It was still early morning when I arrived in Kandersteg on the last summer hiking weekend of the season, a thick blanket of clouds masking any sign of the enormous peaks that I knew were lurking all around me. A humble hiking mecca in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, Kandersteg lies just on the other side of the mountains from Rick Steve’s beloved Gimmelwald and is reminiscent of the hidden mountain village in many ways: tiny, authentic, and the unassuming gateway to some of Switzerland’s most beautiful Alpine treasures, including Lake Oeschinen and the Gemmi Pass.
I had stumbled upon a photo of Lake Oeschinen’s brilliant blue waters over the summer and it immediately catapulted to the top of my “must-see” destinations list. I fervently hoped that the sun was burning her way through the clouds as I wandered through the miniature downtown, admiring the vast displays of alp cheeses and carved wooden cows in the shop windows on my way to my hotel. At the simple Hotel Psycher the owner was kind enough to let me check in early, and I quickly grabbed a map and dropped my bag. Then it was time to hit the trail.
The lake lies 1,578 meter above sea level and is accessible either by an easy 1.5 hour trail or gondola train leading up from Kandersteg’s main street. The trail is mostly wooded, with a few glimpses of waterfalls and mountains along the way, but it was not until I had nearly arrived at Oeschinen that the truly magnificent scenery appeared.
Cresting the last hill, the lake came into view – beautiful but somewhat muted under the still-gray sky – the mountains playing hide and seek with the clouds. A boisterous crowd was sipping hot drinks on the deck at the mountain hotel along the shore (where for $114 you can stay the night, with breakfast and dinner provided). Suddenly, the sun broke through and the lake’s deep waters transformed into an incredible robin’s-egg blue while towering snow-capped mountains appeared out of nowhere around the perimeter. I laid out my picnic on a rock next to a large pillar marking the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Looking out over this pristine mountain lake, fed by the glacial brooks of the 3000 meter peaks of Blüemlisalp, Oeschinenhorn, Fründenhorn and Doldenhorn, the beauty unfolding before me seemed almost impossible – this really might be the most beautiful lake in the Alps. Or perhaps the world. Finishing lunch, I headed down a path leading around one side of the shore before angling upwards and into the larger Oeschinensee UNESCO World Heritage area where the mountainsides are filled with orchids, gentian and edelweiss, herds of grazing sheep and cows, and the occasional ibex.
About 45 minutes up the mountain I reached another charming wooden hut nearly camouflaged in the grassy slope. Its patio looked out onto an unobstructed view of the lake and surrounding landscape, providing the perfect spot to sip a cold beer and contemplate life. Another two hour section of the trail continued on up the side of the mountain to reveal a beautiful panorama of the region before winding back down to the lakeside.
Back at the top of the gondola station I discovered that Switzerland has invented an alternative to sledding for warmer weather, and Kandersteg is home to a 3.5 kilometer long summer toboggan run for those who are really feeling adventurous. With darkness creeping in I took a pass, instead making my way back to town in the evening light for a pizza dinner in the cozy hotel restaurant and a long night of sleep. But now I have a good reason to come back.