The Italian Dolomites are often arguably described as the most scenic area of all the Alps. For sure the Dolomites offer some spectacular views, an interesting mix of Italo-Germanic culture and of course, some of the finest motorcycle rides one could hope for.
There are dozens of beautiful mountain passes, jaw dropping valley landscapes and lake side vistas to admire. There hikes, cliffs, and peaks to climb, enjoy and challenge yourself. There‘s an interesting mix of culture with Italian and Germana speaking folk . There are “rifugi” (mountain pass guest houses ) that serve excellent dishes of polenta, pasta, venison along with good italian wine, beer and coffee.
But where to start? Which route to take so as not to not to miss out on the world class scenery and attractions? Below is a motorcycle loop around the Dolomites that spans from the town of Trento close to lake Garda, east towards Belluno and then north to the border with Austria. It then continues back to Bolzano and the Adige Valley from where the Brenner Pass can be reached within a couple of hours heading north or lake Garda and Verona heading south.
The route reflects the track I followed over the course of a week and includes all of the better known beauty spots of the Dolomite range, or at least, the ones not to be missed. The routes on the maps reflect the weather conditions I encountered, the need for fuel stops and the search for camp sites and cheap accommodation I endeavoured in.
This circuit can take anything from 4 to 7 days or more depending on just how much of a leisurely ride you choose to pace yourself with, or whether perhaps you want to treat yourself to a lengthy stay by one of the many beautiful mountain lake side camp sites available or a few days in a rifugio for a bit of hiking. Of course the weather can play it’s part in lengthening or shortening the ride as well. Showers and thunderstorms are a constant in the Dolomites and rainfall sometimes occurs with very little warning to dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic of bikers.
Any time between the months of May and October is ideal for a tour in the Dolomites although I personally recommend May and June as the best time of all. This is when the guest houses and camp sites offer better deals, the roads are less congested by holiday makers and the days are long, warm and drier. However, that’s not to say that the months from July to October should be avoided but come late September it’s not unheard of for the first snow to make an appearance threatening to close off some of the higher mountain passes.
Two possible scenarios to start off with. You’ve either spent a few days on the shores of Lake Garda or perhaps parked up in Verona after a ride from elsewhere in Italy or you’ve just made it to Trento via the Brenner Pass from Austria.
Trento offers some interesting sights of it’s own such as the a medieval cathedral (Duomo del Buonconsiglio) and a modern interactive science museum (Muse) for those wit’s an interest in technology. However, for relaxing views and a first taste of alpine lakeside bliss it’s best to head straight to the laghi (lakes) of Caldonazzo and Levico placed at the mouth of Val Sugana on Strada Statale (State Road) SS47.
The two lakes are juxtaposed side by side, separated by a mountainous spur know as the Colle Di Tenna. Both tarns are framed by well kept lawns, pine trees and peaceful (albeit pricey) campsites that offer level grass pitches at the water’s edge. Don’t expect to spend anything less than 30€ for the privilege though and bear in mind that wild camping is illegal anywhere in the area.
Levico is the quieter of the two lakes and possibly the most attractive as well. It doesn’t have a rail track running on it’s southern bank which is something that mildly disturbs the peace around Caldonazzo. A night spent snoozing on either of the lake’s grassy rims with dip in the fresh water is guaranteed to wash away any exhaustion from the hot Italian sun.
Plenty of eateries in the area offer local cheeses and salami to try out. A cheaper option of course is always pizza. Cappuccino and croissants readily available for breakfast at any bar in the area.
If there is time to spare after arriving at Levico then a 30km ride north to the Piramidi di Segonzano (the Segonzano Pyramids) is worth the effort. Here you’ll find a set of towering pinnacles, each around ten metres high, similar to the “Fairy Chimnieys” of Cappadocia in Turkey. Anyone with an interest in geology or landscape photography will find the detour to Segonzano interesting if not inspiring (revues are mixed). The path to the pinnacles is open every day from 9:00 to 18:00 during the summer months up to the end of September.
After a morning spent cooling off at lake Levico (or Caldonazzo) some real motorcycle riding thrills await further east, deeper inside Val Sugana past the villages of Roncegno, Telve and into the Calamento Valley (Val di Calamento). This is where the first of many narrow mountain roads start to wind under the shade of pinewood forests and climb to the first of countless mountain passes. Rocky dolomite outcrops make an appearance at every switchback through the Calamento valley as the road makes its way towards Passo Manghen. It’s handy to know that this part of the southern Dolomites has a reputation for seeing rain (or snow), almost every day so appropriate riding gear should be kept at hand.
