alps. It is a rocky cirque on the northern side of Le Soliat mountain. This mountain has two summits: one in the canton of Neuchâtel and the other in the canton of Vaud. The main summit reaches a height of 1,465 metres and overlooks the beauty of Lake Neuchâtel, one of the main attractions of French-speaking Switzerland.
Formed by natural water erosion through the freeze-thaw cycles of a glacier, the Creux du Van is 1.4 kilometres wide and its impressive walls reach a height of 200 metres. It is estimated the cirque was formed 18,000 years ago. At this point, we probably should explain that a cirque is a geographical name for a natural amphitheatre.
Our Experience At Creux Du Van
Spending time in Switzerland means that you are exposed to many different languages on a daily basis. I am currently living in the Swiss-German-speaking part of Switzerland. But on a daily basis, I am exposed to French, Italian and, well, English. I invest most of my “language” time improving my German. This is now an intermediate Swiss-Germenglish.
So to break the mould I have been travelling to both France and the French part of Switzerland to sharpen up my Bonjour. Tack on a good old fashioned kiwi smile and I think you have yourself a pretty nice sentence.
The Creux du Van is an impressive geological phenomenon. Located 15min drive West of Neuchatel (the French part of Switzerland). We set out to complete a Five-hour circuit on a spectacularly misty and overcast day.
The Frenchman (Antoine) had our map in the form of a palm-size guidebook, written in French. So I would be in little use deciphering the text here. But maps are the same in every language!
It took just two hours before we became lost. Off-trail and deep in the forest. We slowed down and walked “forwards” for around an hour. We were beginning to second guess our decision not to turn back, but this was now becoming an impossibility. But, yet amidst the confusion, we were shown the way forward by an unlikely friend.
Just then we heard a horse in the distance. Antoine blurted out: “Where there’s a horse, there are people”. I was doubtful. We walked towards the “Neigh” and broke through the forest to see a small paddock, complete with horse and people. Despite my doubt, there, to the left, was our (return) trail. We had missed the mountain…..
On top, we were greeted to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of a Steinbock fight. Like humans, male Steinbocks will often fight with each other during the breeding season for the rights to breed with the females. While not initially obvious exactly who won, at the end the victor took his rock and celebrated with his female. While the loser was shunned and made to take a long way home, alone.
So we hiked up, and up, and up. Reaching the summit around five hours into our journey. The Creux Du Van has one hundred and sixty-metre high cliff faces and stretches a distance of four kilometres. Carved out by one of Europe’s largest glaciers, it is difficult not to be awestruck when standing on the edge.
After a quick bite to eat and a photo break, we set off on the return journey a little wiser. The return journey was a little smoother. So nine-and-a-half hours after setting off we arrived back to the car. Tired but amazed.
A good hiking trail should be a bit of a challenge and provide stunning views. Some would argue that it takes you across different terrains, but a wonderful panorama along an interesting route of the same topography can provide as much satisfaction.
This can definitely be said of Creux du Van in Switzerland. This article delves deep into the attractions and experiences this Swiss wonder offers as inspiration to the hiker and nature lover.
The Nature Reserve
The Creux cirque lies at the heart of a nature reserve. Covering an area of 15.5 square kilometres, the reserve is home to varied flora and fauna.
People love to see the ibex (a type of mountain goat) and chamois (deer) climb the cliffs and everyone hopes for a peek at the cute and cuddly marmots.
It’s highly unlikely that hikers will catch a glimpse of the lynx that call the reserve home, but it’s always worth keeping a lookout for them, as well as birds of prey.
At the Top
When you reach the summit area of the cirque the panorama that awaits you is breath-taking. There is a fabulous 360° view that encompasses the magnificent geographical features of the lakes, the Jura valleys and mountains of the Alps and beyond into France.
The summit can be reached by car on a paved road or on foot. Whichever way or route you take to the top of Creux du Van, it is worth the effort.
Hiking the Creux-du-Van
The favoured start location is the tourism office in the parking lot of the station in Noiraigue. The tourism office has free photography books and hiking maps.
You can choose to hike the trail by yourself as navigation is straight-forward, or you can take a guided trip.
From the station, the trail takes you about 200 metres downriver and across the bridge over the River Areuse. The paved path continues up the hill until there’s a sharp left-hand turn. About 200 metres further on from this bend, there’s a signpost announcing the entrance to the nature reserve.
At this point, yellow marks begin to indicate the direction. Turn to the right and take a gravel track that ascends through the forest in the direction of Le Ferme Robert. Following the yellow rhombuses painted on tree trunks, you’ll rise steeply through the woods and along a clearing on your left-hand side.
Following the signs, the trail flattens, and you’ll reach Ferme Robert. There’s another signpost here denoting “Creux du Van – Autres directions”. From here the trail moves back into the forest and becomes steeper.
The trail takes you forward in a relatively straight line until you take a right turn to climb some steps crossing over a road. At the next junction, you turn right and continue for 15 minutes until the left hand turn to “Pré au Favre”.
There is a lookout area and lush meadow on the south side which is often described as the most romantic picnic setting in Switzerland.
On reaching the Pré au Favre, you turn right onto an asphalt road which eventually leads you to a right-hand turn to the Creux du Van. This path takes you across gently undulating terrain past the Chalet de la Gran Vy to the edge of the woods and then directly on to the edge of the cirque.
A dry stone wall borders the cliff which is primarily to keep the sheep of Le Soliat Farm and restaurant from wandering off the edge. If you’re with children, it is best to keep them on your inside as in some parts there is no rail. It is here you might start to begin to catch sight of the ibex.
From the summit, begin your descent by turning right to return to the forest and the Sentier des Quatorze Contours.
The Path of the 14 Bends is a steep slope with 14 hairpins as its name suggests. Partway down the path, you’ll reach Les Oeuillons.
This charming farm is fun for kids as the barnyard is full of cows, goats, pigs, sheep, and chickens to admire while you wait for a delicious lunch of traditional Swiss and local specialities. Eat fondue, charcuterie, cheeses, mushroom toast, and rösti in an authentic setting before continuing your walk.
From Les Oeuillons, the coniferous forest grows denser, but the trail is still clear. If you happen to hike in mid-August, it’s the season for wild raspberries which are safe to eat should you come across them.
From the restaurant, the trail returns you to the car park in Noiraigue.
There are other hiking trails that lead you along the cirque of Creux du Van. You can take the trial outlined above in the opposite direction and there are unmarked trails via La Crête du Dos d’Ane. Some guides will take experienced hikers on tours along a path from La Fontaine Froide via le Pertuis de Bise (a breach into the wall of rocks).
As well as the hiking, the Creux du Van is ideal for bird watching and wildlife spotting. Any of the open clearings or wooded sections are ideal stopping places to settle down to wait for the animals and birds.
There are no official campsites on the trails around du Van but there are good picnic areas and stopping places. The Soliat Restaurant has a small playground area and some areas are suitable for biking.
Unless you’re nervous of kids running away and getting too close to the edge, the Creux du Van is a lovely family day out. You have a choice of trails to the summit for hiking and if you prefer, you can get close to the top by car.
The photo opportunities are tremendous and will provide happy memories of a day well spent.
We’d love to hear from you if you have hiked any of the paths to Creux Du Van or if you recommend similar trips in The Alps.
New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!