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Satellite image of Switzerland in October 2002.
On the north side of the Alps, the regions located above 2000 m are covered by snow.
The canton of Ticino (on the south side) is almost snow-free in early autumn.

The Swiss Alps ( , , , ) are the portion of the Alps mountain range that lies within Switzerlandmarker. Because of their central position with the entire Alpine range, they are also known as the Central Alps.

The highest summit in the Swiss Alps is the Dufourspitzemarker (4,634 metres (15,202 ft)) near the Swiss-Italian border. The highest mountain which lies entirely on Swiss territory is the Dommarker (4,545 metres (14,911 ft)). Other main summits can be found in the list of mountains in Switzerland.

Since the Middle Ages, transit across the Alps played an important role in history. The region north of the St. Gotthard Passmarker became the birthplace of the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291.


The Alps cover 65% of Switzerland's surface area (41,285 km²), making her one of the most alpine countries. Despite the fact that Switzerland covers only 14% of the Alps total area (192,753 km²), many alpine four-thousanders (48 of 82) are located in the Swiss Alps and the remaining few are within 20 km of the country's border.

The glaciers of the Swiss Alps cover an area of 1230 km² (3% of the Swiss territory), representing 44% of the total glaciated area in the Alps (2800 km²).

The Swiss Alps are situated south of the Swiss plateau and north of the national border. The limit between the Alps and the plateau runs from Veveymarker on the shores of Lake Genevamarker to Rorschachmarker on the shores of Lake Constancemarker, passing close to the cities of Thunmarker and Lucernemarker.

The countries with which Switzerland shares mountain ranges of the Alps are (from west to east): Francemarker, Italymarker, Austriamarker and Liechtensteinmarker.


The Alps are usually divided into two main parts, the Western Alps and Eastern Alpsmarker, whose division is along the Rhinemarker from Lake Constance to the Splügen Passmarker. The western ranges occupy the greatest part of Switzerland while the more numerous eastern ranges are much smaller and are all situated in the canton of Graubündenmarker. The latter are part of the Central Eastern Alps, except the Ortler Alpsmarker which belong to the Southern Limestone Alps. The Penninemarker, Bernesemarker and Bernina Rangemarker are they highest ranges of the country, they contain respectively 38, 9 and 1 summit over 4000 meters. The lowest range is the Appenzell Alps culminating at 2,500 meters.

(*) situated out of the main chain

Western Alps
Map of the western Swiss Alps
Location Range Cantons Notable peaks East limit
From west to east, north of Rhone and Rhinemarker
Bernese Alpsmarker* Vaudmarker, Fribourgmarker, Valaismarker, Bernemarker Finsteraarhornmarker, Jungfraumarker, Eigermarker Grimsel Passmarker
Urner Alps* Urimarker, Bernmarker, Valaismarker, Lucernemarker, Obwaldenmarker, Nidwaldenmarker Dammastockmarker, Titlismarker Reuss river
Glarus Alpsmarker* Urimarker, Glarusmarker, Graubündenmarker Tödimarker, Glärnischmarker Seeztalmarker
Appenzell Alps* Appenzell Innerrhodenmarker, Appenzell Ausserrhodenmarker, St. Gallenmarker Säntismarker Rhinemarker
From west to east, south of Rhone and Rhinemarker
Chablais Alpsmarker Valaismarker Dents du Midimarker Arvemarker
Mont Blanc Massif Valaismarker Aiguille d'Argentièremarker Col Ferretmarker
Pennine Alpsmarker Valaismarker Dufourspitzemarker, Weisshornmarker, Matterhornmarker Simplon Passmarker
Lepontine Alpsmarker Valaismarker, Ticinomarker, Urimarker Graubündenmarker, Monte Leonemarker, Rheinwaldhornmarker Splügen Passmarker

Eastern Alps
Map of the eastern Swiss Alps
Location Range Notable peaks
From west to east, north of Mera and Inn rivermarker
Oberhalbsteinmarker Piz Plattamarker
Plessur* Aroser Weisshornmarker
Albula Piz Keschmarker, Piz Lunghinmarker
Rätikonmarker* Schesaplanamarker
Silvrettamarker* Piz Linardmarker, Piz Buinmarker
Samnaun Alps* Muttlermarker
From west to east, south of Mera and Inn rivermarker
Bregagliamarker Cima di Castellomarker, Piz Badilemarker
Berninamarker Piz Berninamarker, Piz Rosegmarker
Albula Piz Keschmarker, Piz Lunghinmarker
Livignomarker Piz Paradisinmarker
Ortler Alpsmarker* Piz Murtarölmarker
Sesvennamarker Piz Sesvennamarker



