It’s a Friday afternoon in fall, and the A27 highway is deserted as small Italian villages and dormant farmland pass by the windows of our rental car. I’m focused on the true crime podcast coming through the speakers when the low layer of clouds suddenly parts. The gasp I make rattles my husband Topher, who jerks the wheel in concern that we’re about to hit something. It’s a tense thirty seconds of me unhelpfully squealing, “look, look, look!” before he sees the mountains, too. Like out of a dream, the peaks I’ve been fantasizing about for years get closer and closer as we eat up the kilometers: the Dolomites.
Topher, our 60-pound dog, and I are driving from Croatia. I’m craning my neck to take in the imposing, snow-dusted peaks as we rapidly start climbing through a valley carved by a river blue gray with glacial run-off. I’d fallen in love with Italy before I could even point to it on a map thanks to my dad’s Navy stint there in the 80s. I grew up on stories of pasta swimming in garlic, skiing across international borders, and crazy Italian drivers—all punctuated by the wild gesticulation my folks had picked up while living there. When we finally crossed the Atlantic on my first international flight to visit Tuscany the summer I turned 18, it was like seeing a favorite musician in concert for the first time. My love was firmly cemented.
As I got older and honed my passions, most of which revolve around big mountains I can hike or ski or bike, I stumbled upon photos of the Dolomites. The home of storied alpinists like Reinhold Messner, the mythical looking mountains, so different from the Rockies I grew up in, enchanted me. I showed my mountaineer dad pictures, and he corrected my pronunciation. The Doh-loh-mee-tee—not the frequent American mispronunciation doh-low-mights—were definitely badass, he confirmed.
The viewpoint overlooking Cortina d’Ampezzo, the prettiest place Mikaela Ruland has ever been. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)
The more elevation we gain, the less I’m paying attention to the podcast. I finally pause it so I can more effectively ooh and ahh. I’d planned our fall trip to hopefully coincide with the changing of the larch trees—conifers straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, with furry looking branches filled with needles that turn gold in October and drop to the ground in winter. I hadn’t accounted for the rest of the foliage hitting its peak this same weekend. The hillsides are practically glowing in every shade from yellow to orange to red. Each new valley we enter is ringed by endless rocky peaks, the most delicate coating of snow clinging to their crevices. Still-green meadows sprawl out underneath them and perfect little villages with terracotta roofs cling to the sides of the narrow road as it winds up, up, up. I’m torn between memorizing the names of the peaks from Google Maps so I can come back and explore them, and just soaking in their grandeur.
We drive through the ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo and head up a windy road towards a looming pass. Many of the buildings along the route are emblazoned with the red squirrel symbol of the Scoiattoli Cortina mountaineering and ski club, a group of alpinists world renowned for their first ascents of the east wall of Mount Blanc and most of the peaks surrounding us now. We’re on hallowed ground.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, I’m not alone in my adoration of the Dolomites. Stretching nearly 550 square miles across northeastern Italy, the mountain range is home to more than 12 ski resorts, including the two-time winter Olympics destination of Cortina d’Ampezzo. The jagged peaks and serene valleys are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true. You can hike, climb, and mountain bike in the summer, ski, snowshoe and ice skate natural lakes in the winter. With 18 3,000-meter peaks and countless mountain villages blending Austrian and Italian architecture, there’s a lifetime worth of exploration in this region.
Rifugio Croda da Lago reflecting in Lago Federa. The mountain hut is open from June to November, and you can book a stay or stop for lunch on the deck. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)
I’m sure Topher is tired of me saying “This is wild,” but I can’t find any other words. Travel writers are fond of declaring a place fairytale-like, but the peaks and valleys surrounding me feel more like something out of a fantasy novel. I half expect a dragon to come flying out from behind the nearest summit. The road leads us through a golden forest, and I realize the larches I was so keen to see don’t require hiking to view. They surround us on all sides.
We arrive at the summit of Passo Tre Croci and check-in to our no frills hotel perched above the village of Cortina D’Ampezzo below. There’s a trailhead leading away from the parking lot, and we frolic down it for a ways, letting the dog stretch her legs in the dying light. When we get to our room, I throw the windows wide open and take pictures of the sun turning the peaks pink until the stars come out. The bartender downstairs pours us Aperol spritzes and lets the dog make herself at home on a thick pelt acting as a rug. Then she returns with a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches with delicate grill marks from the panini press for us, and I can tell Italy has already won my husband over.
The next morning, the sky is still dark and star-studded as we drive back down the pass, through Cortina, and up the mountains across the valley toward the Ponte di Rocurto trailhead where we had chosen to hike. All the cafes we pass are closed, making me glad I’d downed a cup of sludgy instant coffee in the room.
The road is already lined with cars when we get there and the sun still hasn’t risen. It’s as bad as some of Colorado’s notoriously crowded fourteeners, but I reason with myself—and Topher—that the trail leads to several multi-day routes, with mountain huts along the way, so maybe the hike won’t be that busy. We get lucky as we start climbing the six-mile trail to Lago Federa and don’t see another soul. The route is steeper than we’d banked on and so we hike quietly, aside from our heavy breathing.
