Dallying in the Dolomites

Logistics for a four-day trek through Schlern-Rosengarten Nature Park

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  • First evening – drive to St. Zyprian (San Cipriano) in Tiers (Tires), in the Italian province of South Tyrol (Alto Adige). Stay in a hotel.
    • One possibility: Stay overnight at Hotel Cyprianerhof so you won’t have to drive at all in the morning. You can leave your car in the parking lot across the road from Hotel Cyprianerhof for the four day trek. If you do this, you’ll need to walk a little further on the first day.
    • Another possibility: Stay at Gasthof Frommeralm (Albergo Malga). You can park your car in the parking lot across the street from the hotel for the four days of the trek. If you do this, you will need to take the bus to Cyprianerhof in the morning on the first day and then walk a short distance to the trailhead. Your last day will thus be shorter.
    • The least expensive option: Camp in one of several campgrounds in Bolzen. The catch to this plan is that in the morning you will need to drive from Bolzen to St. Zyprian before you start the hike.
  • Day 1 – park at the Weißlahnbad trailhead and hike up to the historic alpine hut named Schlernhaus. Stay overnight at Schlernhaus. The food is good, but there are no showers.
    • Alternative: Park at Cyprianerhof and walk a short distance to the trailhead at Weißlanbad. Since the bus on the last day will drop you off at Cyprianerhof, this longer first day will make your last day shorter.
  • Day 2 – Hike from Schlernhaus to the Grasleiten hut. Stop for lunch on the way at Tierser Alpl hut. (The food at Tierser Alpl hut is excellent. I highly recommend budgeting time and cash for lunch here. You can refill your water bottles with potable water from the tap in the restrooms.) Stay overnight at the historic and atmospheric Grasleiten hut. The food at the Grasleiten hut is good, and there are showers.
  • Day 3 – Hike from Grasleiten hut to Rifugio Roda di Vael, the Rotwand hut. The Kaiserschmarrn and the roasted potatoes at the Rotwand hut are excellent, though the rest of the food is lackluster. You can purchase a shower.
  • Day 4 – Hike from the Rotwand hut to the Rosengarten hut and the chairlift named Laurin II. Ride the chairlift down to Frommeralm. (Tickets are €9 each.) Take bus 185 from Frommeralm to Cyprianerhof. (Tickets are €3.50 each). Walk the short distance from Cyprianerhof back to the trailhead parking lot at Weißlahnbad. Stop for lunch at Tschamin Schwaige on the way back to your car. Drive home.

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Please note:

  • The four-day trek described in this blog is a perfect introduction to trekking in the alps for families that enjoy backpacking in the United States. The trail is no more difficult than the average high altitude backcountry trail in the States. Only a few sections are secured with steel cables to aid in scrambling over the rocks. Unlike many trails in the alps, you will never need via ferrata equipment. European families bring six-year-old children on multi-day treks over such straightforward terrain.
  • In Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, alpine huts are not “huts.” They are mountain hotels, and they can be palatial. You will need to bring cash. 
  • Book early to make certain to get beds in the huts along your chosen route.
  • You need the topographic map called “Tabacco Blatt 029 ‘Schlern – Rosengarten – Regglberg’.” The trails are well signposted, but there are a lot of trails. You need the topo map to make sense of the signs.
  • Every landmark in South Tyrol has at least two names, one in Italian and one in German. The landmark in question may have a third name in Ladin, a romance language that has lingered in these mountains since Rome fell. You will need to know both names in order to navigate successfully to any particular landmark.
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Approach to Schlernhaus.

In more detail:

