Tourists to peer into 220 million years of history

The Alps in canton Glarus are at the centre of the geopark in eastern Switzerland. GeoForum

The Swiss Alps have a story to tell. New parks have started opening across Switzerland with the aim of revealing the country's geological past - from when it was a desert to its period as an icy wasteland.

This content was published on September 12, 2001 minutes

Raimund Hipp, a scientist promoting Swiss "geoparks", believes the Alps have, up until now, been undersold. "The Alps are a huge "geopark", he said. Tourists, he lamented, "use the mountains for skiing but very few ever think about how the Alps were formed."

Following the popular success of geoparks in neighbouring Austria and Germany, Switzerland has created two such areas. The first covers a large part of eastern Switzerland and connects about two dozen attractions.

"Geopark Sarganserland-Walensee-Glanerland" is marked by deep gorges, pristine lakes and rugged peaks. Visitors can descend into an underground research station, learn how the landscape around Lake Walen was formed from the comfort of the "Geoship" or take interpretive trails revealing evidence of the ice age.

"It has to be visual," Hipp explained. He said his organisation, GeoForum, believes several regions in Switzerland have a unique geological story to tell, which would be of interest to tourists.

"There are many fine geo-sites in Switzerland," he said. "The Matterhorn, for example, is known worldwide."

Marketing geological past

He said Switzerland's geological past could be sold successfully by the tourist industry, and help alpine resorts become less dependent on the ski season.

"It's quite strange that Switzerland doesn't do more to promote its geology. We can learn from the national parks in America," Hipp said. "The geysers in Yellowstone National Park are a good example."

The newly created geopark, "Gole Della Breggia" in the southern canton of Ticino is already a protected reserve. It gives hikers the unique chance to follow a 1.5 kilometre-long river trail, which reveals 80 million years of geological history.

The natural geometry of the cliffs in the park were once admired by the renowned Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, and the area's wildness is said to have inspired the writer, Hermann Hesse.

If Hipp has his way, other areas will be turned into geoparks. He would like to see the region north of Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland promoted as such. It boasts one of the world's longest networks of caves, which extends more than 200 kilometres.

by Dale Bechtel

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