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Fall in the Alps

Summer is gone in the Alps, but those who remain are glad. It's taken the crowds and high prices with it, but left crystal clear air, brilliant foliage and vantage points uncluttered by tour parties - or even any other people at all.
The Piz Corvatsch mountain is reflected in the Silsersee Lake near Sils with a golden larch standing at the bank in September, 2001.
The Piz Corvatsch mountain is reflected in the Silsersee Lake near Sils with a golden larch standing at the bank in September, 2001.Arno Balzarini / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Summer is gone in the Alps, but those who remain are glad. It's taken the crowds and high prices with it, but left crystal clear air, brilliant foliage and vantage points uncluttered by tour parties - or even any other people at all.

"Autumn is a fabulous time," said Kev Reynolds, author of several guidebooks to walking in the Alps and other European mountain ranges. "The walking is great, the snows haven't really started to descend then, there's hardly anybody about, wildlife is abundant."

Perhaps most importantly for budget-conscious travelers, hotels struggling for bookings often drop their prices. Just be careful not to end up in one of the smaller valleys that close down completely after the summer months.

"When the first frosts come there, late September and October, it's absolutely tremendous," Reynolds explained. "The larches just turn golden and the hillsides around them - just above the larch forests - they're absolutely sparkling with color because of all the shrubbery."

Stretching some 60 miles through Southeast Switzerland from the glitzy resort of St. Moritz, the Engadine - or Inn valley - is perhaps the best place in the Alps for late season hiking.

Due to its rapid changes in altitude, plummeting more than 3,300 feet before widening out in neighboring Austria, the valley offers a huge variety of vegetation and wildlife and even the cultural oddity of Romansch, a relic of Latin spoken by just 35,000 people.

"When you get the frosts coming, it turns all the lovely bilberry shrubs," Reynolds added. "They blaze scarlet on the hillsides and then you've got this great mass of Midas gold everywhere down in the valley with the larches as well.

"It adds so much to your time," he said.

Samedan, a lower-key village just down the valley from St. Moritz, makes a cost-effective hiking base at the center of a 83-mile network of trails around the surrounding mountains.

The paths give a wide variety of options from multiday treks to short rambles which finish back in Samedan's old center, where cobbled streets cluster around a hill top church, in time for dinner.

The surrounding peaks reach as high as 13,100 feet, so there's opportunity for hardened Alpinists to stretch their legs at high altitude, while less adventurous souls have plenty of choice on the valley floor or lower slopes.

"I've lived in the Engadine for a while and saw the seasons just bleed in one after the other and I keep going back there because it's absolutely fantastic in the autumn," Reynolds said.

Because most of the valley is so high - Samedan is more than 5,575 feet above sea level - the Engadine can often be basking in sunshine while the rest of the country is being rained on.

The village is also a junction on road and rail lines running the length of the Engadine as well as into neighboring valleys, so if it gets wet up here then it's easy enough to try out some other locations.

Experience the grand cities, amazing architecture and natural beauty of the Old Continent.

If the weather does turn bad - which is more likely at this time of year than in summer - it's easy to turn into one of the Italian-speaking side valleys like Bregaglia or Poschiavo, which are on the other side of the main Alpine watershed and influenced by the warmer weather system of Northern Italy.

But there are a couple of things for walkers to watch out for at this time of the year.

First, for those undertaking multiday walks, mountain huts may well be unmanned from the end of September onward, meaning that food must be carried unless the route goes through villages.

But more importantly, the weather is less predictable and causes serious difficulties for those who go out unprepared. Hikers should avoid heading into the very high mountains after mid-October unless the weather is particularly fine, Reynolds advised.

Walkers - particularly those heading out on their own - should make sure they can work with a map and compass and leave their expected itinerary with someone back at base. Mobile phones can also be useful, but should not be relied on as reception can be patchy in the mountains.

"Since there is practically nobody else around, you're going to have to rely much more on your own ability to get out of trouble should you get into trouble," Reynolds stressed. "If the weather does turn bad, it can turn very, very bad indeed and very quickly."

If you go:

GETTING THERE: The Engadine is in the heart of the Swiss Alps but well-connected given its isolation. Zurich airport, with direct links to many North American and European cities, is three to four hours by road or rail. There are also good connections through Milan in northern Italy.

GETTING AROUND: Car hire and taxis are available at the airport, but are expensive in Switzerland. Public transport is clean and efficient and can get you almost anywhere. Where train tracks run out, post buses take over to more isolated mountain resorts. Swiss rail timetable:

LODGING: Villages throughout the Engadine have plenty of accommodation, although space can get tight and prices rise during the summer and winter high seasons. On a mountainside above Samedan, Berghotel Muottas Muragl,, is ideally situated for walkers at almost 8,200 feet above sea level. Doubles start at $104 a night and the hotel also has a restaurant to help build up energy for the next day's hike. Top of the range in the village itself is Alpenhotel Quadratscha, with doubles from $138. Hotel Post is slightly easier on the wallet, with rooms starting at $120.

For those who really want to splurge and mix with celebrities, top of the range in neighboring St. Moritz is the renowned Kempinski Grand Hotel. Rooms here are often sold out weeks in advance; rooms rates range from $200 to twice that and up.

DINING: Most of Samedan's hotels have their own restaurants and the streets of the old center are packed with places to eat and drink. There are several pizzerias like Bernina, or more traditional Swiss restaurants such as Hirschen, offering specialties like melted cheese fondue and fried potato roesti (hash browns).

THINGS TO DO: Apart from the endless hiking possibilities, villages the length of the Engadine also have access to ski areas, some of which are high enough to stay open year round. There are cycle routes crossing the flat valley bottom and windsurfing is popular on the lakes scattered around the upper end of the valley.

In St. Moritz, passengers can take trips down the world-famous mile-long Cresta bobsled run, accompanied by a driver and brakeman. Bookings on (011) (41) 81-830-0200.

OTHER INFORMATION: Samedan tourist office, or (011) (41) 81-851-0060. Engadine regional,