Most visitors to the Valle d’Aosta come here for the outdoor activities rather than to sightsee; the region has some of Italy’s best hiking trails. In summer climbers, cyclists, and ramblers head for the untamed Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, while the meadows and alpine forests around Cogne boast some of the region’s best cross-country skiing. There’s an ice rink in Aosta at Corso Lancieri di Aosta 47 ((tel) 0165-185-7281), and if you’re after something a bit different, consider dog sledding (www.dogsledman.com/index.php) at Pila, Breuil-Cervinia, and La Thuile.
However, it is the downhill skiing and boarding destinations of Courmayeur, Breuil-Cervinia, and the Monte Rose ski area around the resort towns of Champoluc and Gressoney that draw in most visitors. There are trails for all levels, from gentle nursery slopes to black runs and mogul fields. Expert skiers are best off at high-altitude La Thuile for excellent off-trail powder and heli-skiing. The ski season kicks off in early December and, weather permitting, runs through until April; altogether there are 800km (500 miles) of ski runs available under the Valle d’Aosta ski pass; multi-day passes in chunks of time cost from 130€ for 3 days up to 472€ for 2 weeks. More details are available at www.skivallee.it.
The little town of Cogne is the gateway to one of Europe’s finest parcels of unspoiled wilderness, Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso. Once the hunting grounds of King Vittorio Emanuele II, this vast and lovely national park—Italy’s oldest—encompasses the jagged peaks of Gran Paradiso (4,061 m/13,323-ft. high), five valleys, and a total of 3,626 sq. km (1,414 sq. miles) of forests and pastureland where many Alpine beasts roam wild, including the ibex (curly-horned goat) and the elusive chamois (small antelope), both of which have hovered near extinction in Europe in recent years. Humans can roam these wilds via a vast network of well-marked trails. As well as being a hikers’ paradise, Cogne is also well respected for its 80km (50 miles) of challenging cross-country (Nordic) skiing trails; check www.funiviegranparadiso.it for more. The park’s main visitor center is at Via Alpetta, Ronco Canavese (www.pngp.it/en; (tel) 0124-953-166; admission is free).
Up and over Mont Blanc
Riding high over Mont Blanc—Europe’s highest mountain at 4,811m (15,784 ft.)—has to be one of the most awe-inspiring experiences in the Italian Alps; an enchanted journey passing over glaciers and steep ravines, mountain lakes, and snowy peaks on the Italian side of the Vallée Blanche.
For years, this epic trek has involved three changes of cable car, starting from the little ski village of La Palud (3km/1.75 miles above Courmayeur), and ascending through Le Pavillon and Rifugio Torino to the viewing terrace at Punta Helbronner (3,462 m/11,358 ft.), in the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. From here it was possible to take the cable car down to Aiguille de Midi on the French side of Mont Blanc, and then the Panoramic Mont-Blanc Gondola on into the party-loving resort of Chamonix. At the time of writing, the Punta Helbronner leg is closed and the cable car stops at Rifugio Torino.
A new and vastly improved cable-car service run by Funivie del Monte Biano will launch in early 2015. The system will see sleek rotating gondolas departing from a swish new station at Pontal d’Entrèves (near the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel) on a high-speed connection up to Punta Helbronner, still stopping off at Le Pavillon, for a bird’s-eye view of Monte Biano and surrounding peaks of Gran Paradiso and Monte Cervinia (Matterhorn). Costs and opening hours not established at time of writing but visit www.montebianco.com for an up-to-date report.
Rifugio Torino will continue as a mountain refuge and will connect to Point Helbronner by a 154m (505-ft.) horizontal tunnel and a vertical lift of 70m (230 ft.) blasted out of the mountain. If you venture all the way to Chamonix, the best way back to Courmayeur is to take the SAVDA/SAT bus service through Mont Blanc tunnel. Six buses run each way and the journey takes 45 minutes (www.sat-montblanc.com or www.savda.it; tickets 14€, 7€ under 7).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.