Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso

ITALY’S FIRST NATIONAL PARK BEGAN LIFE AS A ROYAL hunting reserve maintained exclusively for Vittore Emanuele II of Savoy and his family in 1856. In 1920, Vittore Emanuele III presented the reserve to the state, and three years later the area was declared a national park. Today, the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso extends across 270 square miles (70,000 ha), spanning the regions of Piedmont and the Valle d’Aosta, and protecting the majestic mountain scenery on and around the 13,323-foot (4,061 m) Gran Paradiso massif, the only wholly Italian peak over 13,123 feet (4,000 m).
Landscapes in the park’s Alpine region are a patchwork of high mountain wilderness, alpine meadows, and dulcet valley bottoms. Permanent snow and glaciers shroud in its inner fastness, a bleak redoubt of rock and ice from which crashing streams plunge into flower-strewn pastures and forests of larch, fir, and pine. Waterfalls, deep-cut valleys, and pastoral corners also abound, all within easy reach, thanks to the park’s good roads and well-maintained trails.
The region can be reached from Piedmont in the south, but for many visitors the most convenient and interesting approach is from the Valle d’Aosta and the north. The best tactic is to take one of the trio of roads that follow the major valleys on the park’s northern flanks—the Val di Rhemes, Val Savarenche, and Val di Cogne. Any of these roads offers prodigious views, wonderful landscapes, and the opportunity to pick up trails for hikes of varying lengths and difficulty.
In an ideal world, you would explore all three roads, but if time is short the best route is the SS507 along the Val di Cogne, an approach that brings you to the park’s major resort at Cogne, a busy little place some 30 minutes’ drive from Aosta. En route you can stop off to admire the castle at Aymavilles and follow the short signposted road diversion to Pondel, a tiny hamlet famed for its superb third-century B.C. Roman bridge and aqueduct.
Cogne is a good place to stay and pick up trail details (trails are indicated by the Italian Alpine Club’s official trail numbers and markings), although for the best scenery you need to follow two smaller roads that push a couple of miles deeper into the park. One finishes at Lillaz, a relatively peaceful little village where many of the houses still preserve their traditional slate roofs (you can also walk here along the river from Cogne). The nicest short hike from the village is along the valley to the east, where the Cascata di Balma is one of the area’s many dramatic waterfalls.
Alternatively, follow the minor road south to Valnontey, a busier village, and the trailhead for one of the park’s most deservedly popular hikes, the walk to the Vittorio Sella mountain refuge  and back via the Lago di Lauson  and Sella Herbetet refuge. Allow a full day for the walk and try to avoid weekends, when the route is busy. Valnontey is also known for the Giardino Alpino Paradisia (Closed Oct.-mid-June), founded in 1955, where you can admire some of the park’s many wild alpine plants and flowers growing in controlled conditions.
Scenery aside, one of the Gran Paradiso’s major attractions is its wildlife and the ease with which much of it can be seen. Chief among its animals, and chosen as the park’s symbol, is the stambecco (ibex), a member of the deer family. Virtually extinct elsewhere in Europe, the animal thrives in the region—the park has some 5,000— where it has been protected since 1821. If anything, there are too many, the lack of predators allowing herds to proliferate beyond naturally sustainable limits. Plans to introduce wolves and even lynx have so far proved unsuccessful. Numbers of antelopelike chamois are also considerable, as are those of marmots, a small furry mammal whose piercing warning whistle is a common sound on the park’s trails. The Valnontey walk has almost guaranteed sightings of ibex and chamois.