As we pass gaps in the trees, the mountain on the other side of the valley shows itself, powdered sugar snow clinging to the face, clouds playing peek-a-boo with us as we go. The first of the sunlight filters through the canopy and sets the golden larches around us aglow. The trail is covered in a thick carpet of needles and my breath fogs. I wonder if it would be macabre to tell Topher to scatter my ashes in this mountain range when I die, having been here for less than 12 hours. I look back down the trail at him, slogging his way unhappily up the incline, and think better of it.
Topher Yanagihara, Ruland’s husband, enjoying a cappuccino and ricotta cake on the patio at Rifugio Croda da Lago. The food in the Dolomites is off-the-charts good. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)
That doesn’t change the sentiment, though, as my dog and I power up the trail. I start flipping through my mental list of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. An achingly still morning canoeing across Washington’s Lake Crescent. The streets of Paris. Sunset in my favorite valley outside of Aspen, Colorado. The frozen forests of Finnish Lapland, the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. There’s a split in the trail and GAIA GPS shows a short path ending in a binoculars symbol. Topher is out of sight at this point, so the dog and I take the detour. Tears spring to my eyes as we reach the fence at the end, keeping us from plummeting off the cliff. It doesn’t matter which direction I look, striking mountains peeking out from behind wispy clouds, golden hillsides and postcard-worthy villages crowned by church spires sprawl out in front of me. There’s no competition. This is the prettiest place I’ve ever been.
When Topher arrives, I watch him take in the scene before pulling out his phone to snap a picture. He’s still grumpy from the more-than-we-bargained-for hiking grade, but I can tell he’s enchanted, too. The trail levels out and before we know it we’re approaching the lake we’ve come to see. The curved horn of Croda da Lago’s peak reflects in the glass-still water, the entire scene bathed in a warm glow where the sun hits the thousands of larches around us. The lake is lined with photographers, but everyone speaks in the hushed, reverent tones the landscape demands.
We take a million photos and wander the shore, soaking in the autumn sun and the stunning views. On the far side of the lake, we post up on the patio of a mountain hut called Rifugio Croda da Lago and drink cappuccinos and eat ricotta cake and apple strudel. This rifugio, one of the few open this late in the season, takes overnight guests, but not dogs. I’m already pining to come back next summer, my eyes focused on the trail that wanders over the next ridgeline, surely leading towards more incredible beauty, delicious food, and heart pumping climbs.
brought tears to the author’s eyes. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)
That evening, we tuck ourselves into a booth in the back of a tiny restaurant called Il Vizietto di Cortina, which is full to bursting. The night before we’d tried the local specialties—beetroot ravioli covered in butter and poppyseeds (casunziei) and Ampezzo potatoes cooked with caramelized onions and speck. Tonight we’re trying dishes from other regions of Italy, and our table is soon laden down with bowls of seafood spaghetti dotted with scampi and clams, Amatriciana with speck and cherry tomatoes, and Aperol spritzes (even though it’s cold enough for puffies). There’s twinkle lights in the windows and the soundtrack is a cacophony of Italian and bottles being uncorked and clinking forks, and while I’m a hopeless romantic when someone sets a bowl of pasta in front of me, this too is excruciatingly beautiful.
I’d sketched out a few hopeful hikes for the next morning, but when we awake our feet are tired and the sky is gloomy. The 8.3-mile hike to Lago di Sorapis’ Gatorade-blue waters will have to wait until next time. Instead, we find a local bakery and save a pair of backpacking Brits who don’t have any cash and are trying to buy a baguette. We marvel at the croissants and cornettos we’ve filled our bag with as we wind up the mountain.
Our target is Cinque Torri—the five rock towers visible from town. In the summer, there’s a lift running up to its base. In the off season, there’s a steep, several-mile trail under the chairlift or a dubious looking road travel bloggers have warned us against. I give Topher the choice—he’s heard there’s a World War I museum at the top so there’s no turning back now—and he opts to maneuver our little rental car with a concerning lack of ground clearance up the dirt road. It’s not long before we pass an abandoned Land Rover and I grip the sides of my seat, reminding myself of all the wild places he’s navigated our Subaru back home. Maybe we should have opted for the additional insurance.
Before long we’ve climbed out of the trees and park underneath a rifugio that’s boarded up for the off-season. Above our heads, the towers loom large. We climb a short, muddy road and find ourselves at the top of the ski lift. Below us, bunkers from World War I are hidden amongst the rocks so well I can’t pick them out. Here, the Italian Army made their stand against the Austro-Hungarians. We wander through the bunkers, peering out through gun sights and reading information panels, imagining what the young men who were stationed here more than a hundred years earlier had been thinking. It starts snowing, itty bitty flakes that melt the second they hit my jacket.
It’s time to drive home, fueled by cappuccinos and ricotta cake from a restaurant we pass on the way back down to Cortina. As we head through the last tunnel, leaving the Dolomites for the plains below, I promise myself this won’t be the last time I visit. I’ve already got plans swimming through my mind of ski trips and hikes between rifugios, and for the first time in years I think about starting to rock climb again. There’s a siren song from these mountains, beckoning me up and up and up. Who am I not to listen?
(Photo: Mikaela Ruland)
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