The magic of the Dolomites
The Dolomites of Northern Italy are, to me, some of the most visually distinctive mountains in the world. The Himalayas are more extreme. The Andes longer. The Rockies higher. The central Alps of Switzerland, France, Austria (first cousins to the Dolomites which lay within the Southern Limestone Alps) are more famous. But the Dolomites can be just plain magical.
The limestone of the Dolomites affects both their shape and color. The hard, chalky stone wears down over millennia in such a manner as to create the dramatic jagged rows of peaks that, in some areas look like the Bumble’s teeth on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and in other places, like lofty cathedral spires, castle battlements or simply bizarre rock formations on a massive scale. And the whiteness of the stone that gives the Dolomites its other name, “the Pale Mountains,” makes these peaks stand out at any time. But view them when the sun rises or sets and the mountains radiate Alpen glow colors ranging from soothing pink to purple to brilliant scarlet. Locally, they even have a name for it: “enrosadira” (from the Italian word, “rosa” for pink).
The sharp, spiky nature of these mountains at first reminded me of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. But the Dolomites’ appeal goes beyond the mountains themselves to include the lush green valleys, the quiet lakes and the tiny hamlets of surprising history and character that you find throughout the area. It’s a place I long to return to simply because every season will reveal a very different experience.
The various ranges that make up the Dolomites are part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. In summer, many people come to hike, bike or climb. In winter, skiers throng the area enjoying the numerous downhill and cross-country runs. But if you visit the Dolomites in the shoulder seasons, spring or especially in early fall, you can enjoy their beauty without jostling others on the trails or getting stuck behind a dozen cars on the twisty mountain roads.
Experiencing the Dolomites in a single day
You can spend weeks, even months, exploring the Dolomites and still never see or experience all they have to offer. But if you want to get a sense of them in the shortest time possible, head to one of the range’s higher passes, both literally and figuratively high points of the Dolomites.
Three of the most popular are Passo Sella (Sella Pass), Passo Pordoi (Pordoi Pass) and Passo Gardena (Gardena Pass). With Passo Sella, you can look out on a lush valley beneath you. With Passo Pordoi, you can take a cable car up from the pass itself getting even higher to Sass Pordoi where you can hike, eat or just enjoy the view. Any of these will provide an incredible vista of the surrounding mountains and give you a clear sense of why the Dolomites are so special. But Passo Gardena, is less visited. As such, once you get out of the main parking/overlook area, you can enjoy spectacular views all to yourself.
In addition, Passo Gardena (which I’ll refer to as Gardena Pass from here on) serves as such an excellent exemplar of the Dolomites because it lies near the center of the range. You can’t get to it without beholding other enchantments along the way. And when you arrive, it feels as if everything else has simply been a foretaste to entice and intrigue for the view ahead.
Here are some other factors that make Gardena Pass stand out.
A place of wonder
First of all, you experience sheer awe. It doesn’t matter what type of traveler you are, the vastness of stone around you and the dramatic views below you leave you in a state of wonder. I’ve seen incredible mountain ranges around the world, but on the day we visited, with contrails above crisscrossing the blue sky after a snowfall the day before, I can only describe the scene as stunning.
Surprises beyond surprises
You also experience the surprise factor. We drove up from the west, driving past the ski towns of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva di Val Gardena. The views through each of these are magnificent so you think, “Well, that was lovely,” and you assume the best is behind you. And then, you navigate your way up the snaking (but well-maintained) road and you realize how wrong you were. By the time you reach the overlook at Gardena Pass, you’re a bit numb from sensory overload.
Seeing the details
In addition to the grand vistas, Gardena Pass affords some up-close interests as well. Just out of the parking area, you can hike up to a small church and past weathered wooden huts, each with its own personality.
Getting out into the scene
Numerous trails radiate from Gardena Pass, both short and long (the pass is part of the Alta Via 2, one of several multi-day hikes through the Dolomites where you stay at refugios – mountain inns set up like hostels, usually with shared bathrooms and dormitory-like rooms – along the way foregoing the need for carrying tents or food).
The one downside of coming in October when we did is that most of those refugios close at the end of September and many of the chair lifts or smaller cable cars aren’t running. Thus, you’ll have to hoof it a bit more for a longer hike since you won’t get the shortcut of the cable car. But even a short hike in any direction provides additional views and an opportunity to behold this beautiful scenery all by yourself.
Making it personal
Gardena Pass was for us (my wife, son and daughter-in-law) one of those magic moments on a trip. You don’t expect it. It completely wows you with beauty. And it provides you the opportunity to not just observe nature at its finest around you, but to take time to contemplate it and enjoy it in a manner that personally brings you joy. Every type of traveler (you can learn what type you are by taking this quick Traveler Type Quiz) will find something of value, all in this one spot.
For example, you can take it in on the immediate level as my wife and daughter-in-law did. They observed the view outside then, because they weren’t prepared for the colder temperature of the pass, headed into the lodge near the lower of the two parking areas. There, as Connecting Travelers, they had a wonderful conversation with the multi-lingual couple in the gift shop followed by a delightfully warm respite, sitting by themselves in a secluded area of the restaurant in front of a large picture window, knitting and crocheting (transportable hobbies useful on long car rides), sipping Italian coffee and hot chocolate and simply enjoying each other and the view.
You can also go deeper in your experience of Gardena Pass as my son – a Creative Traveler – did, sketching the magnificent view from various perspectives. Or you can do what I (more an Adventurous Traveler in this place) did and explore, physically taking in as much of the scene as possible. I hiked all around, made photos and continuously marveled at the views in every direction.
In short, we all encountered the same place. But we each came away with something personally meaningful.
Places such as Gardena Pass make that possible. They stun you with an oversized beauty, which then opens you to the whispers of your own longings. That’s the power of awe. The marvels you witness before you stir emotions within you, ones most of us rarely feel. The good news is, there are no right or wrong ways to process it. Just feel it. And be grateful for places such as Gardena Pass which, in our distracted and jaded world, still have the power to capture our attention and our hearts.
Wow! Great photos. We plan to hike across central Italy in the fall. We may have to spend time there first. And I like the examples of types of traveler. Fascinating.
Thanks, Dennis. We should chat before you go because there are some key places we found that stood out, but Pass Gardena and Val di Funes (in the first photos) were at the top of the list plus some great small towns and villages (which I’ll be writing about soon).