The north side of the Swiss Alps is drained by the Rhone, Rhinemarker and Inn rivermarker (which is part of the Danube basin) while the south side is mainly drained by the Ticino rivermarker (Po basin). The rivers on the north empty into the Mediterraneanmarker, Northmarker and Black Seamarker, on the south the Po empty in the Adriatic Seamarker. The major triple watersheds in the Alps are located within the country, they are: Piz Lunghinmarker, Witenwasserenstockmarker and Monte Forcolamarker. Between the Witenwasserenstock and Piz Lunghin runs the European Watershedmarker separating the basin of the Atlanticmarker (North Sea) and the Mediterranean Sea (Adriatic and Black Sea). The European watershed lies in fact only partially on the main chain. Switzerland possesses 6% of Europe's fresh water, and is sometimes referred to as the "water tower of Europe".


Since the highest dams are located in Alpine regions, many large mountain lakes are artificial and are used as hydroelectric reservoirs. Some large artificial lakes can be found above 2,300 m, but natural lakes larger than 1 km² are generally below 1,000 m (with the exceptions of lakes in the Engadinmarker such as Lake Silsmarker, and Oeschinenmarker in the Bernese Oberland). The melting of low-altitude glaciers can generate new lakes, such as the 0.25 km² large Triftseemarker which formed between 2002–2003.

Land elevation

The following table gives the surface area above 2000 m and 3000 m and the respective percentage on the total area of each canton whose high point is above 2000 metres.

Canton Land above 2000m in km² Land above 2000m in % Land above 3000m in km² Land above 3000m in %
Appenzell Ausserrhodenmarker 1 0.4 0 0
Appenzell Innerrhodenmarker 4 2.3 0 0
Bernemarker 887 15 100 1.7
Fribourgmarker 14 0.8 0 0
Glarusmarker 213 31 4 0.6
Graubündenmarker 4296 60 111 1.6
Lucernemarker 4 0.3 0 0
Nidwaldenmarker 20 7 0 0
Obwaldenmarker 66 13 1 0.2
Schwyzmarker 69 8 0 0
St. Gallen 184 9 1 0.05
Ticinomarker 781 28 2 0.07
Urimarker 562 52 19 1.8
Valaismarker 2595 50 697 13
Vaudmarker 92 3 1 0.03
Switzerlandmarker 9788 24 936 2.3


Lauterbrunnental Valley in the Bernese Alps, a U-shaped valley resulted from the erosion of glaciers

The composition of the great tectonic units reflects the history of the formation of the Alps. The rocks from the Helvetic zone on the north and the Austroalpine nappes - Southern Alps on the south come originally from the European and African continent respectively. The rocks of the Penninic nappes belong to the former area of the Briançonnais microcontinent and the Tethys Ocean. The closure of the latter by subduction under the African plate (Piemont Ocean first and Valais Ocean later) preceded the collision between the two plates and the so-called alpine orogeny. The major thrust fault of the Tectonic Arena Sardonamarker in the eastern Glarus Alps gives a visible illustration of mountain-building processes.

With some exceptions, the Alps north of Rhone and Rhine rivermarker are part of the Helvetic Zone and those on the south side are part of the Penninic nappes. The Austroalpine zone concerns almost only the Eastern Alps, with the notable exception of the Matterhornmarker.

The last glaciations greatly transformed Switzerland’s landscape. Many valleys of the Swiss Alps are U-shaped due to glacial erosion. During the maximum extension of the Würm glaciation (18,000 years ago) the glaciers completely covered the Swiss Plateau, before retreating and leaving remnants only in high mountain areas. In modern times the Aletsch Glaciermarker in the western Bernese Alps is the largest and longest in the Alps, having a length of 23 km and a maximum depth of 900 metres (2953 ft) at Konkordiamarker. Along with the Fieschermarker and Aar Glaciers the region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

Environment and climate

To protect endengered species some sites have been brought under protection. The Swiss National Parkmarker in Graubünden was established in 1914 as the first alpine national park. The Entlebuchmarker area was designated a biosphere reserve in 2001. The largest protected area in the country is the Parc Ela, opened in 2006, which covers an area of 600 square kilometers. The Jungfrau-Aletsch Protected Area is the first World Heritage Site in the Alps.

