The Dolomites 2018 - around the Pale di San Martino and a bit Marmolada,Sella and Civetta

For years I am photographing the Dolomites valley by valley, quite often in late autumn as I love the golden larches in the mountain forests and the tranquility of this part of the year. I missed it only last year but I got the magical island of South Georgia instead. I covered most parts of South Tyrol and the more famous areas around Cortina. The dolomites south of Cortina are rather unknown in Germany, maybe Monte Pelmo and Civetta is known, but even more south it is terra incognita for Germans (not for Italians....)!

Enter the Pale di San Martino!

I have seen this mountain range with its huge barren high plain from different spots in the dolomites and the idea formed to cover the Pale from all sides with the valleys around the mountain range. It is a huge area with very different valleys from the Primiero in the south and west, the Agordino in the east, the Valbiois and the Val Travignolo / Val di Fiemme in the north and west again. Most of it is part of the Veneto and the population in the valleys has its own idendity and very special italian dialect, some valleys belong to the Ladin area with its own distinct language. As you see, lots of diversity!

It is a by far to big to cover in three weeks but it is a very rewarding region and you have to start somewhere!

Altipiano - The High Plain

No, it is definitely not pretty, but it is awesome, barren and unique - the Altipiano delle Pale di San Martino.

I wanted to see this place and the only easy way to see it is by using the cablecar. With heavy equipment the other options to hike up there (takes at least 3-4 hours one way  from all sides!) are no goes at least for my knees. But in autumn most cablecars are already closed, which is a pity. There is only one cablecar leading up to the altipiano and it closes down in September, however it runs during weekends until mid of October. A bit early for larches, but anyway I wanted to go up!

Many peaks, very famous for climbers, are located around the altipiano and there is no easy path up there. Only from the Agordino it is not as forbidding and 100 years ago this access was used as a supply route for the mountain wars in WW 1. The northwestern valleys were Austrian territory, the east, south and west was Italian. As often in the Dolomites this sad part of history is all around you when you are travelling in this area.

The Altipiano is something like the central part of the Pale di San Martino and it is sending some ridges mainly to the east. Between these ridges you find valley with nearly vertical slopes up to the peaks. It is a complex geomorphology!

The northern rim of the plain with its elevation of 2200 to 2500m is formed by the highest peaks topping out at well over 3000m. In all other directions the peaks at the edge of the plain seem to be just hills, but with sometimes vertical cliffs more than 1500m down to the valley floors - it is an archaic landscape!

We have been lucky, the weather was beautiful, but to have only a couple of hours to cover this plain was a bit stressfull (physically and mentally). I have never been in a similar environment, the web does not have many good pictures to get an idea of what to expect and to get ideas how to translate everything into atmospheric pictures. It was demanding and a photographic challenge. I would have prefered to stay in the only mountain hut up there and I checked the webpage -- closed. The reality was different, it stays open on weekends when the cablecar is operating. Next time I know!

Anyway, it was successfull! It is quite easy to get "nice" pictures of the Matterhorn during sunrise reflected in a peaceful mountain lake, but to create pictures with the atmosphere of a barren, karstified and desolate mountain plain is a different task. These pictures will probably have no big commercial market, the plain is just not pretty enough, but I liked the challenge and it was a memorable day. By the way, the plain is more a hilly landscape and hiking does not come easy at all.....

At the end of the long day we have been knackered, but full of impressions of this strange landscape. For the next two weeks we would see it only from the valleys or neighboring mountain passes, but I am sure that I will try to come back for a stay in the mountain hut up there.

The Primiero

The valleys south west of the altipiano are called Primiero, I did not even have heard the name before I went there this year, a grave mistake! It is a pretty place, it is very Veneto-italian, picturesque, good food and and and...... Highly recommended. There is only one valley cutting into the Altipiano, the Val Canali. It is famous in Italy, well travelled and it has the reputation to be one of the prettiest valleys in the whole Alps. It deserves the reputation, even if it was a bit early for perfect colors of foilage.

The villages are still normal villages with a mix of tourism, agriculture and commerce. I think that some villages suffer a bit from secondary residences from well to do italians from northern Italy. That is expecially visible in the more picturesque places, but all villages have still a traditional charm.

