In researching our trip to the Dolomites, we chose Ortisei (St. Ulrich) as our base for a few days of hiking. Since we were not going to have a vehicle, we needed to stay somewhere with good accessibility to the trails without (we hoped) having to take too many slow, local busses just to arrive at the trailhead. Located in picturesque Val Gardena, a valley in the middle of the Dolomites that is occupied by three small towns, Ortisei seemed to be at the heart of many beautiful hikes.
ALPE DI SIUSI
Our first hike was on the beautiful Alpe di Siusi, a sprawling plateau south of Ortisei that is host to the largest alpine meadow in Europe. Though we’re not huge fans of taking chairlifts anywhere, it seemed they were inescapable in these areas – the towns were located in the valleys, 1,000+ meters from the starting point of many of the hikes. Hours of hiking through unremarkable forest just to arrive at the trailhead with half a day of hiking already spent seemed pointless, so we bought the astonishingly expensive lift ticket and up we went.
From the moment we stepped off the lift onto the high plateau, the jagged spines of the alpine peaks rose from the green rolling hills all around us. We hiked towards the three peaks of Sassopiatto, Sassolevante, and Sassolungo, which make up the Sassolungo Group, an iconic series of peaks on which ski races are held each winter season. We trekked up and down the grassy hillsides, passing rustic farms, gurgling streams, quaint cabins, and even a tiny church set against the dramatic backdrop of Sassopiatto’s summit. After arriving at the base of Sassopiatto, we continued around to the back of the mountain where we were greeted by a boundless vista of rugged, snow-capped mountains. Though the views begged us to continue, the route around the peaks’ base would have added another dozen miles to the hike, so we regretfully turned around and started back. With the vast network of multi-day routes stretching endlessly into the distance, it’s a veritable tease for hiking enthusiasts with limited time.
Total distance: 16.4 miles
Elevation gain: 4,091 feet
ALPE DI CISLES
Starting out to the northeast of Ortisei, our hike for the day began with a long, 2-part lift trip that covered over 4,500 meters of ground and 1,150 meters of elevation. We arrived on the Alpe di Cisles, near Seceda’s 8,264-foot (2,519-meter) summit, looking down on the clouds that were hovering over the surrounding valleys. A large and rambunctious family of alpine marmots made their presence known, poking their heads up above the grass and scrambling playfully along the rocky outcroppings.
Though the Geisler Group’s jagged peaks typically provide a dramatic view from the top of the lift, a heavy cloud bank had encased the entire formation in white – much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of the group of budding photographers we shared the chairlift with, all lugging heavy tripods to capture the early morning light. We set off to simply wander the plateau for a few hours, following a series of trails that brought us past a wonderful little stone church, and eventually to an odd collection of rocky outcroppings (Pieralongia), watched over by a few affable donkeys who Jenn immediately befriended. As we circled back towards the beginning of the hike, we found that the clouds had partially lifted, finally exposing the impressive views of the Geisler Group’s craggy cliffs and the lush valley below.
Total distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation gain: 2,218 feet
Promising epic views and incredible scenery, we decided to try one of the more famous high-altitude hikes around Val Gardena. We had been hoping to avoid a last lift ticket, but the bus service in the area becomes more limited in the shoulder season, meaning that no route regularly serviced Gardena Pass during our time there. Instead, we took a bus to the town of Selva Wolkenstein, where the Dantercepies gondola brought us to the beginning of the day’s hike.
The trail began with a series of steep switchbacks along the Cir Pass, following the base of the Pizes de Cir (Cir Group), which offered stunning views of the neighboring, snow-capped peaks of the Sella Group. Eventually, the trail leveled out on an incredible alpine traverse across the Puez Plateau, bringing us past a striking alpine lake surrounded by sheep, their bells clanking brightly in the morning air. Views on both sides of the traverse were nothing short of spectacular – the green valleys trailed away into the distance beneath rugged cliffs, before arriving at the base of the next mountain range. The trail soon turned into a classic “moonscape” – rugged, rocky terrain with little vegetation and dozens of small mounts erupting from the barren, grey landscape.
We wound along the edge of the valley for a while, when the trail finally turned downward, and dramatically so. The steep switchbacks at the beginning of our hike were only a hint of what awaited us during the 1000+ meter plummet towards the town. We skidded and slid down the scree, breathing a deep sigh of relief when we arrived at the valley floor and proceeded at a more normal descent under beautiful forests and across the pleasant meadows of the Vallunga Valley, through which a glacial stream cut a cold, winding path.
Before finally arriving back in Selva, another tiny mountain church (the Chapel of San Silvestro) came into view at the edge of the Vallunga Valley, as did the nearby ruins of the 13th-century Wolkenstein Castle, perched some 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) above the valley on the sheer rock face of the Stevia Wall.
Total distance: 10.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,495 feet