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‘The World’s Most Beautiful Trail:’ Trekking the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomites

‘The World’s Most Beautiful Trail:’ Trekking the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomites

By Michael Lanza

We follow the zigzagging trail upward until it becomes lost beneath an unbroken snow cover. Then we follow the boot prints of the few trekkers who’ve ventured up here before us recently, a navigational strategy based on hope—the hope that unseen strangers knew where the path goes. A bit farther than I could hurl a stone to either side of us loom sheer walls of dark rock, rendered fuzzy by the fog, as if Vaseline coats our eyeballs. The cliffs rise hundreds of feet into the oblivion of a soupy, gray ceiling, the sky a dark bruise that looks almost close enough to touch. A drizzly rain seeps from the clouds, but the air is calm and there is no sound but our footsteps and breaths—and a faint rumbling of uncertainty in my gut.

Reaching the base of one cliff, we enter a narrow moat between the wall of rock and a five-foot wall of densely compacted snow, grasping a steel cable bolted into the rock while scrambling over loose, shifting stones. Where the cable ends and boot prints lead out of the moat and up a steepening mountainside buried beneath snow—in the second week of July—we stop. I look up at that snowfield pouring downhill like a luge run the size of a football field, sporadically littered with rocks—firm snow, only its surface softened and slick. Somewhere up in that thick, atmospheric chowder, a few hours ahead of us, sits the mountain hut where we have a reservation for tonight. Then I look at my wife, Penny, our 13-year-old son, Nate, and 11-year-old daughter, Alex, and I exhale loudly.

It’s the second afternoon of our weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through one of the world’s most spectacular and storied mountain ranges, Italy’s Dolomites. We are hiking a 39-mile (62k) section of the Alta Via 2 (AV 2), or “The Way of the Legends,” a roughly 112-mile (180k) alpine footpath famous for attributes that had even more allure for me than a steaming plate of gnocchi: scenery that puts it in legitimate contention for the title of the most beautiful trail in the world, comfortable mountain huts with excellent food—and a reputation for being the most remote and difficult of the several multi-day alte vie (plural for alta via), or “high paths,” that crisscross the Dolomites.

When I started planning this hut trek for my family, I realized I had set the bar high two years earlier, with my kids’ first European trek, in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park. So I wondered: How do you find a vacation for a family whose interests include hiking, climbing, mountains, comfortable huts, and good pasta and vino?

Easy. You set off on the world’s most beautiful trail.


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The ‘Pale Mounts’

Located in the northeastern Italian Alps, with one national park, several regional parks, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (as of 2009), the Dolomites thrust a dizzying array of spires and serrated peaks into the sky, 18 of them above 10,000 feet. The soaring dolomite or limestone cliffs—originally called the Monti Pallidi, or “Pale Mounts”—gleam like polished jewels in bright sunshine and virtually pulse with the salmon hue of evening alpenglow. They strike a sharp contrast with the deep, steep-sided, verdantly green valleys and meadows seen throughout the Alps.

I believed my kids had the physical stamina and mental fortitude to take on the AV 2. They’ve done a lot of wilderness backpacking since each was six years old, not to mention the rock climbing, ski touring, and various types of paddling adventures we’ve done as a family, which have taught them to remain calm and follow instructions when circumstances call for it. Plus, when I broached the idea, they eagerly jumped on board.

I planned the trek for the second week of July, hoping to arrive after much of the snow of winter and spring had melted away, but before the crush of trekkers and tourists in August, a national holiday in Italy and much of Western Europe. What I did not anticipate was that the Dolomites would see their largest snowfall in decades, and the white stuff would still thickly blanket the mountains in the middle of July.

Now, looking up at that snow slope disappearing into the fog, I’m contemplating the risks of trying to lead my family up it and through whatever awaits us en route to the hut—wherever it is up in that pea soup. I begin a mental process of elimination that I use in backcountry situations that pose some potential hazard: considering every possible option and crossing off each one that doesn’t seem feasible or safe:

1.    There’s no possibility of leading the kids one at a time across high-risk terrain to islands of safety because there are no islands, just a dangerous sea of sharply angled snow ascending into the clouds. Check.
2.    We can’t all hike up close together because I can’t really spot both kids simultaneously. Check.
3.    The snow is too firm for me to kick steps for them to follow that are deep enough to ensure they wouldn’t slip and fall. Check.

Every option is a bad one. It’s like I’m sitting in a poker game, deciding whether to bet or fold, looking at a hand with a ten high—not even a respectable pair to gamble on.


