The Alta Via 1 is a 120 km (75 miles) hike through the South Tyrolean Dolomites. The trailhead to this hike happens to sit at one of the most beautiful lakes of Europe: the Lago di Braies. Before Christine and I started the Alta Via 1 we stayed in the magnificent Hotel at the lake. The 3 days at the trailhead became a fantastic holiday in itself.
Lago di Braies
Also Known As: Pragser Wildsee, Lake Prags
Where: 15 km (9.3 miles) southwest of Villabassa (Niederdorf), Northern Italy
Altitude: 1.494 m (4,902 ft)
Hike around the lake: 4,2 km (2.6 mi), about 1 hour
Hiked: August 1, 2022
Getting to Lago di Braies
After arriving in Villabassa/Niederdorf by train (traveling from Innsbruck in neighbouring Austria), we took the shuttle bus nr. 442 from the main square in the village (the bus runs every half hour). We easily found the bus stop at just a few minutes from the station at the other side of the main square. We already bought bus tickets online (€5) but we saw that it was also possible to buy a digital ticket at the bus stop. The ride took no more than 20 minutes. When we arrived at the hotel I felt a bit disappointed as we arrived at an enormous parking lot, packed with cars and people everywhere. Little did we know how different the experience would be once we settled in our hotel.
Hotel Lago di Braies
Planning the Alta Via 1 thru hike, I initially wanted to stay just 1 night at Lago di Braies and hit the trail the next day. But the hotel only accepts a minimum stay of 3 nights. In hindsight I am so happy that this forced us to stay here for a longer time. Our experience at Lago di Braies exceeded all our expectations and these 3 days turned out to be the very best start of a thru hike.
Hotel Lago di Braies as seen from the east side of the lake
What we loved about Hotel Lago di Braies
First: the stunning view of the lake. We booked a room with lake view at the front of the building. This was more expensive but we did not regret it! From our window and balcony we had an almost unobstructed view of the emerald lake. Words nor photos cannot capture the beauty of this lake (I will try anyway on this page).
Secondly: the building and the rooms are beautiful – the hotel is mostly in the original historic state. Rooms have original antique furniture (the beds adjusted to modern needs) and although there have been some renovations, even the new elements are done in style.
The third reason for staying in this hotel is the excellent Italian food (an extensive breakfast and 4 course dinner). Honestly, never in my life have I eaten so good.
There is no grocery store at or near the lake. Because we did not want to be entirely dependent from the hotel, we took provisions from home with us (some small bottles of wine, crisps, cookies, chocolate, etc).
Hiking around Lago di Braies
The must-do trail at Braies is, of course, the one hour hike around the lake. This is a very easy trail, albeit not entirely flat: it has a few steep stairs up and down at the east side of the lake. Because of severe drought the lake was at a very low level and most of the streams the normally flow into the lake were dry. The hike was still wonderful though.
While the hike can be done in both directions, we decided to walk clockwise. In this way we would not have to hike exactly the same way again when we would commence our Alta Via 1 hike two days later (going south at the west side of the lake).
Hike around the Lago di Braies.
The first half of the trail passed through a wooded and shaded area and across a section of steep wooden stairs. Halfway we passed the Alta Via 1 turnoff to Rifugio Biella, the first mountain hut on the thru-hike. We took some time looking up the distant summit of Croda del Becco (Seekofel, 2.810 m / 9,219 ft) and we tried to visualize how we would be hiking up the white chalk trail in a few days.
The second half the trail became a bit more crowded but the view of the lake continued to make this a wonderful hike. Before long we passed the little white chapel and we arrived at the hotel again.
In summer, this hike is best done as early or as late as possible to avoid crowds. We hiked between 10 and 12 AM when the trail already began to fill up. The atmosphere was relaxed though and everybody was enjoying the lake and surrounding mountains.
Swimming in the Lago di Braies
If I would name the one thing that makes me happy on a hike, it is swimming. I try to take every opportunity I encounter on a hike to jump in a lake or cool off in a stream. At the Lago di Braies the azure blue water was beckoning me to jump in. The days were sunny and hot and I took a refreshing plunge now and then.
The second day at the lake we got up at 6.30 AM to take an early morning swim together. We found a secluded spot behind some tall rocks down the trail. The water was a bit colder this early morning, but it was wonderful to have the lake (almost) entirely for ourselves. Swimming in the Lago di Braies felt like bathing in colored ink, the blue-green so intense and at the same time so absolutely clear.
Although some online source say that swimming in the Lago di Braies is forbidden, there were more than a few people taking a plunge. There is even a floating swimming platform near the jetty at the head of the lake, so if you want to swim – no problem.
Other sources state that the water of the lake is way too cold for swimming (less than 14° C / 57° F) but we found it refreshingly lovely and we arrived at breakfast fully energized for the new day.
Boating at the Lago di Braies
Another must-do activity at Braies is boating. Yes we’ve all seen the pictures on Instagram and we don’t want to be like everybody else, but… it was actually a lot more fun than we expected! This time we waited until the crowds thinned out and rented a boat around 6 PM.
A happy Christine rowing at the lake
The classical rowboats can be rented per half hour (€25) or per hour (€35) from 7 AM until 7.30 PM. For us, half an hour was just enough to row to the other end of the lake and back. Surrounded by the unbelievably blue water, backed by the huge mountains, it was a breathtaking experience. Rowing the heavy wooden boat turned out to be harder than expected, both in terms of strength and rowing technique, especially with the headwind on the way back to the jetty. All it all we had a joyous time at the lake before before retiring to the hotel for another delicious 4 course dinner.
The Alta Via 1 starts exactly opposite the Hotel Lago di Braies
Dinner at the hotel was even more delicious than before, with chickpea soup, pumpkin strudel and fragola-lampone tartelette. Our friendly hostess heartwarmingly thanked us for every course we ordered. After dinner we packed and I studied the maps and guidebook for the last time. Tomorrow we would really start our Alta Via 1 thru-hike with an almost 900 m. (3,000 ft) ascent, eventually through a high and rocky gorge ominously called ‘El Forno’ – the oven. Something to look forward to.