Climate zones

As the temperature decreases with altitude (0,56°C per 100 metres on yearly average), three different altitudinal zones, each having distinct climate, are found in the Swiss Alps:

  • Subalpine zone
Tree line in the National park
The Subalpine zone is the region which lies below the tree line. It is the most important region as it is the larger of the three and contains almost all human settlements as well as the productive areas. The forests are mainly composed by conifers above 1,200-1,400 metres, the deciduous tree forest being confined to lower elevations. The upper limit of the Subalpine zone is located at about 1,800 metres on the north side of the Alps and at about 2,000 metres on the south side. It can however differ in some regions such as the Appenzell Alps (1,600 metres) or the Engadin valley (2,300 metres).

  • Alpine zone
The Alpine zone (Tundra) is situated above the tree line and is exempt of tree because of low average temperatures. It contains mostly grass and small plants along with mountain flowers. Below the permafrost limit (at about 2,600 metres), the alpine meadows are often used as pastures. Some villages can still be found on the lowest altitudes such as Riederalpmarker (1,940 m) or Jufmarker (2,130 m). The extend of Alpine zone is limited by the first permanent snow, its altitude greatly vary depending on the location (and orientation), it is comprised between 2,800 and 3,200 metres.

  • Glacial zone
The glacial zone is the area of permanent snow and ice. When the steepness of the slope is not too high it results in an accumulation and compaction of snow, which transforms into ice. The glacier formed then flows down the valley and can reach as far down as 1,500 metres (the Upper Grindelwald Glaciermarker). Where the slopes are too steep, the snow accumulates to form overhanging seracs, which periodically fall off due to the downwards movement of the glacier and cause ice avalanches. The Bernese Alps, Pennine Alps and Mont Blanc Massif contain most of the glaciated areas in the Alps. Except research stations such as the Sphinx Observatorymarker no settlements are to be found in those regions.

Travel and tourism

Tourism in the Swiss Alps began with the first ascents of the main peaks of the Alps (Jungfraumarker in 1811, Piz Berninamarker in 1850, Dufourspitzemarker in 1855, Matterhornmarker in 1856, Dommarker in 1858, Weisshornmarker in 1861) mostly by British mountain climbers accompanied by the local guides. The construction of facilities for tourists started in the mid nineteenth century with the building of hotels and mountain huts (creation of the Swiss Alpine Club in 1863) and the opening of mountain train lines (Mount Rigimarker in 1873, Mount Pilatusmarker in 1889, Gornergratmarker in 1898). The Jungfraubahn opened in 1912; it leads to the highest train station in Europe, the Jungfraujochmarker.

Summer tourism

Switzerland enjoys a 62,000-km network of well-maintained trails, of which 23,000 are located in mountainous areas. Many mountains attract a large number of alpinists from around the world, especially the 4000-metre summits and the great north faces. The large winter resorts are also popular destinations in summer, as most of aerial tramways operate through the year, enabling hikers and mountaineers to reach high altitudes without much effort. The Klein Matterhornmarker is the highest summit of the European continent to be served by cable car.

Winter tourism

Highest ski area in Europe above Zermatt
The major destinations for skiing and other winter sports are located in Valaismarker, Bernese Oberlandmarker and Graubündenmarker. Some villages are car-free and can be accessed only with public transports such as Riederalpmarker and Bettmeralpmarker. Zermattmarker and Saas-Feemarker have both summer ski areas. The most visited places are:

Thanks to a car-free policy, Zermatt retains much of its original character

Other important destinations on the regional level are Engelbergmarker and Andermattmarker (Central Switzerland), Leysinmarker (Vaud), Champérymarker (western Valais) and Samnaunmarker (eastern Graubünden).


The Swiss Alps and Switzerland enjoy an extensive transportation network. Every mountain village can be reached by public transport, the main companies are:

Most of mountain regions are within 3 hours travel of Switzerland’s main cities and their respective airport. The Engadinmarker Valley in Graubündenmarker is between 4 to 6 hours away from the large cities; the train journey itself, with the panoramic Glacier Expressmarker or Bernina Expressmarker, is popular with tourists.

The Engadin Airportmarker near St. Moritzmarker at an altitude of 1,707 metres (5,600 ft) is the highest in Europe.

The crossing of the Alps is a key issue at national and international levels, as the European continent is at places divided by the range. Since the beginnings of industrialization Switzerland has improved its transalpine network; it began in 1882, by building the Gotthard Rail Tunnel, followed in 1906 by the Simplon Tunnel and more recently, in 2007, by the Lötschberg Base Tunnel. The 57-km long Gotthard Base Tunnel is slated to be open in 2016, and it will finally provide a direct flat rail link through the Alps.


