Lakes of the Alps

The largest, deepest and highest mountain lakes of the Alps

The estimated 3,000-4,000 lakes in the alpine region are characterized by a great diversity and some of them are even surrounded by legends. What all alpine lakes have in common, though, is that they are always worth a visit. We will introduce you to some of the largest, most beautiful, highest situated and most legendary lakes. 

Die längsten Flüsse der Alpen

The formation of mountain lakes 

The alpine landscape, with its green mountain pastures, impressive rock formations and snow-capped mountain peaks, can’t be imagined without its numerous deep blue and beautiful lakes. Some lakes are located high above sea level close to the summits whereas others can be found in the alpine foothills. There are shallow and deep lakes, large and small lakes, and naturally or artificially created lakes.

The formation of mountain lakes can be a result of many different causes. However geologically seen, lakes are a relatively short-lived natural event. The origin of the lakes in the alpine region can be traced back mostly to the last ice age. 

Due to the melting of glaciers and the remaining moraine material, troughs formed on the earth’s surface and filled up with water, which was in abundance, to become lakes. Had there not been enough water, these landscapes would have turned into bogs.

Kettle-shaped depressions, the so-called cirques, also formed due to glacier erosion and subsequently filled up with water. Since the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, new lakes have continued to be created in the same way.

Other than through glaciers, the formation of lakes can also be caused by mountain slides, i.e. by the breaking off of rock material. If the debris blocks flowing water, it will lead to the formation of a natural dam. Not only natural lakes but artificial reservoirs, such as the Reschensee in the Vinschgau region, can be found as well. These waterbodies were mostly created in the 20th century and primarily serve to generate power.

Discover and learn more about the alpine landscape with our Book of the Alps

The largest, deepest and highest mountain lakes

The largest lakes in the alpine region are mainly located on the edge of the Alps or at the alpine foothills. This also applies to Lake Geneva, situated on the French-Swiss border, which has, with an area of 580 sq. km., the largest surface. Lake Constance, which extends to the border triangle between Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is with a size of 536 sq. km. only imperceptibly smaller. On the southern foothills of the Alps, covering a significantly smaller area of 370 sq. km., lies Lake Garda, the third largest lake of the alpine foreland. 

However, the largest lakes don’t necessarily have to be the deepest, although Lake Garda is with a depth of 346 meters in third place again. Only the other two northern Italian lakes, Lake Maggiore with a depth of 372 meters and Lake Como with a depth of 425 meters, are deeper. Lake Como is a typical example of a lake created by glacial retreat. In its striking Y-shape, the outlines of the former southerly located glacier tongue can still be seen.

Also located in the Italian Alps, in the Vinschgau region amidst the three-thousanders, at an altitude of 3,188 meters, lies the Matscherjochsee, which is presumably the highest alpine lake there is.

The Eibsee below the Zugspitze at an altitude of 970 meters is considered Germany’s highest lake. With beautiful turquoise blue water and surrounded by forests, the lake complements a picture-postcard view of the Alps.

Myths and legends about the mountain lakes of the Alps

Lake Braies in South Tyrol is another particularly beautiful and popular lake. It was not formed by glacial melting, but by natural damming caused by a huge mudslide and debris avalanche. However, there is another story about the origin of Lake Braies. Legend has it that the region was once inhabited by savages who looked like mountains. They were in the possession of precious goods like gold and gemstones. Herdsmen from the valley started grazing their animals on the land of the savages and befriended them. The savages shared some of their valuable possessions with the shepherds. Over time, however, the shepherds became greedy and began to steal valuables from them. To prevent this, the lake opened up and the savages sank all their treasures into it.

Many other alpine lakes come with interesting legends. Lake Carezza in South Tyrol, which is protected as a nature reserve, is said to have received its impressive, shimmering blue because of the following reason: A warlock once fell in love with a mermaid living in the lake. He tried to catch the mermaid in order to woo her. Not only did the mermaid decline his love but she also kept escaping into the depths of the lake. The warlock asked another witch for help. She advised him to dress up as a jeweler and conjure up a rainbow to the massif of Latemar located behind the lake. This would help him to lure back the mermaid. The warlock put this plan into practice, but forgot to dress up, causing the mermaid to see through his plan. She has remained hidden in the depths of the lake ever since.. In a fit of anger, the warlock threw the rainbow and the jewels to the bottom of the lake, giving it its magnificent rainbow colors.

Somewhat less fantastic myths surround Lake Starnberg near Munich, in the floods of which the Bavarian King Ludwig II, the builder of Neuschwanstein Castle, lost his life. To date it remains unclear under which circumstances the king died and whether it was an act of suicide. He is still commemorated annually on his birthday, where a light is put up on the cross in Lake Starnberg.

Only 40 kilometers further south, but still in Bavaria, another legendary waterbody can be found, Lake Walchen. It is said to be connected with the ocean underground. The reason for the assumption is the earthquake of 1755, which almost razed the City of Lisbon to the ground. Strangely enough, large waves appeared on Lake Walchen during the quake, which is why a connection between the two events was concluded.

You can find all of the above mountain lakes on our maps: