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Valais, or Wallis in German, is one of Switzerland's 26 cantons. Found in the southernmost and westernmost part of the country, Valais borders the cantons of Vaud and Bern to the north, the cantons of Uri and Ticino to the east, Italy to the south, and France to the west. The canton's capital city is Sion, known for the Valère Basilica and Tourbillon Castle. Sion is nestled in the Rhône basin, extending through the Valais territory in the west-east direction. Apart from the Rhône and other smaller river valleys, the Valais territory mostly consists of rugged hills and mountains. The highest elevated peak is Monte Rosa. Some of the other notable mountains are Finsteraarhorn, Matterhorn, and Jungfrau. Due to the mountainous nature, some of the most visited tourist places are hiking and skiing destinations, such as the city of Zermatt and the Aletsch area with the glacier protected by UNESCO. Other cities in the region are Leukerbad, known for its thermal springs, and Brig, recognized for the Stockalper Palace. In terms of climate, the Valais canton lies shielded from the precipitation by the mountains. Thus, compared to the rest of Switzerland, Valais is relatively dry. The most rainfall and snowfall tend to occur in the higher elevations of the mountains.
Sion is the largest city and the capital of the Valais canton. The city is overlooked by two hills, upon which two fortresses stand, Tourbillon and Valère. The city serves as a hub for the canton's historical and cultural background. Numerous ancient sites attract tourists to Sion, as it is one of Switzerland's oldest cities, dating back 7,000 years. Beyond historical heritage, Sion is reportedly one of the country's most prominent wine regions, with Fendant, a locally produced white wine, being relatively well known. One of the dominant historical sights in Sion is Valère Basilica, or Valère Castle, which is a fortified church on a nearby hill overlooking the city. The basilica is protected, as it is a Swiss heritage site of national significance. One of the notable historical features of the basilica is the organ, found on the western side of the complex. The organ was allegedly built in 1435. Thus, it is among the oldest functioning organs in the world.
Zermatt is another town in Valais. It is found near Theodul Pass, which connects Switzerland to Italy. Generally, the city is known as the "mecca" for skiing and mountaineering, as Zermatt lies surrounded by mountain peaks, including Matterhorn, one of the iconic peaks in the region. Zermatt Ski Resort is reportedly among Switzerland's most visited ski resorts. Leukerbad, a smaller town settled in the mountains, is visited for its thermal waters, which people have exploited since the Roman era. Nowadays, there are 22 thermal pools in the town of Leukerbad. In the east of Valais is found the city of Brig, known for the Stockalper Palace. The palace is the largest private building from the 17th century in Switzerland. Nowadays, the palace houses a museum. Nevertheless, the castle chapel and gardens are also on display to tourists.
Apart from historical heritage, Valais also contains numerous natural sites. One such protected area is the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The nature area is protected as an example of the formation of the High Alps, which includes the most glaciated part of the mountain range and the most extensive glacier in Eurasia. Containing numerous ecosystems, the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch area is a source of information for researchers, especially those who study climate change, as well as a popular attraction among tourists.
Additionally, due to the rugged mountainous nature of Valais, the canton offers a considerable number of hiking and walking trails. Some popular hiking destinations are the Zermatt area, the Aletsch area with a panorama trail to view the aforementioned glacier, and the Leukerbad area, to name a few. Matterhorn and Monte Rosa contain some riskier mountaineering routes recommended for skilled professionals or guided tours. Moreover, two protected areas are found within the Valais borders: the Pfyn-Finges Nature Park, with numerous hiking trails, and Binntal Nature Park, with its northern section covered by rolling hills and the southern part filled with steep, rugged peaks.
Valais is Switzerland's third-largest canton by area. The canton is located in the southwestern part of Switzerland, almost entirely in the Rhône basin. Along the Rhône basin are all of the canton's main settlements, the largest city being Sion, followed by Martigny, Monthey, Sierre, and Brig-Glis. The canton is usually divided into three subunits—Upper Valais, Lower Valais, and Central Valais. Upper Valais is predominantly German-speaking, while Lower Valais and Central Valais are French-speaking. Geographically, Valais is Switzerland's highest elevated canton with considerably rugged topography. The highest peak within the territory is Monte Rosa, at an altitude of 4,634 meters above sea level. Other significant peaks include Finsteraarhorn, Matterhorn, and Jungfrau, to name a few. Beyond mountains, several glaciers are found in the Valais territory, including some of the largest glaciers in the Alps, such as the Aletsch Glacier and the Gorner Glacier. The most prominent of the basins is the glacial Rhône valley, with several side valleys branching off the main one. Beyond Rhône, other water areas include a small portion of Lake Geneva protruding through the canton's borders.
Due to the mountainous landscape of Valais canton, approximately half of its territory is considered agriculturally productive. Vineyards can be found on the slopes of the Bernese Alps. Otherwise, the region's flora is vastly dependent on the altitude above sea level. Lower elevations contain scrub oaks, chestnuts, and pine trees, while higher-laid areas are home to prevailingly alpine flowers, mosses, and lichen. Considering Valais's wild animal population, some commonly spotted animals include chamois, ibex, red deer, marmot, and fox.
In terms of climatic conditions, compared to the rest of Switzerland, Valais is much drier due to the high mountains surrounding the plains of the Rhône and shielding the canton from precipitation. Thus, high-altitude locations are more exposed to rainfall and snowfall. However, the average rainfall in Sion, located in the Rhône basin, is approximately 600 mm. In some areas, such as Les Follatères, plants uncommon in Switzerland, such as cactuses, can be found due to the local "semi-arid" climate. Regarding the average temperatures in Valais canton's capital, Sion, the warmest month is July, with an average daily temperature of 27°C. January is most commonly the coldest month, with 5°C being the average temperature. April tends to be the driest month in Sion due to having 33 mm of rainfall on average. The most precipitation falls during December, receiving about 69 mm on average.
Valais territory has been inhabited since 6200 BCE, with settlements accumulating along the Rhône River. Reportedly, Mediterranean farmers came and lived in the Valais territory between circa 5800 BCE to 4500 BCE, as there were numerous burial sites and ancient artifacts found in Valais dating back to that time period. Later, around the first century BCE, Gallic tribes inhabited the territory of today's Valais. Some particular tribes inhabiting the territory were Seduni, Nantuates, Veragri, and Uberi.
Resulting of Julius Caesar's conquest of the Celts at Octodurum in approximately 57 BC, Valais was discovered by Romans. The territory was initially called Vallis Poenina ("Upper Rhône Valley"), from which today's canton name was derived. Consequently, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Valais became part of the Jurane Burgundy kingdom and was later gifted to the bishop of Sion. The history of Valais territory during most parts of the Middle Ages was mainly related to the struggles between local patriots against their overlords and bishops against the dukes of Savoy. During the Reformation, Valais remained Roman Catholic.
Valais became an associate member of the Swiss Confederation in 1529. However, during the French invasion of the Swiss Confederacy, the canton became part of the Helvetic Republic until 1802. Then, the canton's territory became separate, named Rhodanic Republic. After some struggles, Valais entered the Swiss Confederation as one of its cantons on the 4th of August 1815. Modern times in the Valais region were mainly connected to exploring the High Alps, followed by a considerable increase in tourism to Valais in the late 19th century. Local tourism was further promoted by constructing the Simplon Railway in 1878, connecting Brig to Lausanne, Geneva, and other major cities of the Swiss Plateau.
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