Hiking the Dolomites: the Alta Via 4 [guest post]

Walking at the foot of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites

Walking to Locatelli with Tre Cime di Lavaredo ahead

The autumn guest post series continues. Next up is Christina, who’s done a varied and challenging trip along the Alta Via 4. Thank you Christina! Everyone else, enjoy reading all about it! ^marketa

This past July, my partner and I spent some time in the Italian Dolomites, focusing our adventure on the Alta Via 4. We chose the Alta Via 4 because we wanted to be more remote, but still have an Alta Via experience, specifically the via ferrata. The Alta Via 4 provided the skeleton for our trip, but as we discovered, in Italy, there are many options for side trips, detours and changes of plans. You really can choose your own adventure and take it day-by-day.

The experience was amazing; the views are humbling and the via ferratas are engaging, allowing us to climb up in rocks that we wouldn’t be able to without gear. However, we can’t deny that one of the biggest highlights was the food and mountain experience.

I am from Canada and often used to a “slog” to get to most mountain places that I will camp. However, in Italy, you can be surrounded by incredible vistas, then arrive at “camp” (rifugio), order a beer and a three course steaming dinner. Before you plan a trip to the Dolomites, prepare to be spoiled! You may never want to work as hard in your life again.

Getting there

We flew into Munich and then took the train to Innsbruck. Finding the right train was slightly confusing but it all worked out and we were comforted to be surrounded by mountains as we arrived in Innsbruck. What a beautiful city!

In Innsbruck we stayed at a small family hotel in Igls where we recovered from our jet lag and then we decided to spend one more day down in Innsbruck. We found a good deal on a well-located hotel and spent the day getting organized, buying maps, camping fuel and we had a wonderful dinner up at Buzzihutte (highly recommended!)

We were hoping to spend some nights camping in the mountains, although we had heard that it was not allowed, but had also seen pictures and heard of people camping. To keep our options open, we both had larger than average packs (48 – 60L) that included a tent, sleeping duvet, some freeze dried meals and cooking gear.

However, we quickly learned that the rifugios were far too appealing and our freeze-dried meals lost their appeal very fast! At the same time, it was nice to save some money throughout the trip by cooking our own meals.

Leaving Innsbruck, we found our way to the beginning of the Alta Via 4 in San Candido. Impressed by all the public transport on our way, there was even a city bus that took us right up to our trailhead! San Candido was filled with bikers, and it would have been nice to spend a day there. However, we were ready to get started and hit the trail.

Alta Via 4: part I

From the trailhead, we hiked only 45 minutes to our first stop at Rifugio Tre Scarperi (1626m). This was one of the nicest rifugios that we visited and were able to get a private room there. We splurged on the private room and a delicious Tyrolean cuisine dinner. We were very surprised to learn that the culture in northern Italy is largely Austrian and Tyrolean; this geographic area was Austrian before WW1.

From Tre Scarperi we ascended to Rifugio Locatelli (2405m), which took about 3 hours. This is a very busy rifugio and it was bustling with visitors.

We claimed two beds in a dorm and went off to do our first via ferrata close to the hut. This was a steep via ferrata that was mostly vertical with many ladders. It was exciting, fun and very exposed at times.

Back at Locatelli, we had a delicious meal and watched an incredible sunset. This is a very scenic spot – we could see why so many people were there!

We left early the next morning to start our walk to try and beat the heat and the crowds. We had a lovely breakfast at a hut on our way to Rifugio Auronzo. We continued from there along the Sentiero Bonacossa, which was the most invigorating hikes we had done yet with a trail that wrapped around the side of the mountain, dropping steeply below– incredible.

We wore our harnesses and used our carabiners at a few places on this section, but the via ferrata was not very challenging. Most people we saw were wearing helmets and harnesses, but not everyone. This route eventually climbed up to Rifugio Fondo Savio (2367m). This was a beautifully perched rifugio with a killer apple strudel. There’s a good, challenging via ferrata to do there, but we continued on our way to Rifugio Col de Varda.

We arrived at Col de Varda, exhausted and relieved to find that there was space for us. As a matter of fact, we were the only guests! This was one of our longer days and we enjoyed our radler beer immensely!

We mostly did not reserve rifugios on our trip and always found a place to sleep. However, it did seem that the rifugios that were easier to access (chairlift or road) were emptier than the ones that had short hike to get there (i.e. Locatelli, Fondo Savio, Vandelli).

