Rain hammers the windshield as the shuttle van stops at the edge of the village of Sesto, Italy. We pile out without enthusiasm. It’s early September in Südtirol, just south of the Austrian border. Under the drooling eaves of a cafe, we pull on our rain gear. Nadine, the shuttle driver for a local tour company, who has the rosy cheeks of an Austrian but accelerates like an Italian, smiles with sympathy. She’s taking our luggage to tonight’s lodging. “Would anyone care for a ride?” she asks.
No takers. We are five friends, all from Washington State, and we’ve trained for six months and more to run the trails of the Dolomites, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Nobody wants to take the easy way out. Not yet.
When Nadine drives off, I turn to the others. I am a lifelong runner, a former resident of Italy, a speaker of threadbare Italian and our group’s self-appointed leader.
“I’m proud of all of you,” I say. “You could have spent the day drinking hot coffee and reading your book in a warm hotel. But you didn’t — a decision you will imminently regret.”
And then we’re off.
The first steps begin modestly, on a wide, mellow stretch. It is a ruse. Soon the trail angles skyward. Rain sluices down. The path becomes a stream. Fog smothers the meadows, pastures and peaks around Val Pusteria — the kinds of views we’ve waited a year to see.
Patience, I tell myself as a thin trickle of ice water drips down my spine and into my shorts. Just keep running, I think. It always gets better.
Finding the perfect route
Trail running, a sport that takes its participants away from paved roads, often to the hills and mountains, has exploded in popularity. The number of Americans who say they have taken part in trail running tripled between 2007 and 2021, according to the Outdoor Foundation, an arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, a recreation-industry trade group. With the boom, more companies now offer trail-running vacations in the United States and abroad.
The Dolomites, an Italian mountain range with staggering limestone pinnacles, great food and an extensive web of trails, have emerged as a top destination. Runners now tackle several of the Dolomites’ Alta Vias (“high ways”) that have traditionally been hiking routes. Many of these multiday traverses serve up enough vertical challenge to leave even the most stout-legged Heidi wobbling over her pasta each night.
But they also offer soft light falling through larch forests, cold beer served with a warm smile at high-mountain huts called rifugios that are more akin to hotels, and a lullaby of cowbells each evening as you bunk down in one of those huts. Not that you’ll have much trouble falling asleep after a long day running.
All experienced trail runners, my friends and I sussed out options: The Alta Via 1, the classic hiking route, is the most runnable. The AV1 also tends to spend more time at lower elevations in the forest, and it can be crowded. The AV2 is gorgeous, but with many ascents steep enough that runners are forced to walk, and less running than we’d like. Which to choose?
Igor Tavella, one of the owners of Holimites, a longtime local outfit that runs trail-running trips and other excursions in the region, offered an enticing itinerary that his company had dreamed up a few years ago. While most Alta Via routes run north-south, this one cut across the grain, running east to west. Each day for six days, runners head high above tree line, frequently reaching 8,000 feet, and pass through landscapes of soft green pastures punctuated by soaring thumbs of rock. By night, runners stay in rifugios, or else they descend to the valley floor, where a comfortable inn awaits. Along the way, the route stitches together segments of other Alta Vias. The route was more runnable than the AV2, Mr. Tavella said.
And, he added, you probably won’t see any other runners all week.
“Sold,” I replied.
A refuge in the clouds
As we trudged upward on the drenching first morning, the climb reminded me of the paradox of trail running in the mountains of Europe: There’s a lot of walking, even for very fit runners. The trails can be brutally steep — up and down. And so you run when you are able. And you walk when you must.
On our first climb, we deployed our running poles, one secret to surviving inclines like these. When the going gets vertical, your arms can take a significant load off your legs, thanks to these collapsible, ultralight poles. The soundtrack of the morning became the tick-tick of pole tips against rock and the spatter of rain on jackets, as we ascended into the soup.
Soon the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a little. Like a mirage, a pale building with bright red shutters appeared on a high saddle. It was the Rifugio Antonio Locatelli. We picked up the pace.
The hut system is one of the best reasons to run in the Dolomites. Dozens of rifugios dot the high country, usually in postcard settings like this one at the feet of Tre Cime di Laveredo, three towering fingers of stone. To be able to step out of the rain into a clean, well-lighted place and enjoy a bowl of hot barley soup or an espresso is a small salvation.
