The other Swiss geography

Topographical treasures that are not on the map

by Heini Hofmann

Switzerland has not yet been fully discovered! There are plenty of hiking trails and cycle routes that open up natural wonders, cultural assets, panoramic hotspots and places of power. But because people love the special, the unusual and the borderline, a new trend has developed: Discovering extreme points, which is not always easy.

Lowest point Canton Uri: Spreitenbach mouth, Seelisberg, 434m (picture Jakob Schluep)

The country of Switzerland, but also each of the 26 cantons, has a wide variety of extreme fixed points: the highest and lowest points of its topography, the geographical and political centre and the extreme corners in all four cardinal points. Among them, there are those that are known and even marked in the terrain. But there are also some that one has to look for and that are accessible more or less easily. Unique in the whole country is the furthest off point of all borders.

It started in the 2012 jubilee year

This extreme point tourism has really begun on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Swiss national survey in 2012, and it immediately found a hand-picked following of hobby topographers who have set themselves the goal of finding all extreme points (even those which the cantons have not yet published on their website) and hiking to them as far as this is possible for an average hiker, because the highest points require alpine techniques.
One of these hobbyists is Jakob Schluep from Münchenwiler, who has already visited and documented a large part of these topographical special points himself and who, with his knowledge, is at the origin of this article. Full of enthusiasm he tells us how this “healthy hobby” has already brought him to the most wondrous places in our country.

Switzerland’s highest point: Dufourspitze (right, left, Nordend summit), named after Guillaume-Henri Dufour (cartographer, general and co-founder of the Red Cross), at 4634 m the highest mountain in Switzerland, lies in Canton Valais and is part of the Monte Rosa Group, the second highest mountain massif in the Alps. First ascent: 1 August 1855. (picture Willy Taugwalder)

The highest points

They are the best known, especially the three four-thousand-metre peaks among them: Valais (and also Switzerland: Dufourspitze, 4634 m), Berne (Finsteraarhorn, 4274 m) and Grisons (Piz Bernina, 4049 m). Or the six three thousand metre peaks: Uri (Dammastock), Glarus (Tödi), Ticino (Adula/Rheinwaldhorn), St. Gallen (Ringelspitz), Obwalden (Titlis) and Vaud (Diablerets). They are reserved for alpinists, while those in Basel and Geneva are even accessible to the disabled.
The peaks are mostly at or near the cantonal border and in two cases (LU and AR/AI) at a cantonal border triangle. Jakob Schluep has made the highest points of fourteen cantons and recorded them in a coordinate manner: Schnebelhorn (ZH), Brienzer Rothorn (LU), Wildspitz (ZG), Hasenmatt (SO), St. Chrischona (BS), Hinteri Egg (BL), Hagen (SH), Säntis (AR/AI), Geissgrat (AG), Groot (TG), Chasseral Ouest (NE), Weiler Monniaz (GE) and Mont Raimeux (JU).

The lowest places

The record, which also applies to Switzerland, lies in Ticino (Brissago/estuary Valmara). All places on Lake Maggiore have the same sea level, namely the lake level (193 m), but in Brissago – one notices, the hobbyists take it exactly! – under normal conditions it is a few millimetres lower than further alpine. Switzerland’s highest low point is in Canton Appenzell Innerrhoden (Bruggtobel, 539 m), the second highest in Canton Uri in Seelisberg on the shores of Lake Lucerne (434 m).
Most of the cantonal lows are between 300 and 400 metres above sea level, with six below 300 metres (SO, BS, BL, GR, AG, TI). Most of them are aquatic affine. There are ten on a lake: Lake Biel (NE), Lake Neuchâtel (FR), Lake Constance (SG), Lake Lucerne (UR, OW, NW), Lake Zurich (SZ), Lago Maggiore (TI), Lake Geneva (VD, VS). All others are along rivers and creeks. The only exception: Appenzell Ausserrhoden; here one locates the lowest point in a settlement area and at the same time on the cantonal border (Lutzenberg AR/Thal SG).

Only 66 km lie in between

Five lows border other countries: Basel Rhine port to Germany, Brissago (TI) to Italy and St. Gingolph (VS), Chancy (GE) and Boncourt (JU) to France. When considering drainage areas, 20 of these are located in the catchment area of the Rhine, which leaves Switzerland in Basel: ZH, BS, BL, SH, AG directly on the river, AR, AI, SG via Lake Constance, others via tributaries of the Rhine, such as TG via Thur, SZ and GL via Limmat, LU, ZG and the original cantons of UR, OW, NW via Reuss, BE, FR, NE via the three peripheral Jura lakes or Aare and SO via Birs.
Three (GE, VD, VS) are located in the Rhône catchment area, which says goodbye to Switzerland in Chancy, and two (GR, TI) in the Ticino area, which has become the long lake (Lago Maggiore) and effectively leaves the country in Brissago. The lowest point in the Canton of Jura is very special: the Allaine leaves Switzerland at Boncourt, flows in the direction of Belfort, changes its name to Allan and flows into the Doubs at Montbéliard, the latter into the Saône and the latter into the Rhône at Lyon. Jakob Schluep visited all 26 low points and got to know charming areas. An interesting detail: Switzerland’s highest and lowest points (Dufourspitze and Brissago/estuary Valmara) are only 66.6 kilometres apart.