A break in Cortina d’Ampezzo

From Col de Varda we downloaded on the chairlift to Misurina and then took the bus to Cortina. In Cortina we stayed at Camping Olympia, which was fantastic. If you go to the far end of the campground, you can camp on the river. The woman managing the park helped us by calling ahead a couple of rifugios to see if they had space.

We enjoyed Cortina a lot and used it as a base to do some via ferrata. Highlights were going up to Rifugio Lorenzi by gondola and doing the Marino Bianchi via ferrata and Ivano Dibona via ferrata. The Ivano Dibona was a prominent frontline in WW1 and is filled with shelters and tunnels.  It is a fantastic ridge walk and about 1600m of descent!

Also, I can’t mention Cortina without recommending El Bronsin pizzeria, it will raise your pizza expectations for the rest of your trip; it was the best we had. We really felt Cortina was special and we didn’t fully realize that until we left – it’s worth spending time there.

Alta Via 4: part II

Moving on, back to the Alta Via 4, we hiked into Rifugio Vandelli (1962). The next day we did the most incredible via ferrata of the trip, ascending out of the basin on a steep face. This via ferrata was exposed and I found it quite exhausting and exciting. There were some more difficult moves and our heavy packs slowed us down a bit. The challenge felt good and we were rewarded by seeing an ibex at the top.

The route then descended to Bivacco Comici and then continued on to Rifugio San Marco. This was a longer day, as well, with limited water en route. However, it was probably the best day of the Alta Via 4, for us. Rifugio San Marco was beautiful and family-run. We wished we had spent another day there just relaxing, reading and taking in the mountains.

Although there was a couple more days left of the Alta Via 4, we felt satisfied with our experience and wanted to see if we could do some mountain biking before the end of our trip. We got a ride to Venice with a kind man that we met at San Marco and then continued on to Arco at Lake Garda.

It wasn’t until we left the Dolomites that we felt we had made a mistake! They hold a magic and we wished we had stayed a little longer. What a wonderful trip.

The route

Day 1: San Candido – R. Tre Scarperi

Day 2: R. Tre Scarperi – R. Locatelli

Day 3: R. Locatelli – R. Col de Varda

Day 4: R. Col de Varda – Misurina

Break in Cortina

Day 5: Tre Croce – R. Vandelli

Day 6: R. Vandelli – R. San Marco

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18 comments

  1. Shoshana Beer · · Reply

    Hi!

    I’m planning to do a shortened and reverse version of your trip, start from Cortina and then head up to San Candido. I’m wondering if you rented equipment for the via ferratas, how did you manage to return them? Can you rent from somewhere at the beginning and return it somewhere else at the end? Or do the rifugios rent equipment for the nearby via ferratas?

    Also do you think it’s doable to go straight from Rif. Locatelli to San Candido in one day? It sounds like it would just be about 4 hours but it looks pretty far on a map. Thanks for any help you can offer! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip and greetings from Canada 🙂

    Shoshana

    1. Hi Shoshana!

      Thanks for your comment!

      The via ferrata gear question is a tricky one. I am not aware of it being possible to rent and return at different places or if huts renting out gear. I guess that would be one big advantage of a guided trip – the guide should organise the kit.

      We did a via ferrata before we started the AV1 for which we rented the gear in Cortina and returned it there the following day.

      I am afraid I won’t be much help regarding the hike from Rif. Locatelli to San Candido. I really don’t know. As a rule of thumb it takes an hour to cover 400m of elevation difference (300m with a heavy pack) and about an hour to cover 4km. Take which ever gives you a longer hike as a rough guide.

      Enjoy the rest of the trip planning and the hike itself!

      Best,

      marketa

  2. Kate · · Reply

    We’re looking to do this hike in September of 2018! Which route did you follow on the tabacco maps? I’m having some difficult finding it!

  3. Hi, I’m planning to do this route in July, but hate being confined to an itinerary. If I am going solo, do you think I would need to book any of the refugios in advance? Or did you have no problems finding rooms? Thanks for letting me know!

    1. Hi! Unfortunately I didn’t hike the AV4 myself, but I’d imagine it’s better than the AV1. If you are going solo, you can probably wing it. The worst thing that can probably happen to you is that you’ll have to sleep on a bench in the common room. Also just calling the huts on the day early in the morning could work. Have fun planning your trip! marketa

      1. Peter Evans · ·

        I hiked the AV4 last year, self guided but arranged through a company called Dolomite Mountains who arranged all the hut bookings in advance. Avoid the busiest time (August) and you might well be able to find space on an ad-hoc basis. Getting the custodian to call the next hut on the evening before to check availability is a good idea.
        The problem with winging it is that you might find there are no spaces and you have to run two days into one (happened to me in a party of three on the AV2 in 2014 more than once) which can be very tiring.
        The AV4 is an amazing route though, with plenty of via ferrata options, and I can thoroughly recommend it. The scenery is fantastic.

