[ALTA BADIA, TRENTINO] — After a four hour hike down the mountain, it was finally time for a late lunch.
Stanky and sweaty, I rolled into this cute little rifugio out in the woods, accessible only by foot or the brave souls driving up the narrow less-than-one-lane path — so tight the cars forced the hikers to lean their butts and packs over the wood rail fence lining the lane as they passed.
I was hangry by then 👹 so hearty venison medallions in a juniper sauce, grilled mushrooms and rustic polenta seemed just perfect. And a couple of glasses of Lagrein to wash it all down. About as good of a meal as it gets, especially in a place so inaccessible. The sun casting a golden glow over the whole outdoor terrace, warming people’s faces like an Instagram filter.
It was so eerie what happened next. It was 3pm by then, the last tables of big groups of Italian families had finished their meals and espressi normale and then, like locusts, one by one they slowly left the tables and umbrellas, grabbed lay-back chairs or tartan blankets supplied by the restaurant and headed out to spread out on the bright green lawn under the sun.
It was primordial, the timing. Not all at once. First, old nonnas and granddaughters spirited away, then the mamas who paid the bills… while dads checked the futbol scores on their phones. Some well-tanned bald dude came prepared, wearing legit oversized Champion grey sweats to lunch, stripped them off, down to some tighty shorts, commando under there, and flopped down on a blanket for a deep snooze. He must have been from Sicily.
One by one they spread out on the lawn, the sunny mountains as backdrops, the intermittent clouds to help the nap-starting.
It was Siesta Time.
It made me want to go to church again, it was so right.
I had already had my nap earlier, in a stunning green meadow half hour up the hill, so I headed down to the next town. Smiling. Little juniper burps along the way to remind me of my amazing meal… which actually smelled better than it sounds….
So thaaat is hiking in the Italian Dolomites, my friends. Not some “we should make sure we drink some water now” experience, where you have to pack dense nutrition bars, squished sandwiches and melted cookies. This is how you do it here. Civilized.
This whole part of Italy is famed for its endless town-to-town skiing, but in summer all that infrastructure works to our advantage. Lifts and gondolas that whisk you to the top of mountains, often above tree-line, with family-run rifugi (read: full-on restaurants) waiting to serve you up some fantastic grub, tap a keg or bottle and top you off with an espresso. With ample size loos to remove your worries.
These are not National Park concessions where they contract out to the lowest bidders who overcharge you and sell plastic-wrapped sandwiches made a week ago, a hundred miles away. No, these huts are family-owned for generations, often on their own farmland right there, serving up hot meals passed down from Nonna’s recipes.
It’s Italy, so if your food is no good, people won’t eat there and just pass on to the next hut. So the food and experience is fantastic, because the huts basically compete — whoever woos the most diners wins. For the family. Instead of hourly employees who really don’t want to be there, it’s friendly people how want YOU there!
Market Dynamics at its finest.
Typically in the states I want to avoid ski areas, their great ugly maws at the forests with narrow ski runs scarring the landscape in view for miles. But here, all this was farmland to begin with, wide open, often above tree-line; where they’ve brought cows for grazing in summer for centuries.
So for skiing, it was easy to plant some poles in the ground and not disturb what was here. But in summer, it’s miles of undulating soft green grass, rolling off into the distance until it disappears over the steep mountain edge. Like nature’s golf course, without the annoying golfers.
This is the main overview of Alta Badia, only one of the many amazing valleys in the SudTirol. Each valley has its own awesome map, in winter and summer. Like all good ski maps, very easy to figure out where to go. From the pictures of towering mountains you can tell what you like and want to look at. Some trails lead up from the valley floor but because this is one giant and connected ski area, you can take a lift up to the top of the mountain plateaus, hike around on top, grab a bite to eat and then hike down. Or take the lift back down. It’s perfect for every level of fitness.
The cool thing to do here, like during ski season, is to follow a trail down to another village in a side valley. There are buses you can take back to your home village or where you left your car. Or you can see or call a taxi. On this segment of my trip I stayed in the picture perfect town of San Cassiano, in one of my favorite hotels in the world. It’s just perfect in its location and atmosphere, with mountains looming overheard, bouncing the rays of sun from rise to set.
Corvara and Colfosco are two larger towns and big ski areas, straddling the main two lane highway that weaves your from valley to valley. Badia and La Val are smaller, more tucked away in their own valleys. In the winter, all these areas are interconnected with one ski pass, like 100 miles of runs, skiing from town to town — like its own sporty Schengen Area, where once in, people are allowed to travel freely.
Of course, all of these towns have three names, in Italian, German and Ladin… so… good luck!
All the the mountains, hikes, lifts and rifugi are clearly marked on this map. Makes it so easy – the hard part is telling which hikes to take. The choices are endless and nearly all good. I’ve highlighted three great hikes on this map to show where each of the stories below occurs to give you your bearings. Caveat: it took me two trips to this area, still disoriented, to realize this map is not NORTH>SOUTH. 🙄
The cool thing about hiking in the Dolomites is it is accessible to everyone. It doesn’t have that “only the fit can get the views” approach of the US national parks. And because the area is so vast, people are spread out, so rarely do you run into crowds in summer. Each day you just decide what kind of hike you’re in the mood for — short, long, intense, etc. Lifts are your friends and get you right up in it. Or some less crowded trails are traditional, where you hike the whole way. It’s all up to you.
You never have to bring water or food, just you and your smile. There are rifugi all along the way, often from 30-60 minute intervals, so you can stop for lunch, a beer, espresso or a pee break, then continue on. So civilized.
Many of the trails are like this, it’s what I call “Mountain Strolling” — you take a lift up to these vast green rolling meadows on a plateau, with mountains and cows all around you. It is absolutely perfect.
It’s hard to find good guidebooks in English about this area, most of the ones I’ve found are just all text with little photos and very bad maps. So here’s my take. I like to see what I’m hiking to and then go there. Here are three radically different hikes in Alta Badia valley to give you an idea of what you’re in for.
This four hour hike starts out by taking the Lagazuoi gondola — at the top of the pass between San Cassiano and Cortina – and arm-chair it up the sheer cliff to this top of the world moonscape, passing the brave people in helmets and climbing gear taking the via ferrata down. This was the nasty Front Lines in the bloody WWI battles between Austria and Italy, with Austrians holding the high ground by building a sprawling network of troop trails, strong forts and huts to lob a shitload of 💣💣💣 directly on the Italians below. And they, back. Now you can hike these trails and lunch in the huts and get bombed on beers whilst you drink in the 💥💥💥 views. You can skip the hike and just come up here on your off days. Never had a bad meal at any rifugio, but Lagazuoi was just average. Not very well run, probably because they get so many bus tours because of the easy gondola. So skip eating here, just get a coffee and enjoy the view. There are also several cool WWI displays and old fortifications to check out and many via ferrata tours start here.
The Lagazuoi gondola puts you right at the top of the trail and you can then pass this rocky moonscape, above tree line, down to the Scotoni rifugio. It’s other-worldly. Many people also reverse the course and hike UP, then take the gondola. I think you know which method I chose.
From up here you have a 360 view of almost all the major mountain ranges. And down, which is where all these Austrian forts lobbed their bombs. Some areas down there are still off limits because of unexploded ordinance a hundred plus years later. Just jaw-dropping.
30 story rock walls spilling their guts all over the trail below for the first hour. And then it gets better…
Better, like this….
To give you a perspective how big this mountain is, look at those crazy hikers coming down that path from way up there. They’re coming down the pass from a different valley, the Fanes valley.. just so they can eat here, too.
