3 Swiss Peaks for Every Fitness Level—And How to Do Them
Set in a valley on the edge of Lake Lucerne and surrounded by the Swiss Alps, the city of Lucerne is one of Switzerland's most popular destinations. Best known for covered bridges that date to the 13th century, the town is referred to by locals as a "little Switzerland" because some of the country's best attributes, including the famous lake, cuisine, and outdoor adventure activities, are within easy reach from the heart of town. While Lucerne can be seen in a matter of hours—and is often visited for no more than one day—the surrounding landscape beckons for longer explorations. Day trips and overnight excursions can bring you to the best of the Alps' picturesque countryside, thick forests, summits, and peak thrills. We take you to three mountain areas accessible from Lucerne.
If you're worried that you won't be able to handle a hike in the Alps, don't be. Outdoor walks are part of Switzerland's culture. Because the Swiss people are always up for an afternoon jaunt or a weekend mountain walk, their mountain trails have been developed to ensure people of any age can partake of a hike. Outside of Lucerne, the peaks of Pilatus, Rigi, and Titlis appeal to a wide spectrum of fitness levels. The summits offer different experiences, but none fall short of a stunning view (like this one, from Pilatus) that rewards the effort.
Just east of Lucerne across the lake, Rigi is the shortest mountain of the three, standing at 1,800 m (5,905 feet). One popular way to reach it is to take a 55-minute scenic steamboat ride from outside Lucerne's train station to Vitznau, where a cogwheel train hoists you up the mountain. All in all, the journey to the summit will take roughly an hour and a half, and once you're atop it, there are a few easy hiking trails with incredible views. If bad weather is in the forecast, there's also a gondola with large windows—the views are breathtaking. Rigi's proximity to town makes it popular with residents.
The peak of Pilatus-Kulm is a little taller, at 2,100 m (6,888 feet). This mountain rises 15km (9 miles) south of Lucerne (get there by train or ferry). Stepping into a cogwheel funicular that collects visitors from Alpnach, a village at the base of the mountain, travelers ascend one of Switzerland's steepest gradients: 48%. As the funicular passes lush forests and a lone dairy farm, the rocky outcrops and caves above the timber line come into view. One you're off the train, there are outdoor viewing areas plus sheltered ones for days when weather is less amenable. There are peak hikes ranging in duration from 10 minutes to an hour, but take the Dragon Trail. It sputters along the mountains' rim through the caves where, legend has it, the mythical creatures once dwelled on Pilatus.
It’s popular to take four to five hours to hike to the summit, where there are some shorter jaunts to take, but Pilatus, which like Rigi is run by a single company (www.pliatus.ch), has plenty of adrenaline-pumping adventure pursuits, too. Paragliders take off from a grassy space alongside the panorama deck, sailing high above lakes, mountain ridges, and the occasional Alpine ibex, a species of horned goat that clings to the cliffs. Take a quick gondola ride down one stage toward Kriens to challenge a high ropes course; one more five-minute ride down, there’s a playground and low ropes course for kids.
Just below the highest point of Pilatus, which is an hour hike from the observation deck along the Tomislav route, the four-star Hotel Pilatus-Kulm (1890) marries fine dining and breathtaking views. Visit the Ibex Bar at the panorama deck for an aperó paired with cheese from the farm near the funicular. After dinner, head back to the room for a cup of coffee and a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun sets. Guests looking for a more rustic experience can make arrangements with the hotel to camp in a hanging tree tent lower on the mountain with a packed picnic dinner.
The highest of the three peaks and the tallest observation area in central Switzerland, Titlis looms at 3,020 m (9,908 feet), so the air is thin at its summit. Its glacier, which stretches for 270 m (886 feet), is one of the country's most accessible to travelers. While other glaciers require long, often strenuous hikes, Titlis can be reached by a network of trains, lifts, and gondolas. From the west and northern slopes, the mass of alpine ice can be best viewed from the Stotzig Egg panorama point—also one of the best vantage spots from which to see Lucerne and the lake. From the Zentralbahn station in Lucerne, Titlis is an hour's ride to the village of Engelberg, including the short, free shuttle ride to the valley cableway station.
It takes a funicular and three cable cars to mount the summit, and at each of the three stops, more than 15 restaurants help travelers refuel for a full day of adventure sports or leisurely panorama views. In the winter, it's customary to complete a day on the slopes with a fondue dinner. Because Titlis is mostly used for outdoor activities (like mountain cycling, pictured), it has no mountaintop resorts or hotels, but guests can easily stay in Engelberg, at the base of the cablecar.