If there are truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences, then witnessing and photographing the sunrise on Mount Pilatus is undeniably one of them. Not only will you capture some stunning images, but the memories of the gorgeous morning on top of the world will stay with you forever. In this photography guide to Mount Pilatus, I go over everything you need to know to make it a reality.
- A Remarkable Photography Destination
- Getting to Pilatus
- Pilatus Photo Locations
- Sunrise on Mount Pilatus
- Sunset on Mount Pilatus
- Spend the Night on Mount Pilatus
- Pilatus During the Day
- Pilatus Photography Tips
A Remarkable Photography Destination
In a country so renowned for magnificent mountains as Switzerland, it is somewhat unfair to single out any particular one. And yet some peaks are just so iconic that they have stirred people’s imagination for many centuries.
Mount Pilatus in central Switzerland definitely fits into this category. Dominating the skyline above Lake Luzern, Pilatus is perhaps less famous than the incredible Matterhorn, yet every bit as impressive.
It is no coincidence that ever since the medieval period, Pilatus exited and attracted anyone who laid eyes on it. A legend of the dragons with healing powers living on the summit has taken such root in the folklore that today the dragon has become a recognizable symbol of Pilatus.
What makes Pilatus so attractive is how majestic and yet simultaneously accessible it is. Thanks to its rather modest height of 2128 meters, you don’t require special tools or skills to reach the top. In warmer months, there are several hikes of varying difficulty that will take you there.
For those who don’t fancy an exercise, there is both an aerial gondola and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to choose from. Both will get you to the summit in a matter of minutes, allowing you to enjoy the views almost effortlessly.
And the views indeed are spectacular! In the north, the outline of Lake Luzern far below is unbelievably vivid and picturesque. Turn around, and you will be immediately mesmerized by alpine landscapes and a seemingly endless line of snow-covered peaks on the horizon.
While undoubtedly breathtaking during the day, it is at sunset or sunrise that the surroundings turn truly magical. Believe me, if you love landscape photography, you want to be up there and ready when it happens.
Getting to Pilatus
There are several ways to reach the summit of Pilatus, ranging from arduous and challenging to quick and simple. You are free to choose whichever suits you better or even combine them if you wish!
Above is the map from a tourist brochure I snatched at Pilatus. I think it does a great job illustrating all the locations I will mention later in the article. Hopefully, this will serve as a good visual cue to the descriptions that follow.
There is also an official interactive map that has a couple of cool features such as webcam integration.
With the Cogwheel Train
Pilatus Railway (or Pilatusbahn in German) connects the village of Alpnachstad in the south-western part of Lake Luzern directly with the hotel complex on top of Pilatus.
Completed in 1889, the cogwheel train is a truly astonishing engineering accomplishment. To this date it remains the world’s steepest rack railway, negotiating slopes up to 48% steep to bring you to the top.
Honestly, that alone is reason enough to sign up for a ride. It’s a unique experience, and I find it quite fascinating that the original tracks are still being used. Even the carriages in operation are from 1937 (although new ones are set to arrive by 2023).
The ride lasts around half an hour. The scenery isn’t especially exciting at first when you are mostly moving through the forest. Eventually, however, the trees give way and you get the first glimpse of the alpine beauty that awaits.
The tickets can be purchased online or at the station in Alpnachstad. Current prices for 2021 are CHF 36 for a one-way journey and CHF 72 for a roundtrip. Swiss Travel Pass owners receive a 50% discount. Yes, Switzerland is an insanely expensive country.
The cogwheel train operates from May to November with departures every 40 minutes or so between 8 am and 5.45 pm. You will find the detailed schedule on the official website. Note that Pilatusbahn does not run in winter.
With the Aerial Cablecar
Another very easy and immensely fun way to get to Pilatus is via a cable car from the town of Kriens. The journey lasts approximately 35 minutes which you can spend enjoying the panoramic 360° views from the gondola.
The trip consists of two legs with a change of gondolas required at the Fräkmüntegg station. If you have time, exit at Fräkmüntegg and hang around for a while before continuing. The area has all sorts of fun attractions including a toboggan run, high ropes park, and a Dragon Glider.