The exception to the rule is San Martino di Castrozza, which owns its existence to the ski areas of Passo Rolle, Tognola and the cablecar up to the Pale. This place is not bad, quite nice in a way, but during late October it is utterly dead. Only closed blinds, closed shops, closed everything. We stayed in Fiera, highly recommended.

Going east towards the Agordino

The plan to stay a bit in Agordo, the main small town in the Agordino did not work, as the weather was a bit poor. Moreover the access to the Pale is through the Valle di San Lucano. It is a narrow valley at about 700m, but the peaks are more than 2500m on either side and it is a many hours walk up to the Altipiano (main access by MTB). It is better during summer and I guess using a MTB would make a great difference. Valle Cordevole seperates the Pale from the mighty Civetta. This valley is a great location! One side Civetta, the other the Pale...

It would have been a shame not to cover a bit of Civetta again....


We made a day trip from our accomodation in Valle Biois, had splendid weather and a great long day! The hike from Listolade west offers great views of the famous climbing walls of Civetta and a view of the Pale around M. Agner. The great finish of that day was the alpenglow of one of the highest walls in the Alps towering over the village of Alleghe!

Valle del Biois

Valle del Biois forms the northern edge of the Pale di San Martino. The view from Falcade south to the peaks of the Focobon (part of the Pale di San Martino) is breathtaking, but the north faces do not get any sun from autumn to spring. Like the Primiero this area is not destroyed by concrete high rise hotels, which are so common in many skiing areas. There is good skiing, but the valley has struck a better balance than many other places in the Alps.

Access to the Pale is through valle de Ganes (highly recommended) or the steep val di Focobon (to dark and steep for autumn, very different during summer).

The little hamlets in these valleys are famous for their traditional farms, barns and for the unspoilt central parts of the bigger villages. Even the skiing "town" of Falcade still has an old town worth a visit.

Towards west and northwest valle del Biois leads up to two mountain passes - Passo di Valles (west) and Passo San Pelegrino. As most cablecars have shut down until winter, mountain passes are the best access points to the mountains for photography with heavy equipment. We visited both passes several times, both are very rewarding.

Passo San Pelegrino

Passo San Pelegrino offers great views of the Pale di San Martino, but at this time of the year this mountain range does not get any good light. But the hikes into the mountains north of the Pale di San Martino are pretty and rewarding. During summer the cablecars starting from Passo San Pelegrino are probably a good choice as well, but all closed during autumn.....

Passo di Valles, Val Venegia and Passo Rolle

This area is probably the most spectacular. Iconic views and good infrastructure are the reasons why this area is popular, even during autumn. Coming from the straight east-west oriented Valle Biois the Pale change to a straight north-south orientation at Passo di Valles. Between the small Passo di Valles and the well frequented Passo Rolle Val Venegia offers awesome views of the north and west faces of the highest peaks of the Pale di San Martino. The big parking places are an indication, that you are not lonely during high season.

It is amazing that the easier routes to the summits are starting at the Altipiano right behind these steep rock walls. The idea to stay in the hotel on Passo Rolle did not work, all closed but one, which was not very attractive. We covered this area from Falcade, Predazzo and Fiera. A bit driving, but still ok.

It is a very special "corner" and by now I had finally the right color in the larch forests. It is just lovely to hike through golden larches!

A short walk from Passo Rolle is the most famous viewpoint of the whole Pale di San Martino. In good conditions the alpenglow cast an intese red onto the rock walls and all is reflected in a small lake with a mountain hut (Baita Segantini). I had my red color, but lots of wind, therefore no lake pictures. I focused on a different viewpoint, which offered nice views into the Primiero, too. 

It is an easy walk, sometimes the dust road is open for cars and we even encountered a group of photographers from the UK.

We visited this area several times in very different conditions, but after the evening with alpenglow we decided not to come back. Hard to beat such an atmosphere and hard to get better.

Decision taken, we said good bye to the Pale di San Martino and changed the focus to two other very famous mountain ranges, Marmolada, the queen of the Dolomites and the mighty Sella.

