Switzerland: Cycling From Luzern To Interlaken

It had been more than a month since I first arrived in Switzerland and taken up residence inside my second story apartment in downtown Luzern. I had reached the point where the city streets had become familiar and store clerks often times looked at me with a hint of recognition. With the Fasnacht carnival less than a week away and my friends, Rich Palentino and Leslie Parr, coming to visit me even sooner, I decided to leave my cozy little flat in the city and head out on my bike for a two-day trip to Interlaken.

For those who don’t know, Interlaken is a small tourist town situated in the mountains approximately 67 kms (42 miles) south-west of Luzern. The city, which lies in the middle of two large lakes (which is where the city’s name obviously comes from) is a popular summer backpacking location with several hostels and a variety of tour services for those wishing to partake in skydiving, canyoning, hang gliding, or paragliding. But I wasn’t heading to there to do any of that. My plan was to cycle to Interlaken in the middle of February – when the snow was still falling.

As I carried my bike down the steps of my apartment and walked it out past the gate and onto the main thoroughfare where each day hundreds, if not thousands of people, walk past and visit the supermarket and bakery immediately across the way, I thought to myself “Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to ride my bike in the snow, up into the mountains of Switzerland in the middle of the winter?” But I didn’t think about it long. I zipped up my jacket, buckled up my gloves, hopped on my bike and started heading south.

It was a short ride out of the city. As famous as Luzern is, it’s not all that big when compared to other Swiss cities like Zurich, Basel and Geneva. After just a few minutes I was riding along the western edge of Lake Luzern and making a large circle on Seestrasse (translated in English as “Lake Street”) and heading for the tiny town of Horw. It was a route I had taken several times over the past several weeks, so I knew it well and enjoyed the ride by looking at the grand Swiss homes on my right, while at the same time taking in the incredible nature of Lake Luzern and the Swiss Alps to my left.

Circling past Horw, the bike path continued to run alongside the road and for a while was protected by a large concrete covering which was placed both over the road and the bike path itself in order to keep those passing through safe from rocks and debris that might fall from the mountain above. The terrain here was incredibly steep, but the road, which had been cut into the mountainside and ran alongside the lake, was flat and made for easy going.

Past the concrete covering, the bike path came to an end and I was forced out into the streets in the tiny town of Matterboden. Continuing to follow the edge of the lake, I cycled on until I reached a medium-sized bridge that, if I were wishing to ride around all of Lake Luzern, I would have crossed over and continued on. Instead, I turned right, following the edge of Lake Luzern for one final stretch before reaching it’s western-most tip. Here, the riding was pleasant and there were hardly any cars in sight. I rode in the street for a while and then eventually crossed over to the other side to ride for a short distance on a bike/walking path that had been erected for those wishing to take in the beauty of the lake outside of their motor vehicles.

Now past the lake and in totally unfamiliar territory, I pressed on toward Alpnach and Sarnen. There, I hit another lake – Sarner See, and cycled on it’s northern edge for a distance of approximately four or five miles. It was here that I really began to enjoy myself. Cycling around the lake I met some local farm people. A couple out walking their dog stopped to say hello and ask edwhere I was headed. Later, a man driving a small, rusty blue hatchback pulled up to my side and in thick Swiss German asked me for directions. I, of course, did not know where he was trying to go, but he seemed like a nice fellow all the same. At the western edge of the lake, I cycled through a small forest and crossed what appeared to be a boulder field, where small and large rocks from the mountain above were being forced down to the lake below by a a river of rushing water. In the springtime, when the snow is melting, I imagine this area to be nearly impassable.

When I reached the small town is Giswel I said goodby the my little Sarner See and said hello to my first mountain pass.

Now trapped in a valley and surrounded by mountains, I knew that my only option was to start climbing. The main road to my left, which was crowded and fast-moving, may have been the best way to go, but I stuck to the side-roads and ventured off into an area where the skinny, steep and windy mountain pass had been closed to vehicles due to unmaintained ice and snow that was now covering the road. Being on a bike, however, this did not deter me. Actually, the fact that the road was blocked off may have been the best news I had had all day. Climbing a mountain pass covered in snow and ice is one thing, but doing it with heavy, fast-moving, motorized vehicles passing mere inches from your handlebars is another. The road closure meant I could climb the hill in peace, cycle straight up the middle, and not have to worry about a car or truck sliding into me while trying to pass on the slippery road.

The climb wasn’t that bad overall. The hill was short, but the pitch was steep. I pushed the bike almost the entire way – much of the time taking two steps forward and then sliding on ice, one step back. Powering myself with bags full of granola and numerous tangerines, I finally made it to the top!

A farm house sat at the peak of the pass and a man walking a herd of sheep starred at me with confused eyes as I shuffled my way through his flock. A short distance later I returned to the main road and found myself standing on the eastern edge of my third lake of the day.

The Lungerersee was her name and she was at least a third of the size as the Sarner See, which I had passed earlier in the day. Once again, I stuck to the lake’s northern shore and made my way around the muddy dirt roads while cycling on top of a thin later of crackling ice and snow. Much less populated that Sarner See, the northern shore of Lungerersee consisted mainly of small wooden shacks (used for storing small boats, firewood and farm tools) and tall, looming trees. A large section of the lake consisted of nothing but forest and I made a mental note to myself, “This would be a good place to camp.”