Between Kriens and Fräkmüntegg you are traveling in smaller cabins that can hold 4 persons maximum. These run pretty much constantly, akin to a ski lift. This leg is the longer of the two lasting nearly 30 minutes. So just relax and relish the amazing scenery around.
By contrast, the segment between Fräkmüntegg and Pilatus is a much shorter but much more thrilling one. So much so that those afraid of heights might even feel uneasy. For four minutes you will be gliding through the skies in a spacious cabin with windows stretching floor to ceiling. They call it a “Dragon Ride” for a reason!
The cablecar operates daily between 8.30 am and 5.45 pm even during the winter season. The tickets are priced similarly to Pilatusbahn, and the same discounts apply. You can also pay for each section separately if you want to. Check the latest prices on the official website.
The Golden Circle
With both train and cablecar available, it’s no wonder that many first-time visitors choose to combine the two. Go up one way and return the other – it makes perfect sense. Now add to this a boat cruise and you get what is called a Golden Round Trip.
A classic variation of it goes like this. Take a boat from Luzern to Alpnachstad. There, board the cogwheel train to reach Pilatus. You then use the cablecar to Kriens to descend the other side. From there, catch a bus back to Luzern completing the circle.
You can obviously do this route in the opposite direction as well. Either way, the Golden Round Trip is a popular choice, because it combines various activities and allows you to see much of the area.
Unfortunately, at the moment you cannot buy the Golden Round Trip tickets online. These are only available in the ticket offices in Kriens, Alpnachstad, or at the Pilatus Shop in Lucerne. But, you can still purchase the boat and the bus tickets separately.
For the boats, you can do so at the Lake Luzern website. If you cannot find any departures, note that a ferry to Alpnachstad does not operate in the winter season.
As for the buses, to move between Kriens and Luzern you need a Zone 10 ticket. You can get those in the machines at most stations (currently sold for CHF 4.10).
Finally, you might consider an app Fairtiq which automates the process and covers both bus and ferry. No need to think about which ticket to choose and where to buy it. Simply download the app and start the journey. Once complete, it will charge you the correct amount. Pretty handy!
Hiking to Pilatus
Of course, you can disregard all forms of transportation and bravely venture to Pilatus on foot. There are several hikes, taking anywhere from 2 hours to half a day to complete, depending on your fitness level.
The two most popular routes are from Kriens and Alpnachstad. Both are steep and challenging but not technical. Officially estimated time is 3.5 hours for the former and 5 hours for the latter. With upwards of 1600m of elevation gain, expect a proper exercise.
But, as I learned from a local hiker on Pilatus, there is an easier alternative. If you have a car, you can drive to Lütholdsmatt and hike from there. That reduces the distance to a mere 6.5 kilometers with an altitude gain of “just” 930 meters.
Still not a walk in the park, but much more manageable. Depending on your speed and agility, you may reach the summit in 1.5 to 2 hours. Unless you want to spend the night in Pilatus, this is probably the most viable option to photograph the sunrise. I am actually keen on trying it out myself someday!
Pilatus Photo Locations
Once you’re at the top, there are a few photo locations to consider. Luckily, they are all relatively close to each other, so you can easily scout them all and decide which one you like the most.
I have put them on the map above for a better visual reference.
Although Pilatus is often referred to as Mount Pilatus, it is actually a massif composed of several individual peaks. The station where you arrive with the train or the cable car is situated right in between two of such pinnacles.
Oberhaupt is the lower of the two and thus slightly easier to access. After you disembark, just cross the outer yard and follow a set of stairs up. The path isn’t particularly steep, so it should take you no more than five minutes to emerge on the observation deck.
From there, you can enjoy phenomenal views of Pilatus, the lake, the Alps, and Hotel Bellevue down below.
It is also a great spot to photograph the sunset on Pilatus. Up until mid-autumn, you can watch the sun disappear behind the hills to the west. And since there are astonishing landscapes in every direction, you can have plenty of compositions to chase.