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“I’m up for going for it,” Nate says—a comment that either reflects his comfort level on snow or his age and gender. Alex, more flexibly, offers, “I can go either way, but I’m kind of leaning toward turning back.” But when Penny says, “This is at the limits of my comfort,” she gives voice to what I’m feeling. Then she adds, “I really don’t like the idea of going up there. I’d rather go back down to the pass and get a hotel room.”

I’ve also long believed that if you must deliberate at length about whether to push on or turn around, that usually means it’s time to turn around.

But such is the glorious dichotomy of a hut trek in the Dolomites, as in much of the Alps, that from this scary situation in wet, gloomy weather, we only have to backtrack downhill for little more than an hour before we step through a metaphorical doorway from mountain wilderness to civilized luxury. We carefully descend the moat and the snow and hike the trail back to the road at Gardena Pass as the rain intensifies. At the Hotel Cir, we step in out of the rain, get a two-room suite, luxuriate in hot showers, then gorge on traditional, regional dinners of pork ribs and ham and brie—all of which quickly erase any regrets my family feels about turning back.

Still, in the back of my mind I wrestle with the question: What now? After traveling all the way from our home in Idaho to the Dolomites, will our trek get derailed on day two?


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Puez-Odle Nature Park

Two days earlier, at the start of our adventure, when our shuttle driver pulled up in front of the hotel Utia de Borz at Passo delle Erbe, or Erbe Pass, at 6,581 feet (2,006m) above sea level, we stepped out of the van to the sight of the castle-like walls and spires of 9,429-foot (2,874m) Sass Putia towering almost 3,000 feet above us. After an overnight flight from Boston to Venice via Zurich that left us wrecked, the view hit each of us like a double espresso: We all snapped out of our torpor, rejuvenated just to be in the mountains.

At dinner that evening in the restaurant at Utia de Borz, a waitress who spoke English asked us about our plans. (Most of the hotel staff are native German speakers, common in the South Tyrol, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I.) She said the seven-day hike ahead of us “is very, very beautiful. You will definitely see some snow, but also very few people this early in the season.”

Her words would prove prophetic on all three counts.

We set out the next morning—our first day on the trek—hiking from the Utia de Borz around the base of Sass Putia’s skyscraping walls, reaching the Forcella di Putia pass at 7,733 feet (2,357m), a trail junction marked by a sign and a crucifix. There, we began a traverse on the AV 2 of a green tableland of grass and wildflower meadows in Puez-Odle Nature Park—“Odle” translating as “needle” in the Ladin dialect still spoken by some residents of the valleys of the Dolomites. The air rang with the clanging neck bells of grazing cattle. In every direction, clouds swirled around the jagged crowns of stone monoliths, their ancient faces veined with snow.


Want to explore the world’s most beautiful mountains? Do it on one of these classic Dolomites trips.


Not far beyond the Rifugio Genova-Schluterhutte, we reached a saddle overlooking a deep valley. Across the valley rose what appeared to be an impassable wall of vertical rock hundreds of feet tall, capped by bayonets pointed at the sky. I scanned the map, looked up again, and said—not masking my disbelief: “We’re going over that ridge.”

“We can’t be going over that,” Penny said. “No,” I insisted, “we are.” Then I saw the thin line of the AV 2 crossing the head of the valley and zigzagging up a mountainside of scree and snow to the lowest notch in the ridge—a gunsight pass called the Forcella della Roa. I pointed to it: “That’s where we’re going.”

We dipped down to cross the head of the valley, then made a long climb through an amphitheater of cliffs. On a scree slope, a chamois, a wild cousin of goats and antelopes, peered at us curiously. We hiked over some snow to the Forcella della Roa at 8,586 feet (2,617m), stepping into a biting wind.

There, facing steep, firm snow burying the AV 2, we chose to detour off-trail below the snow line, over shifting talus. I left Penny and the kids to rest while I scouted around for a route through cliff bands above us. It took us well over an hour to finally get back to the dry, good path of the AV 2—but the kids were invigorated by the excitement of scrambling off-trail through the cliffs. Nate told me, “I loved that little adventure. I’m going to rename that valley we just left Adventure Valley. I’ll always remember that.”


