As an independent traveller, I like to go my own way (for all its faults and benefits) so instead of following a pre-determined route such as an Alta Via, and instead of following a route planned by a tour company (guided or self-guided), I like to research a lot, find out all the places that look most interesting and connect them with whatever trails exist (or, in some cases, make them up as I go along).
So, given that I was travelling only on foot (except for occasional public transport options), I had to find a part of the Dolomites that provided enough diversity, challenge, beauty, distance and accommodation for the number of days available to me.
This blog is broken into two sections. 1) The route I followed with some pictures and 2) travel guide information if you’re planning a trip for yourself.
Venice – Cortina D’Ampezzo – Croda Da Lago – Rifugio Palmieri (2 nights) – back to Cortina – Misurina – Rifugio Col da Varda (1 night) – Rifugio Auronzo (1 night) – Rifugio Locatelli (Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen) (2 nights) – Rifugio Berggasthof Plätzwiese (1 night) – Rifugio Biella (2 nights) – out via Lago di Braies to Niederdorf / Dobbiaco (by bus)
I came into the northern section of the Dolomites from the south east side by bus from Venice to Cortina D’Ampezzo. Having arrived around lunchtime, I bought a little something to eat and headed south out of town to Croda da Lago. It’s about a 3 hours walk depending on your load and fitness and the weather. I am fairly fit (for a 60-year old), had a small load (travelling light with about 10 kilograms) but the weather was hot and the road up from the valley was steeper than I had prepared for. There are sections of the road that require cyclists to dismount because the concrete road has ruts across it for 4WD cars to grip and to allow rain to run off.
There’s forest for about half the way but that suddenly gives way to open terrain. It surprised me that there are navigable roads to many of the rifugio – not like Australia where you may need to walk for hours on a narrow trail to get to a hut.
Rifugio Croda Da Lago (aka Rifugio Palmieri) is close to the lake (Lago Federa) and has a number of very pleasant circuit day-walks around the area. I settled in, met the dog, photographed the donkeys, looked at the map, walked round the lake, talked to other walkers, saw the electric bike charge points, had dinner and went to bed, pleased to be starting my tour with good health and good weather.
Day 2 was a circuit walk similar to the one below (without the offshoot path at the top left). Cortina is in the distant valley. Naturally, I chose the one that went UP into the mountains from the lake, not down into the valley. I like high points.
Up the well-maintained path to Forcella (pass) Ambrizola (aka Rossa), then up the steepish path to Croda da Lago via patches of snow and distant mountain goats scrabbling across impossible rock faces. Then down the other side (rockier and steeper) where I had a rather surprising hail storm below the treeline for an hour or so.
Back to Rifugio Palmieri to find a visitation of school students sheltering from the last of the storm.
This was a lovely walk which gave me an introduction to both the ruggedness of the range and to the signposting and variety of trail quality in the mountains. Always go prepared when heading for the hills.
Day 3 started with a return trip from the rifugio downhill to Cortina (1.5 hours), through town and onto the road in the direction of Misurina. I knew the morning bus had gone so I used the international hand signal to hitch a ride instead of walking the full distance (15kms). It would have involved a lot of roadside walking, tourist traffic and uphill so I was pleased to have caught a ride with a young couple (who were leaving for Thailand and Papua New Guinea in September). We whizzed past the carpark for the walk to Lake Sorapiss which I have heard is very beautiful. This allowed me time to walk around Lake Misurina, check out the route for tomorrow and back to the trail that leads up to Rifugio Col Da Varda. There were only two other people in the rifugio that night – probably because it’s not at an iconic location. The half-board menu is pretty basic but adequate. Another heavy rain storm in the afternoon.
Day 4 was a short walk of less than 10kms uphill. It started with good weather and a walk along Lago Misurina to the start of the trail to Rifugio Auronzo in the mountains. There are regular buses to the refuge so I knew it wasn’t a remote location. I confirmed to myself that remoteness in Europe is a different thing compared with Australia. The trail follows the road for a while, heads off at a small lake and runs parallel with the road for a while. When the rain started and the temperature dropped, I wished I had caught the bus but told myself I wasn’t here to take the easy way out. The last hour was spent walking up the trail and then up the road in very heavy rain, being overtaken slowly by passing cyclists, my boots filling up with water, my kneecaps getting bluer, the refuge getting ever so slowly closer with each bend. The very last stretch was a short, steep rocky scramble to cut off the final bend and reach the car park.
It took a while to dry off and warm up and I left my socks and hat in the bathroom and hallway drying in whatever warmth was there.
Personal hygiene was becoming more expensive with each new rifugio (between 3.5 and 5 Euros for a 3 minute warm shower).
This was a relatively short and fairly easy day even though the weather didn’t cooperate. The mountain rescue section of the army was there in force, planning their assault on the back side of the tre cime cliffs. I saw them the next day abseiling down rockfaces. The views and the rifugio’s location are spectacular. I was hoping the weather would improve.
Day 5 was almost a ‘rest day’. The walk from Auronzo to Locatelli via Lavaredo is basically a dawdle. The trail is flat, wide and easy for the first stretch to the church as you pass ‘behind’ the Tre Cime cliffs. It then turns the corner and runs down to Rifugio Lavaredo from where there are a multitude of trails in different directions but two main ones to the forcella Lavaredo / Paternsattel. At the saddle you get a view of the Tre Cime / Dreizinnen and a new valley across to Rifugio Locatelli. From there it’s a drop to the head of the valley and a short climb up to the refuge – all on a wide, gravelly trail. There’s another parallel trail on the side of the rockface if you want. Some treat it as a via ferrata.
