Founded in 1981 (and formerly known as Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextner Dolomiten Nature Park), the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen extends over a 11,891 hectare area comprising the municipalities of Dobbiaco/Toblach, Sesto/Sexten and San Candido/Innichen. It encompasses the northeastern cornerstone of the Dolomites and is bounded to the north by the Val Pusteria/Pustertal, to the east by the Val di Sesto/Sextental, to the south by the provincial border with Belluno and to the west by the Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal.
The Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen is notable for its rugged landscape and world renowned peaks and mountains, but above all for the presence of the world famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen peaks themselves, which give the park its name, and where – beginning in the first half of the 19th century – mountaineers from far and near have achieved unparalleled pioneering feats of mountain climbing. Today, mountaineering experts from around the world still exhibit their climbing acumen on the vertical rock faces of these mountains.
The Park itself is part of the European-wide Natura 2000 sites, which aim to promote habitat, flora and fauna conservation, to which end the province of South Tyrol has commissioned so-called management plans.
Landscapes of the Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextner Dolomiten
The current landscapes of the Sesto/Sexten Dolomites – with their distinctive craggy peaks, high plateaus and deep valleys – were mainly shaped by water and ice over the past two to three million years. Rocks – smoothed and rounded in outline, or grounded mountain ridges – bear testimony to glacier activity which is clearly visible on the plateaus around the Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen peaks and in the Alta Val Fiscalina/Bacherntal. Gently rolling hills and valleys, waterlogged areas and fertile soils usually indicate the presence of moraines.
Mountains, which for we humans are synonymous with eternity, in fact represent only a brief moment in the dynamic development process of the Alps and the Dolomites. This is attested to by rock debris that incessantly tumble off peaks, slopes and cliffs, and accumulate in massive mounds at the base of these mountains (giving origin to the so-called ‘screes’). Some parts of the Campo di Dentro/Innerfeld, Fiscalina/Fischlein and Rienza/Rienz valleys exhibit such debris and there are some streams that flow underneath them.
Bodies of Water
The Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen has only one large lake, known as Lago di Landro/Dürrensee, which is located in the Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal. The park also has numerous smaller mountain lakes. Most of the underground springs in the Sesto/Sexten Dolomites arise in the clay-rich Raibl layers, Werfen and Bellerophon strata. Noteworthy in this regard are the Drava/Drau springs at the foot of the Rocca dei Baranci/Haunold mountain, and the sulfur and iron springs at Bagni di S. Candido/Wildbad Innichen and Moso/Bad Moos, which have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Mineral water is also bottled from a portion of the Bagni di S. Candido/Wildbad Innichen springs.
The Rienza/Rienz river arises in the Langalm Alpine pasture at the Laghi delle Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen lakes, which are embedded in Schlern Dolomite.
Debris Cirques and Rock Habitats
Around two thirds of the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen is composed of rock and debris cirques, where so-called pioneer plants have adapted to inhospitable conditions. The main problem faced by these debris cirque dwellers is the tendency of the debris cirque in which the plants are rooted to endlessly shift from beneath them. Plants such as Snowdrop (Galanthus sp.) and the striking Alpine Toadflax (Linaria alpina) grow back time and time again, crawling over the stony rubble as they do so. However, other species like French Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and Round-leaved Pennycress (Thlaspi cepaeifolium subsp. rotundifolium) are debris cirque migrants whose above-ground tendrils fight their way through the sliding rubble in order to reach the light. “Debris obstacles” such as various species of grass (especially Moor Grass) and willows play a particularly important role in that they initially form tranquil debris islands from which the rocky cirque can gradually be taken over by other plants. Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and Dolomite Cinquefoil (Potentilla nitida) are also instrumental in humus formation on these debris cirques.
Some of the loveliest Alpine flowers frequently found in the Dolomites find a foothold in rock crevices, cracks and small recesses. These plants include Dwarf Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum and R. hirsutum), Auricula Primrose (Primula auricula), Dolomite Yarrow (Achillea oxyloba), Aquilegia sp. and Androsace sp. Many of these plants are also so-called endemics, which are found solely in this area; they have survived the Ice Age on steep south-facing rock walls.
