Superlatives run out quickly for this famous mountain range. The jagged forms are ubiquitously described as towers, castles and cathedrals with Swiss architect Le Corbusier calling them “the most beautiful architectures in the world”.
Name: The Dolomites / Dolomiti (Italian)
Highest Point: Marmolada (3342m/ 10,965ft)
Area of range: 15,942 sq km
Location: Northern Italy, between Verona, Italy and the Austrian border.
First ascent: Marmalada was first climbed in 1864 by Paul Grohmann (North Face) and the South Face was first climbed 1901 by Beatrice Tomasson, Michele Bettega and Bartolo Zagonel.
Introduction to the Dolomites.
Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2009 as ‘highly distinctive mountain landscapes that are of exceptional natural beauty’, the Dolomites have a fascinating ancient and recent history.
Its low peaks and wide passes made it an important central Europe territory during World War I. Many battlefield sites can be visited and the Vie Ferrata or Iron Paths that criss-cross the mountains are a relic of the conflict. Happily they now make today’s Dolomites far more accessible for adventure.
The safety of its low peaks and wide plateaus contrast with the danger of vertical drops and eroding rock surfaces. The challenges for climbers are many and varied in these mountains, challenges that should never be under-estimated.
Easily navigable with many local villages, these mountains are worth visiting over and over again.
Geography of the Dolomites.
The Dolomites are located in the Eastern Alps in northern Italy, stretching north-east from Verona. Less of a linear range than, say, the Pyrenees they form a lopsided circle where the sub-ranges are organised like counties.
The name comes from a mineral that’s found in these mountains: Dolomite. It was named after the 18th CenturyFrench geologist Dieudonné Dolomieu who studied the region from 1789 onwards. Before that they were known as the ‘Pale Mountains’, referencing the mesmeric light grey tone of the rocks and bouncing sunlight.
A total of 54 peaks are divided into the 17 different sub-ranges in the range, though boundaries and definitions change regularly and depend on who you talk to. They are also referred to as the Western and Eastern Dolomites. The range is bordered by valleys on each side: Asarco Valley (west), Piave Valley (east and south), Val Pusteria/ Pustertal (north).
The Dolomites are low compared to nearby ranges, with an average height under 3,000m/ 9,000ft and a modest high point at 3342m (10,965ft). But it is not height that gives these mountains their deserved fame.
The Dolomites are very old, with rock formed as long as 280 million years ago. They were formed through a number of processes including ancient volcanic activity, the build up of sediment when the area was a shallow part of the huge Tethys sea and the establishment of coral atolls during this time.
This is one of the reasons the Dolomites have unique value to geologists and mountaineers alike. The mountain range gives a rare and consistent display of the region’s ancient history from the Permian era to today. The fossilised relics of the coral and animals millions of years old present in the rock contribute to the Dolomites’ UNESCO status.
The two best known types of rock found here are dolomite and the light-coloured dolomitic limestone. It’s the latter than gives the mountains their famous jagged appearance. Easily eroded, this sedimentary rock makes up the long scree slopes that line the base of the vertical mountains.
Dolomite itself is only found in certain places and is not as widespread as its name might suggest. There is also volcanic rock found throughout much of the range, including near the highest peak Marmolada and on the Padon Ridge.
The primary glacier in the range is the Ghiacciaio Marmolada, sweeping 12km across and down the north face of the Marmolada. Though it doesn’t reach the very peak, this glacier does reach the ridge-line in places and so will be met by most adventurers aiming for the summit or skiers looking for great slopes.
There are up to 40 other glaciers throughout the Dolomites, many of which are in retreat. None have the same dominating presence as the Marmalada glacier and amongst the rock forms, the glaciers are generally something of an after-thought in the Dolomite’s attraction.
Wildlife of the Dolomites.
Animal life in the Dolomites is typical of the Alps more generally.
On the high slopes, sure-footed chamois or ibex may be spotted defying gravity up vertical cliffs.
Overhead, you might be fortunate enough to see one of many predatory bird species. These include: golden eagles, goshawks, bearded vultures and Eurasian eagle owls. Or look down in the meadows for the ground nesting capercaillie and black grouse.
In the forested areas, keep an eye out – or maybe ear out – for woodpeckers, common in the valleys. At dusk you could be lucky enough to catch sight of several of the owl species that live at lower levels.
Marmots, red squirrels, stoats and hares can be seen scurrying from spring to Autumn before their winter hibernations. As for reptiles, in wetter areas, amphibians such as the fire salamander can be spotted, while vipers and European adders inhabit drier places.
