The Haunting Beauty of a Hut-to-Hut Hike in the Dolomites

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With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a new series, The World Through a Lens, in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Mónica R. Goya shares a series of photographs taken on an extended hike through the Dolomites.

Last August, long before the coronavirus pandemic descended across Italy, I set off on a hike following the Alta Via 1, a long-distance footpath that traverses the Dolomites from north to south.

A monumental mountain range in northeastern Italy, the Dolomites — a World Heritage Site since 2009 — are home to some of the world’s most majestic scenery: colossal vertical limestone walls, gloriously green valleys. There are several Alta Via routes, but the AV1, with fewer exposed sections, is ideal for less experienced hikers.

ImageCattle graze in a high pasture.
Cattle graze in a high pasture.

The Dolomites are also known as the Pale Mountains because of their unique colors.

The trail runs south from Lago di Braies, a chilly Alpine lake in South Tyrol, to Belluno, a town in Italy’s Veneto region. The first few miles include both a ferocious ascent up a slope covered in scree and broad views of a vast plateau — a fitting preview of the striking contrasts to come.


Daisy, a farm dog, followed us along one of the sections of the trail.

Religious markers are a common sight along the trail.

The trail’s northern terminus lies less than 20 miles from the Austrian border, and many villages in its vicinity have both an Italian and an Austrian name — a reminder of the region’s linguistic peculiarities. (In addition to speaking Italian and German, many residents of the Dolomites also speak a language called Ladin.)

Over the course of my nine-day hike, the trail — mostly well marked — snaked its way up jagged bare peaks in picturesque formations: pinnacles, spires, towers. It also wound through lush Alpine grazing lands and valley floors carpeted with pine and fir trees. Largely because of the beauty of the pale dolomitic limestone, panoramic vistas were a constant.


The trail near Cima Ambrizzola.

Idyllic mountain huts, called rifugios, are spaced at day-hike intervals along the trail; there are about 30 altogether. (The 75-mile trek typically takes about 10 days to complete.) The trail reaches a maximum elevation of over 9,000 feet and includes a total elevation gain of more than 20,000 feet — which means that arriving early at the rifugios and catching up on rest often feels more like a necessity than a luxury.


An early morning outside Rifugio Coldai.

A deck at Rifugio Lagazuoi offers panoramic views over some of the most famous mountains in the Dolomites, including Pelmo and Civetta.

Once, while traversing a stretch of trail on my way to a stunning rock formation called the Cinque Torri, I found myself enraptured by the lofty views of Lago di Lagazuoi, a small mountain lake. But my wonderment didn’t last long: Soon after I sat down, apple in hand, the skies went dark with storm clouds.


Lago di Lagazuoi is surrounded by the imposing walls of the Cima del Lago, the Cima Scotoni and Fànis.

Rifugio Lagazuoi, my destination for the night, was visible in the distance and appeared close at hand — less than two miles away as the crow flies. But, finding it separated from me by a very steep descent on switchback paths, plus one last backbreaking ascent, I panicked slightly, realizing there was no way to reach shelter before the storm would break. I pulled out my rain gear and soldiered on.


A steep descent.

A flock of sheep grazing in the high pastures near Forcella Ambrizzola.

This mountainous heart of Europe, its trails now evoking sublime grandeur, was once the scene of one of the most treacherous battles of World War I — which is now commemorated at the Open Air Museum of Mount Lagazuoi. Andrea, a re-enactor dressed in a historical Tyrolean Rifle Regiment uniform, led us on a guided tour through various trenches and tunnels, describing how the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies had turned the mountain into a fortress.


Wartime tunnels are preserved at the Open Air Museum of Mount Lagazuoi.

Down in Rifugio Città di Fiume, and back at tree-line level, after leaving behind the picture-perfect Alpine meadows of Cinque Torri, with its scattered sheep, cattle and marmots, the air was heavy with the refreshing scent of pine trees. There, gazing at the dramatic peak of Monte Civetta, I first experienced what a local hiker called “enrosadira,” an exquisite glow that happens at sunrise and sunset, when the dolomitic limestone is bathed in gorgeous peachy-pink hues.


Mount Civetta at sunrise, as seen from Rifugio Rifugio Città di Fiume.

Rifugios come in all shapes and forms, from spartan rustic buildings with cracking wooden floors to charming Alpine mountain lodges. But there are common threads among them — in particular the affable service and the chance to experience camaraderie with fellow backpackers from around the world. Facilities are basic, but most of them have a drying room and a coin-operated hot shower — which runs for two or three minutes, to prevent waste. And, yes, there’s Wi-Fi.

The rifugios are normally open from June to September — and they remain open this year, in spite of the coronavirus. But, since some are now operating at reduced capacity, advanced booking is mandatory. New regulations also require visitors to bring their own sleeping bags, slippers and masks. (In normal circumstances, only a sleeping bag liner is required, as blankets are provided.) And be prepared to have your temperature taken before checking in; hut wardens can deny access if your temperature is too high.


An Alpine meadows near Cinque Torri, with the iconic Croda da Lago mountain chain visible in the background.

Nearly 150 years have passed since Amelia Edwards, an accomplished English journalist, wrote about being haunted by the Dolomites’ “strange outlines and still stranger colouring.” Much has changed since then — but much has endured, too.

The rhythm of a long-distance trek here — the exhaustion, the challenging simplicity of the routine — washes away mundane worries. Visitors are dwarfed by the ever-changing and imposing surroundings. And, all these years later, the splendor of these unique mountains still enchants, and haunts, those who take to its paths.

Mónica R. Goya is a London-based journalist and photographer. You can follow her work on Instagram.

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