If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ve heard me talk about the Dolomites in Italy. I’ve gushed about them. I’ve talked about how they took my breath away — not once, but twice. These are some incredible destinations that are even more stunning in person. Seriously. It’s one of those “it must be seen to believe” phenomena.
But what the hell are they? And where are they?
Where and what are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites are in northern Italy, mostly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, although some are in the northern Veneto and the western Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions. They got their name from the 18th century French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu who was the first to describe the mineral that gives these mountains their pale pink hue. It’s now known as carbonate rock dolomite.
These peaks definitely have a unique look to them which, I think, makes them that much more beautiful and intriguing. As a mountain gal who has seen some gorgeous peaks such as the San Juans in southwestern Colorado and the Teton range in Wyoming, the Dolomites have been a favorite of mine — to hike in, to photograph and to simply drink in.
What are the Dolomites known for?
Most folks who visit the Dolomites in the summer are into hiking, cycling or mountain climbing. Those who love to ski or snowboard come in winter. You can also snowshoe and/or cross-country ski then.
But you don’t have to be an active outdoors person to get up into the mountains. There are gondolas and ski lifts that can take the not so active person up to areas where there might be a small settlement or restaurant. You can simply enjoy a meal and a fabulous view.
Or you can take some incredible drives through these peaks, stopping at pull outs for photo opps. Anyone can enjoy the Dolomites.
Of course, for me, there’s nothing like hiking in them.
Oh, and the Dolomites became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in August 2009. So they have to be pretty special to make that list!
Let’s explore more about the Dolomites
So the first time I was looking to visit the Dolomites was back in early summer 2011. I was on a long-term trip of 3 months and winging it as I went along. And I decided I wanted to go to the Dolomites.
I googled Dolomites and to my surprise I found out there are several areas of Dolomites. Here I thought they were in one place, but they’re not. Kind of like the Rocky Mountains which are all over Colorado, the Dolomites are spread over much of northern Italy.
Now I had to figure out which part of the Dolomites I wanted to visit. I narrowed it down based on some travel information and ended up in the town of Castelrotto which is a good base for exploring the Parco Naturale Sciliar-Catinaccio. As I had discovered there are 9 parks of Dolomites and other Dolomite areas not within designated parks (but still protected).
Let’s take a closer look at each park and some unique features of each one.
Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park
This is the only national park of the Dolomites and it’s located in the northern part of the Veneto region. Here you’ll find the Alpi Feltrine, Monti del Sole, Schiara, Talvena, Prampèr and Spiz di Mezzodì mountain ranges. The Monti di Sole range is at the center of the wildest area of the park.
Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park is one of the Dolomite parks that has a lot of water — streams, springs and swamps. So, if you like the water, this could be a good spot for your Dolomite adventure.
And if you like peace and quiet this may be your park as it tends to be one of the most remote of the 9 Dolomiti parks.
The Val del Grisol is a unique valley filled with an ancient forest and steep ravines. There are several species of trees from evergreens to deciduous.
Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo
Another of the parks that is located in the northern Veneto and just north of the famous ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, this park is known for the Crystal and the Tofane mountain groups. It borders another of the Dolomite parks, Parco Naturale di Fanes-Senes-Braies (one of my favorites).
There are some beautiful narrow valleys here as well as some high alpine pastures. The Fanes gorge is one of the highlights where you’ll find some stunning waterfalls.
One site of note is the ruins of the Botestagno castle, an ancient medieval fort that is open to the public.
Parco Naturale di Fanes-Senes-Braies
One of my favorite parks, Fanes-Senes-Braies is located in the Alto Adige part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region. It’s stunning! Some of the main peaks include Croda Rossa d’Ampezzo, Cima Cunturines, La Varella and the Sasso di Santa Croce range.
While this park can seem like nothing but rocky peaks, there are some beautiful alpine meadows hidden within. It’s quite a diverse park.
There are also some gorgeous lakes within Fanes-Senes-Braies such as Lake Braies which, while quite popular, is easy to get to so great for families. Lake Dobbiaco is another pretty lake in the northeastern part of the park.
For me, the hiking here is fabulous. The town of San Vigilio di Marebbe makes a great base for hikes to the Senes refugio and the Fanes refugio. I did both and loved both of them as each was a bit different, but both had gorgeous scenery. The Via della Pace (the path of peace) is a long path that is also quite popular.
Parco Naturale Paneveggio – Pale di San Martino
This natural park is located in the Trentino part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region. It’s a good-sized park that includes 3 stunning valleys, rugged mountain peaks, a couple of glaciers and some pretty lakes.
In the Val Venegia you’ll find the Cimon della Pala, some beautiful dolomitic rocky peaks. The Val Canali is home to Cimerlo, Sass Maor, Canali, Lastei, and Sass d’ortega — peaks that are part of the southern chain of the Pale di San Martino. And in the Valle del Vanoi you’ll find the mountains of Lagorai which are dark red, not the typical pale pink. These 3 valleys are some of the most stunning destinations of this park.
