Lago di Braies: a Blue Jewel Set in a Casket of White Dolomite Rocks and Green Forests.


The Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee) is a small Alpine lake in the Val di Braies, a side valley of the Upper Val Pusteria (Alta Val Pusteria), situated at 1,496 m of altitude in the municipality of Braies (Prags), circa 100 km away from the provincial capital town of Bolzano/Bozen.

Geography

The lake is located at the foot of the imposing rock wall of Croda del Becco (Seekofel; Ladin Sass dla Porta; 2,810 m) and it is inside the perimeter of the Parco Naturale Fanes-Sennes-Braies.

It has an extension of about 31 hectares, with a length of 1,2 km and a width of 300-400 metres. It is one of the deepest lakes of South Tyrol, touching 36 metres of maximum depth, with an average depth of 17 m.

The lake was originated by a landslide, and its creation is due to the blocking of the Rio Braies stream, because of a landmass that detached itself from the nearby Sasso del Signore.

The lake is an attractive tourist destination for the intense blue colour of its limpid waters and for the natural scenery in which it is immersed; in fact, the Braies lake is surrounded on three sides by Dolomite peaks, amongst which is the imposing Croda del Becco/Seekofel, mentioned above.

The lake is also the departure point of the Alta via ('Alpine Highway') No. 1, one of 8 long-distance trails that cross the Dolomites, known as “La classica” (‘The classic’), which goes all the way to the foothills of the Gruppo della Schiara (2.565 m), near Belluno.

Toponym

The name of the lake is attested since 1296 as Hünz an den Se; in 1330 it becomes Praxersee; in 1400 See in Prags; in 1620 Pragsersee and in 1885 Pragser Wildsee; the epithet of ‘wild’ is therefore dating to the 19° century, and is perhaps to be reconnected to the origins of mountain climbing activities in the area, which right in that period started to become a mass phenomenon. The Italian name “Lago di Braies” dates instead to 1940, while in the first Directory of the Italian Municipalities (Prontuario dei Comuni d'Italia) of 1923 the locality still appears simply as “Pragser Wildsee”.

Visit to the Lake

In order to reach the lake, one must take the road to the Val di Braies from Monguelfo/Welsberg, in the Upper Val Pusteria (Alta Val Pusteria); at the only main junction, one takes the branch to the right in the direction of the lake. After the hamlets of Ferrara (Schmieden) and San Vito (St. Veit) one arrives at a parking place (paying in the high tourist season), where a large hotel-restaurant is also located: this is the Hotel Pragser Wildsee, connected to the pioneering figure of Emma Hellenstainer (read below and see also the Dolomythos page for more information about her).

It is possible to do a round trip around the lake. The main route is on the western bank; this is a flat and wide trail, while the eastern bank is steep and narrow, also with some steps cut into the rock. Despite that, this beautiful walk – which takes one to the foot of the Croda del Becco/Seekofel (2,810 m) – can be tackled by any excursionist in the good season. During winter time these trails are often closed (especially the one along the eastern bank), because of the dangers resulting from possible landslides or avalanches. It is still possible, however, to safely carry out a smaller excursion along the lake in any season, given that in winter time the surface is often quite solidly frozen (this secluded valley is rather famous for its low temperatures).

A Few Historic Notes

By the “Hotel Lago di Braies” (Hotel Pragser Wildsee) took place one of the last – and most important – episodes relating to WW2 in the area, when after the armistice of September 1943, 137 hostages of the allied forces who were held captive (including some prominent politicians – such as the French Prime Minister of the time, Léon Blum) were released here in May 1945. In a finally liberated Europe, these personalities could enjoy not just their newly found freedom, but also a special treatment by the then famous proprietor of the Braies Hotel, the legendary Emma Heiss-Hellenstainer.    

In order to remember those events, by the Hotel has been instituted – since 2006 – the Zeitgeschichtsarchiv Pragser Wildsee ("Archive of Contemporary History of the Braies Lake"), which organizes encounters and talks and also publishes a historic book series, always centered around subjects connected to resistance and Nazism.

A different event altogether is the so-called “Tragedy of Ponticello” – a locality of Braies where, in March 1970, seven Alpine soldiers lost their lives because of an avalanche that suddenly detached itself from the side of the mountain, in the upper section of the valley (left branch): a stark reminder that these are ’real’ mountains after all, and therefore great care should be taken at all times when visiting the area – but especially so in winter.

