Gardena Pass (Passo Gardena): Experiencing the best of the Dolomites in one breathtaking place

Gardena Pass - view with dog

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.

Val de Funes

Val di Funes lies in the eastern side of the Dolomites about a two hour drive from Gardena Pass

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).

Gardena Pass: Santa Maddalena Church

Also in the Val di Funes, the Santa Maddelena church stands before the rose-colored mountains that make up the Dolomites

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.

Gardena Pass

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.

Gardena Pass

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.

Road to Gardena Pass

On the well-maintained road to Gardena Pass, you sometime encounter road rallies like this group of sports cars seen through our windshield.

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.

Church at Gardena Pass

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.

Hut at Gardena Pass

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).

Gardena Pass chair lift

In the winter, these ski lifts carry skiers from all over Europe to the runs above the pass. In the summer, trails lead out from here to points throughout the Dolomites.

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.

Gardena Pass overlook

The view from the upper parking lot near the guesthouse showing trails and ski runs on the right and the craggy peaks in shadow on the left

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.

The inn at Gardena Pass

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.

Gardena Pass and hut

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.

East of Gardena Pass

Descend several hundred meters from Gardena Pass and the temperature and colors change dramatically, but the magic of the Dolomites remains. This is on the east side of Gardena Pass on the road to Cortina.

 

 

Why sunsets move us

Why sunsets move us - Cambria Sunset

Why do sunsets move us?

Just look at the number of photos of sunsets to know that as trite as they may seem, we still marvel at something that happens every 24 hours. In this second of a three-part series on sunsets, let’s look at seven reasons why sunsets move us.

Sunsets move us…literally.

We rarely appreciate sunsets from inside. We have to step outside – or even walk or drive a ways – to see them unobstructed. When I’m inside, I feel I’m missing out on the full effect and so I head for the nearest door to see – and feel – the sunset better. If you look at most photos (your own and others’) you’ll find they usually occur on vacation or at some other relaxed moment when we’re already outside. Since most of us live and work indoors, we have to be intentional to behold the sunset. And in moving physically to view them, we’re also moved emotionally by what we end up experiencing.

Sunsets make us aware of time.

In the first part of this series, I referred to the Celtic concept of “the time in between times,” the twilight hours where the boundaries between this world and the next seem thinner. Sunsets make us more aware of the mystery of time itself as we witness day transition into night. Too often, our lives feel like pure process, a non-stop blur of activities. We note time only as a resource that feels far too scarce. But with sunsets, we stop looking at our watches or cell phones because we feel behind. Instead, we’re aware of time passing in a different way; we appreciate time without resisting it. Odd how something as visible as a sunset can make us aware of something as invisible and powerful as time.

Sunsets are non-essential.

We don’t have to stop and watch that big orange orb drop from the sky each evening. But we do, though usually only when we’re not working or distracted with daily routines. “Squandering” our time on something so useless by all practical considerations gives the event even greater value. It reminds us that the most important moments of life aren’t the ones we measure but the ones we truly live.

Sunsets help us enter into night warmly.

Night is, in most cultures, associated with death. But sunsets help us to recognize that the nocturnal period is bookended with light. In the Christian faith, for example, death is not the end of the story. We need not fear what the night brings. Sunsets remind us of that and make the coming of night just a bit more welcoming.

Sunsets are real.

We can’t manufacture them (though we can mimic them). We’re surrounded by so much superficial beauty that when we encounter the real thing, we get lost in awe even though we may have seen thousands of sunsets before in our lifetime. Never underestimate the power of authentic beauty to touch our souls, even in something as cliché as a sunset.

Sunsets involve waiting.

I won’t begin to count the ways my impatience manifests itself each day. Given how little I like to wait, why will I take long stretches of time to stare at an object that at any other time of day I barely notice? I think there’s something freeing about waiting in situations where we’re not aware we’re waiting. We learn to be present…and learn that waiting is possible. We discover the anticipation that comes with waiting enhances the experience and makes us appreciate the experience even more. Sunsets reward our waiting with more than just a show of color and light.

Sunsets are beautiful.

I’ve saved this obvious statement for last. But why are they beautiful? First, there are all those colors. Warm colors, like a welcoming fire on a cold night, the color of home and hearth and even romance. Second, sunsets are a changing, even surprising beauty. Like snowflakes, they are never the same twice. Third, when clouds are involved, we experience both color and a kind of texture that even the best images can’t replicate. Sunsets are not just multi-sensory (we feel them as much as we see them). They are multi-dimensional and in the best cases, envelop us in their beauty.

That’s my take on why sunsets move us. How about you? Why do you value a beautiful sunset?

And be sure to come back next time when we explore some simple ways to get your best photo ever of a sunset.