Why Italy’s Garda Trentino is the hiking destination you didn’t know existed

Many travellers know of the Dolomites, but few make their way down to this lower outpost of the Southern Limestone Alps. Those that do will find a hiker’s paradise. Here are our top five hikes…

Gareth Clark
17 September 2019

Though Lake Garda sits in a relatively flat bowl, the surrounding mountains make this a special area for walking. More than 600 km of trails wrap the area, spanning blue-green waters and towering overlooks, with several mountain huts available for those on longer treks. But just as fascinating are the tales that they tell.

(Giampaolo Calzà/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

Medieval villages and castle speckle the routes, narrating a history that goes far beyond the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who used to own much of this region. Slopes are dotted in battlements and tunnels, some of which can be explored, making for a fascinating detour.

(Jennifer Doohan/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

Best of all, and despite the mountainous setting, many of the walks are quite easy to do. A number of day trails take you on a whistle-stop tour of the area and deposit you back in Riva del Garda within just a few hours. Along the way you’ll have soaked up pebble shores, soaring views and ancient fortifications. Not bad for a day’s works. 

The view from Mount Brione (Giampaolo Calzà/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

1. The icon – Ponale Trail

The Busatte-Tempesta Trail

Trailhead: Riva del Garda; Distance: 3.1km

What makes the Ponale Trail so special is what it once meant to the region. Built in the mid-1800s to link Riva del Garda to the Ledro Valley, for over a century it was the main artery for the area – an engineering marvel that barely clings to the rock at times.

In the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it had strategic purpose. Forte Tagliata del Ponale was constructed here in the build up to the First World War and a network of tunnels were bored into the rock to link the watchtowers you can still spy along the way, their turrets and sentry boxes now overgrown with oleanders and cypresses.

With the arrival of motor vehicles, the route became a hairy one. Trucks had to deflate their tyres to squeeze under low-hanging rocks, and it still operated until 20 years ago, when an alternative tunnel was created and the track was reborn as a walking and cycling trail.

Today, the Ponale makes for an easy stroll and was newly resurfaced in 2018. As you make your way to Ponale Alto Belvedere and back, gazing out from the sheer drop of ‘The Spur’ reminds you that this area is full of wonders. 

The Busatte-Tempesta Trail (Giampaolo Calzà/ Garda Trentino S.P. A.)

2. The history walk – Forti del Monte Brione

Lago di Tenno (Jennifer Doohan)

Trailhead: Porto San Nicolò; Distance: 6.8km

Just like the Ponale Trail, this walk combines some incredible views with a glimpse into the area’s military past, as you make your way from the San Nicolò harbour and along the Peace Trail, ascending into the ridges of Mount Brione. 

Some 30 minutes into the walk you’ll come across the trail’s first defence, Forte Garda, a stronghold built in the early 1900s. It’s one of many here, as this area was heavily fortified in anticipation of the First World War. Relics of five generations of forts, observatories, trenches and military routes dot the trail, while the remains of Fort Garda, which could garrison up to 200 men, open to the public every summer. 

It’s not just man-made surprises that await. The Mount Brione natural protected area is home to around 817 different species of plants (35% of the flora of Trentino). Brush past overhanding olive branches and gaze down at the spectacular variety of orchids that bloom in spring, but spare a moment to look up: the views of Lake Garda from here are some of the finest around. 

Lago di Tenno (Jennifer Doohan)

3. The step climb – Busatte-Tempesta Trail

Biotopo delle Marocche

Trailhead: Busatte Park (near Torbole sul Garda); Distance: 5.3km

Despite winding up some fairly steep mountainsides, this trail isn’t particularly gruelling, and can still be easily completed in a couple of hours. What sets it apart is that iron steps (around 400) have been bolted onto the rock face of Mount Baldo on its toughest inclines, reducing the need for a scramble. Most of the route is on an even footing, however, as you push through Mediterranean scrub and bushy holm oak.

From Busatte the trail fords a pair of ridges as well as creeks and firebreak paths to Tempesta, which used to mark the Italian border under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Along the way there are ample pit stops at viewpoints peering out over the lake below, but it’s the views out from the cliff-hugging stairs, gazing out across the scrub, that takes the breath away.

If you don’t fancy the return leg, buses serve either end, so you can just walk one way and then hop back via the main road, saving your legs for another adventure.    

