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Walking the Alta Via 1, the Dolomites' Original Long Distance Trail

© James Rushforth

Cecilia Mariani enjoys the oldest long distance trail in the Dolomites and still, many would say, the greatest, taking in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. If you like your views full of drama, but also appreciate the comfort of mountain huts, and regular stops for strudel and coffee, then there can't be many better paces for a walking holiday!  


The Dolomites are renowned worldwide for some of the most jaw dropping scenery in the whole of the Alps. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, this is not only a place of incomparable natural beauty, but are also full of history. These spectacular limestone peaks were the stage of many dreadful battles during World War I, but they also saw many first ascents during the first years of mountaineering development in the area. Top it up with sunshine and great food and you have a compelling place to walk.

The Dolomites offer some of the best hiking on the planet  © James Rushforth
The Dolomites offer some of the best hiking on the planet
© James Rushforth

With inaccessible summits and superb rock faces, the Dolomites are a paradise for rock climbers and mountaineers alike. But an intricate network of walking paths and mountain huts makes these mountains accessible for trekkers and day hikers too, allowing them to explore the area with just a pair of boots and a rucksack. Some of these paths can be connected to create multi day adventures, and that is what someone did years ago, coming up with the concept of Alta Via.

Alta Via literally means "high route" in Italian and it refers to a multi day trek that develops for the most part high up in the mountains, using mountain huts and shelters as a stop for the night. There are officially ten Alte Vie (yep, that's the correct plural form, and not Alta Vias!) in the Dolomites, and many more across the Alps, but the Alta Via 1 is the oldest and by far the most famous of them all. Starting at Lago di Braies, in Alto Adige, and ending in Belluno, Veneto, the Alta Via 1 crosses some of the most iconic peaks and spots in the eastern Dolomites, and its an absolute must for every hiker who wants to discover this beautiful corner of the alps.

Some of the terrain is quite rough underfoot  © Cecilia Mariani
Some of the terrain is quite rough underfoot
© Cecilia Mariani

But the scenery is stunning all the way  © Cecilia Mariani
But the scenery is stunning all the way
© Cecilia Mariani

I was lucky enough to guide a group of people along this route last summer. Eight days and around 120km with nothing but the sky above our heads and lots of polenta in our bellies. Here's how it went.

Day 1: from Lago di Braies to Rifugio Pederù

Excitement was high on day one, as the group and I approached the starting point of the trek. Lago di Braies is perhaps the most famous lake in the whole of the Dolomites, and a popular destination with tourists from all over the world. We walked along its shores and quickly veered off along our path towards Forcella Sora Forno and Rifugio Biella. And what better way to start our trek than some hut food? There's no denying it: Italian hut food is delicious, but we had to be careful not to eat too much or we wouldn't be able to walk for the second half of the day.

The walk down to Rifugio Pederù was long, as we lost almost all the height that we had already gained, but enjoyable nonetheless. It took us through the Senes mountains and all the way down to the valley, where a hot shower and a delicious meal were waiting for us.

It's easy to see why Lago di Braies is so well known   © James Rushforth
It's easy to see why Lago di Braies is so well known
© James Rushforth

Day 2: from Rifugio Pederù to Rifugio Lagazuoi

An early start was in order today as a long day awaited us. We started form Rifugio Pederù at 1500m and our goal for the day was Rifugio Lagazuoi at 2700m, the highest point of the whole trek. The weather forecast wasn't the best and our legs were a bit tired after the first day, but we still set off with a smile.

In the morning we crossed the Fanes plateau, an area famous for its strange and interesting rock formations such as the "Marmot Parliament", a huge limestone amphitheatre so called because of its shape as well as the amount of marmots present in the area. This area is also the scene of many legends and fairytales linked to the original inhabitants of these lands, which give it a magical atmosphere.

After lunch we started climbing towards Forcela di Lech, as the forecasted rain finally made an appearance. We then descended steeply on the other side, took a break by Lêch de Lagaciò and tackled the last hill of the day all the way to Rifugio Lagazuoi. We were glad to reach it, as the hut magically appeared through the mist. It was a long day and a drink was called for, followed by a much needed very early night.

Day 3: from Rifugio Lagazuoi to Rifugio Averau

Day three was quite different from the others and very interesting from a historical point of view. From Rifugio Lagazuoi, in fact, and all the way down to Passo Falzarego runs a network of tunnels that were dug into the mountain during World War I. This area was right on the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was the stage of many battles throughout the war. These tunnels have now been restored and secured and hikers who visit the area can walk though them and experience something of what it must have been like for a soldier to be there during the war.

