Turquoise waters of Lake Oeschinen

Hiking with Ibexes at Oeschinensee, One of Europe’s Most Beautiful Lakes

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One of Switzerland’s most stunning lakes, Oeschinensee, is completely off the radar of most tourists. Many locals don’t even know about it, yet it’s easily reachable with a short hike or gondola ride from the town of Kandersteg. For the more adventurous hiker, a panorama loop trail above the lake is one of the most beautiful hikes in Switzerland.

The panorama trail also offers the chance to see the elusive Alpine ibex, a regal wild goat native to the European Alps. By the 18th century, they’d been hunted to extinction in Switzerland, and their numbers were ultimately reduced to just 100 animals in a national park in Italy. Thanks to conservation efforts, these proud horned goats – symbol of the Alps – were reintroduced to Switzerland starting in 1906. They tend to be shy, but if you’re really lucky, you’ll spot one on your hike! We did, and it was one of those moments we live for when we’re hiking.

Here we share with you everything you need to know about getting to Kandersteg and hiking Lake Oeschinen – and hopefully seeing some wildlife of your own!

Turquoise waters of Lake Oeschinen
In 2007, the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site was extended to include Oeschinensee.

Language Tip: In this German-speaking part of Switzerland, the suffix “see” means lake, so Oeschinensee is Oeschinen Lake. Bach is creek, horn is peak, and weg is trail/path. If we took Zilfuristrasse along Öschibach to Oeschinensee, it simply means we took Zilfuri Street along Öschi Creek to Lake Oeschinen. Knowing just a few basic words in German suddenly makes reading signs and maps so much easier!

Start in Kandersteg, Switzerland.

Even though we live in Switzerland, we only found out about this hike because Travis attended a science retreat in the sleepy little town of Kandersteg – population 1200. The trail to Lake Oeschinen starts right in town.

Kandersteg is located in Switzerland’s famous Bernese Oberland region, more commonly known for Lauterbrunnen Valley, Interlaken, and Grindelwald. Next to such stiff competition, Kandersteg often gets overlooked, yet its scenery is just as spectacular.

How to get to Kandersteg

The easiest and fastest way to get to Kandersteg is by car.

  • From Bern: Take the A6 south to Kandersteg. Travel time is 58 min.
  • From Zurich: Take the A1 south to Kandersteg. Travel time is 2 hr 16 min.
  • From Geneva: Take the A1, E25, and A6 north and east. Travel time is 2 hr 42 min.

One of Trav’s colleagues organized the hike to Oeschinsee on the last afternoon of their retreat. Luckily they invited me as well! For me it was just an hour’s drive to Kandersteg from our house in Fribourg.

Where to stay in Kandersteg

While Travis was in Kandersteg for his retreat, he stayed at the Hotel Alfa Soleil.

It’s a nice 3* hotel with a pool, good location, and an average 4.4* rating on Google Reviews. Prices are typical for spendy Switzerland, starting at around 152 CHF per night in the off-season, higher in summer.

While he said his stay there was nice, we wouldn’t book it if we were to go back together, mostly because we don’t prefer hotels. If you do, it’s worth considering.

View of the Alps from the Hotel Alfa Soleil in Kandersteg, Switzerland
The views from the Hotel Alfa Soleil in Kandersteg Switzerland are a big selling feature.

We’re really more into unique and/or rustic lodging. Typically when we can, we opt for camping or glamping, or at least staying somewhere truly unique.

For those looking for Kandersteg camping, we recommend Camping Rendez-vous. It has an average of 4.5* online with hundreds of reviews. It’s literally right next to the cable car station, but it’s also close to the trailhead if you want to walk to the lake. Allow 1 hour for the 3-km hike one way from the campground to the lake.

This is where we would stay if we were going to camp in Kandersteg.

Kandersteg Map & Oeschinensee Hiking Route

Click on the rectangle in the upper right corner to enlarge map.

Oeschinensee Panorama Hike

There are actually three main ways to get to Oeschinensee from Kandersteg: one is by cable car and the other two are trails that belong to the same loop hike. You just have to decide which direction you want to hike the loop. We hiked the southern section of trail first (not the trail under the cable car), so the trail info here is for hiking it counter-clockwise.

Trail information

  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • 12 km (7.5 mile) hike
  • Starting elevation in Kandersteg: 1173 m (3850 ft)
  • Ending elevation at Oberbärgli: 1988 m (6522 ft)
  • Highest point on the upper panorama loop section: 2012 m (6601 ft)
  • Total elevation gain: 839 m (2753 ft)

Taking the Kandersteg cable car

If hiking isn’t your thing, the lake is still absolutely worth visiting! For some people, just taking the cable car up to the lake is the goal. You can go swimming, rent boats, have lunch, go ice fishing in winter, or just relax by the water.