Esel is a neighboring peak to the east, basically on the other side of Hotel Bellevue. Although it is literally a hundred meters away, the scenery you get is drastically different.
To the east, the plain below stretches far into the distance towards the mountains on the horizon. To the west, Oberhaupt is the highest point of the rocky ridge. South, the snowy Alps stand proud and solemn. Finally north, Lake Luzern is bustling with life far below.
Esel is probably one of the best spots on Pilatus to catch the sunrise. There are endless compositions to be discovered, and you can easily spend the entire morning moving from one shot to another.
Just keep in mind that come autumn, the steps leading to the top get engulfed in snow. When this happens, the staff might close the passage as it becomes too slippery and dangerous.
The path up is secured with rails and isn’t particularly long. The trouble is, even with hiking shoes, you will be sliding all over the place. So bring a pair of crampons just in case. With those, you will be up there in no time.
The Dragon Path
The Dragon Path is a name of a set of tunnels and caves in the rocks beneath Oberhaupt. It immediately reminded me of Ventanas the Guimar hike in Tenerife, albeit this one is much wider and well taken care of.
The entry is located inside the hotel lobby right behind the souvenir shop. The path then follows through a bunch of tunnels with large openings through which you can soak in the views.
It’s a nice relaxed walk that offers a slightly different perspective than that above and is well worth a quick tour. In particular, I found it to be a perfect spot to photograph the Klimsenkapelle church perched on the ridge below.
The tunnels aren’t all that long. Some quarter-hour later you will emerge on a hiking trail that will lead you either back to the station or towards Tomlishorn, depending on the direction you take.
Tomlishorn is the highest peak on Pilatus massif and can be reached via a leisurely stroll from the train and cable car station.
It is probably the easiest walk you can do on Pilatus without engaging in arduous exercise. And it is pretty enjoyable too, so I wholeheartedly recommend it.
The trail is well-marked and for the larger part even paved. Only the last section is a bit rocky and goes uphill, but it’s nothing too complicated. You can complete the entire hike in a mere 30 minutes or so.
Tomlishorn offers yet another perspective on by now familiar Alpine landscapes. I especially liked the view back towards the Bellevue hotel squeezed in between Esel and Oberhaupt. There is just something undeniably romantic about it. The top of the world indeed.
But obviously, that’s not the only composition to photograph here. As with other summits in the vicinity, there is something amazing no matter what direction you turn.
Ok, this one isn’t a location but rather a photography activity for those who want a short break from the Alpine vistas.
Steinbock is a german word for the Alpine ibex, a common inhabitant of Pilatus. There are so many of them around, that organized steinbock safari tours exist. These will help you locate the ibexes and provide some commentary about the local flora and fauna.
But honestly, there is no need to sign up for the tour. If you just keep your eyes open, you will surely notice them during your time on Pilatus. I’ve seen steinbocks on at least 4 different occasions and have a feeling they are as keen on observing humans as we are on observing them!
A hike to Tomlishorn, for example, is a great place to look out for them. Just make sure to glance up now and then. The steinbocks often hide in the most unimaginable spots I wouldn’t ever dare to climb. Yet there they are, seemingly chill and totally unconcerned about the heights.
The ibexes are fun to watch and photograph, so make sure to bring your long lens. They mostly keep their distance so you want to have something to zoom in with.
Sunrise on Mount Pilatus
To me, sunrise is the most incredible period to be on Pilatus. The moment when the sky begins to brighten and the clouds catch the first light of the still invisible sun is truly magical. Being there and seeing nature wake up is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I recommend Esel as a sunrise location of choice. You get commanding views in every direction and can relish every second of the fabulous show. There is plenty to photograph, too. The first glimpse of the sun to the east or the glowing peaks to the south – there are compositions everywhere.
Sunrise is also your best chance to capture a unique atmospheric condition – the cloud inversion. The sight of clouds shining down below and clear skies up above is breathtaking. Photographers love it, and for a reason – it is gorgeous.