  4. Peter Evans · · Reply

    After checking out possibilities, my friend and I did the Alta Via 4 in July 2017 using a company called Dolomite Mountains based in Cortina d’Ampezzo. We booked a self-guided trek, though there is the option for a guided trek also (more expensive of course). I have to say the company was excellent, looking after all the hut bookings and providing some very helpful advice, both before and during the trek. The AV4 has plenty of opportunities to take in via ferrata. It’s quite a testing route but absolutely stunning and well worth the effort.

  5. Hi. Thanks for the post, it is really helpful.

    Two year ago we made 4 days route at Alta Via 1 from Lago di Braies, and in 2017 we hiked Alta Via 9 from ref. Bergamo to Saas Pordoi, then we switched to Alta Via 1 from Laguzuoi to Lago di Braies. And every night in these two trips we spent only in tent. It was a little bit hard to carry a tent, a sleeping bag, food for 7 day trip, but it was really amazing, because we were alone in the mountains. May be not alone. Two nights we heard a terrible growl near our tent and it was really scary!! It was smth between growl and guttural barkling of a dog with some prey in the teeth and it moving very fast, on the ground and very silent. I listened after the trip the growl of the animals to find the similarity. May be it was lynx, but i’m not sure. A friend said that he heard the same growl, but in Crimea peninsula in the mountains, and there aren’t any lynxes at all, so i’m confused. First time it was in the forest near Sassolungo and next on the lago di braies in a pine forest, very very close to the beach.

  6. Nathan · · Reply

    Hi Marketa,

    Thanks for such a great post. I’m looking into AV4 for this summer and it’s been tough to find any meaningful information on it, so this has been a great help.

    I’ve read a few accounts of camping being ‘highly illegal’ though I’m sure if you pitch late and pack early it should be fine but just so I have a full picture, do you have any ballpark figure of what we should expect to pay for a night in one of the Rifugios?

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for stopping by on the marmot post! Glad you like the av4 post, though credit has to go to Christina for guest contribution.

      When I hiked the Alta Via 1 in 2011 we paid on average €50 per person per night for half-board. I would expect that prices have hiked up to €60 since then.

      Good luck with planning of your trip!

      Marketa

    2. Hi, I made two times trekking routes in Dolomites and both times with a tent. If you need any info, you can contact me. rois@inbox.ru or find me in Fb as Raisa Suprun

  7. ada · · Reply

    So…is discreetly camping possible? I really need to know it, because if it isn’t possible, we will give up this region. Thanks!

    1. Hi Ada!

      Thanks for stopping by on the marmot post. Discreetly camping should be possible. Pete, who wrote a guest post about his AV2 wild camping trek for this blog (https://marmotpost.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/camping-hiking-alta-via-2/) followed the usual rules of pitching late, leaving early and kept out of sight and all went smoothly for him.

      Good luck planning your trip!

      marketa

  8. Peter Evans · · Reply

    Great report Christina. I’ve done the AV2 and thought of doing the AV4 next year. But information on the route is more sparse than for the AVs 1 and 2. What maps did you use and did you find a guidebook? Is the AV4 marked as well as the AVs 1 and 2? Any further info would be very welcome.
    Peter

    1. Hi Peter!

      Thanks for stopping by in the marmot post. Glad to see you like Christina’s post. I’m sure she’ll be glad to see that too. I’ll replay your comments to her.

      There is some information about the AV4 in Gillian Price’s Trekking in the Dolomites, though it’s quite brief.

      marketa

    2. Fergus · · Reply

      Hi Peter,
      I hiked AV2 last year, and used the TABACCOmapp app. You purchase each square in the overall dolomites region for ~€2 each (I bought 8 segments for AV2 as I went along). It is the same supplier as the printed maps, with the same 1:25,000 spec, very very good and essential with all Rifugios, hike routes, elevations, etc marked.
      I’m thinking of doing the same thing for AV4 this season :).
      Fergus

      1. Peter Evans · ·

        Thanks for the info Fergus. Interesting use of technology. Personally, I like to have a map in my hand. Hope you enjoy the AV4!

  9. What an interesting hike. I hope you had a great time, Christina! 🙂

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