SAN BERNARDINO PASS, SWITZERLAND 🇨🇭
The alpine pass is an enchanting driving experience with recognisable change of architecture, cuisine and culture between the North and the South.
DRIVING THE SAN BERNARDINO PASS IN THE SWISS ALPS
The San Bernardino Pass 🇨🇭 links the Central Swiss Alps where mostly German is spoken to the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland — and is the alternative to the almost parallel running Gotthard Pass as a way into the Swiss canton of Ticino in the South.
Travelling from Chur via Thusist through the valley of the Posterior Rhine (Hinterrhein) and the Grisons holiday region of Splügen/Rheinwald to Hinterrhein you can choose the historic San Bernardino Pass instead of the new highway that disappears into a six kilometres long tunnel.
During the summer month between June and September it is almost certain to find nice dry weather on the South side of the alpine pass.
Ticino has also alpine scenery, but the climate is noticeably milder than in the rest of Switzerland. More sunshine hours and generally warmer temperatures make it commonly known as the Swiss Riviera.
The San Bernardino Pass is one of the highest paved roads in the world, but sweeps smoothly over the Swiss Alps. Vintage car drivers will appreciate the gentle giant.
Gleaming glacier rocks dominate the scenery of the pass wriggling trough a moor up to the top on 2066 metres with the mountain lake of Lago Moesola. The mix of bogs and pine trees create a unique atmosphere and boasts the largest number of species in the southern part of the Alps.
It's worth to stop here to take in the views, have a coffee and maybe a short walk towards the hundreds of small rock pyramids visitors have stacked here.
For the best driving experience we recommend to tackle the nearly 100 kilometres long alpine road from the South.
With most of the 40 hairpins in the northern part this are will get a bit more tricky, but still manageable even for unexperienced drivers. Before reaching the village of San Bernardino, who gave the pass its name and is the official starting point you will experience wide sweeping turns on a very smooth roads lined by trees on each side.
Once you left the village behind the road remains gentle up to the top where we suggest stopping for a coffee to admire the views from the plateau on pretty impressive 2066 meters above sea level.
The drive down on the North side of the pass will be twisty and feel very eventful as the San Bernadino Pass also gets tighter on this last section. Surely the pass is one of the most scenic and spectacular ways to cross the Alps.
HISTORY OF THE SAN BERNARDINO PASS ROUTE
A few castles point out the importance of the valley as a trading route during the middle ages connecting the North and South of the Alps.
There is reason to believe that the pass was already in use in prehistoric times. Originally called the Via Mala – which literally means “bad path”. The San Bernardino was finally named after a mountain village in the fifteens century. It was during that time when the pass gained importance as a mule track and trading route.
Since 1770 the road was open to wheeled traffic and only between 1821 and 1832 improved to ensure trade between the North and the South. 1967 the San Bernardino road tunnel on the parallel running highway was opened and reduced traffic on the pass dramatically.
Today it serves mostly tourism and makes a wonderful scenic connection between the Central Swiss Alps and the world-famous Lake Como in Italy. But is also used as an alternative route when the tunnel on the highway is closed for maintenance or other reasons.
ACCESS THE SAN BERNARDINO
The San Bernardino Route itself is in general accessible throughout the year via the San Bernardino tunnel. The scenic alpine pass remains closed during the cold season between November and end of May. Once weather and avalanche conditions allow the San Bernardino Pass will be opened.
Constantly updated opening status information on the San Bernardino Pass is available online.
THE SAINT BERNARD DOG
Even today the old hospice crowns the San Bernardino Pass on his top. The Augustinian monks of the legendary Great St. Bernard Hospice have for centuries showed great hospitality to travellers.
It was up here where the Saint Bernard dog has been breed. At first only to carry heavy loads and later as avalanche dogs to find lost mountaineers. Over the years they have saved many lives.
The legend tells that the large and good-natured St. Bernard dogs carried barrels of whiskey around their necks to aid stranded travellers and keep them warm at freezing outside temperatures.
There is no evidence that the dogs ever carried the barrels! But 1820 painting by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer that shows two dogs saving a man in the snow and one has a barrel around its neck. It is believed that the artist was being creative.