Autumn in particular is a great season to try and catch that elusive phenomenon. Just remember – as any mountain Pilatus is quite capricious. If Lady Luck decides to turn away, you might easily end up amidst the clouds rather than above them. Then it’s game over.
I will talk more about the weather in the subsequent chapter. For now, my only other advice for sunrise photography is to stick around a little longer. The light can put up an insane display even when the sun has already risen quite high. You don’t want to miss it.
Sunset on Mount Pilatus
Just like sunrise, sunset on Pilatus is a unique experience and one well worth watching and photographing.
The most common location to witness the sunset on Pilatus is Oberhaupt. Even the local staff recommends it. If this is your first outing to Pilatus, that is indeed a good option.
One thing I should mention though is that finding a compelling composition there is not always straightforward. Especially in late autumn, as the sun moves too much south and is blocked by the rocky crest to the left.
This does restrict the options you have somewhat. In that regard, I feel that Tomlishorn could have been a superior choice. It offers a much wider and unobstructed outlook to the west and is probably less crowded.
Even so, Oberhaupt definitely has a couple of aces up its sleeves as well. You just have to get a little creative. For example, I had a lot of fun with my telephoto lens, searching for more intimate scenes and light patterns on the distant peaks.
And be sure to stick around for the blue hour! The views of city lights down in the valley and the hotel complex perched on the ridge are breathtaking.
Spend the Night on Mount Pilatus
You might be wondering – if both Pilatusbahn and gondolas only run between 8 am and 6 pm, how is it possible to be on the summit for sunrise or sunset?
Hiking in the darkness aside, the easiest way is to spend a night in one of the hotels on the summit. There are two – Bellevue and Pilatus Kulm, and both are fantastic.
But, as you might guess, it won’t be cheap. At the moment of writing the price for one night ranges between CHF 250 and CHF 600 depending on the date. Which is a lot of money for most of us who do not live in Switzerland.
The best advice I can give is to keep an eye out for deals, which do happen occasionally. Just check the Pilatus Kulm website to see what’s available. If you can, aim for weekdays, they are generally more affordable.
We paid CHF 390 to stay on Pilatus from Friday to Saturday. While this seems quite expensive at the first glance, our rate actually included a ride up and down the mountain for two people as well as dinner and breakfast.
Considering that a roundtrip journey alone costs CHF 72 per person and that dinner in a Swiss restaurant will normally go upwards of CHF 100, suddenly the price becomes much more reasonable.
I do understand that for a lot of people it is still excessively expensive. Unfortunately, Switzerland is generally a high-price country. However, if you can afford it, I say go for it. Waking up to a spectacular sunrise in the mountains is an experience like no other and will stay in your memory forever.
Pilatus During the Day
But what if you cannot be on Pilatus early in the morning or late in the evening? Is it still worth going up there to photograph during the day?
My honest answer to this is – absolutely! The Alpine scenery on Pilatus is stunning no matter when you show up. So pick a clear sunny day and head up there with your camera. You will have a blast!
Do a bit of hiking, see the various peaks, search for Steinbocks – there are a ton of activities to engage in and fabulous landscapes to photograph. And when you get tired, treat yourself to a coffee (beer?) and a cake in the restaurant and just enjoy the wonderful surroundings.
I promise – you will love every second of it!
Pilatus Photography Tips
Pilatus is a remarkable place for landscape photography. And to help you have a pleasant, relaxed and productive trip, here are some of the things to remember.
When to Visit
Pilatus can be visited throughout the year, and every season holds something unique. In summer, the air is warm, and the hiking trails are open. Winter turns Pilatus into a magical kingdom of snow and ice. Spring is a season of rebirth and blossom, while autumn is known for its vibrant sunsets and foliage colors.
But if I had to choose one, I would pick autumn. The weeks after the first snow but before Pilatusbahn stops for winter give you the best of two worlds.
The summer crowds are gone by then, but it is not freezing cold yet. Many hiking paths are still clear but landscapes are already turning white under the layer of snow. Nature is stark and solemn. It really is beautiful.
