Visiting Prato Piazza: Your Guide to Hiking in the Heart of the Dolomites

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Kate + Vin

Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese) Mountains
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Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese) is a magnificent high-mountain plateau caught between the jagged jaws of the Italian Dolomites. Discover how to visit one of the most beautiful, rugged, and historic meadowlands in all of South Tyrol.

Perched amid the thunderous peaks of South Tyrol’s Val Pusteria, Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese in German) sits silently in the shadow of its showy neighbor, Lago di Braies. But don’t be fooled by its modesty; just like the shimmering “Pearl of the Dolomites”, Prato Piazza is a treasure in its own right.

Prato Piazza possesses its own brand of charm. Nature doesn’t just exist here; it performs. In the spring and summer, the plateau’s vast alpine meadow dons a riotous green that would make any Irish field look cursed with weeds. Come autumn, it transforms into a tableau of gilded gold as if touched by Midas himself. And in winter? It’s draped in a white so brilliant, even the fiercest Krampus hide in their caves.

But the theatrics do not end at the edge of the plateau. Prato Piazza is surrounded by some of the Dolomites’ most applause-worthy mountains. Hiking here allows you to witness a side of the “Mountains of Mordor” that is a teaspoon less menacing than the maniacal view from the Three Peaks of Lavaredo. In addition, you can consume the sweeping tale of Monte Cristallo and the drama of the mountain that bleeds — Croda Rossa d’Ampezzo (also known as Hohe Gaisl).  

In this post, we share all you need to know to spend a morning or afternoon visiting Prato Piazza. Trust us, you will leave the plateau aching for another encore.

⇒ Begin Planning Your Trip: Grab our South Tyrol + Dolomites Travel Guide

About Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese)

prato piazza cows walking
Prato Piazza is one of the most prized grazing lands in the Dolomites.

The name “Prato Piazza” translates to “square meadow”. It is believed to originate from the Latin “Pratum Plazae”, meaning “broad meadow”. Historically, the plateau was a vital alpine pasture, with shepherds from neighboring valleys bringing their livestock to graze during the summer months. Remnants of these old shepherds’ huts still pepper the meadow.

Today, farmers continue to bring their cows to the plateau in the summer where they can graze til their heart’s content. A calming choir of cowbells can often be heard from one end of the plateau to the other.

In World War I, the strategic location of Prato Piazza meant it was thrust into the maw of battle. The area saw fierce fighting between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. While hiking here you can still encounter wartime relics — trenches, tunnels, and crumbling barracks silently narrating the tales of courage and horror that unfolded on the plateau.

Where is Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese)

map prato piazza

Prato Piazza unfurls beneath Monte Cristallo, the geographic heart of the Dolomites. The plateau is located in the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park in Val di Braies (Pragser Tal). It is the valley’s pastoral focal point within a triptych of South Tyrol’s most scenic alpine lakes. To the west, just a 30-minute journey by car, Lago di Braies beams, sparkling like an emerald encased within a craggy ring of mountainous peaks.

Eastward, a mere 20-minute drive from Prato Piazza, lies Lago di Dobbiaco. Nestled in a quiet valley, its calm waters and serene atmosphere provide the perfect counterbalance to the often crowded shores of Lago di Braies. A stone’s throw to the south is Lago di Landro. A mirror-still prelude to the Dolomites’ grandest spectacle — Tre Cime di Lavaredo.

Held up like a generous serving platter of the Dolomites’ finest glories, the plateau itself is wedged between the grandeur of Dürrenstein (Mount Picco di Vallandro) to the northeast and the striking rock formations of Croda Rossa d’Ampezzo to the southwest. It sits at an astonishing height of more than 6,500 feet (2,000+ meters).

How to Hike Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese)

hiking prato piazza

Like Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm), Europe’s largest alpine plateau, Prato Piazza offers a number of hiking trails to enjoy. Some more challenging than others. The hike we highlight is easy; a true wanderer’s journey, one that extends a welcoming hand to all, regardless of age or experience on the trail.

It leads you right through the heart of the pastureland where you’ll encounter an orchestration of elements that make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a painting that’s still wet. Each step can be its own destination, inviting you to relish every moment and every jolt of crisp mountain air. As you hike across Prato Piazza, you’ll be turning the pages of a story as ancient as the peaks crowning the horizon.

The total distance of this hike is 3 miles (4.8 km). It can be completed in a little over an hour, but we recommend spending 2-3 hours exploring Prato Piazza. Similar to many attractions in South Tyrol, the plateau offers more than natural beauty.

You can also tame your thirst and hunger at one of two huts located along the trail. Furthermore, a multitude of trails fork off the main path, opening up opportunities to ascend to eagle’s nest viewpoints like Strudelkopf (Monte Specie). From such heights, you can spy a fresh perspective on the iconic faces of Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Another offshoot carries you to the foot of the Croda Rossa where you can savor a hearty meal at the Stolla Alm.

The Blood of a Dragon

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Prato Piazza offers a dramatic view of the tallest mountain in Val di Braies.

The hike begins at the Plätzwiese parking lot, which can be reached by car, bus, foot and bike. Note: Traffic to Prato Piazza is regulated during peak hiking season. We cover these restrictions in detail in the next section.