At the western most edge of the lake I could hear a waterfall not far from the road and I could see it’s spray shooting off in the sky above me. Leaving my bike down on the path below, I hiked up to Dundelbachfall by foot and took in the wonder of this freezing winter waterfall and captured it on camera. The frozen snow at the base of the falls was so thick and tall that it looked more like an ice cream cone meant for a giant than it did a natural mountain feature.

After resting for a bit at the edge of the lake, I pressed on and cycled through the small towns of Diesselbach and Obsee. By this time in the day, the clouds had completely moved in and the sky war turning dark. A storm would hit at any moment and now my only option was to climb even higher.

Obsee was the end of the line. From here, I found myself sandwiched between yet another set of impressive mountain peaks. I asked a woman (in my best possible German) walking home from church which way I needed to go in order to get to Interlaken. She stared at me with a slightly horrified look on her face and then pointed upward in the direction of a steep, windy, and traffic-riddled road. The one direction I did not want to go.

With little choice, however, I  pressed onward. I was tired, cold and hungry… and the last thing I wanted to do right now was climb a windy mountain pass with cars rushing past at 5o miles per hour. But that’s exactly what I did!

For what must have been the next hour or more, I slowly made my way up highway 4, the whole time wishing there was the slightest bit of shoulder for me to ride in. There was no shoulder though, and so I climbed the hill in bursts. I would find a safe place on the side of the road to pull the bike over and I would rest there until the stream of cars behind me had passed through. Then, as soon as they had gone, I’d jump back on the bike and ride for another burst up the road, to another safe nook in the shoulder, where I would pull over, rest and wait for the stream of cars to pass.

This last stretch of road was quite possibly one of the most difficult mountain climbs I have ever climbed, and yet, I made it to the top! I stopped for a while under a large rock overhang and collapsed with my bike to my side. I recall thinking to myself, “If this rock falls right now, I am absolute toast.” But I was so tired I didn’t even care. I sat down, ate a bag full of granola and contemplated crying. And that’s when it started to snow!

Less than 5 miles now to Interlaken’s eastern most lake (Brienzer See), I put on my full-faced ski mask, pulled my goggles out of my pannier and took off down the road. I didn’t stop to take a picture or say hello to strangers passing by. My only goal now was to reach the town of Interlaken.

I rode and rode, as fast as I possibly could… and I really did fly. For a short distance I was able to keep up with a small black SUV making sharp fast turns on the high mountain road, but eventually he pulled away from me and I was all alone. By this time the sky was completely white and I could barely see the road in front of me. I was making fresh tracks on the pavement below and could hardly make out the trees or street signs on my sides.

Finally, after an unknown period of time, I reached a clearing and saw the lake below me. I had made it to the Brienzer See!

Situated on a road high above the lake, I could make out it’s northern shore, but I could not see the water below.

With the snow still falling in epic proportions I considered my options. It was at least another 10 miles to the town of Interlaken, where I would be able to find lodging, food and a place to warm my hands. But ten miles of riding in near whiteout conditions didn’t sound like much fun.

“Even if I make it to Interlaken, I won’t be able to see it because of all this snow,” I thought to myself. “I’m heading back.”

And so, with a split second decision, I decided that I had made it to the Brienzer See and that that was good enough. I would head back the way I came, down the windy mountain pass and back to the northern shore of the Lungerersee, where I would find a place to camp, set up my tent, and crawl inside my sleeping bag for a sleepless night in the freezing cold. I’d come back to Interlaken at another time.

I don’t remember much about the ride back. I don’t recall cycling down the big mountain pass that had taken me so long to climb. I don’t remember cycling back through the small towns of Obsee or Diesselbach. All I remember is suddenly being in the trees on the northern short of Lungerersee and looking for a place to camp for the night where I would not be detected.

I ended up pushing my bike way up the hillside on a dirt road that wound itself high and far into the mountainside. About a mile back, I picked up the bike and carried it even further, back into a collection of trees and bushes, to a place where no one would ever find me. Once there, I removed the panniers from my bicycle, set up my tent, and climbed inside.

For the next 12 hours I sat inside my tent, freezing my butt off and struggling to sleep. I had packed a sleeping bag, but I hadn’t even brought a sleeping mat with me for my European adventures. Because of this, I was forced to sleep on the cold, hard ground. Switching from my back to my stomach and even my side, it made little difference. I barely slept and I feared losing a toe at several points throughout the night.

As soon as it was light enough in the morning, I crawled out of the tent, packed everything up as quickly as I possibly could, and then cycled like a speed-demon back to Luzern.

I stopped on the western edge of Lake Luzern to take a photo of me and my bike, just as it began to snow once again.

When I finally made it back to Luzern I was absolutely beat. My hands were frozen, my eyes were read, my legs were wobbly, and I spent nearly the entire day following the trip laying in bed and watching TV. But you know what? My trip to Interlaken was one of the best moments I had during the entire time I was in Switzerland… and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.


0 thoughts on “Switzerland: Cycling From Luzern To Interlaken

  1. Zach says:

    Great account of your ride! I’m looking to make a similar trek on bike, but in late May instead of February. 😉

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