Sternenberg und das Züri-Oberland, abfahrt von Zürich

A long but beautiful tour of the Zürcher Oberland, taking in three lakes, a steam train, and a fun descent (and the ascent!) from Sternenberg, a small village.

Total distance: 117095 m
Max elevation: 867 m
Total climbing: 1710 m
Total descent: -1689 m
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Location & Terrain

The Zürcher Oberland is a region of small mountains – by Swiss standards – in the south east corner of the canton of Zürich. Seen from high points around Lake Zürich itself, its crumpled terrain stands in stark contrast to the flat plateau to the north, or the heights of Alps to the south west. The highest point in the canton, Schnebelhorn (at 1,292m), is here.

Most of the route is on low-traffic roads or has segregated cycle tracks/quiet shared paths. There are a couple of short gravel sections, but these pose no problems for a road bike. The middle of the route has two sustained climbs – one up to the small village of Sternenberg, and the other climbing to the head of the Töss valley, before descending again towards Zürich.

Main Route

The route shown here starts from Zürich HB, ending back in Zürich by the Opera House. Sections of this route can be done individually, for shorter days out, by taking the train.

Get out of the City

From Zürich HB you have three options at the start (option 2 is on the GPX above):

1) Follow signed route 45, which winds its way up the left hand side of the Limmat, before crossing where the rivers Sihl and Limmat meet. It then winds its way up Züriberg – with some mild gravel sections – before, eventually, arriving at Bahnhof Stettbach. If you have the time (and a bell on your bike) it’s a pleasant route, and avoids the worst of the main roads on the route.

2) Take a main-road route. Head straight across Walchebrücke and up Walchestrasse, following the tram line up hill. Despite the poor plotting on the GPX (too many tall buildings!), follow the obvious line of the road and the trams straight ahead. Soon enough, the occasional poor overtakes from impatient Zürich traffic will give way to a shared path. This route briefly rejoins 45, so keep an eye out for the right turn just before Guggachstrasse tram stop. Almost immediately you arrive at a large junction where the signs have gone missing, but should turn left to head down a one-way street with cycle contraflow, crossing tramlines by Irchel tram stop to arrive on a gravel path. Turn right on this gravel path. The signs for 45 here make no sense, so continue to the corner with the road and turn left, biking on a shared path next to the road until arriving at a crossing. Use the crossing to cross the main road (highway 1) – now you’re on the right side of the road, just bike along it. After a series of traffic lights and a bus lane appearing, keep an eye out for a marked cycle sign to Dübendorf, turning off on the right. This takes you off the main road briefly, then tries to make you cross it – instead, when you come to the main road crossing, turn right and follow the tram line again. This is a long straight road all the way to Bahnhof Stettbach, where you’ve escaped the worst of the city.

3) Take the train to Bahnhof Stettbach. Trains leave Zürich HB every 5-10 minutes, and take 8 minutes to get there. This takes 8km and some ascent off the route.

Greifensee

From Bhf. Stettbach, pick up route 29 to take you alongside Greifensee (which will be on your right), the first lake of the day. This route is mostly separated from motor traffic. At one point it dives into a shared area with lots of pedestrians, by taking a sharp (90 degree) right turn by a water/sewage works. If you wish, as we did, you can continue straight: there’s a road route with no pedestrians, which naturally joins up with 29 a bit later. Just remember to turn right at the roundabout to keep the lake on your right hand side.

Greifensee
Greifensee from Route 29, with the Alps rising behind

Greifensee itself is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, due to a former ‘pile dwelling’ village (houses on stilts!) on its lake shore. The stilts are now 4-7 metres underwater due to the expansion of the lake over time, so there’s not much to see from the roadside.

Keep following route 29 to Mönchaltorf, taking in the mountain views in the distance. At Mönchaltorf you’ll see signs for cycle route 41. You must make sure to take 41 north, towards Fischental. Do not go to Meilen, you’ll be there at the end of the trip. Route 41 takes you through open fields, where the view of the Alps opens up, as the lumpy hills around Zürich stop blocking the view. Enjoy the ride! There are a couple of small climbs, but this is fine biking territory: great views, quiet streets, and enough up and down to make things interesting.

Continuing on Route 41, you’ll cut through the corner of Wetzikon on your way to lake number 2.

Pfäffikersee

Shortly after Wetzikon you’ll get the distinct impression you’re cycling through a marsh. Because you are. Route 41 continues round the south east side of Pfäffikersee, on a well-made gravel path through the marshland, with the lake itself – on sunny day – a shimmering blue disc in the distance. For a slight detour, but closer to the lake, you can take route 210 around the west side then pick up 41 again, as it leaves the lake on the north east side.

