Hidden Switzerland: Ticino
Project funded by Swiss International Air Lines and Tourismé Ticino
When I got the call from my friends Tommy Wilkinson and Chris Burkard to go to the Ticino region in the southernmost region of Switzerland, I immediately said yes. I’d never heard of this place before but I had visions of high alpine trails, shepherds, cheese and landjäger amongst glorious mountains.
A quick Google search revealed some stunning imagery and some interesting information. Ticino is an area that is heavily tourist dependent and it has some economic challenges, and along with large parts of Europe, some interesting political quandaries at the moment—although Lugano is Switzerland’s third largest financial centre and provides stability to the region in terms of fiscal activities. I also discovered that three of the world’s largest Gold refineries are in the region and the 2003 Downhill World Championships were held at Lugano. However, it was gold of the bike riding variety that I was seeking!
Riding in the area didn’t seem hugely publicized but my mind continued to conjure up images of high alpine meadows with cows, farmers in lederhosen, the Swiss flag flying high and the alps reaching up to the sky.
Firstly entering Switzerland at Geneva on my Swiss International Air lines flight well rested, and filled to the brim swiss cheese and some red wine, I took a nights rest before I then flew into the tiny airport in Lugano, Switzerland on another Swiss International Air lines early morning flight. Getting the early morning twin prop over the alps was quite something, and the views over the lake coming into land were incredible. I’m used to mountains but the alps at sunrise will never get old—truly mesmerizing.
With it being late September I was dressed in long pants and a sweatshirt ready for the crisp autumn air, yet as I made my way down onto the runway and walked past the 10 private jets parked, I was hit by the hot temperatures and palm trees which made me think, “Is this really Switzerland? Am I in the right place?”.
A little more research into the climate could have been good and probably would have helped the fact I was thoroughly overdressed and sweating profusely. But surprises are good, and the surprise of where I was, and what we were about to find completely changed my perception of Switzerland.
Sitting in the south along the Italian border and almost entirely surrounded by Italy on the west, east, and south sides the Ticino region one could say has a bit of identity crisis; Is it Italy or is it Switzerland?
It feels more Italian that it is Swiss, with Italian being the primary language of the region bringing with it the laid back “tranquilo” feel of being in Italy. You’ll be more likely to find Gelato stands and pizza restaurants than cheese and Landjäger which come to mind when I think of Switzerland.
Things move slower in the south of Switzerland creating a relaxed feel, unlike any place I’ve been in the rest of the country. While the climate remains alpine, it is notably warmer than the rest of Switzerland with a high number of sunshine hours giving it a tropical alpine feel complete with palm trees.
The Ticino region is most known more for water; The towns of Locarno, Ascona, and Tegna in the center of the Lake Maggiore basin. Waterways that flow through the area have made it synonymous with cliff jumping, canyoneering, and long walks by the lake more than mountain biking and skiing. The area’s landscape is that of vast extremes; with the lowest spot in Switzerland being the Maggia river delta between Ascona and Locarno, and also the highest location in Switzerland, Dufourspitze, located on the Monte Rosa massif. Deep gorges cut through the valleys and make it one of the most famous cliff jumping areas in the world where they hold the International Cliff Diving Championships.
Ticino, it seemed, has some truly amazing stuff going on for the outdoor enthusiast .
Post coffee at the airport (you’ll see a theme here) we hit the road for an hour and headed over the pass to the town of Locarno where I had planned to meet up with photographer and dark humour king, Tommy. Whizzing past palm trees and the world famous Dimitri clown school we pulled into the town of Locarno bound for Garni Barbaté Hotel.
The maze of classic, tiny cobblestone streets quickly make you feel that you are in ancient Europe and as you weave in and out of one way streets barely wide enough for our car the romance and history starts to suck you in.
Just a few minutes outside Locarno is the tiny town of Tegna where we found Hotel Garni Barbaté, a bike hotel which is one of 12 in the area.
These hotels are catering specifically to people coming to ride. With bike storage, bike stands and access to the trails nearby, they are a huge asset to the area. Paolo Zanga who owns Garni Barbaté hotel explains he and other hotel owners in the area want to make people coming in feel welcome. Often it seems you have to carefully pick and choose your accommodation when going on a bike trip as most hotels don’t allow bikes in the rooms, but Garni Barbate had a bike room complete with a bike stand and tools ready to keep us rolling throughout our trip.
I was keen to find the crew since I was a day behind Tommy who already had a day to go meet up with Patric Käslin who runs an mtb guiding company based in the area named, “Ticino Freeride”. Coming to a new area it can be hard to find photos or information on the riding so having Patric guide us was a huge help. Being a local he has been involved with biking in the region for years and has a wicked sense of humour with a laid-back style. With a day of scouting under his belt, Tommy had an idea of what we were getting into and the first thing he said was, “You aren’t going to believe what we rode today!”.