After the tunnels we continued on our journey on the other side of Passo Falzarego. A short but very scenic walk took us to Forcella Averau, and from there we reached our hut for the night, which was just around the corner. Rifugio Averau was by far the fanciest hut we stayed in along the way, more similar to a hotel than a mountain hut. Since we got there quite early in the afternoon we all sat outside on the terrace and soaked up the last of the afternoon sun, before going back in for another delicious meal.

There are lots of ups and downs along the way  © Cecilia Mariani
There are lots of ups and downs along the way
© Cecilia Mariani

But also plenty of spots for an idyllic breather!  © Cecilia Mariani
But also plenty of spots for an idyllic breather!
© Cecilia Mariani

Day 4: from Rifugio Averau to Passo Staulanza

We could definitely feel that summer was coming to an end in the fresh morning breeze, as we set off early on our walk down to Passo Giau. On the pastures just above the pass we met flocks of sheep making the most of what was left of the fresh grass, and getting ready to return to the valley for the winter. Once at the pass we enjoyed a good cup of coffee on the terrace, warming up in the sun.

We set off again on the steady walk to Forcella Giau, then reached Forcella Ambrizzola and stopped at Forcella Roan for lunch. Here we had the first of many naps on the grass after lunch, which quickly became a tradition and something we wouldn't miss any of the remaining days. Regenerated, and maybe a little sunburnt, we then started our descent to Rifugio Città di Fiume, with a mandatory stop for a coffee and a piece of strudel, and continued to Passo Staulanza, our stop for the night.

We were all feeling good after the first few days on the trail, our legs were not sore anymore and it was nice to keep seeing the same faces every day, of the many hikers that were walking the same route as us. An early night was in order, to get ready for the following day: one of the most iconic stages on the Alta Via 1.

The jaw-dropping Monte Civetta  © James Rushforth
The jaw-dropping Monte Civetta
© James Rushforth

Day 5: from Passo Staulanza to Rifugio Vazzoler

Yes, day five was by far the most scenic day on the trek, as it took us under one of the most iconic faces in the whole of the Dolomites: the north-west face of Monte Civetta. At 4km long and 1000 metres high this vertical wall is known as "the face of all faces", home to many of the most famous climbing routes in the area.

We still had to sweat a bit before we got to see it though, so we started our way up from Passo Staulanza to Rifugio Coldai. And could we walk past the hut without stopping for a coffee? Of course not. After this we started walking under the north-west face itself, admiring its majestic look and imposing size. We walked through boulder fields and meadows, we passed two of the most famous pillars along the face, Torre Venezia and Torre Trieste, and finally reached Rifugio Vazzoler.

Here we had our first taste of a proper alpine hut: much more basic then what we had been used to so far but not in the least worse than the others. We still had amazing food, met some good people and enjoyed a glass of wine on the terrace in the sun. Until we couldn't keep our eyes open anymore, and retired to our rooms to rest and prepare for the following day.

Day 6: from Rifugio Vazzoler to Passo Duran

Today we continued walking along the southern side of Civetta and Moiazza, and the scenery was similar to the previous day. The path was a never ending up and down, which turned out to be quite tiring for the legs. Plus, we were starting to feel the many days of hiking in a row and were starting to look forward to the approaching end of the trek. Nevertheless, we got to Rifugio Carestiato early enough, and had the time to chill on the terrace for a while, savouring one of the best strudels on the trek. Then a short half an hour walk led us to Passo Duran, where we would spend the night.

Here, at Rifugio San Sebastiano, we received a four star welcome as the owner Beniamino got interested into our trip and spent some time talking to us. Needless to say, we were in bed by 9 o'clock, all tucked under and ready for a good night's sleep.

Dolomite refuges include some of the most spectacularly-located huts in Europe  © James Rushforth
Dolomite refuges include some of the most spectacularly-located huts in Europe
© James Rushforth

Day 7: from Passo Duran to Rifugio Pramperet

After six days walking amongst some of the most famous peaks in the Dolomites, we were about to enter a wilder and lesser known area: the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park. The change in scenery could be felt immediately, but that is not to say that it was less impressive than what we had already seen. We met fewer people, the paths were narrower, and it was nice to go through this change and see another side of these mountains.

The walk today was pretty chilled, we had plenty of time to stop and, of course, have a nap in the sun before we reached our hut for the night. Rifugio Pramperet was by far the most basic hut we stayed in along the trek but, at the same time, is was also the best. We could immediately feel at home, as we sat outside in the sun with the guardian and other walkers, drinking beer and talking about what we had been up to that day. Then we all sat together inside for dinner, ate the usual "spezzatino con polenta" and shared stories with the other hikers. We went to bed tired but very happy; it was our last night on the trek and we couldn't ask for a better goodbye.

