This is an overdue trip report from our Summer 2015 Dolomites three-day trekking. On that summer we embarked in a hut-to-hut hiking trip in the Dolomites region in northern Italy. It was one of the best trips we have taken as a family. Before taking on the challenge, we were wondering if the kids (10, 8 and 6 at the time) were going to have a good experience. Fortunately they had a very good time. They have since asked us several times whether we can go back.
Ever since I saw a photo of some huge rock monoliths in some magazine, the Dolomites became part of my bucket list. The mountains are spectacular, rising from the ground up as if they were a rock-only counter part to Superman’s ice-only fortress of solitude in the north pole. The italians go there to ski in the winter (Cortina being the go-to town). In the summer, people hike from hut to hut (the huts are called Rifugios in italian). There are also some well known routes called Alta Vias that traverse the Dolomites over its highest altitudes, mostly running north/south. We figured the kids were too small to tackle one of those, but they are still in my todo list.
Siusi To Rifugio Bolzano
I bought Cicerone’s Walking in the Dolomites guide, and I picked a path on the western end of the Dolomites, close to Bolzano, that seemed to provide spectacular views, but manageable days. We started the hike on Alpe di Siusi, a small town twenty minutes from Bolzano. As we drove into Siusi, we could see the magnificent Massiccio dello Sciliar, a long ridge completely made of rock, almost like the wall from Game of Thrones, but dark brown instead of white.
We decided to skip the first half of the hike and “cheat” by talking the gondola up. These are the same gondolas that are used during the winter to bring skiers up. As we arrived we were treated to a large green plateau and even more magnificent views of the Massiccio dello Sciliar.
After a brief trip to the store, to buy trail mix and a some walking sticks for the kids (best purchase ever, the kids played with them the entire way), we were ready to start walking. I was a little antsy. Was it irresponsible of me to bring my six year old to walk 10 hours a day for three days? Are the kids going to hate hiking after this experience? The suspicious looks my wife furtively sends my way, questioning the sanity of the project, do not help. I have a history of taking her to ski runs and mountain bike trails where she does not want to be (too steep or too remote). I guess there is no turning back.
As we start walking, I start comparing the age of my kids to those of others kids present. There are people from all ages, both very young, but surprisingly also very old. We are hoping to make it to the first “Rifugio” in a little under 6 hours.
We walk along a small path that climbs very slowly, with the massive Sciliar at the end. We are told there is a small mountain cafe before we start the serious part of the climb, so at the promise of hot tyrolean food we feel our way into this family adventure.
At this point there are still many paths criss-crossing the fields. There are also many houses and I wonder whether the people here still lives from agriculture or the houses are simply summer/winter homes for wealthy “Milanese”. In general they seem like working folk houses, without much elegance or luxe.
After one hour or so, we arrive at the restaurant. A terrace table looks out into the valley to the side, and in front of us a huge granite mountain, warning us of the post-lunch hike. So far so good. The kids are having a blast running ahead of us, our youngest is still smiling and (delicious) food does us all good.
After lunch, everyone picks up the path happily, we cross the last small stream before the climb. Since we (we as in the parents) are carrying the sleeping bags and clothes for the whole family the load is quite heavy. After three hours, we finally start seeing “false summits”, the mountain is leveling and we are close to the top. That makes everyone happy.
After taking a curve to the right we see five italian girls descending in their moutain bikes. Pure bliss! The descent from there is going to be super tricky for them. I turn around to take a picture of them going down. My eyes probably twinkle as I ask my kids if they would want to do someday with me, in a bike, this same trip.
And finally, as the slope inclination starts to level off, we walk along the top of the mountain towards the Rifugio Bolzano. We pass an intersection on the left that we will need to take the next day to get to Rifugio Passo Principe. The path goes on and on through the rolling mountains, and I stop to take a picture of my wife making it to the top, with the next day hike on the background. The path dissappears into the next set of mountains.
We arrived. Rifugio Bolzano is all I wished it was (which is not much at this point). It’s one of the larger rifugios. The house is made of stone, some horses are eating outside and the place looks deserted (everyone is inside eating dinner, we barely made the cut-off). Everyone is exhausted, or so we think. We soon find only the adults are “exhausted”. As soon as we drop the bags, they take off to a big rain poodle that has many tadpoles and then on to the rocks nearby, and then on to dinner and then some more rock hopping. How can they?
The Rifugios were built over the past couple of centuries, mainly by the Italian Alpine Society and are operated by either families or a professional staff. They are in the middle of the mountains and most of them have to be supplied by helicopter or mules. The idea of the Rifugios is that they provide a warm meal when you arrive at the end of the day, and they usually kick you out before 9AM, after having eaten a hearty breakfast. For the most part, you have one every 4-6 hours of walking, so you can accommodate for short or long walking days. We always found reservations the day before, except at the Passo Principe which is very small (4 rooms).
We did walk a little over a mile from the point we will need to veer off tomorrow. The people at the Rifugio knew we were coming and had dinner ready for us. I do remember eating everything. The room upstairs is small and cozy. I almost faint when I discover that we really did not need to bring sleeping bags! That when they said “sleeping sack” it was more a hygienic piece of cloth to put under the blankets. Oh well. I hope the knees are able to carry the heavy backpacks two more days.
After a great night of sleep, we wake up, eat a wonderful breakfast and we are ready for the next day of walking.