The area really is a hidden gem being virtually unknown when it comes to mountain biking as it is overshadowed by areas nearby such as the Aosta Valley in Italy, and other places in Switzerland. The Lake Maggiore basin is covered in trails with everything from high alpine riding, to dense forests. And I was about to get my first taste of what riding in the area was like.
Our first ride we headed out on was one of the areas “Clasics”; Corona di Pinci at sunrise which gives you the option to climb, or get shuttled up to the top. You climb through massive houses and up into old farm land at the top of the ridge overlooking Lake Maggiore. Leaving the parking lot and passing hundreds of years old stone houses we quickly disappeared into the woods flying at high speeds on smooth, sublime single track. After a few kilometers of rip-snorting fun, we popped out into open flowing single track, snaking back and forth across the hillside high above Lake Maggiore. The trails are high speed and fun, but it was hard to keep my eyes on the trail as every turn seemed to bring on a new vista that I wanted to stop and take in.
The 1,000-meter descent dropped back into the trees and past huge homes that may have belonged to one of those private jets sitting on the Tarmac in Lugano, but they didn’t seem to mind and any and all people we ran into just wave and smile as we ripped by. Once at the bottom we leisurely made our way back to Tegna which is just 10 minutes outside of Locarno.
As Patric and I stopped for an espresso he explained to me that things are slowly picking up in the region for trail building, but the majority of the trails have been there for hundreds of years. Some started as footpaths or just sheep trails that turned to hiking trails over the years, but all can be biked, and there are endless miles of trails that can be easy or as technical as you want to find. Some of the sections of trail mirror the classic “euro corners” with ultra tight switchbacks, but you can start to see the influence of mountain biking with corners and sections being rebuilt making trails like Corona di Pinci flow effortlessly, making you want to pedal back up and ride it again.
After a few more espressos and some pasta at the hotel, we loaded up the Ticino Freeride rig and headed for the Cimetta gondola which is a tram that leaves right from the center of Locarno, and brings you 1,000 meters up above the Lake Maggiore basin and the ski hill of “Cardada”.
As we rose up over the valley it was quickly apparent why Cardada has been dubbed “The Pearl of Lake Maggiore”. The views from the base of the ski hill stretch well into Italy and out over the lake. If the trails weren’t so tempting we would have been happy to chill here, soaking in the vibe.
Once you reach the top of the Tram you have options of dropping back into town through the woods on an hour long technical descent through the trees—part of the bike park development that started in 2016. Our plan though was to head higher to Mount Trosa which sits just above and behind the ski hill.
We made it just in time to catch the last chair to the top of Cardada which for us lesser men was welcomed since there was still and hour ascent ahead of us! After an hour of hiking and pedaling we made our way higher to the summit, where we truly got a feel of our location.
With a 360 degree view, we could see deep into Switzerland, France, and Italy. Not far off in the north The Matterhorn and its magnificent grace could be seen, Mont Blanc sitting to the west and the Aosta Valley just south of Mont Blanc. I was blown away at being within eyeshot of these iconic places, on perfect single track, and with no one around. It was as if we had reserved the place for ourselves. Here we were, with all the world famous locations packed full of people riding just a few valleys away, yet we were all alone enjoying perfect trails and warm temperatures.
The following morning we dipped away from Locarno towards Mergoscia and Diga di Verzasca at sunrise. Snaking through the alpine we looped around and back up to Mount Trosa before starting the technical descent back to Cardada. After dropping back into Locarno we rode to the Verscio district with food, fine coffee, and gelato on the mind after the days’ ride. It was a perfect day where we covered singletrack, some high-speed sections, flowy trails and a warmth unexpected for late September in the Alps.
Sitting on the edge of the lake at Lungolago di Ascona, Patric talks about the potential and his ideas to keep the trails going in the region. It’s almost funny to hear Patric’s perspective on improving and pushing mountain biking in the area because after spending the past few days riding I find the trail system already on point. Such is the drive of Patric to get more people on bikes in the region is lucky enough to call home.
With more bikers on the way, the already unreal trail system is going to keep getting better and better. My mind drifted to packing my bike and catching my flight the following morning, but I was already wondering and wanting to go ride the trails that were on the next peak over from Mount Trosa. It’s hard to head home after trips like these because over every crest is another trail you could go ride, and the network is expanding rapidly. But with the trip coming to a close, I know I’ll be back; The blend of Italy and Switzerland is just too good.
Words: KC Deane
Imagery: Descent World
Video: Capture Share Repeat