Hiking the Alta Via 1 in the Italian Dolomites

Do you want to really slow down on your next European holiday? How about a 13-day hike in Italy’s very dramatic Dolomite Mountains?

One of the many fantastic views in the Dolomites.

One of the many fantastic views in the Dolomites.

This is not just any kind of trek, especially if you come from the USA where, if you want to hike for 13 days in a row, you have to carry everything on your back to survive — which can make for a very heavy pack. In the Dolomites, you’ll find yourself at a mountain refugio (basically a high-alpine rustic hotel) by the end of each day. These refugios provide dinner, a bed, sometimes a shower, breakfast and lunch to take with you on the next day’s trek. With a few exceptions, these accommodations are not luxurious and pretty basic, BUT . . . there’s always a glass of red wine with a nice dinner, some hardy local schnaps and delicious apple strudel with your after-dinner espresso waiting for you after a long day of hiking!

Evening approaches as we settle into this cozy refugio.

Evening approaches as we settle into this cozy refugio.

Food and a warm stove is always welcome.

Food and a warm stove is always welcome.

This is exactly what Magrit and I did this past June between conducting photography tours in Italy and France. A trip we’ve dreamed and talked about for years.

Jim & Magrit at the start of the Alta Via 1.

Jim & Magrit at the start of the Alta Via 1.

Hikers typically trek the 94 miles of the Alta Via 1 from north to south, beginning near the town of Toblach at around 4900 feet and ending near Belluno. The Alta Via 1 passes through some of the finest scenery in the Dolomites and typically takes 13 days, averaging about 7 miles per day with the highest elevation at 9028 feet. This may seem like a short daily distance to some but we found it to be perfect. The terrain was sometimes steep and challenging but we found that we had plenty of time to enjoy the trail, take breaks and take photos — no great rush to get to the hut.

Magrit settling in on the trek.

Magrit enjoying the trek.

Because we started the hike in the early part of the hiking season on June 21 and the Dolomites had experienced a big snow winter, we elected to bypass the first day’s snowbound segment of the trail and to take the bus south to the extremely charming and quintessentially alpine village of St. Vigilio instead. It was one of those “Making lemonade out of lemons” experiences. While we were disappointed having to bypass the first segment, we would otherwise never have discovered St. Vigilio where we spent one night before rejoining the trail. We also got a chance to experience a colorful catholic procession complete with brass orchestra and villagers in antique traditional costumes. St. Vigilio is now one of our favorite villages in northern Italy. Can’t wait to go back for some winter skiing.

St. Vigilio, Italy

St. Vigilio, Italy

Our first leg of the Alta Via 1 found us meeting other hikers from many different parts of the world. To us, this was one of the most enjoyable elements of the hike — meeting hikers from Quebec, Israel, the US and Greece and traveling in synch with them for the duration of the journey. On some days we would meet up on the trail and spend the day together while on other days we would not see each other until arriving at the next refugio where we would swap stories of the day’s events and plan for the next one.

Magrit, Jim and our new friend from Greece.

Magrit, Jim and Vangelis, our new friend from Greece.

The refugios are not all created equal. Some are very basic with bunk rooms, no showers and bathrooms outside. Others are quite modern and more like a small hotel. A few provide small private rooms with single beds (no doubles as they take up a lot of space which is always limited in these huts). We had reservations for every hut and always requested a private room if available. Reservations are recommended, especially later in the year. All refugios provide good food, which is such a treat after hiking all day long.

Comfortable bunkrooms.

Comfortable bunkrooms.

It was way better than it looks!

This tasted way better than it looks!

While these hikes may seem quite easy and civilized with accommodation and food being taken care of, one should not take this alpine environment too lightly. We hiked in mid-June, which is the very beginning of the trekking season, and the weather was quite inclement. We experienced rain, hail, snow, fog and strong winds. Proper clothing and route finding skills are required. The Dolomites often experience strong thunderstorms in the afternoon and we also encountered lingering snowfields that we had to cross. However, the snow was fairly soft and the incline not too steep.

Snowfields can be common in the early season.

Snowfields can be common in the early season.

On the eleventh day of this delightful journey we encountered a group of experienced German climbers who had started the hike at the opposite end and told us that the section that they had just passed through had a lot of snow, some very steep sections and difficult route finding. They suggested that we not venture further and so we reluctantly passed on the last two days of our hike. BTW, no worries on the Alta Via 1 if you need to abort as you can get to a road or a chairlift from almost every refugio. We ended up taking a side trail down into a valley and to a small village where we were able to catch a bus to Belluno.

New friends at the end of the hike in Belluno.

New friends at the end of the hike in Belluno.

The Alta Via 1 is only one of many hut-to-hut hikes throughout Europe. Perhaps you want something more challenging, less challenging, shorter or in a different country. Your options are plentiful.

You can email Jim (jim@jimnilsen.com ) if you have any questions about this trek or if you are interested in participating in a photography workshop/tour either in the Dolomites or at other locations in Italy. You can also visit http://photographytraveltours.com for more information.

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