Parco Naturale Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino is also knowns for its Norway spruces. This is the Paneveggio part of the park. It’s gorgeous!
Parco Naturale Sciliar-Catinaccio
Another of my favorite parks and the first place I visited in the Dolomites, this park is one of the smaller parks, but it packs a major wow factor!
This is the home of the Sciliar or Schlern (in German) an impressive rock formation that sits right near the village of Siusi, lording over it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, watching the light change on it as the day progressed into the evening. The camera in my hands was kept very busy.
The park is also home to the Catinaccio or Rosengarten (in German) massif. These peaks watch over the gorgeous Alpe di Siusi, a high alpine meadow.
The area is great for hiking and walking as there is a fabulous network of gondolas and ski lifts leading to a well-marked trail system.
The town of Castelrotto (Kastelruth in German) makes a wonderful place to base yourself.
Parco Naturale Tre Cime
Formerly known as Parco Naturale Sesto Dolomiti, this park is located in the northeastern part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region. The reason for the name change is due to the famous peaks, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, that dominate this park. Rock climbers love to tackle these peaks and photographers love to photograph them.
The park is definitely one filled with rugged peaks like their namesake. The craggy Sesto Dolomites are characterized by high plateaus and deep valleys. There’s only one major lake, Lago di Landro, but there are several small mountains lakes. It’s a stunning park.
There are quite a few mountain huts (refugio) if you’re the adventurous type to hike into the mountains and stay overnight. It’s a great way to get close to these gorgeous peaks.
Parco Naturale Puez-Odle
This park is also located in the Trentino-Alto Adige region and just northeast of Sciliar-Catinaccio and west of Fanes-Senes-Braies. This is the heart of the Dolomites and the home of Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest mountaineers.
The saw-tooth Odle is one of the prominent massifs of the park as is the Puez, a huge block in the south. Pretty valleys such as the Val Badia and the Val Gardena border the park. And the glacier carved Vallunga is one of the most unspoiled valleys within the park. It’s a wonderful place for hiking.
There are beautiful high alpine meadows filled with flowers in late spring. And while there isn’t much water in this park, Lake Campaccio will draw the water lovers.
I’ve driven on the outskirts of this park and the peaks are stunning. I remember thinking that I needed to go back and explore this area more.
Parco Naturale Provinciale dell’ Adamello-Brenta
The largest of the parks, Adamello-Brenta is located in the Trentino part of the Trentino-Alto Adige region. It’s a diverse landscape with lots of lakes and a glacier.
The Adamello and Presanella groups are 2 of the most predominate mountain ranges in the park. What you’ll notice is that the mountains here are more pinnacles with sharp points and angles versus the blocky massifs of the Dolomites to the east.
The Brenta Dolomites are the western edge of the Dolomites. In fact, they are the only ones west of the Adige River so they tend to be isolated from the other Dolomite massifs.
The Adamello-Presanella groups and the Brenta group are divided by the Rendena Valley. It’s a stunner! Of course, all these valleys are gorgeous.
One of the key attractions is the Adamello Glacier. And you’ll find over 50 lakes in the park as well as an abundance of wildlife. This is also a park that saw the reintroduction of brown bears which are now thriving in the park.
Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti Friulane
This is the only park located in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region so this makes these Dolomites the most eastern of them all.
Also known as the Dolomiti d’Oltrepiave this park may be the most unspoiled and wildest of the Dolomite parks. Peaks such as the Cima Dei Preti, Duranno, Cridola, and the Monfalconi group are the stars. Here you’ll find not only the typical Dolomite peaks, but some interesting rock towers and spires such as Campanile di val Montanaia, the bell tower, which stands at 2173m and looks a bit like a bell tower.
There are some beautiful valleys as well such as the Val Cimoliana, the Val Week and the Val Zemola. The Val Zemola is a big hit with those who love canyoning (also known as canyoneering). And the high altitude grasslands of Campoross are a distinctive feature as are the pastures of Malga Senons.
Intrigued by the Dolomites?
Me too! And here’s the thing — there are Dolomite mountains outside of the parks. Drive around this part of Italy and you’ll see these peaks everywhere. Monte Civetta and Marmolada are 2 famous peaks that come to mind that are just hanging out there — outside of a park, but still protected and still gorgeous. The whole area of the Dolomites is spectacular and one that you could easily spend an entire summer or winter exploring.
So if you’re a mountain lover, even if you’re not an avid hiker or skier, then pick your park (or parks) and take that trip to northern Italy. I have no doubt you will be wowed and, like me, will have your breath taken away.
And a side note to all of you in the United States — here’s wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving. I know that I am so thankful to all of my family and friends – for putting up with me! And I am so grateful to do what I love to do and to be able to travel!