The Italian Dolomites – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Tofane di Rozes seen from Stage 4 of the Alta Via 1 path on the way to Rifugio Averau

June 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the Italian Dolomites being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  But what are the Dolomites and where are they? Well first and foremost, the Italian Dolomites are widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world.

Formerly known as the “Pale Mountains” (Monti Pallidi in Italian), the Dolomites are a mountain range in north-eastern Italy, forming part of the Southern Limestone Alps. Their name today – the Dolomites – was taken from the French mineralogist, Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu, who visited the area in the 18th Century to study the geology of the mountains. He discovered that the sedimentary carbonate limestone rock was rich in magnesium, giving it slightly different characteristics to limestone; being more resistant to erosion and less soluble in groundwater.

Pale di San Martino Group in the Dolomites
Pale di San Martino Group from the summit of Monte Mulaz. Photo credit: Charlie Andrews

The landscape is dominated by Triassic carbonate rock, from around 250 million years ago when part of the supercontinent Pangaea, which would later split to become the African and European plates, was surrounded by the Tethys Ocean. The birth of the Dolomites can be traced back to the depths of this ancient tropical sea. Calcareous deposits and sedimentary matter settled at the bottom of the ocean, forming horizontal layers. 100 million years later, tectonic movements pushed the African plate north across the Tethys sea, colliding and merging with the European plate. The huge forces of the tectonic plates began lifting and bending the massive pack of sediments, creating vertical and oblique lines in the rock. Then as the sea subsided, 50 million years ago, the majestic light-coloured rocks revealed themselves – reaching over 3000m in altitude. Finally, erosion during the ice ages that deepened and rounded out the valleys, shaped what we know today as the Italian Dolomites.

Entering the Vallunga Valley, above Selva
Entering the Vallunga Valley, above Selva. Photo credit: Charlie Andrews

Today, their intrinsic beauty derives from its pinnacles, spires and towers, sheer rocky cliffs intersected with horizontal ledges, crags and plateaus. A beautiful diversity of colour is provided by the contrasting pale coloured mountains with the forests and meadows below.

The Italian Dolomites are made up of nine groups that spread over five Italian provinces. The variety of rock formations is striking. The Sella and Sciliar massifs take on the form of a table top, with vast high plateaus of grassy meadows – such as the Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm) – separate them. Elsewhere you will find rugged and fractured massifs soar in sharp contrast, such as the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Drei Zinnen) and Catinaccio (Rosengarten) groups.

In 2009 UNESCO, or United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, listed large parts of the Dolomites a World Heritage Site. World Heritage Sites are areas selected by UNESCO as having cultural, scientific, natural or other forms of significance and are legally protected by international treaties.

Tofane di Rozes seen from Stage 4 of the  Alta Via 1 path on the way to Rifugio Averau
Tofane di Rozes seen from Stage 4 of the Alta Via 1 path on the way to Rifugio Averau. Photo credit: Charlie Andrews
Charlie Andrews

3 Replies to “The Italian Dolomites – a UNESCO World Heritage Site”

  1. Beverly Minyard says:

    I didn’t know that the dolomite mountain range used to be called the pale mountains. I love learning new facts like that. Thank you for the article it was super interesting!

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