Lake Lucerne

Lake Lucerne (German: Vierwaldstättersee, literally "Lake of the Four Forested Settlements", French: lac des Quatre-Cantons, Italian: lago dei Quattro Cantoni) is a lake in central Switzerland and the fourth largest in the country.

Lake Lucerne
View of Lake Lucerne from the Pilatus
LocationCentral Switzerland
Coordinates47.0194°N 8.4011°E / 47.0194; 8.4011
Lake typefreshwater fjord, recent regulation[note 1]
Native nameVierwaldstättersee  (German)
Primary inflows
Primary outflowsReuss
Catchment area2,124 km2 (820 sq mi)
Basin countriesSwitzerland
Max. length3 km (1.9 mi)
Max. width20 km (12 mi)
Surface area113.6 km2 (43.9 sq mi)
Average depth104 m (341 ft)
Max. depth214 m (702 ft)
Water volume11.8 km3 (2.8 cu mi)
Residence time3.4 years
Shore length1143.7 km (89.3 mi)
Surface elevation434 m (1,424 ft)
Frozenin the 17th and 19th century; Lucerne Bay and Lake Alpnach in 1929 and 1963
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

The lake has a complicated shape, with several sharp bends and four arms. It starts in the south-north bound Reuss Valley between steep cliffs above the Urnersee from Flüelen towards Brunnen to the north before it makes a sharp bend to the west where it continues into the Gersauer Becken. Here is also the deepest point of the lake with 214 m (702 ft). Even more west of it is the Buochser Bucht, but the lake sharply turns north again through the narrow opening between the Unter Nas (lower nose) of the Bürgenstock to the west and the Ober Nas (upper nose) of the Rigi to the east to reach the Vitznauer Bucht. In front of Vitznau below the Rigi the lake turns sharply west again to reach the center of a four-arm cross, called the Chrütztrichter (Cross Funnel). Here converge the Vitznauer Bucht with the Küssnachtersee from the north, the Luzernersee from the west, and the Horwer Bucht and the Stanser Trichter to the south, which is to be found right below the northeast side of the Pilatus and the west side of the Bürgenstock. At the very narrow pass between the east dropper of the Pilatus (called Lopper) and Stansstad the lake reaches its southwestern arm at Alpnachstad on the steep southern foothills of the Pilatus, the Alpnachersee. The lake drains its water into the Reuss in Lucerne from its arm called Luzernersee (which literally translates as Lake of Lucerne).

The entire lake has a total area of 114 km² (44 sq mi) at an elevation of 434 m (1,424 ft) a.s.l., and a maximum depth of 214 m (702 ft). Its volume is 11.8 km³. Much of the shoreline rises steeply into mountains up to 1,500 m above the lake, resulting in many picturesque views including those of the mountains Rigi and Pilatus.

The Reuss enters the lake at Flüelen, in the part called Urnersee (Lake of Uri, in the canton of Uri) and exits at Lucerne. The lake also receives the Muota at Brunnen, the Engelberger Aa at Buochs, and the Sarner Aa at Alpnachstad.

It is possible to circumnavigate the lake by train and road, though the railway route circumvents the lake even on the north side of the Rigi via Arth-Goldau. Since 1980, the A2 motorway leads through the Seelisberg Tunnel in order to reach the route to the Gotthard Pass in just half an hour in Altdorf, Uri right south of the beginning of the lake in Flüelen.

Steamers and other passenger boats ply between the different villages and towns on the lake. It is a popular tourist destination, both for native Swiss and foreigners, and there are many hotels and resorts along the shores. In addition, the meadow of the Rütli, traditional site of the founding of the Swiss Confederation, is on the Urnersee shore. A 35 km commemorative walkway, the Swiss Path, was built around the Lake of Uri to celebrate the country's 700th anniversary in 1991.


