Macugnaga at the foot of Monte Rosa
The Alps are one of the great mountain ranges of the world. As someone who loves mountains, the Alps are always high (no pun intended) on my list of areas to explore. I like the glacial features and the dramatic formations they create. The Alps are full of them (although they are rapidly disappearing)
Macugnaga, Italy is a small alpine village at the foot of Monte Rosa in Anzasca Valley. It is in the foothills of the Alps on the Italian side of the Swiss-Italian border, northwest of Piedmont.
I’ve been in the Alps three or four times but this is the first time on the Italian side of the majestic mountains. I never get tired of visiting them.
We hiked and had lunch with short sleeves in June. Macugnaga is perfect. The summer is warm and the winter has good skiing. Italian hiking doesn’t get much better.
There was plenty of snow in the mountains surrounding Macugnagu. In fact, we heard an avalanche in the distance while we were there. It was a little eerie to hear it.
Rivers and Waterfalls in the Italian Alps
If you decide to hike Macugnagu, make your way to the ski lift – but don’t take it – yet. Walk the first part, up the valley to the lodge. The valley is full of steep mountain streams and hanging waterfalls that form from the melting winter snow, and, the now, melting glaciers.
Hanging waterfalls are created when mountain streams flow onto a glacier. After the glacier melts what’s left is a steep drop to the valley floor, which creates the waterfall. If you like dramatic landscapes this is a beautiful place for them.
A roaring river runs through the main ski run and summer hiking area. The water is a translucent green from the glacial flour it picks up as it runs under the glaciers. Glacial flour is the fine dust that is created as a glacier grinds over the rock.
You have to see a glacier-fed river at some point in your life. But be careful! The water is icy cold, deep, swift, and churning over underwater boulders. Upriver, you can see huge sections of granite which have been polished countertop smooth by the river.
Idyllic Flower-Covered Valleys
The valley is dense with pine and other tall, straight, single trunk trees. You can also see beautiful Alpine fields covered in grass and flowers. You will encounter milk cows mowing the clover, endlessly ringing their big brass cowbells. It’s like taking a step back in time.
Up from the valley floor, countless streams and hanging waterfalls cover the valley sides. The winter snow covers these steep, treeless areas, and tundra in the summer. On warmer sun-facing slopes where trees grow, avalanche runs cut open swaths of rock and debris.
Up the mountain and in valleys that get little sun, are snow patches and glaciers. With binoculars, you can see thick ridges of snow which look like they will fall at any moment.
Italian Alps Glacial Beds
Further up the valley, either by taking the second ski lift or a more strenuous hike, you come across former glacial beds.
Glaciers form when there is more snow accumulation than snow melting over the years. The snow compress and becomes ice as it partially melts in the summer and as more snow accumulates on top of it. This makes it very heavy over time.
Gravity moves the glacier slowly down the mountain and this movement of a very heavy object cuts grinds and scours the land underneath. This is what makes the incredible landforms we see in the Alps and other glacial areas.
These glacial beds are not pretty. It looks like a giant bulldozer has cut through the wilderness with no regard to any object in front of it. The area is plantless and full of unsorted rocks and boulders.
I don’t suggest hiking in these areas. The rocks are unsorted and loose and not all the ice has melted. We heard and saw rockfalls produced only by gravity. Any additional force, such as your feet, will only increase these falls.
Thirty-meter (100-feet) ice cliffs lie hidden by the rocks and debris, our guide had to show us how to identify the ice.
Polenta, The Food of the Mountain People
Between the two ski lifts is a small lodge which serves its signature dish of polenta. My personal opinion of polenta is, “polenta is polenta”, it’s what you put on it that gives it flavor.
I had a plate of polenta with beef, which I later found out was from the cows roaming by the lodge. It was excellent. I also had an espresso with milk. This is where I learned to take an espresso like a shot. Mauro, Silvana, and Gaia had a great laugh at my expense as I sat sipping my very small coffee cup.
Macugnaga is close to Stresa, Italy. It is only accessible by car and takes about an hour to get there. Most of the drive is on a motorway, but the last section up the mountain is a typical narrow winding mountain road.
If you don’t like this type of driving it can be nerve-wracking, but the road goes through several small scenic villages where you can take a short break. Renting a smaller car is helpful and just go slow. Macugnaga is well worth the drive.