From the parking lot, you’re soon greeted by a scene that seems to leap out of a dream: a vast alpine meadow ringed by mountains stretches towards the south. Embark on the hike by following trail no. 37 which meanders towards Rifugio Vallandro (Dürrensteinhütte).

Just beyond the parking lot, on your right, you will encounter a World War I memorial. It brings to light the realities of war right at the start of your journey across Prato Piazza. The plaque reads: “Here a gun operator met his heroic death with a direct hit.”

croda rossa prato piazza
The “wounds” of Croda Rossa especially add to the scenic tapestry in autumn.

Further along the trail, also on your right, you’ll enjoy a wide-open view of the hulking Croda Rossa d’Ampezzo, the tallest of the 84 peaks in Val di Braies. Prato Piazza perfectly frames its towering 10,321-foot-high (3,146 m) northeastern face. You’ll also notice the mountain’s many blood-red “wounds” hinting at its unique geological composition. However, local lore spins a more fantastic tale, whispering that the eternal bloodstains of Croda Rossa are the reminder of a dragon’s demise.

On your left, you will see the rugged silhouette of Durrestein cleaving the heavens. And ahead, in the far distance, the captivating profile of Monte Cristallo paired with the stoic tower of Piz Popena and the wolfish spires of Cadini di Misurina. Together, they conspire to lure you onward — drawing you into wild alpine splendor.

rifugio prato piazza

Not long into the hike, you will reach the first hut on Prato Piazza: Rifugio Prato Piazza (Berggasthof Plätzwiese). If you are ready for a rest or a bite to eat, make a pit stop here otherwise carry on towards Rifugio Vallandro.

The hut offers a wonderful outdoor seating area as well as plenty of room to dine inside if need be. We both enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta, but you can also order classic South Tyrolean cuisine.

The Shadows of War

prato piazza plateau

Soon, you will begin to make out a stark stone structure standing trailside. This medieval-looking oddity, known as Forte Prato Piazza (Sperrwerk Plätzwiese), was built by the Imperial and Royal Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1888 and 1895 to help defend Val di Landro below.

During World War I, the fort came under constant bombardment from Italian artillery nestled directly ahead, on Monte Cristallo where the front line tore through its belly. Ultimately, it was stripped of its own artillery, which was strategically repositioned in the open, creating a perfect vantage point for retaliatory fire.

forte prato piazza
The Forte Prato Piazza is a military relic from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Still, Forte Prato Piazza maintained its utility as an observation post, thanks to its lofty position affording a panoramic perspective of Italian encampments. A modest garrison of around twenty soldiers was stationed inside.

Post-war, the fort was released from Italian military custody and transitioned into private hands. It languished in a state of neglect for many years, its entrance, doors, and windows all barricaded with wooden beams to mark its faded glory. Sadly, it appears not much has changed. Hopefully, one day it will be open for tours.

The Balcony of the Dolomites

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Face-to-face with giants.

Directly across from the fort is Rifugio Vallandro. Another rustic establishment offering the kind of authentic Tyrolean fare that fuels adventure. Like the Forte Prato Piazza, the hut has a war-touched past despite being built 50 years after World War I. During its construction, a bomb from the war was found and had to be detonated.

Rifugio Vallandro stands seemingly at the edge of Prato Piazza gifting a terrace-esque view of the Cristallo and Cadini massifs. From its perch, you can peer directly into the heart of Piz Popena flanked by Monte Cristallo itself. Below these giants is the rapidly retreating Ghiacciaio del Cristallo glacier, one of the few left in the Dolomites.

rifugio vallandro durrensteinhutte

Above Rifugio Vallandro is a pine-covered slope that was heavily fortified during World War I. You can venture into this wooded realm and discover a variety of war ruins embedded in the mountain before trekking back the same trail to the Plätzwiese parking lot.

If you feel like extending your hike, take trail no. 34 located north of Rifugio Vallandro. After an hour and a half trek upslope, you will reach the summit of Strudelkopf (Monte Specie). From here, you can take in all the glory of Drei Zinnen.

How to Reach the Plateau

prato piazza platzwiese toll road

Most hikes on Prato Piazza begin either from the Ponticello (Parkplatz Brückele) parking lot located beneath the plateau and the Plätzwiese parking lot located on the plateau’s northern edge. How you choose to reach Prato Piazza should depend on when you visit.

If you are driving a car while in Italy during peak hiking season, you need to be aware of traffic regulations in force to protect Val di Braies. Between early July and early September, the Plätzwiese parking lot cannot be reached by car between 9:30 AM and 4:00 PM. If you arrive after 9:30 AM, you can park at the Ponticello lot and hike up 3.7 miles (6 km) to Prato Piazza or take a shuttle bus. There is a fee to park at either lot during the peak season, as well as to use the toll road.

These time and traffic restrictions are also in place for anyone visiting Prato Piazza in winter. It’s also worth noting that the maximum capacity at the Plätzwiese parking lot is 100 vehicles. Once it is filled up the road is closed to additional traffic.

For the latest regulations, as well as reserving parking spaces online, be sure to visit the local website for Prato Piazza. It also provides information on public transportation options for reaching the plateau if you are not relying on a car while in the Dolomites.


SAVE PRATO PIAZZA TO YOUR TRAVEL BOARD

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