You can smell the woodsmoke from the grill way up the trail. Wafting over the valley and lifting me up by the👃and carrying me down the steep steep trail. (Insert my overused Pepe LaPew reference here 🔽)
Rifugio Scotoni is famous across the Dolomites for having the best mountain food. Cooked with fire.
The family-run Rifugio Scotoni Hütte is a little over 2,000m in a steep pocket valley, famous across the Dolomites as having the best food in the high mountains, surrounded on all sides by towering straight walled cliffs. There’s no way to drive here, the only way to get here is to hike. (Or fall off the cliff). Tt’s a super steep two hours ⬆️ hike to here, or a steep and rocky two hours ⬇️ from the Laguzoi lift, which I did. I’d been looking forward to coming here for two years.
I pulled myself onto a wood bench, hone from a single log, smack up against the walls on the large porch out front, looking out. A smiling dude in leather lederhosen shorts and an alpine hat zoomed by carrying an armload of beer mugs. He was almost too happy, but then made me happier because it was real.
Instantly a blonde Fraulein with a huge smile and a bright blue dress was bringing me a grande beer. I was smiling like a Border Collie. Food was on the way.
Soon, a sizzling plate of grilled pork chops and baked potatoes was slid under my nose. I ordered my new-found favorite wine grape, Lagrein, spicy enough to wash down this perfectly seasoned lovechop.
The sound of laughter was everywhere, all the 80 year olds at tables drinking shots of grappa were making me feel like an underachiever. They were numerous, fit as fiddles. I told me knees to shut up and take it like a knee. We, me and everybody else, whiled away the sunny hour, basking in this heaven. Giggling.
I don’t quite know of a better way to hike…
As people finished their meals, they asked for a red blankets like an unwritten rule — stored just for such purposes — and headed out onto the broad green lawn to stare at the mountains, grin at the sun and nap. Everybody napped. Me included.
Then, after about an hour or so, each group would wake up, fold up and return the blankets, pack up their stuff and head down the steep hill.
The lay of the land from Rifugio Scotoni. Way up here, halfway down the mountain, an amazing restaurant. Inaccessible by car, only by foot or ski.
It’s surreal, isn’t it? As if Bill Murray was your waiter, dressed appropriately. And with the same attitude. 80 year old hikers enjoying a beer. Putting my sore legs to shame. They’re onto to something here…
Ahhhhhh. Hiking the Proper Way.
You can kill me now.
And…after a gentle slumber in the sun…it’s off you go further down the mountain…
This hike is the perfect “off day hike” when you really don’t want to exert much effort, but want all the glory. You’re rewarded at the end with an incredible meal described in the opening paragraph above.
Once you take the easy Piz Sorega lift, you’ll find yourself on a high mountain plateau, with lush green grass and rolling hills, an amphitheater of mountains on all sides of you. So stunning.
This is an easy four to five hour Mountain Strolling hike, but absolutely stunning. You take the Piz Sorega lift out of San Cassiano, it pops you right on top of the endless mountain plateau, around on all side with towering granite cliffs, many different rifugi to choose from. But today, we’re heading to Rifugio Pralongia at the top, stop for a beer, then curve around the mountain to the most perfect little rifugio in the woods, have a long lunch, a nap, then continue on back to San Cassiano. Of course, you can just do the Mountain Strolling part and take the lift down. But this is pretty much an all day hike, four or five hours of casual strolling and stops.
I mean, this hike is ridiculous. This is five minutes in! You take the Piz Sorega lift up, get off and turn around and this is what you see.
This is not a golf course. You’re on a great green mountain plateau. No matter what direction you turn, there are gnarly granite mountains looming on all sides, a rolling carpet of lush grasses heading off to the cliff edge on all side.
This is the scene I described in my opening story. After a nice long day of hiking and a nice long lunch in this isolated valley, you pull up a chair and a tartan blanket and take a snooze in the sun.
Here’s the same route on the hiking map.
