What: thru-hike of the Alta Via 1.
Where: Dolomite mountain range, Italy.
When: August 24-31, 2022 (8 days).
Distance: about 92 miles.
Highlights: fabulous scenery, fine mountain hiking, well maintained trails, refuges.
Cam Honan’s Hiking Life website includes an excellent trip report with detailed logistical information. We found his data to be useful, accurate, and complete. It is the only reference we used.
Several web based booking services will reserve refuges for a thru-hike. If you plan on utilizing the refuges, using one of these services should be lot easier than trying to do it yourself as each refuge has its own reservation process and reservation acceptance dates. Pre-booking refuges is effectively mandatory as they are usually full throughout the primary hiking season. We have no specific recommendations for any of these services.
There are several published guidebooks, but it is not clear to us why one would be useful unless you are interested in the natural history, historical, and other cultural aspects of the walk. From a purely practical point of view, the Hiking Life site has all the information needed to plan a successful walk.
As for all our trips, we used Gaia GPS while hiking.
Why we went
Our GR5 trip report explains how we ended up in Italy seeking a new hiking plan. Once we had decided to abort our thru-hike of the GR5, we had to find an alternate hike that was relatively nearby, was the appropriate length, and was likely to excite us. Neither of us had ever been to the Dolomites and knew nothing about routes in the area. Our friend Alan sent us an e-mail and suggested Cam Honan’s post about hiking there. We read Cam’s report about the Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2, and decided that the 1 would be an ideal hike to take. It was a better fit for us as the 2 included several via ferrata sections for which we were not equipped.
Cam’s site had the gpx trail data and that was all we needed to prepare for this hike. While we were on the train to Italy, we downloaded the gpx files into Gaia and marked the location of the refuges on the route.
The Dolomites were a big surprise to me, as I had never looked at photos or read a trip report about the region. I was truly stunned and pleasantly surprised by the dramatic scenery. There was a lot of altitude gain and loss, but the trail quality was excellent so the walking was never challenging.
I am very happy we took this trip, and I found it to be more beautiful, more interesting, and much less crowded than the piece of the GR5 we had just hiked the prior weeks.
I think the AV1 is an excellent short hut-to-hut hike for strong hikers who want to have an alpine experience, but do not have backcountry wilderness skills.
I found this route to be a truly fun mountain walk. The scenic diversity was fabulous; every time I thought I had seen all that these mountains had to offer, we would cross a pass or go around a bluff and there would be yet another new and different type of formation. The vistas were constantly interesting and offered surprises again and again. The Dolomites are a truly beautiful range of mountains.
Even though the route tends to stay high, it offered a lot more habitat variety than was expected. There were beautiful open and grassy meadows, coniferous forests, hardwoods, and a few lakes. The limestone rock was attractive and colorful. We enjoyed the refuges, and the people running them were helpful, friendly and clearly loved their mountains.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The Dolomites are a range of mountains in northeastern Italy. Depending on what source is used, the geographical boundaries of the range differs a bit. The range is composed of various groups of clumped peaks scattered about with deep inhabited valleys between the clumps. The rock is primarily limestone. There are as many as ten different mapped Alta Vias (AV) in the Dolomites. The best known are the AV1 and AV2. These two routes, like most of the others, traverse the Dolomites from north to south.
The AV1’s northern terminus is at Lago di Braies. We walked the five miles from the Villabassa train station Instead of taking the bus to the lake. The very pleasant walking route traversed lovely little farming communities, open meadows, and some lowland forest. The region, while part of Italy, has its own distinct language dialect and a culture with old Austro-Hungarian roots.
Reaching the Lago itself was a shock. There was an enormous parking lot crammed with vehicles and hundreds of people wandering around, buying trinkets, and renting rowboats to paddle around the beautiful lake. Leaving the lake, we started up the trail and the number of people immediately dropped by 95%. There were still many dozens of day hikers heading up to the nearest refuge to enjoy the mountain scenery and enjoy lunch there. Other than a similar situation the next day, these were the only crowds we encountered on the trip.
Once past the first refuge, the number of people again dropped significantly, although every day encountered individuals and small groups thru-hiking the AV1. Most of these were self-guided groups that had booked overnight reservations at a refuge. We encountered one larger group being led by a professional guide.
Other than short diversions to a few restaurants, we followed the “official” route the entire way, except for the final mile. The only obvious reason to diverge from the official route would be to descend to an off-route town for food or lodging.
Various maps show two options for the southern-most leg of the AV1. One option overlaps a portion of the Munich to Venice Dream Path and continues south from the Rifugio Plan de Fontana to Belluno. This segment is considered to be an alternate finish to the AV1 but has a serious via ferrata that should only be attempted with proper equipment, good weather, and an appropriate skill set.
Most southbound hikers complete the AV1 by hiking from Rifugio Plan de Fontana downhill west-southwest to a bus stop called La Pissa, where there is regular bus service to Belluno. We decided to leave the AV1 before the La Pissa bus stop and walked north for about a mile to La Muda. Here we crossed the Torrente Cordelole on a fine new footbridge and then walked south on the Cammino delle Dolomiti to the town of Mas, where we caught a local bus to Belluno.
From Belluno, we followed the Cammino delle Dolomiti for 11 days; this will be covered in a separate article.
The trail was generally easy to follow, but AV1 waymarking is very inconsistent and there are numerous intersecting trails. A map of some kind is highly useful to stay on route. The walking was not technically difficult, but the total gain was over 34,000 feet or about 370 feet per mile. There are occasional steep sections where caution should be taken. There is one slightly exposed but not dangerous piece of trail near Forcella De Zita Sud.
The vast majority of hikers stayed in the refuges, and did not start walking until after breakfast, thus the trails were very quiet until mid-morning. Most people arrived at their evening refuge by 3 or 4 PM so the trails are nearly empty after that time as well.
Obtaining food was not a problem. There are no towns with markets on the route, but there are several restaurants that are on or very near to the trail; several of these restaurants also sold take away food. There are many refuges along the route; at our pace these were maybe a half day’s walk apart. At the refuges we were always able to obtain at least some basic food. The formal evening dinner was usually by reservation only. Lunch was available from about noon to 2:00 and the lunches were always good, although sometimes repetitious. At other times, pastries, sandwiches and occasionally omelets were available. Sometimes we were able to buy food to carry with us.
There are grocery stores in both Villabassa and Mas.
Water was always available at the refuges either from a local source or bottled. There is not a lot of surface water in the Dolomites as the rain soaks into the highly porous rock; streams were infrequent although we encountered several running springs.
We wild camped every night on this trip and were always able to find a descent site, although it sometimes took 30 minutes or more of scouting since the ground is rocky and uneven. We only saw three other parties camping while on the AV1. When we chatted with staff at the refuges and told them we were camping, nobody seemed bothered or surprised by what we were doing.
As in France, wild camping exists as a somewhat grey area. An overnight stay in a tent where you set up in the early evening and depart early in the morning is considered bivouacking and is legal in most places. We never saw a ranger of any kind during the entire walk, so never discussed this with anybody official. We also set up at discrete sites where we were unlikely to be noticed. The few other parties we saw in tents were camped in clearly visible locations.
It rained at some point most of the days we were on route. However, the amount and duration of the rainfall was generally negligible and not enough to bother with rain gear. We were happy to have a storm-worthy tent as we had two overnight storms with significant rainfall. Daytime temperatures were generally pleasant.