Skiers have flocked to Italy’s Dolomites for decades but in recent years hikers have discovered this region with its dramatic, jagged peaks, Alpine meadows, crystalline lakes, pine forests, and rocky plateaus. Summer crowds keep lifts and trails very busy, but autumn, with mostly sunny skies and comfortable temperatures, is the perfect time to explore the Val Gardena. It’s a paradise for hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, and nature lovers.
After a quick stop to pick up warmer hiking clothes for my husband, whose plan to wear shorts was thwarted by a late September cold snap, we headed North from Trento–the towering pinnacles of the Italian Alps looming in the distance.
As we drove higher into the mountains, the winding roads took us through spectacular fall foliage, past storybook dwellings and grazing animals, before reaching the delightful Alpine town of Ortesei. Quaint shops specializing in the high-quality carved wooden items the area is known for, art galleries, a small church, and bustling restaurants, cafes, and bars beckon visitors down the town’s main street—a lively pedestrian zone.
Austrian until after WWI when it became a part of Italy, German is still the preferred language in this autonomous region where Italian and Austrian culture and cuisine mingle. Italian is the national language and English is common in hotels, restaurants, and shops. Some locals speak Ladin, a culturally significant language particular to this small area of the Sud Tirol. Most places have three names for this reason—Ortesei in Italian is also called St. Ulrich in German and Urtijei in Ladin, and along with Santa Cristina and Selva, are the three towns of the Val Gardena.
This stunning region offers some surprises like Europe’s highest-altitude rose garden. We reached Uhrehof Rosarium in nearby Bulla after an invigorating hike through the woods. The garden is perched on the mountain 5,249 feet above sea level and features 150 species and more than 5,000 rose bushes.
Medieval castles abound in the Sud Tirol. We trekked Selva’s scenic Way of the Cross with our guide Alexander and then scrambled up steep, rocky steps to the ruined Wolkenstein Castle high above the valley floor. Built into the rugged rockface in the 13th century by a noble Tyrolean family, it was the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic lunch with expansive views over the valley.
Europe’s largest Alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi, is a short gondola ride from downtown Ortesei. Crisscrossed with hiking trails, walking paths, and mountain bike routes, it’s easy to return day after day and not explore the same area twice. A panoramic lookout over the Sassolungo, visitor information, restaurant, shop, and lifts to other elevations (if you’d rather ride than hike) are just outside the gondola exit.
The Val Gardena is dotted with huttes. These rustic restaurants offer hearty local fare and usually feature a cozy indoor dining room and an expansive outdoor terrace. You can enjoy a drink, a restorative meal, spectacular views and get to know your fellow hikers at communal tables. We had a memorable group lunch at Sanon Hutte on the Alpe di Siusi, and thanks to my new friend Claudia, were introduced to Kaiserschmarrn– a fluffy crepe served with berry preserves and plenty of powdered sugar. Order this local specialty whenever you can!
We often heard bells echoing through the verdant valley and spotted plenty of cows, sheep, goats, and a few donkeys as we traversed mountain trails. We even had an encounter with llamas on a hike from Monte Pana near Santa Cristina.
The gondola to Seceda and the funicular to Resciesa are both a short walk from the center of Ortesei and take visitors to some of the most impressive peaks and views in the Val Gardena. At 8,200 feet, Seceda is part of the Odle Group, which means needles in Ladin. These aptly named jagged spires are magnificent!
We found ourselves literally in the clouds on Resciesa. Lower than Seceda, we hiked to the enormous cross at Resciesa’s summit, passing only a few others. Once the summer crowds have gone, you’ll often have the trail to yourself.
Col Raiser, in the Puez-Odle Nature Park near Santa Cristina, is another favorite hike. Be sure to stop at the UNESCO World Heritage panoramic balcony. At 7,217 feet above sea level, the views are awe-inspiring!
We also tried Nordic trekking in the Val D’Anna. It was a great way to explore, experience a Kneipp trail, and meet some local cows.
According to Alltrails.com, there are 54 hiking trails, 34 backpacking trails and 17 mountain biking trails in the Val Gardena. The terrain changes dramatically from forest to grassy meadows to rugged, rocky trails depending on where you hike. If you are setting out on your own, be sure to research current forecasts and conditions as mountain weather can change quickly. Assess the difficulty of the hike you’re planning and bring the necessary provisions with you—especially water.
Before heading out we like to view the live webcams at Val Gardena for popular hiking areas like Col Raiser, Seceda, Resciesa and Alpe di Siusi. You’ll also find gondola timetables, activities, events, and regional information there.
There are B & Bs, family hotels, luxury lodgings and rentals in Val Gardena. I chose the Adler Dolomiti in Ortesei adler-resorts.com because the Autumn hiking special includes complimentary daily guided hikes for varying levels of expertise, Nordic trekking, e-bike and mountain bike tours. Equipment is provided at no charge. Guests can also enjoy Tibetan sound baths, yoga and exercise classes, a world-class spa with a new sauna pavilion, two indoor/outdoor pools, a jacuzzi, and a salt grotto. Wine tastings, a weekly BBQ and visits to a cheese producer are among the activities you can purchase.
Rooms are large, airy, and comfortable and many have balconies. The sister hotel, the adults-only Adler Balance, is connected via a tunnel and shares the spa and pools.
On our first visit, we were surprised to see guests in the lobby, at breakfast, and wandering the grounds in their fluffy white Adler robes and slippers. Some people come to relax and enjoy the spa and don’t venture out—nor do they don street attire, except at dinner!
We treated ourselves to well-deserved massages and enjoyed a daily swim, sauna and jacuzzi. After a day of hiking, it was blissful to float in the heated pools, steam rising, while the snow-topped mountains soared above. I loved the Tibetan sound bath, too, and not pointing a finger at my husband, but I did hear snoring during that otherwise relaxing experience!
Many of the mostly Italian and Austrian guests we met return to the Adler for Autumn hiking annually. One couple from Bergamo had been coming for 25 years. We hiked most days with the same small group of guests and formed friendships we know will last far longer than the vacation.
The exquisite beauty of the mountains, our new friendships, and Adler’s outstanding hospitality will bring us back to Ortesei. Chances are once you’ve experienced autumn in the Dolomites, you’ll be hooked, too!