Some of the most spectacular hiking in Italy can be found in the Dolomites, a dramatic mountain range in northeastern Italy. This extensive mountain range covers several regions near the Austrian border, so for our week of hiking, we chose the Val Gardena, a beautiful valley just northeast of Bolzano. This picturesque valley is a popular ski area in the winter and provides a perfect hiking spot in the summer. There are three beautiful towns in the valley, and each one offers plenty of shops, restaurants, accommodations and trams or funiculars that climb up high into the mountains. In the summertime, the trams provide easy access to a wide variety of hiking trails and stunning views above the valley.
For our first time hiking the Dolomites, we chose the first week of June, which was just one week before the official opening of the season. This past spring in Europe was a bit cooler than most seasons, but we were fortunate to have sun every day and temperatures in the high sixties and low seventies – perfect for hiking. There were advantages and some disadvantages to picking this time. The main advantage was the lack of crowds in the towns and on the trails. The city bus system runs all year, so we were able to get to almost any city in the region. However, during the official season, there is a handy shuttle bus system that travels to more free and there are more trams open to reach a wider variety of trails. However, we found enough trams open to take us to the hikes we had planned to do.
For our home base, we chose the town of Santa Cristina, which is between the other two cities of Ortisei and Selva in the Val Gardena. Although we rented a car for this trip, we found out that we could have taken a train to Bolzano and used the efficient bus system to reach any of these towns. We were delighted with Santa Cristina because it is the smallest town in the valley, and it had several beautiful hikes and two trams within walking distance of the city. Ortisei is the largest town and seemed to be the most popular one, too. All three towns are connected by a beautiful walking/biking path that makes for a leisurely and pleasant stroll. Each city has its own tourist office and provides free maps for the hikes in the area. We also obtained excellent maps of the trails at each tram/funicular station that we used.
A stay in the Val Gardena feels like one has left Italy. In fact, before World War I, this valley was part of Austria and has kept many of its old customs. Besides the Swiss Chalet homes and German signage, you will hear new languages spoken. The people in this valley have their ancient language called Ladino and speak more German than Italian. However, there is a lot of English spoken as well, especially by young people who are quite multi-lingual.
All of the towns have a wide variety of accommodation options. Besides the many hotels, there are family-owned B&Bs and guest houses, often called Garni. The options range from small apartments with kitchens to rooms with a little common dining area for breakfast and dinners. Once the summer season is in full swing, there are a wide variety of activities taking place throughout the valley, which are organized by a group called Val Gardena Active. See the resources page for the website. Each town has several bike rental shops, too.
For one day hike, we took a bus to Ortisei and rode the Alpe di Siusi 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 Santa Cristina. Another option is to head west, towards the town of Castelrotto, a quaint, but famous hill town. If we had chosen that trail, we could have taken a city bus back to Santa Cristina. But we decided the eastern path which was a peaceful and easy walk in a beautiful, green valley with views of the steep Sassolungo 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. The disadvantage of being there pre-season was that many refuges were not yet open. However, at the top of each tram we found a handy signage system that listed the refuges that were open. So, one could actually plan their hikes around the open refuges and find plenty to eat along the trails.
After some time in the sunny meadows, this trail wound down through the cool forest and made 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 different trails for hiking that we had our path to ourselves.
On another day, we walked to our local tram, Col Raiser and rode up to the top. Once we arrived at the end of our ride, at 6,900 feet altitude, there were several easy, medium and more challenging hikes to choose from. At this time of year, most people were enjoying the day hikes. But we also saw many beautiful refuges that offered lodging. Some were simple lodges and others were very large resorts with swimming pools and restaurants.
All of the hikes we did were quite easy to follow using the maps provided by the Tourist Information office or the tram operators. However, these are not topographic maps and more detailed maps would be wise for longer hikes. There are also many experienced hiking guides in this valley. We met a few on the trails and they all spoke several languages and were very knowledgeable and fun.
After about forty minutes of hiking from the Col Raiser tram, we found a cozy refuge that provided espresso and other beverages. One can sit inside if it’s chilly or enjoys the fantastic views from the outdoor decks. Often a few hikers will gather and share information about the hikes they’ve done. We met hikers from Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. Although we were in Italy, we found out that English and German are the most popular languages spoken in this valley.
The hike along the northern side of the Val Gardena provides spectacular views of our favorite mountain, Sassolungo, and the Gruppo Del Sella. It gets more sun in most parts, but there were some shady sections that still had snow covering the trail this first week of June. We didn’t see as many green valleys, like on the south side and we walked among more boulders and hard-packed dirt. But like most trails we hiked in the Dolomites, this trail was well maintained and well marked.
On this particular trail, we did not see much wildlife, but we heard the happy chirping of birds and enjoyed the refreshing breezes. On our way back, when we returned to the woods, we heard the distinctive call of the Common Cuckoo of Europe, which sounds just like the family cuckoo clock. These birds are very shy and stop singing as soon as you get close by. We heard them frequently while hiking these mountains.
For this hike, we were able to enjoy a hearty lunch at Baita Troier Hütte refuge, which made delicious Tyrolean soups. The bacon and egg dish looked right, too. This popular refuge has an expansive deck with great views of the mountains all around. We picked the perfect sunny day to join the other hikers for a refreshing beer and a tasty lunch before the hike down the hill. This entire hike took about four to five hours. But one could make it shorter by taking the tram back down to the village. We chose to walk and enjoyed an easy path that led past rural farms and alpine cottages along the hillsides.
On another day, we walked to the town of Selva and found a flat trail that travels back into a long valley. During the winter, this is a simplified cross country ski trail, so there isn’t much of a climb until you get deep into the valley. But, the lush valley is a scenic walk, and it’s a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. If you don’t want to pack a lunch, the town of Selva has plenty of excellent restaurants with outdoor seating. Besides the expected Italian pasta or pizza, the villages in this area provide cuisine with an Austrian influence. You often find Bratwurst, hearty soups, dark beer, or a Danish pastry for dessert.
After a few days of high altitude hikes, we spent one day on the walking trail from Santa Cristina to Ortisei. There are several beautiful walking and biking trails between all of the towns in the Val Gardena. The path on the north side of the main road was once the main railroad line for the valley. Russian prisoners of war quickly built it during World War I. The gently rolling paths are now paved and provide a scenic walkway and bike path between the towns. As we entered the village of Ortisei, we admired the city parks and the beautifully decorated Tyrolean architecture. No matter which town you visit, you can easily find a spot for gelato, Tyrolean pastries, or a hearty lunch.
An excellent time to hike the Dolomites is mid-June through early September. Once the hiking season is in full operation, there is a Val Gardena card which offers a package price for the many lifts and all shuttle bus transportation. If you stay for several days or a week, this could be a significant saving. If you choose to hike late in the season, be sure to check the weather reports. An early and unexpected snowstorm is a severe matter of the Dolomites.
Not far from the Val Gardena is the picturesque town of Bolzano. Although it’s a famous town and can be crowded with tourists, it’s worth a visit. The old center in the city has a pleasant pedestrian area full of fun shops and food markets. There are also several beautiful churches, lovely piazzas and excellent restaurants in this vibrant city. But the main attraction for many is the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology, home of Otzi, the iceman, one of the world’s most important mummies. The museum has excellent displays and information about how this surprising discovery has advanced science and medicine.