Heading out of the lake area, What follows is a very short urban stint through Pfäffikon, ZH. There are two Pfäffikons which may appear on route signs during this trip, one in Schwyz (SZ), one in Zürich (ZH) – don’t get them confused, as one is up in the Zürcher Oberland and the other is on the south west side of Lake Zürich.

Climbing from Pfäffikon ZH on 41, look to your right for a cracking view of Pfäffikersee and the Alps.

Looking back to Pfäffikersee

Tösstal

By now your legs will have noticed the climbing, reaching 640m at the town of Hittnau. A long descent follows, scrubbing off all the height you gained in the previous climb, but delivering you rapidly into the heart of the Zürcher Oberland, the Töss valley and its surrounding hills. Arriving at Saland, turn right, following a shared path on the left side of the road until the bridge over the river. Turn left over the bridge, and prepare to climb!

Sternenberg

From the extremely-well endowed sign posts and the next junction, continue straight on route 41, which is also signposted to Sternenberg. Over the next 6km you’ll climb from 610m to 870m on a well-made forest road, with some steep hairpins and corners. If you’re especially (un)lucky, you’ll get overtaken by an old Swiss couple on their laden touring bikes, while you’re wheezing your light road bike up the hill.

The village itself comes into view shortly before the top of the ascent, providing some much needed extra motivation. We climbed up to the church, but the keen can continue climbing to 885m and the junction with road to Bauma.

Alas, I did not manage to take a picture at the top, so will have to go again.

Refreshments are available in Sternenberg, at Gasthaus Sternen (closed Monday and Tuesday, but open the rest of the week and at the weekends). Following a fire at the end of 2016 which destroyed the building, they reopened in April 2017 in temporary accommodation.

Descending Sternenberg

There are several ways up and down Sternenberg: we started from the west, and decided the road looked so much fun we should go back down it. It’s a long descent with good sight lines, some interesting corners and enough space to overtake most slower moving traffic. Though, we did get held up by a car only doing 70kph when we descended. Make sure your brakes work, there are some sharp bends amongst the long straights!

An alternative from the church at Sternenberg is to continue to the junction with the road to Bauma. The descent this way looks steeper and busier, so may provide more of a technical challenge for those that way inclined. The aforementioned Swiss couple descended this way and survived.

Bauma

If you doubled-back at Sternenberg, turn left at the the junction you passed earlier, joining route 53 to Rapperswil/Jona. A paved off-road route takes you to Bauma. If you directly descended to Bauma, congratulations, you’re ahead of us.

Bauma is home to the Dampfbahn-Verein Zürcher Oberland (Zürcher Oberland Steam Train Society). If you pass through during operating days – every first and third Sunday between May and October – keep an eye, an ear and a nose out for the sight, sound and smell of their steam locomotive, ‘Schwyz’.

Returning to Zürichsee

From Bauma, route 53 continues climbing the Töss valley, flanked by hills, reaching 760m at Gibswil (there are toilets at the station here). The good news is, that’s most of the climbing done until just before the end of the trip. From Gibswil, continue following signs for route 53 all the way to Jona, enjoying the fast descents on smooth roads with beautiful vistas. At one point, there’s a 70kph+ road descent with a sign that directs you off the road and onto a parallel track – it’s absolutely fine to carry on down the road, and move to the track when you’ve slowed down.

The Gold Coast

Arriving in Jona, pick up signs for Meilen, then join route 66, the Gold Coast route. Lake Zürich’s eastern shore is known as the “Goldküste”, as its location means it receives sunlight until the very end of the day, the (expensive) houses and apartment buildings glowing gold when viewed from the surrounding hills.

Along the way, a short section of fast but reasonably quiet road provides views over to the medieval town of Rapperswil, across our third lake, Zürichsee. Rapperswil’s castle pokes up above the tree line, while the Schwyz and Glarus Alps rise behind. Rapperswil itself is worth a visit, but we’ll do that on another trip.

The historic buildings of Rapperswil with the Alps behind

Views of the lake continue throughout the winding back streets, staying away from the main road. If you get fed up with the frequent ascents and descents on route 66, descend to the road at the bottom by the lake shore, which has a cycle lane. It’s busy, but may be preferable if your legs are getting too tired.

As you enter Zürich, continue to follow 66 to return to Zürich HB, or follow signs to Enge to drop by the Opera House.

Now have an ice cream, you deserve it.

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