In terms of the bird population, Wallcreepers (Tichodroma muraria) – which are the calling card of the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen – are typical inhabitants of these rocks. This half-fluttering, half-climbing bird makes its way up the rock faces, seeking spiders and other insects in the rock crevices with its long bill. Other songbirds of the region include Snow Finch (Montifringilla nivalis) and Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris). However, the undisputed master of high mountain regions – the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) – is also found here; for its nests it favours sheltered rock face recesses, where one or two young chicks are hatched annually.
Ancient High-mountain Alpine Meadows
Above the timber line lies the domain of the Alpine meadows, which came into existence without human intervention and where, for climatic reasons, trees cannot grow.
In the soil of the Alpine meadows (up to 2,800 meters), wind and cold resistant high Alpine pasture communities grow (with Cushion Sedge and Moor Grass) that thrive on the rocks and slopes dominated by Elynetum myosuroides pasture formations, where Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) is frequently observed. The grassy heaths also provide excellent forage for Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra).
Forest and Dwarf-shrub Communities
At lower altitudes, in particular between Monte dei Baranci/Haunold and Passo Monte Croce/Kreuzberg pass, larch (Larix decidua) and spruce (Picea abies) forests are salient and magnificent features of the landscapes of the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen, whereas in the dry soil of the Dolomite rock faces of the Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal Scots’ pine (Pinus sylvestris) tend to grow. The spruce forests are interspersed with the occasional leafy forest tree such as Birch (Betula sp.) and Rowan (or Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia). Along the streams – for example at the entrances to the Val Campo di Dentro/Innerfeld and in the Val Fiscalina/Fischlein – Alder (Alnus sp.) and Willow (Salix sp.) grow abundant. Individual examples of the extremely tenacious Cembra pine (Pinus cembra) are found in the Alta Val Fiscalina/Bachern, Val Campo di Dentro/Innerfeld and Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal.
The characteristic wildlife species in these mountain forests – and, to some extent, in the transitional areas from forests to Alpine pastures above the tree line, characterised by communities of dwarf shrubs) – are Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum), Tengmalm’s (or Boreal) Owl (Aegolius funereus), Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and, less commonly, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) are observed in open terrain, in undergrowth-rich mountain forests, and – during the summer – in knee-timber zones as well. The oftentimes dense dwarf-shrub undergrowth with abundant berries provides excellent forage for Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix).
Among the salient features of the Nature Park's scenery are the light-flooded larch meadows at the entrance to the Val Campo di Dentro/Innerfeld and Fiscalina/Fischlein valley. These planted meadows are used for a number of purposes: timber production, through selective felling of larch trees; grass harvesting and, in late summer, also grazing. The scattered larches create a growth-friendly micro-climate because they slow down the wind and have an equalising effect during hot and dry periods.
The rolling terrain and the old root stocks contain valuable ecological niches, while traditional wooden hay sheds round out the magnificent scenery. Inasmuch as working larch fields are labor intensive and not very profitable, in recent decades intensive farming has increasingly included larch meadows as well, resulting in the ecological impoverishment of what were once very biodiverse areas.
The Human Factor
The peaks and slopes of the Sesto/Sexten Dolomites have excited the imagination of mountain climbers since the 19th century. The British were the first to discover the Alpine no-man’s land constituted by the Dolomites. The inhabitants of the Dolomites, on the contrary, regarded such activities as pure foolishness: as shepherds they would only climb as far as the grass grew; as reckless hunters in search of game, as far as the prey went. Through their customs, myths and legends, they regarded the Dolomites as the dwelling place of gods and demons, dwarfs and monsters.
The British were soon followed by Viennese and affluent German mountaineers, who recruited experienced mountain hunters as guides and pack bearers. The refuges, which were extremely modest structures at first, shortened the way to the highlands and attracted increasing numbers of mountain hikers.
At the turn of the 20th century, the construction in Dobbiaco/Toblach of a cluster of hotels known as "Hotelkolonie Neu-Toblach" (or Dobbiaco Nuova in Italian) fuelled the growth of tourism. Bagni di S. Candido/Wildbad Innichen bath is today a ruin; Bad Maistatt bath above Villabassa/Niederdorf is also closed, and the once renowned Grand Hotel Dobbiaco/Toblach has been converted into a cultural center containing a major concert hall (see also the page on the Culturonda Dolomythos for more information on this aspect). Palatial residences and townhouses testify to the centuries-long importance of the Pusteria/Pustertal valley as a major trade route between Germany and Venice along the Strada d'Alemagna.
