hike the alta via 1
Duration: 8 days/7 nights
Distance: 120km (75 miles)
Elevation gain: 6,705m (22,000')
Trailhead: Lago di Braies
Every summer Alex and I like to take one long backpacking trip. When we were in the planning process for 2017's trip I stumbled across some photos of the Dolomites. Alex and I had talked about this picturesque region before and we both mentioned our desire to visit it. It felt exactly like what we were looking for so I began researching hikes in the Dolomites. I noticed the Alta Via 1 showed up on nearly every website I found. There are eight Alta Via routes in the Dolomites but number 1 is the most popular. After reading about the trail and talking it over with Alex we decided it was the one! We would spend 8 days hiking the Alta Via 1.
planning your trek in the dolomites
Are permits required? No. Reservations for the rifugios are also not required, however, I strongly recommend booking your rifugios in advance if you know where you want to stay each night. I booked all of my rifugios immediately after Alex and I decided to hike the Alta Via 1 way back in January. By the time July and our hike rolled around many of the most scenic rifugios, such as Lagazuoi, were already booked. Below are the rifugios Alex and I stayed at and some helpful information about them. Please remember these rifugios are high in the mountains so while they all have Wifi it can be very, very unreliable. The prices are also based on half board, which includes a bed in a dormitory and breakfast.
Rifugio Lavarella - 35€ per night, 20€ deposit required, Wifi (unreliable), Shower - free
Rifugio Lagazuoi - 55€ per night, 30€ deposit required, Wifi (worked well), Shower - 3,5€
Rifugio Nuvolau - 24€ per night, 0 deposit required, Wifi (unreliable), No shower
Rifugio Città di Fiume - 50€ per night, 30€ deposit required, Wifi (unreliable), Shower - free
Rifugio Coldai - 51€ per night, 15€ deposit required, Wifi (worked very well), Shower - 3,5€
Rifugio Carestiato - 48€ per night, 16€ deposit required, Wifi (worked well), Shower - 1€ for two minutes
How to get to the trailhead: This hike begins at Lago di Braies in northern Italy. The nearest airport is Venice. Since this is a thru-hike and renting a car isn't a feasible option you will likely use public transportation to get to the starting point. We took three buses and caught the first one right outside the airport.
After you exit the baggage claim area in Venice take a left and find the ATVO bus ticket line and purchase a one-way ticket on the Cortina Express. The line runs four times per day and costs 25€ per person. It takes just over two hours to get to Cortina and there is Wifi on the bus.
In Cortina Alex and I stayed at Hotel Villa Blu, which was a ten minute walk from the bus station. There are plenty of hotels near the bus stop if you want to stay in Cortina or you can choose to continue onto Dobbiaco. Transfer to a SAD bus (line 445), the bus should have "Dobbiaco" displayed on it. You can buy a 5€ ticket onboard. The ride to Dobbiaco is 50 minutes. In Dobbiaco you will transfer to SAD line 442 to Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee. This ticket also costs 5€ and it takes 27 minutes to get to Lago di Braies.
When to go: July and August are the best months to hike the Alta Via 1. August is typically when Europeans take holiday so I would recommend hiking in July.
Special notes and FAQ:
I don't want to stay in the rifugios, can I camp? Unfortunately, camping is not allowed along a majority of this route.
Is it safe to solo hike this route? This is a very popular route for both thru-hikers and day hikers so you will never feel truly alone. This combined with the fact that you stay in warm, comfortable rifugios make this the ideal route to hike solo.
Where do I get water? There are a few streams you can filter water from along the way but each rifugio sells water bottles (for a couple euro each). Unfortunately, the running water in most of the rifugios is gray water and not drinkable.
Do I have to reserve the rifugios ahead of time? I highly recommend reserving your rifugios as soon as you know you want to hike this route. The most popular ones (eg. Lagazoui) fill up fast and while rifugios legally can't turn you away, if there are no beds available you will have to sleep on kitchen benches or in cots in the hallway (we saw this happen a couple of times).
What if I don't want to hike the whole thing? Not a problem! There are plenty of entry and exit points along the way you can use to access a short section of the Alta Via 1. I recommend buying this book, it was an invaluable resource for me when I planned my trip and I know it will be helpful for you as well!
What is your favorite section? I preferred the first portion: Lago di Braies to Rifugio Citta di Fiume. This section covered the high, rocky mountainous region whereas the second portion descended into lush forests and valleys. Don't get me wrong, both sections were incredibly beautiful, but being a sucker for mountains I loved the first portion the most.
Can I go in May or June? Doing the Alta Via 1 early in the season is a huge undertaking, there will likely be a significant amount of snow and ice along the route and new snow could even accumulate while you hike.
How many snacks should I bring? We brought plenty of snacks but barely touched them! The meals provided at the rifugios are quite large so Alex and I ate big breakfasts and that was enough to get us to the next rifugio where we bought a small snack or a beer before eating another big dinner.