The lift station in Kandersteg is called the Gondelbahn Oeschinensee. This is where you’ll board your cable car, and you get off at the Oeschinensee Bergstation, the upper station by the lake. It’s right next to the Rodelbahn (Kandersteg mountain coaster.)

Cable car lift tickets cost 30 CHF for a round-trip adult ticket, 15 CHF for kids (6-15 years old).

A one-way ticket to only take the cable car up but hike down will still cost you 22 CHF for an adult, 11 CHF for a child.

You can see their schedule and buy tickets for the Oeschinensee cable car here.

Take note that even during the summer, the last cable car is at 6 pm. When the sun doesn’t set until after 9 pm, you’ll lose several hours of hiking. We prefer flexibility, freedom, and maximum hours for adventure, so we chose to hike the entire route.

Mountain man wood carving near Kandersteg, Switzerland

Budget Tip: If you have a Swiss Half-Fare card, bring it! You can save 50% on your tickets.

Oeschinensee parking

Since you can’t drive to the lake, you’ll need to find parking in Kandersteg. We had no problem, but we visited in the off-season. Parking can be challenging during the summer when it’s busy.

You have a couple of main options. Parking is available at the Gondelbahn Oeschinensee cable car station for 5 CHF per day.

We should point out that if you park there, you’ll end up on the northern side of Oeschi Creek (Öschibach), while we started out hiking the Wanderweg zum Oeschinensee trail on the southern side of it. To access the Wanderweg, you can either hike an extra kilometer west to the start of this trailhead (which we wouldn’t recommend), or just walk along Zilfuristrasse street until it meets up with the Wanderweg trail to the east.

Our hardy group of adventure hikers at Oeschi Creek near Kandersteg

These two trails – the Wanderweg zum Oeschinensee and Zilfuristrasse street – meet up right at this little wooden bridge over Oeschi Creek. It offers really nice views of Kandersteg far down in the valley.

This photo ended up being the only one of the day of our hiking group: Travis, friends from his science lab, and colleagues from his department.

A second option for designated parking is an area near Oeschi Creek at the start of the trailhead. Some of our group members opted for that. It costs 4 CHF for the day. Just make sure you have Swiss francs for the parking machine!

Both Kandersteg parking locations are pinned on our map above.

Travel Tip: Despite that both trails along the creek are roads, you can’t drive to Oeschinensee. They’re closed to the public. You have to walk or take the cable car.

1. Kandersteg to Lake Oeschinen (3 km / 1.9 miles)

Anyone planning to do the entire 12+ km hike from Kandersteg should ideally start hiking early.

We didn’t! Unfortunately, Travis was still engaged in commitments at his science retreat on the last day, so we couldn’t hit the trail until the afternoon. Meeting up with our hiking group at their hotel after lunch, we set off on foot from there, which added another 2 km round trip to our hike.

Snow-capped mountains from Kandersteg to Oeschinensee hike
If you take the cable car up, you’ll miss views like these, but it’ll save you about 2 hours of hiking.

From the trailhead, you’ll follow Oeschi Creek almost the entire 3-km route from Kandersteg to the lake. Though it’s not always visible from the trail, it’s a beautiful little mountain stream with a nice view down into the valley from the bridge.

I have to say that typically we’re not fans of hiking on roads. It’s really not a hike then; it’s just a walk. But hiking from Kandersteg to Oeschinensee is a nice start to the hike, especially if you’re a novice hiker or aren’t in good physical condition.

In particular, people with small children might prefer just doing this section of trail. The narrow road is either paved or gravel, and we even saw one couple pushing a stroller.

Kudos to them for getting out there on the trail with a tiny tot!

While some people hike the entire panorama trail with young kids, it’s steep, long, and has some crazy drop-offs. Stick to this lower trail if you’re not comfortable with that.

When you first see Oeschinensee, it doesn’t even seem real. The lake gets its gorgeous blue color from the glacial run-off from the peaks surrounding it. The color changes noticeably with the time of day and weather. In the bright summer sun, it looks more blue.

Under cloudy skies during our visit, it took on a deep turquoise color. Since it was spring, the lake was also sporting a rather thick coating of yellow pollen along the shore. It was really beautiful.

Turquoise Lake Oeschinensee, image for sale on Fine Art America
Click to Purchase High-res Image on Fine Art America

We dipped our toes in the clear mountain lake, shivering reflexively with the chill of the glacial water.

Not usually a fan of the cold, our nearly hairless rat terrier repeatedly barreled into the shallows to fetch a stick, returning to cower with us for warmth while we had lunch on a boulder overlooking the lake.

