Italy: Hiking the Alta Via 4 in the Dolomite Mountains

I’ve just got back from hiking the Alta Via 4 long distance hiking route in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy. Gorgeous scenery, challenging hiking, exciting via ferrata, delicious food in cosy mountain refuges… hiking in the Dolomites is fantastic!

I used the Cicerone guide to Trekking in the Dolomites  to do the Alta Via 4 (it also covers Alta Vias 1-3, 5 and 6) and you can find loads of advice about how to plan a hiking trip in the Dolomites, including packing tips and more in this post.

And now, here is a blow by blow account of hiking the Alta Via 4 in the Dolomites:

Day 1 – San Candido to Tre Scarperi

This isn’t a day’s hike but only a couple of hours, so you can get to the first rifugio on the same day as you fly in to Innsbruck. It was easy to get a train from Innsbruck central station to San Candido/Innichen, changing at Fortezza. There was a train delay at Fortezza but it didn’t affect the timing of my planned day too much.

San Candido is a charming little town with lovely restaurants and hotels and churches. If you have time stop for lunch!

Set off on the road out of town south and find the path to the left side of the road following the river. You can get a bus quite a long way up this road but as I had time and wanted to start getting my legs hiking fit, I walked. Once you leave the road behind the trail passes through conifer forest until the first peaks of Tre Scarperi can be seen.

RIfugio Tre Scarperi Dolomite Mountains Italy

The rifugio is in a stunning valley surrounded by soaring rock faces. Sitting on the sun terrace, draught weiss beer in hand, listening to the bells of a herd of young cattle, watching chaffinches and wagtails play, boded well for my Dolomites hiking experience.

Rifugio Tre Scarperi dinner Dolomites Italy

Once the sun had dropped it was time for a restaurant-quality meal at a fraction of the price, there was even table service! The starter was either lasagne or tomato consomme with basilico noodles, followed by a tasty cheese patty with cabbage salad and then a cream cheese cake. The continental breakfast was excellent (like a hotel)!

Day 2 – Tre Scarperi to Rifugio Locatelli

Follow the milky stream along the white rock path that winds through the valley, bright in sunshine and in shadow. Then it’s a long pull up to the pass, at first cool and quiet through larch trees then hot and quiet over the rocky trails, beside which blue trumpet gentians are bright decoration.

Crossing in to the valley of the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo and only photos can do justice of how spectacular the scenery is here.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo - hike in the Dolomites

I had lunch near Rifugio Locatelli, a hut in a stunning location that is thronged with day walkers due to being the meeting point of no less than ten different hiking paths! After the quiet morning it was a bit of a shock to see so many people and this was the only day on the AV4 that was busy.

Hiking Dolomites Tre Cime di Lavaredo Italy

Make sure you turn aside to spend some time beside the little lakes at the base of the Tre Cime. It’s stunning and you can escape the crowds for awhile.

The destination on Day two was Rifugio Auronzo, a large modern hut with new bathrooms and generous, hearty meals (I couldn’t even fit in any dessert). Views from the big windows of the dining room are across to   and down to the turquoise waters of Auronzo di Cadore.

Day 3 – Rifugio Auronzo to Rifugio Col de Varda

I set off early to beat the approaching bad weather and hiked along the beautiful ridgeline in the peaceful morning. Path 117 traverses around the Ciadin de le Bisse and de Rinbianco far above green valleys, following via ferrata lines built by soldiers in the First World War (this track is called Sentiero Bonacossa) with hand-cut caves and a tunnel.

Dolomite Mountains WW1 remnants

This is a very easy via ferrata route and after starting off clipping in to every wire, I soon became more picky about where I clipped in on such easy terrain to save time. After the climb to the Forc de Rinbianco I made my way up to Rifugio Fonda Savio and, after a rain shower, tackled the toughest climb of the day up to Forcella Diavalo.

Via Ferrata Alta Via 4 Dolomites Sentiero Bonacasso

The black rocks and blasted landscape without a scrap of colour makes the name very appropriate. I slid on the scree quite a lot and would have appreciated a via ferrata line here. The steep drop on the other side of the pass is also quite loose, with only one ladder.