A Legend on the Origins of the Lake

Legend has it that the Braies valley was inhabited by some ugly-looking savages that looked after the gold present in the nearby mountains. For these people, gold was precious for its splendor, but it also made them hard in their heart. When some animal breeders appeared in the valley, together with their livestock, the wild figures gave them some objects produced with this gold. The breeders, seeing such abundance of wealth, became greedy and started to seize the precious raw material, stealing it from the savage population. The ‘savage’ people thus decided to prevent the breeders from reaching the mountains, and had some springs gushing forth from the rock, which actually went to form the Lago di Braies downstream: this prevented the breeders from stealing further gold from the local 'savages'.

Films and Sport

In the summer of 2010 – and then again in 2012 and 2013 – along the banks of the Lago di Braies was filmed the successful Italian fiction series “Un Passo dal Cielo” ('One Step Away From the Sky'), centered on the character of Pietro, a Park ranger working for the Forestry Commission based in San Candido/Innichen – the same municipality to which belongs the nearby Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti di Sesto/Naturpark Sextnerdolomiten, in the Alta Val Pusteria. Always here – on the frozen surface of the lake – since 2012 are also held, during the winter season, the Italian National curling competitions.


The Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park

The Parco Naturale Fanes-Sennes-Braies develops on an overall surface of about 25,680 hectares. The typically Dolomite landscape stands out for the presence of wide plateaus that extend beyond the limit of the tree line, for the vast forests and the splendid little Alpine lakes – plus the major basin of Lago di Braies itself. In no other area of the Dolomites, in fact, is the landscape so characterized by the presence of Karst phenomena, with all their typical forms and shapes (ridged fields, sink-holes, wells and ‘doline’), as in the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park.

The Visitor Centre of the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park

The Visitor Centre of the Parco Naturale Fanes-Sennes-Braies is like a window open on the reality of the Nature Park: with the assistance of interactive instruments, videos and explicative boards, one will be able to enter a few secrets pertaining the protected area. The visitor will get to know the world of the Ladin sagas and legends; by visiting the bear cave it will seem like stepping back in time, and the viewer will discover how the forces of nature have actually contributed to shape the aspect and the very essence of these mountains. In the terrarium one will also have an opportunity to take a closer look at amphibian and small reptile creatures, while the young visitors will be able to have fun in a dedicated corner.

In the ‘Bear Cave’ of the Conturines – a Creature of Bygone Times

Discovered in 1987 in the heart of the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park, at an altitude of about 2,750 m, this cave concealed something extraordinary: the well-preserved remains of Ursus spaeleus – an animal reputed to be extinct about 10,000 years ago. In the Visitor Centre one will be able to admire bone fragments, as well as see images and read texts that will take one to the ancient world inhabited by the mythical Cave Bear. An interactive game will also help the little ones to have a lively interaction with the world of the speleologists who carried out the research.

A ‘Thematic Trail’ on a Fantastic World – the Legend of the Fanes     

Along a nice trail that starts right by the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Park Centre the visitor will be confronted with the Ladin myths and sagas, illustrated here also with the help of colourful boards. The comparisons to the present will make these legends of the Dolomites appear not just as beautiful stories on princesses and gnomes, but will also offer an instrument geared at comprehending the history and culture of the Ladins of our time (see also the page on Ladinia for more information on this topic). A leaflet on the trail can be collected at the Park Visitor Centre before the walk, and it will assist one along the way.  

About the Park in More Detail

Founded in 1980, the Nature Park Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags consists of an area of around 25,453 hectares encompassing the municipalities of Badia/Abtei, Braies/Prags, Dobbiaco/Toblach, La Valle/Wengen, Marebbe/Enneberg and Valdaora/Olang. The mountain slopes that overlook the Alta Val Pusteria/Hoch Pustertal form the northern boundary of the park; its western limit comprises the forested slopes overlooking the Val Badia/Gadertal valley; in the south, the park extends to the South Tyrol border, while the Val di Landro/Höhlensteintal valley marks the park’s eastern boundary towards the Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextner Dolomiten.

The jagged peaks and slopes found here could easily create the impression of a virtually impenetrable mountainous region. But in reality, these rocky peaks and slopes surround and at the same time protect large expanses of Alpine pastures and highlands that exhibit tremendous morphological and landscape diversity, whose core elements are the Malga Fanes/Fanesalm and Malga Senes/Sennesalm Alpine pastures, as well as the Prato Piazza/Plätzwiese highlands.

The Nature Park Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags exhibits a characteristic Dolomite landscape. Large portions of the park are of considerable scientific interest, owing to their complex geomorphology. The Fanes and Sennes highlands are characterized by karstification in every imaginable form – namely solution grooves, crevices, shafts, dolines and hollows. The protected area also contains a number of lakes, including Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee (whose surface reflects the massive slopes of Croda del Becco/Seekofel mountain) and the Dobbiaco/Toblach lake, whose marshes on the southern bank provide an important habitat for many water bird species. These water expanses are among the best known natural lakes in South Tyrol.

