The Dolomites are a huge mountain range in northeastern Italy, near the border of Austria. In 2009, this protected area of natural beauty was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once you visit this part of Italy, you’ll understand why. In the winter, the region of the Alto Adige, also called South Tyrol offers a wide variety of world class ski runs and cross country ski trails. In the summer, these scenic runs become a hiker’s paradise.
There are several provinces that are home to this dramatic range of jagged peaks. For our introduction to the Dolomites, we chose the Alto Adige region, not far from the city of Bolzano. All of the hikes we did this past June are found in the Val Gardena, a scenic valley that has three towns with great lodgings and plenty of trailheads. Although we rented a car, we realized that we could have used public transportation. The trains pass through Bolzano, and from there, it’s easy to catch a bus to the towns nearby, such as the ones in the Val Gardena. For our week of hiking, we chose the smallest town called Santa Cristina. The other two towns of Ortisei and Selva are larger and a bit more active, but all of the towns are quite small and easily walkable.
The Rasciesa Funicular
The hiking season usually starts in mid-June, depending on how harsh the winter and spring have been. This year in Italy, the winter was long and their spring was one of the coldest on record. When we arrived on June 1, most hotels were not open yet and just a few of the funiculars were running. When the season is in full swing, there are more services available, such as the restaurants and hotels, lifts for hiking and shuttle busses for the hiking trails. However, we had plenty of choices for hikes and no lines to wait in for the three lifts that were running that week.
The Alpine Meadows of the Alpe di Suise hike
On one day, we rode the bus to Ortisei and took the Alpe di Suise lift high up into the mountains to start our hike at 6,500 feet. We had the choice of several directions, but we chose to walk the valley back towards the east to our base town in the Val Gardena. Another option is to head west, towards the town of Castlerotto, a quaint, but popular hill town. We had a peaceful and easy walk in a beautiful, green valley with views of the craggy Sassolunga range. This trail passes by several refuges, which offer great food and facilities when they are open. Most have a huge deck where you can sit and enjoy the views while having a hearty lunch. After some time in the sunny meadows the trail winds down through a cool forest and makes a gentle and pleasant descent back down to the town of Santa Cristina. During our three hours on the trail, we saw only about three other groups of hikers. There were so many options for hiking that we were by ourselves for most of our hike.
Walking from Selva to the Vallunga trail
Another very easy hike starts in Selva, located just four kilometers past Santa Cristina. From the center of town, head north and you’ll find the Vallunga, a very long valley that is part of the parks system. Once you pass the military compound, there’s a large parking lot with a handy cafe. After a strong espresso or snack, you’re ready to go.
The Long Valley
The trail is mostly flat, but it slowly climbs up the valley towards the mountains. There are several refuges (rifugio, in Italian) with lodging options for those who want to venture up, deeper into the Dolomites for several days or weeks. From what we saw on our hikes, the refuges range from quaint B&B lodges to more elegant hotels with hot tubs and swimming pools. It’s a different world of hiking over here.
More Valley Views
The day we hiked the Vallunga, we saw a few school groups and several families of hikers. In full season, this would probably be a more crowded spot. But on our return, we found some side trails in the woods that allow you to avoid the main path. During the winter, this is a fantastic cross-country ski area with great signage for the different trails.
After a lazy hike in this pleasant valley, the town of Selva is a perfect spot for lunch. There are plenty of good restaurants in this mid-sized ski town. Most of the restaurants have outdoor seating and a choice of Italian or Tyrollean food. If the weather is good, the town is full of cyclists who ride a popular route from the Veneto region up into the Dolomites. In the summer time, these towns are always hosting some sort of athletic event. There’s even an official website for their activities at http://www.valgardena-active.com.
On the Passeggiata Trail
After lunch, you can take a bus back to your town or take a pleasant walk using the Val Gardena’s convenient and scenic passeggiata trails. Going from the town of Selva to Santa Cristina is an easy, downhill walk on the paved path above the town. The elevated trail provides perfect views of the Sassolunga Mountains and the quaint architecture of the towns. Along the way, there are several panels of historic photographs that explain the history of this trail. Just before WWI, the Austrians (this area was part of Austria then) needed to build a railroad to get supplies to and from this strategic area. They used Russian prisoners of war to get the railroad line built in about four months—in the middle of the winter! The trains were the main form of transportation for this valley for many years. After the two wars, it was used to bring tourists for skiing or hiking until the early 1960s. When the trains were no longer needed, the province paved the path for a wonderful series of walking paths between all of the towns of the Val Gardena.
Walking to Ortisei
Besides this main walking path, each town has several convenient pedestrian trails that lead you through fields and between the lovely homes and hotels. If you need a break from the high altitude hikes, there are plenty of great views along these lower trails. And when the season is in full swing, each town offers bike rentals, with fancy mountain bikes for hire. Just make sure your hotel has a hot tub after all of that invigorating exercise—or maybe an easy chair will do.