Gran Paradiso National Park, Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Italy

The Gran Paradiso National Park is the oldest national park in Italy, located between the Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont regions, around to the Gran Paradiso massif. The Gran Paradiso National Park is a protected area established by the State in order to preserve ecosystems of national and international relevance of the valleys around the Gran Paradiso massif, for present and future generations. The aim of the Body is therefore to manage and preserve the protected area, maintain the biodiversity of this territory and its landscape, scientific research, environmental education, development and promotion of sustainable tourism.

The Park rangers have a deep knowledge of the territory, the animals and the park environment and offer a unique service, monitoring the territory from dawn till dust. Since its institution year in 1922, the Gran Paradiso National Park, first in our country, is one of the best known parks in Italy and the world and contributes to safeguard biodiversity of one of the italian widest areas.

The oldest italian national Park has a surface of over 70.000 hectars and is placed half in the Aosta Valley and half in Piedmont. It welcomes, around the Gran Paradiso peak, the only one over 4.000 meters entirely in the italian territory, five concentric valleys in which you’ll find the typical alpine environments, rocks, larch forests and spruces. The protected area creation is strongly linked to the safeguard of the symbol animal of the Park, the alpine ibex, of whom, after the II World War, just 416 specimen, in the whole world, survived and they were all in the Park territory.

Thanks to an exceptional natural heritage, to the good ecosistems state of conservation, to the integration of the touristic and agricultural activities and to its role as cross-border alpine protected area, together with the Parc National de la Vanoise and to the Mont Avic national park, in 2007 it has obtained the European Diploma of Protected Areas, prestigious aknowledgement of the Council of Europe. In 2014 it has been inscluded, as unique italian park, in the IUCN Green List, the green list of 23 parks in the whole world, chosen by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, for their conservation and management role of protected areas.

In order to guarantee the socio-economic development of the Park population, the Park Authority promotes experimenting ways to manage the territory, suitable to realize a sustainable integration between man and the natural environment, able to preserve the natural heritage. The Park Authority promotes, also, new compatible productive activities and protects the traditional cultural values that are present in the pastoral agro-silvo activities, the handicrafts and the traditional local architecture. The park offers several proposals for your stay: sports, excursions, recreational and cultural activities, but it is also dedicated to wellbeing and relaxation.

The Gran Paradiso is the only mountain massif culminating at over 4000 meters entirely in Italian territory. The park is affected by five main valleys: Val di Rhêmes, Val di Cogne, Valsavarenche, Valle dell’Orco and Val Soana; in particular, the Val di Cogne to the north, the Val di Rhêmes to the west, the Orco Valley to the south and the Val Soana to the east approximately delimit its borders. The strip ranging from three to 4000 m is covered with 59 white glaciers, more extensive on the Valle d’Aosta side, of which at least 29 are constantly monitored by park rangers. These are perennial but relatively recent glaciers having formed during the “little glaciation” of the seventeenth century.

From the highest peak (4061 m) starts the ridge that divides Cogne from Valsavarenche which, descending towards Aosta, rises to the two peaks of Herbétet (3778 m) and Grivola (3969 m). On the Piedmontese side the Ciarforon (3642 m), the Tresenta (3609 m), the Becca di Monciair (3544 m) stand out towards the sky. These mountains are easily identifiable, by an expert eye, even from the Turin plain. Ciarforon is one of the most singular peaks of the Alps: on the Aostano side it is covered by an enormous ice cap; from Piedmont it appears as a bare mountain with a trapezoidal shape.

The Torre del Gran San Pietro (3692 m) and the Becchi della Tribolazione (about 3360) are located in the high Piantonetto valley; the privileged observation point is the Pontese refuge at Pian delle Muande di Teleccio. From the Punta di Galisia (3346 m), a mountain on whose summit the borders of Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta and France meet, a ridge made of jagged and pointed peaks emerges in a south-easterly direction that culminate in the imposing rocky bastion delle tre Levanne (about 3600 m): these are the jagged and sparkling peaks that inspired the ode ” Piedmont ” to the poet Giosuè Carducciwho in 1890 was able to come to these parts while presiding over the high school exams in Cuorgnè.

La Granta Parey (3387 m) is the symbolic mountain of the Val di Rhêmes: it marks the westernmost point of the park. The peaks of the eastern sector of the park are lower; among them the Punta Lavina (3274 m) and the Rosa dei Banchi (3164 m) stand out. The latter is very popular with hikers for the aerial panorama it offers towards the Soana Valley and the Champorcher Valley. The peaks of the national park are obviously part of the Graian Alps.

The geomorphology of the area was modeled by the expansion of the glaciers, which covered the whole area during the Quaternary glaciations, and typical aspects of the periglacial environment are still visible today in the areas surrounding the glaciers. In the Ceresole Reale valley there are giant pots. The limit of perennial snows is placed at about 3000 meters above sea level. In the Soana Valley, in Piata di Lazin, there are the characteristic “stone circles” (patterned groud) modeled by the frost.

Valleys and municipalities
In the 13 Municipalities of the park live 8.300 people, 6 municipalities in Piedmont (Ceresole Reale, Locana, Noasca, Ribordone, Ronco Canavese and Valprato Soana) and 7 in Valle d’Aosta (Aymavilles, Cogne, Introd, Rhêmes-Saint-Georges, Rhêmes-Notre-Dame, Villeneuve and Valsavarenche). Only 300 people reside within the boundaries. The territory of the Park, so those parts in which these municipalities are included, is divided by degree of protection (reserve, general reserves oriented, protection areas and areas of economic and social promotion) foreseen by the Italian Law on the protected areas.

The Soana Valley
The landscape in this valley, narrow because of fluvial origin, with lush vegetation due to high humidity during the whole year and with small towns, seems to be really unique compared to the rest of the territory. Here you can see the tipical deciduous forests, basically consisting of chestnut tree that gradually rising gives way to the beech. Along the paths of the valley it’s easy to run into the alpin chamois or other animals that live in the forests.