The peaceful conquest of this mountains region came to an abrupt end in May 1915, when war broke out in the high altitudes between Italy and Austria. During the conflict – which went on for two and a half years – 10,000 soldiers were forced to spend the winter in this icy environment. The Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen plateau is still littered with rusting shards of shells, and the Sasso di Sesto/Sextenstein (2,539 m) is pockmarked with holes from shell impacts. At the Sesto/Sexten cemetery, Rudolf Stolz’s fresco “Die Totentanz” (‘The Dance of Death’) also bears testimony to the madness of this macabre conflict.
Interpretive Nature Trails
Forest Nature Trail Toblach
Just behind the Nature Park House Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen is a wonderful Nature Trail with three exciting stations named “The Magnificent World of the Forest”, “The Celtic Tree Horoscope” and “The Tree Village”. The trail, which starts at the Visitors’ Center, is suitable for hikers of all ages and is available at all times of the year at no charge. The trail is best reached from the Visitors’ Center itself, where there is plenty of parking. The three stations are briefly explained below.
“The Magnificent World of the Forest”
The magnificent world of forest (“Il Mondo Magico delle Foreste”/“WaldWunderWelt”) is a terrific place for all visitors who love to play, climb, jump – and learn something into the bargain. At this station, visitors become better acquainted with the many facets of forest habitats in an enjoyable and interactive manner. The core element of this station is a wooden platform with root lines which extend into the surrounding terrain – like the roots of a tree stump. On the platform itself you can have a rest or try out the bird riddle. Kids love to play in the ‘fox hole’ beneath the platform. Along the roots there are many opportunities to play: an otter slide, climbing trees, a large woodpecker tree to slide into, a barefoot trail and a high-jump pit where visitors can measure their jumping abilities in relation to those of various forest creatures.
The roots lead to other stations that explore more forest related topics such as forest soil types, mushrooms and traces of forest wildlife. There is also a birds’ nest that can be climbed up to, and at the geology station the key types of rocks found around Dobbiaco/Toblach are on display.
Dobbiaco/Toblach Tree Village
On the way back from the “Magnificent World of the Forest” station to the Visitors’ Center, you will come across three large tree houses that can be entered. With its small village square, comfortable benches and small information trees, the station “Il Villaggio degli Alberi”/“Baumdorf Toblach” is like a hamlet in the middle of the forest, which has been called “Dobbiaco/Toblach Tree Village”. At this station, visitors can find out why the forest is so important for life and survival in the mountains. The first tree house provides information concerning the “Achievements of the Forest” – such as the importance of the forest for oxygen production. The station also contains a forest quiz and a photosynthesis game, and has on display household products whose cellulose components are not evident at first glance. The second tree house is devoted to forestry methods and woodworking from the past up until today. The third tree house is called “Art in the Forest – Becoming and Passing Away”. The Val Pusteria/Pustertal school district and its pupils keep contributing to the design of the tree houses and use them for after-school activities.
Celtic Tree Horoscope
This, the third station (“Orologio Celtico degli Alberi”/“Keltisches Baumhoroskop”) on the Nature Trail behind the Visitors’ Center, is aimed at adults rather than kids and is based on the concept of the Celtic tree horoscope as described by authors such as Bertram Wallrath(*). According to Wallrath, 21 trees with their typical characteristics were assigned to the annual cycle, whereby these characteristics supposedly also corresponded to those exhibited by the individuals born under the various tree symbols. In walking through the tree horoscope, each visitor can find their birth date and ask themselves whether the characteristics of the tree and the tree symbol match up with their own personal traits. This unconventional way of dealing with trees is highly effective when it comes to awakening interest in – and conveying knowledge – concerning environmental topics. The horoscope is also of interest to visitors who may not be enthusiasts of natural studies.
In June 2008 the Nature Park House Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen (and the annexed Nature Trail) acquired a new attraction. At the behest of the Pusteria/Pustertal valley school district, a number of artists from the Kunstmyst collective created Land Art installations such as a forest harp, a paradise tree – and other more or less fading objects – made of natural materials. This outdoor art studio will be used for educationally oriented land art installations also in the coming years by pupils, teachers and other interested parties.
