The Park's habitats
A geological insight
The Sexten / Sesto Dolomites are part of the Southern Alps. They are located at the northeastern tip of the Dolomites, where they are bounded to the east by the Carnic Alps, and to the north are separated from the Eastern Alps by the large fault line known as the “Periadriatic Seam” (or “Periadratic Line”). Primarily composed of Dolomite rock, the Sexten / Sesto Dolomites were formed in the warm shallow water of the erstwhile Tertiary Mediterranean. The Sexten / Sesto Dolomites also exhibit a substantial amount of volcanic rock such as sandstone and mudstone.
The sequence of strata in the Sexten / Sesto Dolomites is clearly visible in Sextental / Val di Sesto valley, where Waidbruck / Ponte Gardena and Gröden / Val Gardena conglomerates initially formed on a crystalline base comprising quartz-rich schist that for many years was used to make millstones. These strata were followed by sulphur-containing Bellerophon strata and, up to a height of 2,000 meters, colorful clay-limestone Werfen strata, which are barely visible in the landscape as they are covered with dense forests. Farmers use the fertile soil of the Werfen strata as meadows and pastureland (Rotwandwiesen / Prati di Croda Rossa and Gsellwiesen / Prati di Monte Casella).
Above arise the massive and extremely cleft slopes of the Schlern / Sciliar Dolomites, which lend the Haunold / Rocca dei Baranci, Dreischuster Tre Scarperi, Birkenkofel / Rocca dei Baranci, Sextner Rotwand / Croda Rossa di Sesto, Elfer / Cima Undici and Hochbrunnerschneid / Monte Popera mountains their bizarrely shaped appearance. But in the southern portion of the Sexten Dolomites the Schlern / Sciliar Dolomites comprise merely a base for the monumental peaks in this mountain chain, namely Zwölfer / Cima Dodici (3,094 meters), Paternkofel / Monte Paterno (2,744 meters) and the unique Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime di Lavaredo (2,999 meters), all of which were formed from the Main Dolomite, which exhibits uniform horizontal stratification.
The Raibl strata, with their colorful clay marl, cover vast expanses of the Schlern Dolomite and protect it against erosion. In hollows these strata also form the water-damming substratum for green Alpine meadows and shimmering lakes (Bödenseen / Laghi dei Piani, Mitteralplsee / Lago della Malga di Mezzo).
Landscape of the Sextner Dolomiten / Dolomiti di Sesto
The current landscape of the Sexten / Sesto Dolomites, with their distinctive craggy peaks, high plateaus, and deep valleys were mainly formed by water and glacier ice over the past two to three million years. Rocks, smoothed and rounded in outline or grounded mountain ridges bear testimony to glacier activity which is clearly visible on the plateaus around Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime di Lavaredo peaks and in Bacherntal valley / Alta Val Fiscalina. Gently rolling hills and valleys, waterlogging areas, and fertile soil usually indicate the presence of moraines.
Mountain peaks, which for we humans are synonymous with eternity, in fact represent only a brief moment in the dynamic development process of the Alps and Dolomites. This is attested to by rock debris that incessantly tumbles off peaks, slopes and cliffs, and accumulates in massive mounds at the base of these mountains. Some parts of Innerfel / Campi di Dentro, Fischlein / Fiscalina and Rienz / Rienza valleys exhibit such debris and some streams flow beneath it.
Nature park Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime has only one large lake, known as Dürrensee / Lago di Landro, which is located in Höhlensteintal / Val di andro valley. The park also has numerous smaller mountain lakes. Most of the underground springs in the Sexten / Sesto Dolomites arise in clay-rich Raibl, Werfen and Bellerophon strata. Noteworthy in this regard are the Drau / Drava springs at the foot of Haunold / Rocca dei Baranci mountain, and the sulfur and iron springs of Wildbad Innichen / Bagni di S. Candido and Bad Moos / Moso, which have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Mineral water is also bottled from a portion of the Wildbad Innichen / Bagni di S. Candido springs.
The Rienz / Rienza river arises in the Langalm Alpine pasture at the Drei Zinnen / Laghi delle Tre Cime lakes, which are embedded in Schlern Dolomite.
Debris cirque and rock habitats
Around two thirds of nature park Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime is composed of rock and debris cirque, where so called pioneer plants have adapted to these inhospitable conditions. The main problem faced by these debris cirque dwellers is the tendency of the debris cirque in which the plants are rooted to endlessly shift from beneath them. Plants such as snowcap and the striking Alpine toadflax grow back time and time again, crawling over the stony rubble as they do so. However, French sorrel and round-leaved pennycress are debris cirque migrants whose above-ground tendrils fight their way through the sliding rubble to reach the light. “Debris obstacles” such as various species of grass (pale cordyalis, moor grass) and willows play a particularly important role in that they initially form tranquil debris islands from which the rocky cirque can be gradually taken over by plants. Mountain avens and cinquefoil are instrumental in humus formation on debris cirques.
