Off the Beaten Trail and onto Nature’s

Italy’s national parks appeal to hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and wildlife lovers alike

Many cities and towns in Italy that tourists visit are near the sea or up in the hills. But much of Italian land is mountainous and sparsely populated, with miles and miles of hiking paths, horse trails or back roads, perfect for getaways to commune with nature and peacefully observe wildlife.

While many conjure up visions of chalets or posh ski resorts in the Alps when mountains are mentioned in Italy, the nation’s ”other” mountain range — the Apennines, which form the backbone of the peninsula — are popular with Italians seeking fresh air and active vacations in national parks.

One cherished destination is the National Park of the Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains. Spread across three central regions — Abruzzo, Marche, and Lazio — the park boasts the highest peak in the Apennines — Corno Grande, or Big Horn — which towers nearly 10,000 feet high. The park also includes Europe’s southernmost glacier, known as Calderone.

The park likens itself to a ”monument to biodiversity,” with more than 2,300 recorded kinds of flora. Wildlife abounds, too, in the protected terrain of the park, including animals that were re-introduced to the area, notably the goat-like, majestic chamois, which is the park’s symbol, and which now numbers some 500. The park is home to the Apennine wolf. Wildcats, badgers, polecats, and porcupines also make their abode there.

The topography is varied, too: forests, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, prairies, and plateaus are all within the park’s embrace. Suggested trails stretch for miles between scattered hamlets, abandoned castles and watermills, and, from earlier centuries, temples and necropolises. Visitors can hike or ride mountain bikes or horses to navigate among the natural beauty. A mountain-bike route rings the base of Gran Sasso. Some 200 miles of bridle trails are available, with stalls and water troughs to shade horses on hot days and quench their thirst.

Visitors might find themselves going down the same paths as shepherds and herders covering centuries-old routes. The Italian Alpine Club — CAI — which despite its name is present throughout all of Italy, not just the Alps, to encourage and assist hiking and other outdoor activity — has more than a dozen mapped trails.

The park is mainly frequented in spring, summer, and fall, but some hardy excursionists equipped with skies or crampons do venture in during winter. Towns on the park’s outskirts that can serve as ”base camps” with rented rooms, rustic hotels or inns, are proud to serve dishes prepared with locally grown ingredients. Truffles, chestnuts, cheese from sheep, and recipes featuring boar and blueberry sauce are area favorites. Reflecting life lived on farms, ranches, or near the woods, the fare leans toward the hardy — bean soups, olives stuffed with a mix of veal, port, and turkey, and pasta often topped by meat sauces, including ones chock full of locally-made sausage.

For a protected swath of nature many Italians haven’t yet visited, Pollino National Park, straddling two regions, Basilicata and Calabria, in the Apennines southern end, fits the bill. Created and given protected status by the Italian Parliament only in the 1990s, the park spans across the “instep” section of the boot-shaped peninsula, from the Ionian to the Tyrrhenian Seas.

Here outdoor life is even more active than what is offered in the Gran Sasso parkland. Pollino National Park is a favorite for those who want to river-raft, rock-climb, or trek. Thick forests and steep canyon mark the park, and horseback riding is popular. Because the area is remote, rugged, and not that frequented, the park recommends for safety going with local guides, who visitors can meet up within towns around the park. The guides are available for day trips or overnight stays.

The towns near Pollino National Park, many of them with only a couple hundred inhabitants include some of the Italian south’s more unusual ones. In a handful of hamlets, the locals speak Albanian, reflecting their heritage from Albanians, who, fleeing several centuries ago from Ottoman armies, took refuge in the mountain areas. Among these is San Paolo Albanese, where, on the feast day of St. Rocco, on Aug. 16, townspeople don costumes in a blaze of color. Earlier generations made similar garments from cloth woven from the fibers of the broom plant, whose yellow blossoms are an abundantly cheerful sight in the Italian south.