I have a difference of opinion on what is an “easy” hike with the indefatigable Hugo Pizzinini, the owner of my hotel Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano (more about him later) who hikes this stuff like candy everyday. Contrary to the “Mountain Strolling” of the above hikes, this one was more like I was used to: 2-3 hours UP, ALL UP, to get to the good stuff. I was practicing my Italian swear words the whole way.
But boy was it was worth it. Encountered only a handful of other people on the trail the whole time, and one great magical surprise along the way. Wait until you see what comes next.
This four to five hour hike is a lot more challenging, a lot more, than the other hikes I’ve shown. There are no lifts, this is just all UP and then you scramble all along a ridgeline, with views like this.
It’s a circular route from the village of Lungiarü, which is a cool little hamlet in the valley of San Martin de Tor. You hike for two hours up the steep valley on the left, framed with scraping mountains along the left flank, then scramble along a steep ridge for your lunch at Rifugio Genova then circle around back to the start.
And then, on a not-busy trail in the Italian Dolomites, an almost completely empty trail. This happened.
After two hours of climbing straight upupup, gasping for air like a tadpole in a muddy pond, or the guppies in the cloudy fish tank that is the Smoking Box at Frankfurt airport. 🤢 I rounded the corner just above Tree Line. Ahead, a Sound of Music-like grassy knoll surrounded by shark tooth mountains on all sides. And this alien object. Out here, in the middle of nowhere. Way up high.
How did it get all the way up here? A shiny black prism, all by itself on a steep ridge. The edges all sharp and straight and black. In total contrast to the natural curves, lush greens and watery blues all around.
There was no sign for it on the main trail, 100m away. No path that leads to it. Not even bent grass to entice you. This strange shape, alone, a magnetic draw that pulls you through the nodding wildflowers.
You only notice the small plaque when you’re thisclose to it. An art piece. Here. In the middle of nowhere, but right where you are.
There’s a door, you open it. Inside is a small chair, you sit down, the door slams shut. Pitch black. Not a sound. The whole box is lined with acoustic foam that sucks up any and all noise except what’s in your breath, your head. Your pulsing veins. The door sealed tight, the wind and light and screaming mountains outside… gone. Just you in the quiet dark, surrounded by all this loud beauty. To think. And listen. To you. A recording studio for your soul.
Who thought of this? I would like to thank them. Still enjoying the mental leftovers weeks later. In the midst of all this wondrous nature, damn, humans can be cool.
After two hours of all Up, this is your reward. Medalges Alm is a great stop to re-watering and have an espresso before continuing on along the mountain ridge
The view just below the steep pass, Forcella del Medagles
Part of the old mills that line this whole valley, the Valle dei Mulini, one right after the other. Some still working.
Last visited July 2015 & 2017
Here’s a great zoomable map of all the amazing trails and hiking in and around the Alta Badia valley. Shows lifts, trails and towns. This is like your bible. https://www.altabadia.org/media/soe-pur-munt-cartina-escursionistica-wanderkarte.pdf
Here’s a very recent article in the 36 Hours in the Dolomites section of the NY Times. And this is a great section on the Alta Badia tourism website that describes many of the great hikes in the valley and surrounding mountains. And you can find hotels, restaurants and all the information you need.
A great article on three spa hotels in the Dolomites from Departures magazine: https://www.departures.com/travel/hotels/italian-dolomites-spa-hotels
Here’s a great overview article of the Dolomites in Elle Decor. And a great guide in Vogue. And an article on the best Italian roadtrips in Conde Nast Traveler.
And a pretty good article in Travel & Leisure. And a great Summer in the Dolomites article in the UK’s Telegraph. And here’s Fodor’s super guide to the Dolomites. And a fabulous big spread in the New York Times Travel section on eating and hiking in the Dolomites. And a perfect article on Walking Holidays in the Dolomites in the UK’s The Independent.
Here’s a link to that cool art installation way up in the montains.
And Lonely Planet’s guide to the Dolomites. And this video of the Dolomites in 4K will just blow your brain out.
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