Two types of geographical centre

The geographical centre is the second-best known survey point besides the highest point.
The one in Switzerland (Älggialp, OW) was already equipped with a triangulation pyramid in 1988. It lies, figuratively speaking, where a Switzerland cut out in cardboard keeps itself in equilibrium on a needle tip (= centre of gravity). If one would do the same with a cardboard including the structure of the terrain topography, a different centre of balance (= volume centre) would result. For Switzerland, it is located at the Eggstock Nord on the territory of Urn.
The geographical centre is more common; however, it is not easily accessible and recognisable in every canton, because it is not marked everywhere in the terrain. Swiss-German cantons are somewhat more assiduous in this respect. The Canton of Aargau has designed its centre in the Hardwald near Niederlenz with particular affection, with monuments, benches and fireplaces. But also especially Zurich, Basel-Landschaft, Schaffhausen and Appenzell-Innerrhoden as well as several other cantons have marked their centres with memorial stones or plaques. A funny example: the canton centre of Basel-Stadt is located in a small terraced house garden “Im Heimatland”, near the Badischer Bahnhof railway station.

Curiosity and shift

A really freaky case is the Canton of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, whose geographical centre – what a frustration! – lies in the Canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden, in Schlatt-Haslen, because Ausserrhoden nestles banana-like around Innerrhoden. It was not supposed to be, although old rivalries are forgotten today, so tricks were used: Instead of the geographical centre, the arithmetic mean of the focal points of all 20 communes was chosen – and so they found their balance in Dietenschwendi/Teufen (AR) …
Especially centres are not carved in stone; they can shift. Example canton Berne: Since 1991 the centre was marked in Oberdiessbach. But because the Laufental valley changed to the Canton of Basel-Landschaft in 1994, the centre shifted to the Falkenfluh in Bleiken. When Bleiken merged with Oberdiessbach in 2014, the centre was back on Oberdiessbach soil. But only supposedly, because effectively it lies below the Falkenfluh in difficult terrain that belongs to Herbligen. And should Moutier ever change cantons, things would be different again …

Four wind rose points

Each canton also has four extreme points of compass; a total of 104. We limit ourselves here to one of four cantons, i.e. those who are congruent with the four extreme wind rose points of Switzerland: north (SH, Bargen; Schwarze Staa), east (GR, Müstair; Piz Chavalatsch), south (TI, Chiasso; Pedrinate) and west (GE, Chancy; Rhôneufer).
To complete the collection of topographical, cultural and local gems of extreme point tourism: In addition to a geographical centre, each canton also has a political centre, the town hall (Switzerland: Bundeshaus). These seats of the cantonal parliaments are the visiting cards of the states and, as representative buildings and political sites that can be visited (under the session with access to the parliament building), tempt visitors to make a patriotic collective visit. Sometimes, new, strange tourism ideas can even create a sense of identity!

The most borderline point

The Bernese commune of Uetendorf (where the writer comes from) has a very special exotic extreme point, namely the most distant point 69.24 kilometres from the national border. During Jakob Schluep’s active career as head of the Swiss border(!) veterinary service, this should hardly have occupied him …
Still unmarked, it lies in the middle of a meadow called Silbermoos, around 200 metres away from the former Eichberg country estate, one of the last summer residences of the Bernese patricians, and in a neighbourhood – also nomenclatically remote from the border – with Chröscherezälg, Heidenbüeli (where a Roman estate once stood), Zigüneregge and Entenried.
In addition, not far from one of the last cowbell foundries in Switzerland and the village church with what is probably the most bizarre history (connected with the Titanic sinking), for which the jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer designed and inaugurated the organ. The high distance from the border therefore does not mean that the Uetendörflers are backwoods. Perhaps, if extreme-point tourism continues to set a precedent, they will soon be the pivot of attention …     •

(Translation Current Concerns)

The extreme points of Switzerland

Highest point: Dufourspitze, Canton of Valais, 4634 m

Lowest point: The mouth of Valmara, Brisago, Canton of Ticino, 193 m

Middle point: Älggialp, Canton of Obwalden, 1645 m

Northernmost point: Schwarze Staa, Bargen, Canton of Schaffhausen, 823 m

Easternmost point: Piz Chavalatsch, Müstair, Canton of Grisons, 2762 m

Southernmost point: Pedrinate, Chiasso, Canton of Ticino, 493 m

Westernmost point: Rhöneufer, Chancy, Canton of Geneva, 333 m

The furthest point from the boundary: Silbermoos, Uetendorf, Canton of Berne, 554 m