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The 9 systems of the Dolomites | Pale di San Martino, San Lucano, Dolomiti Bellunesi, Vette Feltrine


This system extends over 31,666 hectares, making it the second largest in the Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a rich diversity of landscape and geology. The system fans out over the provinces of Belluno and Trento, bounded to the south-east by Piave river valley, to the west by Val Cismon, to the north by the valleys of Trevignolo, Biois and Valle Agordina and to the north-east by Val Zoldana. Starting from the south, you encounter the peaks known as Vette Feltrine, the highest of them being Monte Pavione at 2,335m, followed by the Cimonega-Erera Brendol chain. Heading the north you come to the Monti del Sole peaks, dominated by Piz de Mezzodì (2,240m), Schiara (2,565m) and Talvena (2,542m), with the amazing rocky pinnacle known as La Gusela del Vescovà. After Monte Pizzocco come the Civetta (3,220m) and Moiazza chains with Moiazza Sud (2,878m) and Moiazza Nord (2,865m). Finally there is Pale di San Martino, with Monte Mulaz (2,906m), Cima dei Bureloni (3,130m), Cimon della Pala (3,184m), Pala di San Martino (2,982m), Fradusta (2,939m), Vezzana (3,192m) and Sass Maor (2,814m). The eastern section of the system includes Pale di San Lucano, Monte Agner (2,872m) and Burel (2,281m).

The landscape of this systems exhibits some striking contrasts. To the south the rugged scenery is scored by deep valleys and perpendicular rock faces, while to the north there is more variation with rolling Alpine pasturelands giving way to bare rock. The world’s mountaineers are particularly fond of this system which contains some of the world’s most challenging and most scenic rock faces.

Protecting the environment

The natural environment of this system is considered by all to be a treasure well worth protecting. Much of it falls within the boundaries of two designated protected areas, Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi and Parco Naturale Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino.

The former, Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi, was set up as a national park in 1990, covering an area of 32,000 hectares in the central-southern part of the Province of Belluno. Within the park’s borders are the Cismon and Piave valleys, to the west and east respectively, with Val Prampèr and the lower part of the Agordino valley to the North. The mountain chains belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage Site are Vette Feltrine, Cimonega-Erera Brendol, Monti del Sole, Schiara, Talvena and Pizzocco. The scientific importance of these parklands and the rich variety of flora and fauna found in them are among the reasons for their status as protected areas and this has no doubt contributed to the spontaneous reappearance, in recent years, of such wild species as the lynx and the bear (

The other park, Parco Naturale Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino, was founded a lot earlier, in 1967, the aim being to protect an area of about 15,000 hectares. The park’s boundaries were later extended, reaching its current size of 19,710 hectares. The park is in the eastern part of Trentino traversed by the mountain streams Cismon, Vanoi and Travignolo, home to the UNESCO-listed Pale di San Martino mountain chain and the 2,700 hectares of the wondrous woodlands of Foresta di Paneveggio, the realm of the wild deer and the Norway spruce, one of the woods used by Antonio Stradivari for his legendary violins (

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The largest island in the Dolomite archipelago

This sizeable system contains a wide variety of rocks, from the Permian to the Cretaceous periods. It can be divided into two sections marked by the prominent tectonic line of Valsugana, leading to the Cereda pass, separating the northern section (Pale di San Martino, Pale di San Lucano, Civetta, Moiazza) from the southern section (Dolomiti Bellunesi, Vette Feltrine, Brendol, Piani Eterni, Cimonega, Schiara, Talvena, Pramper, Cime di San Sebastiano).

Pale di San Martino, Pale di San Lucano, Civetta, Moiazza

The stratigraphic sequence in this northern section covers a period of about 150 million years, from the early Palaeozoic to the late Carnian/Norian periods. Most of its rocks belong to the Permian-Triassic eras, with those from the Anisian-Ladinian periods particularly well represented.

On the north-western slopes, just beyond Pale di San Martino (Veneggia, Passo Valles, Passo Rolle) there are outcrops of rock that tell of the arrival of the first Dolomite Sea, starting from the Athesian volcanic events, and the gradual erosion of the ancient Hercynian mountains. This imposing system that includes Pale di San Martino, together with some parts of the Coldai, Pelsa, Agner and Pale di San Lucano peaks, contains traces of a large Ladinian island, its original geometries intact (island-deep sea; island-volcanic material).

The major deposits of volcanic origin are mainly concentrated in the northern area, while on Monte Pelsa and Agner rocks have been found that bear witness to the emergence of the Ladinian island, its surfaces marked by erosion and paleokarst formations. This irregular surface formed the bedrock for the subsequent coral islands of the Carnian period.

