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 we 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.
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 about 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 daytime 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.