Lake Dobbiaco/Toblachersee Interpretive Nature Trail
The Lake of Dobbiaco/Toblachersee interpretive Nature Trail comprises 11 stations and affords both young and old an excellent opportunity to discover the wonders of nature. This loop trail provides visitors with detailed information concerning the flora, fauna and geomorphology of the area. Some of the stations offer the opportunity to test their one’s skills; for example, at station 4 visitors are asked to identify the pillars that are camouflaged – in the manner of animals – via the colors, while at station 9 visitors can find out whether their broad-jumping abilities match those of the forest denizens.
As one of the last remaining wetlands in the province, Lake Dobbiaco/Toblach is much frequented by birds. During the breeding seasons in spring and fall, some rare species are observed at the lake shores. The circular trail around the lake can be hiked in around two hours, most of the year (some sections may be closed or impracticable in winter in case of high snow).
Itineraries in the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen
If you’d like to visit the best lookout points in the Nature Park Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen from the comfort of your own home, then you’ll definitely want to consider taking one of our virtual hikes through the unique natural and man-made landscapes offered by the park.
Needless to say, though, the best way to discover the Nature Parks of South Tyrol is by experiencing the real thing first hand!
Piano Fiscalino/Fischleinboden (1,453 m) – Rifugio Fondo Valle/Talschlußhütte (1,548 m) – Rifugio Zsigmondy-Comici/Hütte (2,225 m) – Rifugio Pian di Cengia/Büllelejoch-Hütte (2,544 m) – Rifugio Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei-Zinnen-Hütte (2,407 m) – Val Sassovecchio/Altensteintal – Piano Fiscalino/Fischleinboden (1,453 m).
This demanding loop trail
affords hikers the opportunity to view all of the park’s natural wonders and its main
landscape features. The Val Fiscalina/Fischleintal can be reached from Sesto-Moso/Sexten-Moos
by bus or car. The trail to Piano Fiscalino/Fischleinboden begins just after the gate (1,453 m). In the foreground
you will see the steep rock face of the Cima Uno/Einserkofel (2,698 m), from which a chunk of around 60,000 cubic
meter of rock broke loose in October 2007. First, follow the trail to the Val Sassovecchio/Altensteintal (marked no. 102). After around
100 meters, exit the uphill trail to Rifugio Tre Cime/Drei-Zinnen-Hütte and
follow (while keeping your eye on the massive Cima
Dodici/Zwölferkofel; 3.094 m) trail no.
103 on the left, which leads up along the foot of Cima Uno/Einserkofel to Rifugio Zsigmondy-Comici/Hütte. Incidentally, both of the peaks mentioned go to form the famous “Meridiana di Sesto” (or “Sesto Sundial”) – a veritable natural clock.
From the latter Rifugio, cross the thinly overgrown rocks to Rifugio Pian di Cengia/Büllelejoch (marker no. 101; 2,544 m). From here, keep following trail no. 101, which leads you along the debris slopes of Croda dei Piani/Bödenknoten and Monte Paterno/Paternkofel (2,746 m) towards the Forcella di Toblin/Toblinger Riedl pass. You will soon reach Rifugio Tre Cime/Drei-Zinnen (2,407 m), from which there is a magnificent view over the north face of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen peaks. From there you descend again to the Val Sassovecchio/Altensteintal on a trail (marked no. 102) that leads past the two shimmering lakes of Laghi dei Piani/Bödensee. From the Val Sassovecchio/Altensteintal you proceed to close the loop, and eventually head back to Rifugio Fondo Valle/Talschluss in Piano Fiscalino/Fischleinboden (1,534 m).
Parking lot at Antoniusstein (1,502 m) – Rifugio Tre Scarperi/Drei-Schuster-Hütte refuge (1,639 m) – Passo Rondoi/Wildgrabenjoch (2,285 m) – Passo dell’Alpe Mattina/Gwengalpenjoch (2,456 m) – Rifugio Tre Cime/Drei-Zinnen-Hütte refuge (2,407 m) – Antoniusstein (1,502 m).