On the slopes of Civetta, and in the more eastern section, there are widespread deposits that tell of the disappearance of the Triassic archipelago and the establishment of a plain, initially crossed by rivers and then becoming the Norian flood plain.

The southern section near the entry to the Cereda Pass contains outcrops of Palaeozoic rock from the metamorphic base in which have been found the oldest macro-fossils in the Dolomites, graptolites dating back 430 million years.


This system is dominated by the huge Ladinian-Carnian carbonate platform of Pale di San Martino-Agner-San Lucano-Pelsa-Coldai that erosion has caused to re-emerge, doing away with the thin layers of basin, volcanic and terrigenous material that once covered it. The dizzying faces to the sides of these mountains were once the ancient underwater slopes of the island, while the broad plateau of Fradusta, San Lucano and Pelsa now replaces the lagoon that once topped the island.

Unlike the erosion that occurred in the Pale di San Martino-San Lucano and Agner chain which carried away all the younger rocks, the Civetta-Moiazza chain still displays such breath-taking vertical walls as the north wall of Civetta and the south wall of Moiazza, reaching up over 1,000 metres rising up from the level beds of Dolomite and calcareous rock of the late-Triassic-early Jurassic era.

The general orientation of the crests and the distribution of the many towers, pinnacles and spires that make the silhouettes of this system so striking, reflect the layout of the subvertical faults and fractures that cut through the rocky mass. The hydrographic network is also heavily dependent on the tectonic faults in the rock resulting in the formation of numerous new canyons and deep valleys branching out from them, such as Val di Gares, Val Canali, Val Corpassa. The imposing vertical walls bounding Valle di San Lucano (the northern edge of Monte Agner rises over 1,000m) are at the mercy of a system of vertical faults, running E/NE and W/SW.

From the morphoclimatic point of view, there are innumerable forms of erosion and deposits that can be traced back to ancient glaciation such as cirques, nunataks, sheepbacks, hanging valleys, banks of moraine and glacial erratics. Some glaciers still exist, such as Travignolo and Fradusta on Le Pale and Cristallo and Giazzer on Monte Civetta, but they are rapidly thawing.
The widespread pronival ramparts and rock glaciers and the extensive debris fields and detrital cones found at the foot of all the walls are evidence of the importance of freezing and thawing processes in the current morphogenesis of this section of the Dolomites.

Rock falls and collapses are common, producing a great deal of boulders and smaller rubble. One fall in 1908 which broke away from the southern walls of Pale di San Lucano hit the villages of Prà and Lagunaz causing 28 deaths.

Vette Feltrine – Brendol – Piani Eterni – Cimonega – Schiara – Talvena – Pramper – Cime di San Sebastiano

In this southern section the thick layers of rock tell of a continuous history from the Ladinian period, for the Dolomite rock of Mount Sciliar, to the Scaglia Rossa of the Cretaceous period, covering some 165 million years. Starting from the west, it runs along the Vette Feltrine ridge, providing a unique section of the southern Jurassic edge of the Trento platform, yielding rare fossils of calcareous and siliceous sponges.

The cetaceous rocks, Majolica and Scaglia Rossa, making up the upper part of the Vette peaks, and of the mountains surrounding the Piani Eterni, have been eroded in some very particular ways.

The Cimonega and Pizzocco peaks are of typical Dolomite rock, while on Piz de Sagron there are outcrops of Dolomite rock forming an edge of the large Ladinian island of Pale di San Martino, severed by a major thrust, the Valsugana fault, and overlaying younger rocks. The inaccessible walls of the Schiara and Talvena chains show the directions of the fault planes along which the gradual sinking took place of the great tidal plain, the origin of the Main Dolomite rock which is predominant in the area around the peaks of San Sebastiano, Pramper and Moiazza.

The south-eastern belt, starting from La Schiara up to Van de Zità, is littered with traces of the ancient tectonic activity that caused the Jurassic sinking and the opening up of the Belluno basin.


To the north this section displays typical Central Dolomite outlines, isolated massifs and ridges punctuated by towers and jagged crests rising abruptly from gentle slopes. To the south the morphology is more quintessentially pre-Alpine with elongated, barely accessible ridges with rocky stretches overlaid with gentle, grassy slopes and surrounded by deeply carved valleys and gorges.

This is a geomorphological transitional landscape, deeply influenced by the Valsugana fault that overlaid the varied collection of rocks of the mid and late Jurassic period, making up the Pramper, Cime di San Sebastiano peaks and the Cimonega chain, with the more homogenous, compact formations of the Triassic-Jurassic and Cretaceous periods found in the Vette Feltrine, Brendol, Monti del Sole, Schiara and Talvena peaks.