The views become more and more impressive as you ride closer to the 2047m high Manghen pass but on an overcast gray day it’s not uncommon for mist to obscure the landscape. Watch out for other bikers in the fog but most of all beware of cyclists that carry no lighting at all and can appear suddenly, unannounced like ghosts on the side of the road. Some will be riding their bikes, others, exhausted, pushing them up hill probably gasping for breath.
At every pass on the Dolomites there is at least one so called “rifugio” i.e. a restaurant/guest house with hot drinks, hot meals, beer, wine and a log fire as well if temperatures are low. There are also rooms for over night stays but accommodation is not always cheap. A hot chocolate, I find, is always a good excuse for a stop to check out a rifugio especially if you’ve been drenched by the rain.
After Passo Manghen, the twisties continue all the way down into Val Candino where the mountain road joins SS48 that eventually leads on to the town of Cavalese. The route then continues eastwards towards Predazzo, onto SS50 and finally to Passo Rolle.
Passo Rolle is one of the “great” well known passes of the Dolomites with spectacular views of the “Pale Di San Martino” massif. Huge, jagged dolomite cliff faces make the “Pale” an impressive sight to behold and best admired in the evening as the sun sinks low on the horizon. This is when cliff faces reflect the sun’s rays and turn to shades of pink, yellow and crimson. Great photo opportunities here for those with camera skills.
Accommodation at Passo Rolle is costly and always in high demand. A cheaper alternative for the night is to head a little further north to Passo Valles where a warm clean room and shelterred parking for motorbikes is available for around 30€ at “Rifugio Capanna”. Staff are friendly, food is good, breakfast is included in the price and there’s a massive St. Bernard dog called Anton that quickly charms and befriends all visitors.
A hot breakfast at Rifugio Capanna (Passo Valles) and then we’re back on the road again Heading towards Falcade and Agordo on SS203.
Agordo offers an excellent excuse for a second breakfast or extra coffee stop. Piazza della Libertà is picturesque and a good place to indulge in a little people watching in the open, sitting outside with the locals at one of the bars in the square.
Just beyond the Agordo there are signposts pointing the way to Passo Duran along SS347. The route to the pass is a narrow and tight but well maintained and all around there are views of the Moiazza massif (3000m). Mount Civetta (3220m) is also visible on a clear day.
Passo Duran might appear a little underwhelming but rifugio Cesare Tome is a good place for lunch if you skipped the earlier stop in Agordo. The rifugio is a popular spot for bikers and it’s not unusual to find the parking area congested with machines from all over Europe.
Further north east along SS347 comes Passo Cibiana. Passo Cibiana offers some interesting views of the Sassolungo massif, but the best part of having ridden along SS347 awaits after the pass. The final stretches of SS347, just before the intersection with SS51 and the Caldonazzo main road, are amazing. There are a set of switchbacks here on the final climb That are worth a stop to admire. The road coils and seems to almpost fall on top of itself as it climbs uphill. Switch back after switchback the the road seems to rest suspended on little more than a slither of a rocky perch. The setting is beautiful the engineering remarkable.
SS51 leads to lake Pieve di Cadore, an ineteresting artificial damn built in the 1950s. Camping Columbia on the far side of the water (opposite the main road) is clean, quiet and offers peaceful pitches for around 15€ per night.
Further north from Lake Cadore there’s the rather bland Passo S. Antonio that leads on to Passo di Monte Croce di Comelico. Here, the imposing cliff faces of the Croda Rossa offer a first glimpse what the “Sexten” Dolomite complex is all about i.e. size! Best viewed at dawn the cliff faces look to the east and are smothered in dim grey blue light in the later hours of the day. There’s plenty of camping space just beyond the Comelico pass at the aptly named “Camping Sexten” (open all the year round). They camp site offers a spa, tree houses, a swimming pool and a restaurant with local dishes to enjoy. There’s always space for a biker, even at the height of the season. Management allowed me to pitch my tent by the swimming pool for one night.
