You won’t need to think about why you should take a road trip through the Dolomites in Northern Italy. They are too beautiful for that! The Dolomites themselves will provide the reasons by displaying their peaks amidst rugged dolomite rock formations, green valleys and rolling hills. The pictorial route for this drive through the heart of the Dolomites reveals not only their beauty but also the innumerable reasons why holiday makers find the Dolomites and their mountains such an exciting destination for both summer and winter vacations.
- A description of the Dolomite region, its features and its origins
- A pictorial guide and description of a road trip through the Dolomites
- Experiences, adventures and explorations in the Dolomites
The stunningly beautiful Dolomite region in Northern Italy is loosely defined by the towns of Feltre and Belluno to the south, Bolzano to the west, Cortina and Auronzo to the east, and Brunico towards Austria to the north. We more closely define these boundaries later in the post. The road trip we describe is through the heart of the Dolomites. It was also the route partially taken during the 2022 Tour de France. The drive passes many of the region’s recognisable natural attractions as well as through landscapes of breath-taking beauty. Our guide uses images and video to convey information about the region’s beauty, its origin, road trip itself, and to identify opportunities to stay and enjoy what the region has to offer.
So, if you are considering a drive through the Dolomites, also think about the types of things you can do and explore when you are there. These might include, among others;
- enjoying a driving or touring holiday
- hiking, trekking or walking
- cycling on both road bikes and mountain bikes through mountain passes and valleys
- climbing for all levels and for any duration, mountaineering, abseiling
- enjoying winter sports, typically skiing and cross country skiing
- photographing beautiful mountain scenery which includes jagged peaks, massifs, rivers and lakes
- enjoying cultural differences and their impact on cuisine and architecture
- interpreting the landscape and its geology
- seeking evidence of the region’s interesting geological history
What Are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites are a mountain range in Northern Italy and are part of the Southern Limestone Alps. In 2009 the Italian Dolomites were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO classified the region such that nine areas which were sufficiently distinctive were awarded individual identification.
The Dolomite landscape features a variety of landforms that have been subjected to tectonics, glaciation and erosion. As you drive through the Dolomites you will readily identify their mountains and pinnacles, with 42 peaks being over 3,100m. You will also see horizontally extended plateaux and 50 spectacular massifs which over-reach steep dolomite cliffs which have risen more than 1500 metres above their bases. The cliffs ascend vertically above fertile valleys, foothills, pastures and forests. Wide U-shaped valleys and moraine debris testify to the Dolomite’s glacial history. Our guide will identify and label some of the most prominent features.
How Were the Dolomites Formed?
The Dolomites were formed about 40 million years ago when the north-moving African tectonic plate collided with the European tectonic plate. The ancient sea that separated the two continents was eliminated and its dolomite-rich sediments were forced upwards. The deformation and mountain building that occurred during this period resulted in the rugged Dolomite ranges we now see. They have since been subjected to ongoing geological processes, including minor tectonics and glaciation. The glacial period was about 10 thousand years ago. These processes have resulted in a landscape dominated by peaks and deep valleys.
Why Are the Dolomites Important?
The peaks that are seen during a Dolomite road trip are remnants of the pre-alpine marine deposits. Or to put it simply, the tops of the peaks we see now were once on the bottom of the ancient sea. Those marine deposits which were associated with the shallow, ancient sea existed in the form of coral reefs (cue Dolomite).
The rocks and sediments now visible have remained relatively undisturbed over the last 270 million years. They therefore provide a resource to study the Dolomites’ geological history. For example, evidence of preserved relationships between the pre-alpine reefs and their surroundings is observed in the the sediments and fossils. They also provide a natural laboratory to study the processes by which the marine organisms recovered their populations. Not to mention the findings of dinosaur footprints.
What is Dolomite?
It can be a little confusing. The label ‘dolomite’ has been given to a mineral (a naturally occurring chemical compound), a rock (an aggregate of minerals), and a mountain range (an assemblage of rocks).
The main mineral in limestone is calcite which is a variety of calcium carbonate. The mineral known as ‘dolomite’ is chemically similar except that some of the calcium has been replaced by magnesium. Therefore, dolomite mineral differs from limestone in that whereas in limestone the predominant mineral is a form of calcium carbonate, the dolomite mineral comprises calcium magnesium carbonate.
