Trip Reports: Autumn In The Dolomites, Italy - October-November 2019
In late October and early November, Claudia and I traveled to the Dolomites in northern Italy for two weeks of hiking amongst jagged peaks and golden larch trees. I've spent time the Dolomites in the summer and winter before but was excited to visit during the autumn when the larch trees turn yellow and orange.
This late in the season the mountain huts are already closed, so instead of hut-trekking like we normally do in the Alps, we based ourselves out of the villages with a rental car and did lots of day hikes. During our stay we were in full-on crank mode, hiking just about every day, sometimes twice a day for sunrise and sunset. But of course we also had plenty of time between hikes to relax and enjoy many delicious cappuccinos, pizzas, and carafes of wine!
The Dolomites are amongst my favorite mountains in the world and it was fantastic to experience them in all their fall glory! Here are my best photos from the trip, in chronological order.
We were fortunate to time our trip during the peak of fall colors, with the majority of larch trees a golden orange color. Larch trees are one of the few deciduous conifers; unlike most evergreen conifers, larch needles turn yellow and orange in the autumn. As I learned on this trip, the brilliance of the color depends greatly on the light; frontlit or shadowed larch forests can look fairly dull and somewhat brownish orange, while backlit larches show a much more vibrant orange color.
For the first five days or so we were based in Cortina d' Ampezzo, the most well-known town in the Dolomites. With a central location between numerous mountain groups, there are plenty of mountain passes and day hikes to explore from there. (Back in November 2010 I had one of the best powder days of my life here in Cortina!)
On one morning we woke up early and hiked in the dark to Lago Federa, a famous autumn destination due to the many larch trees surrounding the lake. As expected the lake was swarming with several dozen photographers and even the lovely sound of 3 or 4 drones buzzing overhead all morning. The Dolomites are extremely popular with photographers these days, for obvious reasons, and there are so many highly-publicized iconic spots like this that it can be somewhat difficult to avoid them! But as always, with just a bit of exploration it's certainly possible to find more unique locations and compositions. And sometimes the classics are worth the shot too!
Probably no trip report from the Dolomites would be complete without mentioning the artifacts of the World War I alpine battles between the Italians and Austrians, including the extensive tunnel networks that were built by both sides during the war. The Lagazuoi tunnel was built by Italian soldiers; it was the only way they could access the summit ridge which was occupied by Austrian soldiers. The basic idea was to tunnel all the way up through the mountain, pop out at the top and start shooting. Crazy times.
This tunnel is so long it takes about an hour or so to hike up through. I was determined to photograph a variety of light conditions from the summit of Lagazuoi, and so ended up hiking up through this tunnel three different times over the course of several days, including twice for sunrise!
After our time in and around Cortina and several nights in San Cassiano, we moved on to the town of Alleghe. Situated 7,000 vertical feet directly below the northwest face of Civetta, the town is shaded for much of the day this time of year, and with rainy weather it had a distinctly Pacific Northwest vibe!
In the above photo you can see the Sella Group. In the wintertime it's possible to ski all the way around that entire mountain group via a network of linked ski resorts, called the Sella Ronda which I had the pleasure of doing back in December 2010.
The photographic highlight of the trip was this incredible sunset near Civetta. We climbed up a nearby peak and waited on the frigid summit all afternoon as clouds swirled around, but increasing cloud cover and an incoming weather front dashed my hopes for a good sunset. At one point I was all packed up and ready to head down, but at the last second a tiny gap in the clouds sparked my hope just a tiny bit and I decided to stay up there after all, even though I honestly had less than 25% hope for any sunset light. After a while my spirits rose when the sun started poking through some larger gaps towards the horizon, and then I was positively giddy when the setting sun beamed through swirling, lifting clouds! This ended up being one of those ultra rare, once in a lifetime sunset shows - certainly the most awesome moment I've witnessed this year, and one of my all time top memorable mountain moments. Needless to say I was quite glad I stayed up there instead of giving up early.
So far we'd done a roughly counter-clockwise travel loop from Cortina to San Cassiano to Alleghe, essentially circumnavigating Monte Pelmo. From here I was eager to explore a lesser known region, so we drove towards the southeastern corner of the Dolomites to the town of Cimolais, in Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti. Unlike the popular touristy towns near Cortina, this place is clearly off the tourist track and basically a ghost town in the off season. We spent a couple days hiking in Val Cimoliana, a deep, dark mountain valley surrounded by massive, imposing walls.
Bad weather was setting in by now, and my final hike of our trip was up into a wintery wonderland of snow-plastered larches. While the clouds stubbornly covered the mountain views I was yearning for, the misty snowy scenes were certainly fun to photograph too.
With a fresh dump of snow in the mountains, more large winter storms stacked up in the forecast, and a rear-wheel-drive rental car, our time in the mountains was clearly at an end. We retreated to Belluno, a beautiful city at the foot of the Dolomites, for our two final days to relax, stroll around the old town, and savor the culinary goodies of Italy before our flight back home.
I'm sure this won't be my last visit to the Dolomites. The more time I spend here, the more time I want to spend here! Caio!