The Brenta Dolomites: Isolated Dolomite Range in Western Trentino

The Brenta Dolomites (‘Dolomiti di Brenta’ in Italian) lie at the westernmost extremity of the Dolomites region, to the west of the river Adige.

They take in all respects the form of an isolated area of Dolomite rock, bounded to the west by the Giudicarie fault-line – a massive tectonic fracture that marks the separation between the carbonatic platform of the Dolomites and the intrusive rocks of the Adamello (3,539 m) and Presanella (3,558 m) groups, which border the area to the north and west respectively.

The range runs north to south for about 40 km, and is about 12 km wide east to west. It differs substantially from the more eastern Dolomite groups, marked by slender lines and plasticity of forms.

This superb massif, made of calcareous and Dolomite rocks, displays majestic but more austere forms, where rock faces culminate in peaks and prisms, with sharp angles of the most varied shapes and sizes.

The Campanil Basso (literally ‘Lower Bell Tower’) is a pinnacle formation that more than any other has proved particularly favoured in popular imagination, and as such it has inspired generations of mountaineers and enthusiasts who have come to the area.

Various processes of selective erosion have shaped the massive banks of Main Dolomite bedrock, eventually carving out the bold and agile pinnacles which are nestled at the heart of the Brenta Dolomites, right in front of Cima Tosa (the highest elevation; 3,173 m) and of the Campanil Alto (‘Upper Bell Tower’), at the top of the Brenta valley.

Within this system, there are several peaks soaring above 3,000 metres; they are Cima Brenta (the second highest, 3,150 m), Crozzon di Brenta (3,118 m), Cima Vallesinella (3,114 m), Cima d’Ambiez (3,102 m) and Cima Mandron (3,040 m).

Other notable summits just below 3,000 metres include Cima Falkner (2,999 m), Cima Vallon (2,968 m), Cima Brenta Alta (2,960 m), Cima Agola (2,959 m), Cima d’Armi (2,951 m), to finish with the already mentioned Campanile Alto (or ‘di Brenta’; 2,937 m) and Campanile Basso (2,883 m).

From the geological point of view, this mountain range documents the long and complex history from the Permian to the Jurassic.

Particularly well-preserved is evidence from the Norian-Liassic succession, which here displays peculiar and unusual characteristics, in that it illustrates the transition between what is known as Trento Platform (‘Piattaforma di Trento’; to the east) and the Lombard Basin (‘Bacino Lombardo’) further west.

All the structural evolutions and geological phases (stratigraphy) within this period of time are here clearly outlined, and so are the spectacular tectonic features.

In particular, from a geo-morphological point of view, this system presents three emblematic situations of geo-morphological diversity: firstly, a wide range of landforms and shapes related to the tectonics, both at a medium and large scale (among these, escarpments and fault valleys; aiguilles and needles running along the fractures).

Secondly, a well-developed, articulated karstic system, both at epigean (surface) level (such as ridged fields, wells, ‘doline’) and hypogean (subterranean) level (as in caves and sink-holes); lastly, an exemplary number of case studies of relic forms that can be ascribed to the action of ancient glaciers, which sit side by side with more recent and active erosion phenomena due to the current freezing/thawing activity.

The Regional Park & What to See in the Area

The area of the Brenta Dolomites is situated at a crucial junction within the Alpine system as a whole. To the west is the Adamello (3,539 m), where the Central Alps reach their eastern limit.

The Brenta Dolomites, on the contrary, represent the western edge of the Dolomites (they are also, incidentally, the only Dolomite massif west of the Adige river – and therefore isolated from all the others).

An important Regional Park straddles over the two areas, marrying the crystalline rocks of the Adamello with the sedimentary layers of the Brenta Dolomites.

In between the two, runs an important geological feature: the so-called Giudicarie fault (from the name of the valleys under which, by and large, it runs: the Valli Giudicarie).

This is a major Alpine fracture marking the divide between two strikingly different landscapes: the rolling granite country of the Adamello – formed by crystalline rocks dating to relatively recent geological times (that is, 50 million years ago!) – and the Brenta group, which presents a far more complex picture of overlapping sedimentary layers, thrown into dramatic confusion by powerful tectonic forces.

Its bedrock is formed by Main Dolomite (‘Dolomia Principale’), overlaid with a layer (at least 300 metres thick) of Rhaetic black shale.

This unique formation makes the Brenta Dolomites appear similar to the saw-tooth mountains of the Dolomites’ heartland, and is yet another powerful reminder of how twisted and contorted the history of the Alps (and of the Dolomites in particular) can be.

Crossing the Giudicarie fault-line can feel like walking through a great divide also for other reasons: if the Adamello is by and large untamed territory (albeit with notable exceptions), the wilderness of the Brenta Dolomites is at times spoiled by the sheer weight of visitors – a recurrent problem in most major Dolomite groups.

The main issue here is that this is a notable skiing area, embraced on all sides by a ring of roads.