To the left of the valley, at the foot of a big overhanging rock, you will see the “Santuario San Besso”, an old place of worship. Every year, on the 10th of August, people of Soana Valley and of Cogne, on the Aosta Valley side, go up 2000 metres to the sanctuary for a big festival. It is an unmissable occasion, even for tourists. There are many nature trails in the area.

A wonderful yet not heavily visited valley, once it was the favourite route for the villagers to go to Cogne valley. Going back up the ravine a beautiful larch wood opens onto green clearings where you will find ancient hamlets, which have now been abandoned. The borough of Boschiettiera is an example of this, where you will find an old oven still working.

The Orco Valley
The landscape is the typical one of glacial valleys where the modelling action of glaciers is clearly visible over the millennia. The valley offers all visitors the opportunity of walking, hiking and climbing routes in any season of the year. 3 hours walk from Noasca awaits the Royal hunting House of Grand Piano, restored by the Park. In Ceresole Reale the visitor centre “Homo et Ibex” has been newly opened, dedicated to the millennial relationship between mankind and the ibex (capra ibex), Park symbol. In the evocative Prascondù Sanctuary (Ribordone), is located the Visitors Centre focused on the Religious Culture in the Park valleys.

An imposing valley dominated by the overhanging walls of “Becco di Valsoera” and “Becchi della Tribolazione”, it is characterized at its head by the artificial water reserve of Teleccio. It is a destination for mountain climbers rather than hikers, but either way it’s worth visiting to get in touch with the high altitude environment.

Maybe one of the lesser known and less popular areas of the park, Gran Piano and its surrounding areas are the ideal destinations for those who wish to observe herds of grazing chamois and ibex. The green meadows are rich in water and in some places they are covered with the white blooms of cotton grass. A wonderful crossing allows you to get to Gran Piano starting from just under the Colle del Nivolet, with a continuous view down into the Orco valley.

From Ceresole Reale a beautiful mule-track winds up through forests of larches and firs to Colle Sià, which connects the top of the Orco valley with the solitary Vallone del Roc ravine. The route, which offers great views of the beautiful Levanne glaciers, also gives you the opportunity to observe the animals of the park.

This is one of the most interesting plateaus of the Alps, spreading out for more than six kilometres at a height of 2500 m. The area is very rich in water: apart from numerous ponds, embedded between the rocks, the green expanse of pastures is crossed by the “Dora di Nivolet” river which in its meandering forms marshes and peat bogs, is the ideal environment for the common frog and for many species of plants. During summer the Park rules the cars flow along the street that from the Lago Serrù leads to the Nivolet hill, this in order to protect the special habitat and offer its wholeness to hickers and alert visitors.

The Cogne Valley
The best known valley of the Park offers a unique scenery for the glaciers of the Gran Paradiso. The large bottom of the valley and many secondary valleys are passable at all seasons, on foot or with snowshoes. Well known the ski slopes, where every year the Gran Paradiso March of 43 Km takes place. In the small village of Valnontey grows the Paradisia Alpin Botanical Garden, inviting you to know the alpine flowers, medicinal plants and lichens (from mid-June to mid-September). Really characteristic is the Cogne historical centre, where handicrafts activities, such as the famous “tombolo” (the Cogne lace) are still practised.

The impressive north side of Grivola, one of the most beautiful mountains of the region, trails down with its glacier to the green expanse of pastures of the grazing area of Gran Nomenon. The contrast of colours, the pastures, the forests and the chance of seeing grazing animals, make this area one of the pearls of the park.

The excursion leading from Valnontey to Vittorio Sella mountain lodge, is the most popular in the park. In the evening or early in the morning around the nearby Lago del Lauson, it is not difficult to find ibex. Don’t miss the beautiful crossing to the farmhouses of Herbetet, with magnificent views of the glaciers at the top of the valley. The path, which is quite open and equipped with some steel handrails, should be taken with caution.

The Rhêmes Valley
It’s a beautiful flat bottomed Valley, tipically glacial, that totally reflects in the typical Alpine landscape. In the small town of Chanavey (municipality of Rhêmes-Notre-Dame) is located the visitors centre dedicated to the world of birds and, in particular, to the bearded vulture, the vulture disappeared on our territory at the beginning of the century and reintroduced in some Alpine parks through a European project. In the same area starts also a nature trail, whose theme is related to the morphology of the Valley, fauna, flora and human activities. The first stretch of the route, from Chanavey in Bruil, is paved and permits an easy path also for wheelchair users.

The upper valley opens up to a scenario of moraines and glaciers that run down along the Granta Parei and the other peaks in the district: the white of the seracs of the lavassey, Fond and Tsantelèina glaciers contrasts with the green of the vast spruce and larch forests underneath. You don’t have to be a mountain climber to climb the paths that go along the glaciers. On the right of the mid Val di Rhêmes, there are two ravines, covered in splendid coniferous forests at the bottom and green meadows higher up. The area is particularly interesting for its fauna, from the marmots, always alert for any possible danger, and the ibex and chamois grazing on the high pastures to the many types of birds that inhabit the forests of the valley floor.

The Valsavarenche
Is the narrowest and wild of the Valle d’Aosta valleys, it’s climbing paths and great crossing around the Gran Paradiso Massif are very well known. Numerous excursions are available, such as those to the Chabod, Vittorio Emanuele II and Savoia alpin huts in the Nivolet Hill. Still in memory of the King Vittorio Emanuele, the Real Hunting House in Orvieille has been restored by the Park, it’s worth it a visit also to walk through the convenient and charming mule-track that leads to it.

The Real mule-track that King Vittorio Emanuele II travelled by carriage climbs up through the spruce and larch forest, to the famous Orvieille hunting lodge. The plateau where the lodge stands, and the beautiful lake Djouan, higher up, fills up the splendid natural panorama of the glaciers and peaks of the Gran Paradiso range. These are the two bases for expeditions to the top of Gran Paradiso, a relatively easy mountain to climb, but one which requires a lot of training and a certain amount of experience. In any case, it is worth going at least as far as the huts which, although crowded in summer, are situated right at the base of the beautiful glaciers: the north wall of the Ciarforon is particularly remarkable, and a gentle descent takes you to the Vittorio Emanuele lodge.