The different names of the mountains and other landforms are named in the four national languages. The table below gives the most recurrent names.

English German French Italian Romansh Examples
Mount Berg, Stock Mont Monte Munt Gamsbergmarker, Dammastockmarker, Mont Vélanmarker, Monte Generosomarker, Munt Persmarker
Summit Gipfel Cime Cima Tschima Grenzgipfelmarker, Cima di Gana Biancamarker, Tschima da Flixmarker
Peak Spitze Pointe, Pic Pizzo Piz Lenzspitzemarker, Pointe de Zinalmarker, Pizzo Campo Tenciamarker, Piz Rosegmarker
Needle Nadel Aiguille Ago Ago Nadelhornmarker, Aiguille d'Argentièremarker, Ago di Scioramarker
Horn Horn Corne Corno Corn Wetterhornmarker, Corne de Soreboismarker, Corn da Tinizongmarker
Tower Turm Tour Torre not used Tour Sallièremarker, Torrone Altomarker
Head Kopf Tête Testa not used Bürkelkopfmarker, Tête Blanchemarker
Ridge Grat Crêt Cresta Fil Gornergratmarker, Crêt du Midimarker, Fil de Cassonsmarker
Glacier Gletscher, Firn Glacier Ghiacciaio Vadret Unteraargletschermarker, Hüfifirnmarker, Glacier de Corbassièremarker, Ghiacciaio del Basodinomarker, Vadret da Morteratschmarker
Valley Tal Val Valle, Val Val Mattertalmarker, Val d'Hérensmarker, Valle Maggiamarker
Pass Pass, Joch Col, Pas Passo Pass Jungfraujochmarker, Panix Passmarker, Pas de Chevillemarker

Also a large number of peaks outside the Alps were named or nicknamed after Swiss mountains, such as the Wetterhorn Peakmarker in Coloradomarker or the Matterhorn Peakmarker in Californiamarker (see the Matterhorn article for a list of Matterhorns in the world).

The confluence of the Baltoro Glaciermarker and the Godwin-Austen Glacier south of K2marker in the Karakorammarker range was named after the Konkordiaplatzmarker by European explorers.


File:Eiger, Mönch und Jungfrau.jpg|Eigermarker, Mönchmarker and Jungfraumarker, Bernese AlpsImage:Weissmies.jpg|The Weissmiesmarker from Hohsaasmarker, Pennine AlpsFile:Matterhornnorth.jpg|The Matterhornmarker, Pennine AlpsImage:AiguilledArgentière.jpg|The Aiguille d'Argentièremarker above the Saleina Glaciermarker, Mont Blanc MassifImage:Oberaarsee.jpg|Oberaar Glaciermarker, Bernese AlpsFile:Aletschhorn from Konkordia.jpg|Aletsch Glaciermarker, Bernese AlpsFile:Morteratsch.jpg|Morteratsch Glaciermarker and Piz BerninamarkerImage:Jungfrau503.jpg|Jungfraujochmarker, Bernese AlpsFile:Pizzo Badile.jpg|Piz Badilemarker, Bregaglia RangeImage:Bachalpseeflowers.jpg|Bachalpseemarker, Bernese AlpsFile:Berner Alpen.jpg|Finsteraarhornmarker, Bernese AlpsImage:GrandCombin3.jpg|The Grand Combinmarker, Pennine AlpsFile:Steingletscher.jpg|Stein Glaciermarker from Susten Passmarker, Urner AlpsImage:ValRoseg.jpg|Piz Rosegmarker and Val Roseg, Bernina RangeFile:Val d'Hérens.jpg|The Dent Blanchemarker, Pennine AlpsImage:ValaisAlps.jpg|Summits around the Mattertalmarker, Pennine Alps

See also





  1. Werner Bätzing, Henri Rougier, Les Alpes: Un foyer de civilisation au coeur de l'Europe, page 21, ISBN 2606002946
  2. Area defined by the Alpine Convention (website:
  3. According to the limit defined by the Alpine Convention
  4. Die Kantone nach ihren höchsten Punkten Various highest and lowest elevation values by canton (village center, road or rail network, etc.)
  5. Nature parks
  6. There are in total 9 car-free villages members of the GAST (Gemeinschaft Autofreier Tourismusorte): Bettmeralp, Braunwald, Riederalp, Rigi, Saas-Fee, Stoos, Wengen, Mürren and Zermatt.
  7. Davos, la station la plus fréquentée de Suisse

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