Reinhold Messner, the famous Italian mountaineer, calls them “probably the most beautiful mountains in the world”. He himself took his first climbing steps in the Dolomites, a mountain range in the north-east of Italy, famous for its soaring rock towers and the “glowing” effect of the dolomite stone at dusk. Recognizing the beauty as well as its cultural and physical significance, UNESCO added the Dolomites to the list of World Heritage Sites.
A wonderland for hikers, the loop described here is one of many multi-day trek options in this truly remarkable area.
The adventure started by parking our car at the lower terminus of the Seiser Alm Bahn and taking the gondola up to Compatsch on the largest high-altitude Alpine meadow in Europe at roughly 1,700 meters. Since we were already behind schedule, we took the Panorama chairlift to the Panorama Hotel, where the official hiking part of the loop started. Passing Malga Laurinhütte and the charming Malga Saltner (on trails no. 6 and 5), we made our way up towards the Monte Sciliar high plain along the Sentiero dei Turisti, or trail no 1.
The ascent to the top, which took us 1 hr 40 mins and covered about 2000 ft of elevation, literally robbed us of our breath a couple of times; the views of the Schlern, the most famous natural landmark of South Tyrol, were breathtaking. Glad to have the worst part behind us, we continued east along trail no. 4 towards Rifugio Alpe di Tires, our stop for the night. While doing so we also caught a first glimpse of the Rosengarten and a hint of the pink shade its peaks take on at sunset.
After we followed the trail that negotiated around the Cima di Terrarossa, we could spot the rifugio in the distance, located at the pass it was named after. Since the rifugios usually serve dinner between 7 pm and 8 pm (and they like to get orders in before that), we barely made it on time, stepping through the door around 6.30 pm. After four and a half hours of hiking, a hearty dinner got us ready for bed, and we enjoyed having our private room (with two bunk beds) in a unique mountain setting.
Following a typical Tyrolean hiking breakfast (rye bread, ham, jam, and cereal), we were ready for part 2 of our loop. From Alpe di Tires, we headed along trail no. 554 and 3a towards Passo Molignon, passing by an entrance to the Laurenzisteig, a popular via Ferrata in the area. Reaching the pass around the one-hour mark, we had to make our way down into a rocky alpine valley, the Grasleitnkessel. The loose rock along this part of the trail, which was in the process of being repaired and made more secure, made the descent quite tricky, but eventually, we made it down and to the next trail junction. From there, we continued back up on the other side of the valley to Passo Principe, which we reached after about 2 hrs 40 min on trail no. 11a. Before carrying on, we enjoyed an Apfelstrudel at the rifugio.
While we continued south along trail no. 584, the hiker traffic picked up significantly, benefiting from the nice weather and the fact that many people ascend to Passo Principe from the south. Without question, heading downhill was a nice change for us. The descent down to Rifugio Vajolet and Rifugio Preuss took us a mere 45 minutes, and we were getting ready for the next uphill section. Trail no. 542 took us west, up a very rocky and, in parts, steep section, secured by iron cord similar to what you would find on a via Ferrata. We ran into quite a few people with climbing equipment, who most likely got attracted to the Torri del Vajolet.
Enjoying the magnificent views into the valley to the south from the plateau behind Rifugio Re Alberto, we only had a short distance left to reach Rifugio Santner. The setting was remarkable, perched on a cliff and a drop of 1200 ft to the valley floor below. After arrival, I spent quite some time simply staring into the distance and taking in the view.
Not that we would not have enjoyed the company, but it turned out that while a few guests stopped by the rifugio during the day to enjoy lunch, we were the only people staying for the night. This meant that we had one of the reasonably small 4-person rooms for ourselves and allowed us to talk to the owner, Sara Chiocchetti. Her grandfather, Giulio Gabrielli, built the hut in 1956, which was later rebuilt in 2006. A tiny caveat was that she had trouble with the water system while we were there, which meant that we had to flush the toilet (located outside the building) using a bucket of rainwater. Those challenges made the stay even more interesting, to be honest, especially with the thunderstorm accompanied by heavy winds passing over during the night.
