The Italian Dolomites are definitely one of the most scenic areas of the Alps. They offer spectacular views, heaps of outdoor adventure, an interesting mix of Italo-Germanic culture and of course, some of the finest motorcycle rides one could hope for.
But where to start? Where to go so as to not miss out on the world class scenery and attractions? Below is a motorcycle tour of 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 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, south.
The route reflects the loop I followed over the course of a week and includes the better known beauty spots of the Dolomite range, or at least, the ones not to be missed. There are suggestions for camp sites, cheap accommodation and where to snack without spending a fortune.
The loop can take anything from four to seven days or even longer depending on just how much of a leisurely pace you choose. It’s tempting to stay longer than a day at any of the lake side camp sites available or perhaps even try some hiking over a weekend. The weather can play it’s part in lengthening or shortening the tour as well. Showers and thunderstorms are a constant in the Dolomites and next to sudden rain fall will dampen the spirits of even the keenest of bikers without wet weather gear.
Any time between May to October is ideal for a tour in the Dolomites although I personally recommend the months of May and June as the best time of all. This is when the guest houses and camp sites offer the better deals, the roads are less congested by holiday makers and the days are long, warm and dry enough. However, that’s not to say that the months between July and October should be avoided but come early autumn it’s not unheard of for early snow to make an appearance with the closure of some of the higher mountain passes.
Two of the most likely scenarios at the start of the tour are that you’ve either spent some time on Lake Garda or you’ve just made it to Trento via the Brenner Pass from Austria. In either case Trento is starting point of the itinerary.
Trento offers some interesting sites such as the a medieval cathedral (Duomo del Buonconsiglio) and a modern interactive science museum known as Muse for those with 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 found just beyond the entrance to Val Sugana (Sugana valley) along 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 manicured lawns, pine trees and peaceful (albeit pricey) campsites that offer level grass pitches by the water’s edge. Don’t expect to spend anything less than 30€ for the privilege though and keep 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 its southern rim which is something that mildly disturbs the peace around Caldonazzo. A night spent snoozing on either of the lake’s grassy banks plus a dip in the fresh water is guaranteed to wash away all 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. Cappuccinos and croissants are readily available for breakfast at any bar by the water.
If there’s 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 about ten metres or so high, similar to the “Fairy Chimnieys” of Cappadocia in Turkey. Anyone with an interest in geology or landscape photography will find Segonzano interesting if not inspiring, revues however, are mixed.
After a morning spent cooling off at lake Levico (or Caldonazzo) some real motorcycle riding thrills await further east along the SS47 past the villages of Roncegno, Telve and into the Calamento Valley (Val di Calamento). Here, a narrow mountain road winds uphill under the shade of pinewood forests towards Passo Manghen (2047m), the first mountain pass of our tour. Rocky dolomite outcrops appear at every switchback on the road, wildlife (deer) can be spotted if you’re lucky in the woods. It’s handy bear in mind that this part of the southern Dolomites has a reputation for being particularly wet with lots of rain (or snow), so appropriate riding gear should be kept handy.
The views become more and more impressive as you ride closer to the Manghen pass but on an overcast, grey 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 bicycles, others, exhausted, will more likely be pushing them and 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 if temperatures are low. There are usually rooms for over night stays as well but accommodation is not always cheap. A hot chocolate, I find, is 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 towards the towns of Cavalese and Predazzo. Further on, SS50 leads 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 into astonishing 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 charms and befriends all guests.
A hot breakfast at Rifugio Capanna (Passo Valles) and then 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 while sitting outside with the locals at one of the bars in the square.
Just beyond Agordo there are signposts for Passo Duran along SS347. The route to the pass is narrow but well maintained and there are persistent views en route of the Moiazza massif (3000m) and Mount Civetta (3220m).
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 biker stop and it’s not unusual to find the parking area congested with machines with Austrian and German plates.
Further north east along SS347 comes Passo Cibiana. Passo Cibiana offers some interesting views of the Sassolungo massif, but the best part of SS347 awaits after the pass. The final stretches of this road, just before the intersection with SS51 and the Caldonazzo main road, are amazing. There are a set of switchbacks here on the final climb to the mentioned intersection that are worth a stop to admire. The road coils and seems to almost fall on top of itself as it spirals uphill. Switch back after switchback the the road rests 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 of the “Sexten” Dolomite complex. 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). The 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 next to the swimming pool for a night.
Best to get an early start from the Sexten camp site and return to the Comelico pass for excellent coffee and croissants served at the local rifugio. Then, it’s back along the SS52 to Val Pusteria and the busy E66 route to Brunico (Bruneck). After 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 indulge in some exercise and there’s an interesting two hour path that loops the lake, 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 being 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 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 remembered as the main highlight of the tour.
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 self service 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 that 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, be warned.
Back on the bike along the Strada Panoramica, Lake Misurina is next on the itinerary. Stunning views once more along lake’s water edge with the Serapis massif imposing itself in the background. Lots of road side stops here to enjoy the scenery and a snack.
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 Passo Giau, one of the most acclaimed and better known passes of the Dolomites and an all time favourite within the biking community. To reach it head east away from Cortina along SS48 and then take the turning onto SS638. No doubt there will be a steady procession of motorcyclists 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 the pass.
The road to the Giau is amazing especially towards the evening as sunset approaches. There are towering dolomite cliffs to admire 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 some rocky outcrops known as the Towers of Nuvolau (2.574 m) and Averau (2.647 m) that are pretty impressive on their own. There’s plenty of parking space in front of the Berghotel but occasionally at weekends it’s becomes so crowded with machines from all over Europe (and beyond) that finding a space to park a bike can be challenging.
The Berghotel is an excellent stop for a 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 as well.
Accommodation in this area is tough to find and there are no camp sites in the area 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. 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 our itinerary leads on to Passo Falzarego and Passo Valparola both on 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 recovered from the trenches dug and defended locally during the Great War. It’s definately 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 to the Gardena Pass, definitely my favourite pass of the Dolomites.
Passo Gardena is renowned as much as Passo Giau and Rolle not so much for the rifugio nor the switchbacks that lead to the pass but for the the majestic vistas of the Sella Group Massifs that can be admired. Also, heading West into Gardena valley along SS243, the carves into the foot of a towering rocky escarpment, an 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 the title of “most awe inspiring road” of the Dolomites.
Further on along the SS243, at the junction with SS242 the route makes turn 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 or grab a meal and admire the views from a table.
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 per day are allowed from Mondays to Fridays between the months of July and August. The rule is fiercely contested by the locals who thrive on tourism and it remains to be seen if attempts to limit traffic will continue in the future.
Passo Pordoi seems a little bleak after riding through Giau, Gardena and indeed the Sella Passes but should not be overlooked for the interesting views it still offers. 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 and plagued by road works (as of 2018). From the Lake Fedaia there are some misty views of the Marmolada massif (3342m) to be admired but not much of the the great ice plough can be seen 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 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.
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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