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The 9 systems of the Dolomites | Pelmo, Croda da Lago


Covering an area of 4,344 hectares, all within the boundaries of the Province of Belluno, the Pelmo-Croda da Lago system extends to the north-west/south-east taking in Valle del Boite to the east, Val di Zoldo and Val Fiorentina to the south, Val Codalonga to the west, and Val Costeana to the north.

This system, dominated by the Pelmo massif, is famous as one of the most beautiful of all the Dolomite landscapes. Shaped like a gigantic seat, Pelmo is known in the local language as Caregon del Padreterno, the Throne of the Eternal Father. Legend has it that, after he had finished creating the Dolomites, God was so tired that he sat down on Pelmo to admire his handiwork.

As well as Pelmo, as you explore this system you will find plenty more stunning views to marvel at, among the most famous in the entire Dolomite region. The view from the pass Passo Giau towards Croda da Lago is one of the most iconic images of all.

Although it bears the name of the two most famous peaks, this system consists of a number of different mountain ranges. The range formed by mount Pelmo (3,168m) and by Pelmetto (2,990m) is separated from the Lastoi de Formin (2,657m), Rocchetta (2,469m) and Croda da Lago (2,701m) peaks, by a chain of low hills running in a north-south direction including Col della Puina and Col Roan. It also has the Cernera (2,657m) range, bounded by the river Rio dei Loschi, the Giau pass and the river Rio Mondeval, encompassing Corvo Alto (2,455m), Verdal (2,491m) and Col Piombin (2,313m).

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The Triassic archipelago before, during and after the Ladinian volcanoes

In this system some 100 million of history are written with surprising continuity.

On Monte Cernera traces still exist of the beginnings of the Triassic archipelago and its evolution during the Ladinian period. The chapters telling the story of the first Triassic archipelago recount in great detail the oscillations of the sea bed responsible for the temporary emergence of sections of land that were then eroded.

The subsequent evolution of the archipelago is fossilised in the Dolomitic limestone towards the summit of Cernera, where a late Anisian reef developed, built from the organisms, preserving the interaction between the sediments in the shallows and coastline and those in the deep sea, the geometry inherited from the subsequent covering with volcanic material and its original three-dimensional nature.

Like a never-ending story, the history of the archipelago marches on with the Lastoni de Formin and Le Rocchette. These huge slabs of carbonate rock tell the story of the islands built of organisms at the end of the mid-Triassic period of volcanic activity and the subsequent filling up of the stretches of the sea between the islands, leading to the disappearance of the Carnian archipelago. Footprints of sauropods and primordial dinosaurs have been found in these rocks. Fossil amber containing the world’s oldest known insects and mites can be found in the rocks of the same period on Monte Penna. Slightly younger rocks nestle at the base of Monte Pelmo and here too, on Pelmetto, there are a great many dinosaur footprints.

The medium altitude part of this famous mountain is made of the Main Dolomite rock that created the tidal plain established at the end of the Triassic period, as can be seen in the Croda da Lago chain. The part at the summit consists of rocks that bear witness to the subsidence that began in the late Triassic period. Some dinosaur footprints have recently been found here which are now on record as those found at the highest altitude ever. The system is also notable for the Mesolithic remains of Mondeval Man found on the Mondeval plateau. This is a wondrous place modelled by tectonic and glacial events that wreaked havoc with the fragile material of volcanic origin in the basins. Some glacial erratics delivered by the glaciers on the Mondeval plateau were used as tombs by the nomadic communities of hunters.


The Pelmo-Croda da Lago system is considered a geomorphological jewel in the crown, on a planetary scale, for the extreme diversity of its morphology, encapsulating all the morphostructural and morphoclimatic elements. Because this is so easy to read, a great many academics descend on this area for their research into paleoclimatology and applied geomorphology.

Skeletal forms (structural morphology)

The complex stratigraphic architecture is faithfully reflected in the continuous progression of slabs and walls of calcareous and Dolomite rock (Monte Cernera, Lastoni di Formin, Piz di Mezdì, Croda da Lago, Rocchette, Monte Pelmo, Monte Penna) that give way to undulating saddles and gentle slopes carved out of argillaceous and volcanic rock (Passo and Forcella Giau, Passo Staulanza, Forcella di Roan and della Puina, Mondeval and Campi di Ru Torto).

The plateaux at the summit of the Lastoni di Formin and Monte Penna, the stepped structure of the Formin-Croda da Lago chain and the numerous ledges that cut sharply across the steep slopes of Monte Pelmo and Monte Cernera, on the southern side, are magnificent examples of the morphoselective action of erosion on rock formations of varying hardness.

