Trail Running in the Sierra vs. the Alps
Two of the world’s premier trail running venues, California’s Sierra Nevada and the Swiss Alps, are where we have spent the bulk of the last 30 years. The enthusiasm we have for running through these ranges resulted in our producing the trail running guidebooks to both. Sierra Trail Runs was released in 2022 and Run the Alps Switzerland was published in 2018. Along with Run the Alps Switzerland came ALPSinsight : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource, which launched with 30 runs but today has well over a hundred, including the Trail Running Guide to Chamonix, two multi day runs we developed ourselves, the Via Grischuna and what we feel is the greatest run in the Alps, the Via Valais.
With all our knowledge of the Sierra and the Alps, we decided to share some info about the two mountain ranges to help convince you that you really need to run in both. The one vs. the other part is only meant to get you to choose which comes first. You need your own comparison. But for now, we’ll do it, and even have a bit of fun with our inside take. To get some of the jabs, you may need to have spent time in these ranges.
This comparison isn’t so much about the mountains as it is the cultures found within them. Europe has a long tradition of rich mountain culture, and mountain sports are a mainstream activity. On weekends, city train stations are packed full of brightly-colored, backpack-wearing hikers, runners, climbers, and ski tourers. Proximity to mountains plays a big role in this. The Alps are literally right out many peoples’ doors.
Trail Running in the Alps
With so many people recreating and living in the mountains, the result has been a tremendous amount of infrastructure to support the demand: a massive trail network, lifts, trams, restaurants, and the hut system. Most visitors, especially Americans, love what’s offered: torts fresh from the oven, coffee, cheese & salami platters, and a selection of beers are all trailside and found on just about every mountain run. With what the huts offer in the Alps, a 9-day trail run like the Via Valais is actually quite comfortable while carrying only a 15 liter pack.
Basically, Americans go nuts when they see the luxury, convenience, access, and quality of life in the Alps. And we haven’t even mentioned what mountain runners come for, trails and peaks. These are in such abundance, and of such outstanding quality, that visiting trail runners feel a sense of despair at the unfairness of our short lives.
So, what’s missing in the Alps? I feel I can be a voice for this as I’m an American with 15 years living and working in the Alps. The number one thing I miss, in no particular order 😉… open sky, solitude, humor, and the vast wilderness that stretches out beneath that sky. All that, and really quirky people!
Now that we’ve established that the Alps are luxurious and stunningly beautiful. What about the Sierra?
Trail Running in the Sierra
The Sierra are tough, beautiful, and stunningly wonderful! They’re no less of anything, just different. In the Alps, you’ll feel like a sports car speeding around while in the Sierra you’ll find yourself identifying more with a 4WD jeep. The Alps make you fast, the Sierra make you tough.
The Sierra don’t have much infrastructure, no one will serve you anything unless you manage to convince a random backpacker to do it. And that’s how just about everyone, myself included, wants to keep it. Wild, with a very real sense of self reliance and even a hint of adventure.
And the running…? Like I said, jeep mode, but also lots of low angle switchbacks at what many term, “mule grade”. Annoyingly runnable uphill at a chug-along kind of pace. Thankfully, in descent, mule grade becomes fast and fun. All this on ground that is typically soft, thanks to decomposed granite (DG) and less technical than what you’ll find on most Alps’ trails, unless you’re in a Sierra talus field.
When it comes to life in the Sierra, again, there is little in terms of luxury. Car lifestyle plays a big role. Trailhead access can require bumpy dirt roads to perfect parking spots ideal for camping and tailgate snacks. I’ll choose my van’s bed over a room full of snoring Swiss anytime. Then again, to stay in the Alps at a hut, and continue on the next day, is a pretty sublime experience.
You see the problem, right? You need to experience both. Which you choose first is entirely up to you. Thankfully, you can’t go wrong.
Finally, to further confuse things, a snarky Sierra vs. the Swiss Alps list:
- Crunchy vs Creamy
- Apple Pie vs Cow Pie
- Mule grade vs VK grade
- Quirky vs Grumpy
- Dirtbags vs Moneybags
- Neutral vs Neon
- Sunny vs Iffy
- Rednecks vs Turtlenecks
- Fire smoke vs Cigarette smoke
- Bighorns vs Alphorns
- “Hey, how’s it going? blah blah blah blah blah” vs “Gruezi.”
- Talus vs Glaciers
- Giant sequoias vs Giant tram towers
- BYO vs Huts and their fresh torts, pasta and booze
- Wilderness vs Amusement Parks
- Bears & Rattlesnakes vs Cows & Sheep
- Hootin’ and hollerin’ vs Yodeling
- Misfits vs Outfits
By Dan Patitucci
Run the Alps offers guided and self-guided tours, from the Dolomites to Chamonix, and everywhere in between.