A three-day trek through the stunning Dolomites

Photo by Karen Bradbury
Photo by Karen Bradbury

A three-day trek through the stunning Dolomites

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

All mountains are beautiful, but there’s something extra magical about the Dolomites in northern Italy. Their sheer rock faces, towering pinnacles and jagged limestone peaks give them a look like no other. Although considered part of the Alps, the Dolomites are shaped differently. Formed from the relics of an ancient sea, influenced by volcanic eruptions and topped by sediment accumulated through the ages, geologists swoon at how the basic tenets of Earth science are laid bare here.

I headed to the Dolomites with a goal in mind: to hike the first three stages of the Alta Via 1, a 75-mile hiking trail cutting from Dobbiaco/Toblach in the north to Belluno in the south. Trekkers aiming to complete the walk in its entirety generally budget around ten days to do so. Many, like me, opt to do just a short part of it. So for all you hikers out there looking for a demanding but not overwhelming trek through an area of rare beauty, here’s my experience.

A beautiful view of the hike up the Dolomites | Photo by Karen Bradbury

Pre-hike positioning

I traveled to Innsbruck, Austria from my home near Frankfurt. Once there, I purchased another train ticket for the remainder of the journey. A three-hour ride with changes of train in Brenner/Brennero and Fortezza/Franzensfeste got me to Dobbiaco/Toblach (in this part of Italy, towns are identified by both their Italian and German names), my base for the night. Although I was pleased with my first night’s lodgings, from the minute I laid eyes on the sumptuous Grand Hotel, I regretted not staying there. These stunning premises house both a youth hostel and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Next time I’m staying there for sure!

Day One – Trailhead to Rifugio Biella

The trailhead to the Alta Via 1 is located on the far side of Lago de Braies, a stunningly blue lake which is a popular option with day-trippers. Take the train from Dobbiaco and travel to Villabasso-Braies. From there, take bus 442 to the lake known as Pragser Wildsee. The bus runs frequently, and you must have a ticket in hand to board. You can purchase the ticket at the tourist office right next to the train station or online. The ride to the lake takes 20 minutes and costs around 5 euros.

Once the far side of the lake is reached, the ascent begins. The steep path is gravelly and tree roots make the going all the tougher. Breaks to catch one’s breath offer stunning views of the turquoise lake far below. In the few places where the trail runs alongside a cliff face, a metal cable handrail provides needed reassurance. Signage along the trail gives you approximate hiking times, rather than distance. The 3.5 hours it was supposed to take to reach the “rifugio” where I’d spend my first night was closer to a five-hour slog.

The huts serving as shelter in this part of the world are a varied bunch. My first night’s lodging was at the Rifugio Biella. It was rough and sparsely furnished, and there lacked hot water, but the beer on tap was cold and the food delicious and freshly prepared. The fried-egg breakfast was fabulous. A highlight of my stay in this area was an afternoon walk to a nearby lake along a deserted path, where dozens of marmots appeared from their holes and whistled to warn their comrades of a foreign presence.

Day Two – Rifugio Biella to Rifugio Lavarella

The next stage of hiking is a descent from a lonesome barren landscape into green valleys where sheep and cows graze freely. The Sennes hut provides a scenic stop for cool drinks. Lunch in the valley was by the Rifugio Pederu. Its accessibility by road makes it popular with the masses and an unwelcome intrusion into the sensation of having left civilization behind. An hour or so of strenuous hiking along a serpentine trail uphill past a green lake brings you to a pair of options for lodging on night two.

Rifugio Lavarella | Photo by Karen Bradbury

I cannot sing the praises of Rifugio Lavarella loudly enough. Alpine-inspired furnishings, light wooden paneling, sparkling cleanliness and friendly staff made a stay here a pampered privilege. The place is also home to the highest private microbrewery in Europe! I would gladly walk all that distance once again just to get my hands on another one of those rich dark beers.

Day Three – Rifugio Lavarella to Col Gallina

Following a brief ascent, most of this trek was along a plateau, offering the chance to take in the cragged peaks surrounding on all sides. Three hours in, it was decision time - carry on and conquer the summit of Lagazuoi, or head to the valley with my two fellow trekkers, who would take a bus to Cortina, where they’d parked their car? One look at the daunting uphill trail gave pause to this mountain novice. We went down together to the town of San Cassiano and caught the bus to the Falzarego Pass, where I arranged to spend the night. I checked in to the Col Gallina, a perfectly adequate rifugio positioned along the main road.

Advice to those considering the trek: I found this hike just the right mix: a challenge, but not technically out of my comfort zone. Sturdy footwear is a must, as is a warm, waterproof jacket. I carried lots of snacks; however, the food at the huts was abundant and amazing. Lodging goes for around 40 euros per night – but budget another 25 euros or so per day for food and drink. For a moderate cost, this experience is priceless.

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