  • The social norms for backpacking in the backcountry in the United States are different than the social norms for overnighting in alpine huts in Europe. In the Unites States, human impact in wilderness areas is limited by granting restricted numbers of wilderness permits, which allow the bearer to travel across vulnerable terrain and camp in fragile alpine ecosystems. It is illegal to camp in heavily impacted areas such as many national parks if you have not been allotted a wilderness permit. Europe has no wilderness: in this densely populated land the most remote peaks have been mined, homesteaded by adventurers, and grazed by livestock for a thousand years. No part of the landscape remains unmodified by humans. However, it is still necessary to limit human impact on fragile, protected alpine ecosystems. In contrast to custom in the United States, this is achieved by social norms that discourage tent camping even in places where it is technically allowed. Instead, climbers are expected to overnight in a limited number of alpine huts. This restricts the largest human impact to trails, climbing routes, and huts, and ensures that human waste is safely disposed of.
  • Twenty years ago, alpine huts would make every effort to accommodate climbers who showed up unexpectedly without a reservation, often allowing them to sleep on mattresses on the floor in the bar after closing. However, the number of climbers accessing the alps has increased dramatically in recent years, and innkeepers’ resources are overtaxed. They now only offer this courtesy to mountain rescue teams,  injured climbers, and members of the national Alpine Clubs. If you cannot obtain a bed in an alpine hut, social norms expect you to limit your exploration to day trips and to return to a hotel in the valley to overnight. In some protected areas, tent camping is even illegal. Book early to make certain to obtain a bed in the huts along your route.
  • Things you do not need to bring if you are staying in alpine huts include a tent, a mattress, a warm sleeping bag,  an ultralight stove, freeze-dried stew, and instant coffee.
  • Things you do need to bring include clean clothes to wear in the hotel bar in the evening (because everyone else will have clean clothes); toiletries (because everyone else will be well groomed), a towel (because there are often showers), and a travel sheet or sleeping bag liner, called a ‘hut sleeping bag.’
  • Bring earplugs. If you are sharing a dormitory room with thirty other hikers, at least ten of them are going to snore like a pig being slaughtered.
  • The huts usually provide potable drinking water ‘on tap.’ (If the tapwater in the bathroom is not signed, you may assume it is potable.) Sometimes either the tap water is truly not potable or else the hut does not wish to pay for an inspector to hike up the mountain and test the water. In this case, there will be signs announcing the tap water is not potable. If the tap water is not potable, the hut will sell bottled drinking water for your next day’s hike. If you don’t want to occasionally be forced to pay for bottled drinking water, bring a means of purifying water such as a steripen
  • Oh, and cash. Did I mention that you need to bring cash? Trekking from hut to hut in the alps is comfortable, but it is not cheap. You are staying in hotels with attached restaurants. I budget at least €50 per person per diem. If you plan to order drinks in the bar at night, budget more than €50 per day. (And who doesn’t want to sample the local cherry cordial?)
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Descending from the Schlern Plateau towards Tierser Alpl hut.

Trail journal

Thursday, September 1st

The windows of Gasthof Edelweiss are still lit as we drive up, and the last guests linger in the bar. The inkeep greets us kindly in German. The vintage inn has been renovated, but not mercilessly, and it is cheerful and charming. The eiderdown duvet is soft and the wifi signal strong, and we prop the window open all night to the sweet mountain air.

In the morning, breakfast is a luxurious German Brotzeit, which is a rare treat in Italy. I eavesdrop as the innkeepers greet their guests in German, Italian, and English. As we check out, the good inkeep offers helpful information about our planned trek, warning  of thunderstorms in the afternoons and thieves in the parking lots.

Friday, September 2nd

We park the car in the trailhead parking lot at Weißlahnbad, stash all unused gear so it is not visually attractive to thieves, and set out on the long slow climb up through mixed conifers, past a spring trickling from a karst cavern, up endless switchbacks to the unlikely vertiginous stairways and bridges across chasms that are Bärenfall.

At the top of the Tschafatsch Saddle a log smoothed by a century of bums serves as a bench. From the saddle our path branches. One may opt to descend 100 meters to an alpine hut named Sessel Schwaige where one can purchase lunch; ascend to regain the lost meters, and then climb up over the shoulder of the mountain named Schlern to the hut named Schlernhaus. Alternatively, one may traverse a long flat path through a creek valley grazed by melodiously jangling alpine cows and a handful of maverick donkeys, followed by a slow climb to Schlernhaus. I choose the longer, gentler route.

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Schlernhaus and a blonde Haflinger with Big Hair. An alpine “hut” is generally more a palace than a “hut.”

A chapel basks below the hut, and a herd of uniformly blonde Haflinger horses graze.  My husband complains that we have stayed in innumerable establishments named ‘Gasthof Edelweiss,’ and we haven’t yet seen the promised flower – yet here it is, sheltered by a rock above the hut, a curiously unreal thing looking as if it has been felted from sheepswool by somebody clever in Switzerland.

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Edelweiss above Schlernhaus.

Schlernhaus is one of the most handsome alpine huts I have ever seen, all turrets and wood surfaces polished by a century of hands. The beautiful green majolica stove is embossed with sterling silver lilies and bears a sign that proudly proclaims, “out of order since 1930.” On the wall, Jesus hangs on his cross next to a stuffed marmot.

The food at Schlernhaus is excellent – try the Buchweizentorte, buckwheat cake, or the Kaiserschmarrn, “caesar’s scramble.” Beware the “omelette” – despite the fact that it dwells on the menu between gulasch and currywurst, the “omlette” is a sweet crêpe with berries and powdered sugar. Misled by the name “omelette” and its niche on the menu, I inadvertently order it for dinner.