I found that there are more via ferrata sections than indicated on the map. Not indicated in the guidebook but clear from the map, there are a number of variants to get from Fondo Savio to Col de Varda, avoiding the direct route across Forcella Diavolo if you’re wanting to take it a bit easier.

Alta Via 4 Dolomite Mountains Italy

The final climb is a zig zag up to Forc de Misurina, followed by a gentle traverse to the rifugio. The white rock here is scattered with clumps of bright yellow Rhaetian poppies.

Rifugio Col de Varda is a lovely year-round chalet with a traditional tiled stove and views down to pretty Lake Misurina and across the to Cristallo range. It rained on and off for the rest of the afternoon and I watched castles of cloud float through the valley.

Rifugio Col de Varda Dolomite Mountains Italy

I had an outstanding a la carte meal here, with melt-in-the-mouth gnocci, local roe deer and the best tiramisu. Polenta is a staple in this part of Italy and was part of almost every meal I ate in the Dolomites. The breakfast was also good, with toasted bread and proscuitto and cheese. It is an extra 4 Euros for a shower but there’s no time limit and I got to wash my hair (in the world’s smallest shower cubicle).

Day 4 – Rifugio Col de Varda to Rifugio Vandelli

There’s a little 2-person chair lift than whisks you down to the lakeshore in minutes, although I left early and walked 20 minutes down the path. Then you get a bus (from the bus stop at the beginning of the village) along the road to the village of Passo Tre Croci (costs about 4 Euros) where the trail starts.

The walk to Rifugio Vandelli is very pleasant, with lovely views and when I got to the jewel-like turquoise waters of Lake Sorapiss in its bowl in the mountains I was just delighted and spent an hour or two walking around the lake, taking photos and enjoying myself. The area around the lake is a garden of wildflowers, particular the delicate primula tyrolensis.

Lago di Sorapiss hike in the Dolomite mountains

This is a very short day of hiking (only three hours) and it would be possible to cut out a day by carrying on directly from Col de Varda and get to Vandelli on the same day. I would have had time to do this as I arrived at Col de Varda at 3pm but it started to rain and the rifugio was so cosy… and had beer… and I would have missed that meal….

Rifugio Vandelli and Cristallo Dolomite Mountains Italy

Plus I then had good weather to see the amazing Lake Sorapiss, whereas in the afternoon the rain and thunder rolled in again. The lesson is that you can be flexible about your hiking days in the Dolomites. Just call ahead to tell the rifugios if you are changing your plans. Vandelli is a proper mountain hut with no showers and no phone reception, great food (homemade tortellini, pork steaks and apple pie) and a friendly atmosphere.

Rifugio Vandelli dinner Dolomite Mountains AV4 Italy

Day 5 – Rifugio Vandelli to Rifugio San Marco

This is where I ran out of luck with the weather on my Dolomites hiking week. The AV4 now follows a spectacular via ferrata route that I was very keen to undertake. But you really don’t want to be clipped onto a metal wire on a mountain in an electrical storm. I got up early and consulted with the rifugio guardians – they said no.

There are two routes from here to the next refuge, both involving extremely long days and only to be attempted in acceptable weather. One is via the bivouac Comici and one the Bivouac Slapata variante. The first has extensive via ferrata – no good in a thunderstorm. The other also has some via ferrata and becomes dangerously loose underfoot after a lot of rain (it had rained heavily since the previous afternoon).

To avoid retracing my steps I walked back to the road via Forcella Marcoira (path 216), which is a nice trail traversing the mountains and then winding through moss-draped trees. It was very quiet and I saw no people but a pheasant with chicks and a marmot in an alpine valley and would have great views if it wasn’t completely clagged in (it stayed relatively dry though).

Wildflowers Dolomite Mountains Italy

From Tre Croce we got a bus via Cortina to Vito San Cadore (this cost around 7 Euros), where there is a trail head up to Rifugio San Marco. The three hour slog up through conifer and beech woods was tediously hard work, straight up and with no views this was the only section of my week’s hiking in the Dolomites I did not enjoy. Altogether I walked about 6 hours on this day, compared to the 9 hours it would have taken through the mountains.