The rock ‘dolomite’ is a sedimentary rock composed mainly of the ‘dolomite’ mineral. The rock is the result of the compaction of marine sediments rich in its mineral. The dolomite in this marine environment was probably caused by the alteration of limestones by the mineral dolomite. The solutions responsible for the change were derived from the sea. Aragonite (another form of calcium carbonate) and calcite in coral reefs was converted into dolomite by their reacting with magnesium salts contained in the sea water.
Where Are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites, part of the Southern Limestone Alps, span the Italian provinces of Belluno, South Tyrol and Trentino. This region is not large in area, approximately 145 km by 160 km, but there are some roads with numerable switchbacks which slow progress during a Dolomite road trip.
The boundaries of the Dolomites are defined principally by major rivers and valleys.
|North||Fiume, Rienze, Isarco||Rienze, Eisack, Puster|
The natural boundaries of the Dolomites can be identified by using the following processed snippet from Google maps as a guide.
The town of Belluno can be seen on the bottom right of the image near the SS51 road name. The natural boundary in the form of the valley of the Piave River is quite conspicuous as it continues eastward towards Feltre. The southern boundary continues in the form of the Brenta River and then the Sugana valley to Trento at the bottom left of the image.
The western border is quite visible running north-south on the left side of the image. This is the valley of the Adige River between Trento and Bolzano. This boundary continues up to Rienza where the Rienza and Isarco rivers run towards the Puster valley along the top of the image. These markers define the northern limits of the Dolomite region.
The eastern boundary is very clearly marked on the right of the image by the Piave River as it streams north to south back to Belluno.
Enjoy the Drives Getting to the DolomitesBolzano
Winter in Bolzano with snow-capped mountains (Ekharlamov)is the western entrance to the Dolomites. It provides access to visitors that may be approaching from Milano in the south-west. This route is described in more detail in a separate post currently being prepared.
There are several mountain passes to bring visitors from Austria to the north. The most direct route is to drive due south from Innsbruck in Austria and enter Italy via the Brenner Pass.
Earlier image of the Brenner Pass (Haueburger)This route continues on to Bolzano or to the Dolomite region itself via Rienza. Another pass to consider is the Simplon Pass north of Milano which connects to Switzerland.
A road trip very well worth undertaking from Austria which is east of the Dolomites is to enter the mountains of Northern Italy at Cortina having driven from Salzburg across the Austrian Alps via the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (fee required)
The Grossglockner provides stunning sceneryThis route is heavily subscribed and you will need a booking which can be made online.
Keep in mind that many of these mountain passes across both the Swiss and Austrian Alps are only open during the months clustered around summer. You will need to check websites outside this period to monitor whether the passes are open and, at any time, the condition of the roads. It is also worth noting that some of the gondolas and fly wires which operate for Summer may also be closed during the colder months.
A road trip from the south enters the Dolomites at Belluno where like Feltre, the uplift starts to become very obvious. This provides a route for visitors coming from Italy or the Balkans and is the route described in the post. However, it doesn’t matter where travellers go in the Dolomites, it is lovely everywhere.
Entering the Dolomites at Belluno
The excellent A27 will take you north from Venezia to Ponte nelli Alpi – Polpet (trans: bridge in the alps), also on the boundary of the Dolomites.
The sign to Belluno via the SS50 is quite clear. Belluno marks the apparent junction of the high plain of the Po River valley and the northern alpine area. We recommend a brief stop at Belluno, particularly if you are interested in period buildings and architecture. There are a number of Renaissance buildings, the principal examples being located in the cathedral square. These are the 16th Century Cathedral di San Martino and the 15th Century Palazzo dei Rettori. And, of course, while taking a break at Belluno you will notice the Dolomite mountains starting to announce their presence by hovering above the town’s skyline.
Once through Belluno your satnav will put you on the SR204 to Mas which then becomes the SR203 to Agordo.