Do I need to learn Italian? While many people in larger cities (eg. Venice) speak English, and all the rifugios have at least one employee who speaks English, there are plenty of people you will encounter on the trail who do not speak English so I do recommend learning common phrases in Italian. Alex and I got turned around on the trail twice and both times the people who were able to help us didn't speak any English, luckily I had learned enough Italian from my Duo Lingo lessons that I could communicate with them and they helped us on our way. Bonus points if you want to learn some German phrases as well, as on the northern portion of the trail is seemed German was more common than Italian.
Gear to pack:
- 35-45L backpack
- Trekking poles
- Sturdy hiking boots or trail running shoes (whichever you feel more comfortable in)
- Water bottle
- Sleeping bag liner (required by rifugios)
- First aid kit
- 2 pairs of shorts
- Rain jacket, fleece mid-layer, insulating layer
- Sleeping clothes
- Brimmed hat
- "Trekking in the Dolomites" by Cicerone Press
- Maps! You can buy the Tabacco Maps once you arrive in Italy or you can use their app.
- 031 Pragser Dolomiten – Enneberg/ Dolomiti di Braies – Marabbe
- 03 Cortina d’Ampezzo e Dolomiti Ampezzane
- 025 Dolomiti di Zoldo Cadorine e Agordine
- 024 Prealpi e Dolomiti Bellunesi
Personal trip Report
Hiked: July 2017
Finally we were there: Lago di Braies. It was the starting point of our 120km trek through the Dolomites in northern Italy. Six months of anticipation, four months of Italian lessons on Duo Lingo, two lengthy plane rides, and three bus rides led up to this point and everything suddenly felt surreal.
The hike begins at the world-famous Lago di Braies, a destination in and of itself. I reserved Alex and myself a room at the lakeshore lodge and we spent a day exploring the lake before we began our hike. Like most easily-accessible, beautiful places the lake was teeming with tourists during the day, but by early evening most of the day-hikers had returned to where they came from and we were able to enjoy the views in relative solitude.
Evening transitioned into night and Alex and I headed to bed, with early alarms set, eager to finally set off on the Alta Via 1.
Prior to our trip I bought the Cicerone guide, “Trekking in the Dolomites” that includes full details for the Alta Via 1 and 2 and briefly outlines Alta Via routes 3-6. Each evening Alex and I read up on the portions that we would be completing the following day. Our first day was planned to be one of the toughest: we were going to hike from Lago di Braies to Rifugio Lavarella, a 12.4 mile hike that required 4,900’ of elevation gain and 3,000’ of elevation loss.
We started the hike bright and early and we were immediately introduced to what our trek would be like over the coming days. The hike gained nearly 3,000’ in the first four miles. There were no steps to aid our ascent and my calves started burning. The grade was brutal and I quickly found myself wondering if we made the right decision. The first day was rough but it was an accurate representation of the Alta Via 1 as a whole: we climbed 3000’ just to descend 1,800’ on a knee-jarring grade. By the time we reached Rifugio Lavarella, eight hours after we left Lago di Braies, I was exhausted. We checked into the rifugio and headed to our tiny dorm that we shared with three other hikers. I changed into my camp clothes and promptly passed out. I was so tired I almost didn’t have the energy to make it to dinner on time. At the tables all around us were boisterous groups of German cyclists. I envied their energy levels.
On the morning of the second day I woke up feeling revitalized and ready to tackle the route. This day consisted of more of the same up and down. We climbed up to the pass Forcella del Lago and descended a trail that the guidebook describes as zigzagging “madly downhill” only to climb back up to our destination of Rifugio Lagazuoi. This rifugio was well worth the effort. It is situated on a mountaintop with 360 degrees of breathtaking views. To the south were countless jagged mountains and from our vantage point we could see the route we would follow over the next few days. It was shocking to see how far we would hike in such a short amount of time but I was excited to see some of the most anticipated landmarks up close.
Rifugio Lagazuoi also happened to be the spot that Alex proposed to me! We arrived to the rifugio early so we had the afternoon to explore before we were due for dinner. We washed up and changed clothes. In our dorm I put on a green rain jacket and then threw my yellow puffy vest over it and began to head towards the door. Alex looked at my ensemble and informed me that I looked ridiculous and needed to change. I thought that was a little strange, he’s never critiqued my outfits before but I agreed that the rain jacket looked silly under a puffy so I swapped it out for an orange fleece and we headed out. Alex began scoping out locations for us to take a “couple photo” for our parents. It seemed that he was really invested in finding the perfect spot which I found interesting since this photo was likely only going to be sent to our parents, it didn’t need to be perfect!
