The Rhône Glacier in Switzerland is getting smaller

The Rhône River – which flows through Switzerland and France – has its source at the Rhône Glacier. This glacier is located on the Furka Pass in the Swiss canton of Valais. Due to climate change, this glacier is also becoming smaller. A long time ago the glacier tongue reached the village of Gletsch. Over the years you see the glacier getting smaller and smaller. Since about 1870, a tunnel has been made in the glacier every year so that tourists can enter the ice cave. According to calculations, the glacier will virtually no longer exist around the year 2100.

  • River Rhone
  • River basin
  • Tributaries
  • Origin of Rhône Glacier
  • Glacier and location of the Rhône Glacier
  • Furka Pass
  • Earlier times
  • The Rhône Glacier will disappear completely
  • Facts that the glacier is melting
  • The shrinking of the glacier
  • Ice cave
  • Visit the ice cave
  • Glacial lake
  • White cloths
  • Opening hours
  • Disabled persons and strollers
  • Parking
  • Inside the ice cave
  • Glacier wine


River Rhone

The Rhône is a river that flows through Switzerland and France. In French it is called le Rhône and in German Rotten . It originates from the Rhône Glacier located on the Furka Pass. At first it is a small stream, but gradually this stream becomes a wider river. The total length is around 812 kilometers.

River basin

The Rhône river basin is approximately 98,000 km2. As mentioned earlier, the river originates at the Rhône Glacier and flows further through the Rhône Valley – past Brig, Visp and Sion, among others, to Lake Geneva. The Rhône flows into this and continues south on the French side. Ultimately the river flows into the Golfe du Lion, towards the Mediterranean Sea.


The Rhône River encounters several tributaries along the way. These are:

  • Saône near Lyon
  • Isère just before Valence
  • Drôme na Valence
  • Ardèche near Pont-Saint-Esprit
  • Eygues
  • Durance near Avignon
  • Gard between Arles and Avignon


Origin of Rhône Glacier

During the ice ages, Europe was covered by a thick layer of ice. This was also the case in Switzerland. There were several glaciers, including the Rhône Glacier. This glacier was then the largest glacier in Switzerland and it covered the entire canton of Valais. Sometimes it was big and sometimes it was mostly melted. However, the Aletsch Glacier has won over the Rhône Glacier, which is now the largest glacier in Switzerland.
Furka Dampfbahn at the Furka Pass / Source: ©ottergraafjes

Glacier and location of the Rhône Glacier

Gletsch (1,759 meters altitude) is a small village and is not inhabited in the winter months. This is because the access roads are full of snow in winter and both the Grimsel and Furka passes (accessible from Gletsch) are closed. The village of Gletsch has been extinct for years, but due to the return of the Furka Dampfbahn, the village is popular again in the summer. A long time ago, this hamlet was located on the Rhône Glacier, hence the name Glacier. The glacier tongue reached the Grand Hotel Glacier du Rhône . Hotel guests enjoyed the magnificent view of the Rhône Glacier while eating.

Furka Pass

The Furka Pass is located at an altitude of 2,431 meters and is the connecting road between the canton of Valais and the canton of Uri. This pass is the origin of the Rhône Glacier. The Furka Pass falls under the Gotthard Massif.
Rhône Glacier at Gletsch early 1900 / Source: WikiImages, PixabayGrand Hotel Glacier du Rhône in Gletsch / Source: ©ottergraafjesGletsch seen from the Furka Pass / Source: ©ottergraafjes

Earlier times

In the past, the glacier was many times wider and longer than it is today. In terms of width it even extended beyond the Grimsel Pass and in terms of length it reached as far as Brig. Over a period of 3,500 years, the glacier became shorter and only reached Oberwald, a village deeper into the valley (past Gletsch).

The Rhône Glacier will disappear completely

The Rhône Glacier is the water supplier of the aforementioned Rhône River, but for how long? According to a computer simulation by researchers from ETH Zurich and ETH Lausanne, the glacier will probably (almost) no longer exist around the year 2100. Since 1874, records have been kept of the size of the glacier. From that moment on it is clear that the glacier is getting smaller.