Rifugio Bolzano to Passo Principe
The idea is to have lunch at Rifugio Alpe de Tires, after 4 hours of walking. Since Rifugio Bolzano is at the top of this particular chain of mountains, the climbing should be much less demanding than the previous day. At this point, despite some initial hesitance, I probably started to think this was not so bad after all. The kids are running around, the wife smiles happily, the mountains are like something I have never seen, and the sun is shinning above. What else can you ask for?
We encountered some donkeys, sheep and the traditional cows wearing a bell around their neck. We stopped at a grassy hill and had our first snack of the day. I tried to have the kids take in the scenery. I could not get them to acknowledge how beautiful everything around us was (maybe not in the words I wanted), but I believe I could sense some new calmness in them. The walking sticks that we bought the day before were now laser rifles. They were defending our party from trolls and gobblins that were on our way. Then there was the occasional dragon, that required us to hide behind a rock. They had a ball.
The rolling path took a sharp turn downward after maybe two hours. The path became sufficiently dangerous that you have to watch your step carefully. The kids are still jumping around and I try to gauge my wife’s “danger-o-meter”. She was so focused on hauling a big backpack up and down the mountain that maybe she did not care. At the bottom of the descent we can see Rifugio Alpe de Tires red roof at the end of serpentine little path. The promised land.
As we arrived, there were many other people coming down the mountain from different trails. We make our way to the restaurant in the first floor of the rifugio. It is somewhat disconcerting to find a modern architecture little red cabin in the middle of the mountain. Food is as great as we could have hoped.
One famous piece of history attached to the Dolomites are the via ferratas. These are ladders and walkways built of iron (hence the ferrata) that allowed italians to defend Italy against the invading army of Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowadays you can walk on top of unreachable ridges by using them, or go up steep rock moutains holding on to them. There is also a couple of tunnels bore out of the rock, that were used to ferry quickly from one location to the other.
From Alpe de Tires, we will take on the most tricky part of the via. We will need to climb a bit, before reaching the top of the range. Then descend into a featureless sand and snow bowl, and then back up again to Rifugio Passo Principe.
The beginning of the trail is technically considered a via ferrata as it has a metal rope along the rock to help you climb the initial promontories. I had brought a climbing rope to wrap around my daughter in case there were dangerous parts. But as I drop my backpack to take it out she is probably half way up. So much for that. Despite the tricky terrain, we all make it to the top quite quickly as the steep part is rather short.
From there we walk along the ridge until we reach the dusty bowl edge (called Grasleiten). The trails descends very rapidly along an opening in between two huge rocks. I take it slow, and try to put my best “this is cool” face. We are all a little hesitant descending and we need to stop a couple of times to re-assess the trail. There are some sections with cables to help in the descent. This would be the trickiest part of the whole hike and we seem to have conquered it once we reach the bottom.
We stop to have a snack and go to the “restroom”. From the bottom we can see where the Passo Principe rifugio is located: the very top of the mountain in front of us. Our daughter, the youngest of the kids is having a small tantrum at having to climb all the way there. This segment will be the hardest part kid-wise. I invent boulder-sized buried giants, I ask about school as I try to distract her, I promise a nice brownie with vanilla ice cream and I go down every trick that I can think of to keep her walking and not focused on the climb.
By the time we reached Passo Principe it was close to 4 PM and since our beds were a couple of kilometers down the hill, we took a nice break, we ate some sugary treats and on we go. Passo Principe is the last climb of the trip. Fro now on, everything will be down hill. The Rifugio itself is as spectacular as they come. Nestled in the middle of the rock, at the very center of a saddle situated on the top of a range, you can see back to the trip we just made and forward to where our beds lie somewhere ahead. Passo Principe only has six beds, and it was our first option to sleep on the second day but we could not secure reservations. We had to settle for the bigger Rifugio Vajolet down the hill.
The walk down is a return to greenery. It seemed as if we had just emerged from Mars through a warp hole and we were back on Heidi’s mountain. There were trees again, and the path zig zags down the mountain to Rifugio Vajolet.
The rifugio has warm showers, which are very welcomed at this point, and some nice and simple beds in a room for eight which fortunately we do not need to share with anyone and that allows us to have some nice family time before heading down for dinner. The Rifugio does not allow shoes upstairs and there is a huge basket with flip flops of all sizes and shapes to wear. Somehow this is the most exciting feature the rifugio has to offer for the kids. They love choosing a new pair of flip flops every time they have to go upstairs.
The kids were scared and tired in some parts of the trail, but they made it through. There is a particular kind of tiredness that I find exhilarating. I tell my kids the pain in your legs after a long walk is a “good pain”. I really hope somehow this is part of good parenting. As the sun sets, I can see the canyon below, and the path that we will be taking on our last day of walking.
Siusi To Rifugio Bolzano
Our final day of walking is an easy one. It should take us three hours max to make it to Rifugio Gardeccia where we will take a bus back to our car. The path down is a little steep at the beginning and then it’s a fire road that follows a stream down.
Once we arrive, there is a jeep that brings us down to where we can take the bus to go back to Alpe di Siusi. We are all pretty spent and happy.
As I said at the beginning, the trip was one of the best we have taken as a family. My kids are very proud of having walked three days in the mountains, and I want to believe it gives them a sense of being able to do things they thought might be out of their reach initially.
We ended up going back in 2017 for a longer walk (five days this time) and we had just as good time as the first time. On the last trip we took off from Cortina and did a little bit of Alta Via 1. Awesome trek that hopefully will write up some day.
Thanks for reading.