Another striking morphological feature is the Gusela del Vescovà, the famous pinnacle that owes its geometry to the network of vertical fractures cutting into the Schiara strata.
Extremely deep gorges, such as Val Vescovà, Val di Piero, Val Ru de Mulin, Val del Grisol and Val Maè, have been formed on the site of the most pronounced faults and/or in areas where the strata have been lifted vertically by the forces that raised the Alps. Finally, mention must be made of the imposing western face of Monte Burel which reaches a height of 1,000m.

The calcareous Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations give rise to some fascinating karst phenomena that leave evident traces both above and underground and attract a large number of potholers. These features include the Altopiano dei Piani Eterni plateau and the Busa delle Vette valley.
There are also plenty of climatic morphological features associated with ancient glaciation, such as the banks of moraine in Val Pramper, glacial deposits in Val Canzoi, and the cirques Circo di Cimia and the Buse cirques in the Vette Feltrine. Those due to freezing and thawing processes include the cones and debris layers of Val Pramper and the Vette Feltrine rock glaciers.

Given the high-energy forces at work, there are a great many rock slides in this area. Val Pramper has been hit by some major collapses and falls of debris and in the late glacial era there was a massive landslide on Monte Peron whose debris field, Masiere di Vedana, blocked the flow of the Cordevole mountain stream.

Dolomiti Project

Natural history and cultural museums

There are several museums and exhibition spaces in this system, which, as well as Pale di San Martino, includes Pale di San Lucano, Dolomiti Bellunesi and Vette Feltrine, providing some fascinating insights into this prized natural environment and the life lived within its confines, both past and present.

The two protected areas in the system have visitor centres presenting their natural and environmental features, as well as their cultural, economic and social life. Among the visitor centres in the Belluno Dolomites National Park an ethnographic museum (Museo Etnografico della Povincia di Belluno e del Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi), an environmental education centre La Santina in Cesiomaggiore, the Uomini di Valle Imperina visitor centre with its mining village in Rivamonte Agordino, the Piero Rossi cultural centre in Belluno, the Campanula Morettiana botanic gardens in Sospirolo and the Il Sasso nello Stagno visitor centre in Pedavena.

The visitor centres in the Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino natural park are: Villa Welsperg, Paneveggio in Tonadico, San Martino di Castrozza and the Sentiero Etnografico-Ecomuseo del Vanoi in Canal San Bovo with both a museum and a trail tracing the local ethnographic history.

In Fiera di Primiero, Trentino you can visit the Palazzo del Dazio e delle Miniere, a fascinating 15th Century building, in late Gothic style, once the seat of the Giudice Minerario, the judge overseeing local mining operations. The first two floors of the building host the Museo della Cultura Materiale di Primiero displaying cultural artefacts, while the attic floor holds frequent art exhibitions.

The UNESCO system covers most of the Province of Belluno, bounded to the south by the historic cities of Belluno and Feltre both designated città d’arte, and to the north-east by villages of the Agordina and Val Zoldana valleys. Some of the cultural sites that tell the story of the local history and artistic expression are in Feltre, Il Museo Civico, La Galleria d’Arte Moderna Carlo Rizzarda and the Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art), the Belluno Museo Civico and the Museo Augusto Murer in Falcade. There also plenty of museums and exhibitions shedding light on the traditional trades and crafts for which this part of the Dolomites is so famous. There are chair-makers’ exhibitions in Gosaldo and Rivamonte, Il Museo Collezioni Ottiche e Occhiali (museum of optical instruments and eyewear) in Agordo, Il Museo della Latteria (dairy museum) in Canale d’Agordo, Il Museo del Ferro e del Chiodo (blacksmiths’ museum) in Forno di Zoldo and Il Museo Etnografico in Zoppè di Cadore.

For those with a passion for geology and minerals, there is the geological and mining museum at the Umberto Follador school in Agordo, Il Museo Geologico Minerario dell’Istituto Statale Umberto Follador. Cycling fans will love Il Museo Storico della Bicicletta Toni Bevilacqua in Cesiomaggiore. In San Gregorio delle Alpi there is the local museum Il Museo delle Zòche and finally, in Sedico, there is the museum dedicated to the 7th Alpine Regiment, Il Museo Storico del 7° Reggimento Alpini.

Footpaths and mountain trails

High Altitude Road

This system contains some stretches of the Alte Vie, trails that unwind on mountain paths, dotted with shelters and refuges for a short break or overnight stay. Alta Via n.1, running from Lago di Braiès, in the province of Bolzano and ending in Belluno, takes in the Civetta, Moiazza and Schiara chains. Alta Via n.2, running from Bressanone, in the province of Bolzano, and ending in Feltre, in the province of Belluno, takes in the Pale di San Martino, Pale di San Lucano and Vette Feltrine chains.