Day 8: from Rifugio Pramperet to Forno di Zoldo

We finally got to the last day on the trek, which welcomed us with warm sunshine outside the hut. We said goodbye to our hosts and started making our way down to the village of Forno di Zoldo, our end point. This is not the real end to the Alta Via 1. The trek continues for another two days to the town of Belluno, going through some more technical terrain, which we decided to skip this time.

The descent was pretty straightforward, as it followed a big forest track all the way to the town. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on the last few days, take it all in, and get ready for the end. By noon we were in town, sat down on a bench to savour our last cheese sandwich and a gelato, and waited for out transfer to take us back to Cortina, were we would have a last meal together and say goodbye to each other.


Every trekker who enjoys the mountains and multi day trips should walk the Alta Via 1. It is such a great route, full of history and culture, in one of the most magnificent natural environments in the world. It is definitely a challenge, with many metres of ascent and descent every day, and long distances - but totally worth it!

The scenery just keeps coming!  © James Rushforth
The scenery just keeps coming!
© James Rushforth

Factfile

Guidebook

The guidebook I used is Alta Via 1 from Cicerone 

Maps

When I'm in the Dolomites I use the Tabacco maps, by far the best for the area (in my opinion). They are 1:25000 scale maps and the sheets needed for the Alta Via 1 are the following (some of them overlap):

n. 031 "Dolomiti di Bràies" from Lago di Bràies to Rifugio Fànes;

n. 03 "Cortina d'Ampezzo e Dolomiti Ampezzane" from Rifugio Biella to Forcella Ambrizzòla;

n. 015 "Marmolada-Pelmo-Civetta-Moiazza" from Passo Falzàrego to Rifugio Carestiato;

n. 025 "Dolomiti di Zoldo Cadorine e Agordine" from Forcella Ambrizzòla to Bivacco del Màrmo;

n. 024 "Prealpi e Dolomiti Bellunesi", from Bivacco del Màrmol to Belluno

These maps can be bought online or in any good outdoor shop or bookshop in the area.

Regular waymarking helps keep you on track  © Cecilia Mariani
Regular waymarking helps keep you on track
© Cecilia Mariani

What to take for a summer visit? 

It can be very warm during the day in the summer, but it can also become very cold in the evening so it's important to be prepared for different types of weather. In your bag you'll need:

Shorts or long trousers, depending on your preference

T-shirts

Fleece

Warm jacket for the evening

Waterproof jacket and trousers

Clothes to sleep in

Underwear and walking socks

Walking boots

Walking poles

A good rucksack to carry everything you need

Water bottle and filter, to fill up along the way

Sun hat and sunscreen

Warm hat and gloves

Sleeping bag liner (mandatory in all mountain huts)

Where to stay

A mix of mountain huts and small pensions/huts by the side of the road, on mountain passes. It's better to book in advance, especially in the summer, to be sure to have a place. A good starting/ending point for walking the Alta Via 1 is Cortina d'Ampezzo, where you'll find everything you need before you start your adventure.

Food and supplies

Aside from eating in huts, how much scope is there for food shopping at the start, and then during the walk?

As the Alta Via 1 doesn't cross any villages, it's pretty much impossible to restock the food supplies along the way. All huts include dinner and breakfast in their half pension option, and they also provide packed lunches upon request (book the night before and pick up at breakfast). Most days you'll also walk past mountain huts along the way, another option for lunch or a great coffee and cake stop.

When to go

Are high passes likely to be snow covered in early summer, and if so would this be better done in high summer? How about autumn – do huts close etc when the weather gets colder, and when would generally be too late in the season to plan a trek?

Huts are normally open between the 20th of June and the 20th of September, so you'll need to plan your trip within these dates if you're planning on using them. The early season could be tricky and, depending on the amount of snow that fell over the winter, there could still be patches of snow on the high passes.

August is when most Italians go on holiday, so it could be pretty busy then. In September the days are shorter but the weather could be quite stable, and the mountains will definitely be more quiet. I suggest going between the second week of July and the 20th of September, avoiding the middle two weeks of August if you don't want the mountain to be too busy.

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Well i tried for the AV1 this summer (2022) but when I started checking out huts in May for a July trip they were fully booked up. Seems like post Covid one of the other 9 Alta Vias might be a better bet, though they're technically more demanding than AV1.

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