Le Chasseron, the 14th highest peak in the Jura Mountains, is unmistakable, yet is often confused with Chasseral (the 13th highest peak), which we trekked to in September. Adding to their confusion, they are both virtually the same height - with Le Chasseron 1606.6 metres (rounded-up to 1607), and Chasseral 1607.4 (rounded-down to 1607) - and both have their names from the same origins: the place of la chasse - the chase, the hunt. A good place to go hunting for wild game.
Fortunately they are both good places to go hiking as well, and the trip to the top of Le Chasseron on Sunday (21 October) reinforced this peak's reputation as one of the best day hikes in the Jura. We headed up there from the village of Sainte Croix (or Sainte-Croix or Ste-Croix - depending on which map/sign/book you're looking at), which is about 10 kilometres northwest of Yverdon-les-Bains, the picturesque town located at the southern end of Lac de Neuchâtel.
The road up the Jura escarpment was a classic switchback-abundant, zig-zag, mountain-side road that took us from the relatively low-land Swiss plateau to the first saddle (or "col") of the Jura's highest ridgeline - the south-eastern chain, the "Balcon de Léman", which rises steeply to the village of Ste-Croix.
We parked just below the Sainte-Croix church, and, without much ado, grabbed our back-packs and (at about 10am) headed north out of town. The trail virtually started right at the church's back door. Ste-Croix is famous for lots of reasons - but mostly because of its music boxes, and the fact that the famous 18th century writer, philosopher, botanist, wanderer and explorer Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to hang around here back in the 1760s. He lived in the nearby village of Môtiers from 1762 to 1765, and frequently wandered around the hills in the vicinity of Le Chasseron. Whilst living in Môtiers, Rousseau fell in love with the Jura Mountains, and took every opportunity to hike into its highlands - including to Le Chasseron - in search of "plants and inspiration". Suitably inspired by such walks, he wrote his famous books: Reveries of the Solitary Walker and Letters written from the Mountains, which were filled with vivid descriptions of the landscape. He once wrote: "I cannot possibly describe how pleasant it is here in the warm season". One account of Rousseau said: "his depiction of nature as an object of contemplation rather than a source of imminent danger triggered a flow of foreign visitors eager to see the Swiss countryside for themselves. Some used his novel Julie, or the new Heloise as a travel guide ... Scores of English romantics followed his lead, becoming the first tourists to visit the Jura Mountains".
The music box heritage dates back to about a hundred years after Rousseau - to 1850, when the Swiss watch-making industry went through a bit of an economic crisis, prompting the watchmakers of Sainte Croix to diversify into manufacturing new products: music boxes. This proved to be sufficiently profitable for the industry to take-on some degree of permanence, and gave the town a whole new reputation. Apparently the local music box museum and workshop are well worth a visit. It's not open on Sundays, and besides, we were itching to "hit the road", and so we didn't hang around for very long.
The trail heading out of Ste-Croix is along the famous "Chemin des Crêtes du Jura" transjurassien trail. Initially it went straight uphill, out of town, and into a wonderful deciduous forest ablaze with autumn colours. The path was covered with fallen leaves, and neither of us could resist the childhood urge to shuffle our boots along the ground as we went - kicking up leaves along the way. That was fun.
About one and a half kilometres from Ste-Croix, just past a farm-house, we reached a walking-trail-crossroad at a place called Les Praises (1255m).
After scrutinizing the signs, and our topographic map, we turned east and headed along a gentle incline which took us into a (mainly) coniferous forest - which is more typical of the Jura's higher landscapes. The track was a two-wheeled limestone road that obviously universally serves the needs of the foresters, farmers, ski-lift operators and skiers, refuge owners and visitors, mountain hotels/restaurants, hikers, etc.
Fortunately we only had to follow it for about a kilometre, before we turned onto a grassy/rocky walking track that headed north towards Le Chasseron. The turn-off was just south of a mountain hut/refuge/restaurant called "La Casba", which was located near a whole bunch of ski-lift apparatus servicing the ski-field around Le Cochet. A little further along the track we reached Les Avattes - another chalet that doubles-up as a restaurant, serving hikers, skiers and motorists probably all-year-round. A magnificent aroma tantalizingly wafted over our trail, with the smell of a wood fire burning away, and something sizzling (la chasse?). But we resisted the urge to investigate, and pushed-on up the hill.