The park is also part of the European-wide Natura 2000 sites, which aim to promote habitat, flora and fauna conservation, to which end the province of Bolzano-Bozen /South Tyrol has commissioned so-called management plans.


Habitats of the Park 

Flora

Rock and soil, together with altitude and micro-climates, determine flora biodiversity. In the park, the vegetation stages range from mountain forests near the valley floors to rocky regions at altitudes of 3,000 meters or more. 

Forests.

Most of the forests in Nature Park Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags consist of Spruce trees (Picea abies) that extend from altitudes of around 900 to 1,200 meters and that are supplanted by Larch (Larix decidua) and Cembra Pine (Pinus cembra) the closer one gets to the timber line. Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris), which are relatively resilient, are found on the dry and gravely slopes of the Valle di Landro/Höhlensteintal and in the Val di Marebbe/Enneberg/de Mareo valley. The relatively sparse mountain forests contain abundant undergrowth, whose Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Alpine vegetation is attributable to the presence of acidic humus soil. The knee-timber zones that characterize sparse mountain forests often abound in Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo), whose up to ten meter long and highly ramified root systems are instrumental in solidifying steep slopes and scree.

Mountain Meadows and Pastures.

Much of the Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park is covered with mountain meadows and pastures comprising extremely bio-diverse habitats whose existence is attributable to the historic human use of these areas. Dry zones of extensively used mountain meadows contain – amongst the many present – plants such as Arnica (Arnica montana), some species of Gentian (Gentiana sp.), various Orchid genera (including Orchis, Ophrys and Dactylorhiza), and other plants like Common Bistort (Persicaria bistorta) and Golden Hawksbeard (Crepis aurea). If these pastures are grazed too heavily, hassock-like plant formations and species as Mat-grass (Nardus stricta) – that are unfazed by being trampled on and are not to the liking of bovines – tend to take over.

Alpine Meadows and Scree.

More or less self-enclosed pastures or pasture communities occur at altitudes of 2,000 to 2,800 meters above sea level. The calcareous grasslands of the Dolomites are composed of perennial grasses and sedges (Carex sp.), whereby Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and Carex firma are particularly common. Likewise, widely distributed in the Dolomites are plants such as Dragonmouth (Horminum pyrenaicum), Dolomite Yarrow (Achillea oxyloba), Globe Daisy (Globularia sp.) and – in some areas – Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum). Debris cirques, which often penetrate far into the valley floors, serve as habitats for a number of “specialists”, such as yellow Alpine Poppy (Papaver alpinum), Alpine- and Round-leaved Pennycress (Thlaspi caerulescens and T. rotundifolium).

Rock Crevices.

Only “specialist” flora is able to survive in rock crevices or on bare rocks. These plants include various cushion plants, and some other Dolomite 'staples' such as Devil’s claw (Physoplexis comosa), Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), Cinquefoil (Potentilla nitida), Alpine Androsace (Androsace alpina), Pale Corydalis (Corydalis solida) and Blue-green Saxifrage (Saxifraga caesia).

Fauna

The fauna in the Nature Park Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags is representative of the fauna found throughout the Dolomites – the salient features here being habitat diversity in tranquil, remote valleys and difficult to access mountain regions. These habitats comprise mixed conifer forests, extensive plateaus, traditional cultivated Alpine pasture lands, rough cirques, steep rocks, clear rivulets, swamps and lakes. It is fascinating to observe how the park’s wildlife has adapted to the extreme karst conditions that prevail here.

Inhabitants of the Mountain Forest

Extensive mixed conifer forests and the clearings and larch fields found here are the ideal habitats for various species of deer. Some years ago, Red deer (Cervus elaphus) returned to the park after having been exterminated in the early 19th century. Deer mainly live in sexually segregated herds and only mingle during the fall mating season, at which time the characteristic sounds of rival males clashing can be heard.

Beginning their activity at dusk, Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Badger (Meles meles) and Pine Marten (Martes martes) scurry across the forest floor in search of prey and are glimpsed only rarely, as they are mainly nocturnal creatures. Squirrels (Sciurus vulgarisare seen more frequently, as they tirelessly go about the business of storing nuts and seeds for the winter. Likewise, often observed in the forest are Hazel Grouse (Tetrastes bonasia) and Wood Grouse (or Western Capercaillie; Tetrao urogallus), which need remote forests with thick undergrowth; any disturbance to their habitat results in a drastic reduction in their population.