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At 6 p.m., after an exhausting, nearly nine-hour first day on the trail, we staggered up to the Rifugio Puez, a hut perched on the barren and rocky “altopiano” of the Puez plateau. That evening, we sat at a picnic table in the small dining room, laughingly recalling our war story about the day’s events—sounding like mountain climbers with a flare for hyperbole. Then we plowed through a dinner fit for hungry climbers: minestrone soup and a delicious dumpling soup that made Nate gush, “Oh, man, that’s amazing!”; a ham, eggs, bacon, and potato dish; salad; and a substantial plate of penne in red sauce that Alex all but killed on her own. Penny and I had a beer and the kids a hot cocoa, and then Nate got a second hot cocoa and insisted I try it, saying, “That’s some of the best hot cocoa I’ve ever had,” and I had to agree. We capped the meal with apple strudel and retired to our bunkroom, where the kids passed out within minutes.

Before turning in that first night on the AV 2, I asked the hut keeper, Gemma, a slim woman in her 50s with dark hair and big eyeglasses, about the next day’s weather forecast. She told me, “Snow. In the morning—good. Afternoon, not so good.”

As happened with the waitress at Utia de Borz, Gemma’s words—“Afternoon, not so good”—prophesied our second day’s turnaround facing steep snow on the AV 2. But in the mountains, events don’t always proceed according to plan. I have many times adjusted plans to adapt to circumstances—especially with my kids. I’m a big believer that many disasters in the backcountry can be attributed to people missing or ignoring all the cues signaling it’s time to abort and resort to Plan B.


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The Marmolada

Fortunately, on our third morning, we discover an easy Plan B that gets us right back on track with our original itinerary. We catch a 9:50 a.m. bus right outside the Hotel Cir in Gardena Pass—and it’s free, thanks to a business collaborative to which the Hotel Cir belongs, and the hotel manager giving us bus passes—for the one-hour, 15-minute ride to the AV 2’s next road crossing to the south, at Pordoi Pass. There, we resume our trek in temps not much above freezing, cold rain, and even snow flurries. We wear rain jackets, warm layers, hats, and gloves all day.

But we have an easier walk of about six miles, with little elevation gain and steadily improving views of the highest peak in the Dolomites, the 10,968-foot (3,343m) Marmolada. Affectionately known as the “Queen of the Dolomites,” the Marmolada rises 7,000 feet above surrounding valleys and has five distinct summits and innumerable satellite summits and spires. For hours, between periods of fog obscuring the landscape, we walk in view of a rampart of cliffs that extend for several miles.

By mid-afternoon, we reach our next hut, the Rifugio Castiglioni Marmolada, seated at one end of the dam that creates Lago di Fedaia, or Fedaia Lake. From the rifugio’s deck, the massive Marmolada dominates the countryside in the way that Mounts Rainier and Hood dwarf their Pacific Northwest surroundings. We get a private room, take hot showers, and visit a nearby war museum, then stuff ourselves with yet another delectable, multi-course hut meal that includes my daughter’s fifth consecutive pasta dinner, a bean and vegetable soup, a pork main course, and another apple strudel.

Despite the challenging weather and terrain, I think we’re starting to get spoiled.


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Dolomite Mountains

There are places in the world that defy the brain’s attempts to accurately process the data transmitted by the eyes, forcing us to recalibrate our mental scale of awe. Our brains are designed to contextualize what our senses perceive, to think, “Oh, yes, that’s just like (fill in the blank).” That strategy usually works successfully for the oversized mass of 100 billion neurons in our skulls that’s essentially the largest super-computer in history. But that system breaks down when what you’re seeing does not resemble anyplace you’ve seen before.

The sight of Mount Rainier or Denali or one of the giants of the Himalaya occupying more sky than it seems any earthbound chunk of rock and ice should. Rounding a bend in the trail to see Upper Yosemite Falls plunging a vertical 1,400 feet through thin air, or standing in El Cap Meadow in Yosemite Valley, letting your eyes slowly climb the sheer, 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. Paddling a sea kayak at the foot of cliffs that shoot straight up thousands of feet out of the ocean in New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound, or mountains rising over 15,000 feet above the waters of Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, in Chile’s Patagonia region, where the peaks rise with the same severe verticality as in the Dolomites (but get more wind). Walking up to the rim of the Grand Canyon and peering out over that unfathomable maw.

These are all sights so unique that, without some similar past experience as a reference point, the brain’s processor short-circuits.