Traversata dell’altopiano delle Pale di San Martino (The Pale di San Martino high-plateau trail)

This is a relatively easy route, although care must be taken when crossing the glacier and some stretches still covered in snow in the summer months. It normally takes about 5 hours.

The trail leaves from the Pedrotti alla Rosetta refuge, at an altitude of 2,581m, which can be reached by the San Martino di Castrozza cable lift. The main branch of the trail presents some stunning views. From the refuge you head east, following footpath 709 for about 30 minutes after which you turn left along footpath 707. This is a particularly isolated area so it is vital not to stray off the footpath. After about an hour, the trail forks and you head downhill toward Col di Prà along footpath 766. You skirt the edge of the high plateau overlooking Val d’Angheràz with its breath-taking view of Sass de le Caore, Croda Granda and the majestic Mount Agnèr. Now you turn right and cross a ploughed field to reach Forcella del Miel and Passo Canali, that then re-joins the main route. There is a stunning view from the pass over the southern chain of Pale di San Martino. You can get back to your departure point on the main route and from Passo della Fradusta you can climb up to the Fradusta glacier, then the route climbs gently on a wide snow-covered trail to the peak, that is about two hours from the Rosetta refuge.

Alternatively, you can take footpath 707 from Passo Canali to reach the gravel-fields of Alta Val Canali, then head toward the peaks of Cime dell’Alberghet and Coro. Still heading downhill, you pass beneath the rocks of Cima Sant’Anna, crossing over a debris field before entering the woods. A few minutes’ walk will take you to the Treviso refuge in Val Canali.

Traversata della Civetta (The cross-Civetta trail)

Taking some six and a half hours, this is quite a long trail requiring good fitness and expertise.

Starting from the Capanna Trieste refuge, you can leave your car in Listolade, on the SR203 Agordina road. From there, the dirt track climbs steeply and, following the signs for the Vazzoler refuge, you pass the turn-offs for the Carestiato refuge and the Moiazza chain. Now you reach Pian de le Taie over which looms the imposing Torre Trieste, to be greeted by a wonderful view over the Torre Venezia and Monte Alto di Pelsa. After passing by the Vazzoler refuge, in Ca Favretti you take footpath 560 leading to Piani di Pelsa. Here the trail passes though the pasturelands and dwarf pines of Sella di Pelsa. From this broad high plateau you catch your first glimpse of the north wall of Civetta, famous the mountaineering world over. Having passed by a few traditional hay barns, you come upon the Tissi refuge, the highest point on the trail. You may like to take the detour that climbs up to Cima di Col Rean to take in the view over Val Cordevole, Alleghe Lake, Mount Pelmo and Mount Civetta in all its amazing beauty.

Returning to the main trail, you embark on the descent along the screes until you reach the pass leading to the little lake of Coldai and the Sonino refuge at Coldai. Next comes Val Zoldana, Mount Pelmo and the eastern face of Civetta, with the Torrani refuge almost at its peak. Now on footpath 556 you head downhill rapidly to the Alleghe pass linking the Agordo and Zoldo slopes, turning left here following footpath 564. Now you are walking along what, in the winter, are busy ski pistes, on the way to Piani di Pezzè. Now you can take the cable lift down to Alleghe, go by car or on foot along a charming woodland footpath.

The Dolomites of legend

Countless legends have arisen in the popular imagination to explain some mysterious, possibly scary natural phenomena, or to shed light on the name of a particular locality or mountain.

The strange pinnacle, known as La Gusela del Vescovà, in the local language meaning the bishop’s needle, is detached from the Schiara massif and seems to be pointing at the sky. Its weird shape has generated some bizarre myths over the centuries. One of the most notable of these is that Noah chose this pinnacle against which to moor his ark. According to some, the hollow space at the top of La Gusela was a witches’ meeting place, where they would dance, dragging with them the souls of those who had been damned as a punishment for hunting on holy days.

The name Schiara also seems to have Christian origins, in particular linked to Saint Martin, the patron saint of the city of Belluno. One day, on his way from Switzerland, the saint found himself near Agordo. He stopped on a mountain whose pale, luminous rock delighted him as did the view from the summit taking in the Dolomite glaciers and those hundreds of crags reaching as far as the Adriatic Sea. He loved it so much that, on his travels he would often return there to pray and to observe from on high the diocese that would later choose him as its patron saint. He climbed up there on horseback, tethering his horse to an iron ring, known as s’ciara, in Belluno dialect. One day the iron ring was miraculously transformed into a ring of the purest gold, hence the name given to that mountain by the locals S’ciara de oro, La Schiara in Italian, meaning ring of gold.


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