Hiking the Dolomites – Val Gardena
For our adventure hiking the Dolomites, we chose the valley called Val Gardena. We rented a car in Milan and drove through Bolzano to reach our two bedroom holiday apartment at Cësa Setil in Ortisei in the alpine valley of Val Gardena. Cësa Setil is conveniently located on the nearest property to the Alpe di Siusi gondola. Our apartment was a 5 minute walk away from the Ortisei pedestrian only village center. The Seceda Gondola and the Resciesa Funicular are both only a 10 minute walk from Cësa Setil.
At the end of each hiking day, we enjoyed the German atmosphere at the Mauriz Keller Restaurant or the Italian dishes at Restaurant Terrazza. The Val Gardena area of Italy belonged to Austria until 1918, so German is commonly spoken. The numerous chalets make it seem like Switzerland. We couldn’t have made a better choice for hiking the Dolomites than to stay in the village of Oritisei in the valley of Val Gardena.
Hiking the Dolomites – St Jakob’s
Our first day of hiking in the Dolomites was cloudy with periods of light rainfall. So, we decided not to buy our Val Gardena gondola passes that day. Instead, we hiked up from the town of Ortisei to St Jakob’s Church. The hike was quite steep and mainly forested. When you reach St Jakob’s Church, the view opens up to face Sassolungo mountain. The small isolated church is open to the public at posted times. In the cemetery, grave makers have photographs of the people who are buried there. You can descend by a different route that takes you through picturesque houses and valley views of Ortisei. We discovered that you can also take a city bus back down most of the way to Ortisei instead.
Ortisei Morning Cafes
One of the best parts of hiking the Dolomites was the Ortisei morning cafes. The small village of Ortisei has so many cafes that you can try a different one each morning. Each cafe has an espresso machine and two or three pastries. Part of the fun is searching for the best combination of coffee and pastry. Ordering is easy because you can combine English, German and Italian in one sentence without any fear of offending anyone. Speaking a foreign language in Val Gardena is just plain fun.
Each cafe has a counter where you have the option to stand while you drink your coffee. Many locals did this shoulder to shoulder with each other. Once you order a coffee, you own a spot in the cafe for as long as you want. You won’t ever be asked to pay until you decide you are done. Every morning before hiking the Dolomites, I couldn’t wait to visit the Ortisei morning cafes.
Hiking the Dolomites – Alpe di Siusi
On our second day of hiking in the Dolomites the sun started shining, so we headed to Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm in German and Mont Seuc in Ladin). At the gondola next to our holiday apartment, we bought a 3 Day Gardena Card. The Gardena Card was good for unlimited rides on a total 11 chairlifts, gondolas and funiculars in the valley. The Alpe di Siusi gondola took us to an unbelievably beautiful alpine meadow. The view took my breath away. The quiet, the rural Swiss style farm chalets and the lack of people are an amazing combination. Trails wander across the meadow and through pastures that you are welcome to cross. An added bonus is that private vehicles aren’t permitted in Alpe di Siusi.
Alpe di Siuisi – Compatsch & Saltria
We took the short Al Sole chairlift down into the meadow. We decided to then hike the higher ground for the views of Sassolungo mountain and the Schlern peak. After about an hour, we reached the small village of Compatsch. In Compatsch a gondola and buses reach Alpe di Siusi from the east and the town of Kastelruth. Too many tourists facilities and people meant this area lost the charm we experienced by arriving from the Ortisei side instead. After a quick lunch, we decided to take the inexpensive #10 bus across the meadow to Saltria.
Saltria was simply a bus stop near the Florian gondola. We rode the gondola over the pastures and up near the base of the Sassolungo mountain chain. We were close enough to see the hikers near the top of one of the peaks and we enjoyed a completely different view of the Alpe di Siusi alpine meadow below. To finish the day, we rode the only other bus in the valley, the #14 bus, from Saltria back to where we started hiking the Dolomites that morning.
Hiking the Dolomites – Col Raiser
On our third day, we headed up the escalators in the village of Ortisei to the Seceda Gondola. After a long ride up the valley on the 6 person Seceda Gondola, you switch to a very large gondola. The last section is very steep, so by the time you reach the top station you’ve gained almost 3,000 feet in elevation. Just like Alpe di Siusi, you get the same unbelievable view all over again. Col Raiser is an old glacial cirque basin, so the pastoral meadow slopes down the hillside in a gigantic bowl shape. We decided the first thing we would do is ride the Fermeda chairlift down into the basin of Col Raiser. At the bottom we found a lovely little chalet named Malga Neidia Hutte, where we enjoyed espresso coffees and an amazing apple strudel. The view toward Sassolungo from our outdoor seating was fabulous.
After our coffee break we took the Fermeda chairlift back up again and started really hiking the Dolomites. We walked out along the ridge toward Puez Olde and then began a descent down into Col Raiser that took several hours. The views were magnificent in every direction. We stopped for lunch on the patio at a large chalet named Baita Daniel Hütte. Eventually we reached the Col Raiser Gondola and descended to the town of St. Christina.
At St Christina we still had enough energy to walk to the Monte Pana chairlifts. The first stage was a two person chairlift. A four person chairlift then took you up near the base of Sassolungo. At the top of the chairlift run, we had extensive views back over Col Raiser. A perfect ending to our day hiking the Dolomites. We then used our Val Gardena bus passes to return to Ortisei.
Hiking the Dolomites – Pordoi
On day four we used our rental car to drive about an hour to Pordoi Pass. The drive to the pass has so many switchbacks that they are numbered with sign posts. The heights aren’t too bad, but the road is narrow. Regular tour buses are too big to use the roads in the Dolomites. The switchback roads are popular with motorcycle groups and biking athletes, so the drive is hectic. At the pass we went up the Pordoi gondola. The Pordoi gondola is very popular, but it wasn’t my favorite experience. The large gondola makes a very steep ascent to the top of the Sella Group of mountains. At the top it’s an interesting moonscape with no alpine meadows and way too many people.
Hiking the Dolomites – Telecabina Forcella Sassolungo
On the way back from our Pordoi Gondola visit, we stopped in Sella Pass and rode the Telecabina Forcella Sassolungo gondola. I laughed so hard on this gondola ride. When you get on, the gondola doesn’t slow down. First my wife runs, chasing at the open door and two men lift her in. I run behind her. They grab my arms and throw me in with her. Then they close and lock the door. Inside the small cabin, we were jammed together tightly, standing upright with no handles to hold on to. I felt like I was in an old Charlie Chaplin movie.
Both of us laughed so hard we had tears in our eyes. Later when you descend from the top, we didn’t think it was quite as funny. At the top, you chase the gondola as the ground disappears over a cliff edge in front of you. Very exciting.
During the next two days, we used our Val Gardena bus passes to visit Kastelruth for lunch and we hiked the old railway line from Ortisei to St Christina. Then we finished hiking the Dolomites by following the river back down from St Christina to Ortisei. I first decided to spend a week in the Dolomites after seeing all the beautiful pictures of Val Gardena online. Seeing it in person was way beyond my expectations.