The scenery, however, will prove irresistible to any outdoor enthusiast: immense rock faces, jagged pinnacles, jumbled screes, fantastic peaks – all linked by an extensive and well-marked network of paths and trails.

Probably one of Italy’s most famous ‘vie ferrate’ – the Via delle Bocchette – is here, and it ranks among the world’s ultimate footpaths: an unforgettable experience for those with the equipment and the ability to do it.

In any event, there are walks and hikes to suit all abilities, and most of them start from Madonna di Campiglio (the most famous resort in the area); amongst them are classics, such as the ascent to Rifugio Grostè (2,261 m) – from which one can proceed on to Rifugio Tuckett-Sella (2,272 m; Tuckett, incidentally, was one of several Englishmen to pioneer climbs in the Brenta Dolomites in the 1860s) – or to Rifugio Brentei (2,181 m).

A Paradise for Mountaineers and Nature Enthusiasts

In summer, the central area around the main mountain huts is one of the busiest regions in the Alps; nevertheless, the Brenta Dolomites are still wild enough to accommodate bears roaming the area.

Many of these buildings also have an intresting story to tell – and sometimes have an historical value too; such is the case of Rifugio Tuckett-Sella, for instance, which owes its binomial name to the political situation when the two buildings composing it were erected.

Its story is definitely worth telling. The eastern building, of more modest dimensions – and used today as a dépendance – was built in 1905 and named after Quintino Sella, founder of the Italian Alpine Club. What today is the main building was erected instead the following year by the German Alpine Club, and dedicated to Francis Fox Tuckett – an Englishman, and one of the pioneers of mountaineering in the Dolomites.

Both huts were heavily damaged during WW1; the German hut was then bought by the Italians. The construction of two distinct mountain huts at such a short distance witnesses the competition and the nationalistic tension at the beginning of the 20th century between mountaineers of German language and the Italians – namely those from the Italian Tyrol (Trentino), who at the time were politically engaged in a wider struggle in order to annex the region to Italy.

Today, the hut's central position makes it an ideal starting point for many excursions and ascents, especially for those accessing the Dolomites from Madonna di Campiglio.

The Rifugio Brentei is also located in an ideal position at the centre of several paths and trails, not very distant from the vertical walls of the Punte di Campiglio. The hut is encircled by the Val Brentei, closed to the east by a rock boulder and overshadowed by the massive Crozzon di Brenta; it is also flanked by the northern side of Cima Tosa – the two peaks separated only by the so-called Canalone Neri (a sort of canyon), usually filled with ice even during the summer.

The Brentei mountain hut can be accessed either by Madonna di Campiglio or via the val di Brenta; however, the most frequented access is usually through Rifugio Vallesinella (1,524 m). After passing the stream, the ascent begins in earnest with quite a steep rise to Rifugio Casinei; afterwards, one continues to climb decidedly for a while, then the path turns flatter, and more up-and-down stretches follow until reaching altitude 2,181, where the Brentei mountain hut is located.

From there, one can continue on to Rifugio Tosa, beyond Bocca di Brenta; the path is long and presents a couple of exposed sections equipped with metallic steps and ropes. Closer by is Rifugio Alimonta; the path that climbs to this latter hut – immersed in a splendid Dolomitic amphitheatre and crowned by the peaks of the Sfulmini – is demanding but short.

The ascent to the head of the Val di Brenta is less frequented and decidedly harder: following an initial flat stretch on a forestry road a steep section follows, which climbs up to the hut. The last part is the most strenuous of all, and very exposed to the sun too.

The central ridge in the Brenta Dolomites is lower than that of the Adamello, running at about 2,400 metres – even though it peaks at the respectable height of 3,173 m at Cima Tosa.

Mostly, the isolated turrets that form the summits of the Brenta Dolomites are inaccessible for all but the most experienced climber; so, to the average trekker, they will 'just' be a scenic backdrop – albeit a magical one.

As such, they offer many highlights, including the Crozzòn di Brenta – a vast wall of grey rock – and the already mentioned Campanile Basso: a perfect square tower of 400 metres that is one of the grandest rock formations featured in the whole Dolomites.

The Alpine flora is surprisingly abundant; there are unusual species such as the Spectacular Primrose (Primula spectabilis), the scarce blue-flowered Paederota bonarota and many beautiful Bellflowers, including the rare Campanula raineri.

Probably, the most famous natural landmark within the Brenta Dolomites is the Lago di Tovel: for years, under certain conditions, this lake took on a deep, sanguine red colour, given by the presence of a rare algae, Glenodinium sanguineum.

This effect was unknown anywhere else in the world – at least with such intensity. Sadly, pollution has taken its toll, and seriously upset the lake’s delicate natural balance; the phenomenon has therefore significantly waned over the years, even though there have been encouraging signs of a reprise in more recent summers.

The Paganella: A Balcony Over the Dolomites

Even though, strictly speaking, it lies outside of the Heritage Site, there is yet another location that is worth considering here, as it fits within the Brenta Dolomites context: the ascent to the Paganella.