Consider the story of Spanish Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas. When Cardenas and his soldiers strode up to the rim of the Grand Canyon in September 1540, they not only became the first Europeans to lay eyes on the canyon, they were the first to experience the illusory nature of its vastness. Cardenas, seeing the Colorado River from the South Rim, ignored his Hopi guides’ assertions that the river was no little stream, as Cardenas thought, but actually quite large and far off. Cardenas sent three men to find a route to the river. When they returned a few days later, parched and beaten, they reported having gotten nowhere near the river, and that the rocks that appeared tiny from the rim stood as tall as the Tower of Seville.

That’s the effect of seeing the peaks and spires of the Dolomites erupting from bucolic meadows, sheer blades of limestone or dolomite rock rising up and up, prompting us into uncomfortable contortions of the neck just to visually ingest this thing, like a python trying to swallow a calf.

During World War I, the Dolomites formed the front line between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Troops from both armies blasted tunnels and constructed vie ferrate (better known by the singular form of the name, via ferrata), or “iron ways,” ladders of iron rungs drilled into cliff faces (used today by adventurers who wear a climbing harness and clip safety leashes from their harness into steel-cable lines to prevent a deadly fall). Both armies suffered devastating casualties in the Dolomites—many from severe cold and avalanches rather than enemy fire. Today, you can visit open-air museums in the Dolomites that preserve tunnels and military emplacements once occupied by shivering soldiers.


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The Pale di San Martino

On our fifth morning, from the Hotel Arnika on Highway 346 in Passo San Pellegrino, we walk down the quiet highway for about 10 minutes to catch one of the luxuries of trekking in the Dolomites or throughout the Alps: a cable car at Col Margherita that whisks us up 2,000 vertical feet in minutes.

To Alex and Nate, this is the very manifestation of brilliance.

For the second time on our weeklong trek, we’ve adjusted our itinerary to avoid a high, snow-covered, and difficult section of the AV 2—where it traverses the lunar landscape of the towering, rocky peaks known as the Pale di San Martino. Instead, we’ll follow lower, less-challenging trails that parallel the AV 2, and still end up tomorrow night at the hut where we have a reservation for the final night of the trek, Rifugio Rosetta.

The decision proves fortuitous, not only for avoiding snow and playing it safe: While the high route of the AV 2 remains smothered in swirling clouds, our route stays well below the worst of the weather and gives us eye-popping views of those same peaks.

By early afternoon, we reach a junction where the AV 2 swings upward, ascending toward cliffs that, from our perspective, look absolutely impassable without ropes and climbing gear: the famous Pale di San Martino. But we turn onto Trail 749, contouring across meadows looking straight at those sharply pointed spires that seem to be fencing with the dark, brooding clouds overhead. In an on-and-off, light rain, we follow that footpath down to a narrow, gravel country road, which we walk along for two hours seeing no more than two or three vehicles (but a few dozen people on mountain bikes). Vibrantly white, yellow, and violet wildflowers burst from grassy meadows so green they resemble manicured golf fairways, except for the burbling creeks bisecting them.

Walking down that lonely road around 5:30 p.m., we stroll up to Capanna Cervino, a small hut with weathered wood siding and creaky floorboards. Although we began this day unsure where we’d sleep tonight, the sight of this hut perched on a knoll, with a view from its outdoor deck of the snow-spackled limestone towers we walked at the foot of this afternoon—and the fact that they have only two other guests tonight—makes our decision to spend the night easy. The dark-haired, amiable woman running the hut asks me whether I “sprechen sie deutsche,” which I don’t. But she understands English well enough for us to communicate, and she sets us up in two cozy rooms with twin beds and small windows.

In the cool, breezy evening, Penny and I sit for a while on the outdoor deck. The gray-black overcast has disintegrated to cotton-ball clouds floating above the angular peaks, including the dagger-like, 10,446-foot (3,184m) Cimon Della Pala, now bathed in warm, reddish-orange light against a sky as absorbingly blue as the ocean. You can stare a long time at these beguiling, gargantuan cathedrals, but your eye cannot really adjust to their unfathomable dimensions. When I turn away and then back to them again, they still appear unreal. The next morning, when we start walking down this quiet, gravel road toward Passo Rolle, and I turn around for a final look at the towers above Capanna Cervino before they disappear from view behind rolling, grassy hills, they will still seem like a shock to the cornea, like an optical illusion that cannot possibly be real.


See which section of the Alta Via 2 made “My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”


Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino Nature Park

The grazing sheep eyeball us suspiciously as we walk past them, as if concerned that we may attempt to eat some of their delicious grass. Moments later, we stop at a respectful distance so Alex and Nate can ooh and aah at the sight of a newborn foal curled up on the ground, its mother standing over it protectively and shooting us a “that’s close enough” look.

