National Parks of Calabria – Italy’s Secret Mountains, Forests and Lakes
The National Parks of Calabria are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful in Europe. While Calabria remains as off the beaten track as it gets for most travellers to Italy, it’s a popular summer holiday spot for Italians, and if they’re not on the beach they’re exploring the region’s national parks.
The National Parks of Calabria
If people know anything about Calabria, and most foreigners outside Europe know very little about the region, they either associate the region with the mafia or they know it as a summer destination (it has some of Italy‘s best beaches). Few foreign travellers would think of heading to southern Italy for hiking, bird-watching, rock-climbing or rafting.
Yet the National Parks of Calabria are some of the most gobsmackingly gorgeous in Europe, with majestic mountains crowned by craggy peaks, dramatic waterfalls spilling into stone canyons, and serene lakes skirted by slender sandy beaches.
Some 90% of the region is mountainous, teeming with wildlife and birds, and blanketed in wildflowers, making the national parks of Calabria brilliant for walking, hiking, and mountain-biking.
So what are we referring to when we talk about the national parks of Calabria? Well, there’s Pollino National Park (Parco Nazionale del Pollino in Italian) in the north, Sila National Park (Parco Nazionale della Sila) in the centre, and Aspromonte National Park (Il Parco Nazionale dell’Aspromonte) in the south.
(The Aspromonte was infamous as the stronghold of Calabria’s mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta. Its isolation made it the perfect spot for stashing contraband and kidnapping victims in the 1980s. Advice from our friend in Reggio di Calabria when we first drove through here was “It’s perfectly safe now. If you see anything strange, just look the other way!”).
Each of the national parks of Calabria is wonderful to explore, whether it’s from behind the wheel of a car, by foot on an organised hike, on the back of a horse, or on a mountain-biking excursion. These natural playgrounds offer everything from trekking and fishing to canoeing and snowboarding.
In Pollino National Park, Italy’s largest protected area, you can admire the rare Bosnian Pine, one of the last places it grows in Italy, and with binoculars in hand, do your best to spot the park’s wonderful wildlife, including birdlife such as the Black Woodpecker, Peregrine Falcon, and Egyptian Vulture, and fauna ranging from the Italian Wolf to the European Otter.
In the Sila National Park, there are compelling walks through the idyllic countryside where you’ll find ancient sky-scraping trees with colossal girths to hug, and serene lakes where you can row a boat or cast a rod.
In Aspromonte National Park, you can exert a bit more energy on a one-day hike or seven-day trek which you will take you to cascading waterfalls shaded by prehistoric ferns, or to enjoy splendid views all the way to Etna in Sicily.
If you’re not keen on things like trekking or canyoning, the national parks of Calabria are also easily explored on road trips, punctuated with forest walks, a bit of foraging, and lakeside picnics.
Some of the most pleasurable ways to experience the national parks of Calabria for me are simple things, such as traipsing through the canopied forests, across earth covered with fragrant pine needles and speckled with dappled light, or rambling over the rolling hills with their gentle grassy slopes.
Without going to too much trouble or even exerting too much energy, you can enjoy countryside blanketed with the vibrant wildflowers that are characteristic of the Mediterranean, especially in spring, but also in summer, from the bright yellow broom flowers to the colourful pink, white and yellow clusters of the mimosa shrub.
You’ll also get to take pleasure in the scent of citrus, rosemary, thyme and almond, the delicious taste of the fruit from the mulberry and fig trees, and the arresting images of the strange red aloe plant and the agave cacti growing wild, a typical sight in the mountains of the Ionion Sea coast and particularly stunning when in full bloom.
Pollino National Park
Straddling the border of the regions of Basilicata and Calabria, and taking its name from the Pollino Massif, Calabria’s highest peak (2,267 metres), Pollino National Park at 1,820 square kilometres is Italy’s largest protected area.
Founded in 1992, the southern parts of the park, south of the A3, are more akin to a wilderness area, wild and wonderfully lacking in infrastructure, compared to the northern section in Basilicata, which is dotted with villages.
