Hiking Italy's Alta Via 1

Weave through the Dolomite's limestone daggers.
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Weave through the Dolomite's limestone daggers.

The Perfect Circle: Hiking the Annapurna Circuit | Chile's Torres del Paine Circuit | Corsica's GR 20 | Peru's Inca Trail to Machu Picchu | Italy's Alta Via 1 | New Zealand's Milford Track | England's Pennine Way | Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro | Everest Base Camp, Tibet | Tour du Mont Blanc

Classic cred The cloud-piercing stone spires of northern Italy's Dolomites look like a basket of inverted chef's knives–and the Alta Via 1 is the most renowned route through this seemingly unpassable terrain. These impossibly sheer peaks became accessible to trekkers after World War I, when troops built ladders and cut tunnels to move heavy artillery. Now, an extensive network of vie ferrate–bolted steel ladders and cables–helps hikers Spider-Man their way through the heart of the Dolomites. Starting at the opalescent waters of Lago di Braies, the route spans 75 miles of gray limestone towers and velvet-green valleys–bursting with poppies and globeflower in early July–before reaching the southern terminus at Belluno, 50 miles north of Venice. Trail elevations bounce between 4,800 and 8,000 feet, but that's not the only high hikers enjoy: The 15 palatial rifugios along the route make even Colorado's comfortable 10th Mountain Division Huts look like hovels.

Beta August is a national holiday in Italy, so go in July, when it's snow- and crowd-free, or in September (just before rifugios close for the season). Budget eight or nine days. From the pines surrounding Lago di Braies, the trail climbs steadily to the summit of 7,843-foot Porta Sora‘l Forn, where you'll glimpse your first blown-open, above-treeline views. At Rifugio Lagazuoi (10 miles in, typically reached on day two), take a two-mile spur trail marked "G" to explore the Galleria Lagazuoi, a 3,600-foot-long WWI tunnel. You'll take short ferrate across sheer faces throughout the route, but the centerpiece is the Via Ferrata del Marmol, where you'll dangle over 1,600-foot cliffs before descending into Belluno. Camping is prohibited, but no mind: The rifugios serve hearty Italian and German dishes, and some offer hot showers. Don't worry about utensils, but pack your own towel.

Local's tip Grappa, a gullet-searing Italian brandy made from grape skins, is popular throughout northern Italy and found in rifugios–if you ask for it. Drink it as-is, as an after-dinner liqueur, or "correct" your coffee by splashing some in a cup of espresso for a café correcto.

Plan it Get map recommendations and current weather forecasts at dolomiti-altevie.it/en, and read Henry Stedman's Dolomites Trekking (Trailblazer Guides, $23) for detailed route and hut descriptions. Want a guide? Distant Journeys (distantjourneys.com) in Camden, Maine, specializes in bringing American hikers to the Alta Via 1 on fully guided or supported treks. Go to www1.dolomiti-altevie.it for rifugio reservations.

Cost  DIY: $$$ // Guided: $$$$$