The contours of the main walls, the deep flexure that separates Monte Pelmo from Monte Pelmetto, and the fractures that break up Mount Becco di Mezzodì and the crest of Croda da Lago into numerous towers and spires, trace the tectonic features that cut through the rocky mass.

The forms created by the evolving climate (climatic geomorphology)

The glacial processes are currently limited to the small glacier of Val d’Arcia, buried under debris. The Mondeval de Sora and de Sotto zone displays numerous late glacial banks of moraine, dating back some 15,000-12,000 years, glacial erratics and forms produced by freezing and thawing, such as rock glaciers and pronival ramparts.

The wholesale modelling of the landscape is evidenced by the geometric detrital cones and the extensive layers that drape the foot of the sheerest walls, together with the frequent rock falls that set the material in motion once again. This is now perpetuated by gravity, assisted by freezing and thawing.
Both large and small rock falls detach themselves ever more frequently from the sheerest, most fractured walls, potentially creating considerable danger, as happened with the tragic landslide on the north face of Monte Pelmo in 2011. In prehistoric times two enormous landslides on Monte Pelmo landed on the valley floor, known as the Mareson and Palafavera rock avalanches.

The Lastoni di Formin is a much-studied iconic example of lateral spreading. In this complex form of landslide huge volumes of compact Dolomite rock in the vicinity of widespread tectonics faults, migrate very slowly on the more plastic underlying clayey layers, gradually becoming looser until they become a landslide. The karst and glaciokarst formations of Monte Pelmo are of great interest and have been the subject of recent studies and speleological exploration.

This landscape is a unique example of the harmonious integration of outstanding geology, geomorphology and archaeology and, as such, it must be preserved and valued.

Dolomiti Project

Natural history and cultural museums

As you amble along the footpaths of the Pelmo-Croda da Lago system, you will come across some fascinating traces of our most ancient history, when it was home to the dinosaurs. Many tracks that bear witness to the presence of these prehistoric reptiles in the Dolomites can be found at the foot of the peaks Lastoi di Formin and Pelmetto.

Moving on to more recent history, in the Mondeval de Sora (2150m above sea level) area, in the Municipality of San Vito di Cadore, a prehistoric archaeological site set in a glacial cirque has been excavated containing the tomb of a hunter of the Mesolithic era complete with a rich array of burial accoutrements, a find of extraordinary significance, given its altitude.

You can learn all about the ancient past of this fascinating area of such major historical importance at the Museo Civico Vittorino Cazzetta in Selva di Cadore. Among the exhibits are a cast of the dinosaur tracks found on a piece of stone on Mount Pelmo. The exhibits in the geo-palaeontology section tell the geological story of the Dolomites, with a particular focus on Val Fiorentina, together with remains of the most ancient life-forms found in the area. The archaeological section hosts the skeleton of “Mondeval Man” and the items buried with him and found in his tomb. Video and audio aids make it possible to reconstruct scenes from the daily life of these, the Dolomites original inhabitants. The history section is packed full of finds that bear witness to human presence in this part of the Dolomites from the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Ages to the Medieval era when it formed the boundary between the dominium of La Serenissima (the Republic of Venice) and the territory owned by the Bishop of Brixen. Of particular interest is the section dedicated to the mining activities in the valley. The mines of Fursil, in Colle Santa Lucia, were in use from the 12th to the 18th centuries.

The Messner Mountain Museum Dolomites provides a totally different experience. The idea of the mountaineer Reinhold Messner, it is a space inside one of the Great War fortresses at an altitude of over 2000 metres, on Monte Rite (Forcella Cibiana). The MMM Dolomites is part of a larger museum complex, occupying five different exhibition sites located in the Eastern Alps. The Monte Rite exhibition is all about rock as the primary element, telling the story of exploration and mountaineering in the Dolomites (

Footpaths and mountain trails

High Altitude Road

The system is right at the heart of the high-altitude trail Alta Via n. 1, covering some 125km dotted with refuges and bivouacs, ideal for hikers to enjoy a break or an overnight stay. The trail consists of 12 stretches, from Lago di Braiès, in the province of Bolzano, to its end at Col Visentin, overlooking the city of Belluno. Along the high-altitude trail Alta Via n. 3, known as “Alta Via dei Camosci” (the Chamois trail), after the number of these animals to be found along this trail, you also cross the Pelmo peaks, heading down from Villabassa/Niederdorf in Val Pusteria toward Longarone.

