Hiking in Val Piora

By Serena Pedrioli

The three lakes of Ritom, Tom and Cadagno.

In the heart of the Swiss Alps, the region of Piora, in the northern Canton of Ticino, offers a breathtaking spectacle of alpine lakes. Among these, Lake Ritom (literally: “the lake of the Tom stream”), located in the municipality of Quinto, is a must.

In this article, I will guide you through a one-day itinerary to explore this wonderful region, including Ritom Lake and the nearby Tom and Cadagno Lakes.

Table of Contents

Lake Ritom: the heart of Val Piora

Lake Ritom is a natural gem that stands out in the beautiful Piora region of the Canton of Ticino. With its 1.49 km2, it is the largest mountain lake in the Canton of Ticino. Originating from the glaciation, the lake has undergone several transformations over the decades to exploit its resources in a sustainable way.

Already in 1918, a retaining wall was erected for a road, while in 1950 a 23-metre high water barrier was built. This structure has allowed the use of the lake’s water for the production of electricity, fundamental for the energy supply of the Leventina Valley. 

Lago Ritom, val Piora

The area around Lake Ritom is full of attractions. In 2009, on the right bank of the lake, an educational trail was created that offers an educational experience for both adults and children, allowing them to discover the peculiarities of this unique region. Finally, the proximity to Piotta, accessible via the famous Ritom Funicular, makes this area easily accessible and offers visitors enchanting views that leave you speechless.

How to reach Lake Ritom

To reach Lake Ritom, you have two options: by car or with the Ritom Funicular.

If you opt for a car, follow the A2 motorway to the Piotta exit. From there, follow the signs to the Ritom Funicular and take the detour to Altanca just before reaching the funicular. In about 25 minutes you will reach the parking lot at the dam of Lake Ritom. Keep in mind that this is a mountain road with many curves, overhanging in many points and in the last stretch before the parking the road is one-way. We must therefore proceed with caution and be experts in driving on mountain roads. The parking lot at the dam offers about twenty places for a fee, at a cost of 11 francs for 6 hours of parking. Make sure you have enough coins with you!

The Funicular of Lake Ritom

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The alternative is to leave the car at Piotta and take the Funicular Ritom. This is definitely an unforgettable experience thanks to the panoramic view of the entire Leventina valley that you can admire and the fact that it is one of the steepest funiculars in the world, with a maximum slope of 87.8%. For more information on timetables and prices, visit the website of the Funicular Ritom.

The path of the three lakes

In this itinerary I propose to follow a slightly reduced variation of the enchanting path of the three lakes. Immersed in nature, you will reach Lake Ritom, Lake Tom and Lake Cadagno, then descend again to lego Ritom and walk a part of the educational trail. This route is less frequented than the classic tour of Lake Ritom, preferred by families, and for this much quieter. In addition, you will get a taste of the region thanks to incredible vantage points.

Technical data of the trail

  • Total distance: 8.2 km
  • Total duration: 2:35 hours
  • Elevation gain: 374 m a.s.l.
  • Maximum height: 2’077 m a.s.l.
  • Difficulty: intermediate

From Lake Ritom to Lake Tom

Once you reach the dam of Lake Ritom, proceed left until you reach the detour to go up to Tom Pond. This part of the hike is definitely the most challenging due to the important elevation gain up to 2'022 m a.s.l.. But don’t be discouraged! At the end of the route you will find the quiet Lake Tom. This area is definitely less frequented than the others, so I recommend you stop on the beach of the lake to rest and have a little picnic before continuing with our excursion.

From Lake Tom to Lake Cadagno

After refreshing, proceed towards Lake Cadagno. After a short climb, you will reach this vantage point which in my opinion is the most beautiful of the entire excursion. From here you can admire Lake Cadagno, on the Alpe di Piora, the largest pasture in Italian Switzerland, Capanna Cadagno and of course Lake Ritom. From this point on, the path to Lake Cadagno is downhill.

Lake Cadagno

The lake is unique in the European region thanks to its characteristic of meromissi crenogenica, which leads to the formation of two lakes superimposed in the same body of water, without ever mixing. This phenomenon is the subject of constant observation by the Alpine Biology Center of Piora, located near the lake. Every year, more than 2000 researchers from all over Europe and the United States take turns in the centre to study this phenomenon on the spot.

The lake has a depth of about twenty meters. The upper part is composed of clear and fresh waters, with a depth of about 8 meters. The lower part, however, is characterized by highly saline water that contains hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and other toxic compounds, making it inhospitable for any form of life. Between these two layers, known as chemocline, is a layer of about two meters of intense red water, caused by the presence of the bacterium Chromatium okenii. This bacterium, along with other organisms, thrives under conditions of light, hydrogen sulfide and absence of oxygen. In this particular ecological niche, the bacterium transforms toxic chemical compounds, making the water of the upper part of the lake perfectly drinkable and suitable for the aquatic life typical of mountain lakes. The lake is mainly fed by sulphurous springs on the bottom, rather than by surface inputs, and this makes it an important object of study for its nature as a natural purifier.

Descent from Lake Cadagno to Ritom

At this point it is time to descend towards Lake Ritom. The route, in this part of the hike becomes very steep, with many curves and no protections. If you suffer from vertigo or are hiking with children I recommend you to lengthen the path a little and get off the road, wider and less steep. The view of the clear waters of the Ritom is breathtaking. When the water level is low, a beautiful beach emerges from the clear sand, almost we were in the tropics. Many stop to sunbathe and take a bath in the icy waters.

The Ritom didactic Nature Trail

We resume the clockwise tour of Lake Ritom. Proceeding to the left, you will cross a tunnel and then find yourself on the educational trail located along the right bank of Lake Ritom. 

Created in 2009, the educational trail takes you to the Ritom dam. It is a flat path, surrounded by vegetation and with an incredible view of Lake Ritom. Along the route there are panels illustrating aspects of human presence, the exceptional flora, fauna and geological and bio-chemical particularities of the Ritom-Piora Region. A complementary educational guide to these panels can be obtained at the Ritom funicular station, or at the public establishments of the Region, for 2.00 CHF.

Practical information

During the winter period (October-May) the Ritom Funicular is closed. This year it will be reopened on 18.05.2024!

The fauna and flora of this region are protected. Therefore it is forbidden to collect flowers or rocks.

You can fish in the alpine lakes in the period from 2 June to 6 October for those who have a valid fishing license. The most common fish are: rainbow trout, brown trout, Canadian trout, char and char. I recommend: always pay attention to the signs because in some areas fishing is not allowed.

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