Best to get an early start from the Sexten camp site and return to the Comelico pass for the excellent coffee and croissants served at the local rifugio. Then, it’s back on the road along the SS52 to Val Pusteria and the busy E66 route to Brunico (Bruneck). After the town of Dobbiacco the route turns off to Lago di Braies (Lake Braies), one of the most beautiful and photographed lakes of the Dolomites.
Lake Bries is simply stunning. The waters are turquoise, calm and reflect the huge Dolomite cliffs of Croda di Becco towering in the background at just under 3000m. There are wooden rowing boats for hire for those who want to enjoy the the views from the water and there is an interesting two hour path that loops the lake entirely, well worth the effort in my opinion.
August is the height of the tourist season and there can be crowds that flock to the area occasionally turning lake Braies into a bit of a tourist trap. The best way to avoided the masses is to get to the lake earlier in the day (perhaps 8am) before the tourist busses park their herds of holiday makers by the water’s edge. It’s also cooler earlier in the day which makes hiking the lakeside path a little less harsh.
Lake Braies needs at least two to three hours to be enjoyed. Swimming is allowed but the water is surprisingly cold and not many challenge their resilience beyond a knee deep wade. There’s history here too with the local rifugio used briefly as a POW detention centre for higher ranking opposers to Nazi occupation during WW2.
Once satisfied with lake Braies it’s back eastwards on the E55 towards the border with Austria. Just before Dobbiaco there’s a turn to the right onto SS51 and the Leandro valley that leads to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
SS51 is a busy route with trucks, busses and caravans to contend with. Don’t be tempted to stop at any of the road side eateries on this stretch of road as prices are extortionately high for anything more than Ceaser salad and a glass of water. Watch out for the turn off onto SS48b (for Lago di Misurina) which can be easily missed. Before reaching lake Misurina there are sign posts for the “Strada Panoramica”, the route that leads to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Three Peaks of Lavaredo). The road is open from the month of May until mid October and exerts a hefty toll for all vehicles, no less than 20€ (as of 2018) for motorbikes. The Strada Panoramica it’s roughly 7km long, it’s meticulously maintained and although the toll is steep I personally recommend paying the cash and enjoying the short ride all the way to the Cime. The views on the final stretch are like no other in all the Dolomites and will almost certainly be rememberesd as the main highlight of any tour of the Dolomites.
The car park at the end of the road sits at the foot of the imposing “Cima Ovest” (western peak) which hides the remaining Cima Piccola (Little Peak) and Cima Grande (Big Peak) from view.
Cima Ovest dominates the vista towards north entirely but the views away towards south on the Cadini and Marmarole Group heights are spectacular. Rifugio Auronzo next to the car park serves hot meals in a self service caffe style and the vistas from the rifugio terrace are some of the best available.
If you fancy some hiking then Sentiero 101 (Path 101) aka “Giro delle Tre Cime”, is an easy stroll that from Rifugio Auronzo leads to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli and back again to Auronzo. It can take anything from three to five hours to complete on a good cloud free day but allows for some impressive photography of the Lavaredo peaks and some cool mountain air. The path can be crowded on any August day, however.
Back on the bike the bike along the Strada Panoramica Lake Misurina is next on the itinerary. Stunning views once more along the water’s edge with the Serapis massif imposing itself in the background. Lots of good road side stops here to enjoy the scenery and an ice cream.
Cortina d’Ampezzo is expensive and exclusive. Prices for a lodging soar to way beyond 100€ a night at the cheapest of guest houses and motels. It’s best to book well in advance for the better deals if you intend to stay here otherwise push on beyond.
East of Cortina lies one of the most acclaimed and better known passes of the Dolomites, Passo Giau an all time favourite with many a biker. To reach it head east away from Cortina along SS48 and then take the turning onto SS 638. No doubt there will be a steady procession of bikers heading for the well known pass at any time during the hours of daylight so simply tagging along with the posse is often all that needs to be done to reach Giau.
The road to the pass is amazing especially towards the evening as sunset approaches. There are towering dolomite cliffs all around that include: Pale di San Martino, the Marmolada peaks, the Sella Group, the Tofane massif, the Sexten Dolomites and the Cristallo Group elevations.
The pass itself is placed at the foot of well known rocky outcrops known as the Towers of Nuvolau (2.574 m) and Averau (2.647 m) and the parking areas in front of the local rifugio (Berghotel Passo Giau) is all ways crowded with motorbikes, especially at weekends.
