The Gorge of Ponte Alto, near Trento in the far north of Italy, has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s. It is easy to see why: two tall waterfalls cascading noisily through a narrow ravine. The view is spectacular, but it is not entirely a natural phenomenon. An early feat of engineering, the gorge is a mixture of nature and human intervention.

Man-Made Waterfalls

The gorge itself is around 7,000 years old, the result of glacial activity. The Fersina river runs along the base of the ravine, gathering speed as it runs down the side of the mountain. This caused frequent floods in the city of Trento, a problem that was solved by building two weirs (artificial waterfalls) to slow the water down. These weirs – built in the 16th century – are said to be among the earliest hydraulic works in the world.

Waterfall at the Gorge of Ponte Alto
The water squeezes its way through a narrow ravine
Water cascades over a weir at the Gorge of Ponte Alto
Water cascades over the weir

By the 19th century the Gorge of Ponte Alto had become popular with tourists, who flocked out from the city to walk the rocky trail to the base of the canyon and enjoy the scenery. However, the path was closed for safety reasons in the 1980s, and only re-opened recently.

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Exploring the Gorge

I visited on an early summer evening. The sides of the ravine were covered in lush vegetation, the red rock in startling contrast to the green plants. At first we were accompanied by birdsong, but as we descended the sound was gradually drowned out by the rushing of the water. (The Italian name for the gorge is Orrido di Ponte Alto – “orrido” means “horrific”, and is commonly used for Italian waterfalls because of the loud howling noise they make.)

Steps down to the Gorge of Ponte Alto
Steps lead down to the bottom of the gorge
Cascading water at the Gorge of Ponte Alto
You end up behind a sheet of water at the base of the second waterfall

Our guide began by explaining how and why the weirs had been built. Then he took us down the long series of steps to the bottom, ending up behind a roaring wall of water, the base of the second cascade.

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A few points to note. The walk down isn’t particularly difficult, but it is steep and uneven and, of course, you have to climb up again! At one point there is a viewing platform which you might want to avoid if you are nervous of heights. And the final descent is via an enclosed spiral staircase (as someone who dislikes confined spaces I found it just about tolerable, and worth it for the view of the back of the waterfall).

Waterfall and plants at the Gorge of Ponte Alto
Pinnable image of the waterfall and vegetation of the Gorge of Ponte Alto

Visiting the Gorge of Ponte Alto

Visiting the gorge is by guided tour only – see the website for details.

A short video of the Orrido di Ponte Alto and its waterfalls

Car parking is available in Via Ponte Alto. Or you can take the bus from Piazza Dante in Trento. Several buses stop at the Gorge of Ponte Alto and the journey takes around 15 minutes.

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