Waking up the next day to clear blue skies showed our fears of continuing rain the evening before were unfounded. In addition, we were greeted by a natural spectacle: a layer of clouds covering the valley below like a carpet. Truly breathtaking. After breakfast and saying goodbye to Sara, we retraced our steps back to the trail junction at Passo Principe. From there, we went around Catinaccio d’Antermoia, with 9,856 ft, the highest mountain in the Rosengarten, on trail no. 584 to Passo d’Antermoia. Reaching that pass meant it was pretty much downhill from this point on. We descended into Val d’Antermoia, reaching Lago Antermoia and Rifugio Antermoia immediately after. The plan initially was to stay here for the night, but since I was not able to get hold of the owner while booking in advance, we had to carry on to our actual stop for the night, which made this third day the longest in terms of distance and hiking time.
We found ourselves back on the trail quickly since we still had a lot of ground to cover. From Passo di Dona we continued on trail no. 580 to Passo Ciaregole and then negotiated down trail no. 555 into the valley to the north. Significantly richer in vegetation and with more hints of civilization, we crossed an almost dried-out river bed and faced another uphill section along trail no. 532 to Passo Duron. Having been on the path for over six hours at this point, we were looking forward to reaching our last rifugio. Using trails no. 4B and no. 7, we eventually made it to Rifugio Molignon after about 7.5 hours of hiking, covering 9.2 miles from Rifugio Santner. The hut itself felt more like a hotel than a rifugio since it was accessible by car and located much closer to civilization than the two others we had stayed at before. This also explained why I could only get us spots in their dorm room (which sleeps 11 people), all their private rooms were booked. Having brought earplugs, we still had a good night’s sleep after another hearty dinner.
Replenished on calories the following day after a good breakfast, we headed back to where we had begun our loop three days earlier. Following trail no. 7, we passed Sattler Alm and the Almrose Hütte. After the picturesque Edelweiss Hütte, the trail turned into a paved road, and the Seiser Alm meadow came into view. The hiker traffic picked up again since most people, especially families with kids, tend to stay in one of the many hotels in the meadow and attempt shorter day hikes. We reached the upper terminus of the Seiser Alm Bahn after a short 1 hr 40 min and took the victory ride back down to get back to the car.
While researching trip options for a European vacation, we picked up Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Italy, which had this four-day loop option listed. Carrying the pages of the book describing the loop with us, we, unfortunately, noticed some errors, which could have easily led us in the wrong direction, had it not been for the well-marked trails and signposts along the way.
For example, the author referred to a Trail S at the start of the loop, but none of the trails were labeled like that. The map in the book intended to give the reader a condensed overview of the routes and destinations also contained errors where trails were labeled incorrectly (e.g. the trail leading south from Hotel Panorama is no. 6, not 5) and mountain passes placed at the wrong locations on the map.
The book might be good for planning, but to be safe, I would advise buying an actual topographical map of the area you are planning to enter with trail and elevation information. Nothing can ruin a vacation more than finding yourself on the wrong trail in unfamiliar territory after sunset.
While the area itself does not have its own airport, there are a handful of airports in the vicinity serving domestic and international travelers. These are Venice, Verona, Bologna and Milan. Outside Italy, Innsbruck, Munich and Zurich are alternative options.
From those locations, a rental car might be the most practical option in order to get to the Dolomite region in northern Italy.
Some good information on getting there and getting around can be found at Dolomite Treks website.
The hiking infrastructure in the Dolomites is somewhat legendary, with huts and refugios dotting the landscape. A place to sit, have a local meal and replenish those lost calories is usually never more than a couple of hours hiking away.
There’s no need to pack a tent, sleeping bag, food, and stove, for wherever you go, you’ll find abundant rifugi offering comfy bunks and hearty, delicious meals. Even though pillows and blankets are usually provided, it is recommended though (and required at many rifugi) to bring a “Hüttenschlafsack” (sleeping bag liner) since the bed sheets usually aren’t washed that often.
- ‘Each mountain in the Dolomites is like a piece of art’: Reinhold Messner on Tyrol highs
- Guilde Dolomiti: Via ferrata. Good info on via ferrata, history and recommended equipment.