Oeschinensee Hike, Ideal for Spotting Switzerland’s Alpine Ibexes

When Travis attended a science conference in the adorable little town of Kandersteg, he invited me to join him for his last day.  His fellow co-workers had planned a group hike to Oeschinensee (Oeschinen Lake), and I was welcome to join them.  Never one to turn down an offer to go hiking, I agreed with excitement and met our hiking group at their hotel in town just after lunch.  Yet again, I couldn’t help but marvel that a day of spectacular hiking was but an hour’s drive from our house near Fribourg.

From the hotel, we set off through the sleepy little town of about 1200, passing hotels still empty in the off-season and classic Swiss homes with cut-out wooden shutters and flowers in every yard. Though a lift is available for the lower part of the trail, we opted to hike instead, following a one-lane paved road as it wound its way high up above Kandersteg.

Alps above Kanderstag, Switzerland
The town of Kandersteg is visible far down in the valley on the hike up to Lake Oeschinen.

We followed the road all the way up to Oeschinensee, or Lake Oeschinen as it’s known in English.  We lived in Switzerland for quite some time before I realized that see is the German word for lake.  As with many German words, the suffixes at the end often identify the general meaning of the noun. Bach means creek, horn is peak, weg refers to trails/pathes, etc.  So 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 nouns in German suddenly makes deciphering signs and maps so much easier!

Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland

We dipped our toes in the clear blue lake, shivering reflexively with the chill of the glacial water.  Not usually a fan of the cold, Touille repeatedly bee-lined into the shallows to fetch a stick, returning to cower with us for warmth while we had lunch on a boulder overlooking the lake.  The biting wind still held a hint of unforgiving winter, and 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?!

After lunch, most of the group opted to head back to Kandersteg, but two of Trav’s lab mates were eager to continue with us around part of the lake to a waterfall we could see from our boulder.  The views of the lake were absolutely stunning as we hiked along the circuitous shoreline.

Hike around Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland

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

Hike to Unterbärgli Hut above Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Behind the falls at Oeschinensee, Switzerland
Falls at Oeschinensee, Switzerland

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 on the trail, it angled sharply around a small ridge upwards, finally largely disappearing into a steep grassy slope with no clear path.  Above the slope towered a sheer cliff.

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.

Ever the explorer, Travis scampered up the slope 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.

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, simply take the trail directly from the Berghaus am Oeschinensee.  No bushwhacking required.

Hike to Unterbergli Hut above Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Hike to Unterbärgli Hut above Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland

The beautiful Bärglifall demanded we stop for a few photos and to admire the expansive views before climbing just a bit higher to our intended destination,  Unterbärgli Hut.

Baerglifall above Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Bärglifall spilling into Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland

Throughout the hike, we saw several small herds of alpine ibexes grazing on the lush green grassy slopes above us and around the hut.  Several large males even dashed across the trail in front of us.

Alpine ibex above Oeschinsee, Switzerland
Alpine ibex along the trail near Unterbärgli Hut, Switzerland
Alpine ibexes near Unterbergli Hut, Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
Several alpine ibexes cross the trail near the Unterbärgli Hut.

From our new vantage at the Unterbärgli Hut, another mountain chalet had come into view, perched above us on yet another grassy plateau fronted by impossibly steep cliffs.  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!

A hiker is just barely visible in red where the trail crests the ridge. Past that point, the trail hairpins and continues uphill to the Oberbärgli Hut.

Sure enough, the clouds opened up and dumped icy buckets on us as we labored up the last steep incline.  Even obscured by sheets of rain, the lake was no less pretty.

Lake Oeschinen in the pouring rain, Switzerland
Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland

After reaching our final, final destination, 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.

Oeschinensee, Switzerland
Lake Oeschinen socked in with rain.

As with any hiking trip, the way back down was considerably faster than our trek up.  Not only was it all downhill but we stopped for very few photos, pausing only briefly to watch a curious baby ibex watching us right back and to carefully steer around a cute little salamander basking in the rain.

Alpine ibex near Lake Oeschinen, Switzerland
An ibex watches us from her craggy vantage above the trail to Oberbärgli.
Salamander in Kandersteg, Switzerland
This cute little salamander is typical Swiss wildlife.
Mountain man wood carving near Kandersteg, Switzerland
A whimsical mountain man wood carving greets hikers on the trail near Kandersteg.

Needless to say, none of my toes fell off from frost bite, and I learned a valuable lesson: if you’re going to hike in skirt and sandals in the snow, wear red – everyone knows cherry popsicles are the best!

Know Before You Go:

  • 14.2 km (8.8 mile) round-trip hike from Kandersteg to Oberbärgli.
  • Starting elevation in Kandersteg: 1173 m (3850 ft)
  • Final elevation at Oberbärgli: 1987 m (6520 ft)
  • Total elevation gain: 814 m (2670 ft)
  • You can also take a lift from Kandersteg to the lake, Oeschinensee, and then continue hiking above the lake if you’re short on time or prefer the prettier, higher altitude hiking.
  • Typical of nearly every Swiss trail we’ve encountered, this one is well maintained and suitable for even novice hikers (though not ideally suited for those with a fear of heights).
  • The lake is a popular destination in the summer, so expect it to be crowded during peak season, June through September.  Despite the cool weather and rain, we found it much more enjoyable to hike in May when the tourist facilities (boat rentals and restaurant) were closed.  You’ll quite likely have the lake to yourself, and you’re much more likely to see local wildlife, like herds of alpine ibexes!
  • Parking is available on the edge of Kandersteg for 4 chf per day.  See map below for exact location.

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