The territory of the park falls to the south in the catchment area of the Orco and to the north in that of the Dora Baltea.

The largest and most evocative lakes of the park are located in the area surrounding the Colle del Nivolet. From the two Nivolet lakes, in front of the Savoia refuge in the homonymous plateau, the Savara stream rises which, after having crossed the valley to which it gives its name (Valsavarenche), flows into the Dora Baltea near Aosta. After passing the grassy step above the refuge, we enter the Rosset plains where we see the most spectacular natural lakes of the entire protected area: Lake Leità with its particular elongated shape and Lake Rosset with its characteristic islet. The latter constitute the source of theOrco torrent that flows towards Piedmont and flows into the Po near Chivasso. Not far from the Rosset plains there are the Lacs des trois becs (three large and two small) and continuing a little longer the Lago Nero (or Lago Leynir). The “region of the great lakes” is the heart of the national park: from the shores of these bodies of water the glance sweeps over all the main peaks of the Gran Paradiso and Levanne.

In Val di Rhêmes we find the pleasant Lake Pellaud: it is located within a beautiful larch forest at a relatively low altitude (1811 m).

In Val di Cogne there are two interesting lakes: Lake Lauson (Valnontey) and Lake Loie (2356 m, Bardoney valley).

On the indented side of the Orco Valley, along the path of the royal mule track, just below the Colle della Terra, between the moraines we find Lake Lillet. Given the altitude (2765 m) this lake, except for a short summer period, always remains frozen. In its surroundings you can meet, in the favorable season, herds of ibex, puppies and little goats of a few months. Lake Lillet is also reached by a steep path that climbs from the Mua di Ceresole hamlet.

One of the lesser known corners of the park is the Dres Lake (2073m). It is located on the reverse side of the Orco Valley, almost at the extreme southern border of the PNGP. It is one of the few points on the Piedmontese side where you can see the summit and the glacier of the Gran Paradiso peeking over the high Canavese peaks.

Lake Lasin (2104 m) is located in the Vallone di Forzo, in Val Soana; in the center of a wild basin it is characteristic for the large island that occupies the north-eastern part of the body of water.

It is interesting to remember that the city of Turin depends on the Canavese towns of Ceresole Reale and Locana for its hydroelectric supply. In Valle Orco there are six man-made lakes managed by Iride SpA: three are located along the road leading to Colle Nivolet (Lake Ceresole, Serrù Lake, Lake Agnel), three in the lateral valleys of the sunny slope (Piantonetto, Valsoera, Eugio).

Given the steepness that characterizes the valleys of the Gran Paradiso, it goes without saying that the streams that run through them originate along their impetuous flow, numerous waterfalls that soften the rugged landscape of the park. The most spectacular are those of Lillaz, a hamlet of Cogne. Also on the Piedmontese side there are some picturesque waterfalls that are easily observed by tourists: the one above the town of Noasca or the one formed by the Nel torrent at the Chiapili village below. Near the Chiapili di Sopra huts, the highest village of Ceresole Reale, two other thunderous waterfalls make a fine show of themselves.

Gran Paradiso National Park protects an area characterized mainly by an alpine environment. The mountains that make up the range, in the past have been cut and modelled by giant glaciers and by streams that created the valleys that we see today. In the forests of the valley floor the most common trees are larches, mixed with spruces, Swiss stone pines and more rarely silver firs. Higher up the slopes the trees gradually thin out and make way for vast alpine pastures, rich with flowers in late spring. Rising even more up ultil 4061 m of the Gran Paradiso only rocks and glaciers characterize the landscape.

The aquatic environments
These environments include still water, such as lakes and ponds, and running water such as rivers, streams, streamlets and ditches. Here we can find highly specialized plants, able to live in environments without oxygen (actually, plants are unable to make use of the oxygen that makes up the water molecules). They can grow completely submerged in water (mainly algae), floating on the surface of the water (common duckweed), anchored to the bottom by long stems that allow the leaves and flowers to emerge from the water (water buttercup, common water lily).

The wet environments
These are present in the park in reduced dimensions, in some cases even just single points; their common feature is that they are characterized by plants that need wet, or at least very damp, ground. These include the range of vegetation surrounding lakes and ponds (reeds) or along mountain streams (Eriophorum scheuchzeri); other wet environments are swamps and peat bogs, as well as springs, wet rock faces and wet grasslands, where the plants adapt to the variable level of moisture and form a thick carpet of vegetation (Filipendula ulmaria – Olmaria).

Peat bogs and swamps are particularly “fragile” from an ecological point of view. They are environments whose survival depends on the constant presence of water: the draining of the land or the blocking of a spring could cause them to dry up, and this in turn brings about the disappearance of all the species that live there. In the past, too many of these environments have been drained to make new space for growing crops or for pastures, but fortunately in recent years many such areas have been protected and monitored. Here, is mainly home to grasses, reeds and carex and plants which are not aesthetically appreciated because they have small dark green-brown flowers.

The rocky environments
There are many such environments spread throughout the park, usually above the timberline and the mountain pastures, and they are characterized by the constant presence of rock and detritus on the surface, resulting in a reduction of the ground layer: this makes life conditions very difficult, and alpine plants, here more than anywhere else, demonstrate their great ability to adapt, assuming characteristics (e.g. dwarfism, hairiness, bright coloured flowers, highly developed roots) which help them to survive in places where other species wouldn’t.