This morning, our sixth, we left Capanna Cervino and walked downhill to Passo Rolle, a small ski and summer resort area on a winding, mountain highway busy with tourist buses and speeding motorcyclists. But we quickly left that scene of noise and chaos behind, turning onto Trail 712. Now we follow that snaking footpath on a steady climb below the cliffs on the other side of the Cimon Della Pala that we’d gazed upon last night, entering the Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino Nature Park, which protects nearly 49,000 acres of these peaks and surrounding plateaus, an area slightly larger than Acadia National Park. A long row of stone monoliths marches ahead of us—the Pale di San Martino. Far below us sits the little mountain town of San Martino di Castrozza.

A few hours from Capanna Cervino, we reach Col Verde, the middle station of the two-stage cable car and gondola from San Martino. We ride the Funivia Rosetta gondola, ascending 2,300 feet (700m) in minutes to the upper station at nearly 8,900 feet (2,700m), on the shoulder of the 8,999-foot (2,743m) peak La Rosetta. We step outside the gondola station into a scene that looks like winter: Snow covers nearly all of the rocky, moonscape plateau sprawling before us, beyond which rise yet more sheer-walled peaks. Pulling on jackets to fend off a bracing wind, we walk 20 minutes across the plateau to Rifugio Rosetta, at almost 8,500 feet (2,581m).


Walk amid the world’s most beautiful mountains on one of these classic Dolomites trips.


In the Pale di San Martino, the Dolomites achieve a height of majesty matched only in perhaps a handful of other comparably stunning areas of the range—or, many would say, in the world. Here, on the sections of the AV 2 between Rifugio Rosetta and the next hut to the north, Rifugio Mulaz (where we had intended to spend last night, before detouring onto the lower route), and the next hut to the south, Rifugio Pradidali, trekkers walk and scramble over extended stretches where the footpath traverses mountainsides and cliffs too steep to even take a step off the trail without falling hundreds of feet.

After lunch in the dining room at Rosetta hut, Penny and I leave the kids to relax in our bunkroom and set out under gray skies for an afternoon hike. A half-hour out, she turns back when the clouds threaten rain, but I’m eager to explore farther out on the AV 2 north of Rosetta—the piece of the trail between Mulaz and Rosetta that we had to forego. It rains for a little while, and hails briefly, but I’m dressed for it and keep walking,stepping carefully along narrow foot ledges where the cable handrail bolted into the rock—the so-called “aided” sections—provides welcome reassurance. After about 90 minutes, I turn back, and don’t see another hiker until reaching the hut, which emerges from a pea-soup fog only when I’m within 50 feet of it.

The next morning, our seventh and final day of trekking hut to hut through the Dolomites begins as almost every day has: mostly overcast, with the sun making a halfhearted attempt to bust up the cloud cover. Penny, Nate, and Alex decide to take the gondola and lower cable car down to San Martino di Castrozza, where we’ve rented an apartment for the next three nights. Over the coming three days, before taking a bus back to Venice to spend a couple days as tourists and then flying home, we will dayhike from San Martino, riding the cable car-gondola up to the highlands and discovering the incredible wealth of stunning trails in addition to the AV 2—including Trail 701, an engineering marvel of a mountain footpath running beneath the high cables of the Funivia Rosetta. Later this week, Penny and I will descend it through what must be well over a hundred switchbacks, on a mountainside that ranges from steep to vertical. In spots, the switchbacks are stacked so abruptly one over the next that if you kick a stone off the trail, it’s likely to hit several switchbacks below before finally coming to rest.

Today, while my family retreats to the warmth and dry comfort of our rented apartment in San Martino, I will set out to hike the five-hour loop south from the Rosetta hut to Rifugio Pradidali and back to Rosetta via Ball Pass, on a day of occasional rain showers, with the peaks looming mysteriously in and out of the constantly shifting clouds. Despite the weather—or perhaps because of it—the hike will be a spectacular adventure, the highlight of which is where the AV 2 shrivels to a goat path traversing several hundred feet across a cliff face.

But before departing Rosetta hut, I ask the woman hut keeper if they have a weather forecast—and she offers a response that has become like the punch line to an old joke this week: “Morning, good,” she says, her hand wavering, “afternoon, not so good.”


Tell me what you think.

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

1 Comment

  1. Shawn

    Nice read. The pictures appear a little distorted on my end.


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