The wide valleys of the Dolomites were once significantly forested. Now trees are more sparely distributed amongst grassy meadows. However, this detracts nothing from the colourful richness of flora found on and between the mountains.
At least 1400 species of flora can be identified in the Dolomites, though depending on the definition of what and where can be considered ‘Dolomitic Flora’ this number can almost double. Seen during the major blossoming of the spring it would be hard to doubt this!
Trees found in the Dolomites include (from low to high elevations): broadleaf trees in the valleys, conifers, beech, Norway spruces, Swiss stone pines, mugo pines and, at high elevations, dwarf willows.
Endemic flora species in the Dolomites include:
- Campanula morettiana – a purple flowering plant that grows in the vertical cracks between rocks from 1000-2000m (3281-6562ft),
- Saxifraga facchinii – a rare white and green flowering furry plant found amongst rocks at the highest reaches of the Dolomites,
- Papaver alpinum rhaeticum – a rare yellow-flowered perennial found over 3000m (9843ft). This is a real prize if you see one, but don’t pick them as they’re a protected species.
Walking and Climbing in the Dolomites.
The highest mountain in the Dolomites is Punta Penia on Marmolada, standing at a modest 3342m (10,965ft). Yet this mountain sets the tone for the Dolomites fame. From its jagged rocky peak, the South Face plummets 610m (2000ft) vertically, setting up a theme of drama and wonder that runs throughout the rest of the range.
The largest vertical drops in the range are faces on Monte Agner (1800m/ 5906ft), Civetta (1200m/ 3937ft) and Sassulungo (1500m/ 4921ft). Many of the drops finish in gently sloping but treacherously slippery scree: fragments of limestone that have fallen from the peak. The drops are made that much more impressive by the landscape of wide valleys and isolated peaks.
One of the most famous mountains is Cima Grande or High Top (2999m/ 9839ft) standing highest at the centre of three isolated slab-like mountains known as Le Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
Cima Grande’s sheer North Face is an infamous challenge for all climbers. It is considered one of the great North Face climbing challenges in the Alps, alongside the Matterhorn, Grande Jorasses and Eiger.
Most of the Dolomites were first climbed during the 1860 and 1870s by English mountaineers. This was the era when rock climbing was actively developed as a sport. The Dolomites mountain range was one of three principle areas were this was happening, along with the Elbe Sandstone Mountains near Dresden and the Lake District in England.
Key Walking Routes:
Hiking in the Dolomites is best done from late June to September, when all refuges are in-season. With little snow on the ground in this time, the only real weather dangers come from the afternoon thunderstorms. If you’re on the mountain during one of these, steer clear of the Vie Ferrata. Day hiking is possible year-round from any one of the villages within the range.
The abundance of refuges means it’s possible to hike carrying a smaller pack. Food and accommodation can be sought out each night, (best to book ahead during the peak season), though carrying sufficient water is essential. With little snow melt and few melt water streams to fill up water bottles, it’s advised to carry all the water, and food, you’ll need for the day in with you.
Some of the best known hikes in the Dolomites are the Alta Vie, translating as ‘high streets or routes’. In German these routes are called Dolomitenhöhenweg, translating roughly as ‘Dolomite High Way’. These routes are numbered between one and ten.
The best known is Alta Via No.1 or Via Classico, a 150km (93mile) route from Lake Braies to Belluno. It was the first trekking route to be established through the Dolomites in the mid-1960s, with the other nine Alta Vie added by the late-1980s.
Many of these routes are planned with stages that begin and end at refuges (refugi in Italian) or villages. Alta Via No.1 has 13 day-long stages.
The longest route is Alta Via no.10 or Judikarienhöhenweg, which stretches for 200km (124mile) over 18 days from Bolzano to Lake Garda. The shortest is Alta Via No.4 or Via Grohmann at 90km (56miles) over 8 days.
Another famous Dolomite adventure is found in the Vie Ferrate, translated as the ‘Iron Paths’. A network of assisted hikes and climbs throughout the Dolomites consisting of cables, chains and ladders, these routes allow hikers to traverse near vertical routes that would otherwise be too great a challenge.
The Vie Ferrata were also mentioned in our Guide to the Alps.
The Brenta Dolomites or Dolomiti di Brenta, are a group north-west of Trento. Strictly speaking they aren’t part of the Dolomites range, but rather the Central Alps, (although their name clearly disputes this!) They are a different type of mountain challenge, with more snow and ice present at the summits, requiring extra caution to be taken and equipment to be carried.
Hiking here is typically interspersed with climbing challenges. High routes include some pretty precarious paths and ledges. On the whole though, the Brenta Dolomites offer a more solitary, quieter mountain adventure, with fewer people on the routes than on the Alta Vie routes.
The Via delle Bocchetta or Bochetta Way, is a hut-to-hut traverse from Madonna di Campiglio on the West to Refugio Casinei in the South-east. Making use of the Vie Ferrata, this is a five-day hike that offers a quintessential experience of Dolomite hiking, without the need for too much prior mountaineering experience.
There are two circular routes through the Brenta Dolomites that offer adventure options to different experience levels. The Country Route is a leisurely eight to ten day hike through valleys and mountain passes. Normally this route begins and ends in Madonna di Campiglio, west of the range.
For the more experienced advneturer, the Expert Route or DBT Expert, is a 96km (60mile) route with a range of possible variants to add or reduce challenge.
With over 8.5km of elevation gained and lost in the duration and much of the route spent at the higher altitudes, this route requires some mountaineering equipment and prior experience on the Vie Ferrata. A circuit, this route can be begun at any of the villages around the base of the range.
A newer route, Il Cammino delle Dolomiti, is the Dolomite’s answer to the Camino De Santiago in the Pyrenees. The 30-stage walk is a circular route around the Italian diocese of Belluno-Feltre beginning and ending in San Vittore. The route reflects the importance of religion to the region and the Italian culture more widely, though does not yet have the prestige of its Spanish equivalent.
Many of the Dolomites’ Mountains can be climbed, due to their low heights, favourable seasonal weather and wide plateaus. There is no need to plan for multi-day ascents, unless you are taking on a very long and technically difficult climb up one of the near vertical drops.
To reach some of the summits, however, climbing rather than hiking is the principle activity.
Other adventure sports.
- Rock Climbing – The smooth limestone and hole-filled dolomite rocks make an inviting prospect for climbers. Some of the best areas for climbing include: the Brenta Dolomites, Sella Towers, Piz Ciavazes, Sassolungo and Cima Grande.
With routes up to 800m (2625ft) long, there are occasions to take a bivouac sack for an overnight stay on the mountain side. However, many climbs can be completed in a day, or high refuges reached to spend a more comfortable night.
With so many vertical rock faces to explore the Dolomites are best explored climbing straight up rather than walk around. With a wide scope of climbing for all abilities and fitness levels, if you visit the Dolomites, climbing really should be on your itinerary.
- Mountain Biking – The wide plateaus and ridge lines of the Dolomites lends it favourably to mountain bikers. Today, there are mountain biking schools within the mountains that offer training and guided tours.
Tarmac, gravel and dirt tracks make up many of the routes, with some areas of scree or verticality requiring the bike to be carried. In some places, cable car transfers are also available, perhaps bypassing those pesky uphills!
The reward is a chance to fly through this truly stunning scenery. Taking on some downhill challenges will give those adrenalin-fuelled adventurers motivation too, made that bit harder by having to avoid the loose rocks that litter the paths.
- Skiiing – Cortina d’Ampezzo is the centre of the Dolomites in winter, though an expensive one. It hosted the 1956 Olympics, reflecting the town’s winter sport pedigree.
There are 12 main ski resorts in the Dolomites, with the most visited being the Val Gardena. Due to the low heights and limited snow season, skiing in the Dolomites is definitely a winter adventure.
Getting to the Dolomites.
With its wide plateaus and valleys, travel around the Dolomites is relatively easy.
The mountains have great road access, making it possible to drive around and within the range. Most of the roads follow the valleys carving through the mountains. Great news for climbers and hikers wanting to experience a number of adventures during a single visit.
The primary north to south route passes through the Campolongo Pass (1875m/ 6152ft) and the east to west pass through a number of passes. These include:
- Sella (2257m/ 7404 ft),
- Pordoi (2239m/ 7346 ft), the highest fully surfaced road in the mountains,
- Gardena (2121m/ 6959 ft).
- Falzarego (2105m/ 6906 ft),
- Tre Croci (1809m/ 5935 ft).
There is also an excellent bus service, Dolomitibus (Italian website), serving the area. Trains only reach the valleys surrounding the range. Trenitalia serve the Italian side and Pustertalbahn serve the Austrian side.
The nearest international airports to the Dolomites are:
- Venice, Italy – serving the central and eastern areas,
- Verona, Italy – serving the southern areas,
- Innsbruck, Austria – serving the northern areas.
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