Standing at the entrance to Switzerland’s magical Lauterbrunnen Valley, I felt an eerie sense of familiarity. Where before had I seen this stunning landscape, a fertile and narrow river valley enclosed by towering cliffs, over which dozens of waterfalls spill in ribbons of silver?
Tugging at my memory was a whimsical illustration from my childhood copy of The Hobbit, a depiction of the elvish valley of Rivendell painted by author J.R.R. Tolkien himself. When I pulled up the image and compared it with the landscape before me, the similarity was stunning. Suddenly I realized that the renowned author must have stood right where I was standing now, his awe becoming the inspiration for Middle Earth.
I made this discovery in May during a week-long visit with my daughter, in which we based our stay deep in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a 10-minute walk from the village at Camping Jungfrau. Its cluster of tiny cabins, bungalows, and tent sites around a lively restaurant and fairy-lit garden perfectly encapsulated the magic of the place. Almost directly above us, so close that its spray stung the air, the massive Staubach Waterfall roared us to sleep at night.
The name Lauterbrunnen translates as clear springs, and indeed being there in spring, water seemed to spring from everywhere, seeping from the rock in mossy grottoes, flowing in rivers and streams, and pouring over the cliffs in a series of waterfalls that locals promised us numbered 72 at the height of snowmelt.
I wasn’t the only one to make the Tolkien connection, of course; a subsequent dive into the world of Tolkienology revealed a host of fascinating facts about a trek the author took through the Bernese Alps in 1911, when he was 19. In this formative adventure—led by a quirky aunt whom some Tolkien researchers posit was the model at least in part for Gandalf—the young J.R.R., his brother Hilary, and a motley crew of relatives and friends spent weeks looping through these glacier-carved valleys and snowbound passes that would spark his imagination for the rest of his life.
While Tolkien scholars and readers have tried to map the route from references in letters, journal entries, conversations, and signatures in guest books, much remains vague. But the connection to The Hobbit, which Tolkien was not to write for another 25 years, doesn’t: He laid it out in a letter to his son Michael in 1967, when he was 76.
“The hobbit’s (Bilbo’s) journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in 1911,” he wrote. Admitting that his “wanderings mainly on foot in a party of 12 are not now clear in sequence,” Tolkien continued, “We went on foot, carrying great packs, practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen and so to Mürren and eventually to the head of the Lauterbrunnenthal in a wilderness of morains.”
But the truth is, you don’t need the backing of scholarship to know you’re wandering the world of hobbits, dwarfs, elves, orcs, and dragons as you explore the high Alpen peaks and valleys of the Jungfrau region, with its tiny gabled villages tucked deep into dales and stacked precariously atop sheer cliffs. The village of Lauterbrunnen, tucked in the V of the valley with the White Lütschine River running through it, is too much like Rivendell for there to be any doubt. And there indeed are the Misty Mountains—in the form of three peaks, the Eiger (13,024 feet), Mönch (13,448 feet), and Jungfrau (13,641 feet)—rising up at the end of the valley like mysterious sentinels.
There is no evidence that Tolkien visited Trümmelbach Falls, an underground waterfall and UNESCO World Heritage site, and yet we found it impossible to duck through the rock-hewn tunnels and edge along the cliff-hugging walkways that link its 10 underground cascades without thinking of Smaug and the dwarfs’ Kingdom Under Mountain.
Another series of caves and waterfalls that could easily be mistaken for Middle Earth: St. Beatus Caves near Lake Thun feature a labyrinth of stalactite- and stalagmite-bedecked caverns and underground pools connected by passages that feel like nothing so much as Gollum’s underground lake.
Today there’s no need to hike to reach Mürren; we got there by walking the length of the valley to Stechelberg and catching the world’s steepest cable car. It offers vertigo-inducing views through the glass walls and floor as it ascends almost 3,000 feet to the village at 5,450 feet.
With its chalets, hotels, and restaurants staggered up a steep slope and linked by stairs, this car-free village offers perhaps the most dramatic views of any in the area; one restaurant terrace juts over the valley floor below. A path winds down the mountain to neighboring Gimmelwald, passing 500-year-old farmhouses and hay sheds and hillsides grazed by curious cows and frisky goats.
On the other side of the valley, the village of Wengen may be the best known of those ringing Lauterbrunnen thanks to the ski runs that ascend directly behind town and the Maennlichen cable car to the Jungfraujoch, or Top of Europe.
But it was the creaking cogwheel Wengernalp train connecting Lauterbrunnen with Wengen and Grindelwald that once again brought Tolkien’s journey to mind. Watching the late afternoon sun light up the valley as the train began its descent, I was reminded again of Tolkien’s vivid world and the essential escape and alternate vision it had offered me and countless others as we grew up and tried to make sense of our own. And about how this mountain-shrouded valley, with its impossibly high cliffs and glacier-fed cascades, had provided just such awe, inspiration, and escape for all those who entered its walled enclave.
Lastly, as we wound down the mountainside, a new vista unfolding with every switchback, it occurred to me that this train—the longest cogwheel railway in Europe—made its first run in 1892. How likely is it that Tolkien and his 12-person band took this same ride 20 years later?
Pulling out my phone to look once again at his painting of Rivendell, I had my answer.