The Smugglers' Route

Aug 8, 2012
by Matt Wragg  
It started with a meeting. Then a line on a map. Finally a photo. We were supposed to be talking about the weekend's Superenduro race, but Enrico pulled out the trail map for the area around Madesimo. While we should have been looking at the layout of the stages, working out how we'd cover the event, the little red lines cutting through the high mountains pulled our attention away. "Oh they're the old smuggler's routes, they're too dangerous to ride, look here's a photo." Alessandra backed this up by flashing a photo of a mule track carved into the side of a huge cliff. The plan was probably to put us off, but it was clear there was plenty of room to get a bike or three down the rocky trail. As head of the local tourist office she was trying to get Enrico focused back on his race series that was currently taking over her town and the idiot-English journalist wasn't helping, but by now it was no good. After a few minutes of prodding the map and working out altitudes it was clear we could easily ride it in a day and staying in town another day after the race would be easy enough. Eventually Alessandra offered to shuttle us, probably more in hope of shutting us up and getting us back to the business at hand than enthusiasm about encouraging people to ride their bikes down the Splugen Pass.

As far as trails go, the Splugen Pass is one of the older ones. It is first recorded as being used somewhere around the time that the Romans were busy nailing Jesus to a cross. By the Nineteenth Century it was an artery between Munich and Milan and as many as 2,000 mules per month were braving the high mountains and gorges to transport people, goods and ideas. Locally it is more famous for the bandits who used it regularly - the wild, high mountains made for safe passage across the border, far from the eyes of the authorities. Today it is overshadowed by the tunnel and wide, sweeping roads of the San Bernadino pass, but the original trail still remains and we headed up to retrace the steps of those smugglers...

Loading up.
Bikes in the van.
  We held Alessandra to her promise and as Monday morning dawned we jammed our bikes into the back of her pickup.

The border.
  Climbing up from Madesimo, the trailhead is at 2110m, some 600m above the town and sitting right on the Swiss border. This is the exact point where the two countries meet.

Enrico stopping to chat at the head of the trail.
Setting off.
Through the rocks.
  From the border, the trail begins with flowing singletrack through the meadows.

Setting off.
Details of the rocky bit.
Marcello on the lower road.
Among the rocks.
Along the medieval cobbles.
  Soon enough it starts to get rocky. The whole area must once have been some great glacier as the landscape is strewn with giant, jagged rocks, marking the paths of those ancient iceflows.

Into the trail.
Crossing the stream.
Leaving the top behind.
  The pass winds its way through a basin at the head of the valley, an expanse of rocky grassland littered with streams. On it sits one of the old mountain refuges, originally a place for travelers to shelter from the weather as they crossed the border.

Towards the boulders.
Having fun on the singletrack.
Through the boulderfield.
Descending into the village for lunch.
  As you follow the trail down, you reach Montalto. It has to be one of the most aptly-named places you'll find anywhere. Translated, the name simply means "high mountain."

Hotel Vittoria.
Hotel details 2.
Hotel details 1.
  What better place to stop than at the oldest building in the area? Hotel Vittoria has sat here in the mountains since the Seventeenth Century and was originally just a mountain house. In winter it is still cut off from both Italy and Switzerland when the snow falls. A lazy lunch of venison in a marscapone sauce, washed down by strong espresso in the sunshine isn't a bad way to pass an hour or two...

Heading up to the dam after lunch.
Dam details .
The reservoir at the top.
  Unfortunately the original trail along the side of this reservoir is impassable on a mountain bike these days, so a quick trip round the road takes you up to the dam and one of the most beautiful reservoirs you'll see anywhere. A photo can never do some places justice, this is one of them.

The old guy fishing.
Old guy details.
  Breaking the peaceful silence of the reservoir, this old guy cycled past singing an old, happy Italian pop song. We stopped him to say hello and he began telling us stories of how he had carried a calf on his shoulders up the side of the mountain in the 1970s. He then pulled his bike up at the side of the water and cast into the reservoir to catch his evening meal.

Heading into the gorge.
The trail through the gorge.
Some perspective on how big the exposure was...
Just because there s a huge vertical drop to one side it didn t mean we were on the brakes all the time.
The view up to the dam.
  From the reservoir we descended into the Cardinello Gorge. This was the trail from the photo... Hewn from the rock of the mountain many centuries ago, you pick a line along the cliffs high above the river below. There is nothing quite like this kind of wild, backcountry riding. Speed goes out the window as the trail is so unpredictable, but the feeling of picking your way down, trying to work out what the trail will do next, whether you can ride something or if it will send you to your death on the rocks below is something special. You're alive in way you can only be when you know that to make a mistake could take that from you.

