In 1291, three men stood in a field on a hillside above a lake and made an eternal pledge to one another and to the communities they represented. They promised to be there for one another, to defend and protect each other, to share in equal trade opportunities, and despite their differences, to remain united against the pressures of the outside world.
That, my friends, is the beginning of Switzerland’s political history. And it’s the unlikely beginning of a unique hiking adventure called The Swiss Path.
The Swiss Path was created in 1991 to mark the 700-year anniversary of the country’s founding. This 35km trail follows the horseshoe bend of Lake Uri, the easternmost branch of Lake Lucerne (called the Urnersee in German). Out of the thousands of kilometers of hiking trails crisscrossing the Alpine terrain, The Swiss Path is an exceptional route, as it tells the story of how Switzerland came to be the nation that we know today.
THE FORMATION OF A CONFEDERATION
In what is perhaps the most unusual location to swear an official oath of loyalty, Rütli is the birthplace of the Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, the Swiss Confederation. And although there isn’t much to see at the Rütli Meadow, it is where The Swiss Path begins.
Starting at Rütli and stretching out all the way around the lake back to Brunnen, stone markers indicate the years in which each canton joined the Confederation, laid out in chronological order. The cantons’ populations at the time of commissioning determined the distance between each monument; each Swiss citizen is represented by 5mm of trail. Thus, more populous cantons like Zurich and Bern take up larger sections of The Swiss Path than others.
In this manner, hikers can literally walk through time while observing the unique formation of this European country.
HIKING THE SWISS PATH – SECTION BY SECTION
Launching from Brunnen
The Swiss Path begins and ends in Brunnen, a darling little town in Canton Schwyz with enchanting lakeside vistas. Incidentally, Brunnen is also the home of the Victorinox Swiss Knife Valley Visitor Center. Only an hour from Zurich and 45 minutes from Lucerne by train, Brunnen is an easy to reach locale for day-trippers. Non-hikers may want to consider the two-hour ferry ride from Lucerne as a way to enjoy the epic landscape of the region at their leisure.
To reach the first section of The Swiss Path, catch a ferryboat from the Brunnen dock station to Rütli, located directly across those enchantingly blue waters.
Section A: Rütli to Seelisberg
From the Rütli dock, it’s a quick walk up to the place of the pledge. Frankly, there’s not much to see, so give a courteous tip of the hat and start walking. The first section of the Swiss Path involves an elevation gain of about 350 meters. As you rise through the pine forest, your uphill hike is rewarded with spectacular views of the lake and the mountains to the east. It takes about an hour to reach the town of Seelisberg, where you’ll find some scenic picnic spots and rest areas.
Section B: Seelisberg to Bauen
From Seelisberg, the next section of the Swiss Path turns southward. This is pleasant walk alongside farmlands and cow pastures that eventually has you stepping back down to lake level to arrive in the adorable village of Bauen.
Section C: Bauen to Isleten
Here is where the Swiss Path first flattens out and curves along the lakeshore. This section involves several cave-like passages, as the mountains drop directly into the water and the trail was blasted out of the rock. At one point, hikers are required to walk on a sidewalk through a car tunnel – which certainly isn’t ideal but a distinct way to experience Swiss engineering.
For those who wish to take a scenic detour, you can hike an addition section of The Swiss Path – a loop from Bauen up to the mountain town of Isenthal and then back down to Isleten. Give yourself three hours of hiking time to ascend and descend the 400 meters of elevation.
Section D: Isleten through Seedorf to Flüelen
Lake Uri is a paradise for wind-required water activities, and Isleten has a designated beach for wind surfers and kite boarders to launch into the water.
Like the previous section, the path from Isleten to Flüelen is more or less a flat walk along the lake, and to be honest, I think it’s the least interesting section of the whole trail. However, from Seedorf to Flüelen, you’ll pass through the grassy marshland of the Reuss delta and swing through popular swimming and recreational areas for locals, which provides a bit of amusement if you’re hiking on a sunny weekend.
At this point, you have reached the end of the lake, and you’re over halfway there – congratulations!
