Alta Via 1: the oldest long distance trek in the Dolomites

This article was first published on UK Hillwalking.

The Dolomites are renowned worldwide for having some of the most amazing and jaw dropping sceneries in the whole of the Alps. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, the Dolomites are not only a place of incomparable natural beauty, but are also full of history. They where the stage of many battles during World War I, but they also saw many first ascents during the first years of mountaineering development in the area. Top it up with sunshine and great food and you have the best place for your next holiday.

With inaccessible summits and superb rock faces, the Dolomites are a paradise for rock climbers and mountaineers alike. But an intricate network of walking paths and mountain huts makes these mountains accessible for trekkers as well as day hikers, allowing them to explore the area with just a pair of boots and a rucksack. Some of these paths can be connected and transformed in a multi day adventure, and that is what someone did years ago, coming up with the concept of Alta Via.

Alta Via literally means “high route” in Italian and it refers to a multi day trek that develops for the most part high up in the mountains, using mountain huts and shelters as a stop for the night. There are officially ten Alte Vie (yep, that’s the correct plural form, and not Alta Vias!) in the Dolomites, and many more across the Alps, but the Alta Via 1 is the oldest and by far the most famous of them all. Starting at Lago di Braies, in Alto Adige, and ending in Belluno, Veneto, the Alta Via 1 crosses some of the most iconic peaks and spots in the eastern Dolomites, and its an absolute must for every hiker who wants to discover this beautiful corner of the alps.

I was lucky enough to guide a group of people along this route last summer. Eight days  and around 120km with nothing but the sky above our heads and lots of polenta in our bellies. Here’s how it went.

Lago di Braies, the starting point of Alta Via 1

Day 1: from Lago di Braies to Rifugio Pederù

Excitement was high on day one, as the group and I approached the starting point of the trek. Lago di Braies is perhaps the most famous lake in the whole of the Dolomites, and a popular destination with tourists from all over the world. We walked along its shores and quickly veered off along our path towards Forcella Sora Forno and Rifugio Biella. And what better way to start our trek than some hut food? There’s no denying it: Italian hut food is delicious, but we had to be careful not to eat too much or we wouldn’t be able to walk for the second half of the day. The walk down to Rifugio Pederù was long, as we lost almost all the height that we had already gained, but enjoyable nonetheless. It took us through the Senes mountains and all the way down to the valley, where a hot shower and a delicious meal were waiting for us.

Day 2: from Rifugio Pederù to Rifugio Lagazuoi

An early start was in order today as a long day awaited us. We started form Rifugio Pederù at 1500m and our goal for the day was Rifugio Lagazuoi at 2700m, the highest point of the whole trek. The weather forecast wasn’t the best and our legs were a bit tired after the first day, but we still set off with a smile.

In the morning we crossed the Fanes plateau, an area famous for its strange and interesting rock formations such as the “Marmot Parliament”, a huge limestone amphitheatre so called because of its shape as well as the amount of marmots present in the area. This area is also the scene of many legends and fairytales linked to the original inhabitants of these lands, which give it a magical atmosphere.

After lunch we started climbing towards Forcela dl Lech, as the forecasted rain finally made an appearance. We then descended steeply on the other side, took a break by Lêch de Lagaciò and tackled the last hill of the day all the way to Rifugio Lagazuoi. We were glad to reach it, as the hut magically appeared through the mist. It was a long day and a drink was in order, followed by a much needed very early night.

The climb up to Rifugio Biella, rewarded by a delicious lunch

Day 3: from Rifugio Lagazuoi to Rifugio Averau

Day three was quite different from the others and very interesting from a historical point of view. From Rifugio Lagazuoi, in fact, and all the way down to Passo Falzarego runs a network of tunnels that were dug into the mountain during World War I. This area was right on the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was the stage of many battles throughout the war. These tunnels have now been restored and secured and hikers who visit the area can walk though them and experience what it must have been like for a soldier to be there during the war.

After the tunnels we continued on our journey on the other side of Passo Falzarego. A short but very scenic walk took us to Forcella Averau, and from there we reached our hut for the night, which was just around the corner. Rifugio Averau was by far the fanciest hut where we stayed along the way, more similar to a hotel than a mountain hut. Since we got there quite early in the afternoon we all sat outside on the terrace and soaked up the last of the afternoon sun, before going back in for another delicious meal.

Day 4: from Rifugio Averau to Passo Staulanza

We could definitely feel that summer was coming to an end in the fresh morning breeze, as we set off early on our walk down to Passo Giau. On the pastures just above the pass we met flocks of sheep making the most of what was left of the fresh grass, and getting ready to return to the valley for the winter. Once at the pass we enjoyed a good cup of coffee on the terrace, warming up in the sun.

