The dolomites are a very impressive range of mountains in the Italian Alps that cover a large part of southern and eastern Trentino-Alto Adige region and the north of the Veneto region.
The mountains of the dolomites have a very distinct appearance with bare, craggy, often vertical limestone peaks emerging from the forests below.
The dolomites are considered to be a region of such natural importance that they now form part of a designated UNESCO world heritage site. The French architect Le Corbusier described them as the 'finest example of natural architecture in the world'.
The dramatic scenery is easily appreciated even if you prefer to stay in the valleys below than take to the high mountains, with the high peaks as a stunning backdrop to the meadows, vineyards and forests of the lower surrounding region.
There are around 20 peaks with a summit at an altitude over 3000 metres in the dolomites, with the Marmolada and Antaleo the highest points (3343 metres and 3264 metres respectively). Visitors to Venice might already have seen Marmolada - it is visible in the distance on a clear day.
Part of the range falls within the Bellunesi Dolomites National Park. Several other regional natural parks also fall within the region, such as the Panaveggio Natural Park, the Natural Regional Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites, the Provincial Natural Park of Adamello-Brenta.
Further areas designated as 'nature parks' include Puez-Geisler, Schlern-Rosengarten, Sextener and Fanes-Sennes-Prags.
Hence a great deal of the dolomites region is in or close to protected and controlled natural areas.
The dolomites are best considered as falling into three broad regions, each with their own characteristics:
- the South Tyrol (to the north), with Valle Isarco, Alta Badia, Val Gardena around Ortisei, Alta Pusteria, Alpe di Siusi...
- Veneto (to the east), with Cortina d'Ampezzo, Arabba and Marmolada, Auronzo di Cadore, Civetta and Alleghe ski region, Falcade...
The dolomites are, not surprisingly, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts all year around. In the winter skiing of course, and in the summer hiking, cycling, hang-gliding and mountain climbing are among the most popular sports.
The hiking is especially notable - there are many clearly marked paths, suitable for all standards of walker, from the casual stroller to the enthusiast looking for a challenge - there are eight different long distance pathways that traverse the range. If planning the latter you will need good maps and lots of experience!
The dolomites are also well known for the number of via ferrata - these are mountain routes already equipped with ladders, rope bridges and ladders that enable less experienced mountain explorers to reach some of the more inaccessible locations - although suitable shoes, helmet and protective clothing are still usually required.
A particularly thrilling way to enjoy the scenery is to take an organised ballon trip - starting from Dobbiaco east of Brunico these are quite expensive (around 300 euros for one hour) but certainly provide an unforgettable experience.
Note: main photo shows Dolomites of the Pale group at the Rolle pass