Dolomites trek day 1: Tre Cime to Passo di Prato Piazza

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At last! After months of training, other preparation, and anticipation, it was time to begin a nine-day trek in the Italian Dolomites with other members of the hiking club I belong to, based in Tahoe Donner in Truckee, California. On the first morning of the trek we left most of our luggage in storage in our base hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo and were transported about ½ hour in two taxi vans to the Hotel Tre Cime. The hotel is located at a trailhead for the Alta Via 3 at the edge of Nature Park Tre Cime, northeast of Cortina.

We would be hiking about 6 miles, including a side trip to Rifugio Vallandro for a lunch break, to our first overnight accommodation, Rifugio Prato Piazza. Although the day was mostly cloudy and misty, we were full of anticipation about what we would encounter and experience once we got out onto the trail. Of course there were many firsts, including a variety of wildflowers, and beautiful views of the mountains. We hiked in the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park.

The GPS track shows our route, which began at the lower right and ended at the upper left.

GPS track

GPS track

We were basically hiking up into the mountains, starting in a valley (where there was a road) and climbing about 2500 feet before a gradual 500-foot descent. The elevations were similar to what we had all hiked in the Lake Tahoe region, so one thing we were not at all concerned about was the elevation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

After posing for a group photo we started hiking. A trail sign informed us that Rifugio Vallandro, our destination for a lunch stop, was a 3 hour and 10 minute hike. The Alta Via 3, also National Trail 34, soon began a steady climb. Our pre-trip itinerary summary had prepared us to expect 20% grades somewhat routinely during the trek. In fact, the two uphill sections were pretty close to 20%, but we were so excited to be actually on the trek we didn’t really notice as we were hiking. At times the trail was on the edge of some very steep rock walls, and at other times the trail passed through forest. We enjoyed pretty views across – and down – into a nearby valley that was experiencing low cloud cover and some mist.

photo of valley with mist

Valley with mist

We passed several brilliant orange mushrooms, of which we would see more later on in the trek, and some initial wildflowers: what I believe is arnica (Arnica montana) and some dwarf alpenrose (Rhodothamnus chamaecistus). The latter is not too distantly related to rhododendrons and manzanita. A signature characteristic of the dwarf alpenrose is the long white stamens with dark tips.

photo of dwarf alpenrose

Dwarf alpenrose

At the top of the first main climb we came to a short, very steep section with wooden stairs next to a nearly vertical rock face. A metal rope was attached to the rock face. The markings on our trail maps suggested that this was a short section of via ferrata, but it really was only a hint of the real ones! Just after the steps we passed through a short tunnel, perhaps 20 feet long, that had been cut through the rock wall near the tip of a small promontory. After exiting the tunnel we found that the path, which was fairly narrow, followed along next to an incredibly steep drop-off. It is telling that the pattern of foot wear is definitely on the inside part of the mini-bridge, within reach of the metal rope. This was a rather interesting experience, since I, for one, was still getting used to having my actual trip pack with its planned load fastened firmly to my torso. I made sure to maintain my balance while I got out my camera, took this picture, and re-stowed the camera.

photo of steep drop-off: be careful where you walk!

Steep drop-off: be careful where you walk!

After this short, but exciting, section of trail we had a brief gentle decent followed by the second main climb, again with a grade close to 20%. Just after beginning the climb we passed the ruins of a building that most likely dates from World War I: as we would learn, there was a lot of activity in this part of the Dolomites during the war. Although we were within today’s Italian borders we were not much more than 10 miles as the crow files from the Austrian border; there was fierce fighting during the war and the borders subsequently moved back and forth.

The first half to two thirds of the day’s hike made a big U around a formation called Strudelkopf, with Mt Specie the peak at the top. In fact, we passed a junction with a spur trail up to the top of Mt Specie. If the weather had been clearer, it would have been tempting to make a side trip to the top, only 100 meters higher than the junction. Apparently there is a large memorial cross on the top. In any case, this junction was close to the highest point of the day’s hike. Nearby there was another memorial, which (according to a plaque) was built in 1915, destroyed in 1923, and restored in 2012.

photo of memorial next to the Alta Via 3 trail

Memorial next to the Alta Via 3 trail

Nearby there was a nice view down into a valley green with meadows.