There are many types of detritus, which differ in the chemical nature of the rocks that they come from, in their texture (the size of their elements), in their stability or movement (sliding), and in altitude and exposure. In the park, detritus of shaly origin, characterized by fine, relatively damp material, is quite common. It is suitable for vegetation, although it can be quite unstable. Detritus or scree of silicolous origin, common mostly around the Gran Paradiso massif, constitute an environment of coarse material, where water is scarce, and in which only species well adapted to these conditions can grow (silicolous flora), just as with limestone detritus, which is decisively rarer in the park (calcicole flora).

Moraines, created by erosion, transportation and accumulation by glaciers, could be defined as cold, high-altitude detritus. The presence of the glacier guarantees a good level of moisture, at least at a certain depth, in contrast to the detritus which is arid both on the surface and underground. Moraines, too, are characterized by a substratum which is poor in organic substances, with coarse granules but less subject to landslides, (unlike detritus), and above all with a finer texture. However, the vegetation that colonizes the detritus and the moraines is more or less the same, influenced more by the mineral content of the substrate than by the rocky environment itself.

The rock faces or rocky slopes are also environmental typologies with extreme conditions for vegetation, which is influenced by the chemical nature of the rock, the exposure and inclination, and the presence of moisture; they can be seen quite frequently within the park’s territory at various altitudes, not just on the high peaks and snow covered mountains. Here, as with detritus and moraines, there are plants with particular morphological characteristics such as leading to pulvinus (cushion) from which only the flowering stalk extends, or long roots which can grow through the thin fissures in the rock in the search for water.

The grasslands
The grasslands are formations of herbaceous vegetation typical of steep rocky slopes; sunny, dry, with thin permeable soil, where mostly gramineae and a few dicotyledons grow; they are rather frequent in the park, mainly on the Val d’Aosta side, they are found at relatively low altitude, and are not used by humans except in rare cases for generally ovine pastures.

Pasturing fields are generally herbaceous formations whose floral composition is heavily conditioned by agricultural activity. In fact, here there is production of forage through mowing, followed by direct cattle pasturing in the same growing season; there is also frequent irrigation and organic fertilizing. These meadows, common in the park’s territory near inhabited areas of the mountains, are characterized by a dense continuous herbaceous cover with a remarkable variety of species, not only gramineae but also dicotyledons.

The highland or mountain pastures are very common in the park. In fact they occupy every area above the timberline in which the terrain is covered with herbaceous vegetation which is more or less continuous when not interrupted by rocks. The floral composition is rather variable and conditioned by the nature of the substrate and by the altitude. In general, the plants in these environments are well adapted to the brief growing period, to the harshness of the climate and to the lean ground, since low temperatures slow down the plants’ biological activity and reduce the fertility of the soil. Tough leaves, reduced size and slow growth, allow these species to survive the harsh weather conditions of the mountains. The flowers of the alpine pastures are generally very large and brightly coloured to attract rare pollen-carrying insects.

The snowy valleys are environments typical of the sub-alpine area, and are common in the park’s territory. They are areas of ground which remain snow-covered for most of the year, leaving the ground bare for only a short period (1 – 3 months at most). The plants that grow here must be able to run through their flowering-cycle in a very short time. The flora of the snowy valleys is influenced by the type of substrate (limestone or silicon), but is generally composed of dwarf willows and dicotyledons: these plants form a thin carpet a few centimetres high. Strangely enough, some species that are sensitive to low temperatures, such as dwarf willows, find refuge in the snowy valleys; in fact, the ground is protected by the snow for most of the year and is uncovered only in the hottest months.

Shrub environments, forest borders and barren lands
The forest borders are a herbaceous fringe outside of the tree or shrub covered area typical of the forest. They are made up of plants that are more isolated compared to those in the forest undergrowth, but have a cooler and more sheltered microclimate than those on the plains and open pastures. These environments, except where the ground is too dry, are constantly in evolution towards the forest, or towards the plains in the event of human intervention; in other cases, this type of vegetation easily spreads on the abandoned plains of the plateau.

The most widely spread shrubberies in the territory of the park can, for simplicity’s sake, be put into three general groups:

Waterside willows, usually taller and found at low altitude (rivers and streams) or at high altitudes (streams and mountain streamlets). They are marked by the dominant presence of different species of willow bushes, depending on the ecological conditions of the area.

Shrubberies in dry hot zones. Generally represent the intermediate state in the return of the forest to places once cultivated by humans.

Older groves are shrubs in which the green alder (Alnus viridis), is dominant. This tree is can grow up to 3 metres, usually leaning over. The green alder colonizes the sides of gullies, the banks of mountain streams, the lowest areas and the moraines: it is a pioneering plant, in that it grows on ground that is poor in nutritional substances but rich in moisture and it is able to enrich the soil with nitrogen which is easily absorbed by plants. Because of this, the vegetation that grows among the alders is very rich, and is made up of large-leafed, tall plants.

The forests
A little less then 20% of the park’s surface is covered by forests, and they are very important, not only because they provide shelter to a large number of animal species but also because, from an ecological point of view, they represent a situation of balance that vegetation has a natural tendency towards. Furthermore, in many cases they make up the only natural defence system against the dangers of natural hydro-geological events (landslides, avalanches, flooding). There are different types of forests that can be found in the park, and are usually divided into two main groups: deciduous and coniferous forests.

Deciduous forests
The beech forests (Fagus sylvatica), typical of the Piedmont side of the park and completely absent on the dryer Valle d’Aosta side. The beech forms thick forests; its leaves, which take a long time to decompose, form a thick layer which impedes many other plants and trees from developing, just as the thick foliage lets very little light through during the summer months. The undergrowth of the beech forest is therefore richer in species in spring when the leaves are not yet fully developed (Anemone nemorosa, Luzula nivea). Gully forests of maples (Acer pseudoplatanus) and gully forests of lime trees (Tiliaplatyphyllos). They’re present on the territory in the northern slope and at lower altitudes, where moisture conditions are better.

