From the windows of the packed train from Täsch to Zermatt, Switzerland, my husband, three children, and I watched classic Swiss chalets and hillsides of lush evergreens slide by. Ahead, not yet visible, lay the reason for our day trip from Montreux: the Matterhorn.

It was late July, and we'd been wearing bathing suits the day before on Lake Geneva. Now we wore jackets and socks that we hoped would be warm enough.

The train pulled into Zermatt station and soon we were walking uphill through the village, a hodgepodge of T-shirt shops, high-end retailers, snug bed-and-breakfasts, and grander Alpine hotels. Tiny, rustic hiking and skiing cabins dotted the hills.

After selecting a to-go lunch from a village bakery and buying round-trip tickets at the Bergbahnen, or mountain railway, we boarded a private, closed gondola and swung into the mountain air. Within minutes, Zermatt lay like a storybook village below us. As we climbed, the silhouettes of Alpine peaks came into focus, startling in their sharp, rugged beauty.

The Matterhorn was as gasp-worthy as anticipated. Its intricate faces were delicately sloped, as though sculpted by a master, and its uppermost peak reached toward the sky like a gracefully bent arm. At 14,692 feet, it is only the 12th highest peak in Western Europe, but it is probably the most famous and the most photographed.

While some riders disembarked to take pictures, we stayed aboard, enjoying the clusters of the region's woolly blacknose sheep below us. We were headed for the last stop, billed as the "Matterhorn glacier paradise." Switching to a larger gondola with dozens of tourists and skiers, we zipped jackets, put on hats, and prepared for the cold.

Standing on the glacier was literally and figuratively intoxicating. The air was clear, icy, and thin. As the rest of my family tramped several hundred yards across the blinding, hard-packed snow, I stayed near the door to the visitors' center, lightheaded from the altitude. Every breath was a conscious effort. As skiers swooshed by, unaffected, I kept my eyes on the Matterhorn, shrouded in fog.

We didn't last long in the piercing cold. Chilled and woozy but exhilarated, we took an elevator to a panoramic lookout atop the visitors' center. An enormous crucifix there honors those who have been to the summit of the Matterhorn and the many who have died trying.

On the way back down, we ate sandwiches, quiche, and homemade cookies in the shape of blacknose sheep and talked about our adventure. We had been face to face with the Matterhorn and walked on a glacier. It seemed like a dream.

The day ended with a delectable chocolate fondue with fresh fruit at Zermatt's Theodors Stuba restaurant. A final highlight: seeing a herd of long-haired mountain goats being driven up the hill through the village by a modern-day Heidi. Their bells sounded like gongs in the crisp, clean air.