With its various landscapes, pristine nature, and beautiful views throughout, the Croda da Lago circuit is truly a hikers’ dream. Fairy challenging, yet incredibly picturesque, it is often considered one of the most rewarding day hikes in the Italian Dolomites. In this article, I’ll guide you through the Croda da Lago hike, explain what to expect, and give a few practical tips.
- Who Is This Hike For?
- Croda da Lago Hike Overview and Map
- Hiking Croda da Lago
- Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise?
- When to Do This Hike
- Croda da Lago Packing List
- Photography Tips
- Alternative Routes
- Hiking Croda da Lago With a Dog
- Final Thoughts
Who Is This Hike For?
Situated a few kilometers southwest of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the Croda da Lago circuit takes you on a breathtaking journey. As you hike through the forests, pass Lago Federa, and conquer the mountain col, you witness some of the finest views of the Dolomites’ backcountry.
It is this variety that makes the Croda da Lago hike so appealing. This isn’t one of those trails where you work hard for a single big payoff in the end. Here, every turn reveals something new and exciting and every step brings yet another reward.
It’s not an easy hike, especially for occasional hikers. You’ll circle the entire Croda da Lago mountain range with its jagged peaks soaring 2,715 meters into the sky. It’s a fair distance with some respectable elevation gain so plan a whole day to complete the loop.
But if you’re up to the challenge and enjoy spending time outdoors, I wholeheartedly guarantee Croda da Lago hike. Yes, your legs might well be burning by the end of it. But believe me, that’s a small price to pay for some of the most striking vistas in the Dolomites.
I also highly suggest Croda da Lago hike for landscape photographers. While there’s certainly no shortage of compositions throughout the Dolomites, it’s rare to see so many diverse landscapes packed into a one-day adventure. So bring the camera and knock yourself out!
Croda da Lago Hike Overview and Map
The Croda da Lago hike starts at Ponte de Ru Curto, a parking lot on road SP638 that connects Cortina d’Ampezzo with Passo Giau. From there, you climb through the forest towards Lake Federa (Lago Federa) and Rifugio Palmieri.
You then proceed to the viewpoint of Forcella Ambrizzola before taking a different path back. You will cross the col of Forcella de Formin and finish the afternoon with a steep descent through the boulder field to the beginning of the trail.
This loop is the classic variation of the hike that takes you full circle around the Croda da Lago massif. We’ll talk about the alternative routes later in the article but for now, here’s what you can expect:
- Trail type: a well-marked loop trail
- Total length: 12.9 kilometers (~8 miles)
- Elevation gain: 810 meters
- Start / end: Ponte de Ru Curto
- Difficulty: medium-high – the trail is not technical, but long and strenuous
- Time required: 7-9 hours
- Accessibility: May – November
- Costs: food or drinks in the Rifugio Palmieri hut (optional)
- Highlights: Lago Federa, Forcella Ambrizzola, Forcella de Formin
The image is often worth a thousand words and I think the one above gives a fairly good idea of what you’re dealing with. Additionally, you can always review the detailed map along with all the key stats and the elevation profile over here.
Hiking Croda da Lago
Croda da Lago is a long and difficult hike. Unless you’re an avid hiker, I would advise starting early in the morning. That will ensure a more relaxed experience and allow frequent breaks to contemplate the landscapes or take photos.
It goes without saying that it’s best to pick a clear sunny day for your adventure. Overcast and misty conditions have their charm for sure but will conceal the most stunning views. So to fully enjoy this part of the Dolomites wait until the weather cooperates.
Getting to the Trailhead
The hike to Croda da Lago begins at Ponte de Ru Curto, some 10 km (or 15 minutes) drive from Cortina d’Ampezzo. If you have a car, reaching it is easy. Just follow the regional road SP638 toward Passo Giau until you notice a large parking area to your left.
Parking is free but even though there’s plenty of room, I suggest arriving early. It’s a popular destination, so finding a spot on weekends and during the peak season could prove troublesome.
If you don’t have a car, your best bet is catching a taxi or a bus from Cortina d’Ampezzo. The bus operates daily between June and September but getting reliable information on its schedule is surprisingly difficult. Try checking the Dolomiti Bus website or asking for advice at the hotel.
Last but not least, you could also fancy hitchhiking. To be honest, I haven’t done it myself but in summer, there’s plenty of traffic passing the trailhead. I don’t imagine you’d have to wait long.
Ascent To Lake Federa (1.5 hours)
Right off the bat, the trail dives into the forest, crosses a small bridge and starts weaving steadily uphill. The path is well-marked and easy to follow. Most hiking trails in the Dolomites are numbered, and you’ll soon notice the number 437 on some of the signs.
