A Massive System of Rifugio Huts Facilitates Endless MTB Adventure in the Alps

My phone stays in “emergency only” mode on adventure rides, so this shot will have to do. Photo: Wikipedia.org

Call it “glamping” or “luxury adventure” or whatever you want, but not everyone wants to strap life on their back and head off down the trail. Some adventure mountain bike enthusiasts hope to enjoy the ride as much as they do the forest, leaving the tent and cookware at home. A massive smattering of mountain huts across the Alps make unencumbered tours possible, and all that riders need to pack is a few extra wool shirts, some cash, a packable sleeping bag, and sufficient previsions for the trail ahead.

Commonly called a rifugio (the Italian plural is rifugi), the alpine huts can take many different forms, and offer a variety of services and amenities. At the most basic level, they all offer a place to sleep out of the elements. Some have extensive menus, covering food allergy needs and local flavors, followed by hot showers and en suite bathrooms. On the other end of the spectrum they are gaping shells filled with bunk beds and a wood stove. Between the luxury and spartan sides there are some punk-rock huts, where they might have had a list of rules somewhere once, and there’s a good chance someone used it to roll a joint.

Many of the the shelters on the Italian side of the Alps are managed by the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI), and members of the club receive a discount for their stay. Some of the structures were built specifically for housing alpinists, while many others are former military forts. Between the point where the Alps dive in to the Mediterranean sea, to the Julian Alps of Slovenia, there are rifugi open all summer long, and a few of the huts keep the fire going when the snow flies to warm ski alpinists. They line the peaks and ridges on either side of several borders, and it’s not uncommon for visitors to ask something like “are we in France now?” when they arrive.

I recently pedaled a popular alpine route called Alta Via del Sale with a friend, and at the midpoint we slept at Rifugio Don Barbera. We arrived at the rifugio around 6pm, shortly after they started dishing dinner. Situated at 2,079m above sea level, folks will be hungry when they reach the hut, no matter where they come from. We had climbed 2,434 meters over a length of 151 kilometers that day, with a total 10.5 hours on the saddle. Looking at another long and climby day to follow, we were poised to stuff ourselves. The last scoop of the main dish had been handed off to the scouts who were tenting outside, and we were served a massive helping of bean soup followed by potatoes and desert. It was more than I could eat by a long shot, and my trail partner managed to plow through an additional pile of meat and beans.

Everything in the rifugio has to be trucked in via bedrock-bolstered military roads, and a reasonable cost comes with the fact that visitors don’t carry their food and beer in or their rubbish out. One of the eight bunks in a room runs €40 per night, and dinner with beer or wine is a little extra. The helpful staff will make sandwiches or full picnic lunches if you want some wholesome calories to carry you to the next shelter. We added a few delicious sandwiches and a quick breakfast to the bill, and it was well worth the price. Folks who are on longer excursions can cut the cost by camping every other night or so, and stocking up on supplies before leaving the rifugio.

While the list of amenities you’ll find at 2,000 meters is impressive, they will rarely be sport-specific. The hut where we stayed sees visitors who are driving burly 4×4 contraptions and motorcycles on the military roads, hikers who arrive via singletrack, and mountain bikers who have mixed the two throughout the day. You will want to bring your own maintenance and repair supplies, as the nearest bike shop is likely back where you began. What this hut did offer, however, was delicious food, a warm-ish shower, clean bathrooms, a soft and quiet bed, and a dry place to wake up ready for the next day’s challenge. Apart from the shower, those are things you can expect at nearly any rifugio across the Alps.

If you’re interested in checking out the Via del Sale route, there are countless resources and variations online. The most common ride is to start in Limone, Italy, and end in Monesi, or continue on to Ventimiglia like we did. For no good reason, we chose to pedal from our homes in Turin, but that silliness is definitely not warranted. You can take a train to Limone from anywhere, then pedal up to Rifugio Don Barbera, and from there you’ll have a seemingly endless array of directions and options to fill as many days of fresh air as your boss allows. The rocky roads are rideable on a rigid bike, with large tires and high pressure, but a hardtail will allow you to enjoy the descents far more, or to turn onto more of the singletrack routes.

The views from this ride are not the typical beautiful mountain-scapes. Up near the rifugio the trails and roads are lined with fissured stone statues, carved by centuries of erosion, that fill your eyes with an unexplainable sort of beauty. While I try to roll no-tech on these rides, I’ll definitely make space for a quality camera next time. In addition to the topographical splendor, we were treated by visits from a few different species of raptors, a mountain goat, and of course more fat-n-fuzzy marmots than we could count, all hunting and hiding in rainbows of wildflowers.

While most rifugi have plenty of space, it’s best to contact them in advance to book your bed. Seven huts in total dot the Tour del Marguareis, which includes the Via del Sale, and each of them throws down their own local flavor. They will also know where the next nearby huts are, in case you’re scheming a full summer tour across the Alps.

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