However I would not have missed staying at San Marco for the world! This old-fashioned, family-run rifugio was built 122 years ago by the Italian Alpine Club and it’s sturdy walls are half a metre thick. It is set on a green promontory on the side of a mountain and there is even a little pavilion for even better views of Monte Antelao with a beer in hand.

Rifugio San Marco Italian Dolomites

It is run in the summer months by a family, including two children, Oma and Opa, and Pongo the dog. This family have been doing this for no less than 28 years – since the guardian Tanja was four years old!

Pongo Rifugio San Marco Dolomite Mountains Italy

There were a couple of choices for dinner and it was beautifully served in the dining room. There was a vegetable souop or spaghetti with pork ragu, a stiffato or a bacon/potato/cheese dish and green salad grown in the vegetable garden outside.

Day 6 – Rifugio San Marco to Pieve di Cadore

On the last day I decided (perhaps foolishly) to ignore the weather forecast and set off in sunshine to attempt the Mt Antelao route to Pieve di Cadore. The day starts with a pleasant traverse from San Marco, followed by some scrambling to get over the pass. Make sure you turn right up the hill from Rifugio Galassi (rather than left down the valley as I did, wasting 40 minutes!)

The next time I see “tiring moraine” in a guide book I will think twice about taking the route. However, I felt proud of my route finding (from cairn to faded paint mark) slowly crossing the moraine below the glacier, which looked amazing and I crossed several patches of old snow.

Alta Via 4 Mt Antelao glacier Dolomite Mountains Italy

Unfortunately, as I neared the base of the via ferrata it started to rain, which quickly turned to frozen rain and I had to retreat to shelter under a large (not entirely dry) rock. The steep slab up which the ferrata wires could be seen was sheeting with water and everything looked very slippery as huddled in my coat munching my sandwich (provided by Tanja at San Marco).

The rain eased by the mountains ahead were entirely covered with dark clouds so it was time to back off in frustration. I often had to take alternative scrambles as the slabs were so slippery with rain. Once off the glacier, the views on the way down were epic-ally epic, with pink alpen rose forming a brilliant foreground to the mountain scene.

Alta Via 4 Dolomite Mountains Italy

When I got back to Rifugio Galassi I was glad of a cup of tea and of a kind guardian who phoned a taxi service for me. It was a good couple of hours to walk down the valley and I was very happy to spend 40 Euros to have a 4X4 meet me atthe bottom to avoid another three or four hours back to Pieve di Cadore.

Lago di Cadore Dolomite Mountains Italy

It was also a great pleasure to see the above view of Lago di Cadore from my hotel window before I had a long shower, collapsed on the soft bed with crisp linen, and ate a very large pizza!

Rifugios on the Alta Via 4

Here are the rifugios I stayed at on the Alta Via 4 and how to contact them:

Rifugio Tre Scarperi – has a website with a contact phone number if you want to reserve.

Rifugio Auronzo – I emailed [email protected] and had to transfer a 10 Euro deposit to reserve.

Rifugio Vandelli – I emailed [email protected] to reserve.

I wasn’t able to contact Rifugio Col de Varda by email or by phone but it was no problem to just turn up.

Rifugio San Marco – I emailed [email protected] to reserve, which is recommended as this is a small refuge.

Overall, I did the best I could with the unstable weather conditions during the week and every day had its incredible highlights. Walking in the Dolomites, it is possible to be flexible with your route depending on the weather, which is a great advantage.

For the opportunity to hike in solitude amidst awesome beauty the Dolomite mountains are highly recommended. Plan an Alta Via hiking adventure in the Dolomites!

By Natasha von Geldern

If you’re into hiking, read more about how to plan a European hiking adventure and about my amazing trip hiking the Tour du Mt Blanc. Further afield, you’ll also find posts on my blog about hiking in New Zealand, walking holidays in Mallorcahiking the Great Ocean Walk in Australia, an amazing Slovenia hiking trip, and even hiking in Namibia. In the UK I’ve got great ideas for day walks in the Lake District, hiking in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge, and walking the South Downs Way.

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Alta Via 4 Hiking in the Dolomite Mountains Italy

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