4. The natural beauty – Lago di Tenno to Canale

(Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

Trailhead: Lake Tenno car park; Distance: 5.2km

A dozen or so hiking routes spider the hills around Lake Tenno, a beautiful spot famed for the emerald-blue sheen of its water – and well worth a dip if you have the time. From there this trail skims the perimeter of the lake before branching off along a flat dirt path and deep into the UNESCO Biosphere reserve of Alpi Ledrensi e Judicaria. 

At the other end of the trail lies the medieval village of Canale, its cobbled streets and low arches a joy to wander. This dates from the 13th century, when it began as a farming settlement, but as little as 60 years ago it was practically abandoned. The village was rescued by a group of artists who founded a sanctuary, Casa degli Artisti, for creatives in search of inspiration, who would then leave their works in payment. Now the building in which it ran hosts exhibitions, lending the area a gloriously artsy vibe.   

If you’re after a longer walk, this trail links up with part of the Garda Trek that leads up to the mountain hut (Rifugio) at San Pietro, built on the ruins of an old hermitage. 

5. The rocky road – Biotopo delle Marocche

Trailhead: Car park on main road to Drena; Distance: 5.5km

Trentino’s ‘marocche’ is a rocky moonscape caused by post-glacial landslides and rock falls that happened millions of years ago. The result is a lunar-like landscape etched with dinosaur tracks and punctured by tenacious Austrian pines and bonsai-like ‘dwarf trees’ that are hundreds of years old yet barely peak above a metre tall.

From the trail’s beginning, north of Dro, the landscape changes with whiplash speed, going from the rocky – at times desert-like – terrain of the Marocche to thick woods and then into a marshy area beside the Sarca River, before circling back around. It’s an area unlike anything else in the region, and easy on the limbs. 

Once you’ve stretched your legs, it’s worth sticking around for the vineyardsa that scatter this valley. The walk lies not far from the wineries Toblino, Gino Pedrotti and Pisoni, where you can taste local Nosiola wines, as well as Vino Santo (Slow Food Presidium) – a sweet dessert wine made from grapes dried for over six months and then slowly fermented.   

6. The new epic – The Garda Trek

Trailhead: Riva del Garda; Distance: 33km (low), 73km (medium loop), 90 km(top)

If you fancy a challenge, the Garda Trek not only loops in many of the region’s more scenic walk, but caters to all sorts of abilities. Bear in mind, though, that the distance separating the low and medium routes may only be 40km but it’s the altitude gain that’s the killer, with a difference of 2,000m putting your thighs to the test, so choose wisely. 

The two-day Low Loop spans the route between Riva del Garda and the medieval town of Arco, passing Lake Tenno before skipping vineyards and olive groves to its furthest point. From there it rounds back via Bolognano and the historic villages of Nago and Torbole sul Garda, whose castles and tollhouses imprint the mountainous landscape above the lake.

The Medium Loop is a more testing four-day affair, encircling the peaks surrounding the plain of the Sarca River. There are plenty of changes in elevation as you circle paths and mule tracks up to the rifugio of San Pietro (in winter, check weather conditions before setting out). The picturesque medieval village of Drena marks the northernmost point before you slingshot back via Bolognano on a similar path to the Low Loop. 

Trekking experts may want to opt for the Top Loop, but be aware that this steep, 90km hike requires a very good level of fitness. You’ll start by the river shore then climb up into the jagged row of peaks, whose shape is what gives this trail its nickname; The crown of Garda Trentino. Pause to take in the vast view down in the valleys of the clusters of houses, neat squares of green and the blue waters of the lake. Once descended, a ferry will take you back to the starting point. 

Essential information 

When to hike: You can hike year-round, so long as you take the right precautions. The temperature never gets too low, but bear in mind that some mountain huts tend to open from October to March (at the weekends), though others like Rifugio San Pietro never close, so check first. Spring brings plenty of wildflowers as the mountains burst into life, while the autumns colours make for some beautiful forest strolls. 

What to take: Be sure to wear breathable clothing (in layers so you can add/remove if too cold/hot) an hiking shoes, and bring a day pack filled with supplies and water as well as a hat, sun cream, a first aid kit, whistle and torch to explore the old war tunnels.

Useful websites: Visit the Garda Trentino website for lots of useful information. Click here for information on outdoor activities. Find local accommodation options here

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