Some of the loveliest Dolomites flowers find a foothold in rock crevices, cracks and small recesses. These plants include dwarf alpenrose, auricula, Achillea oxyloba, aquilegia, and androsace. Many of these plants are so called endemites, which are found solely in this area; they survived the Ice Age on steep southern rock faces.
Wallcreepers, which are the calling card of nature park Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime, are a typical rock-face inhabitant. This half-fluttering, half-climbing bird makes its way up the rock face, seeking spiders and other insects in rock crevices with its long bill. Other songbirds of the region include the snow finch and Alpine accentor. The undisputed master of high mountain regions, the eagle, is also found here. For its nests it favours sheltered rock face recesses, where one or two young are hatched annually.
Ancient high-mountain Alpine meadows
Above the timber line lies the domain of Alpine meadows, which came into existence without human intervention and where, for climatic reasons, trees cannot grow.
In the soil of Alpine meadows grow up to 2,800 meter wind and cold resistant high Alpine pasture communities (cushion sedge and moor grass) on the rocks and slopes of Elynetum myosuroides pastures, where meadow pipits are frequently observed. The grassy heaths provide excellent forage for Chamoix.
Forest and dwarf-shrub communities
At lower altitudes, and in particular between Haunold / Monte dei Baranci and Kreuzberg / Passo Monte Croce pass, larch and spruce forests are salient and magnificent features of the nature park Drei Zinnen / Tre Cime landscape, whereas in the dry soil of the Dolomite rock faces of Höhlensteintal / Val di Landro valley Scots pines grow. The spruce forests are interspersed with the occasional leafy forest tree such as birches and mountain ashes. Along the streams – for example at the entrances to Innerfeld / Val Campo di Dentro and Fischlein / Val Fiscalina valley, alders and willows grow. Individual examples of the extremely tenacious cembra pine are found in Bachern / Alta Val Fiscalina, Innerfeld / Val Campo di Dentro, and Höhlenstein / Val di Landro valleys.
The characteristic wildlife species in these mountain forests and to some extent in knee-timber zones (transitional areas from forests to Alpine pastures, characterized by communities of dwarf shrubs) are the Eurasian pygmy owl, Tengmalm’s owl, black woodpecker, spotted woodpecker, and less commonly the three-toed woodpecker. Deer are observed in open terrain, in undergrowth-rich mountain forests, and in summer in knee-timber zones as well. The oftentimes dense dwarf-shrub undergrowth with abundant berries provides excellent forage for capercaillies and black grouse.
Among the salient features of the nature park's scenery are the light-flooded larch meadows at the entrance to Innerfeld / Val Campo di Dentro and Fischlein / Fiscalina valleys. These planted meadows are used for a number of purposes: timber, through selective felling of larch trees; grass harvesting; and in late summer, grazing. The scattered larches create a growth-friendly microclimate because they slow down the wind and have an equalizing effect during hot and dry periods.
The rolling terrain and old rootstocks contain valuable ecological niches, while traditional hay sheds round out the magnificent scenery. Inasmuch as working larch fields is labor intensive and not very profitable, in recent decades intensive farming has increasingly included larch meadows as well, resulting in ecological impoverishment of what were once biodiverse areas.
The human factor
The peaks and slopes of the Sexten / Sesto Dolomites have excited the imaginations of mountain climbers since the 19th century. The British were the first to discover the Alpine no-mans land constituted by the Dolomites. The inhabitants of the Dolomites regarded such activities as pure foolishness: as shepherds they only climbed as far as the grass grew, as reckless hunters in search of game as far as the prey went. Through their myths, legends and customs, they regarded the Dolomites as the dwelling place of demons, gods, monsters, and dwarfs.
The British were soon followed by Viennese and affluent German mountain climbers, who recruited experienced mountain hunters as guides and pack bearers. The refuges, which were extremely modest structures at first, shortened the way to the mountains and attracted increasing numbers of mountain hikers.
At the turn of the 20th century construction in Toblach / Dobbiaco of a cluster of hotels known as "Hotelkolonie Neu-Toblach" fueled the growth of tourism. Wildbad Innichen / Bagni di S. Candido bath is today a ruin, “Bad Maistatt” bath above Niederdorf / Villabassa is closed, and the once renowned Grand Hotel Toblach / Dobiaco has been converted into a cultural center containing a major concert hall. Palatial residences and townhouses testify to the centuries-long importance of Pustertal / Pusteria valley as a trade route to Venice along Strada d'Alemagna.
The peaceful conquest of the mountain region came to an abrupt end in May 1915 when the war broke out in the high mountains between Italy and the Austrian rulers. During this conflict, which went on for two and a half years, 10,000 soldiers were forced to spend two winters in this icy environment. The Zinnen plateau is still littered with rusting shards of shells, and the Sextenstein / Sasso di Sesto is pockmarked with holes from shell impacts. At the Sexten / Sesto cemetery, Rudolf Stolz’s frescoes “Totentanz” (Dance of death) bears testimony to the madness of this macabre conflict.
Today the municipalities of Toblach / Dobbiaco, Sexten / Sesto and Innichen / S. Candido are among the most popular tourist destinations in South Tyrol.