Hiking the Dolomites – A 7-Day Hike in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains
If hiking is your thing and you love Italian food, there’s nowhere better to combine your two interests than the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy. Whether you’re a middling hiker or a pro, the network of trails there offer something for everyone and makes hiking the Dolomites an adventure for hikers of every skill and fitness level. And if you want to see more than just mountains, know that a visit to Trentino is one of the most diverse regions of Italy. You have the stunning Dolomites in the North and beautiful Mediterranean Lake Garda in the South – the best of all in Italy.
A few years ago, I spent a week hiking the Dolomites in a circle around the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and wanted to share some insight into helping you plan your own hiking trip in Italy.
Before You Go
How We Trained for Hiking the Dolomites
More important than what you pack, more important than buying Euros before your trip is: train, train, train. While I felt I was a fairly confident hiker on the 1,700-foot elevation mountains of Southern California, I knew I’d be facing elevations of 7,000 or more in Italy, so my friend Debbie and I started training nine months out.
First, we hiked once a week, then twice a week, then daily the two weeks before our trip. To acclimate to the higher elevation, we hiked in Idyllwild a few hours outside of San Diego. We also varied our hikes; sometimes they were short and intense; other times they were several hours long to build up endurance.
We also hiked with loaded backpacks toward the end of our training to ensure we’d be used to carrying around about 20 pounds of stuff on the trail, and broke in our new hiking boots.
So yes: training beforehand is extremely important to prepare you for your hike in the Dolomites.
Dolomites Hiking Resources
I also recommend reading a couple of books about the trails. Sadly, there are few adequate books about hiking the Dolomites in English (it seems more popular with German and French hikers), so the best books we discovered were:
Both books were pretty old, so don’t rely on them for up-to-date information about the rifugios where you’ll stay. More on those shortly. We sketched out a rough idea of the route we wanted to take, but the books, to be honest, weren’t all that helpful. What was useful was the Tobacco map of the area we purchased when we arrived in Cortina at the visitor’s center (if you’re inclined to overpay for it by about $10, you can get it on Amazon.
Rifugios: Your Home on the Trail
The good news about hiking in the Dolomites is that you won’t have to sleep in a tent on the trail if you don’t want to. There are what are called rifugios, or mountain huts, throughout the trail systems of the Dolomites.
One rifugio will vary wildly in level of accommodations from another. Rifugio Nuvolau, for example, is a barebones hut accessible only by trail that offers several shared rooms of simple accommodations. There is no shower, and only freezing cold water.
On the other hand, Rifugio Sennes offers some private rooms with their own bathroom. Some have meals included, while others charge for them separately. All are extremely affordable (between $25 and $50 per person per night).
If you visit in offseason, it shouldn’t be a problem to book your night’s stay just a day in advance, which allows you to be more flexible, should you not stay on track timewise on the trail. However, if you want to stay at one of the more popular huts like Rifugio Lagazuoi, which is known for its killer sunsets, do book that one weeks or even months in advance.
We didn’t need any of the food we packed for the trail because we always stumbled onto a rifugio midday. They’re spaced out just enough to plan your lunch around, and there’s nothing more fortifying than a hearty polenta with cheese and mushrooms, accompanied by an Italian beer.
Tips for On the Trail – Dolomites Hiking
As I said, we started in Cortina d’Ampezzo, then took a bus to Lago di Braies, a breathtaking lake nestled in the mountains, and the starting point for the Alta Via 1, the trail network we chose to hike.
Something to be aware of: Italian trail-forgers don’t seem to be fond of switchbacks, which we Americans are accustomed to. The first day was one slow and steep slog up a mountain. Thankfully, our hike got easier after that.
We hiked in September and occasionally passed other hikers, though mid-summer you’re likely to find it more crowded.
The trails are amply marked, but here’s another point to note (and learn from our misunderstanding). We’d see signs listing a rifugio as being 90m away, for example. We assumed this meant meters, and our American brains couldn’t translate that to miles.
After days of marveling at how long it took to go a few meters, we finally realized that the m must have stood for “minutes.” As in: this is how long it should take you to get to this rifugio…assuming you are a fit Italian who has hiked this trail dozens of times. We started tripling that number to guesstimate how long it would take us.
Non-Hiking Experiences in the Dolomites
The Dolomites were designed for Instagram, so charge up your phone (for photo taking purposes only; cell signal is pretty nonexistent here) or camera. But remember to also just enjoy the view.
The food at the rifugios was stellar no matter where we were. The menu was surprisingly devoid of the traditional pasta dishes we found elsewhere in Italy, and instead focused on nourishing mountain food like dumplings, polenta, and meat. Also not-to-miss are the various grappas that most restaurants offer. We tried everything from traditional unflavored to pine and hazelnut grappa. The pine was not a hit.
Another key experience on your hike is making friends. Sometimes we’d keep bumping into the same people at each rifugio, so that gave us the opportunity to get to know people from California like us (go figure), Germany, and Austria over a glass (or three) of wine.
My week hiking the Dolomites was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’m glad I did it. It enriched my life in unbelievable ways, and I got to experience the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.
When Susan Guillory isn’t running her marketing company, she’s traveling and writing about it on The Unexplorer. She’s written several books (business, as well as travel) and has been published on Forbes, FOX Business, and other sites. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
Hiking the Dolomites – Pin for Later: