Quieter Alternatives to The Dolomites, Italy: Gran Paradiso National Park
As many of you who follow this blog or our Instagram profile will know, we spend a lot of time in the Alps. We have made at least two trips there per year – a Winter and a Summer one - for the past four years. Whilst we do revisit favourite locations on these trips, the Alps are a vast area and we always try to add new places into the mix with each trip.
The marvellously named Gran Paradiso National Park is just such a place and we visited it for the first – but certainly not the last – time in the Summer of 2019. Situated in the North West of Italy, the park boundaries border on to France – and on the French side of the border, the protected area continues as the Vanoise National park. The nearest large city is Turin (roughly 70km away) and Milan is not that much further at around 160km. Both these cities have sizable airports and are easily reached from other major European cities. We drove to Gran Paradiso, having spent the first part of our trip in Switzerland in the Bernese Alps. We were treated to a wonderful scenic drive through Switzerland and Northern Italy before switching onto Italy’s high-speed Autostrada network to cover much of the distance to the park.
Ask most people about the Italian Alps, and they will instinctively think of the Dolomites. It’s not surprising. This area is truly spectacular, easily accessible and above all else well developed. By contrast, Gan Paradiso seems somewhat off the beaten track. Compared to the Dolomites, there’s relatively little information available about it online, and image searches on Google or Instagram will show up far fewer results. But, if you do a little bit of digging, you will find plenty of enticing information about the area. The details of the hikes and the images that you find all hint at a spectacular landscape – and a location that seems to be generally off the beaten tourist track.
Gran Paradiso is Italy’s oldest national park. Having previously been a Royal Hunting Reserve, the park’s original area was gifted to the nation in 1920 by King Victor Emmanuel III and made a National Park in 1922. The Park’s original purpose – and indeed that of establishing the Royal Hunting Preserve that proceeded it was to preserve populations of the Alpine Ibex, which had been hunted almost to extinction. Today, the Ibex thrives in the park along with many other previously endangered species including Wolves and Golden Eagles. There is also some evidence that a small population of Lynx may even be established in the park.
The origins of Gran Paradiso are important because they shape the National Park we see today. Much of the Dolomites, for instance, is still working farmland, and even the areas that are not are still criss-crossed with roads. As such, you are never far from signs of humanity (not that it always seems this way!). Gran Paradiso, by contrast, is much more primal. Whilst there are farms and such there, the landscape seems much less touched by the hand of man. Perhaps it’s wistful thinking, but it does seem that little bit wilder!
The park takes its name from the 4061m Gran Paradiso mountain – the only mountain over 4000m that sits entirely in Italy. The park in general is at quite a high altitude – the average elevation is around 2000m - and if you are not used to this, you’ll certainly notice it! Expect to find yourself felling slightly more out of breath than normal, and everything being just that little bit more work than you might expect. If you stay in the park itself – as we did – you will also be sleeping at altitude. Different people react to this in different ways – some won’t notice any difference at all – but we both experienced vivid and strange dreams during our nights in the park.
Access to the park is fairly limited – certainly less so than you might be used to in the Dolomites - there are only a few roads that wind their way into the Park’s bounds, and none of these link-up – they are effectively all dead ends. Look at a map and you will see that the bulk of the park is not easily accessible by car and would require quite lengthy hikes to reach. This will certainly put off a lot of potential visitors and it is true to say that next to the Dolomites, things are just not as accessible. However, in many ways, we felt this was the appeal of the park. You have to truly work for you views and for those with the experience, fitness and motivation to explore, the park has a lot to offer. The fact that access is more difficult also means that you don’t get the same sort of crowds here that you might expect to find elsewhere in the Alps. On many of our hikes we experienced true solitude, only very occasionally passing other hikers.
There are several small towns and villages within Gran Paradiso, and hotel and self-catering accommodation is certainly available. For our stay, we chose to camp at a place called Point Breuil in the north of the park. We mentioned above that all of the main roads into the park are dead ends, and Point Breuil is essentially the end of the line for motor vehicles from the road that leads in from the Aosta Valley. If you want to venture further into the park from here, you’ve got to use your feet! The camp site itself was well-equipped, with an on-site convenience store, good shower and toilet facilities and electric hook-ups should you require them. There was also a hotel with a good bar and restaurant right next door. On top of all of this, camping proved to be very reasonable cost-wise. Most importantly, though, the camp site put us right in the midst of things in the park. Whilst we stayed there, we did not use our car once. Every one of the hikes we undertook during our stay started right outside our tent. The camp site itself hosted a range of visitors: there were plenty of people who seemed to be doing the same as us – using the site as a base for day-hikes – but also a fair number of people who were simply passing through on longer multi-day hikes.
Looking at the maps, it’s clear that if you did want to undertake a multi-day trek, then Gran Paradiso has plenty of options, and if you really want to travel deep into the park, then this is really your only alternative. It is well worth investing in a proper trail map for the area, and from this you can get a feel for how the trails run, they type of terrain the pass through and also where there are Refugios – staffed mountain huts – along the way. The high altitude of Gan Paradiso means that many of the longer routes will take you high into the mountains and into almost desert like terrain. This is the realm of glaciers. Such trips should not be undertaken lightly, though, so if this does appeal to you, it would pay off to research your route well and make a thorough appraisal of whether or not you have both the physical and mental strength for such a task.
For those who prefer day hiking, there are still plenty of options in the park and we easily could have spent far longer hiking here than the four days we did. Although, as we mentioned above, due to the lack of roads into the park interior, any day hiking is on the understanding that you will literally be scratching the surface! As with most of the Alps, the routes are all clearly marked with yellow signposts naming the routes and giving distances, difficulty gradings and estimated times for completion. Along the routes themselves, you’ll also see painted way-markers on rocks. Helpful as these are, as always, we would advise that it’s essential to carry your own map and compass or a GPS device with offline maps and plenty of battery power. In terms of difficulty, we found the trails around Pont Breuil all started off relatively easily, but soon became more wild sometimes involving moderate scrambling – this is not a place where you can expect to find manicured paths for the duration of you hike and proper hiking equipment including appropriate boots and walking poles are an absolute must.
One evening we got speaking with one of the campground staff and mentioned that we were surprised at how quiet the area was. She told us that apart from a few weekends in August, the park does not get especially busy, so it is a great place to find solitude. If you have experienced the crowds you sometimes experience elsewhere in the Alps, then this may well appeal to you very much!
Gran Paradiso is a spectacular location, and one that we are very glad we took the time to visit. It almost didn’t happen! Such is the appeal of the Dolomites that we almost – almost – decided to revisit that area rather than try somewhere new. We are glad that we didn’t! The scenery may not have the same intense ‘smacks you in the face’ impact that you get in parts of the Dolomites, but you cannot for one instant say that it is not spectacular. We slept, woke up and spent many hours having the view of an incredible glacier from our tent! Similarly, the fact that it is all a little wilder and that you will need to work that little bit harder to see the sights may put off some potential visitors, but for us, this is all part of the appeal. When we were alone on the trial, having not seen another person for several hours and we looked up to see what may have been a Golden Eagle soaring high overhead, we knew we were somewhere special. We had four days in Gran Paradiso, and it was nowhere near enough. Looking at the map, we see possible routes over mountains and past (and over!) glaciers.
The potential here is truly as vast as the landscape.
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