Hidden Gem – Stelvio is Italy's largest alpine national park, yet overshadowed by neighbouring Dolomites
Bordering the Dolomites to the east, and Switzerland to the west, the Stelvio is one of the largest protected areas in all of the Alps. Its unspoilt landscape ranges from valley farmland to forested hillsides and alpine meadows, and up to a wilderness of rugged glaciated summits and ridges, the highest of which is Ortler, at 3905m.
The Stelvio National Park sprawls for 1300 square kilometres across the heart of the Central Alps, embracing a wilderness of rugged glaciated summits and ridges and culminating in the massive 3905m Ortler. In between run beautiful verdant valleys cloaked with dense forests, home to both traditional village settlements and welcoming well-equipped resorts. Visitors can choose from dozens of exciting walks, each with the guarantee of breathtaking landscapes, wildflowers and wildlife day after day after day.
The area covered by the Park stretches over the Italian regions of Südtirol, Trentino and Lombardia. Some of the more 'hidden gems' of each main area are outlined by Gillian Price in her book of 38 walks in the region. Below is an extract from the introduction to give a flavour of options.
In the eastern section of the Stelvio National Park in Südtirol, Lana lies a short way south of Meran/Merano, where Ultental/Val d’Ultimo breaks off southwest. A world apart – inhabited by descendants of migrants from a monastery in German Swabia – it is a rare traditional valley of great allure. The mountainsides are dotted with clusters of timber chalets and barns crafted with bulky tree trunks intricately notched together. Stained red with age, they stand witness to the valley’s agricultural heritage. All around extend manicured emerald meadows, on impossibly steep slopes where mowers must be fitted with spikes to enable farmers to harvest the hay without slipping. Pastoral activities have been key to the economy since as early as the 17th century, when 20,000 sheep were sent to graze from as far afield as Verona. Vast forests of larch and pine provide shelter to both red and roe deer, and feed the sawmills of the flourishing timber industry. The tourist office, supermarket and ATM are located at St Walburg/Santa Valburga, about halfway up the valley, while the highest village is St Gertraud/Santa Geltrude.
Two beautiful side valleys branch north off Val di Sole; both correspond to geological faults and are rich in mineral waters. Although sole means ‘sun’ in Italian, the name is derived from the Celtic goddess of waters, found in abundance here. Val di Rabbi forks north from Malè, and San Bernardo is the first sizeable village with tourist information and hotels I,s and nearby the low-key spa resort of Rabbi Fonti. The attractions of this lovely valley – free from ski infrastructure – include the fascinating Segheria Veneziana sawmill, the spectacular Saent waterfalls, the varied wildlife and the active dairy farms. The other fork goes west to Peio Fonti, a renowned spa resort that makes a first-rate base for walkers, with a jumble of hotels, groceries, ATM and cable car. Walks from here include the spectacular Monte Vioz. The pretty village of Peio Paese is a peaceful spot perched on the sunny hillside with lovely views, food shops and accommodation. Its 15th-century bell tower boasts a remarkable 7m tall fresco portraying St Christopher.
Located in Alta Valtellina, the bustling alpine township of Bormio is an excellent starting point for visiting the western Lombardia slice of the Stelvio National Park. It has a charming centre with medieval buildings that testify to the town’s strategic importance at an alpine crossroads, and in winter people flock here for the extensive ski domain. At a sunny confluence of valleys, it is dominated by a striking limestone crest, Reit. From here the dramatic Stelvio Pass road strikes out north close to the Swiss border.
Branching east from Bormio is Valfurva; here the village of San Nicolò marks the opening of wild and wonderful Val Zebrù, explored in Walk 20 of the guidebook. From there it is a very short trip to the resort village of Santa Caterina Valfurva. A convenient base in itself, it acts as the gateway to Valle dei Forni and Val Cedèc, which offer high-altitude refuges and magnificent glaciers. At their confluence stands historic Rifugio Forni, a wonderful place to stay, and useful for walks 17, 18 and 21 in the guidebook.
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