The Dolomites Part 1: Cortina d’Ampezzo

In June 2016, we visited the Dolomites. This post covers our drive up to Cortina d’Ampezzo, and the hikes from there. We enjoyed three fantastic hikes in the Cortina area. During that time, we hiked a loop around Passo di Falzarego, to Lago di Sorapiss, and a loop at Tre Cime di Lavaredo. We also enjoyed a night and spectacular sunrise at the Lagazuoi rifugio.


The first part of our drive from Venice to Cortina d’Ampezzo passed quickly. Once past the Belluno area, the road started to get a bit smaller, and we soon reached the mountains and exited onto SS51 near Cadore. Views — and rain showers — greeted us. Despite the rain, we stopped a number of times to enjoy the views. Before long, Antelao loomed over us to the right, while views to left revealed several valleys. Finally, after about two hours of driving, we reached Cortina.

Chiesa di San Martino & Cima dei Preti
Chiesa di San Martino & Cima dei Preti

We found our hotel, Hotel Natale (Booking.com), on the far side of town. We checked in and, excited to be back in the mountains, went for a walk to the north. I believe the trail we found was a rail trail, and it follows SS51 toward Fiames. After maybe a kilometer or so, we turned right onto a side road to try to get a little higher for better views west toward the Tofane.

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Pomagagnon, Dolomites. View from Just north of Cortina d'Ampezzo.
View of Pomagagnon, from our dinner walk north of Cortina d'Ampezzo

As the sun — and our energy — waned, we turned back to town in search of dinner. Shoulder season limited our selection somewhat. We settled on Il Vizietto di Cortina, a well-reviewed restaurant with a promising-looking menu. Our meal did not disappoint, and we went to bed full and tired.

Passo di Falzarego, Cinque Torri, and the Lagazuoi

We woke up without a set plan for the day, other than our reservation to spend the night at Rifugio Lagazuoi above Passo di Falzarego. Over the hotel’s breakfast, we tried to decide on a hike. We mostly concluded that all of the options looked appealing. Still indecisive, we checked out of the hotel, left our luggage, and drove to the pass.

Once we arrived and parked across from the cable car base station, we had a much better sense of how everything connected. One of our hike options, the Cinque Torri, was to the southeast. Our other hike option, a trail running below the Tofane, stretched out on the north side of the pass. Our destination — the rifugio — loomed above us, also to the north.

We tentatively identified a way to connect the hikes. We would visit Cinque Torri, go back down to the valley, cross the road, and hike up along the Tofane to the Rifugio. This option would have been obvious when planning if we’d purchased a topographic map rather than relying on the individual hike descriptions and maps, but alas, we had not. Our new plan combined portions of Walks 20, 21, 22, and 23 in Shorter Walks in the Dolomites.

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Looking down at Passo di Falzarego, Dolomites
Looking down at Passo di Falzarego. You can see the top of the cable car on Piccolo Lagazuoi (left).

We set out south, first through meadow and scrub, and then across rocky slopes. From time to time, we turned around to enjoy the improving views back to the pass and the Lagazuoi. Before long, we reached a col and the junction with Forcella Averau. From here, we followed a well-made trail across boulders behind the Averau. The trail emerged on the other side next to Rifugio Averau, at 2413 meters, with views up to the Nuvolau. We hiked down past Rifugio Scoiattoli toward the Cinque Torri.

Cinque Torri
Cinque Torri

The Cinque Torri consist of several stone towers, dominated by the Torre Grande. This is a beautiful scene. It is also a sad one.

View of Passo di Falzarego from a bunker at Cinque Torri
View of Passo di Falzarego from a bunker at Cinque Torri

During the First World War, Italian soldiers stationed here faced Austrian-Hungarian troops stationed on the Lagazuoi across the pass. An open-air museum preserves several of the trenches and emplacements, with signs describing the history. The contrast between the spectacular scenery, so peaceful today, and the horrors of World War I served as a stark reminder of how quickly and completely things can change. These thoughts returned to my mind often during our hikes in the Dolomites.

After exploring the Cinque Torri for a while, it was time to head back down to the pass. We were doing pretty well on schedule, so we decided to continue our loop. We descended past Refugio Cinque Torri, crossed its access road, and entered the woods. An hour or so of hiking brought us to the road (SR49), well below Rifugio Dibona. From here, the trail climbs steeply through the woods, for probably the the least interesting part of the loop.

After climbing steadily, we emerged from the woods just below Rifugio Dibona. We continued past to begin the climb up into the Valon de Tofane. The main trail proceeds on a series of long, sweeping switchbacks, but with our destination to the west, we instead followed a side trail that branched off to the left, climbing more directly.

