With less than two weeks to the official start of winter, I’ve already experienced some pretty cold, wet, and even snowy places as I’ve traveled for work and fun. However, there are still plenty of spots around the world where it’s perfect hiking weather, even in the winter. The trail-riddled hillsides of the Italian Riveria’s Cinque Terre is one of them.
Cinque Terre is a tempest of seafront trails and lush hilly cliff sides. The ancient network of foot paths connect five medieval towns together. They also run up into vineyards, forests, and more tiny mountain towns high above. Each time I’ve traveled here, hiking has been the highlight.
There are well over a hundred kilometers of trails in this region, but I like to think of them in two basic categories. The lower trails and the upper trails.
The Lower Trails
Most tourists only visit the lower trails. These are the ones that most directly connect the five towns of Cinque Terre. They tend to hug the hillside, stay in view of the ocean, and don’t have as dramatic elevation gains/losses. These “main” trails are also better marked and maintained. They are often composed of stone pathways and stairs that perform the dual function of being part of the network of hillside-terraces.
These lower trails cut along vineyards and scrubby olive tree groves, which make it typically unshaded. This means it also offers unobstructed vistas of the sweeping hillsides and grand Atlantic Ocean. The fabulous views bring packed trails at peak times in the summer. Although still immensely satisfying, I found the lower trails too crowded for my tastes this past summer 2015 when I hiked them with my sister-in-law Rachel.
The Upper Trails
The upper trails also connect Cinque Terre’s five towns together, albeit in a much less direct route. Instead of hugging the coastline, they split off from the lower trails and cross-back up the mountainside well beyond the maintained vineyards and groves. They venture up into the forests beyond and connect with a number of other small towns set higher up and further back into the Italian mountainside.
The upper trails aren’t quite as well marked — Jim and I had to double back a couple times when we hiked them in 2010 — and have much more substantial elevation gains/losses compared to the lower trails. They also tend to be dirt as opposed to stone.
However, they have a beauty all their own. The trails are shaded, quiet, and incredibly peaceful. Occasionally portions of the trail jut out towards the coastline offering panoramic bird’s eye views. You can see the immensity of the ocean stretching toward the horizon. You can see the green terraced hillsides below punctuated with the tiny colorful cliffside towns. The upper trails also offer the highest contrast in hiking as well as the best views of Cinque Terre.
The upper trails are also much less crowded. Even at peak summer time, Jim and I had the entire mountainside to ourselves. Although we encountered many people near the towns and on the lower trail before splitting off, we only saw a single hiker on the upper trail itself.
Summer Vs. Winter
Little or no shade along the lower trails makes for a challenging hike in the summer, but perfect on a cool cloudy autumnal/winter day. Historic monthly temperatures show Cinque Terre winters to average in the 50s, which is ideal for unshaded high-exertion hiking.
The winter is also the off-season for Cinque Terre, and while that might mean fewer accommodations and attractions open in the towns, it also means way fewer crowds on the trails. Trails are open all year except for during/after rainstorms where there is a chance of mudslides.
Rain is always a consideration regardless of the time of year. And yes, there’s a higher chance of rain in the winter, but there are still plenty of good dry hiking days. The next ten-day forecast looks amazing for example — no rain, and cool comfortable hiking weather.
After having hiked the lower and upper trails in the summer months on two separate occasions, I can’t wait to go back and try it out in the winter.
If you go
The best way to get to Cinque Terre is by train. The largest connecting city is La Spezia. Cinque Terre is a National Park. The Cinque Terre Card grants unlimited access to all park trails as well as to the trains connecting the five towns. You do not need the Cinque Terre Card to enter the towns themselves. Also worth noting, I’ve actually never been asked to show a Cinque Terre Card to anyone. I’ve also never seen a park ranger at any of the access points or on the trails themselves.
Italy’s national parks has a good general website for Cinque Terre with everything you’ll need to know to hike there, including a detailed list of hikes and a google map of all the trails. You can also purchase maps and the Cinque Terre Card at the train station in La Spezia.
— Laura Rowley
More of our thoughts on Cinque Terre: