The Croda Rossa mountain was looming above me. It was grand and beautiful, albeit almost a bit menacing.
I was hiking the Alta Via della Croda Rossa d’Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites, and I was alone. My hiking mates had deserted me, but I yearned to keep going because the day was gorgeous and the description of the trail had captured my imagination.
I have a passion for hiking, which keeps growing every year. However, I’m no mountain expert yet. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of doing the entire hike by myself. Plus, I had no cell phone reception and the trail mentioned there would be an exposed passage with ropes later along the trail.
I stopped and turned to look back. There was nobody behind me as I had slowly surpassed everyone during a particularly steep ascent. I looked ahead and saw a man and a woman, walking at a brisk pace, the only two people left on the trail, as far as I could see.
Should I keep going or turn back and call it quits?
I had arrived in South Tyrol’s Puster Valley (Pustertal) a couple of days earlier. One of the most popular valleys in the Alps, the Val Pusteria stretches between the charming towns of Bressanone in Italy and Lienz in Austria, in the heart of the Dolomites, that incredible mountain range located in north-eastern Italy, rightly recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the highest peaks reaching almost 3,000 meters (more than 9,000 feet).
One of the Puster Valley’s top natural attractions is Braies Lake (Pragser Wildsee), my first stop on this (too) short trip in the area. Braies Lake, one of the Dolomites’ biggest lakes, has been made even more famous, at least in Italy, by the television show broadcast on Rai TV, Un passo dal cielo. In the series, Terence Hill, who plays a ranger, lives in the cozy wooden house on the lake.
You could easily reach Braies Lake by car, but what’s the fun in that?! Plus, it can get very congested in the summer months, so I recommend either hiking there, or, if you want to begin a hike at the lake, taking the bus (public transportation services are generally excellent in South Tyrol). As for me, I left the car in the pretty tiny village of Ferrara (Innerprags) and followed a beautiful path, mostly within woods, to the lake. I had read that the lake was “one of the most beautiful in the Dolomites”, but I wasn’t prepared for the incredible backdrop of the mountains rising just behind the lake, reflecting in the lake’s emerald green waters.
There are different ways to enjoy Braies Lake: you can walk its perimeter, which measures 3,5 kilometers, an easy trail suitable for everyone, which affords great views; you can rent a rowboat and glide slowly on water; or you could sit by the shore and enjoy a picnic. There are also several trails departing from the lake (the famous Alta Via -High Route- n.1 of the Dolomites departs from here).
After leaving the lake, I was eager to go check out my hotel, Hohe Gaisl, which I chose because it is located on a 2,000-meter (6,500 feet) high alpine plateau, Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese), within the natural park of Fanes-Sennes-Braies. Car access is regulated and you won’t find any human settlement there besides the hotel and a hut next to it. Just what I was looking for. Every morning, I’d wake up to a fabulous view of the Croda Rossa mountain group, the Vallandro Peak, and the Gruppo del Cristallo (Crystal Group) in the distance.
Many trails depart from Prato Piazza (the name translates as “meadow square” – definitely fitting) and I decided to begin with an easy one, the path to Monte Specie, described as “blissful solitude on sunny uplands”. The trail starts flat, affording great views of the ample landscapes of the plateau, with its deep green meadows, undulating hills, grazing cows, and rocky peaks in the distance - a soothing landscape, for the eyes, and for the soul.
As the trail winded its way up on gravel terrain, the views got ever more impressive, until I reached the top of Monte Specie, at 2,307 meters (7,568 feet), where I could enjoy a 360° view of all the surrounding mountains: the Gruppo del Cristallo, one of the major skiing areas near Cortina, with peaks surpassing 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) (fun fact: the movie Cliffhanger starring Sylvester Stallone was shot there); the Gruppo dei Cadini, part of the eastern Dolomites; the very famous Three Peaks of Lavaredo (Drei Zinnen), the three distinctive peaks within the Sexten Dolomites; and the Croda Rossa (Sextener Rotwand), a mountain group that takes its name from the reddish hues of the rocks, which, according to legend, were stained with the blood of a dragon killed there – this was the mountain that kept attracting my gaze and among whose trails I‘d find myself alone the following day.
In the morning, I woke up to a perfect sunny day, ready to try something a bit more demanding. The Croda Rossa rose with majesty right in front of my hotel. I felt an urge to explore it.
So there I was, about an hour into the hike, awe-struck by the view of the Schlechtgaisl peak (2,300 meters – 7,545 feet) right above me, with still quite a way to go. I decided I’d reach the couple in front of me and ask them if they were going to my same destination: the alpine hut Malga Cavallo (Rossalm), and then down to Ponticello through a different trail, where I’d take the bus back to the hotel. It turned out they were doing my exact same itinerary and would be happy to take me along.
I had never hiked an Alta Via (High Route) and it was a magical experience: as you’re always at a high altitude, surrounded by mountains, the views are seriously grandiose, alternating between rocky pinnacles, snow-capped peaks, grassy slopes, colorful flowers, Swiss pines and fir trees.
There was indeed a rope to cling to at some point, but it was less scary than I thought. My feet were happy when we reached the Malga Cavallo, a charming hut at 2,164 meters (7,099 feet); I sat on the outside terrace while enjoying a well-deserved rest – and an ice cold beer (my new hiking mates were Belgian after all).
I was soon ready to go for the last stretch – it was all downhill, literally and figuratively. Sometimes you have to push yourself a little, and the rewards are big.