The Simplon Pass, at an elevation of 2005 metres (6578 feet) above sea level, is a high mountain pass in the Pennine Alps. It connects Domodossola in the Val d’Aosta region of Italy with Brig in the Valais Canton in Switzerland. The drive over the Simplon Pass provides both a seamless transition between Italy and Switzerland and a kaleidoscope of alpine beauty. The Pass is generally open during the summer months when weather permits but can be subject to closure in winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches.
When travellers plan to drive across the Alps, they usually choose a route to suit the type of road trip they want. Some drivers want to experience white-knuckle excitement as they negotiate switchbacks constructed on precipitous mountain slopes. Others want a relatively stressless drive with time to enjoy the view. This is the Simplon Pass.
We trace the drive across the Simplon Pass from Domodossola, the Italian gateway to the Pass, to Brig, its Swiss counterpart. The distance between Domodossola and Brig is approximately 64 kilomteres. We use many images to explore the expected road conditions, some historical aspects of the Pass, its natural history, current uses and the beauty of its landscape.
The Italian Gateway to the Simplon Pass
The majority of travellers who drive the Simplon Pass generally approach from around Milan. The E62 which brings traffic north from Milan to the Simplon Pass is a good, straight road. Once across the border into Switzerland the condition of the road improves again. This is not intended to put the Italian roads in a poor light. Quite the opposite.
The E62 leads travellers to Preglia and nearby Domodossola. Although the E62 bypasses the two towns, an easy exit off the E62 leads to a short, parallel road that runs between the two towns. Preglia, and particularly Domodossola, are considered the gateway towns to the Simplon Pass.
Preglia’s attraction as a quick drive-through is related to the town’s location in the scenic Ossola Valley and its proximity to the Alps. The relevance of Preglia’s location in the Ossola Valley is that agriculture and tourism are the town’s foremost economic base.
The relevance of Preglia’s proximity to the Swiss Alps can be understood in the context that the Simplon Pass has been used to cross the Alps for centuries. This historic trade route dates back to the years of the Roman empire. It was part of the Via Augusta, a major Roman road that connected the Po river further south to the Rhone river in Switzerland. It would therefore not be surprising to find a number of informal historical attractions along the roadside and in the town, including reminders of regional Roman habitation.
Domodossola is considered to be the gateway to the Simplon Pass. The town is just down the road from Preglia and is the more likely venue should you be looking for a quick visit to break your trip. The town centre is larger and more attractive than that of Preglia’s and offers historic medieval buildings and narrow lanes that snake between the squares. There are also some notable historical and religious sites to visit, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sacred Mount Calvary and the Villa Silva Ghilini, in the grounds of which are gardens and an International Art Gallery of modern art. Following image of Domodossola by: Alain Rouiller, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Domodossola is an important regional railway hub connecting Italy and Switzerland and so it is no surprise that the railway station appears to be the most photographed feature in Domodossola.
The Simplon Tunnel
Once past Domodossola and back on the E62 the journey heads towards nearby Varzo and Iselle, the latter being historically important to the Simplon Pass.
The overland component of the Simplon Pass was improved in the early 19th Century when Napoleon I ordered the construction of the Simplon road. This has since been transformed into today’s modern road. Later, in the 1890’s, construction was also undertaken of the Simplon (rail) Tunnel which was to run under the Simplon Pass. The tunnel connected Domodossola to Brig and included a straight section of rail of about 20km that runs under the Simplon Pass between Iselle (It) and Rosswald (Swiss). The lowest point of the tunnel is approximately 1.6km under Monte Leone, a mountain of the Simplon Pass.
The tunnel railway station at Iselle is just along the road from Varzo. It is hard to miss given the small car park and the number of cars that are also parked along the roadside. Iselle marks the entrance to the Simplon Tunnel. Plutowiki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Simplon (railway) Tunnel was completed in 1906 and is one of the world’s longest tunnels. The route was discontinued in 1993 but after its restoration was reactivated as a car shuttle service between Italy and Switzerland. The tunnel is now a significant transportation link between Italy and Switzerland allowing for efficient rail connections between the two countries.
Towards the Italian Border
The E62 continues for the short drive alongside the Diveria River, past Varzo and Iselle, to the Italian border. The valley floor provides flat terrain for the road while the surrounding landscape increases in elevation. When approaching Varzo, Monte Cistella can be viewed in greater detail. Varzo also hosts a number of spectacular walking and hiking trails into the lower mountains. And, if it’s to your taste, there are also lots of single lane roads around the mountains to challenge your nerves.
The Italian border soon comes into view. There aren’t any restrictions and so no need to stop.
Switzerland and the Simplon Pass
A vignette (40CF) is usually required to travel on Swiss motorways and expressways. Failure to comply can result in large fines. The vignette can be a sticker that is to displayed on the windscreen of the car when in Switzerland or it can be registered electronically. You can buy a vignette at most border crossings, petrol stations, post offices, or by phone. A vignette is not required for the Simplon Pass but may be once you move away from Brig. Click here for more information on vignettes.
Once into Swiss territory you will notice the vertical canyons and water falling down the cliff faces. Look for the turnoff on the left of the road to Fort Gondo, an historical site. Fort Gondo gets its name from its location in the Gondo gorge. The fort was strategically located to defend the borders during WW2. The design of the fort is typical for this type of fortification. Forts included underground corridors and tunnels, troop accommodation and gallery, separate officers’ quarters, machine rooms and the gun emplacements in bunkers. Trinkets and mementos decorate the living quarters of the soldiers’ quarters. The fort is well worth a visit if you haven’t before explored a similar installation. You can also book a tour of Fort Gondo if interested.