At the Forest Edge

The forest has the greatest amount of woody undergrowth right at the timber line. The higher the altitude, the more the knee-timber vegetation gains the upper hand over the trees. This type of area is also known as the “battle zone”, because the trees are subjected to increasingly harsh conditions and are able to survive only with great effort, until they finally disappear altogether. Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix), which is commonly found in sparse knee-timber belts, can be easily differentiated from Western Capercaillie by virtue of its lyre-shaped tail feathers.

Mountain Hares (Lepus timidus), which are found in the belts of dwarf shrubs up to the rocky zones, withdrew to the Alps from tundra-like areas at the end of the Ice Ages. These animals forage for edible roots and grasses by dislodging the snow. Their long, highly spreadable toes containing stiff hairs enable them to move easily, even in the high snow.

Alpine Lawns

Marmot (Marmota marmota) is without a doubt the animal that most symbolizes the nature of the Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park. Large populations of marmots are found in the rocky and grassy heaths of Fanes and Sennes, as well as in the Prato Piazza/Plätzwiese area, and have adapted perfectly to these high-mountain habitats. Hikers can very often catch a glimpse of these animals while ascending a trail, but in such cases they have to remain motionless and still, lest the “guard” warns the other animals to scamper to safety by emitting a shrill whistling sound. But of course, this warning signal mainly serves to alert marmots to the presence of Golden Eagles, for whom marmots are the prey of preference.

Fanes, Sennes/Senes and the Braies/Prags Dolomites are an ideal habitat also for Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), which live alone except during the mating season, at the beginning of winter. The Chamois herds that are often seen on grassy cirques in the summer are composed solely of females grazing and their young.


Suggested Routes for Nature Hikes and Hiking Routes

1) Sorgente Maite/Maitequellen Spring Educational Trail in Braies/Prags

This around 1.5 kilometer long educational trail takes you through one of South Tyrol's most beautiful underground spring sites – a large, flat area containing countless springs that form small streams, which become pools here and there. These springs are collectively referred to as the ‘Maite springs’.

On the educational trail along hiking path no. 37, you will find nine information stations that touch upon various water related topics.

2) Prato Piazza/Plätzwiese (1,976 m) – Sella Monte Specie/Strudelkopfsattel (2,212 m) – Monte Specie/Strudelkopf (2,308 m) – Rifugio Vallandro/Dürrensteinhütte (2,031 m) – Prato Piazza/Plätzwiese (1,976 m)

From the Prato Piazza/Plätzwiese parking lot (1,976 m) follow the trail to the inn called Plätzwiese Gasthaus. From there, follow hiking path no. 40 toward Vallandro/Dürrenstein, and after a 20 minute walk you will reach trail no. 3. Turn left and follow the markers in the direction of Dürrensteinhütte (path no. 37). Shortly before you reach Dürrensteinhütte refuge (2,031 m), you will come upon a forest road. From there take path no. 34, which will lead you to Strudelkopfsattel (2,212 m), from where you can see the summit cross. From the top of Strudelkopf (2,308 m) there is a superb panoramic view of the surrounding peaks and mountain chains such as the Sesto Dolomites/Sextner Dolomiten, the Cadini group, the Marmarole, the Cristallo mountain group and the Croda Rossa/Hohe Gaisl. After re-descending to Dürrensteinhütte refuge (2,031 m), take the forest road back to the starting point. Note: During the summer you can also park at Ponticello/Brückele and take the bus to Gasthaus Plätzwiese (1,976 m).

3) Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee (1,498 m) – Forcella Sora Forno/Ofenscharte (2,392 m) – Rif. Biella alla Croda del Becco/Seekofel-Hütte (2,328 m) – Forcella Riodalato/Seitenbach-Scharte (2,327 m) – Malga Foresta/Grünwald-Alm (1,595 m) – Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee (1,498 m)

From the Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee parking lot (1,498 m) follow trail no. 1 along the lake and then upward to the larch fields at Buco del Giavo/Nabiges Loch. The path will soon take you out of the forest, whereupon you proceed to Ofenscharte (2,392 m) – a hike of around three hours; Seekofel-Hütte refuge lies just below (2,328 m). From there, follow marker no. 23 across Alpine pastures to the Forcella di Riojogogn/Seitenbach-Scharte pass (2,327 m). You then hike downhill (the trail is steep at first, and then levels off somewhat) through the lovely Seitenbachtal valley to Grünwald-Alm (1,595 m), and comfortably aim back to the starting point.


Return from Braies to South Tyrol

Return from Braies to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

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