While Pollino is becoming increasingly popular as a hiking destination, the lack of mapped and sign-posted trails make it challenging for all but the most experienced hikers to explore without a guide, however, it’s easy enough to organise a guide through hotels and tourist offices in the region.
The park’s greatest appeal is its incredible wealth of landscapes, from the vast areas of impenetrable wilderness at its centre to the fertile valleys and rolling hills on the parks edge, to the striking deep valley gorges and the many rivers and streams that run through the park, such as the Coscile, Lao, Sinni, and Raganello.
Pollino is also home to an array of wildlife including the Italian Wolf, Roe Deer and European Otter, and amazing birdlife, particularly birds of prey, such as the Peregrine Falcon, Red Kite, Lanner Falcon, Egyptian Vulture, Golden Eagle, and Black Woodpecker. The Park’s symbol is the Bosnian Pine and Pollino is one of the only areas in which it still grows in Italy.
The hilltop town of Civita, on edge of Pollino National Park, makes a great base for exploring the national park and when we last visited a number of Bed and Breakfasts were soon set to open. Hiking guides can be arranged in the village; ask at the tourist office or any of the shops on the main piazza.
Sila National Park
La Sila is the green heart of the Cosenza region, renowned for its immense forested mountain ranges, abundant birdlife and wildlife, and still blue lakes that sparkle like diamonds.
La Sila actually consists of three areas, the Sila Grande (the area covered here by our Sila National Park Road Trip), Sila Piccola (straddling the border with Crotone), and Sila Greca in the north, an Albanian area since their immigration in the 1500s.
The most scenic landscapes – glassy lakes skirted by sandy beaches, healthy horses grazing on lush green meadows, thick forests of fir and pine – are in Sila Grande. Everywhere you go there is the all-pervading fragrance of honey-scented wildflowers and fresh air.
Deep in the coniferous forests, the pristine habitat plays hosts to some of Calabria’s most diverse wildlife, including deer, wolves, wild boar, and birdlife ranging from woodpeckers and eagle owls to splendid peregrine falcons.
The countryside around this still turquoise lake is idyllic – green rolling hills, dense woodlands and towering fir trees, and in spring the fields are blanketed in wild flowers. Lorica is a lovely laidback village of holiday houses overlooking the lake. A ‘passegiatta panoramica’ skirts the water where strategically placed benches allow you to enjoy the picturesque scenery.
Lago Ampollino & Lago del Savuto
Somewhat smaller than Lago Arvo, Lago Ampollino is surrounded by thick pine forests and boasts narrow sandy beaches. The main difference is the mood set by the accommodation on its shores.
With its camping ground and holiday flats, Lago Ampollino sees families here for fishing, swimming and boating, whereas Lago Arvo with its holiday houses and hotel attracts more laidback couples. Not far away, Lago del Savuto is smaller and less attractive, but completists may want to check it out.
The countryside surrounding Lake Cecita is as idyllic as the other lakes with miles of logs fences either side of the road, endless fields of wildflowers, and some of the tallest and oldest trees you’ll see in Calabria, however, on the shores of the lake the forest is less dense and there is more cleared farmland, giving it a different feel to the others yet again.
Aspromonte National Park – A Road Trip
This rewarding drive passes through breathtakingly beautiful scenery on the way to Calabria’s highest mountain, Montealto. The dramatic road travels along narrow meandering roads through remote ramshackle villages sprawled across the mountains.
Used primarily by locals, the roads are often overgrown and you’ll see few people other than the occasional shepherd, yet the views are generally spectacular. Allow 1 day with stops for exploring and lunch.
Starts: Reggio di Calabria
From Reggio di Calabria, follow the coastal road (SS106/E90) south for 30kms in the direction of Mélito di Porto Salvo. Turn left to visit Pentedáttilo, 5kms before Mélito di Porto Salvo.
Take in this atmospheric semi-abandoned village, dramatically sited beneath the colossal ‘five fingers’ rock formation, and explore the hamlet’s spooky alleys. (More on Pentedáttilo coming in another post.) Return to the coastal road (E90) and continue toward Mélito di Porto Salvo, then head inland, following the signs for Chorio, Bagaladi and Gamberie in a northerly direction.