You can reach the parking lot at Antoniusstein (1,502 m) in the Val Campo di Dentro/Innerfeldtal by car or shuttle bus. The ensuing climb described here – mostly along trail no. 105 – can be hiked in 3-3,5 hours by seasoned hikers. From Rifugio Tre Scarperi/Drei-Schuster refuge (1,639 m) a broad trail (marked no. 105) leads southwards to the valley bifurcation, which is located right at the foot of Monte Mattina/Morgenkopf (2,493 m). Here the trail splits; turn right onto trail no. 9.
Continue along this trail (that will later become no. 10), which will take you upwards through woods, stands of Dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo) and across streams to the Passo Rondoi/Wildgrabenjoch (2,285 m). Here, on trail no. 11 – which forks off to the left – is a short stretch that is equipped with safety cables ('via ferrata'). Once you have traversed it, a view of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen will gradually appear. After an additional brief stretch uphill (turn right at the junction on path no. 105), you will arrive at Passo dell’Alpe Mattina/Gwengalpenjoch (2,456 m), which is on the south side of the Torre dei Scarperi/Schwabenalpenkopf (2,687 m). After a short section – likewise on trail no. 105 – you will reach Tre Cime/Drei-Zinnen mountain hut (2,407 m). You then descend to the Val Campo di Dentro/Innerfeldtal by walking the length of trail no. 105 (keep going straight at the junction with path no. 11).
War Cemetery Croda dell’Acqua/Nasswand (1,317 m) – Lago Malga di Mezzo/Mitteralplsee lake (2,222 m) – Forcella del Lago/Lückeleschartl (2,532 m) – War Cemetery Croda dell’Acqua/Nasswand (1,317 m).
From Dobbiaco/Toblach, proceed through the Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal to the parking lot by the war cemetery at Nasswand (1,317 m), where the trail begins. It first will take you around 500 meters into the valley back towards Dobbiaco/Toblach (it is marked no. 8A). You then cross the National road and take trail no. 9 to Lago Malga di Mezzo/Mitteralplsee lake (2,222 m). This trail is a relatively steep uphill climb at the beginning, but it will take you through varied terrain. The upper, somewhat more level portion, takes you across some lovely scenery comprising not overly dense stands of Scots' pine (Pinus sylvestris).
The terrain then becomes more open, and you reach the narrow and elongated Lago Malga di Mezzo/Mitteralplsee lake, which is one of the park’s few expanses of water. The lake offers numerous places where you can rest your legs and contemplate the surroundings. If you’ve still got enough stamina left, you can then take the serpentine trail up to the Forcella del Lago/Lückeleschartl pass, from where there is a magnificent panoramic view of the Cime Tre Scarperi/Dreischusterspitze (3,152 m), which are the highest elevation in the Sesto/Sexten Dolomites and in the Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen Nature Park. You then go back the same way you have come. When you have completed the hike, you might want to consider visiting the war cemetery at the foot of Croda dell’Acqua/Nasswand, where non-German-speaking soldiers, who served in the army of the multinational Austrian Empire, are buried.
Bagni di Moso/Bad Moos (1,358 m) – Rifugio Prati di Croda Rossa/Rotwandwiesenhütte refuge (1,900 m) – Prati di Croda Rossa/Rotwandwiesen (1,925 m) – Passo Monte Croce/Kreuzbergpass (1,637 m) – Bagni di Moso/Bad Moos (1,358 m).
Take the gondola lift from Bagni di Moso/Bad Moos (1,358 m) to the Prati di Croda Rossa/Rotwandwiesen. Follow the well-marked trail no. 15, which crosses the Prati di Croda Rossa/Rotwandwiesen in a southeasterly direction and leads to a fork. Continue on a branch of the trail to the right (marked no. 15A), which here is virtually level and leads through a sparse forest and across debris slopes to the foot of the Castelliere/Burgstall. Walk around the rock spur, after which you will rejoin the main path (no. 15); ascend the slope and then descend through stands of pine to the debris slopes of the Pala di Popera/Neuner mountain. After crossing the slopes, proceed down a shrubby meadow to the war bunkers, and – always continuing on trail no. 15 – you will reach Passo Monte Croce/Kreuzberg pass (1,637 m), which puts the region in communication with neighbouring Comelico. From there, the hike back to Sesto-Moso/Sexten-Moos is on trail no. 13A and then no. 1 (bear left at the junction); alternatively, you can take the bus back to Sesto-Moso/Sexten-Moos directly from the pass.