Your road trip will pass through some small villages such as Peron on the drive to Agordo which give excellent views of the south-east fringe of the Dolomites. In fact, you have entered the Dolomites and are being surrounded by one of UNESCO’s identified systems, namely; Pale de San Martino, San Lucano, Dolimiti Belleruni, Velle Feltrine.
Should you take a brief detour through the centre of Agordo you will see the ‘Archdeacon Church of Santa Maria Nascente’. This church has a Romanesque history and has at least retained the staged twin bell-towers, side aisles and clerestory windows. The imposing Villa Crotta – De Manzoni is also difficult to miss, although successive additions to the complex interrupted its original 15th Century elements.
Once north of Agordo, but still within Dolomiti Belleruni, it is the last stretch before encountering the fork at Cencenighe Agordino which will decide the tour for this road trip through the Dolomites.
A Circular Route to Continue the Road Trip Through the Dolomites
The road trip through the Dolomites continues at Cencenighe Agordino and then follows a clockwise route to Cortina before returning to Cencenighe Agordino. This post describes the drive from Belluno to Passo Pordoi.
The Route to Facalde Alto from Cencenighe Agordino
The route to Facalde Alto via Caviola is on the SS346, a well-constructed regional road, also known as the Strada Provinciale 346. The road is undemanding, relatively direct, with a lovely valley and river to the left and the mountains rising on the right. There are a number of opportunities to pull off the SS346 into some of the small towns and villages that lie just behind the roadside. One such opportunity is Pisoliva, a lovely, tidy township that provides accommodation for visitors to the region.
A manageable but narrow local road behind Pisoliva ascends to the smaller villages of Fregona, Tegosa, Feder and Comean higher up the mountain. They offer beautiful views across the southern Dolomites.
The road continues up the mountain to isolated accommodation which can be secured before arrival. Mountain walks are plentiful in the area, just as they are all over the Dolomites.
Facade Alto and Gruppo del Focobon (3,054m)
The route away from Pisoliva passes Caviola to Façade Alto. It is worthwhile to stop at the road-side car park at Facade Alto and take advantage of its elevated position to enjoy the view across the beautiful Venegia valley. At one end of the valley are the peaks known as the Gruppo del Focobon (3,054m) and the other end of the valley is guarded by the might of Monte Civetta (3220m).
Consider taking a drive down into the valley from Facade Alto to visit villages such as San Martino di Castrozza, and to take a quick look at the art museum, Associazione Erma – Museo Augusto Murer.
The drive through the small village of Façade Alto typifies the presence of the narrow lanes that often have to be negotiated.
The following video on our home page shows a snippet of the drive through Façade Alto which then opens up to the lovely vista of Gruppo-del-Focobon around to Monte Civetta.
The 2022 Tour de France took the route we are describing from Facade to the Pordoi Pass.
The Route from Façade to Moena via the San Pellegrino Pass
San Pellegrino Pass (2,170m)
An ascent out of Facade Alto towards the Passo Di San Pellegrino (2,170m), now on the renamed SS346, or alternatively Strada Statale 346 or the Del Passo di S. Pellegrino. Soon the significant sight of Col Margherita (2,560m) comes into view.
The San Pellegrino Pass in the Fassa valley has been included on the World Heritage list since 2009 and it is not difficult to understand the decision for its preservation. Summer months provide endless opportunity for trekking and winter opens a ski area with kilometres of enjoyable slopes.
The appearance of settlements indicates the imminence of the ski lifts and services of the Pass.
Make some time to explore the Pellegrino Pass, even if you chose to do so only biefly. For example, a chair lift to the summit of Col Marguerita is conveniently located adjacent to the road. The views from the top justify the time taken out from driving.
A lovely hike can be taken to the Fuciade basin. It involves the added pleasure of taking the Costabella chairlift to its mountain terminus at an altitude of 2270m. A descent past the Paradison restaurant continues through wooded and grazing fields. The accessible Fuchiade basin opens up at lower altitude. Many different types of hikes are accessible. Climbers find the area irresistible, as do mountain bikers. You can also reach the Costabella, the slopes seen from the road along the pass. This hike, however, is a little more demanding.
Should you be interested in history, you will find both Austrian and Italian WWI trenches across both areas.