I covered this distance from Auronzo to Locatelli after breakfast with ease, dropped my pack at the refuge and headed out to do the circuit track around the Tre Cime massif. I started by exploring the start of route 102 which I planned to take a couple of days later into the Landro valley. Then I crossed the bog at the head of the valley and hiked up the side of the valley to the rifugio Malga Langalm and on to the forcella del col de Medo. This stretch of track from the base of the Tre Cime to the saddle is delightful walking over small hillocks, rocky outcrops and tiny streams. The return trip is pleasant from the saddle back to Auronzo and the afternoon light on the repeated stretch from Auronzo to Locatelli was nice to see.
The weather had improved substantially and this was a very pleasant, relaxing day allowing me to check out the iconic Tre Cime and surrounds, enjoy the scenery, think about where I wanted to go for the following day and plan for my longest day yet. The chef at the refuge has created a dessert in the shape of the Tre Cime which proved very popular. The food was basic and plentiful.
Day 6 I now had a day to explore the surrounds and, on the advice of a trail-running banker from near Milan over dinner, I decided to head out east to the refuge near the trenches where the Austrians and Italians fought in WW1. I needed to avoid the via ferrata because I didn’t have the necessary equipment (helmet, harness and carabiners). I would love to do some via ferrata but I was travelling light (8 kgs for my 5 weeks away) plus I was on a through route (not a round-trip) so wasn’t coming back to an equipment hire supplier location.
Day 7 This was to be my longest day in the mountains. I had calculated from the map that it was an 18km day with over 1000m down and then more than 1000m up from the Landro valley, often on steep trails and with a bit of via ferrata I wasn’t sure about the danger of… I made a reasonably early start after breakfast and, because I had scouted out my route a couple of days before, I knew where I was going. I met a couple coming in the opposite direction who told me for sure I was on the wrong path (‘this is not Route 102’) but I trusted my own knowledge and continued. I hope THEY got where they wanted to go 🙂
The trail west was steep and sometimes slippery. Thank goodness the weather was good. There are a couple of steep waterfalls along the way and trails heading off to climbing cliffs and my knees coped admirably on the descent.
It’s downhill all the way to the wide, rocky riverbed in the valley and pleasantly undulating on the way to the lake. Again, I was surprised to hear and see so much traffic on the road beside the lake. It’s a main road from Dobiacco south to Cortina so it’s to be expected. Crossing the river was almost a challenge. I saw some people wading through the torrent amongst the grey rocks and slipping around. I decided to rely on my balance and skipped across a log that had fallen across a narrow deep part. No wet feet, no time wasted.
The next couple of hours was a bit of a disaster, though. I skirted round the north end of the lake and decided not to go through the pine forest in case it brought me to the river and I couldn’t cross. I followed the trail to the head of the forest and crossed a bridge onto the cycling trail. Suddenly I was in ‘civilisation’ with many cyclists, cars, buses, motorbikes, walkers and people with dogs. I had heard that there was a park office near the trail OUT of the valley and searched for it with no luck. The hotel required me to buy a coffee before I could use the internet and the waiter and waitress were worse than useless about the location of the start of the trail I wanted to take uphill from the valley. I walked a couple of kilometres downstream along the cycle track looking for the trail only to realise I must have missed it. Back to the hotel again and asking again to the same blank expressions. Walked upstream again to the park information board (not enough detail) and back to the hotel again. I finally asked a walking group at the hotel if they knew the trail and they told me it was just across the bridge near the hotel (about 100 metres away!) It is actually very poorly signposted and not particularly obvious so I trusted they were correct and started off after wasting an hour and a half walking in the heat. I had considered an alternative plan which may or may not have worked. That was to take the bus (if there was one) or hitch-hike towards Cortina D’Ampezzo and then find my way up the road / trail to the summit. I hate to think what issues that might have entailed… Here’s the route.
The rest of the day was uphill, uphill and more uphill toward the Prato Platweise hostel. All I knew was that I had to get to the top and then it was another 5 or 6kms to the hostel from the summit. I had to get moving. It was pretty ‘solid’ going and I was grateful I wasn’t carrying a load of camping and cooking gear. There were sections of narrow trail which weren’t a worry at all. Steep sides and nice views! A few wooden steps and a tunnel later, I continued uphill toward the lower trees and the skies above. FINALLY! the trail popped out at a saddle with summits in several directions and a sign pointing me in the right direction.
From there it was a largely undulating trail through farmland with cows with bells and stunning forested hill views. I realise I could have taken the bus some of the way what’s the point in that?
After a heavy thunderstorm there came some beautiful light across the fields and mountains.
Destination today was the Rifugio a long way away over a landslide that took out half a mountainside, along trails contouring around valleys, up and over a mountain of limestone steps, along a ridge of limestone knolls being chased by a thunderstorm and down a valley to the refuge.
2) Travel guide tips and hints
There are many sections of the Dolomites – each with their own regional names. My walk touched on the Veneto South Tyrol and Sesto Dolomites.
By being (or becoming) a member of an Alpine Club that has reciprocal arrangements with Club Alpino Italiano (CAI), you receive a discount at some Rifugi. CAI Membership may or may not be financially beneficial since some of the Rifugios are private and not associated with CAI.
I booked a long way ahead to ensure accommodation where I wanted it. In some places I heard of people not being able to find a bed because they hadn’t pre-booked. In other places, I heard people booking when they arrived. CAI (Italian Alpine Club) Rifugios (not sure about the private ones) are apparently obliged to take you in if you arrive late or in bad weather- even if it means they give you a space under the kitchen bench to sleep on.
I saw three tents at the Rifugio Locatelli despite the ban on ‘wild’ camping.
Plenty of people with drones around the rifugios.