We made camp in Predazzo, like Fiero a good combination of touristic infrastracture and "normal" way of life. But first some more impressions from Passo Valles, Val Venegia and Passo Rolle.

Through Val di Fiemme and Val di Fassa

Two hazy days slowed me down a bit and it was a time to rest as well. As usual it gets a bit harder to stay focused after 2 weeks behind the camera....

In both valleys tourism is much more important than in most places we have seen so far on this journey. The atmosphere in the villages and small towns is dramatically different. Predazzo is a rural small town, most restaurants were open, as there is enough local population even in autumn, recommended for off season!. Moena, Vigo and Pozza di Fassa is somewhere in between. The posh Moena is attractive, Pozza di Fassa was quite busy and nice, but my favourite would be Vigo. Good views and good location! Yes, now to the most northern small town, Canazei.

Canazei is like Soelden or any other skiing hot spot. Off season it feels strange to walk through such places. It is like being in a poolished ghost town with some locals taking care of it..... Not my cup of tea. During high season this is definitly different, as the many cablecars are operating and there are many options to spend the day (and spend lots of money...)! All the same not my choice! But the location of Canazei right between Rosengarten, Langkofel, Sella, Marmolada is very unique and that is probably the reason why Canazei is like it is, no rose without thorns......

Most pictures were taken in Predazzo, much more life. But as I mentioned Vigo is the place I would stay next time.....

Marmolada - the queen of the Dolomites

After schlepping my heavy equipment for two weeks I decided to hike light, meaning only a small body and one lens, no tripod no nothing. And it was fun, more hiking and being not just focused on pictures.

We spent two days around Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. The first day started in Vigo and led us into the small valley San Nicolo and up to a mountain pass with great views of the vertical south face of Marmolada. It was a stunning day, the bluest of blue I have seen in the Alps for years. Even without polarizer it nearly looked artifical. Rain on the northern side of the alps, very strong wind and dry cold air on the southern side. Taking the big camera would have been useless, the trees bent in the gales and we have been covered by golden needles... A memorable day!

The second day was different. Much warmer, no wind, lots of sun, but cirrus coulds all over the sky. The weather was going to change......

It was a hike starting in Canazei into the valley of Contrin up to some alpine meadows again with good views of Marmolada, in fact quite similar to our first hike, but much better foreground. Both hikes are highly recommended.....

Sella - the grand finale

After the cirrus clouds I expected poor weather, but we got a final sunny day. The cable car up to Sella is operating daily until end of October. It was my last chance this year....

We packed up in Predazzo drove as early as possible to Passo Pordoi to get the first run up to Sella. We intended to stay the night in Val Gardena close to the Brenner motorway. The forecast predicted heavy rain and snow for the next days....

And we saw the rain coming from the south, but this day was magic again. Sella`s elevation is more than 3000m and the approaching clouds  filled the valleys first. Stunning views!

The Sella is the heart of the Ladin speaking valleys of northern Italy and the Sella is enshrined in the ladin history. As the Pale it is an archaic landscape up there. Not pretty but rough!

With the clouds sneaking up the valleys and finally up the southern walls of Sella this last day in the Dolomites was really a grand finale.

We entered the cabin down to Pordoi as soon as the Sella was covered by clouds, drove down towards Canazei and up to Passo Sella and down to Val Gardena again. The next day it rained!

And it rained and rained and rained. We crossed Brenner with a bit of wet snow falling from the dark sky and it kept raining. The next day Brenner was closed for several hours due to a landslide.

As you might know by now, I liked the area a lot and it was worth while the long drive from Munich. If you are interested in the Pale di San Martino and you are living farther north, fly to Verona or Venice rent a car and enjoy a very special area, you will not regret it!

What else is to say?

Right now sleeping bags, self inflating matresses and lots of other stuff is piling up under my desk. Next week my Falkland expedition starts, Penguins, Albatrosses and Elephant Seals - we are coming....

Of course many trips are planned for next year, very exciting, stay tuned!

I wish all of you a happy new year 2019!

And do not forget to check out my workshop pages for my next workshops


Munich, December 2018