The initial ascent isn’t overly steep with plenty of openings for catching your breath and contemplating the scenery. Pay attention and at some point, you’ll even catch a glimpse of the famous Cinque Torri in the distance across the valley.
Some 45 minutes in, you’ll reach the intersection that marks the start of the circle loop. Here, you need to decide which direction to hike. On the left, trail 434 goes to Lago Federa and circles Croda da Lago from the east. On the right, trail 435 does the same from the west.
For most people, the best option here is to go left and do the hike in the clockwise direction. That’s what we did too, so the rest of the article follows that route. There are some benefits to doing it the other way around but I’ll cover those later.
Past the intersection, the ascent becomes noticeably steeper, zigzagging relentlessly through the forest. Fortunately, it’s not too long and the slope evens out after about one kilometer, so just keep pushing.
Right before the top, you’ll notice a side path going left and slightly down. It leads to a nice little viewpoint with a sweeping panoramic vista of Cortina d’Ampezzo and the mountains beyond. Well worth a quick detour.
Once you’re done with pictures, return to the main road. From there, it’s a quick 20-minute dash on flat ground to Lago Federa where you can get some well-deserved rest.
Lago Federa is undeniably one of the highlights of the Croda da Lago hike. There’s a reason why photos of it decorate so many hotel rooms in the area — it’s an incredibly charming little lake.
Situated at the foot of Croda da Lago massif and against the backdrop of iconic Becco di Mezzodì peak, Lake Federa is picturesque all year round, but especially so in autumn when the trees around turn golden and crimson.
If you’re a photographer, that’s when you want to be there. But regardless of the season, you’ll probably be tempted to wander around looking for a good composition. Lago Federa is never the same, always changing with the weather so there will undoubtedly be lots to photograph.
For everybody else, Lago Federa is simply a great spot for a short break. Eat lunch, make a small picnic, or simply relax watching the clouds pass overhead, reflecting in the calm water below. It’s an amazing location to just disconnect and allow yourself to lose track of time.
On the far side of the lake, you’ll find rifugio Palmieri, a mountain hut with a restaurant and a terrace. It’s the only hut on the trail, so if you fancy an ice-cold beer or a cup of coffee with some cake, this is your last chance. Prices are reasonable and they accept cards, so why not?
Reaching Forcella Ambrizzola (50 min)
Once you had enough rest, continue south on the 434 route. It’s about an hour to our next stop — the intersection at the saddle of Forcella Ambrizzola. And this next section of the hike might well be one of my favorites.
The path goes upwards again, but it’s a gentle incline allowing you to concentrate on the scenery. Which, I should say, is truly majestic. The trees give way and you can see all the way across the valley toward the mountains beyond.
Far below, Cortina d’Ampezzo lies dreamy and unaware. Behind it, the towering cliffs of Soparis and Antelao range jag the skies. And if you look closely, you can even make out the iconic towers of Tre Cime far in the distance.
It’s a fabulous view that you honestly can’t get enough of. And it’s changing too, shifting with every step and constantly revealing new features of this gorgeous landscape. The Italian Dolomites at their very finest.
The steady climb culminates at Forcella Ambrizzola, a saddle between Croda da Lago and Becco di Mezzodì, and the intersection of several hiking paths.
As you reach the top, you’re treated to a breathtaking view of the high-alpine pastures of Mondeval descending gradually toward Passo Giau on the other side of Croda da Lago. So find a nice spot to sit down and spare a moment to enjoy this wild but mesmerizing scenery.
A Push To Forcella di Formin (1 hour)
Forcella Ambrizzola is where we turn around, taking a different path to the beginning of the hike. A word of caution — it gets more difficult from this point onward. If you’re tired or unsure of your abilities, an easier option is to simply go back the same way you got here.
If you’re determined to keep going, turn right and follow road 436 for several minutes. In about 200 meters, you’ll reach a fork. Choose right again to trail 435 in the direction of Forcella Rossa. The numbers are all marked on the signs, so don’t worry, you won’t miss them.
The intersection marks the start of the climb to Forcella di Formin, the highest point of the Croda da Lago hike. The ascent is gradual at first but becomes much steeper toward the end. The final stretch will have you gaining 170 vertical meters over a distance of 700 m. Quite an exercise!
Take short breaks to catch your breath and relish the scenery behind you, then keep pushing. Soon enough, you’ll emerge at the top. Your reward for the effort will be a striking view north towards the fabulous Tofana mountain range.