The chestnut groves (Castanea sativa) in most cases, have been effected by humans, who for a long time “cultivated” them, both for their wood and their fruit, grafting them in a way which regulated their growth. The chestnut tree prefers areas with a relatively mild winter climate, and rarely grows above 1000 m. Inside the park the major chestnut forests are all on the Piedmont side. The pioneer or invading woodlands include several heterogeneous tree formations relatively recently developed, mainly on sunny slopes, once destined to agriculture and farming. The species that best characterize these formations are the Aspen, birch, Hazel.

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Coniferous forests
Scots pine groves (Pinus sylvestris). This tree easily tolerates the dryness of the climate and the shortage of nourishing elements in the soil but is unable to compete with other trees, and so forms open forests on poor, rocky soil with southern exposure. This type of pine is more common on the Valle d’Aosta side of the park. Spruce forests are dominated by the Norway spruce (Picea abies), often mixed with the larch. The undergrowth is made up of both herbaceous and heath species. These forests are perhaps most common inside the park at the middle range of the sub-alpine level up to an altitude of 1800-2000 m.

Larch and Swiss stone pine forests are “enclosed” forests, which reach the highest altitudes of the western Alps, up to the highest sub-alpine level (2200-2300 m). The Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) is the only pine in Italy with needles in groups of five; it is resistant to very low temperatures and can, like the larch, live to an impressive age, sometimes becoming twisted. The undergrowth is mainly made up of heather, rhododendrons and whortleberry. Larch groves are forests in which the larch (Larix decidua), is dominant. It is the only European conifer that sheds its leaves in autumn. It only forms pure forests in the early stages – otherwise it easily mixes with the spruce and the Swiss stone pine. The undergrowth, if the larch is dominant, contains very few different species; only gramineae are able to grow on the thick layer of pine needles, which decompose very slowly.

In the lower part of the park, as an elevation level, there are larch forests, grasslands, broad-leaved woods composed of aspen, hazel, wild cherry, sycamore maple, oak, chestnut, ash, birch, rowan. The beech woods, in a range between 800 and 1200 m, they are found only on the Piedmontese side between Noasca, Campiglia and Locana. Between 1500 and 2000 m there are coniferous forests. The Swiss stone pine is widespread in Val di Rhemês while silver fir is found only in Val di Cogne near Vieyes, Sylvenoire and Chevril. In all the valleys we find the evergreen spruce and larch. The latter is the only conifer in Europe that loses its needles in the winter. The larch woods are very bright and allow the development of a thick undergrowth made up of rhododendrons, blueberries, raspberries, geraniums of the woods, wild strawberries.

In general, spruce, larchand pine forests cover about 6% of the park’s territory. impossible to list the immense variety of flowers that enliven the different areas of the park with their colors from March to August. We will limit ourselves to a few examples. The martagon lily typical of the wood, and the St. John’s lily that blooms in the meadows, bloom in early summer. The very poisonous aconite is found along watercourses. Between the highest belt of the woods and 2200 m there are expanses of rhododendrons with their characteristic cyclamen-colored bellflowers.

More than 2500 m between the rocks find their habitat the saxifrage, the Alpine androsace, the artemisia, the chickweed and buttercup ice Even the edelweiss and mugwort are at these heights but they are very rare. The peat bogs and the wetlands are colonized by the erioforo whose white wads herald the end of summer.

The fauna has its emblem in the The alpine ibex, symbol of the Park and by now spread all over the Park. Among the mammals we need to remember that it’s possible to sight chamois, marmot, mountain hare, foxes, badgers, ermines, weasels, martens, stone martens. It’s easy to encounter also vultures such as the golden eagle, the bearded vulture (recently returned to nest in the protected area), the buzzard, the kestel, the sparrowhawk, the goshawk, the eagle owk, the tawny owl and birds such as ptarmigan, black grouse, rock partridge, green woodpecker, greatspotted woodpecker, hazel grouse, dipper, robin, warbler, thrushe, alpine biking, wallcreeper and much more. There are also a lot of reptile varieties, insects and amphibians, such as the vipers, the Parnassius butterfly, newts and salamanders.

The animal symbol of the park is the ibex present in about 2700 units (census of September 2011). The adult male can weigh from 90 to 120 kg while the horns can even reach 100 cm. The smaller female has smoother horns just 30 cm long. The herds are composed of only males or females and pups. Older males live in isolation. The mating period coincides with the months of November and December; in this period the male ibexes who have reached full sexual maturity fight each other, breaking the silence of the valleys with the unmistakable noise of the horns audible also from the valley floor. The female remains fertile for a few days. The pregnancy lasts six months. In late spring, the ibex retreats to some isolated ledge where it will give birth (May, June) a young, sometimes two.

The suede, on the other hand, is suspicious, elegant in its leaps, fast and snappy. Of smaller dimensions (maximum 45-50 kg), there are more than 8000 specimens. Its horns, not as imposing as those of the ibex, are thin and slightly hooked. This ungulate is no longer in danger of extinction as the absolute lack of natural predators has favored its numerical growth and excessive colonization of the territory (during the winter they descend into the valley damaging the undergrowth, cross the asphalted roads, reach looking for food a few meters from the houses) so much so that selective hunting actions are sometimes necessary to reduce the number.

The park, in the past, was not a balanced and complete ecosystem. Natural predators were completely absent: the bear and the wolf extinct for centuries, the others were persecuted at the time of the reserve. The task of the Royal Hunters Guards was to protect the game not only from poachers but also from animals considered harmful and the king rewarded the killing of a lynx, a bearded vulture, a fox or an eagle with lavish tips. This led to the extinction of the European lynx and the bearded vulture in around 1912-13.

Today, thanks to surveillance and conservation activities, there are 27 pairs of golden eagles (2013 census), reaching one of the highest densities of pairs of golden eagles in the Alps while the fox remains very present. About thirty years ago the techniques for the reintroduction of the lynx were tested. In addition, the bearded vulture has also been reintroduced, which now has about 7 individuals. Since 2011, the bearded vulture has begun to nest again in the Park, albeit without success in the first year. In 2012 the nesting was repeated for two couples and was successful in both cases, with the breeding of a young for each nest. The wolf, on the rise in Italy, going up the Apennines, has returned to be seen in the Park in recent years and now has 6-7 specimens, it is a family herd of 5-6 specimens between Valsavarenche, Val di Rhêmes and Valgrisenche and a lone wolf in Val di Cogne. In 2017 it was ascertained the formation of a herd in Valsavarenche, with six puppies.