Scenically sited by the River Tuccio, Chorio is the birthplace of Saint Gaetano Catanoso. From here, the slim road snakes through groves of enormous olive trees and fields of wildflowers, and the scent of both perfume the air. Stick to the main road, following the signs in the direction of Bagaladi and Gamberie. After about 4kms there is a right turn to Roghudi, a 46km round-trip.
Bagaladi’s Monastery of Saint Angel is one of many Greek monasteries that flourished in this sacred valley. From hereon, the road is tortuous but the views worth it. Continue along this road.
Turn-off to Motta San Giovanni
After this turn-off to Motta San Giovanni the landscape changes significantly and plateaus out into lush farmland. The emerald meadows are blanketed with the yellow broom flower and forests of birch, pine and fir form a canopy across the road. Continue on this road, passing a turn-off to Reggio di Calabria on the left, but keep driving: 1km later take the turn off to Montalto on the right.
The highlight of Aspromonte for us, Montealto is Calabria’s highest peak at 1955m, reached by a sealed road that wends its way through a forest of tall trees before reaching another plateau at the summit. From here there are spectacular views of Sicily’s snow-capped Mount Etna to the southeast and dramatic vistas of deep valleys to the north. Return to the turn-off and continue the drive through the picturesque forest.
The picnic tables, at this charming hamlet in the woods, under some of Aspromonte’s tallest trees, are ideal for a snack or lunch. There’s also a trattoria with a lovely sun terrace. After, take the turn-off on the left to Reggio di Calabria. Take care as the road is very narrow and winding in parts.
Gambarie to San Stefano in Aspromonte
Wooden holiday cottages are nestled among fruit trees, beautiful in blossom in spring. After the Manolo turn-off, Bar Trapani enjoys wonderful mountain vistas and soon after you’ll enjoy splendid views to Sicily. While stunningly situated, San Stefano is not the most attractive village and is not one you want to linger at. Continue the descent toward the coast.
To San Alessio in Aspromonte and Lagandi
Shaded by enormous trees, the dilapidated wooden houses in quaint San Alessio have a certain charm. The splashes of colour on Laganadi’s ramshackle buildings do little to brighten the town’s mood but the views to the mountaintop village across the valley are magnificent. Continue the descent.
Ends: Reggio di Calabria
At Gallico, take the sign-posted turn for Reggio. You’ll see Sicily and Etna are straight ahead.
The National Parks of Calabria – More Reading
For the Sila National Park you can pick up a copy of the booklet A Piedi in Sila Grande (On Foot in Sila Grande) from the Pro Loco tourist office in Camigliatello or from one of the national park offices; there is one at Cecita Lake and one also at Taverna. The book outlines 12 different itineraries although there are apparently over 30 you can do. Also check out the Sila National Park official website for everything from walking routes to organised activities.
For Aspromonte National Park you can buy a copy of Il parco Nazionale d’Aspromonte: Guida naturalistica ed escursionistica from most museum bookshops, which outlines 53 itineraries, ranging from easy one hour walks to more strenuous seven hour hikes. Also see the Aspromonte National Park site for info on flora and fauna to workshops and guides.
Both books grade the routes by difficulty, include altitude details, durations and map references, advise on the best time of year to go, provide road directions for getting to the start of the routes, and then describe the routes in some detail. Alternatively, you can hire a guide or join an excursion; the Pro Loco offices have details.
National Parks of Calabria – Our Tips
- Be prepared – take plenty of water, food and snacks, and warm clothes (it can get surprisingly cool up in the mountains, even in summer), and let your hotel know what you are doing.
- Go walking – all the national parks have walking trails that begin on the main driving routes through the parks, where you can pull over, get your bearings from the ‘maps’ carved out on wooden boards posted at the started of the trail, and head off for a short stroll or a longer hike.
- Go foraging – if you’re lucky, you may even stumble across some fungi porcini. But don’t pick mushrooms unless you’re sure you know what they are.
- Go road-tripping – see our suggested road trip routes and Calabria itineraries.