#26Cantons52Weeks: Obwalden

Cogwheel railway

Canton: Obwalden

Destination: Mount Pilatus, Goldene Rundfahrt

Interesting thing: Canton Obwalden is the location for the geographical centre of Switzerland. The cogwheel railway up Pilatus is the steepest in the world and dates from 1889!

Special guests: my parents

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Pilatus is the ‘dragon mountain’ and its dragon symbol is rather a triumph of branding, with everything from the boat quay to the bus stop labelled with that same red swirly beast. To my mind, I can kind of see how the spine of the mountain looks a bit like a sleeping dragon and, where Rigi – “the queen of the mountains” is gently sloping and green, Pilatus seems to loom menacing and dark above Lake Lucerne. Except, as we made our way across the waters of the Vierwaldstättersee (as the lake’s called in German), I realised the mountain I’d been identifying as Pilatus actually wasn’t. So much for my theory anyway! Er… the real Pilatus looks like a dragon too, a bit! (Wikipedia tells me the dragon comes from a medieval legend about winged beasts with healing powers living on the mountain.)

Pilatus’ cogwheel railway is really something. It was constructed in 1889 and electrified in the 1930s. From lake level of 464m at Alpnachstad, the railway rises almost vertical in parts up the side of the mountain to just over 2,000 metres. The elevation gain is 1,635m in total and it has an incline of 48% at its steepest (this is the sharpest incline you can have – otherwise I think you’re actually vertical?). It’s steeper than the triangle of a Toblerone. It’s a longish journey too – about half an hour. Which is great if you’re excited about it, maybe not so great if you’re closing your eyes, blocking your ears and holding on for grim death due to a fear of heights, as my sister-in-law was the last time we went (sorry Laura!).

My parents are thankfully not much affected by vertigo and we had a lovely, clear early-autumn day for our ascent. So nice, in fact, that we even ate our lunch al fresco, with a panoramic view of the mountains from the terrace. Lovely. Afterwards dad and I climbed the “Esel” (donkey) peak to 2,118 metres for a top-of-the-top view. From here we watched a huge cloud roll up one side of the mountain, completely whiting-out the view for about 20 minutes, until it passed. Amazing how fast the weather can change at these altitudes.

To descend, we swooped down in the gondola and cable cars, then caught a bus back to Luzern to complete our “Goldene Rundfahrt” (golden round trip).

Full disclosure: the several peaks of Pilatus are actually on the border between two cantons – Nidwalden and Obwalden. However the cogwheel railway and Pilatus Kulm both fall on the Ob side (and I’ve already written up Nidwalden).


Cantons visited / to go so far. 


Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Appenzell Innerrhoden



Bern *













St. Gallen









*I haven’t written this up yet!



  1. “Sorry Laura” – LOL. We recently made a visiting friend who is scared of heights go up a funicular outside of Lugano (sorry Kelly). She had much the same response as Laura. We hiked down…haha.

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