Another very common mammal in the park is the marmot (there are around 6000 units). It lives in underground burrows with several tunnels as exit routes. It prefers grasslands and flat areas, in particular in the Val di Rhêmes and in the Valsavarenche. It is a rodent and in the first colds it falls into a deep lethargy that lasts almost six months. Its cry is unmistakable: a whistle that the “sentinel” marmot emits, standing up vertically, when it spots a danger or an animal foreign to its environment followed by the sudden flight of the other members of the herd.

Numerous species of birds are also part of the Gran Paradiso fauna: buzzards, woodpeckers, tits, ptarmigans, choughs, sparrow hawks, goshawks, tawny owls, owls.

Two species of trout swim in the lakes and streams: one native, the brown trout, the other allochthonous, the brook trout, the latter introduced in the sixties for tourism purposes with the approval of some scientists of the time, and in the process of eradication from high altitude lakes thanks to the “Life + Bioaquae Project”.

In 4 small alpine lakes: the Nivolet Superiore, Trebecchi Inferiore, Trebecchi Superiore and Lillet lakes, the presence of a small crustacean, the Daphnia middendondorffiana, has been found. They are all lakes located at an altitude higher than 2500 m asl and without fish fauna and this daphnia is a species that normally has as habitat the fresh waters of the Arctic ecosystems.

Among the reptiles we remember the common viper (Vipera aspis, typical of dry areas, and among the amphibians the salamanders Salamandra salamandra). In coniferous woods it sometimes happens to find piles of conifer needles up to half a meter high: they are the nests of the Formica rufa.

Human activities

The history of the Gran Paradiso National Park is closely linked to the preservation of its symbolic animal: the ibex (Capra ibex). This ungulate, once widespread at high altitudes, beyond the treeline, throughout the Alps, has been the object of indiscriminate hunting for centuries. The reasons why the ibex was such a coveted prey by hunters were the most disparate: the succulence of its flesh, some parts of its body were considered medicinal, the grandeur of its horns sought as a trophy and even the aphrodisiac power attributed to a his little bone (the cross of the heart), often used as a talisman. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was believed that this animal was now extinct throughoutEurope, until the Valle d’Aosta forestry inspector Joseph Delapierre discovered that in the rugged and steep valleys that descend from the Gran Paradiso massif a colony of about one hundred survived.

On September 21, 1821, the king of Sardinia Carlo Felice issued the royal licenses with which he ordered: ” The hunting of ibex remains prohibited in any part of the kingdoms from now on.” This decree, which saved the ibex from extinction, was not inspired by values of environmental protectionism, not contemplated in the mentality of the time, but by mere hunting speculations. The rarity of these specimens made hunting a luxury that the sovereign granted only to himself.

In 1850, the young king Vittorio Emanuele II, intrigued by the stories of his brother Fernando, who had been hunting during a visit to the mines of Cogne, wanted to travel in person the valleys of the Aosta Valley. He left the Champorcher valley, crossed the Fenêtre de Champorcher on horseback and reached Cogne; along this route, he killed six chamois and one ibex. The king was struck by the abundance of fauna and decided to set up a royal hunting reserve in those valleys.

It took a few years for the officials of the House of Savoy to be able to stipulate hundreds of contracts with which the valley dwellers and the municipalities gave the sovereign the exclusive use of the hunting rights relating to chamois and birds hunting, since ibex hunting was forbidden to the villagers for thirty years, and in some cases even fishing and grazing rights. The mountaineers were no longer able to bring sheep, cattle and goats to the high-altitude pastures, which were reserved for game.

The Royal Hunting Reserve of Gran Paradiso was officially born in 1856, the territory of which was larger than the current national park; in fact it also included some Valle d’Aosta municipalities (Champorcher, Champdepraz, Fénis, Valgrisenche and Brissogne) which were subsequently not included within the boundaries of the protected area. The villagers, after the first discontent, willingly gave up their rights to the sovereign, understanding that the presence of the sovereigns in those valleys would bring well-being for the local population. King Vittorio promised that he would ” trot the money on the paths of the Gran Paradiso “.

A vigilance body was set up consisting of about fifty employees called Royal Hunters Guards, churches, embankments and municipal houses were restored, sheds for park rangers and larger hunting houses were built using local labor. However, the most important work that changed the face of the Valle d’Aosta and Canavese valleys was the dense network of mule trackscobblestones built to connect the villages with hunting lodges, covering a distance of over 300 km.

These roads were designed to allow the king and his entourage to travel comfortably on horseback within the reserve. Most of them are still practicable today. They overcome steep slopes with countless, very wide hairpin bends, always maintaining a slight and constant slope. Most of them stretch over two thousand meters and in some cases exceed three thousand (Colle del Lauson 3296 m and Colle della Porta 3002 m). The most inaccessible points were overcome by digging the path into the rock. The roadway is paved with stones, supported by dry stone walls built with considerable skill and has a variable width from one meter to one and a half meters.

The best preserved stretch is in the Orco Valley; from Colle del Nivolet, after a first stretch halfway up the coast, the royal mule track crosses the hills of Terra and Porta, touches the Gran Piano hunting lodge (recently recovered as a refuge) and then descends to the town of Noasca.

The King’s Hunts
King Vittorio went to the Gran Paradiso reserve usually in August and stayed there for two to four weeks. The newspapers and publications of the time were exalted for the good-natured character of the king, who converses and discusses with great affability, in the Piedmontese language, with the local population and describe him as a bold knight and an infallible rifle. In reality, the hunting campaigns were organized so that the king could do the target shooting on his prey while comfortably waiting in one of the sighting posts built along the paths.