Finally, he said he found the best spot and began to set up his tripod for a time-lapse so we didn’t have to worry about running back and forth from the camera using its 10-second timer. Once he was set up and the time-lapse was running I noticed how often the shutter was opening and closing. “Wow, you’re taking a lot of photos,” I told Alex, he responded “Don’t worry about it”. He came over and I asked what we should do, that was when he reached into his pocket and got down on one knee. The following moments were a complete blur for me as I blacked out. It’s funny because I imagined this moment in my head so many times and every time I excitedly would say something along the lines of “I can’t believe this! Are you serious?! Yes!! I’m so happy” but what came out of my mouth in reality was a mumbled mess that didn’t contain a single coherent word. So, if the Alta Via 1 wasn’t already spectacular enough it was also life-changing.
I didn’t think it was possible to come down off the high of getting engaged on top of a mountain but day three on the Alta Via 1 challenged Alex and I so thoroughly it nearly drove us to abandoning our hike. As we were navigating our way down from Rifugio Lagazuoi and making turns at intersections that we were sure were correct we found ourselves descending at quite a bit more than the “gradual” grade our book informed us we would take. We also noticed that besides one other hiker, who seemed a little lost, we hadn’t seen anybody else. A sinking feeling began to set in as we pulled out a map, assessed our surroundings, and realized we had just hiked an hour and descended 1,500’ in the wrong direction. Feeling absolutely defeated we turned around and began hiking back up the way we came. Then we finally made it back to the 3-way intersection where we made the initial wrong turn and made another wrong turn. Time was now ticking and we were worried we weren’t going to make it to the rifugio on time. The hiking guide mentioned that an alternate route exists for hikers who don’t want to do a via ferrata, so we cut out a huge portion of the trail and chose this option.
As we were hiking we seriously considered quitting the trail. “We could go to Switzerland,” I tentatively suggested. “Oo that'd be pretty cool! We could go see the Matterhorn!” Alex answered. “Or we could hop a flight to Norway!” We decided that we would stay at Rifugio Nuvolau as planned and make the decision to continue or not after we rested.
After a warm meal and another nap we decided we would stick to the Alta Via 1 but I think that just talking about other options and imaging ourselves in those spots kept our morale up throughout the day.
Just as the trail had its literal ups and downs it had its figurative ones as well. As discouraged as we felt on day three, we felt reinvigorated on day four. In fact, this was both of our favorite days in terms of the scenery. The day immediately started out on a fun note as we attempted our first via ferrata! When we arrived at Rifugio Nuvolau it seemed to be the end of the trail, as behind it appeared to be a cliff. However, it turns out the trail actually continues over this cliff following a via ferrata route. The via ferrata routes were one of the aspects of the trail I was looking forward to most. “Via ferrata” is Italian for “iron road” and the segments consist of iron cables and ladders that were initially bolted in place during WWI to help soldiers navigate the exposed terrain. Today hikers along the AV1 use the cables for the same reason with a much different mindset. While the scenery was stunning, I found my mind somberly reflecting on the significance of following the same routes and using the same foot- and hand-holds that soldiers did a century ago.
The next few days were spent traversing through some of the most captivating landscapes as we made our way from the high, rocky alpine into the lush valleys. Near the easier-to-access huts the trail grew crowded with day-hikers but it always thinned out again after we passed the towns and we found ourselves hiking alone quite often. Free-range cows and horses kept us company and kept us on our toes as we navigated through their piles of poo.
When I was originally planning this trip I thought that we could easily finish the hike in eight days and I divided the 120km up into fairly even amounts across the days. However, in order to stay at the rifugios I wanted to stay in and make the trip only eight days we would have to have a long starting day and a very, very long ending day. The last day was planned to be 12 miles with 6,700’ elevation loss. We needed to make it to the La Pissa bus stop by midday in order to catch the last bus to Venice and make our flight the next morning. When I planned the trip I just figured we could start the hike out at 4am in order to make that happen but when we were on the trail I discovered how difficult it was to follow the right route even in the middle of the day and we got nervous about hiking out in the dark. We also realized that we would have to pack up in the middle of the night, most likely disturbing all of our roommates. The more we thought about it the less we wanted to subject ourselves to that on the last day. So we made a decision; we would end the Alta Via 1 after our stay in Rifugio Carestiato, 20km short. By doing this we allowed ourselves plenty of time to make it to Venice and gave ourselves some time to explore the city.
As we turned our backs to Rifugio Carestiato and the Alta Via 1, we couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed that we weren't going to officially finish the route. We felt like quitters who had failed their goal. However, by the time we were in Venice Alex and I both felt we made the right decision. We spent a day being tourists, we visited Murano Island and watched a master glass-blower at work, we wandered the city streets, and we relaxed in our hotel spa. It’s tough to feel disappointed when you’re soaking in a hot tub!
Although we didn’t complete the Alta Via 1 I would still consider our time on the trail a success. We made new friends, tried a whole lot of new foods, admired some of the most spectacular mountains I’ve ever seen, watched the sunrise nearly every morning, and got engaged! Now the only question is: which Alta Via route to tackle next?!