The name of Vierwaldstättersee is first used in the 16th century.[1] The (three) "Waldstätte(n)" (lit.: "Forested Sites/Settlements") since the 14th century were the confederate allies of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. The notion of "Four Waldstätten" (Vier Waldstätten), with the addition of the canton of Lucerne, is first recorded in the 1450s, in an addition to the "Silver Book" of Egloff Etterlin of Lucerne.

Each part of the lake has it own designation:[1][2]

  • Urnersee ("Lake of Uri"): The first part of the lake, at the mouth of the Reuss between Flüelen and Brunnen.
  • Gersauer Becken ("Basin of Gersau"): In front of Gersau below the Rigi massif, the deepest part.
  • Buochser Bucht ("Bay of Buochs"): The bay of Bouchs, where the Engelberger Aa enters the lake.
  • Vitznauer Bucht ("Bay of Vitznau"): The part between the Bürgenstock and Rigi.
  • Küssnachtersee ("Lake of Küssnacht"): The most northern arm, west of the Rigi with Küssnacht SZ at its northern end.
  • Alpnachersee ("Lake of Alpnach"): the almost separate, southern arm below the southern mountainside of Pilatus near Alpnach.
  • Horwer Bucht ("Bay of Horw"): The bay in front of Horw.
  • Stanser Trichter ("Funnel of Stans"): The part north of the Pilatus, west of Bürgenstock, and in front of Hergiswil and Stansstad.
  • Chrütztrichter ("Cross Funnel"): The meeting point of Stanser Trichter, Luzernersee, Küssnachtersee, and Vitznauer Bucht.
  • Luzernersee ("Lake of Lucerne"): Only the bay in front of Luzern as far as Meggenhorn, with its effluence of the Reuss, is called "Lake of Lucerne" in original language German, not the whole lake.


Lake Lucerne borders on the three original Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden (which today is divided into the cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden), as well as the canton of Lucerne, thus the name Vierwaldstättersee (lit.: Lake of the Four Forested Settlements). Many of the oldest communities of Switzerland are along the shore, including Küssnacht, Weggis, Vitznau, Gersau, Brunnen, Altdorf, Buochs, and Treib.

Lake Lucerne is singularly irregular and appears to lie in four different valleys, all related to the conformation of the adjoining mountains. The central portion of the lake lies in two parallel valleys whose direction is from west to east, the one lying north, the other south of the ridge of the Bürgenstock. These are connected through a narrow strait, scarcely one kilometre wide, between the two rocky promontories called respectively Unter Nas and Ober Nas (Lower and Upper Nose). It is not unlikely that the southern of these two divisions of the lake—called Buochser Bucht—formerly extended to the west over the isthmus whereon stands the town of Stans, thus forming an island of the Bürgenstock. The west end of the main branch of the lake, whence a comparatively shallow bay extends to the town of Lucerne, is intersected obliquely by a deep trench whose south-west end is occupied by the branch called Alpnachersee, while the north-east branch forms the long arm of Küssnacht, Küssnachtersee. These both lie in the direct line of a valley that stretches with scarcely a break in between the Uri Alps and the Emmental Alps. At the eastern end of the Gersauer Becken, where the containing walls of the lake-valley are directed from east to west, it is joined at an acute angle by the arm of Uri, or the Urnersee, lying in the northern prolongation of the deep cleft that gives a passage to the Reuss, between the Uri Alps and the Glarus Alps.[3]

The Urnersee occupies the northernmost and deep portion of the great cleft of the Reuss Valley, which has cut through the Alpine ranges from the St Gotthard Pass to the neighbourhood of Schwyz. From its eastern shore the mountains rise in almost bare walls of rock to a height of from 3,000 to 4,000 ft (910 to 1,220 m) above the water. The two highest summits are the Fronalpstock and the Rophaien (2078 m). Between them the steep glen or ravine of the Riemenstaldener Tal descends to Sisikon, the only village with Flüelen right on the shore on that side of the Urnersee. On the opposite or western shore, the mountains attain still greater dimensions. The Niederbauen Chulm is succeeded by the Oberbauenstock, and farther south, above the ridge of the Scharti, appear the snowy peaks of the Gitschen and the Uri Rotstock (2,928 m). In the centre opens the Reuss Valley, backed by the rugged summits of the Urner and Glarner Alps.[3]

