Adventuring in Trentino Alto Adige- Gateway to the Dolomites
“Go for a walk, say a little prayer, take a deep breath of mountain air…” Toby Keith
The Dolomites (Dolomiti in Italian) is a mountain range in Northern Italy known for its dramatic jagged peaks. It gets its name from the rock it’s made of (Dolomite) which also earns it the name The Pale Mountains. Adventurers from all over the world are attracted to these amazing mountains for skiing during the winter months and hiking and climbing the rest of the year. There is also an annual bike race in July that takes you through 7 mountain passes and this event should be on any biker’s bucketlist.
There are many places you can use as a base camp for your Dolomiti adventures. Based on a recommendation we received from our Cugini (as you can see our Italian is improving) we decided to stay at one of their favorite hidden gems in Italy… San Genesio. (For more hidden gems we found in Italy click HERE)
It figures that just when we start getting a little comfortable with the Italian language, they bring us to a beautiful Italian town whose main language is…. German? Yes, this lovely mountain town nearing the Austrian border speaks German as their main native language. The town itself sits on an elevated plateau 1000 ft above the city of Bolzano, the capital of region. But like the other small Italian towns we’ve been to, this place was not short of steep stone streets throughout the village. The mountain views from San Genesio are unbelievable and it is a popular place for mountain climbers and hikers to stay the evenings.
We stayed at a lovely spa hotel named Landgasthof zum Hirschen. The rooms had amazing views of the Dolomites and the restaurant there had a great combination of Italian and Bavarian cuisine. The spa added a whole new level of relaxation and the aroma therapy shower is highly recommended (just watch out for the occasional surprise douse of cold water). We didn’t know it when we first got there, but the spa would certainly come in handy after the long hike we were about to go on.
But before we start down that path… let’s talk briefly about the capital city of Bolzano. It’s an awesome city… actually its just a big town that we’ll call a city since it’s the only thing close anywhere around here. It does, however, have great shopping for the area and pretty much has anything you would need. The town itself is beautiful and well kept and the piazza is a lively place with cafes and restaurants. You may recall the story of the Iceman, Otzi, who lived around 3300 BC. He was discovered on the Austrian/ Italy border in the Alps by two German hikers. His mummified body resides in the city of Bolzano and is a popular tourist attraction. Below is a view of Bolzano from above at San Genesio.
There’s also a beautiful walking path along the river that brings you from the city center to the base of a gondola that you can ride back up to San Genesio.
The gondola ride back to the top offers sweeping views of the surrounding mountains as well as some of the nearby castles. Plus it will save you the drive up and down the cliff side and is a pretty convenient way to move around the area. These gondolas are actually quite popular to move to different parts of the mountains as well.
Hiking in the Dolomites provides you an unlimited amount of options and some of the most breathtaking scenery this earth has to offer. There are mountains layered over mountains with unbelievable alpine meadows that don’t even look real. For our feature hike of the day, we picked one that was close to our home base of San Genesio. There was a certain mysteriousness about this particular location that peaked our interest so we made our way up to the designated parking area and started our journey to the Moltner Kaser and the eerie Stoanerne Mandln (Men of Stone). A couple of miles north up the main road outside San Genesio, there is a parking lot called the Shermoos parking area and makes for a great starting point. Continue up the fairly level path past a few pastures and farmhouses until you see the sign for Moltner Kaser pointing left. From this point the wide, well cared for road goes away and upward you go. First you will enter a dark, covered forest…
After a few miles walking a rooted path at a gradual incline, you will eventually come out at a clearing with some farmland and a rifugio (Mountain hut) called Moltner Kaser.
Rifugi are by far the coolest thing about hiking in the Alps. It is quite a different experience then hiking long treks in America with tons of gear and food. Hiking in the Alps makes this challenge unnecessary. Rifugi are small mountain accommodations of different comfort levels. Some are just places to rest, eat and drink, and some others offer nightly stays. There are rifugi every 3 hours (approximately) all across the land so you could technically just keep trekking and always have a bed to sleep in which is quite different than hiking the Appalachian Trail for example. Even for smaller hikes, it is quite nice to know that a couple of hours away you can stop for lunch or to grab a beverage. It is also a little easier on the mind knowing that you are always close to some sort of civilization in case something were to ever go wrong. When we came to the rifugi, we opted not to stop because we were anxious to get to the top to see the large towers of stones that this area is famous for. From here it was quite easy to figure which direction to head…..
The answer was…. UP. Straight upward the path lead us around a corner and to a large pasture which was steep enough that we couldn’t see over the top. At this point all we could see behind us were the mountains in the distance and all we could see in front of us was the deep blue of the sky.
After clearing the top of the knoll, the Dolomites were in full view to the right and we were surrounded by mountains. We walked across this beautiful alpine meadow occupied by Haflinger horses with their glimmering golden manes blowing in the mountain breeze. It was a pretty amazing site and one that we will most likely never forget.
The horses were quite friendly and very willing to pose for the photo shoot… except the guy directly above who gave the “why is that guy with the camera getting so close to us” look. After play time with these magnificent creatures we continued on as we were nearing our goal. And once we arrived at the top, it did not disappoint.
Once finally arriving at the top, we were surrounded by hundreds of the stone figures. Some were tall, some short, some had crosses atop, and some had carvings. Reading about these mysterious stone piles doesn’t do much good. There is much speculation as to where they came from. Record of these statues dates back many hundreds of years and the most popular belief is they were built by shepherds as land markers or possibly just to pass the time. It is said that witches and priests gathered at these rocks to worship their devils/gods and large festivals or rituals took place here over hundreds of years. We didn’t see any witches while we were there, just a couple other wandering adventurers seeking the same destination we were. Sitting there among the mysterious rock formations, we couldn’t help feeling like we were in the middle of some sort of magic. It’s really hard to explain, but the place just had a strange, otherworldly feeling about it.
Besides the magical aura surrounding this place, the views from the top are unbeatable. It is a full 360 degree panoramic view of the Dolomites and the Alps. There were scenic mountain ranges in every direction, each with a little different look to it.
A side note and a great tip for anyone planning to do this hike….. we recommend going against our own advice in this case only. We always, always tell people to start hikes in the early morning. There are less people, better temperatures, and usually an all around better experience. This particular hike, we recommend going after lunch and we found that out the hard way. The Dolomites are such a prominent background during the climb up, but in the late summer the sun rises behind them. With the sun in your face, the mountain range looks hazy and more like a shadow (Like in the picture above) than if the light were behind you. They are much harder to see clearly in the morning and early afternoon, but between 2pm-6pm, they are crisp and clear and look even more amazing.
After spending a couple of hours just relaxing and taking in our surroundings, we started heading back down for the second half of our 12 mile hike. But the good thing about the way down is…. you guessed it…. we stopped at the rifugi for some lunch and some cold water before our final push back to the car. And then once we arrived back at the hotel, the spa was calling our name along with some delightful Italian wine to make it a perfect day.
Unfortunately this is our last stop in the beautiful country of Italy. We’ve been to cities, to countrysides, to oceans, to vineyards and to mountains and have absolutely fallen in love with the Italian way of life. We hope you have enjoyed all of our Italy Travels and we appreciate you adventuring with us. More of Europe is coming soon. Cheers and Salute!