The grand finale and a sure-fire highlight on Alpenwild’s Tour of the Giants takes guests into the heart of Gran Paradiso National Park (Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso). Surprisingly, most Americans—even avid alpine hikers—are not familiar with Gran Paradiso—neither the park nor the mountain. Here’s a quick primer on Gran Paradiso National Park, and what you’ll find as you explore the park and its surroundings.
Gran Paradiso National Park is Italy’s first national park, founded in 1922. Its boundaries encompass the scenic valleys and ridges surrounding the Gran Paradiso massif, and the Gran Paradiso peak (4,061m/13,3230). The Gran Paradiso peak is part of the Graian Alps, which also includes the Mont Blanc and six other 4,000 meter peaks. But while the Mont Blanc straddles the border between France and Italy, the Gran Paradiso is the only Alpine peak over 4,000 meters whose summit lies entirely within Italian territory.
History of Gran Paradiso National Park
In the early 19th century Alpine ibex were hunted to near extinction both for sport, but also because it was widely believed that ibex body parts had medicinal and therapeutic value. As the ibex population throughout the Alps declined, Vittorio Emmanuele II, the future King of Italy, established the mountainous area in 1856 as the Royal Hunting Reserve of the Gran Paradiso. The preserve protected about 60 remaining ibex from poachers.
In 1920, Vittorio Emmanuele II’s grandson, King Vittorio Emmanuele III, donated the reserve’s original 8 square miles to create the park, which was established in 1922 as Italy’s first national park. As a result of the protection the ibex received starting in 1856, the herd within the Reserve had grown from 60 to about 3,000 by the time the park was established. The establishment of the park and the continued protection offered by the park resulted in the ibex population increasing to about 4,000. During WWII and the years of Fascist rule, the ibex population decreased, and by 1945 stood at less than 500. However increased protection in the post-war years led to a growing ibex colony which now stands at about 4,000.
Animal and Plant Species in Gran Paradiso National Park
While Gran Paradiso National Park is best known for its ibex population, other species in the park include alpine chamois, weasel, ermine, badger, lynx, and, most recently, wolves which arrived from Central Italy. The ibex herds within Gran Paradiso National Park spend most of the summer grazing in high meadows and rocky regions, and in the winter descend into lower elevations where food is more abundant. As they migrate from season to season, they cross from Gran Paradiso National Park into France’s neighboring Vanoise National Park which cooperates fully with Gran Paradiso to provide year-round protection to the ibex.
The park has a healthy mix of deciduous and conifer woods, with maple, oak, European beech, chestnut, larch, spruce, and pine. While hiking on trails within the park you’re very likely to see alpenrose, pansies, gentians, and martagon lilies. Wildflower enthusiasts will want to visit the Paradisia Alpine Botanical Garden (Giardino botanico alpino Paradisia) inside the park in Valnontey, Cogne, where about 1,500 plant species can be seen.
Hiking in Gran Paradiso National Park
When Vittorio Emmanuele II established the Reserve in 1856, his guards laid out a network of paths and trails for the ibex which are still in use today. There are currently about 450 miles of marked trails and hiking paths within the park, making it a superb hiking destination.
The two starting points for many of the best hikes in Gran Paradiso National Park are in Valnontey near Cogne on the northern side of the park, and from some of the villages in the upper Valsavarenche such as Le Pont on the park’s eastern side. There are nine rifugios in the park, so it’s easy to plan a hike which includes a lunch stop or overnight stay within the park.
Since its establishment in 1922 as Italy’s first national park, Gran Paradiso National Park has grown to become the best known most beloved national park in Italy as well as one of the finest in the world as it works to safeguard biodiversity in one Italy’s widest regions.