Travel Tip: The trail is dog friendly! Bring your furry friend. Just make sure to have good control over them at all times on the upper trail.

2. Oeschinensee to Unterbärgli (2.2 km / 1.4 miles)

The next section of trail is from the lake up to an alpine chalet called Berghaus Unterbärgli. The hiking distance we used is from the Berghotel Oeschinensee to the mountain hut.

After lunch, most of the group decided to return to Kandersteg, but we wanted to keep hiking. Two of Trav’s lab mates were eager to continue with us around part of the lake, at least as far as a waterfall we could see cascading into the lake along the shoreline.

The views of the mountain lake were absolutely stunning as we hiked along the circuitous shoreline toward the crash of the falls.

Trail along Oeschinen Lake above Kandersteg
By late afternoon, clouds are starting to roll in over the peaks above the lake.
Seasonal waterfall at Oeschinensee, Switzerland
This waterfall is seasonal with spring run-off.
Hiking along the shoreline at Oeschinensee Lake
You likely won’t see the falls if you visit in summer/fall.

The biting wind still held a hint of unforgiving winter and with the added spray of the falls, I found myself briefly regretting my choice of hiking attire: my favorite Mountain Hardware skirt with roomy snap pockets and well-worn Rafters hiking sandals.

Oh well, what was the worst that could happen??

Well, frostbite or hypothermia, actually.

Which is why I recommend that you dress warm for this hike, bring layers, and at least bring sturdy hiking boots, even if you decide not to wear them! I happen to be someone who prefers hiking in rugged outdoor sandals whenever possible, but I should have at least brought my Danner hiking boots and warm socks.

We reached the waterfall and followed the trail behind it, stopping to watch the spray kicked up from the intense pounding of the falls.

If you’ve made it this far, turn around and go back now!

Behind the falls at Oeschinensee, Switzerland
The seasonal waterfall at Oeschinensee is at the lake’s edge, below the actual trail.

I’m not kidding.

This shoreline hike and waterfall are not part of the official trail. We definitely recommend walking to the falls, but it’s better to backtrack at this point to the official trail.

This waterfall is about 900 meters from Berghotel Oeschinensee on the west end of the lake. You can go all the way back, or hike about 400 meters back to a place where seasonal runoff flows into the lake. Depending on the weather conditions, you should be able to easily climb the few feet up the loose rocks to the trail. If you’re directionally challenged or aren’t sure if you’re in the right place, it’s better to return to the Berghotel. You can’t miss the trail there.

One last tip, but make sure you take the lower trail near the Berghotel. The trail splits there and you’ll want to take the lower trail closest to the water. Both the Berghotel and the Berghaus am Oeschinensee should be on your left. It’s clearly marked on our map!

Hike to Unterbergli Hut, Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Touille effortlessly trucks up the hill with Travis while I lag behind, using tufts of grass to haul myself up the slope.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that we did not turn around at the waterfall. Deciding to continue just to the next hut high above us on the hill, we followed what turned out to be a pseudo trail, one likely used by only mountain goats and crazy people.

Barely wide enough to stand with both feet together, the trail angled sharply around a small ridge upwards, finally disappearing into a steep grassy slope with no clear path. Above the slope towered a sheer cliff. We’d reached the end of our pseudo trail. Our only choice was to go straight up.

Ever the explorer, Travis scampered up the slope like the sure-footed mountain goat he is and motioned to the rest of us in triumph that he’d found the “real trail.” The three of us followed him up to what seemed like a highway after the trail we’d left.

Hike to Unterbergli Hut, Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
The main trail to Unterbärgli is wide and easily navigable.

Don’t take the pseudo trail we did! Rather than hiking around the lake’s edge from the boat rentals at Oeschinensee and trekking from there up toward Unterbärgli, take the trail directly from the Berghaus am Oeschinensee. No bushwhacking required.

Those visiting when the first waterfall is dry needn’t be disappointed. You don’t have to hike far before you reach the beautiful Bärglifall.

The year-round falls was raging with spring meltwater during our hike. It demanded we stop for a few photos and admire the expansive views before climbing just a bit higher to our next destination, the Berghaus Unterbärgli mountain hut.

Unterbergli Hut in the Swiss Alps
From the trail near Baergli Waterfall, the Unterbaergli mountain hut is the tiny brown spot in the center.
Two Small Potatoes hiking with friends at Oeschinensee
Hallo from Oeschinensee!

3. Unterbärgli to Oberbärgli (500 m / 0.3 miles)

Those hiking this route in the summer might want to grab a drink or snack at the Unterbaergli mountain chalet before continuing on to the shortest – but steepest – part of the hike. During our visit, pretty much everything was closed, including the mountain huts.

