The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
11. ALTA VIA 1
Trentino Alto Adige, Italy
Distance: 119 km
Time: 11 days
The French geologist Deodat de Dolomieu travelled to the Dolomites in 1788, and was the first to identify the calcium magnesium carbonate (dolomite) and calcium carbonate (calcite) which together compose these Monti Pallidi, the so-called ‘Pale Mounts’ which we now call the Dolomites in his honour. Or if the science of their colour seems a little dry, why not try the myth - that these pale mountains were once covered in the finest strands of gossamer which spread out and became infused with a beguiling mix of pinkish-orange hues, a tapestry born in moonbeams for a beautiful princess bride in a wonderland of pinnacles, peaks and towers.
These pale mountains, the most ‘hikeable’ on the planet, bring out the poet in us all. They even captured the heart of Reinhold Messner, the world’s most famous mountaineer, who called them, simply, ‘the most beautiful mountains in the world’. But they are mountains that possess a bewildering array of possible trails, and it can be difficult to know where to start. What makes that decision a little easier, however, are the six Alta Via (High Route) trails each of which takes a medium to high altitude and bisects these mountains in a series of north-south lines, varying in length from six days to two weeks, and varying also in difficulty, with routes to suit both novice ramblers and rope-assisted junkies. Alta Via 1 and 2 are the more accessible, with routes 3 to 6 passing through wilder, less populated ranges.
ALTA VIA 1
The Alta Via 1 is the ‘must-do’ trail for the first-time multi-day hiker. A point-to-point trail with clearly defined segments, it passes through the Dolomites’ heart and gets you in among its best-known peaks such as Tofana di Rozes (10,581 ft/3,225 m), Lagazuoi (9,301 ft/2,835 m), Monte Pelmo (10,393 ft/3,168 m), and Monte Civetta (10,560 ft/3,220 m) with its magnificent 3-km-long vertical northwest face, a symbol of the Dolmites that rises to a dizzying 1,200 m. There is no glacier walking or rock climbing involved on Alta Via 1, though there are several sections of rocky and steep ground. Trails are solid and wide with minimal elevation gain/loss, and if you like alpine flowers - and the Dolomites have more than 1,500 species of them - then the best month to go is July, while fauna sightings will invariably include marmots, roe and red deer, chamois and ibex.
Normally walked from north to south, the trail begins at Lago di Braies and after an initial stiff climb to Rifugio Biella (7,545 ft/2,300 m) the trail maintains a gentler gradient as you pass Malga Fanes Grande (6,896 ft/2,102 m). Turning east after reaching Rifugio Lagazuoi you can detour to see a tunnel built by the Italians to attack Austro-Hungarian troops on Lagazuoi summit during World War I. The Dolomites became an unlikely battlefield in that conflict, and mule tracks that were cut into what was the war’s most forbidding theatre complemented the many ancient shepherd’s paths that are today such a vital part of the Alta Via’s trail network.
A rest day should be had in lovely Cortina, a worthwhile detour down into the Ampezzo Valley if only to see the wonderful Rinaldo Zardini Palaeontology Museum with its hundreds of local fossils that remind us the Dolomites were once at the bottom of a vast tropical sea. Back on the Alta Via you now walk to Rifugio Nuvolau (8,448 ft/2,575 m) with its stunning views and more optional routes to the Cinque Torri (Five Towers) above Cortina. An assortment of cables and ladders aid your descent from the rifugio on to a wide, grassy plain before descending into woodlands and yet another detour. This time it is the fabulous Monte Pelmo Circuit, a 42-km loop around Monte Pelmo with its beautiful, arc-like glacial cirque - what the English-born 19th-century author and mountaineer John Ball once called ‘a gigantic fortress of the most massive architecture’ - that can be done in four days.
Rounding Monte Civetta you reach Paso Duran (5,252 ft/1,601 m) over gentle terrain and a good path through remote hills leads to another rifugio before the final serious ascent of the trail takes you to a col beneath the summit of Cime de Zita, before your final night at yet another spectacularly sited rifugio ahead of the final descent through woodlands to La Pissa - and buses to take you to your final destination of Belluno.
The wonder of the Dolomites lies not just in its pinnacles or in the hues of its minerals, but in the very way these mountains are dispersed. Unlike so many of Europe’s Alps they are not laid down in parallel valleys with adjoining ridge lines, but are instead a collection of mountain groups most of which are independent from those about them, mountains that seem to have been randomly scattered across the northern Italian landscape - a randomness that allows for literally hundreds of inter-connecting trails that can have you returning here every year for the rest of your life, each time discovering something new in the world’s most mesmerising calcium carbonate-laden terrain.