Hiking in a World Nature Heritage Site in the Dolomites

Bernd F. Meier, DPA, September 27, 2011

A few hundred metres from the Drei Zinnen (three pinacles) alpine hut, Albuin Gruber points to the towering cliff on the Paternkofel peak.

"We call that summit the Frankfurt sausage," the mountain guide says. The small hiking group has been on the trail for a little more than an hour. The starting point was the Auronzo mountain cabin located at 2,230 metres altitude. The goal is to hike once around the Drei Zinnen group of mountain peaks.

These are located in the Dolomite range of the Alps in northern Italy and since June 26, 2009 have been registered as a world natural heritage site by UNESCO. Anyone who goes hiking there will quickly understand why.

Gruber and his group will be out on the trail, at around 2,000 metres altitude, for some four hours, for there is a great deal to discover along the way, which is marked as trails 101 and 105.

In the autumn, the Dolomite bear berries, the dovetail bushes and gentians are in full blossom along the trail's edge. In the summer, the main flora include Rhaetischer poppy, Alpine sea-pink, lady's mantel and the hairy Alpine rose.

On the southern side of the Grossen Zinne one can see mountain climbers ascending the heights. Depending on the route and the degree of difficulty, it can take two to seven hours to scale the steep mountain walls. "The climb to the Kleine Zinne at 2,857 metres is the most difficult one," Gruber tells the group. But also the three northern walls with long stretches of overhanging cliff rocks are a challenge to climbers.

Many mountain tourists prefer to head to the Drei Zinnen cabin, located 2,405 metres up, as a place to take a break on their hike to circle the "stony heart of the Dolomites," as the uniquely-shaped cluster of peaks is dubbed.

Hugo Reider keeps the alpine hut open to mountain trekkers from the end of June to the end of September. The cabin has 40 beds as well as a room with 100 mattresses. He recommends coming after the peak season: "From mid-September on it is a lot quieter here."

People are advised to avoid August altogether if they can. "That's when Italy is on vacation and many guests from the cities of northern Italy come to us," explains Silvia Wisthaler, the director of the tourism association of the Hochpustertal region.

The valley includes the municipalities of Sexten, Innichen, Toblach, Niederdorf and Prag. Hiking conditions are usually good until the end of October. Hikers usually can count on steady weather conditions during the off-season, and thanks to low humidity, clear panoramas. In hiking around the Drei Zinnen, peaks which rise to 2,999 metres towards the heavens, the view in the best conditions can stretch as far as the Karnisch and Zillertal ranges in the Austrian Alps to the north.

The classic round-trip hike around the Drei Zinnen is only a tiny part of a hiking trail network of altogether 400 kilometres in the Hochpustertal region. "The network ranges from easy walking paths in the green fields of the Drau and Rienz valley, all the way to challenging trails, the kind we can only recommend to mountain hikers who are sure-footed and not susceptible to dizziness," says Carmen Schwingshackl of the Hochpustertal tourism association.

Among the easier routes is the climb from the Plaetzwiese parking lot, at 1,950 metres elevation, to the top of the Strudelkopf peak, only about 350 metres higher up and reachable on gravel paths. The view from the summit is a rewarding one -- besides the Drei Zinnen there are also the Katzenleitenkopf, Monte Piano and the rugged peaks around the Rauhkofel mountain.