Les Avattes must be quite a destination in itself, because from there-on the path (now looking more rocky and rustic like the "Chemin des Crêtes du Jura" should) became increasing less-trodden. At first, it led up a steep hillside through a last patch of forest, then out onto open mountain pasture and, finally, a sharp rocky ridgeline called le Petites Roches (the "Little Rocks"). This ridge - with gentle sloping pasture-land on one side (the east), and steep, rocky, forested slopes on the other (the west) provided our first good clear views over the surrounding Jura, and distant lakes and Alps. Unfortunately, the latter were little more than fuzzy outlines in a blue-grey haze - that hung over the Neuchâtel and Léman lakes. There were no amazing views to be enjoyed today.
The highest point of les Petites Roches - at 1583 metres - was our first destination for the day, being number 21 on our list of the Jura's highest named peaks.
Once we got there, we stayed just long enough to take the obligatory celebratory photograph, to check-out the surrounding landscape, and take a few more pics. There was a stiff wind blowing-in from the Alps, which meant that every time we stopped walking, we needed to pull-on a windbreaker, and every time we started walking again, we needed to take it off.
We were soon back on our way, dropping down from Petites Roches into a bit of a swale just east of Crêt de Gouilles (1524 metres), and following the trail that skirted along the cliff-faces. The views were amazing and, from time to time, we stopped to take more photographs - mainly of les Petites Roches behind us and Le Chasseron looming ahead.
It didn't take us long to cover the last kilometre or so between Petites Roches and Le Chasseron, and we soon passed the Hôtel du Chasseron - the mountaintop hotel/restaurant that is perched on the slopes just south of the summit. Far below us, through the haze, we could see the town of Yverdon-les-Bains - from where Rousseau had been evicted (he was "persecuted by the authorities" - partly for his "worship of nature"), just before he moved to Môtiers in the 1760s.
Uninspired by the look of the hotel, we scrambled like a pair of mountain goats up the last rocky outcrop and stood at the edge of the abrupt cliff-face atop the Jura's 14th highest summit - Le Chasseron (1607m). Lis snapped a pic of me standing at the summit under the big geodesic signal pyramid that marks the highest point. This had been erected in 1989 - to replace the original one that had been there since 1901.
It was now about mid-day, and for the first time the skies above us were seriously clouding-over. There was little to see towards the Alps, where (as the very informative panorama information panel told us), one could normally see the magnificent chain of Savoy, Valais and Bernese Alpine peaks. Those who've made it to the top on clearer days also normally get great views of three lakes - Neuchâtel, Biel and Murten (and limited views of a fourth - Lac Léman) - and the Fribourg plateau.
The wind was cold and cutting, so we once again pulled-on our windbreakers, and found a place in a hollow behind some rocks where we could hunker-down for lunch. A picnic lunch at the top of the Jura, who could ask for more? Hot tea, bread, cheese, chocolate and a nip of French brandy - all while taking-in a magnificent view over the Jura Mountains. Absolute bliss!
After lunch we wandered around the summit, taking-in the scenery, and enjoying the occasional burst of sunlight that broke through the passing clouds and lit-up the mountain-top. As usual, I took about a hundred photographs.
One of the most interesting stories about Le Chasseron dates back to 1850, when a young man collecting plant specimens at the foot of the mountain found a handful of old Roman coins. Not surprisingly, hundreds of amateur fossickers followed in his footsteps in subsequent years - scouring the site and discovering a multitude of objects, including more coins, and pieces of jewellery, pottery and other objects. This is how the discovery was reported in the Gazette de Lausanne:
"A few weeks ago, a young man engaged in collecting plants at the foot of Chasseron found a Roman coin, whilst snatching a plant. It was soon known in (the towns of) Fleurier and Sainte Croix. Therefore, many people of these localities have been excavating the site and found so far, about two hundred Roman medals ... Also found were bricks, fragments of vases, almost-intact bells, iron tools, etc."
The site was further studied by a man named Julien Gruaz, who described the site in some detail in an account entitled "Le Chasseron temples and Mountains" - which was published in the Vaudoise History Journal in 1913. He wrote that: "the site had probably been first used by the Gauls, and then the Romans, as a temple at which they could devote themselves to their gods in some high places". He wrote (with some degree of lyricism, but here slightly lost in translation): "In relation to a huge space, where exist to infinity a variety of sites amid soft undulating lines; where the contrasts of light and shadow, storm and weather deploy powerful effects, it seems that the veneration shines on mountaintops would associate the worship of the gods - at all times exercised over the human soul, and the forces of nature".
The site was most comprehensively examined in the summers of 2004 and 2005 - by a team of archaeologists led by Professor Thierry Luginbühl from the "Institute of Archaeology and Sciences of the Antiquity" at the University of Lausanne. These more thorough and professional excavations "shed far more light on the site, revealing distinct foundations of the temple/shrine, completely exposing the remaining walls, and even discovering fragments of Roman tiles which once adorned its floors and walls".