The San Pellegrino Pass is difficult to miss. A large sign spans the road and the landmark. Casa Vacanza San Pellegrino is on the right and the Valle Di San Pellegino and Col Margherita is on the left.
The image shows the features on the right hand side of the road. Cima Uomo (2,030m) is on the far right and is partly obscured by cloud; to the immediate left of Coma Uomo is Punta del Ciadin, then Cima di Colbel, and finally Cima delle Vallate.
The images of the San Pellegrino Pass belie its natural complexity.
Much of the structure of the pass was the product of tectonic events that preceded the deformation that occurred during the shaping of the Alps. Nevertheless, it was this later compression that has produced San Pellegreno’s current predominant structure. The structural changes that have occurred during multiple phases of stress have been identified by mapping faults and folds and observing the contact of un-deformed sedimentary rocks with faulted volcanics. Should you decide to hike or trek through the area you might see evidence of vulcanism in the form of lava flows, intrusions, pyroclastic deposits and also glaciation.
The geological values of San Pellegrino and the Dolomites as a whole as a World Heritage site in part exist because tectonic deformation that followed the earliest deposition was weak enough to preserve the complex vertical and lateral stratigraphic relationship between the earliest deposits. This preserved the relationships of carbonate platforms with their surrounding basins and provided evidence of reef builders from 250 million years ago.
Pre-Alpine tectonic activity is testified by faults and dramatic contrasts in thickness of the earliest volcanic and sedimentary units.
The route of the drive in the Dolomites changes direction at Moena to due north to join the SS48 or the Strada Dolomiti which winds through a number of towns and villages on the way to Canazei.
Moena and the Rosengarten Group
And so on towards the very pretty, cobble-stoned village of Moena in the lovely Sassa valley, framed in the background by the 8km Rosengarten Group (massif) which rises to 3,004m. The Rosengarten Group is defined by UNESCO as the Sciliar-Catinaccio, Latermar system (where Catinaccio also translates to ‘rosegarden’).
Moena is just 11km from the San Pellegrino pass and is typical of the villages framed by the Rosengarten group along the road trip in the lovely Sassa valley. Moena is the focus of the region and just about everything available within this corner of the Dolomites can be organised from there. One activity to consider is the Ronchi-Valbana gondola to a height of 1200m above the base station which is already at an altitude of 1400m.
Route Away from Moena to Canazei
As you continue the road trip through the valley from Moena you will recognise the Catinaccio in the Rosengarten range and the massive Sassolungo Lankerfel directly ahead. But these aren’t just mountains to look at. The villages along the Fassa valley all cater for all manner of wonderful mountain experiences. You really must plan to walk some trails and do some trekking, even if you haven’t done so before. Then you will really see the Dolomites! There is even accommodation at altitude.
The Rosengarten group as a spectacularly exposed portion of the Dolomites and is very important to understanding the natural history of the region. Even though they were derived from comparatively gentle regional deformation, the alignment of the group indicates that were still subjected to strong faulting and overthrusting.
The surprisingly weak tectonic events have provided opportunities to contrast the directions to which the slopes are pointing (strike) of the pre-volcanic sediments with the degree of tilting (dip) and strike of post-volcanic carbonate sediments and volcanics. This relationship between the sediments has been preserved across the Rosengarten group. This provides important evidence for pre-alpine carbonate platforms and the building of the reefs themselves. It also helps to understand their being a source for the different forms of carbonate.
Soraga and Pera
The drive towards Soraga and Pera again exposes the Rosengarten massif, but also the massive Sassolungo beyond Canazei in the distance.
Once past Soraga on the fringe of Pozza di Fassa there is a Fly-line amusement ride, Fly-line Catinaccio Rosengarten, that can be taken from nearby Vigo di Fassa. It should keep the kids quiet if you have any with you.
The Strada Dolomiti continues into Canazei, a town extremely well located to access some of the well-recognised venues in the Dolomites. To the south-west is the Rosengarten group; to the north-west Sassolungo; to the south-east Marmolada and to the north-east the Gruppa di Sella.