Facts that the glacier is melting

  • around 1856 the glacier reached Gletsch
  • In 1870 he just reached the Gletsch, but the ice thickness was already decreasing
  • in 1945 he just reached the valley
  • In the years that followed, the glacier became visibly smaller
  • the glacier shifts 30 to 40 meters every year, which amounts to 10 centimeters per day


The shrinking of the glacier

The photos below show that the glacier is getting smaller.
1971 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©sodraf1985 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©sodraf1990 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©sodraf 1996 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass snowfall summer / Source: ©ottergraafjes2000 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©sodraf2002 Rhône Glacier from Furka pass / Source: ©ottergraafjes 2006 Rhône Glacier from Grimsel Pass / Source: ©sodraf2010 Rhône Glacier from Grimsel Pass / Source: ©sodraf2014 Rhône Glacier from Grimsel Pass / Source: ©sodraf 2015 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©sodraf2016 Rhône Glacier from Furka Pass / Source: ©ottergraafjes2016 Rhôneglets jer near ice cave Furka pass / Source: ©ottergraafjes

Ice cave

A long time ago there was a natural ice cave in the Rhône Glacier. Since around 1870, an ice cave has been created in the glacier by hand every year. The first years this was done on the right side of the glacier and then it was done on the left side of the glacier. In this way, tourists have the opportunity to look into the glacier. Previously – in 1985 – you could still enter the ice cave from the souvenir shop. As the years pass, you have to walk further and further to reach the entrance of the cave (at an altitude of 2,300 meters above sea level). But it is definitely worth it. The ice temperature is around 0° C, but rises to about 5° C during the day. At the beginning of the summer season the ice cave is 100 meters long, while at the end of the season it appears that there is no less than 5 meters of ice has melted in height and the ice cave is only around 60 to 80 meters long!

Visit the ice cave

It is possible to visit the ice cave. However, you do have to walk a bit for this. Before you get to the ice cave itself, you will see a glacial lake and white cloths.

Glacial lake

Before you get to the glacier, you first pass a lake. That’s the glacial lake. The glacier used to be at that spot.

White cloths

From a certain distance you can see all kinds of white cloths hanging. These cloths have a function. The cloths are hung to make the ice melt less quickly. The cloths are made of linen.
glacial lake at the foot of the Rhône Glacier in 2016 / Source: ©ottergraafjeswhite cloths at Rhône Glacier in 2016 / Source: ©ottergraafjeswhite cloths at the entrance to the Rhône Glacier ice cave in 2016 / Source: ©ottergraafjes

Opening hours

The ice cave is only open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer season (early June to mid-October). During the holiday period (high summer) the cave is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Disabled persons and strollers

Unfortunately, the ice cave is not accessible to disabled people – with or without a wheelchair – and people with a pram or buggy.


Parking is free. This can be done at Hotel Belvédère or along the road. It is also possible to park your car in the parking lot at the Bazar Belvédère. Please note: it can be very busy during the summer period.

Inside the ice cave

Once you arrive in the ice cave, you will see that the ice is blue, while the ice on the outside is grayish white. You walk on wooden planks through the hand-hewn tunnel. At a certain point you come to the end of the tunnel, where a kind of ’roundabout’ – with the Swiss flag (in 2016) – has been created. A little further on there are a number of wine barrels. This contains wine.

Glacier wine

Since 1998, wine – glacier wine – has been matured in the Rhône Glacier. This is done by the Mathier family. The wine is a sweet wine. The benefits of ripening in the Rhône Glacier are:

  • temperatures around freezing point
  • high humidity
  • no power consumption
  • no problems with magnetic fields

gray white color outside Rhône Glacier / Source: ©ottergraafjesice blue color in ice cave Rhône Glacier / Source: ©ottergraafjesgletsjerwine in Rhône Glacier / Source: ©ottergraafjes