This area of the Pass just beyond the border is physically characterised by a complex network of faults and thrusts; fractures in the earth’s crust which have moved relative to each other. A discerning eye can make them out, although the Gondo Gorge can hardly be missed. Nevertheless, the earth’s processes along the Pass haven’t resulted in dramatic cliff-edge sections or endless switchbacks to navigate. It is all reasonably easy driving to the summit on an excellent road complemented by lovely scenery and mountain landscape.
This region of Switzerland, Zwischbergen, is also popular for hiking. In fact, its natural beauty makes it a lovely place to visit and therefore attracts walkers and hikers to its numerous walking trails. Should you have time to park your car for a few days, explore any number of the walking trails that traverse the area. The trails around Varso, Gondo, and Gabi are just the start of a hiker’s dream, the dream continuing right across the Pass.
Ascending to the Simplon Pass Summit
The following images show the road conditions along the Simplon ascent.
Landscape and Mountains
As you consider the road conditions of the Pass, enjoy the variety of landscapes along the way.
The Simplon Pass region is also home to diverse flora and fauna. Wildlife such as ibex, chamois and marmots are found in the surrounding area, and, in the right season, wild flowers abound.
The Town of Simplon
The town of Simplon nestles in the valley to the left of the road and when passed the Boshorn (3268 m) comes into view.
At the same time, the first sighting of the Breithorn (4164 m) comes into view on the right. Even though Breithorn is over 4000 metres, it appears less imposing than it should because it is being viewed from 2000 metres above sea level.
The pyramidal form of the Briethorn’s peak is evidence of the glaciation that shaped the Pass and the features of its landscape. The shape of the mountain peak is due to converging glacial events that carve across the peak’s faces.
The Summit of the Simplon Pass
The summit of the Pass is populated by a small number of restaurants, hotels and tourist centre.
The Simplon Hospice
The Hospice du Simplon is another of several historical sites along the Simplon Pass. The Simplon Hospice (Hospice du Simplon), backgrounded by the Hubschhorn (3192 m), is impossible to miss to the right of the road through the Pass.
The hospice was a former monastery that has served as an inn and hospice for travellers for centuries. The hospice is a UNESCO world heritage site and provides a glimpse of rich history.
This very sizable building was commissioned by Napoleon in 1801 to complement the road construction over the pass so as to provide travellers and merchants with food and shelter. It was also commissioned to be used as a barracks, if required. The modernised hospice can accommodate up to 130 guests, but in its simpler form would have been a welcome refuge 2,000 metres above sea level for travellers in challenging weather. The hospice still maintains its religious roots, including a chapel, and has always been run by the Canons of Saint Augustine.
Mountains Near the Summit
Besides Hubschhorn, both Breithorn (4164 m) and Monte Leone (3553 m) can be seen from the highest point on the summit road. Monte Leone is interesting to view because it marks the approximate course of the Simplon Tunnel under the mountains.
The Landscape Around the Summit of Simplon Pass
Besides the natural beauty and historic sites, the Simplon Pass region is particularly known for outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing and mountaineering. One of the major mistakes made by first-time travellers is that they do not think in advance about the plethora of walking trails throughout the Alps and Dolomites. So, if you are planning to drive through these regions for the first time, do a little research on how you can take a few days to hike in these lovely regions.
All this is possible because the Italian-Swiss border region is the fortunate beneficiary of plate movement that happened millions of years ago. During ancient geological time an ocean separated the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. The softer northern sediments of Tethys ocean were pushed by the north-moving African plate against the harder, more stable continental sediments of the Eurasian plate. Consequently, the Tethys’ sediments were lifted up, exposed and later shaped by further geological processes leading to their current formations.
That tectonic crunch has left us with the Alps – mountains to enjoy and never get sick of. The Alps are like a giant magnet that pulls us to themselves with the promise of mountainous beauty and majesty with a threat of deprivation if we don’t see them at least one more time. But there is always another one more time and so the compulsion never ends.
The environs of the Simplon Pass have since been subjected to glaciation. The glaciers have characteristically contributed to the shaping of the landscape. Explorers will find not only the u-shaped valleys resulting from the last ice age, but also the predictable deposits of glacial moraines, till and erratics. If you happen to get out onto one of the trails look for some of the most apparent evidence of glaciation in the form of scratches and grooves in the softer rock. These indicate the direction the detritus was carried by the ice as it crept across this region of Switzerland. Our post describing the Lovcen National Park in Montenegro shows these results of glaciation clearly.
The Simplon Pass bedrock is made up of many different types of rock. Nevertheless, the mountain building processes associated with plate tectonics subjected the rock to heat and pressure.The metamorphism resulted in the recrystallization and deformation of preexisting rocks. The metamorphic rock distributed throughout the region of the Pass includes slate, garnets and marble, with schist and gneiss being commonly found. However, these features are usually only visible along the hiking trails.
The Peaceful Descent Down the Simplon Pass to Brig
The Descent Away from the Summit
The descent away from the Pass summit to Brig continues on an excellent road with expansive views of the alps. We are letting the images tell their own story for this part of the drive.
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Approaching and Entering Brig on the Simplon Pass
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Read more about the Ganter Bridge here.
Conclusion for the Drive The Alpine Simplon Pass From Italy To Switzerland
The Simplon Pass is an excellent choice to drive from Italy to Switzerland. The drive is comfortable and scenic and provides more that enough highlights to make anyone want to stop and explore further. The mountain landscape, condition of the road and views of Switzerland contribute to an enjoyable adventure.