Trail running in Ticino
Updated: Nov 15
When you think about the trail running hotspots in the Alps, the default is to think of popular destinations, such as Chamonix (France), Julian Alps (Slovenia) and Tyrol (Austria). Chamonix has to be the trail running mecca, simply because it is the home of the prestigious UTMB race, undoubtably the biggest trail race in the world. Crowds descend on this pretty alpine city every year for all kinds of outdoor activities, including to run the trails around Mount Blanc. The European Alps offer a huge variety for trail runners, stretching across eight countries and spanning over 1200km. Choosing your next destination to visit, might just be the hardest part of your trip.
My discovery of Ticino, the southernmost canton in Switzerland was purely by luck. Descending into the valley Maggia (pro-nouced Mach-a) after finishing a multi-day hike in the high mountains, I was re-introduced into society with remote, rustic villages, colourful buildings and mediterranean style vineyards. Despite these villages proudly flying the Swiss flag in gardens and churchyards, these settlements were firmly seasoned with influences from their nearby Italian neighbours. Named after the largest river ‘The Ticino’ which descends through the canton, the area is diverse with peaks over 2000 metres, striking glaciers, crystal clear rivers, magnificent waterfalls, and seemingly endless valleys.
Intrigued by the endless amalgamation of valleys and trails which meander around the banks of the fast flowing rivers, I began to think about the possibility of running the length of these trails. Locarno is known as a vibrant, bustling city on the edge of Lake Maggiore, providing many Swiss nationals with an Italian holiday in their own country. From the city, spans three main valleys, namely Valle Verzasca, Valle Maggia and Centovalli, each having their own slightly unique culture and way of life, but similarly providing a paradise for outdoor fanatics, with kilometres of hiking and biking trails; dramatic rock faces for climbing enthusiasts and deep ravines and waterfalls for canyoning.
With a new found motivation for running after I signed up for a trail race in September, I forced myself out the uncomfortable hostel bed, early on a July Saturday morning to start this journey.
At the tip of the Valle Verzasca, lies Sonogno, a rustic and picturesque village with a real ‘end of the world’ feeling, as the high peaks tower above the pretty, cobbled streets and houses. The ‘yellow’ hiking trail would provide my passage through the beautiful valley, which I’d been teased with during the bus ride. Setting foot on the trail, I was quickly struck with how varied yet runnable the terrain was. Sections were technical and rocky, where I slowed my pace but other areas were wide and gave the perfect panorama through this dramatic landscape. The hardest section to maintain pace was through the family trail, where I slowed and politely dodged groups of families, children and their furry friends.
The majority of the trail hugs the banks of the Verzasca river, weaving through its twists and turns, through forests, across streams and over swing bridges. Initially, like myself you may find it slightly unnerving as small green lizards dart in front of your pounding feet on the trail, but after a few kilometres, this will feel like second nature. The ‘wow’ moments and nagging feeling of wanting stop and take a photo, however, never seems to stop, as every section of this trail is so insanely beautiful with striking waterfalls, turquoise ravines and lush forests towering above the trail. Several parts of the route provide direct access to the Verzasca river, so throwing swimwear into the running pack is a must, as the crystal clear waters are too inviting. With the main service road to Sonogno never too far away, you will not be far from a refreshment spot or a bus stop, for when you decide to end the run.
Reaching the tourist hotspot Lavertezzo after 14km seemed like the perfect natural break to end my run that day. Known for it’s picture perfect, double arch stone bridge dating back to the 17th century, I rewarded myself with a seat on the banks of the river, with a perfect view of adrenaline seekers jumping off the arch bridge into the crystal waters.
I’d caught the bug. Running is always a marmite thing - you either love or hate it. But the the post high of a run, coupled with the exhilaration and thrill of discovering so many beautiful places during the journey, seemed hard to beat. I returned to Ticino a few weeks later, to finish what I’d started...
I had been teased with glimpses of the beautiful Valle Maggia at the end of my multi-day hike, along the ’No.59 Swiss Hiking route.’ But returning to Ticino in early September, I was yet to lace up my running shoes on these trails. I split my run down the Valle Maggia into two halves. Part I: a 14km run from San Carlo to Cevio. Part II: a 21km, Half marathon distance, from Cevio to Ponte Brolla. The first section from San Carlo to Cevio was the more beautiful part, but also significantly more technical and harder to maintain a decent pace. From Cevio to Ponte Brolla, I followed a mix of trails, bike paths and short sections of roads, none of which are ever too far from the beautiful Maggia river.
Around an hour from Locarno, I arrived at dawn to a fresh San Carlo, feeling underdressed in my running shorts, vest and running pack, amongst hikers wrapped in their jackets ready to tackle the higher altitudes. Near the bus stop, is a restaurant on the edge of the village square, perfectly placed to fuel up with caffeine before stepping foot on the trails.
Across Switzerland, the trails are both well maintained and perfectly signposted. This section was no exception. Quickly locating the ‘yellow’ trail, I picked up the pace and began a whistle stop journey through another beautiful valley. This trail again started along some very runnable sections, before introducing some rockier, more technical parts where I slowed my pace to a fast walk. The route twists around remote, rustic villages with striking rock faces framing the incredible landscape.
Cascata di Foroglio lies around 5km from the starting point, and is the perfect spot for a short break and hike up to the waterfall. One of my highlights of running these incredible trails was the opportunity to re-hydrate regularly with fresh mountain water, which is cold and tastes delicious. The next opportunity to find fresh mountain water will never be far away on this trail.
Not far from Cevio, lies Cascata delle Sponde III, a stunning waterfall with a small pool of water, which could provide a good spot for an early swim on a hot day. Another great swimming spot and a little further into the run is Pozzi di Giumaglio, in Coglio, also popular with cliff jumping if some extra adrenaline is needed mid-run. From Coglio, slowly the feeling of being closer to civilisation will creep up, after being in the depths of the valley.
Reaching the end of my running adventure, through the length of this beautiful valley, I arrived back to civilisation in Ponte Brolla. Popular with tourists for its clear waters and superb swimming, a swim must be mandatory to round off this beautiful route.
In just a few short weeks in Ticino, I barely scraped the surface of the volume and variety of trails that there is on offer here, but this humble cantone had left a lasting impression on me. From the impressive variety of alpine landscapes, a mostly mediterranean climate and well maintained hiking trails, to the rustic villages and a firm Italian feel.
There are so many places across the continent which provides excellent trail running, but for me, this area has everything one could look for. The Swiss public transport, makes it easy for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the vibrant and authentic city of Locarno, and to be transported to the depths of these valleys in a matter of minutes. It will only be a matter of time before I return to this beautiful part of the world to lace up my running shoes once again.