This is the last stop before the arduous climb down, so don’t rush further just yet. Instead, use the opportunity to enjoy the grand vistas, replenish your energy, and capture some truly epic photos.
Descent Through the Boulder Field (2.5 hours)
The final part of the hike is the descent from Forcella di Formin to the intersection we passed this morning and then toward the trailhead. To me, this is the most demanding segment of the track because of how steep and rocky it is.
After leaving Forcella di Formin, you enter the vast field of huge rocks scattered around. The way down is gradual at first but becomes noticeably steeper as you dive into the narrow valley between Cima d’Ambrizzola on your right and Mount Formin on your left.
Down ahead are 2 kilometers of a strenuous downhill scramble through rugged terrain filled with boulders and mountain rubble. While not overly dangerous, it requires full concentration and certain sure-footedness.
The trail quickly deteriorates into a barely visible path that sometimes disappears completely. There’s only one general direction so you won’t get lost. Still, pay attention to the markers or you might accidentally veer off into rougher ground that is harder to negotiate.
It’s important that you reach this area well before dark. The ascent is slow and meticulous and becomes a lot harder as the light fades. I would strongly advise against hiking here after dusk.
But even if there’s plenty of light, stay focused. It’s a difficult descent with some tricky bits and sharp boulders everywhere. Accidentally injuring yourself here won’t be a proper ending to your hiking adventure.
Once past the difficult part, the path evens out and eventually leads you to the intersection with 434. Proceed left onto 437 and retrace your steps to the parking lot to complete the Croda da Lago hike. Congratulations, you’ve made it!
Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise?
In this guide, I described hiking Croda da Lago hike in the clockwise direction. That’s the most common way to do it but because it’s a circuit, you could also do it in reverse. So the question might arise, which way is the best?
The answer depends purely on your preferences. With the counter-clockwise option, you’re effectively shifting the difficulty into the morning. You’ll be climbing non-stop from the trailhead, through the boulder field, and to the highest point of the hike at Forcella di Formin.
This will require a few hours and a lot of sweat. On the upside, from there, it’s pretty much all downhill for the rest of the day. Another benefit is that you can relax more at Rifugio Palmieri knowing that the hardest challenge is behind you.
From the photography or the views standpoint, I don’t think there’s much of a difference. The only exception is if you want to be at Lago Federa at sunrise by hiking through the dark. In that case, your only option is to do it clockwise.
All in all, if you’re up for a brutal uphill to kick-start your day, I can see many benefits in choosing the counter-clockwise alternative. But for a more laid-back experience, clockwise is probably a better option.
When to Do This Hike
An obvious recommendation here is to start the Croda da Lago hike early in the morning. This will ensure you have enough time to complete it before it gets too dark without feeling rushed. Besides, the trail frequently gets pretty crowded later in the day.
As for the season, the Croda da Lago hike is technically open all year round. However, you probably want to be there when there’s no snow or ice which is typically between June and November.
The exact dates may vary of course. In 2022, for instance, Rifugio Palmieri was open until October 31. That is also when I did the hike myself. As you can tell from the images, it was still in prime condition.
For the best views and amazing photos, mid-autumn is hands-down the best time of the year. That’s when the leaves are bright golden and the entire area around Lago Federa becomes truly magnificent. On a clear morning, as the rising sun hits the trees, it’s pure magic.
And of course, summer is always the safe bet. The days are long and warm, the weather friendly and pleasant, and it’s a beautiful season to explore the Dolomites.
Croda da Lago Packing List
When it comes to packing, Croda da Lago hike isn’t that different from other outdoor ventures. Unless you’re new to hiking, chances are you know the drill. Still, here is a quick refresher on what to put in your bag or take with you:
- Reliable sturdy shoes. I recommend hiking boots but when it’s dry, you can probably complete Croda da Lago even in sneakers. Make sure they fit and feel comfortable.
- Appropriate hiking attire — that means layers instead of cotton or jeans. And pack a light jacket. Even in summer, it sometimes gets properly chilly higher in the mountains.
- Drinking water. It’s a whole-day endeavor and there’s nowhere to refill except Rifugio Palmieri, so bring enough to stay hydrated. I would suggest at least 2 liters per person.
- Food or snacks. You’ll need plenty of energy, so pack a decent calorie boost. You can also buy something to eat in the Palmieri hut to save some weight.
- A detailed map that works offline, be that on your phone or in paper format. I rely on Mapy.cz or Maps.me and haven’t run into any issues with them so far.
- A power bank — so that your phone survives until the evening.
- A headlamp in case you stay longer than expected and have to walk back when it’s dark.
- A camera to photograph these insanely beautiful landscapes.