photo of valley view

Valley view

Next we had a nice 1-mile descent to our lunch break. Along the way there were several “first” sightings of Alpine wildflowers. One of my favorites was this fringed gentian (Gentianella ciliata) – not the same species as the fringed gentians found in the Sierras. Even though the picture is not perfectly in focus, the fringe around the edges of the petals is clearly seen. The insect, evidently in the act of pollination, is a bonus! This was one of several types of gentian I encountered.

photo of fringed gentian

Fringed gentian

Another genus with multiple representatives was campanula, or bell flower. This is one of the most common types, harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). The light-colored blossoms “nod” from slender stems. At the right there is another fringed gentian, and the fringes are especially easy to see.

photo of harebell, a type of campanula

Harebell, a type of campanula

A common wildflower sighting was self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). Besides being pretty, I believe I have encountered the same species both in Northern Ireland and in California.

photo of self-heal

Self-heal

One more, which was a more unusual sighting, was dwarf hawkweed (Hieracium humile), with a small, cheerful yellow blossom.

photo of dwarf hawkweed

Dwarf hawkweed

About 4.3 miles from the trailhead we reached the junction from which we began the short detour to Rifugio Vallandro for lunch. Like at other rifugios, we would learn, there was a brisk business serving lunch to hungry hikers of all ages. Here we saw hikers ranging from a toddler, riding in Daddy’s rucksack, to this sprightly gentleman, who was decked out in denim hiking shorts (substituting for lederhosen), suspenders, and a jaunty cap festooned with pins.

photo of hiker at our lunch break at Rifugio Vallandro

Hiker at our lunch break at Rifugio Vallandro

This rifugio is actually accessible via an unimproved road: a method by which many of the rifugios receive food, water, and other supplies. Outside there is signage explaining the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park in which the rifugio is located. I appreciated that there was an entire panel with some 24 pictures of wildflowers found locally. Most of them bloom earlier in the season than our visit, however.

We took our time and ended up stopping for an hour, partly because the restaurant was so busy, before retracing our steps to Trail 34 and Alta Via 3. The remainder of the hike to our overnight rifugio was a gentle descent. Along this next section of trail, now National Trail 40A, we encountered additional wildflowers. Notable was this alpine moon daisy (Leucanthemopsis alpina).

photo of Alpine moon daisy

Alpine moon daisy

Another, more unusual, wildflower was a hoary plantain (Plantago media). Of course, at this point in the trek all of the wildflowers were new and different! And I was happy that there were as many as there were still in bloom.

photo of hoary plantain

Hoary plantain

We were now beginning to approach the Prato Piazza, where there are large meadows that serve as cattle grazing areas. We needed to cross fences that separate grazing areas. For example, here we found a stile to negotiate. The red and white striped logo indicates the way to follow the national trail.

photo of a stile is one way to cross over a fence separating cattle grazing areas

A stile is one way to cross over a fence separating cattle grazing areas

We soon had a pretty view across a large grazing area, with what looks like a small shepherd’s hut in the foreground.

photo of meadow, here a cattle grazing area

Meadow, here a cattle grazing area

In one place several cairns showed the correct path, as distinguished from other paths created by cattle.

photo of cairns show the correct path

Cairns show the correct path

We passed through another fence gate and soon arrived at Rifugio Prato Piazza, our home for the night. As is evident from the pavement in the foreground, this rifugio is also accessible by vehicle.

photo of Rifugio Prato Piazza

Rifugio Prato Piazza

Fortunately, everyone in our group had arrived by 2:30pm, because it started raining. We had all deployed our pack covers earlier in the day and had rain gear at the ready. We were glad to not really need the gear on our first day, but we were prepared! An optional “bonus” hike was described on our itinerary for the day, but everyone decided to stay indoors and stay dry.

After a rain shower some of us ventured outdoors to look at the trail signage and make sure we knew which way to begin hiking in the morning. Low-flying clouds were pretty, even if they obscured what would otherwise have been a spectacular view from the rifugio.

photo of view from Rifugio Prato Piazza

View from Rifugio Prato Piazza

Another two hours later there was a bit of clearing in the sky, showing a lovely view of a nearby mountain formation.

photo of evening view from Rifugio Prato Piazza

Evening view from Rifugio Prato Piazza

As we were to appreciate, the meals at the rifugios were both substantial and delicious. Dinner generally included a pasta course, a main course, and dessert. Following a meeting to review the next day’s route, there was more conversation, reading and/or cards, and lights out by 10pm. Next would be what all of us referred to as the infamous Day 2, which looked on paper to be the most difficult day of the trek.

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