The Berghotel is an excellent bike stop be it for just coffee or a snack. At sun set photographers flock to the grassy meadows around the Nuvolau and Averau peaks to capture some of the landscapes magic. These days it’s not unusual to see the odd drone or two hovering around as well.
Accommodation in this area is tough to find and there are no camp sites to park up to either. Wild camping is strictly forbidden but asking for permission to pitch up a tent in sombody’s back yard/field/land, not too far from the pass, can yield pleasant surprises, weather and temperature permitting of course. Failing that, the nearest camp sites are a 30 minute ride south to Alleghe, or along the SS251 towards Forni di Zoldo.
From Passo Giau the the itinerary leads on to Passo Falzarego and Passo Valparola both set on road SS244. The track to Passo Falzarego is a typical alpine road with plenty of switchbacks to enjoy. Watch out for the locals on sports bikes who know the roads like the back of their hands, some of whom are well versed in sliding around corners to the ultimate limit of their Pirelli tyres.
Passo Falzarego emerges from the pine wooded road with a stunning rocky ridge as a backdrop known as the Lagazuoi peak. There is a cable car here that takes visitors to the top of the craggy mountain and I noticed a hefty queue of hikers waiting for a lift to the top. The area around Lagazuoi is known for some particularly violent clashes that took place here during the First World War between Austrian and Italian forces. Between the Falzarego and Valparola passes there’s a restored Austrian fort (Forte Tre Sassi) that now hosts a very interesting museum displaying artefacts from the Great War recovered from the trenches dug and defended locally. It’s well worth a visit for the few Euros the ticket costs.
The descent to Passo Valparola is once more stunningly beautiful with a views of the Sella and Puez Group dolomite ranges all around. The route on SS243 leads on to the Gardena Pass, definitely my personalfavourite pass of the Dolomites.
Passo Gardena is acclaimed as much as Passo Giau and Rolle are, not so much for the the rifugio nor the switchbacks that lead to the pass but for the the majestic vistas on the Sella Group Massifs that appear after reaching the top of the climb. Also, heading further West into Gardena valley along SS243, the road is carved into the foot of a towering rocky escarpment. It’s another engineering marvel and a spectacle both to ride and to behold from a distance. Perhaps this stretch of the itinerary is the most worthy contender for “most awe inspiring road of the Dolomites.”
Further on along the SS243, at the junction with SS242 the route makes turn left and south towards Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi and the Marmolada glacier.
Passo Sella is quaint and quiet. The three peaks that frame the rifugio and the pass are known as the Sassolungo (tallest), Cinque Dita (middle) and Punta Grohmann. A small biker bar with a dedicated bike park makes a perfect stop to sip on a cappuccino and admire the view from a deck chair.
In recent years (2017-2018) there’s been an attempt to limit traffic to the Sella Pass on week days. No more than 350 vehicles a day are allowed from Mondays to Fridays between the months of July and August. The rule is fiercely contested by local communities who thrive on tourism and it remains to be seen if attempts to limit traffic will continue in the future. I was allowed free access without any trouble.
Passo Pordoi seems a little bleak after riding through Giau and Gardena and indeed the Sella Pass as well but it does offer further views. Passo Campolongo is only a short ride after Pordoi and is equally enchanting.
Further south on to SS641 we head for the the heights of the Marmolada range and a glimpse of what little remains of the Marmolada glacier. The road has a few short tunnels, it’s tight and plagued by road works (as of 2018) all the way to Lake Fedaia. From the lake there are some misty views of the Marmolada massif towering over head at 3342m. There is a little snow visible on the glacier smoothed slopes that lead to the lake but not much of the the great ice plough is left to admire at all. A testament to global warming some might say.
The road that leads up to Marmolada continues East towards Caprile and Passo Giau. However, our route at this stage leads back down from lake Fedaia on SS641 to Val di Fassa and then south to any of the many roads that lead back to the Adige valley via Bolzano. The highway to Lake Garda or Verona is always a better choice than heading north to the Brenner Pass in my opinion.
It’s possible to spend less than 100€ day on a tour as described above. A full tank of fuel of around 16 litres costs anything between 20€ and 25€, cheap panini can replace a restaurant meal and camp sites can be found for less than 20€ per night.
Make sure to pack waterproof riding gear but equally bring along some sun block for when the sun is shining…..enjoy!
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