The town of Canazei appears projects Germanic themes in both architecture and gastronomy. This observation continues for the drive further northwards. It reflects the history of the region. The Southern Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War 1 only to experience border revisions and being annexed by Italy. The region is the richest in Italy and has a predominantly German-speaking population. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_South_Tyrol) has an excellent explanation of the geo-politics of the region and a read adds clarity and context to what you will see as you drive through. After all, you will notice that much of the signage is in both Italian and German.
Canazei is a good place to stop for coffee and goodies in preparation for the switchbacks that are now going to be a feature of the road trip to the Pordoi Pass and beyond.
If you can make time for it, take the Alba-Col dei Rossi cable car for spectacular views across the Dolomites.
It is now time for some head banging during the road trip towards the Pordoi Pass and to also enjoy an expanded sighting of Sassolungo and Gruppo di Sella.
The SS48 climbs out of Canazei towards another very popular town central to the Dolomites, Ortisei. The SS48 becomes the SS242 to Ortisei. However, we stayed on the SS48, the route taken by the 2002 Tour de France, towards the Pordoi Pass.
Pordoi Pass, Sassolungo and Gruppo di Sella
The ascent from Canazei leads to the crown of the Pordoi Pass. There are many formations on show as well as opportunities for hiking and taking the gondola from the main facility on the Pass.
The anticipated view of Sassolungo (3,181m) to the left adjacent to the Gruppo di Sella (3,151m)
The formation and structure of the Pordoi Pass and the mountains and massifs that surround it is understood by the previous explanations given throughout the post. North of the Pordoi Pass and beyond its boundaries is another of the UNESCO systems, Dolomiti Settentrionali (It: Northern Dolomites).
Travellers who see the Pordoi Pass (2,230m) start to get a sense of how enjoyable it is to hike and cycle the trails. But these opportunities are all over the Dolomites and so anyone planning to visit the region should research an appropriate trail to hike or ride – weather permitting.
At least here at the Pordoi Pass, get out of the car, take a deep breath of fresh air and enjoy the natural spectacle.
Should Tummies start rumbling then head for Canazei or Arabba for lunch or dinner and enjoy the switchbacks and green valleys on the way.
If you chose Canazei, the following brief video will give you a sense of the manageable driving that awaits you.
This post concludes here at the Passo Pordoi. A second post is being prepared to guide the return to Cencenighe Agordino via a different route.
Final Thoughts on a Road Trip Through the Dolomites Part A
The Dolomites are certainly worth a visit. The only question is what type of visit? That is a question that deserves attention. This is a mountain climate. Don’t rely on the climate to be predictable or temperatures to be as expected. Don’t let inclement weather dissuade you from touring the Dolomites or allow your optimism to be replaced by an upside-down smile. We don’t always get what we want and travelling is about making the best of what you’ve got on the day. See the beauty in all sorts of weather.
Plan to stay a while. Do your homework, identify where you would like to set up a base, select your walking trails and allow the time to take it all in.
A road trip through the Dolomites can be tiring. There aren’t any particularly long drives through the Dolomites but you will be constantly confronted by switchbacks, sometimes twenty at a time. Your brains may feel that they have been bounced from one side of your heads to the other. The concentration needed to keep the car on the road if wet and to anticipate what other drivers might do may make for long days if you don’t plan your driving.
Finally, ensure enough time is available to get off the main roads. Hidden valleys, enchanting villages and mountain perspectives otherwise unseen during your Dolomite drive will be missed.
This post describes just one road trip of the many we have made. Most of those posts are yet to be published. But if you are interested in driving through Europe you may wish to have a look at our category Road Trips and Drives.
Bosellini, Alfonso & Gianolla, Piero & Stefani, Marco. (2003).
Geology of the Dolomites. Episodes. 26. 181-185. 10.18814/epiiugs/2003/v26i3/005.
Tiziano Abbà, Anna Breda, Matteo Massironi, Nereo Preto, Gianluca Piccin, Tommaso Trentini, Aldino Bondesan, Alberto Carton, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Nicola Surian, Thomas Zanoner & Dario Zampieri (2018)
Pre-Alpine and Alpine deformation at San Pellegrino pass (Dolomites, Italy),
Journal of Maps, 14:2, 671-679, DOI: 10.1080/17445647.2018.1536001