The Swiss or French Alps have long been the default choices for skiers and snowboarders in the winters months and hikers, rock climbers and paragliding enthusiasts when the snow has melted. But overlook the Dolomites in north-eastern Italy and you are missing out on some of the most dramatic mountain treks, skiing opportunities and panoramas in Europe – and with a lot fewer tourists too.
Those who take holidays in the Dolomites will be rewarded in different ways at different times of the year. But one constant of the region is the vast array of magnificent and extraordinary limestone formations and pale coloured peaks with unique sculptural forms that are wondrous to walk or ski around, climb up or fly over – depending on your particular inclination. A haven of interesting geomorphology, put simply: when in the Dolomites you will be faced with breathtaking views at every turn. Named after the 18th century French geologist – Dieudonné Dolomieu – who studied the region and its geological features, the range has fascinated scientists and tourists alike for generations.
And it is not just the many scientists, travellers and adventure sports fans that vouch for the area’s beauty. Since 2009, the Dolomites have been designated as a Word Heritage Site after it was recognised that the area has some of the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world, that are highly distinctive and of exceptional natural beauty. With 18 peaks rising to elevations of over 3,000 metres (Marmolada being the highest of them at 3,434 metres), and a good number of exquisitely scenic mountain passes, it is no surprise the Dolomites hold so many visitors to the region in awe of their might and beauty.
Winter in the Dolomites is a time for taking in the fresh mountain air and marvelling at the snow-dappled pines and wooden houses from which gentle plumes of smoke rise from the log fires within. Cross-country skiing is a great way to explore the region at a pace that is that bit more relaxing than the usual downhill variety (though it is at least as tough). With some excellent trails, such as that which undulates around the beautiful lake at the foot of Monte Cristallo and takes you through almost eerily thick birch forests, being led by a knowledgeable local guide is certainly the best way to get the best from cross-country skiing in the region.
In the spring, when the snow begins to melt and the green shoots come forth, the scenery changes dramatically, but is no less magnificent. With over 1000 kilometres of hiking trails, the Dolomites offer some of the most rewarding walks in Europe, if not the world. For instance the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Three Peaks of Lavaredo) circular hike is well worth undertaking for the views alone, but when you add the historical significance (many of the trails were made by soldiers during the First World War) it becomes something more adventurous altogether.
As well as the numerous and almost unbeatable hiking opportunities, the summer months also give mountaineers of all standards the opportunity to tackle some great climbing routes. With many of the limestone faces being both wide and accessible, there is little chance of the congestion that sometimes occurs in the French Alps. And routes vary from the tame to the extremely challenging, so make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew, and always be aware that weather conditions can change unerringly swiftly, even at the height of summer.
So if you fancy walking, skiing or climbing in one of the most geologically fascinating and aesthetically alluring locations on the planet, the Dolomites could well be the place for you.
Photo by uncleleo on Flickr