The king’s entourage consisted of about 250 men, hired among the inhabitants of the valleys, who performed the duties of beaters and porters. For the latter, the hunt began already in the night. They went to places frequented by game, formed a huge circle around the animals and then with screams and shots frightened them so as to push them towards the hollow where the king was waiting behind a semicircular lookout of stones. Only the ruler could shoot the ungulates; behind him stood the “grand veneur” who was ordered to deliver the coup de grace to the wounded specimens or those escaped the king’s fire. The object of the hunt was the male ibex and adult chamois. Several dozen were shot down a day. The choice to spare the females and the puppies favored the

The day after the hunt, the king and his entourage moved to the next hunting lodge. Sunday was a rest for the beaters and, from the villages, some priests came up to celebrate mass outdoors. The route most trodden by the king during his tours of the Gran Paradiso was the following: it started from Champorcher, crossed the Fenêtre de Champorcher (2828 m), went down to Cogne, reached Valsavarenche passing through the Col du Lauson (3296 m), went up to Colle del Nivolet (2612 m) and from here it entered the Canavese territory passing above Ceresole Reale and then descending to the town of Noasca (1058 m) along the Ciamosseretto valley (as the name implies, rich in chamois). The most used hunting houses were thoseof Dondena (2186 m), of Lauson (2584 m, today Vittorio Sella refuge), of Orvieille and of the Gran Piano di Noasca (also the latter recently recovered as a refuge).

King Vittorio’s successors, Umberto I and Vittorio Emanuele III, also undertook long hunting campaigns in the reserve. The last royal hunt took place in 1913. Vittorio Emanuele III, more cultured and less friendly with his grandfather’s valley dwellers, changed his orientation and decided, in 1919, to cede the territories of the Gran Paradiso he owned with the relative rights to the State, indicating as a condition that the idea of establishing a national park for the protection of alpine flora and fauna be considered.

The national park
In 1856 King Vittorio Emanuele II declared these mountains a royal hunting reserve, thus saving the ibex from extinction. Its population in those days had been reduced to an alarmingly low level. The king set up a corps of specialized guards and ordered the paths and mule-tracks to be laid down, which today are still the best network path system for the protection of the fauna by the modern rangers and form the nucleus of the nature trails for tourist excursions.

In 1919, King Vittorio Emanuele III declared his intention to donate the 2100 hectares of the hunting reserve to the Italian State, for the creation of a national park. On 3rd December 1922 the Gran Paradiso National Park was established, Italy’s first national park. Until 1934 the protected area was run by a commission with full administrative autonomy. These were positive years for the park: the ibex population increased considerably and the 340 kilometres of royal mule-track were restored.

In the same period, however, there was a reduction of the original borders and major hydroelectric works were carried out in Valle Orco. In the years that followed the protected area was run directly by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, they were the worst in the park’s history: the local guards were laid off, the park was the scene of military manoeuvres, then the second world war started. All these actions contributed to the reduction of the ibex population to just 416 by 1945. It is only thanks to the tenacity and commitment of the Commissario Straordinario Renzo Videsott that the fortunes of the park changed and the ibex was saved from extinction: in fact, by the De Nicola order, the management of the park was entrusted to an independent authority on 5th August 1947.

The 1960’s and 70’s were a time of great conflict and misunderstanding between the park and local residents, who considered themselves excessively restricted by the protected area. Recently, people have begun to realize that the park can provide an opportunity for development and a boost for the economy of the valleys and, today, local authorities work closely with the park on several projects.

In the meantime, Gran Paradiso set up a close and profitable collaboration with the nearby French park, Vanoise, in an attempt to establish a large European protected area. The park has been the object, of particular attention for scientific research since the post-war years. In fact, the first studies published in the scientific journal of the park began to appear in the 1950’s. These studies were carried out by researchers of the University of Turin. They consist of research on the fauna, the physiology of the hibernation of the marmot, the geological history of the ibex, the feeding habits of the fox and the flora present in the protected area. The studies published on the anatomy and the pathology of the ibex and of the chamois are particularly rich, certainly due to the influence of the then director Renzo Videsott, veterinarian and free-lance professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Turin.

At that time, the park had no resources to finance specific research. Nonetheless, it invested in the publication of the studies carried out, which led to the birth of a journal which is still going today with the publications linked to “IBEX – Journal of Mountain Ecology”. In more recent years, despite the lean resources available, the park has been able to invest more openly in the financing of scientific research, offering national and international researchers the possibility of producing important contributions to the eco-ethological knowledge of many protected species (ibex, chamois, marmot, alpine chough, small mammals, ground beetles, etc.)

In the 2000s the National Park was also recognized as a site of community interest and is part of the Important Bird Area “Gran Paradiso”. In 2006 it was awarded the European Diploma of protected areas, renewed in 2012 together with the Vanoise National Park.

In 2007, the Board of Directors of the Park Authority, with resolution no. 16 of 27 July 2007, established a change in the boundaries of the park, notifying the Ministry of the Environment and for the Protection of the Territory and the Sea on 30 October 2007. By Decree of the President of the Republic May 27, 2009, published in the Official Gazette n. 235 of 9 October 2009, the park was then re-measured, with a reduction of the overall total area equal to 0.07 per cent of the territory. The President of the Republic, however, considered the intervention positive because the selection of the peripheral areas to be included in the park was made on the basis of their naturalistic value, for example heavily man-made areas were sold and more natural areas were included

In 2014, the Gran Paradiso became part of the global Green List of protected areas.