An accordion hangs on the wall with a sign saying accomplished musicians are welcome to play. In the evening guests hold an impromptu singalong accompanied by the accordion. Wait for ‘Country Roads,’ I tell my husband, and indeed our entertainers do not disappoint, playing it not once but twice as the evening progresses. A parade of dancers follow the accordion player about the common room strumming on a washboard and tooting a vintage bicycle horn. Our fellow guests are not drunk – Austrians simply know how to party.

My husband and I wrap ourselves in layers of wool and goose-down jackets and sit upon a bench outside the hut to watch the sunset. I catch my breath as a sleek ribbon of sinuous mammal leaps a serpentine way across the meadow in the gloaming. An ermine, hunting: black in summer, white in snow.

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Sunset at Schlernhaus.

Saturday, September 3rd

My husband and I sleep well in the twenty-bed bunkhouse tucked up under the eaves of Schlernhaus, and wake to a breakfast of home-baked bread, butter, jam and cheese, coffee and tea.

The trail from Schlernhaus across the Schlern plateau towards the Tierser Alpl hut starts out flat, then summits a hill before dropping down into a valley with lovely views of Kesselkogel where the hut watches over the saddle. Try to pass this point in the very early morning to get clear light for your photographs.

The Tierser Alpl hut is modern and chic as a sleek youth hostel, but the food is wholesome and good, served up by a lad in lederhosen. Hikers are chowing down on local yoghurt with Preiselbeeren, or lingonberries. I am pathetically grateful when the  yoghurt fails to trigger my morning sickness. Fill your water bottles with potable water at the sink in the bathrooms here.

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Chic, modern Tierser Alpl hut.

A herd of horses dozes on the helicopter landing pad outside the hut, and a marmot chirps and dashes across the hillside. We scramble up a trail quipped with steel cables to provide added handholds. The climb gentles and traverses the brow of a hill to Molignon Pass.

From the pass the Kesselkogel (“Kettleballoon”) appears a perfect pyramidal tooth wreathed in cloud. Two men overtake us bearing the bellows and the keyboard of an accordion strapped to their respective packs. A serpentine, partially secured path descending through scree winds down to a seasonal river valley. As we follow the valley downhill towards the Grasleiten hut, a spring pops suddenly from the limestone karst and burbles down through the plunging gorge.

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On the way down the gorge to Grasleiten hut.

The Grasleiten hut was built in 1887, and it is lovely. Pleasant wooden picnic tables and a bright array of hammocks await guests. An espresso machine ensures coffee of a quality to please the Italian palette.

As I descend into the Biergarten in front of the hut an older gentleman who has already had a few beers says, die späte Dame ist der schönste Gast. I smile and duck into the hut to speak with the inkeep. Later the gentleman makes a second bid to start a conversation. I ask whether he is “from around here” and he gapes at me – apparently he is not at all inclined to speak High German. Later still he yodels as the sheer walls of the canyon echo hauntingly, then regals us with some amazingly filthy drinking songs the likes of which I have never heard in either German or English. He yodels one last time as he sets off over the brow of the hill for the precipitous descent into the valley.  His horse knows the way home, says my husband drily.

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The hammocks at Grasleiten hut are hung using upcycled climbing gear.

Dinner guests may choose from two appetizers and two entrees. Everyone gets the same dessert – yoghurt and fruit, for which I am once again pathetically grateful. The food is good. I love the double room with its old wooden walls and its warm quilts and a window that peers out at the whispering creek in its shadowed gorge.

Sunday September 4th

We wake and pack and break our fast on the homebaked bread, butter, and intensely flavorful homemade apricot jam proffered by our hosts. My husband appreciates the generous thermos of coffee which our host provides. After the repast we climb out of the canyon to the Grasleitenpass.

At the top of the saddle, the Grasleitenpass hut is crowded with slim Italian climbers in harness and day trippers with dogs in tow who have walked up from the valley. In contrast, the Grasleiten hut was a vintage idyll with heaps of peaceful, quirky character. I am very glad we chose to make the detour to the Grasleiten hut last night.

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Grasleitenpass hut.

At the Grasleitenpass hut the tables are packed with people and there is a continuous line for the single foul-smelling squat toilet.  Americans will not be impressed by the fetid squat toilet. Do not expect to fill your water bottles with potable water here.