Strada della Vena and Antica via del ferro

These are two branches of a single route which is recommended for fit and well-seasoned hikers, although it does not present excessively difficult mountaineering challenges. The trail starts off from the village Colle di Santa Lucia then wends its way to Castello di Andraz passing through other parts of the Municipality of Livinallongo del Col di Lana. It follows the historic trails used when the mines in Val Fiorentina were in use, bringing the iron extracted from the Fursil mines down to where it would be processed and traded.

Both branches start off in the village of Villagrande, part of Colle Santa Lucia and home to the town hall, after which it reaches the villages of Costalta and Ru, where two entrances to the mines can still be seen today. The trail splits here.

The Strada de la Vena (literally the Vein), carries on toward the pass Passo Valparola, Val Badia and then on to the markets of Brunico and Bressanone. The trail climbs up from Pianaz, passing through a delightful Alpine landscape of woods and pasturelands, dotted with hay barns. The destination is Castello di Andraz, a castle that has recently been restored and is now open to the public.

The second branch, L’Antica Via del Ferro (literally the Old Iron Road) ambles through the villages of Sopradaz, Forcia, Colcuc, Larzonei, Andraz and Cernadoi with their meadows and rustic buildings, climbing up until it too reaches Castello di Andraz.

From both branches of this trail, Strada della Vena and Antica Via del Ferro, as you scale the slopes of Monte Pore, you will enjoy a magnificent view of the peaks of Pelmo, Civetta and Marmolada.

In the footsteps of the dinosaurs

This easy trail, the round trip taking just about two hours, offers you breath-taking views of the Dolomites, following in the footsteps of the dinosaurs that once trod these pathways millions of years ago. Leaving from the car park at Passo Staulanza, the path follows footpath 472 (part of Alta Via n.1) along which it climbs gently to the high plains of Monte Pelmo. Following the signposts, which send you left at the southern tip of Pelmetto, you hit a steep uphill gravel path until you reach a rock that bears the imprints of dinosaur footprints.

The Dolomites of legend

The unmistakeable outline of Mount Pelmo, the evocative contours of the other peaks and the magical colours of these mountains have, for centuries, inspired countless myths and legends, some more believable than others.

The myth of the creation of Mount Pelmo was sparked by its striking morphology recalling an immense throne made of stone. This popular legend, along with the many others surrounding the landscape of the Province of Belluno, was seized on by Osvaldo Noro, teacher, poet, author and lover of the local language and traditions, for his book “Il Caleidoscopio” written for primary school children.

Caregon del Padreterno

After creating all, or nearly all the wonders of the world, God came down to Earth to get a closer look at his handiwork, to revel in its grandeur and beauty. When he reached Italy, that he already knew would become home to St Peter’s successor, he decided to protect the peninsula with a defensive barrier, so he surrounded it on three sides with the sea but since he had no wish to isolate it completely from the rest of the continent, he came up with the idea of fencing it off to the north with a chain of mountains. He started by shaping the Alps, creating the Maritime, Ligurian, Cottian, Graian, Pennine, Lepontine and Rhetian Alps. On finishing this huge task, he stood back to admire his work and decided that he had indeed done a good job, being particularly pleased with the majestic Mont Blanc and the stunning Matterhorn. But, ever the perfectionist, he still wasn’t completely happy. He was after something even more spectacular and conceived the idea of a different set of mountains, no higher but with more personality.

Thus he created the Dolomites, moulding them from matter he never used before, matter capable of capturing the sun’s and the moon’s rays then returning them in glorious shades of pink and silver. Then he adorned the peaks with crags, ridges and spires, labouring all day long. At sunset, exhausted by his endeavours, God needed a rest, but only sharp, pointed peaks were to be seen. With his last piece of Dolomite stone, he placed one last mountain right at the heart of this amazing amphitheatre, giving its peak a softer silhouette, just like an armchair. Now, comfortably seated, he could finally admire his work. As he gazed in satisfaction from mounts Marmolada to Tofane, from mounts Cristallo to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, from Peralba to Antelao, he drifted into a contended sleep.

Once awake and back on his feet, he was about to remodel Mount Pelmo, to match the peaks that surrounded it, when he had second thoughts. That mountain was fine as it was. Whenever human beings saw it they would remember that God had passed this way and that is why the locals still call Mount Pelmo Caregon del Padreterno, the Throne of the Eternal Father.


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