- Sunglasses and sunscreen — to protect your skin from the harsh Alpine sun.
- A hat or a bandana to cover your head and absorb sweat.
- (Optional) Hiking poles — to reduce the strain on your knees and shift some load to your upper body.
For photographers, Croda da Lago hike is a treasure trove of majestic landscapes and breathtaking compositions. So if you plan on snapping a few photos, here are some quick tips to keep in mind.
The best time for photography is autumn. That’s when the trees turn bright golden, and the area around Lago Federa explodes with beautiful vivid colors. It’s a fleeting occurrence so you’ll need some luck to get the timing exactly right.
Ideally, you want to be at Lago Federa by dawn to capture the moment when the first light hits the autumn forest. For that, you’ll either have to hike for 1.5 hours in the dark or stay the night in Rifugio Palmieri. But hey, no one promised it’ll be easy!
Pack light. You’ll be hiking for hours, and carrying all the camera equipment gets tiresome really fast. I recommend a bare minimum: a camera, a single all-around zoom such as 24-105 mm, and a small drone — something light like DJI Mini 3 Pro.
Only carry a tripod if you’re aiming for sunrise at Lake Federa. In all other cases, it’ll mostly be a nuisance and unnecessary weight for you to lug around. If you do bring it, try to find a lightweight one.
If you have a drone, bring it with you. The landscapes in the Dolomites are magnificent and even more so from the air. Besides, having an eye in the sky opens up a ton of exciting creative opportunities in your photography.
And remember, during the hike, you’ll mostly have to work with harsh unfavorable daylight, so pay attention to your composition. A strong composition can often offset bad lighting and help create a solid image.
The Croda da Lago circle described in this article is a classical, most common variation. But the region around Cortina d’Ampezzo is rich with various hiking trails. There’s a near-endless amount of possible combinations that you can pick to create your own adventure.
One of the coolest alternatives, in my opinion, is replacing the usual circle with a one-way hike starting at Ponte de Ru Curto and finishing at Passo Giau. You go to Lago Federa and Forcella Ambrizzola as usual but then proceed down road 436 instead.
This will lead you to Passo Giau, another very picturesque spot well worth a visit. Along the way, you’ll pass the plateau of Mondeval where Mesolithic hunters lived 75000 years ago, and a small but lovely Laghetto di Baste. Both are gorgeous.
The trouble here is figuring out the logistics of starting and ending in locations that are 6 kilometers apart. But if you can sort that out, I’d actually recommend this hike over the typical circle. Comparable in difficulty, it throws even more Dolomites goodness at you.
Another alternative is hiking to Lago Federa from Cortina d’Ampezzo on route 432. That adds a hefty 4 kilometers and 550 meters of elevation to the distance but is a good option for those who prefer a challenge (or don’t have a car).
Finally, if the entire loop seems too difficult for you, many people go up to Lago Federa or Forcella Ambrizzola and turn around there. This reduces difficulty yet still allows you to witness the most remarkable highlights.
For even more ideas, have a look at this map. It’s a little convoluted but provides a superb overview of all the various hiking options around Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Hiking Croda da Lago With a Dog
If you’re a dog owner you might be wondering if you could bring your furry friend to Croda da Lago hike. The short answer is yes. My dog Rocky accompanied me on the hike and was able to complete the entire loop.
That said, there are two things to watch out for here. The first one is that your pet will have to cover a lot of ground. So definitely consider his age, strength, and physical condition before bringing him along.
The other one is that descent from Forcella di Formin through the boulder field might be challenging. That’s the only part of the hike that I’m not quite confident about. Certain areas there proved too much for Rocky, so I had to occasionally pick him up and carry him.
This works for smaller animals but if your dog is of a mid-size breed, this might get a little tricky. If you’re unsure I would probably suggest avoiding that path and taking the easier route past Lago Federa back.
Obviously, bring enough water and food for your pet and take good care of him during the hike. Don’t let him harm the environment, and just be a responsible dog owner.
Croda da Lago is one of the more popular hikes around Cortina d’Ampezzo and for good reason. While certainly demanding, it is also flexible to accommodate various fitness levels and gives a good taste of what the Dolomites are all about.
If you’re into hiking and find yourself in that part of Italy, I urge you to give it a try. I enjoyed it immensely and I think you would too. It certainly wasn’t easy but looking at the photos I captured that day I feel extremely happy that I did it.
I hope you liked this guide to Croda da Lago hike and got something valuable out of it. If so, you can do me a huge favor by sharing it with your friends and on social media. And if there are any questions that I could answer, let me know in the comments below.
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