With no such antiquity to arouse our interest, and suitably rested, we re-shouldered our packs and began retracing our steps down the mountain. Fortunately the back-tracking only lasted a few hundred metres - where we stopped to check-out an interesting monument called "the Stone of Peace". This is a huge gneiss boulder that had been originally dragged from miles away by an ancient glacier, and deposited somewhere near the village of Bullet at the foot of Le Chasseron. It was placed up near Le Chasseron as a monument to peace, and had engraved into its upper surface - by sculptor Jacqueline Jeanneret from Col des Roches - the symbols of ancient and more-modern religious faiths - surrounding the mathematical sign for infinity.
At this point, we took a trail that headed down the escarpment on the western side of the ridgeline - towards the farmhouse called La Merla (1390m). Although steep and rocky when we first dropped-over the cliff-tops, the path was mostly a gentle zig-zag down the side of the valley to the valley floor where the farm's summer homestead was located.
This is a lovely, flat section of the trail, and we made good time to our next landmark - another mountain farm homestead that annually bursts into life during Switzerland's warmer months - called Le Sollier. From here we turned a sharp right, towards the northwest, and headed straight-up the slope towards the summit of Mont de la Maya.
The slope got progressively steeper, such that by the time we were approaching the top we were having to zig-zag back and forward across the slope to gain height. It was too steep to go straight-up. Even though Mont de la Maya is way down on the list of the Jura's highest peaks (1465 metres, and number 54), it felt more like a mountaintop than many of the higher peaks we've climbed. Not surprisingly, the trail to the top isn't even marked on most maps. To most hikers passing by, it's another obscure summit (only climbed by "collectors"). Lis reckons I'm the Jura Mountains' equivalent of a "twitcher" (for those who don't know the term, it's applied to bird-watching enthusiasts "who travel long distances to see a rare bird - which they would then tick, or check-off, on their list".
And after one last scramble over some rocks, we found ourselves at the top of Mont de la Maya. The peak gets its name from the Latin word meta, which means "cone or pyramid", and generally applies to a place with a conical top. We didn't stay there for very long - pausing just long enough to catch our breath, have a drink of water, munch-down a snack bar, and then take the obligatory "proof-I-was-there" photograph.
We retraced our steps back down the mountain - to a set of walking trail "cross-roads", just east of Le Sollier farmhouse. We took the lesser-travelled route towards the south, which took us back into the coniferous forest below Petites Roches, and led us towards our final destination - the top of Le Cochet.
About one-and-a-half kilometres further down the track, we turned-off to the west, and made our way up the slopes of Le Cochet - following a thin sinuous clearing through the forest that was obviously a winter ski piste. We were just near the "La Casba" chalet again.
Sometime around 2.30pm, we reached the top of Le Cochet (at 1483.3 metres, it's number 49 on the list). Tick. (It's been a good day for a Jura twitcher - four peaks, and four ticks - bringing the total number of peaks "ticked-off" in my "Jura Seven Summits" project thus far - to 38.) Le Cochet gets its name from the surname of an old farming family who once lived in the district, and probably owned the mountain pastures around the peak.
Unfortunately, although only mid-afternoon, the day hadn't got any warmer, the cold wind still chilled us whenever we stopped walking, and the clouds and haze blanketed-out any chance we had of getting good views of the peaks on the horizon. So, as soon as we'd taken our photographs, we charged-off down the mountainside, following a rough path that wound its way down the hillside under the ski-lifts on the eastern side of the mountain.
We soon re-encountered the trail that we'd been on earlier in the day, just near "La Casba", so we turned south and headed back towards Ste-Croix. Ironically, as soon as we got back into the lower altitudes, the wind dropped, the clouds began to clear and the sun came out. As it had been in the morning, the countryside was once again bathed in glorious sunshine as we headed back into the deciduous forest.
We got back to the car sometime just after 3pm - making the hike roughly five hours long. As had been the case on every Jura Mountain ramble thus far, we'd had a great time, had seen some great views, and talked about when we'll come back and do this hike again: Perhaps in mid-winter, or mid summer, or .....
Jura peaks bagged:
- Le Chasseron (No. 14) 1607m
- Petites Roches (No. 21) 1583m
- Le Cochet (No. 49) 1483m
- Mont de la Maya (No. 54) 1465m
- Putting it into perspective, Le Chasseron is apparently the 6,183rd highest peak in Switzerland.
- Regarding its name, Le Chasseron is also thought to be derived from the Latin saxon, which means "rocks", and which became sasse, then Sasseron. Other accounts suggest Le Chasseron may once have also been called "Sucheron".