High in the northern Italian Alps, surrounded by endless rolling green valleys, turquoise lakes, and glaciers you’ll find the Italian Dolomites. Spanning over 142,000 hectares, the Dolomites were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009 for not only their beauty, but their unique composition and earth-science value. The jagged limestone formations of the Dolomites peaks, offer a small glimpse into the marine life of the Triassic period, 250 million years ago. The characteristic rock consists of fossilized coral reefs formed by organisms and sedimentary matter at the bottom of the ocean during that time. While it seems impossible to imagine such towering peaks, 18 of which rise over 3,000 meters, at once in the depths of the ocean, it is undeniable that the rock and formations are different from any other mountainous area you have likely hiked in the past.
There are two hikes in the Italian Dolomites not to be missed. To be fair, I’m sure there are many more which are no doubt fabulous, but during a two day stay in the area of Cortina, these should be on your list: Lago di Braies, and Passo Giau
Lago di Braies
Lago di Braies is one of those places that appears to have been plucked from a fairy tale postcard. It’s quite possibly one of the most stunning lakes you will ever cast eyes on. The hike around the lake would be more aptly described as a pleasant walk than a strenuous hike. With little elevation gain, and covering approximately 5km, it can be done in a couple hours at a leisurely pace, stopping to take in the views along the way. We did this hike while spending the afternoon by the lake, but you could easily make the day of it.
We approached the area from the San Candido valley, having left Heiligenblut in the morning. But you could also easily stay in Cortina, and take SS51 towards Dovviaco, go left on SS48, and then follow signs for Pragser Wildsee (the German name for the area) / Lago di Braies. There are several paid parking lots, and to access the trail, simply walk past the Hotel Lago di Braies, look left to the lake, and take your pick of walking the trail clockwise or counter clockwise. Trail signs around the lake are easily visible and well-marked.
Passo di Giau is a high mountain pass (elevation 2236 meters) in the Dolomites, located in the province of Belluno, Italy. The Passo Giau circular route is a true hiking adventure at altitude.
The pass sits above the town of Cortina, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Provincial Road 638 passes over Passo Giau, and is about 14km of wildly twisting switch backs from the town center. It is serviced by bus from Cortina d’Ampezzo and Selva di Cadore. If you’re taking a car, it’s best to arrive early in the day since parking becomes limited as the day goes on.
The Passo Giau once marked the boundary between the Republic of Venice and the Austrian Empire. The old border marker is still visible at the pass.
Routes are well marked out of the parking lot area. We chose to do a circular route around the mountain peak counter clock wise, which took us about 5 hours. This was covered at a decent pace by two reasonably fit people. If you wanted to doddle, or allow for a slower pace, I would suggest adding an hour to your plans. Staying to the right side of the peak initially, the first section is twisted among rocks but soon turns into a good path that leads under the cliffs. Initially there’s little altitude gain along this path, but before the half way point at Fedare-Forcella Nuvolao ski resort, definitely prepare for lots of ups and downs, and switch backs on the uphill traverse. We did this hike on July 26, in what you would consider peak season, and we were literally one of the few pairs on it – at least within our site line. The chalet offered a scenic rest, as well as bathroom stop, but be sure to bring your own water or purchase a refill there. Water on tap is not potable. The return to the parking lot was via the other side of the peak. That trail was a little less well marked, steep at points, and had a few areas requiring a scramble across fallen rocks and unstable shale. It could get tricky if wet, and even in the dry, we danced over parts that moved beneath our feet at pitch. At home we would definitely have been wearing hiking boots to protect our ankles, but since we had only planned to fit in a few short hikes, and our bag capacity was limited, we did this trail in sturdy running shoes. Even though we got there by 10 am and completed the hike in 5 hours during a warm summer day, we could definitely feel the cooling air settling in by later in the afternoon. Packing a warm jacket, or rain gear for a change in weather would be advisable. It’s not really somewhere where you want to be stuck on the mountain injured or having missed a trail sign, as the sun is going down.
We staged both of these hikes while staying in Cortina. While I’m not sure I’d recommend camping to anyone else, it mostly due to our lack of good gear that contributed to this. The Olympia camp site was in a lovely location, outside of town and by a river. Amenities were excellent, right down to hot showers and the licensed restaurant with great food and a mountain view. It was however a bit like recreating with the masses, with sites very close to each other, and most had more luxurious set ups then our tent. Even among the tenting crowd, we were minimally prepared – a light weight sleeping bag and fleece blanket, and two half sized yoga mats (I was definitely missing my MEC inflatable camping mat by 2am). It’s not the gear we would have camped with in Canada for sure, but we were keeping things light and compact, unsure if we would even camp at all during our time in Europe.
Of course, there are more luxurious, and likely pricier options to stay in Cortina, and the bed would no doubt be welcome after a day hiking Passo Giau.
The village of Cortina is a quaint Italian ski, bike and hike outdoor adventure town worth spending some time in. Originally awarded the 1944 Winter Olympics, WWII changed that, and the city finally hosted the games in 1956. If you stop to look around, be on the lookout for the parking enforcement folks. They are brutally quick. Women dressed more like flight attendants, wearing high heels, up dos and make up, are the traffic officers issuing tickets. Only in Italy.