The Grasleitenpass hut offers four kinds of cake –  among them the ubiquitous Buchweizentorte (buckwheat cake) and the eponymous Sachertorte – and boasts an espresso machine. The hot chocolate at the Grasleiten hut just down the valley was Swiss style hot chocolate, but the hot chocolate at Grasleitenpass hut is Italian in style – basically a warm chocolate pudding which you eat with a spoon.

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Buchweizentorte, Sachertorte, a cappuccino, and Italian hot chocolate at the Grasleitenpass hut.

If you are looking for a respectably gourmet lunch, bypass the Grassleitenpass hut and descend the short distance to Refugio Paul Preuss, the Preuss hut. The handsome vintage hut has only ten beds, though two of those beds are in a double room. If you want to stay overnight here, you will have to book early.

I pounce on a menu item described as ‘bacon and pickles,’ which turns out to be thin slices of cured ham and savory pickled vegetables, an Italian ploughman’s. The gentleman in question orders the venison goulash. I think the food is excellent, though my husband claims I am merely gravid and grateful to be granted pickles.

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Smoked ham and pickled vegetables at the Preuss hut, described on the menu as “bacon and pickles.”

After lunch we climb up scree slopes to the Pas da le Zigolade. From the pass my husband notes snarkily that we can see the Grasleitenpass hut where we ate cake, the Vajolet hut and the Paul Preuss hut where we ate lunch, and the Rotwand hut where he plans to eat Kaiserschmarrn. We are grazing our way across the Dolomites.

I stumble down the long slow traverse below the Rotwand, the Red Wall, to the hut named Rifugio Roda di Vaél, the Rotwand hut. Marmots squeak and dark horses graze in the valley below the hut, and the town of Fassa drowses far below. The dormitory rooms are cramped and noisy, but you can buy coins to operate the shower, and the water is hot.

Monday September 5th

I wake when the other climbers in our dorm room start to stir. In order to catch the bus from Frommeralm to Cyprianerhof, we need to leave the hut at a fairly early hour this morning, so I rise and start to pack. My husband stirs in the upper bunk and also rises without demur. His alarm was supposed to go off at 6:30 AM, but we have inadvertently overslept.

Breakfast at the Rotwand hut is a single white breadroll and a few slices of rye bread, spread with butter,  a single packet of honey, and thin sugary packets of jam. The staff offers me a small pot of herbal tea and my husband a small pot of coffee. There is also an orange flavored fruit drink, which I reject due to its sugar content and lack of nutritive value. Breakfast at the Rotwand hut is neither nutritious nor filling.

The Rotwand hut boasts running water, but signs above the taps announce that the water is not potable. Sometimes this signage is due simply to the fact that the hut owner does not wish to pay an inspector to come out and inspect the water. Unfortunately, since I am pregnant I cannot take any chances. We have a steripen  and we could purify the water, but this is time consuming. Instead I pay the hut €7.50 for three liters of potable water in plastic bottles. The production, filling, packaging and transport of water in plastic bottles has a high carbon footprint and contributes to the production of greenhouse gases. It would be far more economical for the Schlern and Rosengarten Nature Park to incentivize the alpine huts to provide drinking water in a less wasteful format. 

It is an easy two hour hike from the Rotwand hut to the Rosengarten hut (Rifugio Fronza alle Coronelle) and the chairlift named Laurin II. It is early, and mist wreathes about the pinnacles that tower above us. After assessing the sheer cliff face above me for stability, I stop to pee in a sheltered alcove along the trail. I reason that the storm ended twelve hours ago and the rock should be stable. However, as I am zipping up my trousers a rock plummets down to land near me, making me jump out of my skin. I emerge from my alcove looking scandalized, and my husband giggles. He points out a disgruntled lady chamois poised on the cliff above my refuge. Apparently the chamois knocked a stone down onto my head. The chamois gazes at us and screams. My feelings too are somewhat traumatized.

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Alpine chamoix.

At the Laurin II chairlift we swivel our packs to the front and pay the €9 ticket that will take us to Frommeralm. At Frommeralm, bus 185 to Cyprianerhof is due to arrive in 20 minutes. When the bus lumbers up we pay €3.50 each for the ticket to Cyprianerhof, and enjoy the long winding journey down to San Cipriano. We disembark at the stop named Cyprianerhof.

From the bus stop named Cyprianerhof a path leads through the grounds of Hotel Cyprianerhof, across a green field, and into the forest. On our way through the forest back to the trailhead parking lot at Weißlahnbad we pass Tschamin Schwaige, the Tschamin hut, which looks like a lovely place to stop for lunch or dinner. Shortly after passing Tschamin Schwaige we return to the parking lot at Weißlahnbad, where the car is happily unscathed.

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