Walking with Wolves: 6 Stunning Hikes in the Sibillini National Park

May - June 2016

OK, full disclosure, we didn’t actually go walking with wolves, but we did have a very close encounter with one, albeit from the comfort of the car. We enjoyed some challenging hikes in the Sibillini National Park thanks to our hosts who had kindly left a guidebook. The author, however, seemed to have a strange sense of direction and a questionable grading system.

Lago di Fiastra (Don’t panic)

More of a stroll and picnic than a hike. The drive to the lake was a little more stressful than it needed to be. We were halfway over the mountain pass when I realised that the petrol warning light was on. A heated discussion followed on the perils of driving to an unknown location with a capful of petrol. Parking at the lake head we tried to Google the nearest garage, no such luck. But then peeking out from behind the village notice board we spotted a tiny slightly overpriced petrol station, phew. 

The lake itself is impressive, crystal clear aqua blue water. In the summertime, it's teeming with locals and tourists. Having strolled along one side, we jumped into the car and set off along the other bank. Not long after we turned off the main road, a wolf complete with a large piece of prey in its mouth leapt out in front of us. Unfortunately too quick for photos but we had a ringside seat as it gave us a quick glance and slinked into the bush.

When Julie’s Mum and sister visited, we did bring them out to the lake, but alas the wolf proved to be elusive on that occasion.

Gole dell’Infernaccio (Gorge of Hell)

The guidebook stats were grade 2, 13.5 kilometres, 3 hours 45 minutes. This walk turned out to be our favourite hike. It took us a little while to find the start just beyond the hamlet of Rubiano. No sooner had we started than the heavens opened adding to the dramatic scenery. The towering limestone cliffs soon came into view and then closed in around us. 

A narrow pathway leads through the gorge, and the eagle-eyed will spot the small statue of Madonna peeping out from a tiny shelf in the rocky wall. The trail then takes you to the ravine floor following the River Tenna. An undulating soggy carpet of leaves cushions your footsteps. Sometimes tricking you into believing it’s solid ground when it’s a mud bath in disguise. Given the substantial rain, the river was in full flow providing great photo opportunities.

It was only when we returned to the car that we saw another living soul. We had the whole trail to ourselves. When friends Stuart and Helen came to visit, we did part of this walk again. Only this time there were heaps more people, not quite Piccadilly Circus but certainly busier.

Valle del Fiastrone (Soggy Feet)

Grade 2, 8.4 kilometres, 2 hours 45 minutes. Not sure if starting a hike at a cemetery is a good omen or not. But here we were parked up next to a high rise of the dead. The walk quickly descends through some woods to the valley floor. Stopping occasionally to take photos of the dazzling wildflowers.

The book states ‘at a large beech tree the path splits’. Not a great time to find out neither of us knows a beech tree from an oak tree. But we did eventually find the right path, and that led us to a small stream crossing. During drier weather, it would have been a quick hop across. But today getting across meant off with shoes and socks and paddling over.  And it was damn freezing!

With feet dried we scrambled up the other side heading to Grotta dei Frati a remote 14th-century chapel set inside a cave. We can’t begin to fathom how several hundred years ago monks found this place in the first place. They must have had a better guidebook than us.

Again not a living soul was spotted, no wonder the cemetery looks so full.

Piano Grande (Field of Dreams)

Grade 1, 16.5 kilometres, 4 hours, The drive to Castelluccio is almost as spectacular as the hike itself. Winding in from the northern tip of the National park we drove through breath-taking landscapes and quaint alpine style towns. Pulling over to take photos we were soon joined by a vintage car convoy including my dream car, an Austin Healy. 

Perched on top of a hill, Castelluccio has 360 degrees views of the mountains and the vast valley below. This was to be the first of three visits, and our hike started with a 500 metre downhill section to the valley floor. It seems like every walk starts going downhill and ends struggling back uphill with heavy legs.

At the bottom, you are surrounded by lush green meadows brimming with a vast array of wildflowers. On this occasion, a river of yellow ran through the Piano Grande. On future visits, there would be a rainbow of colours thanks to the blooming lentils and poppies. The horses at the local riding stable thankful we had chosen to walk rather than ride across this oasis of colour.

Val de Panico (inner Mountain Goat)

Grade 2, 13.5 kilometres, 4 hours 30 minutes. Starting at the hamlet of Casali, this was a walk of three parts (the hiking equivalent of a ‘game of two halves’). The first third was steeply uphill all the way. Fantastic we would be able to finish with a gentle saunter downhill, yeah right.

Zig-zagging upwards across meadows of wild thyme and juniper bushes we gained over 1,000 metres in elevation. With the imposing and brooding Monte Bove Nord keeping a watchful on eye on us. With little in the way of markers we sniffed out the trail and somehow managed to stay on course.

The second section, a narrow goat track hugs the hillside emerging at Refugio del Fargno (posh camping hut). This one had the look of a concrete bunker. Understandable given the previous corrugated iron and brick versions had been blown away by Mother Nature’s impersonation of the Big Bad Wolf. Here we had incredible views down both sides of the ridge. With the weather closing in we scoffed down our lunch and continued. The trail runs along the ridgeline for another 5 kilometres before heading down.

The final part started out OK, a winding path that seemed to be in a hurry to reach the bottom. Then it got steeper and steeper. We did this walk without trekking poles, and maybe they would have been a wise investment. It became harder and harder to negotiate with rocks of various sizes underfoot. On several occasions, we both landed on our butts with a thud. Our knees took a pounding and were sore for days afterwards. The descent took away all the joy that the walk had provided up until that point. So much for a grade 2 hike, a mountain goat would have had issues with the final leg.

M & M Trail

We named this one after Maggie and Monty, Colin and Karen’s adorable Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Here we were with total strangers we had only just met, in a remote location waiting to be chopped up and fed to the dogs. At one point, Colin stopped and reached into his backpack pulling out a huge…… bar of chocolate. Got to stop watching those Blair Witch style movies.

The dogs bounded through the tall meadow grasses looking for signs of cinghiale (wild boar) or deer. When the trail turned upwards, Maggie and Monty started to drag their paws, smart dogs because they knew we would turn around sooner or later.

On the second visit, we explored a side ravine, crisscrossing a stream several times before we came to a plunge pool where the creek drops in from above forming a small waterfall. Above the fall is another trail that takes you to a remote hermitage, Grotta di Soffiano. Walking back from here we rounded a corner to find a large cinghiale in the way. Thankfully it turn-tailed and disappeared into the woods.

We considered ourselves very lucky to have this beautiful mountain range on our doorstep.  The hikes were challenging at times but always enjoyable. However, the weather and our desire to explore some of the many gorgeous towns meant limiting the amount we could tackle. One thing that struck us though was the incredible variety of wildflowers. A sea of colour so vivid Botticelli could have painted it. And hiking out of season meant we had the trails to ourselves. There are not many national or regional parks in the world where that happens.

P.S. Many of the small towns and villages we drove through to get to these walks have been impacted by the earthquake that shook central Italy this week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected.

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