If the Alps splay across northern Italy like a crown atop a queen, then the Dolomites in the northeast are the crown jewels.
They’re known in the news for the difficult WWI battles described in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, for the caveman recently found frozen in its glaciers and for the challenging via ferrata, an iron spiked path guiding intrepid hikers along the cliff face.
More than that, the Dolomites are known as one of the most beautiful and unique settings for a host of mountain activities. A UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “vertical walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys” as well as glacial landforms and fossil records, the Dolomites comprises 18 peaks rising nearly 10,000 feet.
The pale gray peaks are a clear picture of earth’s tectonic plates crashing against one another all those millennia ago, creating the natural world’s most breathtaking architecture. Austrian-inspired mountain towns, wildflower meadows and pink-hued sunsets – the Dolomites are some of the most breathtaking mountain landscapes in the entire world.
What to Do
The Dolomites span more than 350,000 acres across Trentino Alto Adige and northern Veneto. Though you can absolutely enjoy the clean mountain air, beautiful views and, of course, thermal spas that dot the area, the real attraction is the action. You’ve got to get into the mountains!
Skiiers, heli-skiiers and snowboarders can enjoy the many slopes in the winter months, while warm-weather visitors can bike, hike, mountain climb, free climb and BASE jump. If that’s not enough, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski in the winter and hang-glide or paraglide nearly year round.
But we’re here for the world-class hiking.
Where to Go
Cultural travelers will want to hit Bolzano (Bolzen, in German), Trento and Merano to taste the area’s mixed-culture heritage. Those looking for jaw-dropping landscapes might follow Fodors Italy road trip suggestion and take the Great Dolomites Road, Grande Strada delle Dolomiti through the heart of the Dolomites from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Hikers, however, have other priorities. There are dozens of ranges to explore in the Dolomites, but perhaps the two most famous are the Sella and the Marmalade. The area has hikes of all difficulties, from family walks to hardcore adventurer. My experience falls somewhere in the middle, with three relatively easy hikes but potentially long days.
Three Example Hikes:
The three hikes below are the only three that I’ve personally done. Though there are dozens and dozens of different trails, routes and climbs, these were the three Marco took me on during our four short days in the Dolomites. All three depart from Val di Fassa, a popular northeastern valley in Trentino.
The highest mountain of the Sella Group, Piz Boè rises 10,341 feet above sea level to form a perfect pyramid. Precariously perched atop the pyramid Capanna Piz Fassa, a small rifugio, or mountain hut, welcomes tired walkers.
Though it’s the highest peak, it’s also generally considered one of the easiest 10,000-plus-foot summits to reach in the Dolomites. Though if someone would have said that to me while I was pulling myself over rocks and dangling from thick iron cords I might have head-butted them…
Typically, you’ll take a cable car from Passo Pordoi up to Sass Pordoi where you’ll already be close to 3,000m, about 9,800 feet. Hence why the actual summit is considered accessible – you’re only 500 feet away! From Sass Pordoi you’ll see the lunar landscape stretch in front of you, the only green visible in glimpses from the clouds covering the valley’s below. Piz Boè is so popular that they’ve created one-way hiking trails. You’ll see people snaking across the plateau and climbing up the pyramid peak all the way from Sass Pordoi.
Once you get to the top look around you: you’re atop a 3,000+ meter mountain directly between the provinces of Bolzano, Trento and Belluno.
But keep in mind: once you make it up, you also have to make your way back down!
Loop around Sasso Piatto
This is one of dozens of potential hikes near and around Sasso Piatto, at 9,740 feet. The rifugio can be reached from Alpe di Siusi, Passo Sella, Val Gardena and Campitello in Val di Fassa, where we started our hike.
We took the ski lift up to rifugio Demetz and immediately started our descent down into the valley to rifugio Vicenza. From there, to my enormous surprise and displeasure, we climbed back up the mountain to the sasso piatto rifugio. How that makes sense I have no idea. The cows stared at us idly as we struggled up the valley face, but the views at the top were worth it.
From Rifugio Sasso Piatto we could see the peaks of Sassopiatto, Marmolada, Sass Pordoi, Alpe di Siusi and many more that I haven’t learned of yet. It was a doozy for my first ever mountain hike – an eight hour day including breaks. It was also immensely satisfying. Just look at those panoramas!
Via del Pan
On the final day, when my legs were aching and my ankles raw and swollen from my brand new hiking boots (ps I don’t recommend breaking in new boots on a big multi-day trip…), we hiked the via del pan. Literally called the “way of bread”, this trail was originally carved out of the mountain by merchants traveling to trade their wares.
It’s a largely flat and easy excursion, good for children and whiny Americans with swollen ankles, like me. It’s also incredibly beautiful. Completely surrounded by green, we hiked through low-hanging clouds until they dispersed enough to see the gorgeous view the hike provides: Marmolada, the highest peak of the Dolomites at 3,342m. She’s the queen of the Dolomites and an absolute beaut.
Two ski lifts up from Canazei, you’ll find yourself at 2,383 meters at Col di Rosc where you’ll start the hike.
When to Go
The joke goes that tourism in the Dolomites runs in two seasons, summer and winter, and that the lodges and restaurants make enough from just those seasons to close the other months of the year. Though there are activities year round, the best time to go hiking in the Dolomites is June through September. Summer is when you’ll find the best weather, the ski lifts will be running and the rifugi will be open.
The further in the season the colder it will be. Research where you’re going first, how high, and what the average temperatures are. Crossing perennial glaciers requires extra care and, often, extra equipment, so come prepared. And even if Rome is sweltering in August, up here you’ll need to bring extra layers to protect from cold, wind and summer storms. Depending on the weather that year or your elevation, it can get downright cold!
How to Get There
The nearest airports are Innsbruck Kranebitten, Bergamo Orio al Serio (mostly in-Europe travel), and Venice Marco Polo. From there you can take shuttle transfers to the train stations to head into the Alps.
The main towns in the Dolomites are connected by train. Bus will serve for any local travel. Check the TrenItalia website for potential routes and stations.
By far the simplest way to get to the Dolomites is by car.
Driving distance from main cities:
From Milan – 4h
From Munich – 3h30
From Venice – 1h30
Though the roads are windy and highways don’t exist, only a car will give you 100 percent freedom to move as you wish, especially if you want to visit Val di Fassa. Read more about Driving in Italy on the blog.
More Dolomites resources: