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Easy Walks in the Gran Paradiso Destination Guide

© Dan Bailey

It may be only a stone's throw from the bustling Mont Blanc range, yet the Gran Paradiso feels a world away. Italy's first National Park, this peaceful enclave is an antidote to crowded trails and ski resort clutter. Anchoring the heart of the range is the great white peak of the Gran Paradiso itself, the only 4000m giant to which the country can lay absolute, undisputed claim. From glaciers and sharp rocky summits, down through stark stony passes and tarn-speckled grassy plateaux, to pine woods and valley pastures, the park spans the full range of classic alpine scenery. You're never far from a picturesque stone-built village here, nor the sound of cow bells; yet peel back the tourist cliches and the Gran Paradiso feels surprisingly un-touristy.

Gran Paradiso from the Nivolet plateau  © Dan Bailey
Gran Paradiso from the Nivolet plateau
© Dan Bailey

Whether you're an alpinist, a rock climber or a long distance backpacker heading for the stunning Alta Via 2 route, there's something for everyone here. But for now we'll stick to the gentlest possible end of the spectrum - the network of superb family-friendly footpaths that crisscross the forests and meadows far below the summer snow line. Alpine walking may not get much easier, and yet it's not exactly tame. Thanks to the park's conservation effort, here you're as likely to meet wildlife as other walkers.

Heading for Lago di Dres  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Lago di Dres
© Dan Bailey

Bounding the south side of the massif, the scenic Orco valley has perhaps the biggest choice of easier days. With kids in tow, just three and five, we based ourselves here for a week. Here's our guide to the best of the trails:

Nivolet plateau

A rolling grassland ringed with a jagged skyline of distant higher peaks, this is a fascinating place for a leisurely wander among summer flowers and dozens of little lakes. The atmosphere is more Andean Altiplano than the Alps as we thought we knew them, but on a manageable scale.

Above Lago Rosset  © Dan Bailey
Above Lago Rosset
© Dan Bailey

Having arranged to be joined by a National Park guide for our first day, a gentle intro to gauge the kids' ability, we followed her in the car on a series of crazy hairpins up out of the Orco valley to the end of the public road high on the plateau. With a start at 2500m, our first day would be the literal high point of the week - enough of an altitude for our sea level lungs to feel it.

Gran Paradiso from Lago Rosset  © Dan Bailey
Gran Paradiso from Lago Rosset
© Dan Bailey

Enrica Fantini proved a fantastic guide for the girls in particular, keeping their minds off the (easy) climb and engaged with the little things that I for one might not have noticed - marmot holes, silvery caterpillar cocoons, a multitude of tiny flowers. Amost oblivious to the grandeur of their wider surroundings, they cheerfully nibbled sorrel and wild spinach, and played with eagle feathers and ibex horns - props Enrica had up her sleeve. Late lying snow patches offered a bit of unexpected fun (how much can you get in Dad's hat?), while at Lago Rosset the winter ice was still clinging on in slushy floes. In pursuit of ibex and chamois sightings we headed on up to a higher tarn, an idyllic lunch spot reflecting the skyline of the Gran Paradiso. Even from this distance the line of its normal route was visible as a trail across the glacier, and through binoculars the tiny figures of descending climbers could just about be made out. Returning over the flower meadows was like a scene from the Sound of Music. Daisy declared that she wanted to be a guide when she grew up. Things were off to a good start.

Rifugio Jervis

On day two we upped the ante. The girls had never stayed a night in an alpine hut, so now seemed a good time to put that right.

Rifugio Jervis - what a setting!  © Dan Bailey
Rifugio Jervis - what a setting!
© Dan Bailey

Having stocked up on basic snacks in the tiny hamlet of Villa, we crossed a wooden bridge over the Torrente Orco and headed up into the welcome shade of deep larch woods. While I was inevitably expedition porter the girls played the role of mini guides, delighting in spotting the paint splashes that mark the trail (you'd struggle to get lost) as it wound picturesquely uphill through the pines. At a rest-and-refuel stop in the shadow of an overhang, butterflies settled on us. With a crash, a pair of startled chamois raced across the wooded slope above. We saw only four other people all the way - also a family with young children. An ascent of some 700m that might take adults a comfortable couple of hours was stretched over an unhurried half day, but with frequent snacks and plenty of distraction the kids did it all under their own steam.

Up near the tree line, heading for the refuge  © Dan Bailey
Up near the tree line, heading for the refuge
© Dan Bailey

Gradually the trees got smaller and the woods thinned, views opening up across the Orco valley to snow-dappled peaks. Despite a cooling breeze we took it gently, ambling between water breaks and patches of shade. Right on the treeline the refuge came into sight, standing on a rocky bluff beside a small dammed lake, backed by the huge crumbling rock-and-ice wall of the 3500m Levanna. Scrambly peaks could be bagged from here - you might even pop over the frontier ridge into France. But not for us; instead a relaxed few hours were spent sunbathing in deck chairs, building dams in the glacial torrent and gambolling about in the hidden meadow beyond the refuge, a grassy basin running up to the foot of the Levanna. Italy must be one of the most child-friendly countries to travel, and the Jervis refuge was no exception, the guardian proving utterly tolerant of our noise and the mess of felt tip pens and risotto with which his tables were soon covered.

Levanna Centrale from the meadow above the Rifugio Jervis  © Dan Bailey
Levanna Centrale from the meadow above the Rifugio Jervis
© Dan Bailey

In descent, next moring, we felt up to the tougher direct route down, a couple of hours of steep forest zigzagging that saw us back at our valley campsite for lunch, with plenty of time in hand for an afternoon at the playground and a lavish dinner out in the pretty main village of the upper valley, Ceresole Reale.

Sentiero Bruno Tempo

On the Sentiero Bruno Tempo high over the upper Orco valley  © Dan Bailey
On the Sentiero Bruno Tempo high over the upper Orco valley
© Dan Bailey

Starting from the hairpins of the Nivolet road, a number of trails traverse the northern flank of the valley at various heights. An old military road, the Bruno Tempo path strikes an airy line along roughly the 2000m contour. With minimal ascent in the first couple of kilometres this seemed a safe bet for an easy afternoon, but we hadn't reckoned on the lack of shade - you're far above the forest at this point. The views proved spectacular, but some careful hand holding was required where the unprotected edge of the trail, gradually crumpling with age, drops off into steep grass slopes and crags. Though a circular route incorporating one of the other paths could easily be devised, a couple of hours out-and-back seemed enough for us. You've got to leave some energy for stream paddling and marmot watching in the wildflower meadows, after all.

Lago di Dres

Crossing the Rio del Dres  © Dan Bailey
Crossing the Rio del Dres
© Dan Bailey

A big day to finish, but it was well worth goading the nippers into one last effort for this gem. An enthusiastic expert on all the local walks, with a parent's knack for judging what's feasible with kids, our campsite host Alessandra had raved about this one most of all - and it would be hard to fault her recommendation. A clear tarn set in a marshy hollow below ragged rock peaks, Lago di Dres is pretty much the archetypal place to sit and eat your bread and cheese. Better yet, not a midge or mozzie to be seen - something you probably couldn't say for most Scottish mountain lochs in July. Ducking in and out of the National Park boundary, the six hundred metre ascent through the pine forest proved varied enough to take the girls' minds off their overworked legs, and while the afternoon return did seem to start dragging a little for them it was nothing that a word for word rendition of The Hobbit couldn't sort out. We made it down ahead of the first spots of impending rain, a change in the weather that provided the perfect bookend to our stay in the valley.

Valle d'Orco

Famous for its granite rock climbing, this long scenic valley also makes the perfect destination for a low-key alpine walking holiday, with something to suit everyone from the 4000m galcier plod of the Gran Paradiso down to short waymarked valley trails. With a wide selection of routes and easy road access to the Nivolet plateau, the upper valley is arguably best for walkers. Base yourself in or around the main village of Ceresole Reale, a chocolate box location on the shore of Lago di Ceresole.

When to go

Late May through to early October for walking in summer conditions. Outside weekends and the peak holiday season in late July and August, expect things to be fairly quiet. However in early summer there may still be significant snow up high, while towards autumn the weather tends to deteriorate. Alpine refuges in the area are only staffed from late June through to September.

Getting there

The nearest city, Turin, is well served by budget flights from the UK. While it's possible to reach Ceresole Reale by bus, a hire car greatly improves your options for accessing walks (and groceries). Alternatively, if you happen to be in the Chamonix area - as one often is - then the Orco valley is an easy 3-hour drive largely on motorways via the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Supplies

In the upper valley food shops, or alimentari, are small, basic and relatively expensive. The nearest mini supermarket (and we do mean mini) is in the town of Locana, a 45 minute drive down hairpins and scary tunnels from Ceresole Reale. It is worth stocking up with basic staples here as you first head through, or in a mega supermarket on the plains below.

Where to stay

From guesthouses and hotels to several campsites, all the usual options are available around Ceresole Reale. Among the campsites there does not look to be a bad option. We stayed at the well-named Piccolo Paradiso (little paradise). Occupying a peaceful spot in riverside woods, it is the furthest campsite up-valley from Ceresole. With swings, boules and a shady play area complete with toys, this small family-run site could not be more child friendly; and if you want advice on local walks then owner Alessandra is your woman. For those (like us) who baulked at bringing a tent on the plane, self catering cabins are available for rent. There's even a bar and pizzeria on site; a good one too.

For more info on Piccolo Paradiso see the website

Run by the Club Alpina Italia, the Rifugio Guglielmo Jervis is one of several manned huts in the Gran Paradiso area, with excellent catering and facilities. For families wanting an overnight adventure this makes an ideal manageable goal in itself, while stronger walkers could incorporate a hut night here with a visit to an easy neighbouring peak, or to Lago di Dres via the Colle di Nel. Book ahead at weekends.

For more on the refuge see here

Eating out

Several small restaurants and pizza places are dotted along the valley, generally of the low key variety. For something a little special the restaurant at Chalet del Lago in downtown Ceresole offers a range of ultra-local specialities, from cured meats and pasta to craft beers. It's hearty mountain peasant fare, but done to an amazing standard. Wait til you're really hungry.

Tourist info

Tourist Office, Via Pio VII, 9 10135 Torino (opening times: Monday to Friday: 9 -12). tel. 0039 011-8606233 Email: info@pngp.it

The Gran Paradiso National Park website is also a useful source of information - see here

National Park Guides

With decent maps and clearly marked trails, experienced walkers will have no need for a guide. However, from up to date trail info to the lowdown on flora, fauna, geology and history, some local knowledge goes a long way. Counter to my general DIY attitude, we were very pleased to be accompanied on our first day. We loved Enrica! The National Park provides a superb guiding service, with an emphasis on nature and conservation - see here.

Maps

Carta della Valle d'Orco 08 from Alpi Canavesane: Produced at a handy scale of 1:20,000 and printed on waterproof paper, this new and very clear walker's map is said by locals to be the best. We certainly got on well with it.

Gran Paradiso book cover  © Cicerone

Guidebook

Cicerone guide Gran Paradiso, Alta Via 2 trek and day walks by Gillian Price

This pocket sized book covers nearly 30 walks in the National Park, from the multi day Ala Via 2 to gentle valley strolls that even kids will find easy. Several routes are detailed in and around the Orco valley, including plenty of info for anyone who'd like to up the ante a bit from the routes in this article.

  • Cicerone are offering an exclusive 25% discount to UKH readers (promo code UKHGP) - buy the book here



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