Friday, April 23, 2021


Shrouded Bernese Alps rise over Bachalpsee
6.5 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: First Cable Car to trailhead with associated fees

The short hike to Bachalpsee from the First Cable Car station is renowned for its sweeping views of Switzerland's Bernese Alps. It has long been known as a spot of extraordinary beauty in the Alps but is even more widely known after being featured in Gmail's mountain theme backgrounds. From the shores of Bachalpsee on a clear day, visitors can see some of the sharpest peaks of the Bernese Oberland cloaked in glaciers and rising over the calm waters of Bachalpsee, which is set in a basin amidst meadow-covered mountains. The hike- a stroll along a wide path through beautiful, open meadows- can be done by most visitors and is a highlight of the Bernese Oberland.

The hike starts from the First Cable Car station high above Grindelwald. You'll have to take the First Cable Car to do this hike unless you're willing to do the long and strenuous hike up to First from Grindelwald. Grindelwald- unlike many of the other towns in the Jungfrau region- actually allows cars, so there a few more options for reaching the area. However, Grindelwald is still a mountain resort town with limited space, so the best option is still to reach the area by train on the Berner Oberland Bahn, which connects Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost and Lauterbrunnen.

Riding cable cars and trains all the time can be expensive, so I recommend that visitors spending a few days in the Jungfrau area buy the Jungfrau Travel Pass for unlimited travel on most of the region's railways and cable cars. If you're planning a longer trip in Switzerland and intend to do much of your travel by train, you can also pick up the Swiss Half Fare Card from SBB for additional discounts to the Jungfrau Travel Pass. Check timetables before your hike to make sure that you make sure you finish your hike before the last train or cable car of the day, depending on how far you're coming from.

I did this hike during a family trip to the Alps. We stayed in Wengen, which is at a unique location on mountain slopes high above Lauterbrunnen Valley, with views of both glacial-capped peaks above and steep cliffs with tumbling waterfalls below. From Wengen, there were two options to reach Grindelwald: either by cog railway over Kleine Scheidegg, or by going downhill to Lauterbrunnen on cog railway and then taking the Berner Oberland Bahn. Once we arrived at the Grindelwald Train Station (the cog railway and Berner Oberland Bahn share a station), we disembarked and had to reach the base station for the First Cable Car, which was actually on the other side of town. We decided to walk over to the cable car station- a roughly 1 km walk along Dorfstrasse through the center of town- but of course you could arrange for motorized transit to shuttle you over. The kilometer walk through town each way from the train station is not factored into the distance or elevation gain stats for this hike.

At the cable car station, we boarded the small gondola car and rode it up to the First Cable Car station. The First Cable Car took nearly a half hour to bring us to the upper station, climbing about 1100 meters along the way with stunning views of the Grindelwald Valley, the Eiger, and the Grindelwald Glacier. 

The First Cable Car station had a restaurant and there were a few touristy trails with bells and whistles right outside the cable car station, including the First Cliff Walk, which led from the restaurant patio to a dead-end overhang with railings suspended hundreds of meters in the air and then along metal walkways hanging onto the side of the cliffs of the mountain. It's a fun but fairly tame experience right next to the Cable Car station, but the walk to Bachalpsee is far more rewarding. Still, the views from First were amazing: the town of Grindelwald lay in the valley below, a patch of dense houses amongst a tapestry of forest and pastures. A great Alpine wall rose directly from Grindelwald, culminating in the high peaks of Wetterhorn, Fiescherhorn, and the Eiger, with the many different glaciers carrying the name "Grindelwald" nestled on high nooks on those great peaks. Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy on the day of our visit and we were unable to see a number of the Alpine peaks for which this viewpoint is usually known.

The Eiger rises over Grindelwald
Trails branched out in every which direction from the First Cable Car station; we followed the path towards Bachalpsee, which started out as a broad gravel road heading north. The gravel road forked after just a hundred meters and we took the left fork here to continue towards Bachalpsee. After passing the junction, we began a steady uphill climb over the next kilometer as we hiked through open meadows, ascending about 120 meters. At 2/3 km from First, we passed Adi's Skibar, a restaurant high in the Bernese Alps. Shortly after passing the skibar, the trail briefly split: the main gravel road headed to the right while a single-track trail broke off to the left to climb up a hill. Both paths led to Bachalpsee, although the single-track option was slightly shorter.

After the two paths rejoined, the trail flattened out a bit, undulating for the remainder of its length with gentler elevation gain and loss. There were great views ahead of the trail towards our destination: Rotihorn and Faulhorn, both still partially snow covered, rose above the basin holding Bachalpsee. Verdantly green meadows stretched across the lower reaches of these peaks, dotted with colorful wildflowers and grazing cows. The peaks on this side of the Grindelwald valley were far more gentle than the Eiger and its companion peaks across the valley.

Rotihorn and Faulhorn rising over the landscape around Bachalpsee
The final 2 km to the lake were all out in the open, meaning that we were continuously treated to great views. Chief among these views were those across the valley of Grindelwald. Here, the Bernese Alps reached their most impressive heights, with the highest peaks in the Alps outside of Mont Blanc and the Pennine Alps. On a clear day, I am sure that this view would have few rivals and even on a cloudy day we were impressed by the craggy mix of rock and glacier. While the Eiger was not the tallest of the these peaks, it was still one of the most impressive: a great limestone wall rising directly from Grindelwald. The Eiger's north face is immense and vertical and has for over a century stood as one of the greatest challenges in Alpine mountaineering. Beyond the Eiger were a number of other notable peaks: Wetterhorn, a great rocky peak directly across the valley, and Fiescherhorn, a great pyramid of rock rising over the icy mass of the lower Grindelwald Glacier. Schreckhorn, the northernmost 4000 meter peak in Europe, rose over a high hanging glacier. On a clear day, the view would extend all the way back to Finsteraarhorn, the tallest peak in the Bernese Alps.

Cliffs of Fiescherhorn rising over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier
Wetterhorn and the Upper Grindelwald Glacier
At 1.3 km and then again at 2.6 km, the trail crossed over pretty alpine streams, which flowed downhill and tumbled over long cascades into the valley below. The trail dropped and then reascended about 40 meters across the final 2 km.

The Eiger
Stream through the alpine meadows
At 3.2 km from the trailhead, we arrived at Bachalpsee. There were actually two lakes here: a smaller, lower lake and the larger and higher main lake. Both lakes were held back by dams and lay at the foot of Rotihorn in a verdantly green grassy basin. At Bachalpsee, a trail led out onto the isthmus between the two lakes, providing beautiful views of the main lake at the foot of grassy Rotihorn and Faulhorn and of Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn rising over the lower lake. A small hut stood near the lakeshore of the main lake. There were quite a few hikers here: the easy hike on a broad path and easy access via the First Cable Car make this one of the most popular spots with tourists in the Bernese Alps. 

Wetterhorn rising over the lower lake at Bachalpsee
Wetterhorn rises over the lower lake at Bachalpsee
The wide trail continued around the northeast shore of the lake. Many hikers will be content with the views at the isthmus between the lakes but hikers who venture a little farther are rewarded with views of the great Bernese Alps rising above Bachalpsee itself- the view made famous by Gmail backgrounds. 

The Bernese Alps are already a renowned region for high mountain scenery. If you don't mind crowds, Bachalpsee is an easily-accessible way to see some of the scenery that makes this range so magical. 

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