The breadth of these various sections of the lake is very variable, but is usually between one and two miles (3 km). The lake's surface, whose mean height above the sea is 434 metres, is the lowest point of the cantons of Uri, Obwalden and Nidwalden. Originally the lake was susceptible to variations in level and flooding along its shoreline. Between 1859 and 1860, the introduction of a needle dam in the Reuss in the city of Lucerne, just upstream from the Spreuerbrücke, allowed the lake level to be stabilised.[1]

The culminating point of the lake's drainage basin, as well as Central Switzerland, is the Dammastock at 3,630 metres above sea level.[4]


Left shore[l 1] Right shore
  1. At the entry of the Reuss: the western, later southern shore.

The lake is navigable, and has formed an important part of Switzerland's transport system for many centuries, and at least since the opening of the first track across the Gotthard Pass in 1230. This trade grew with the opening of a new mail coach road across the pass in 1830. This road had its northern terminus at Flüelen at the extreme eastern end of the lake, and the lake provided the only practical onward link to Lucerne, and hence the cities of northern Switzerland and beyond.[5][6]

Whilst the development of Switzerland's road and rail networks has relieved the lake of much of its through traffic, it continues to be used by a considerable number of vessels, both private and public. Much of this usage is tourist or leisure oriented, but the lake continues to provide practical public and cargo transport links between the smaller lakeside communities.

Passenger boats of the Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees (SGV) provide services on the lake, including many run by historic paddle steamers. The SGV serves 32 places along the shore of the lake, with interchange to both main line and mountain railways at various points. Under separate management, the Autofähre Beckenried-Gersau provides a car ferry service between Beckenried, on the south bank of the lake, and Gersau on the north.

Cargo barges, to a local design known as Nauen, are still used on the lake. Some have been converted for use as party boats. Other barges are used by the gravel dredging industry that operates on the lake, using large dredgers to obtain sand and gravel for use in the construction industry.[7][8]

Cultural references

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata derives its name from an 1832 description of the first movement by poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who compared it to moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne.

Gioacchino Rossini uses this in his William Tell Overture Section A: Sunrise over the Alps.


Lake Lucerne has twice been used as a venue for the European Rowing Championships: in 1908 and then in 1926.[9][10] The nearby Rotsee has since 1933 been used for rowing regattas instead.

Notes and references


  1. The weir in Lucerne keeps the water level 2–3 m (6 ft 7 in–9 ft 10 in) above the natural average, see Canton of Lucerne, department of traffic and infrastructure (2008):Die Regulierung des Vierwaldstädtersees – Der Ausbau der Reusswehranlage in Luzern (PDF) Archived 14 May 2014 at the Wayback Machine


  1. Hans Stadler: Vierwaldstättersee in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 27 February 2013.
  2. "Vierwaldstättersee: Über sieben Becken..." (PDF). BeobachterNatur (in German) (8/2011). Zurich, Switzerland: Beobachter. 7 October 2011. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  3. John Ball, The Alpine guide, Central Alps, p. 153, 1866, London
  4. 1:25,000 topographic map (Map). Swisstopo. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  5. "Paddle Steamboat Uri" (PDF). American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 5 September 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 September 2014. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  6. "Geschichte SGV" [SGV History] (in German). SGV. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  7. "WABAG Kies AG" (in German). WABAG Kies AG. Retrieved 10 September 2012.
  8. "Arnold & Co. AG" (in German). Arnold & Co. AG. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  9. "Event Information". International Rowing Federation. Retrieved 30 June 2018.
  10. "Event Information". International Rowing Federation. Retrieved 30 June 2018.
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