Architectural heritage
In the past, the Park territory was densely populated. The Piedmont villages had entirely stone houses, while on the Aosta side, stone is joined to wood. The alpine house reflects the character of a rural population, interested primarily in functionality: the most common model included a stone building with a stable on the ground floor, the residence on the first floor and even a barn above it. In these, even artistic and decorative elements survived such as votive pillars, typical of Val Soana, testifying to popular religiosity. Rock carvings and frescoes, Roman roads and bridges, military buildings, churches and medieval castles, alpine pastures, paths and mule tracks, stone walls erected to terrace the steep hillsides, irrigation ditches of stone and earth… tell the long history of ancient populations who had their glory in the mid 800’s, when King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy frequented the Gran Paradiso to reach the ibex hunting locations. The royal hunting lodges, one-story buildings located on large plains above 2,000 feet, which were set aside for the king and his court.

Culture and traditions
Rock carvings, Roman roads and bridges, churches and medieval castles, royal hunting lodges and paths and military buildings show a cultural heritage of ancient origin, but continually enriched with the passage of time. The agricultural landscape is combined with artistic and religious elements, with customs and traditions and with various activities still practiced today.

Particular interest are the habitats considered as priorities by the Habitat Directive: limestone pavements, forests of Pinus uncinata, low limestone marshes with alpine pioneer formations of Caricion bicoloris – atrofuscae, dry grassy formations on limestone substrate (Festuco – Brometalia), active raised bogs, wooded bogs. In particular, within the park there are some biotopes of particular community interest, proposed as Natura 2000 sites of community interest:

Vallone Azaria – Barmaion – Torre Lavina
Vallone del Carro, Piani del Nivolet, Col Rosset
High-altitude calcareous environments in the Rhêmes Valley
Bosco del Parriod
Eaux Rousses, Djouan lake, Colle Entrelor
Valleys south of La Grivola
Wood of Sylvenoire – Arpissonet
Vetta Gran Paradiso – Money
Pra Suppiaz alpine peat bog

Visitor Centers
The Park Visitor Centers are monothematic information points (the bearded vulture, the ibex, the chamois, the geology, the predators, the trades) distributed on the territory of the various municipalities of the park and present in each valley. They are managed by the Park Authority, in particular in the Aosta Valley and are managed in collaboration with Fondation Grand-Paradis.

The visitor centers are:
Homo et Ibex in Ceresole Reale
The forms of the landscape in Noasca
Spaciafurnel – Old and new professions in Locana
The culture and religious traditions in Ribordone
Traditions and biodiversity in a fantastic valley in Ronco
The precious predators in Valsavarenche in Degioz, dedicated to the lynx and its return in the seventies and from 31 July 2011 with a new space dedicated to the wolf
Welcome back bearded vulture. in Rhêmes-Notre-Dame, in the locality of Chanavey, dedicated to the bearded vulture and the avifauna of the park
Tutel-Attiva Park Laboratory in Cogne, laboratory in the Miners’ Village born in 2007

To the visitor centers are added some museum exhibitions or botanical collections:
Old School of Maison, permanent exhibition in Noasca
The high mountain peat bogs in Ceresole Reale (closed)
Paradisia Alpine Garden in Valnontey
Ecomuseum of copper in Ronco Canavese (closed)

Refuges and bivouacs
Inside the park there are numerous shelters, in addition to the bivouacs for mountaineers and for those who use them occasionally in compliance with the rules dictated by the CAI. Each of them has different periods of opening and closing and in some of them the possibility of food and / or accommodation is given. Among them, the refuges that have obtained the “Quality Mark” of the Park Authority are the Guido Muzio Refuge, the Massimo Mila Refuge, the Le Fonti Refuge, the Mario Bezzi Refuge.

Religious architecture
Sanctuary of Prascondù, which also houses the Museum of popular religiosity created by the Park Authority.

Gastronomy and handicrafts
The Park’s food products are mainly bodeun (stuffed with pork blood and potatoes and mocetta (chamois- based salami). The artisan processing of leather, copper, wrought iron and mountain agricultural tools survives.

The park organizes numerous didactic-dissemination activities with schools and offers the possibility of carrying out various activities in the adventure camps and work camps at various times of the year. In the park it is also possible to practice ski mountaineering with the support of mountain and trekking guides.

The network of paths crossing the Park expands for over 500 Km through those five valleys included in the protected area. Choose the path that best suits your needs and skills, it’s also possible to filter for difficulty and season. Since 1992 there has been an equipped path in the park for the blind of about one kilometer and with little slope.

Cycling tours
Whether on paved roads or dirt roads, in the park or bordering areas, cycling is good for nature, for leisure and sport.

Climbing on rocks or ice, a sport full of challenges and history that in the Gran Paradiso National Park made possible to discover a Yosemite behind the house door. Five uncontaminated valleys, strong rocky slopes and ice gleaming in the silence of a plant and animal life, that voicelessly proceeds to ensure colors, scents, extraordinary encounters and necessary balances.

In all the valleys there are skiing facilities, small stations immersed in the nature in which the most popular winter sports can be practiced (from cross-country skiing, to the downhill skiing and the snow shows). For Piedmont side (Ceresole Reale, Locana, Noasca, Ribordone, Ronco Canavese, Valprato Soana). For Valle d’Aosta side (Aymavilles, Cogne, Introd, Rhêmes-St-Georges, Rhêmes-Notre-Dame, Villeneuve e Valsavarenche).

Environment education
Thanks to its old establishment, the Gran Paradiso National Park boasts extensive knowledge of its natural ecosystem of the territory’s history, representing an ideal outdoor educational workshop. The activities are carried out by educators, park interpreters, nature guides, park rangers trained in environmental education, and experts working for several years in the area. They are structured with actions in the classroom (for schools), excursions in the territory and practical activities in the countryside and in the various park structures (Environmental Education Centres, Visitor centres, laboratories…). It also possible to construct ad hoc projects with teachers, to meet the specific needs of the class, while enhancing the experience and suggestions of the teachers.

The environmental education program includes both activities aimed at schools of all levels and grades, andproposals aimed at other interested users (groups, families, individuals). Within the initiatives, environmentally friendly sports activities conducted by qualified personnel may also be incorporated, in order to foster an environmentally friendly approach.

Tags: Italy