This is an isolated mountain, whose flat top opens up like a balcony over the Adige valley, just north-west of Trento (visible from here in fine detail, as on a topographic map). It is a small mountain group composed of several minor summits, the highest of which is called Roda and peaks at 2,125 metres of altitude. Although not very high, and with the top somewhat spoilt by the presence of masts, this is nonetheless a location worth considering for an excursion when in the area – especially so on a clear day.

In fact, my only recommendation for a visit would be to pick up the right day: choose one with good visibility, if you can, as the views from the top are the main reason for coming in the first place.

The nearest village, which can be used as a base, is Fai della Paganella, located half-way up the mountain, and from where there are close views on the rock faces precipitating above the Adige valley: this is the eastern slope of Paganella, whose calcareous cliffs used to be a particularly renowned location for rock-climbing.

Here start many of the paths that would take you to the summit of the Paganella, but you also have the option of using a chair lift – should you wish to. It is also interesting to notice the transition from the relatively warm and arid habitats that you find lower down (with Hop hornbeam and Black pine) to the typically high-Alpine vegetation that you will encounter as you approach the mountain top.

This, as anticipated earlier, is like an open plateau, dominated by Rhododendron shrubs and Dwarf mountain pine. As you approach the summit the views become wider and wider, at first towards the north and east, where the mountains of South Tyrol and Eastern Trentino come into sight: the Dolomites are on the foreground beyond the Adige valley – but if the weather is clear enough, the glaciers of the main Alpine ridge also become visible.

When you get to the top, the views open up on all sides at 360°: to the west, incredibly close – and visible in all weathers (apart from fog), given their closeness – the Brenta Dolomites appear in all of their majesty on the other side of the Giudicarie valley. Looking south, the sights include an amazing 'reverse view' of Lake Garda, which is seen upside down, with the towns of Arco and Riva on the foreground, and the expanse of water getting wider as it stretches southwards.

Apart from the views, there is also the possibility to do interesting round walks – for example ascending from Fai and descending on the other side, towards Andalo or Molveno and its lake, and possibly combining walking with one of the many chair-lift facilities that dot the area. On that respect, a word of warning, though: this is a highly-frequented ski area during the winter months, so do not expect to come and find the place to yourself at those times. For a more peaceful experience, best is to come late spring or early autumn, when nature is at its best, or on a summer's weekday (avoiding weekends is always better, as – given its easily reachable location – the area is quite targeted by tourists).

Personally, I had the most amazing experience on an incredibly clear July Monday, after a storm. I took two stretches of the chair lift from Fai, and then walked the remainder to the summit. The air was so limpid I was blown away by the greatness of the view: in front of all that wonder, I could easily pass on some of the eyesores (such as the masts or the machinery going about to work on the ski slopes) and lose myself on the faraway distance, as from the terrace of Rifugio La Roda (2,125 m) it felt like being plunged into a living Atlas, looking on the Alps from within and above at the same time.

There used to be another mountain hut (dedicated to C. Battisti; 2,080 m) on the summit of the Paganella, but it is now closed. An interesting thing to add, though, is that here is also located an important meteorological station, dedicated to study climate change in the Alpine region as a whole.

On quite a different note, in the popular imagination of Trentino, the Paganella is seen almost as a sacred mountain – it certainly holds an iconic value, and a song celebrates the grand view which can be enjoyed from the top with the following verses:

«La Paganella è la vista del Trentino... ...Da lassù si vede il cielo, i torrenti e le vedrette. Da una parte i Trenta Laghi, e d'Asiago l'altipiano; e dall'altra S. Martino e giù giù fino a Milano».

(“The Paganella is the sight of Trentino … from there one sees the sky, the streams and the rocky crags. On one side the Thirty Lakes, and the Asiago Plateau; on the other [one sees] S. Martino [di Castrozza] and down, down all the way to Milan”).

And now, as usual when dealing with the Dolomites UNESCO Heritage Sites, let us finish off with another quote – this time from John Ball, an Englishman who was one of several pioneer mountaineers in the Dolomites' region.

In his 'The Alpine Guide' (1866), he wrote:

«In several of the preceding routes, reference has been made to a considerable mountain mass, extending on the E. side of Val Rendena, for which the collective name Brenta Alta here is adopted. It is composed of a brittle Dolomite limestone (...) which by exposure to the weather assumes various tints, from pale grey to rich pink and murky red. By its extraordinary boldness and singularity of form, this range fascinates all mountaineers who approach it, yet it is but very lately that it has been partially explored. It may be described as an irregular group of towers of rock, varying in height from 9,500 to 11,000 ft. that rise out of a huge broken mass of limestone, which is penetrated in some directions by deep valleys and recesses. As a general rule, the towers are isolated, showing on one or more sides absolutely vertical faces of rock, and each is capped by a covering of névé (snow – sic!)».


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