On this trail, we soon regained elevation and enjoyed views back across the pass to the Cinque Torri as well as up into the Valon de Tofane. Just below a waterfall — one of the few we saw in the Dolomites — we joined another trail running nearly level below the Tofane. We walked along between two layers of cliffs on the Tofana di Rozes, with the mountain looming above and views of the pass below. A few small, green meadows dotted the otherwise rocky terrain.

Kyle hikes along the Tofana di Rozes
along the Tofana di Rozes
Marmot in its burrow

After a nice walk along the cliffs, the trail climbed again to Forcella Bóis, following and crossing several old trench lines through rock and snow. The trail wound around the back side of Col dei Bóis, eventually leading to Forcella Travenanzes and a muddy, slushy field filled with marmots. We paused here to watch the marmots as they scampered between their various burrows  and watched us back.

Finally, it was time for our last stretch up to the rifugio. The trail started gradually at first and then, at Forcella Lagazuoi, became steep and snow-covered. We put on our traction and started up the steep snow, pausing often to enjoy the views.

By the time we reached the rifugio, we were exhausted and happy to be warm. We checked in, got our stuff situated, and had just enough time to relax and clean up before dinner. While we did that, clouds gathered around the rifugio, blocking most of our views. While the clouds continued to build, we enjoyed Aperol Spritzes and multiple delicious courses — the rifugio’s location at the top of a cable car simplifies delivery of fresh ingredients. At one point, I dashed outside to take advantage of a small and short break in the clouds, but the mountain was mostly tucked in for the night.

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Kyle waiting for dinner and staring at clouds at Refugio Lagazuoi
Kyle waiting for dinner and staring at clouds

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Three peaks of the Tofane above the clouds
The Tofane

We awoke to an almost perfectly clear morning, more than making up for the night before. I put on some warm layers, picked up some coffee, and went outside to the Rifugio’s porch to watch the sunrise.

And what a sunrise — it was easily one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. All around, the peaks glowed orange and pink as their shadows on the landscape grew shorter. To the east, the sun created a fiery red-orange glow against some lingering clouds over the Lagazuoi.

Looking toward Tofane di Rozes, the Sorapiss group, and Antelao at dawn
Tofane di Rozes, the Sorapiss group, and Antelao
Looking toward the Sella group and Piz Boè at dawn
The Sella group and Piz Boè
Dawn, from Antelao to Civetta
In the background: Antelao, Croda La Lago, Monte Pelmo, and Monte Civetta. In the foreground: Cinque Torri, Averau, and Cernera

When the show finally ended, we went inside to enjoy the breakfast buffet and gather our things. Having walked more the previous day than we initially planned — or hoped — we decided to descend and drive over to a “bonus” hike. Before that, we had one last destination on the Lagazuoi: the wartime tunnel. Near the rifugio, a trail disappears over the edge and into a tunnel built by the Italians, who attempted to dislodge the Austrian-Hungarian forces from their perch on the mountain using mines. Throughout the long, dark, descent, I struggled to wrap my mind around the whole endeavor.

View from the Lagazuoi tunnels
View from the Lagazuoi tunnels

From the end of the tunnel, it was a short hike back to the pass and our car. The route did require one tricky crossing of a snow bridge, though cables aided our crossing.

Lago di Sorapiss

Back at Passo di Falzarego, we got back in our rental car and drove back down, through Cortina, and further along SR48 to Pass Tre Croci, the trailhead for Lago di Sorapiss. (If you have the Shorter Walks in the Dolomites book, this is a portion of walk #13).

We parked our car alongside the road, repacked our backpacks a bit, and set out along a gravel track. This soon entered the woods, where we passed by defensive emplacements that once guarded the pass. The trailed stayed mostly level as it worked its way around a ridge. Once past the ridge, we entered a deep valley and began climbing. As we climbed, we worked our way up the valley, gaining better views with each step.

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Kyle hikes up a narrow valley on the way to Lago di Sorapiss
On the way to Lago di Sorapiss

Near the head of the valley, the trail briefly re-entered the woods and then emerged below Rifugio Vandelli. We skipped the Rifugio and went straight for the lake, just a few minutes away.

Our first glimpse of Lago di Sorapiss completely exceeded our expectations. The few photos I had seen had not prepared me for the bright, milky blue waters set in a stunning mountain bowl.

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Lago di Sorapiss and the Tre Cime
Lago di Sorapiss and the Tre Cime

We stopped for a while to enjoy where we first reached the lake before exploring more along the lake’s southern side. From above the south side of Sorapiss, we could see back up the valley, all the way to the iconic Tre Cime. We spent over an hour enjoying the view. Clouds drifted above, changing the light and revealing new details of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Finally, it was time to go. We walked back to the car and drove back to Cortina d’Ampezzo. We checked back into Hotel Natale. Tired and with limited dinner choices, we returned to Il Vizietto di Cortina for another good meal. 

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

For our last day in the Cortina area, we would not really be in Cortina. Instead, our plan was to drive east to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo for a hike, before driving west back through Cortina and on to Selva di Val Gardena. This would be a long day, requiring an early wake up and breakfast.

The drive to Tre Cime brought us back through Passo Tre Croci and on to Misurina and its lake. In Misurina, we stopped at the lake for a view of the Tre Cime. From there, we took the toll road up to Tre Cime. Attendants at the top efficiently directed us into a parking spot and we set off.

With good weather and an early start, we decided on a longer 10 mile hike, roughly following Walk 2 in Walking in the Dolomites. We headed counterclockwise from the parking lot on a crowded gravel track. After a relatively short walk, we reached a meadow with Cappella degli Alpini and a World War I memorial. The trail next brought us to Rifugio Lavaredo, where most walkers turn north through a pass. We instead headed further east, descending around a southern ridge of Monte Paterno.

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WWI Memorial and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo
World War I Memorial

The trail ambled along, climbing and descending at gentle grades through various meadows with expansive views to the south. Eventually, we climbed through another col, reaching Lago di Cengia. From here, the trail next climbed more steeply — but still on well-graded switchbacks — to another pass. At the pass, we first turned right, heading west toward Monte Paterno. We took this trail only a short way to a vista over the way we had just come.

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Above Lago di Cengia, looking back toward the Tre Cime and Monte Cristallo
Above Lago di Cengia, looking back toward the Tre Cime and Monte Cristallo

Once we were done gawking at the view, we started to notice that rusted cans, old bottles, barbed wire, and even soles of shoes littered the landscape at our feet; another sobering World War I reminder, completely incongruous with the scenery around us.

Barbed wire in the Dolomites. Monte Paterno in the background
Barbed wire
Lunch stop
At first the rifugios felt out of place. After a couple of stops, though, they just became delicious.

We returned to the pass and junction, this time heading east. Another short walk brought us to Rifugio Pian di Cengia. At the rifugio, we sat down on the patio and split our attention between the alpine views and the extensive menu of pastas available for lunch. We enjoyed good pasta and radlers, while being pleasantly surprised by the freshness (and quality) of the basil used in the pasta). We also got more sun than we should have.

After lunch, we explored a bit more to the east before returning to the pass. From the pass, we descended steep, loose gravel to the north. The trail soon wrapped around another ridge and passed above another beautiful lake. In another fifteen minutes or so, we reached the Laghi del Piani below Dreizinnenhütte / Rifugio Locatelli. We detoured from the main trail here to explore the lakes, take in the views, and to take a breather.

Laghi dei Piani and Tre Cime
Laghi dei Piani and Tre Cime

From the lakes, we worked our way up to the rifugio, where staff were in the midst of preparing it to open for the season. The rifugio’s back patio was open, though, offering one of the classic views of the Tre Cime. We continued our loop, descending southwest into a valley. In the valley, the trail briefly leveled out before climbing back up to toward the Tre Cime. If I were to do this route again, I would probably instead follow the trail from the rifugio due south toward the pass, then turn west at the pass and follow a trail along the northern base of the Tre Cime. This route would add some distance but probably save a good bit of elevation gain and offer some closer-in views of the Tre Cime. That said, the route we took here was still jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Once back up amid meadows, the trail continued west, reaching a stream crossing and three small lakes near Malga Langalm. We stopped at the lakes for a snack and to enjoy the views over them to the Tre Cime. While exploring the lakes, a rescue helicopter approached low and fast from the west. It landed near the pass to the east to the Tre Cime, presumably to pick up someone, before returning over us again.

Small lakes and Schwabenalpenkopf / Torre dei Scarperi
Small lakes and Schwabenalpenkopf / Torre dei Scarperi
Small lakes and the Tre Cime
The Tre Cime

From the lakes, a fairly short and easy hike — or it would have been short, if not for constantly wanting to stop for each new view — brought us back to the parking lot and our car.

Tired and content, we climbed in and started our two-plus hour drive to Selva di Val Gardena. We again stopped in Misurina, first to pick up some water and some snacks for the drive, and then to enjoy the late afternoon sun on the Tre Come from the lake. (There may have been gelato.)

Small lakes and the Tre Cime
The Tre Cime

For the rest of the drive to Selva, we were in an extended golden hour, and I had trouble keeping my eyes on the road rather than the mountains. We stopped several times for views,  finally reaching Selva just as the light faded.

By the time we checked into our hotel, Hotel Antares (Booking.com), we were exhausted. I was dreading figuring out where to eat that would be open late, and I was subsequently elated to learn that we had included dinner at the hotel’s restaurant in our reservation in anticipation of exactly this situation. We had just enough time to shower and get down to the restaurant before they closed. Dinner was nothing spectacular, but it was good, filling, and easy.

The next post picks up with our hikes from Selva di Val Gardena. You can also read about the overview of our trip to the Dolomites and some of our logistics decisions.

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