We didn’t care though. It was here on the grassy slopes around Berghaus Unterbaergli that we saw Alpine ibexes up close and personal!

Throughout the hike, we’d seen several small groups grazing on the lush green grassy slopes above us. Most were females or young ones with tiny horns. We could see several around the hut as we drew closer on the trail. They were quite far away though, and we were careful not to encroach on their space or startle them.

That in itself was pretty exciting, but the best was yet to come!

Alpine ibex above Oeschinsee, Switzerland
An Alpine ibex watches us with curiosity from a boulder near Unterbärgli.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an ibex with huge horns moved just off the trail to our right. We hadn’t even seen him, he was so well camouflaged in the brownish yellow spring grass.

We all froze.

He stared at us and we stared back, mouths likely hanging open, as the minutes ticked by. He looked like he was ready to bolt at our slightest movement. So we stayed frozen until he decided it was safe to proceed.

Alpine ibexes near Unterbergli Hut, Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Several alpine ibexes cross the trail near ahead of us.

Cautiously approaching our trail, he crossed in front of us, breaking into an easy lope as soon as he’d cleared the trail.

Before we could even recover from that, several more came crashing across the trail between us where we were spaced out.

Alpine ibex running during our hike at Oeschinensee, Switzerland
The horns of an Alpine ibex can grow up to 140 cm, or 55 inches. That’s 4 1/2 FEET!

It was the absolute best highlight of the hike for me.

Travel Tip: To increase your chance of spotting these beauties, hike quietly, pay attention to your surroundings, hike in the off-season, and be patient. If you’re willing to spend some time just relaxing around the Unterbaergli hut, your best bet at seeing them is in the early morning or evening when most hikers have vacated the trails.

Trail from Unterbaergli to Oberbaergli hut, Switzerland
Our friend in red is a tiny blip in the vast mountain landscape on the trail to Oberbärgli.

From the Unterbärgli Hut, another mountain chalet had come into view, perched above us on yet another grassy plateau fronted by impossibly steep cliffs. It hadn’t been visible until we reached that point.

None of us was particularly concerned about the heavy black clouds threatening rain, nor were we ready to turn back, so we set off once again “just to the next hut.” These gals were our kind of hiking buddies!

Sure enough, the clouds opened up and dumped icy buckets on us as we labored up the last steep incline.

Lake Oeschinen in the pouring rain, Switzerland
Even obscured by sheets of icy spring rain, the lake still has a rugged beauty.

4. Oberbärgli to Kandersteg (6 km / 3.7 miles)

After reaching our final destination, the Oberbärgli hut, the four of us huddled under the eaves, peering out through the rain. Glumly staring at my bare, reddened legs and numb toes, my enthusiasm at reaching the hut was dampened at the sight of the snow fields surrounding us.

The icy quagmire of the trail’s upper portion lay like a gauntlet between the snow-free trail back down the mountain and my frozen toes.

After gratefully sharing snacks the gals had brought and steeling myself for the unpleasantness to come, we plunged back into the snow and rain and started the long hike back to Kandersteg.

View of Lake Oeschinen from the panorama trail
Click to Purchase Image on Fine Art America

As with any hiking trip, the way back down was considerably faster than our trek up.

Not only was it much easier and faster on the downhill, but we stopped for very few photos. Our cameras were tucked away to protect them from the rain, and by then we had very little daylight left. Our beautiful views had turned to gray in the evening light and steady rain.

Alpine ibex near Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
An ibex watches us from a crag above the trail to Oberbärgli.

We stopped only briefly to watch a curious young ibex watching us from above and to carefully steer around a cute salamander basking in the rain.

Salamander in Kandersteg, Switzerland
Swiss wildlife!

Best Time to Visit Oeschinensee

Most people consider summer the best time of year for the Oeschinensee hike. It’s definitely a good time to visit if you want to rent boats or grab lunch at one of the Oeschinensee hotels by the lake. In the spring and fall, everything is closed. The weather is never predictable in the Swiss Alps, but you’re also more likely to have a higher chance of hiking on a warm, sunny day in the summer.

If you’re like us though and you prefer to visit without the crowds, we recommend hiking in May or September, possibly even October if the higher elevations haven’t yet gotten snow.

During the off-season, the town and the trail are peaceful and quiet. Kandersteg weather gets a bit iffy in the spring and fall (and it did rain on us – a lot), but despite the cool weather and rain, we found it much more enjoyable to hike in May.

Without tourists, hiking to Oeschinensee is an entirely different experience. You’ll quite likely have one of Europe’s most beautiful lakes to yourself, and you’re much more likely to see local wildlife!

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