The descent through the gorge.
Crossing the river at the bottom of the gorge.
Leaving the gorge into alpine meadows.
  Eventually you reach the river below, crossing the wooden bridge you join singletrack that takes you out into the open valley below.

  Leaving the gorge, it would be easy to assume that you've left the breathtaking scenery behind you. You'd be wrong about that though.

The final descent into Isola.
  That singletrack then takes you down the valley to Campodolcino and the cold beer and ice cream waiting for you there... or you can jump on the train back up to Madesimo and smash some bike park laps.

A big thank you to Alessandra and all the guys at Madebike for their help, without them we'd never have been able to ride this special trail. Of course the smugglers didn't have just one route over the mountains...

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Author Info:
mattwragg avatar

Member since Oct 29, 2006
753 articles

  • 22 0
 Great post & thank you for indicating this great ride!
Since I live in the surroundings I would like to point out some additional info
a) a good map of the region (
b) the restaurant... Hotel Vittoria (great cuisine!!)
c) Montalto...hmmm...? Did you mean Monte Spluga?
d) Valle del Cardellino is probably Valle del Cardinello ;-)


  • 6 0
 That scenery is simply majestic. I've been thinking about going on a bike trip overseas... If I go through with it, Italy will be on the list.
  • 1 0
 love this article made a site of my own tonight have a look love to know what you guys think
  • 1 0
 tom use spell check, gloves because they are the first thing to hit the flour?
  • 1 0
 yes its not finished yet but thanks for taking a look
  • 1 0
 looks good in principle, take a leaf out of factory jacksons book as that looks excellent as a blog
  • 3 0
 I love these "spot the mountain bikers in the beautiful landscape" photo's. Makes you realize that MTBers are some of the few people who get to see and experience nature in this way.
  • 1 0
 Went to switzerland on a school trip a couple of years ago. We visited the reservoir too (it really is stunning). My friend and i were kicking ourselves throughout and edging to hire out bikes but couldn't and so went home sad :-( but we will be back!
Fantastic article, looks like you had a blast :-)
  • 4 1
 Thats on the list for sure. It bet there is no phone reception as well, thank god! Although, they never seemed to go up hill...
  • 1 0
 I did some hiking pretty close to this area a few years back, one of the most beautiful spots on planet earth, if any of you have the time and $$ plan a trip
here you will never forget it. ( its so nice you may not leave)
  • 1 0
 Wow, beautyfull trail, we can actually feel all the work that has been done by hand on these trails a few thousand years ago.
They had good trail builders back in those days, too bad they didnt have mtb to ride them Razz
  • 1 0
 Fantastic Pics!!!!! Thanks a lot! Madesimo is my favorite bike park. Relaxed atmosphere and nice trails. I may do the smugglers trail someday in the future!
  • 1 0
 Matt Wragg, you get ABOUT! I'm well Jel. Brilliant shots - do your riders get annoyed having to stop and set up or re ride stuff for shots on a one hit wonder like this?
  • 3 0
 Stunning! Looks like an amazing ride...
  • 3 0
 Thanks for this ! amazing photos !
  • 2 0
 looking good! looks brill to ride Smile
  • 1 0
 Epic! I remember this area from a crossing of the alps we did a few years ago...
  • 1 0
 Where can we find the map of these routes? I'm planning next summers trip and need to find this place.
  • 1 0
 Check my earlier response... Paul
  • 1 0
 amazing pictures and story. lets see the other trails those bad guys used lol
  • 2 0
 looks like soo much fun!!!!! i wish i could do a trip like that
  • 2 1
 does anyone else think of topgear when they see the san bernadino pass? looks awesome, would love to go there one day
  • 1 0
 Yes BUT

That is the Splügen Pass, San Bernardino is in the same region but you don't see it from that pic.
Check out the link to the map I posted in my earlier comment...


  • 1 0
 Great pictures! They tell something unique about MTB---that humans can get close to nature as freely as it could be. Thanks.
  • 2 0
 Amazing! One day......
  • 1 0
 Wow, amazing !
would someone have a gps track to this trail?
  • 1 0
 For me this is the heaven. Beautiful!
  • 1 0
 That track looks amazing! So want to ride it one day!
  • 1 0
 bandits know their trails alright... damn that landscape!
  • 1 0
 i guess that's the place where mountain bikers go when they die
  • 1 0
 Only if I could fit a fully in my backpack....
  • 1 0
  • 1 0

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