We set off again on the steady walk to Forcella Giau, then reached Forcella Ambrizzola and stopped at Forcella Roan for lunch. Here we had the first of many naps on the grass after lunch, which quickly became a tradition and something we wouldn’t miss any of the remaining days. Regenerated, and maybe a little sunburnt, we then started our descent to Rifugio Città di Fiume, with a mandatory stop for a coffee and a piece of strudel, and continued to Passo Staulanza, our stop for the night.

We were all feeling good after the first few days on the trail, our legs were not sore anymore and it was nice to keep seeing the same faces every day, of the many hikers that were walking the same route as us. An early night was in order, to get ready for the following day: one of the most iconic days on the Alta Via 1.

Early morning light from Rifugio Averau

Day 5: from Passo Staulanza to Rifugio Vazzoler

Yes, day five was by far the most scenic day on the trek, as it took us under one of the most iconic faces in the whole of the Dolomites: the north-west face of Monte Civetta. This is a 4 km long and 1000 metres high vertical face, also known as “the face of all faces”, home to many of the most famous climbing routes in the area.

We still had to sweat a bit before we got to see it though, so we started our way up from Passo Staulanza to Rifugio Coldai. And could we walk past the hut without stopping for a coffee? Of course not. After this we started walking under the north-west face itself, admiring its majestic look and imposing size. We walked through boulder fields and meadows, we passed two of the most famous pillars along the face, Torre Venezia e Torre Trieste, and finally reached Rifugio Vazzoler.

Here we had our first taste of a proper alpine hut: much more basic then what we had been used to so far but not in the least worse than the others. We still had amazing food, met some good people and enjoyed a glass of wine on the terrace in the sun. Until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, and retired to our rooms to rest and prepare for the following day.

Day 6: from Rifugio Vazzoler to Passo Duran

Today we continued walking along the southern side of Civetta and Moiazza, and the scenery was similar to the previous day. The path was a never ending up and down, which turned out to be quite tiring for the legs. Plus, we were starting to feel the many days of hiking in a row and were starting to look forward to the approaching end of the trek. Nevertheless, we got to Rifugio Carestiato early enough, and had the time to chill on the terrace for a while, savouring one of the best strudels on the trek. Then a short half an hour walk led us to Passo Duran, where we would spend the night.

Here, at Rifugio San Sebastiano, we received a four star welcome as the owner Beniamino got interested into our trip and spent some time talking to us. Needles to say, we were in bed by 9 o’clock, all tucked under and ready for a good night’s sleep.

On the way to Passo Staulanza

Dat 7: from Passo Duran to Rifugio Pramperet

After six days walking amongst some of the most famous peaks in the Dolomites, we were about to enter a wilder and lesser known area: the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park. The change in scenery could be felt immediately, but that is not to say that it was less impressive than what we had already seen. We met less people, the paths were narrower, and it was nice to go through this change and see another side of these mountains. The walk today was pretty chilled, we had plenty of time to stop and, of course, have a nap in the sun before we reached our hut for the night.

Rifugio Pramperet was by far the most basic hut we stayed in along the trek but, at the same time, is was also the best. We could immediately feel at home, as we sat outside in the sun with the guardian and other walkers, drinking beer and talking about what we had been up to that day. Then we all sat together inside for dinner, ate the usual “spezzatino con polenta” and shared stories with the other hikers. We went to bed tired but very happy, it was our last night on the trek and we couldn’t ask for a better goodbye.

Day 8: from Rifugio Pramperet to Forno di Zoldo

We finally got to the last day on the trek, which welcomed us with warm sunshine outside the hut. We said goodbye to our hosts and started making our way down to the village of Forno di Zoldo, our end point. This is not the real end to the Alta Via 1. The trek continues for another two days to the town of Belluno, going through some more technical terrain, which we decided to skip this time.

The descent was pretty straightforward, as it followed a big forest track all the way to the town. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on the last few days, take it all in, and get ready for the end. By noon we were in town, sat down on a bench to savour our last cheese sandwich and a gelato, and waited for out transfer to take us back to Cortina, were we would have a last meal together and say goodbye to each other.

A typical dolomitic landscape

Every trekker who enjoys the mountains and multi day trips should walk the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites. It is such a great route, full of history and culture, in one of the most magnificent natural environments in the world. It is definitely a challenge, with many metres of ascent and descent every day and long distances, but totally worth it.

I’m lucky enough to be able to call this work, and I’ll never get tired of showing my clients around the beautiful mountains of my home country, Italy. So if you’re looking for a different type of holiday this summer, a challenging but very rewarding one at the same time, where you’ll be able to eat great food and discover beautiful places as well as meeting incredible people, than this is the trek for you. Polish your boots and start planning, the Italian Dolomites await!

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