Il Parco Nazionale Del Gran Paradiso:
It Really is Paradise!

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Italy's oldest national park was originally the hunting grounds of the ruling House of Savoy, who donated the first 5000 acres to the people in 1919. Today the park covers 173,000 acres of perennially snow-capped mountain peaks, tiny glacial lakes, wooded slopes and vast flowering meadows. The lord of this heavenly manor is lo stambecco (the ibex), a chunky white mountain goat with massive horns that is probably as mythical to Italians as the bald eagle is to most Americans. About 3000 ibex live in the park, and you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you stay overnight at one of the well-equipped rifugi (mountain huts) so you can be in the park at sunset and sunrise, when the animals come out to feed and play. There are also large populations of chamois and marmots, smaller numbers of fox and golden eagles, and clouds of colorful butterflies.

Because this was once a royal hunting reserve, there are about 450 miles of marked trails and mule-tracks, which makes it a paradise for advanced and inexperienced hikers alike. Families and casual visitors will probably enjoy the northern part of the park better, because the mountains are higher, the views are more spectacular, and there are plenty of hotels and picnic areas. Start in Cogne, an adorable mountain hamlet where you will find plenty of parking. Choose the big lot between the church and the river -- spots marked with white lines are free-of-charge. From the far end of the lot (behind the camper parking), an enchanting 3.3 km path leads through the woods to Lilliaz. This one is so user-friendly that even families with baby strollers and grandmothers do it happily, and there are benches all along the way if you need a rest.

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Once in Lilliaz, walk into the minuscule town and look for the church. You will see signs for Cascate di Lilliaz: the path to this picturesque alpine waterfall is wheelchair-accessible and marked for the sight-impaired but it is still a wilderness adventure. After ten minutes of walking you can see the falls, stretch out on the big flat rocks for a little sunbathing, or climb up a mountain path to see the lake formed at the top of the falls. Back in town, stop for a few minutes at the geological museum, an outdoor exhibit of the many different kinds of rocks you've seen on your walks.

An exceedingly panoramic spot is Valnontey, a minuscule hamlet near the central village of Cogne. A gondola (funivia in Italian) operates year-round and will get you yearning to walk through some of the breathtaking sites you'll see from above. Back on land, there's a lovely walk across pastures and through the woods to Cogne. There are some steep inclines here, but only if you start the walk at Cogne. Slightly more strenuous (but still for "amateurs") is the relatively easy walk to Cresta Lauson, which offers probably the best chance of spotting ibex. Another good way to see the lovely Valnontey Valley is the all-day walk from Valnontey to rifugio Vittorio Sella, then on to the Lauson lakes and Herbetet (at 12,000 feet) and back to Valnontey.

erious hikers and lovers of solitude should head for the southern valleys, which are quieter and wilder. You'll have great views of Monte Gran Paradiso on the way from Introd to Orvieilles (three hours). The road to Rhemes Notre Dame is extremely dramatic (for its views and its driving challenges!). As you travel, look up and you'll realize why there are so many animals here: the top portions of the mountains are covered with pastures instead of dead rock. This valley has steeper inclines, more waterfalls and fewer villages. And needless to say, if you're here in winter, all of this translates into countless cross-country ski runs.

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The best time of year for hiking in Gran Paradiso is May to October, but snow almost always lingers on the trails through the summer. The flowers are most beautiful in June and July, and the trails are most crowded on summer weekends. Even for simple summer walks you need a warm jacket, good hiking shoes, and something like a backpack to hold water and essentials; for more strenuous hikes, if you don't already know what you need, don't do it alone. The Alpine Hiking Guides offer day trips and will give you a list of essentials. Lastly, snow chains are mandatory from October 15 to April 15. However, you don't have to rent a car to enjoy this national park. Busses leave often from Aosta's Piazza Narbonne, connecting to almost all the villages in the park.

Since 2002, Gran Paradiso National Park has made a concerted effort to offer nature paths for the disabled. Apart from the one mentioned above, there is also a more than 1 km itinerary from Ceresole Reale that includes a modest upward slope and, thanks to a handrail and a special guide, can be completed by the sightless, by those who have difficulty walking, and even by those in wheelchairs. It was the first path for disabled people in the Park. The project was funded by a national consortium of packagers, to see if it would be possible to use recycled and recyclable materials in the interest of environmental compatibility.

Text and Photos by Kristin Jarratt

Here is the information about the revolutionary accessible paths:

Click here for more details. For up-to-the-minute information about the current conditions of these accessible trails, email the park.

No free camping is allowed, but there are plenty of hotels and rooms for rent in the many villages, as well as 12 rifugi (mountain huts). For more information about the huts, and about guided walks, hiking itineraries, rules and regulations, visitor centers and much more, click here to visit the park's web site (in English).

A nice place to stay in Cogne is Hotel Madonnina. It offers the same wonderful views as the more expensive resort hotels, it's set right at the foot of the gondola, and within a few yards of all the hiking trails.

Click here for more lodging suggestions.
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