The Italian Alps stretch for 600 mi/966 km across the north of Italy. These mountains, some of which rise 14,000 ft/4,340 m, offer incredible scenery, great skiing, hiking and other activities year-round. They are generally divided into western, central and eastern regions.

The Western Alps stretch from the Mediterranean Sea along the border with France to Switzerland. In the Valle D'Aosta and Piedmont area, visit Italy's largest and best-protected park, the Gran Paradiso National Park, about 80 mi/134 km northwest of Turin. Monte Bianco (better known as Mont Blanc, because the actual peak is in France) is western Europe's highest peak at 15,780 ft/4,810 m and rises above picturesque Alpine villages.

Also visit Monte Rosa (close to the border with Switzerland, east of Gran Paradiso) and the wonderful year-round resort towns of Macugnaga and Alagna. Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn, just over the border in Switzerland), with the Italian resorts of Breuil-Cervinia and Valtourneche, has wonderful views as well. Other area sights include the museums in Turin and the Roman monuments in Aosta.

The Central Alps run along the border with Switzerland and Austria, and they're located in the wealthiest, most densely populated region of Italy. These Alps encompass the towns of Como, Milan and Sondrio, which has several excellent ski areas nearby.

Don't miss Varese (exquisite scenery and lakes) and the prehistoric rock carvings in Valcamonica. The Lombardy region, south of the Central Alps, includes many of Italy's stunning lakes, including Lago di Como, Lago di Garda and Lago Maggiore.

The Eastern Alps continue south of the borders with Austria and Slovenia, embracing the towns of Trento, Bolzano and Belluno. This area of the Alps is called the Dolomites and is a spectacular mountain range dating from the Triassic period. There are a number of particularly beautiful drives in the Dolomites, traversing high mountain passes and providing views of sparkling lakes, gorgeous valleys, charming villages and pastoral meadows. And the hiking in the Dolomites is even better: The trails are well-marked, and along many of them you'll find rifugi, or small hostels, where weary travelers can dine surprisingly well or sometimes stay the night.

Molveno, on the lake of the same name, in the southern part of the Dolomites, near Trento, is a good base for skiing; in summer it's a convenient jumping-off point for hiking. Also check out chic resort towns such as Madonna di Campiglio, Cortina d'Ampezzo and San Candido (Innichen).

While you're in the Dolomites, see the Alpe di Siusi area, hike to the waterfalls in the Valle di Genova, visit a spa, or shop for handmade wooden toys, sculptures and inlaid-wood souvenirs in Val Gardena.

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