Weather can make or break your Pilatus adventure. It is just one of those locations where if you score, you score big, but if you lose, you also lose big.
The problem is that Pilatus is all about the magnificent Alpine scenery. But if clouds roll in, as they often do, there isn’t much to see or photograph. Everything is covered by the thick grey mist and visibility falls almost to zero.
Unfortunately, like any mountain, Pilatus is very unpredictable. It is next to impossible to know the conditions in advance with any kind of certainty. This may not be a huge issue if you are local, but for those coming from abroad, this is super important.
If you live within driving distance, my advice is to keep a close eye on the forecast. Both Bellevue and Pilatus Kulm offer free cancellation up to 2 days before the arrival date. Not perfect, but by then you may normally expect a reasonably accurate forecast.
Just don’t rely on the weather forecast for Luzern. Although it is the closest city in the vicinity, the conditions can be drastically different in the mountains. The most reliable website for weather on Pilatus that I found is this one. It is a bit dated but is more precise than others.
Finally, if you are coming to Switzerland from far away, I suggest spending a couple of nights in the area. There is plenty to see, and this will give you a better chance to try and catch the optimal conditions.
There are also webcams on Pilatus. They won’t help to plan in advance, but at least you can always check what’s going on before heading up.
For landscape photography on Pilatus, you will need a camera, a sturdy tripod, and a set of lenses covering everything from ultra-wide to a telephoto range.
Carrying several lenses might sound like a nuisance, especially if you are hiking, but you will use all of them. Wide-angle zoom may be a weapon of choice for the grand vistas, but there are plenty of more intimate motifs in the mountains.
During my stay on Pilatus, I found myself constantly reaching for a telephoto lens. Be that an ibex on the slope or a distant peak catching the light, you will want to zoom in. And then there is anything in between, so having a mid-range zoom such as 24-105 mm is also a good idea.
I also recommend packing a polarizing filter. I used it on quite a few occasions to accentuate the skies and add more contrast to the photo.
If you are a drone enthusiast, I have bad news for you. Pilatus is a restricted zone, which means you require authorization from the Special Flight Office. Just be aware that fines can be crazy high in Switzerland if you get caught.
I feel it is important to include this chapter for those who plan on coming to Pilatus during a colder season. The weather there is very different from that down in the plains, so you need to dress smart.
As a general rule, the temperature decreases by 6.5 °C for every 1000 meters of altitude. Also, the winds are usually much stronger higher in the mountains. As a result, it may feel a lot colder on Pilatus than you might have thought.
Especially during sunset or early in the morning when the temperatures drop significantly. I stayed on Pilatus in mid-October, and while it was still relatively warm in Luzern, there was already snow on Pilatus.
This means a simple thing – bring layers. It will be cold! And trust me, you want to concentrate on photography and not on being miserable in your light summer attire. So pack a good base layer (including leggings!) and a warm mountain jacket.
Gloves are also a must. For photographers, in particular, I recommend the Vallerret gloves. They will keep your hands warm while simultaneously allowing access to the camera dials. I own several pairs of them and absolutely adore them.
Finally, when there is snow in the mountains, a pair of crampons go a long way. Some of the spots (i.e. Esel) may be hard to reach in autumn and winter. A set of spikes won’t break the bank and can be extremely useful.
I first heard of Pilatus a few years back and it has been on my radar ever since. Now that I finally visited it, I honestly wish I had done it earlier. It is a truly magical place, and I already miss it and hope to return.
Not only is Pilatus immensely photogenic, but it is also a tremendous spot to relax, leave the everyday worries behind and spend some quality time amidst the lovely Alpine nature. You will come back invigorated and revitalized and bring home loads of photos.
I hope you liked this photography guide to Pilatus and got something useful out of it. I would be happy if it inspired some of you to see this majestic mountain with your own eyes. It really is worth it.
As always, I will be glad to answer any questions or comments you may have and will be grateful if you forward this article to your friends and share it on social media.
I also invite you to have a look at some of my other articles. I have a lot of content about travel and photography and am certain you will find something of value. Here are just some examples:
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