Section E: Flüelen to Tellskapelle
After walking through Flüelen’s industrial quarter, pretty port promenade, and a few neighborhoods, the Swiss Path leads you along the eastern shore of Lake Uri. The route is a mix of forested trail and paved roadside. It’s an interesting section because a little bit of altitude gain offers exceptional views of the water and dramatic mountain landscape you already traversed – or at least, walked underneath.
In 2001, Swiss chocolate manufacturers wanted to leave their mark on The Swiss Path with the installation of Switzerland’s largest glockenspiel, just above Tellskapelle. The 30-something bells ring out every day on the hour.
Section F: Tellskapelle to Sisikon
Tellskapelle, or Tell’s Chapel, memorializes pivotal moments from the legendary story of William Tell. William Tell is the ultimate Swiss hero who defied the Austrian authorities and who shot an arrow through the apple on his son’s head. The murals inside the Tellskapelle recount the apple shooting, Tell’s escape from his captors during a storm, and his assassination of the Austrian leader Gessler. Whether wholly true, completely false, or somewhere in between, Tell’s story of rebellion embodies the spirit of Swiss independence, which is why one mural inside the chapel dramatizes the Rütli Oath.
Curving along at lake level and then rising up slightly, this walking path is another pleasant portion of the trail. You’ll get more stunning views and understand why the English painter J.M. W. Turner was engrossed in his work to capture the majesty of the surrounding scenery… and why others seek to do the same today!
Section G: Sisikon through Morschach to Brunnen
With the largest difference in altitude (almost 400 meters), the final stretch of The Swiss Path is definitely more of a hike than previous sections. The ascent through woods and local farms is a hefty hike not to be underestimated, especially in the heat of the afternoon. The town of Morschach makes for a good resting spot before the final walk to Brunnen.
Back in Brunnen
And just like that, you are back where you started after traversing the history of Switzerland!
For the average hiking times, distances, and altitude changes, visit the Weg der Schweiz website to learn more about each section of the trail.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE SWISS PATH
Make It An Overnight Adventure
Because we were determined to complete the whole path, we broke it up into a two-day hike. We stayed in a family-run berggasthaus in Eggberge, a mountain top village above Flüelen, which we reached by cable car. With cows chomping away in the meadow below the patio and the sunset painting the opposite peaks in a romantic hue, we couldn’t have been happier with this decision.
Hike Just A Section or Two
While I am very glad that the Swiss Family Domecks completed The Swiss Path, I readily admit that it is neither the most rigorous nor the most epic of hiking trails in Switzerland. Unless you have a strong desire to retrace the historical milestones of this landlocked country as we did, I’d recommend just doing certain sections of the Weg der Schweiz.
In my opinion, I believe the most enjoyable sections of The Swiss Path can be done as two different day-hikes or one full day-hike. The first: the hike from Rütli up to Seelisberg and then down to Bauen. It’s a 9 km stretch of trail that involves 350 meters of elevation change and takes a little over three hours on average to complete. The second: the hike from Flüelen to Sisikon. With only 75 meters of elevation change, average hikers can complete the 8 kilometers in about 2.5 hours.
Check the Ferry Schedule
If you’re going to rely on the ferryboats to make your way around the lake more than your own two feet, make sure to review the ferry schedule beforehand. Depending on the season, boats may only visit small ports like Bauen a few times a day.
Go with the Family
This is definitely a family-friendly hike, with many sections suitable for young children to join on the adventure. And as I did this hike 25-weeks pregnant, I can definitely say it’s a great one for active pregnant women, especially because there are several actual-bathroom-stops along the trail.
Enjoy The Swiss Path!
We really enjoyed our two day hiking experience. As you can see from all my photos, we were extremely lucky to have such beautiful weather – even if the afternoon heat was a bit too much for Basil the Kooiker at times. For us, this was the perfect hike to commemorate our two-year anniversary of living in Switzerland, a country that we have come to love and one with a history that we find fascinating.
Hoi zäme! What do you think about The Swiss Path? Would you like to hike it all, do a section or two, or just take in the scenery from the comfort of a ferryboat bench?