Later that afternoon, a long descent brought us to the door of a simple, comfortable hotel at the end of an Alpine lake. Our luggage waited by the front desk, courtesy of Nadine. A service provided by Holimites meant that our bags would meet us every night. This freed us to run each day while carrying packs that contained little more than water, a jacket and snacks — and to have plenty of changes of clothes.
When the skies unloaded again the following afternoon, our next night’s rifugio was still five miles, and one mountain, away. There was nothing to do but don our rain gear again, set our jaws and climb through it. Whenever things are hard in the Dolomites, though, these mountains find a way to distract. We climbed past a gun emplacement overtaken by moss and skirted by ledges hacked out of rock faces by soldiers during World War I.
Overnight the sky was swept clear of clouds. The weather turned glorious. We set our luggage by the door, filled ourselves with cappuccino, muesli and fresh bread with speck, the Südtirol’s superior reply to prosciutto, and headed into the blue morning beneath the grand peak of Croda Rossa.
Edelweiss and good eats
Each day our route required about 10 to 16 miles of travel. While Holimites doesn’t specify fitness requirements for its tours, one truism holds: The more fit you are, the more fun you’ll have. You should feel very comfortable running several miles a day, for a week, on rough and hilly trails.
Each day we ran perhaps half the miles to the next destination. At first this bothered me; I wanted to be able to run more. It took a few days to recalibrate and remember that the runner who comes all the way to Europe simply to run has made a mistake. The smart runner comes to these mountains for all of it: the warmth of the huts, the glimpses of edelweiss blooming beside the trail, the views of pale stone rising from aprons of green grass, the sweaty pleasure of hard work to arrive at high meadows beyond the orbit of the day hikers.
And always, too, the rifugios and their food. On the third afternoon, as we topped out on a high pass along the Alta Via 1, a chill wind persuaded us to stop at a hut. The list of daily specials out front read like something we would have found in Paris: pumpkin gnocchi with smoked ricotta for about 9 euros, or $9.75. Braised pork cheeks with potatoes, for about €14. A few days later, during our longest day of running, we stopped at rifugios three times for beers and radlers, quenching drinks of lager and lemon soda. Could we have tried to run farther on such afternoons? Sure. But this was the pleasure of running in the Dolomites. And anyway, we were pretty full.
Every night, we climbed into bed a little earlier. And every morning, we trickled down to breakfast a little later. While we saw hikers, we didn’t see any other runners until Day 5, and even then only perhaps four or five.
On the final morning, we awoke at a rifugio above the famous ski center of Val Gardena and took stock of our collective health. After five days on the trail, everybody felt a little sore (and one or two of us were a lot sore). But when I floated the idea of taking a gondola to the valley floor, nobody bit. The finish line was nearly in sight.
We dropped into the village of Santa Cristina Gherdëina, paused for a final coffee and a Nutella croissant, then picked our way through the high-end shops before one final, hard climb up to Alpe di Siusi, a high verdant plateau dotted with cow herders’ chalets in picturesque decrepitude.
There, the forest footpath grew nearly as wide as a street. German tourists packed the deck of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Our time of solitary afternoons among the marmots was clearly over. A slight melancholy descended. But it struggled to take root. The day was lemony and warm, and we dined with a view across green fields that lapped against the enormous bulk of Sassolungo, and its companion peak, Sasso Piatto, leaning toward it like a wrecked ship.
After lunch, on this golden day, the others were content to walk off their spinach spaetzle and lunchtime beers. But the trail ahead unspooled through green pastures; it was irresistible. I mumbled to my friends an apology that wasn’t sincere. Then I took off, running.
If You Go
The Dolomites are in northeastern Italy, near the Austrian border. We flew into Venice Marco Polo Airport, then caught the Cortina Express shuttle to a drop-off point near the town of Badia (about a three-hour trip) for about €48.
We booked our self-guided tour through Holimites, a more than 20-year-old company based in Badia that offers several running itineraries, as well as other activities, in the Dolomites. Holimites is owned by locals and was very professional and helpful in arranging other logistics for us, as well as in answering questions.
Guided, seven-day trail-running trips in the Dolomites start at €1,650 this year, which includes a local tour escort during the trip, accommodations, most meals and luggage transfer from hut to hut.
Self-guided itineraries begin at €1,050 and include accommodations with breakfast and dinner, maps, detailed information about each day’s route and a briefing with a local trail expert before departure. It’s possible to add luggage transfer for a self-guided tour, too (we did).
The guided version of our seven-day itinerary, the Dolomites Trail Running Traverse — East to West trip, which included one warm-up day, begins at €1,950.
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