This wonderful hike, almost all on wide forest track, offers the most intensive experience of the unique beech forests that top the Madonie – in fact about 50% of the walk is within the beeches, making it an ideal walk for hot, spring/summer days, as the dappled shade takes a good 5-80C off the temperature in the sun. It is rightly one of the most beautiful and celebrated walks in these mountains – and you can often see wild deer and wild pigs.
Time: 3 to 3hrs 15 mins (main loop), with optional out-and-back extensions adding 1, 2 or 3 hours. If you plan to climb Monte dei Cervi itself, take a small ball of ribbon or string and a pair of scissors – see box.
Height ascent/descent (main loop): 220m (750 feet); (with Monte dei Cervi): 350m (1150 feet)
Degree of Difficulty: 3-4 (Monte dei Cervi, 4)
Starting/finishing point: Portella Colla (1421 metres/4600 feet) about 10 kms north of Polizzi, at the junction of the SP119 and the SP54 from Cefalu to Petralia Sottana (P on map). Park by the Parco information board at the wide part of the junction (photo 1 below). The start of the walk is the track that descends behind the sign. Most of the main loop is a marked Parco track – Sentiero 11 and 11b.
The path descends and then rises, with an extensive view on your right of the west flank of Pizzo Carbonara, the highest mountain in the Madonie. After 10 minutes you will come to a locked gate, with a pedestrian entrance – on your left note a shrine for a young man who died there in some family vendetta a quarter of a century ago. The wide track now climbs steadily in long loops, with distant views of the sea
to the north on clear days. In April to May you may see beautiful wild peonies in amongst the rocks under trees on either side. As you climb, the beech trees will start to take over from the mixed evergreen oak and hawthorn.
After 25-30 minutes at a sharp left-hand bend, you will see a wooden sign (photo 2 above, A on map) offering you two possibilities. Straight ahead is a steeper shortcut path across grass and through shrubs, with power lines on your right, which will take about 10 minutes off your walking time. Alternatively carry on up the less steep main track, to pass a small, eccentric-looking hermitage, sometimes used by monks from Palermo as a summer retreat. Both routes come together again at Piano Cervi – a good option is to do one going out and another coming back.
In both cases, before you actually get there, you will be treated to a wonderful elevated view of the green bowl of Piano Cervi (photo 3 below), surrounded by dense beech forests – and Monte dei Cervi in the distance. Where the footpath and track come together on the Piano, you will see the dry hollow of Lago di Cervi (Cervi Lake) which is shown in some old photos, but which has not contained water for 20 years or more.
Drop down onto the Piano and walk along the track to the right – soon you will come to a finger post (photo 4, B on map) – continue ahead on the main track (Sentiero 11) -- you will return via the route on the left -- and plunge into beautiful, dappled beech forest on a series of well-graded loops. After about 15-20 minutes you arrive at a couple of concrete gate-posts, with a cross on your left (photo 5 below). You then descend past the Refugio di Monte dei Cervi, and to its left you will see a straw-covered structure, a pagghiaru (photo 6, C on map), which is worth a short detour.
These straw-covered houses with low stone walls were once plentiful across the Madonie and were lived in by shepherds during the summer months, when they would bring their herds up from the hot lowland areas to graze the greener pasture for three to four months. Most examples these days are historic relics or recreations. Shepherds these days are much more likely to drive back to their comfortable homes in the evening by car, perhaps leaving one person on night shift.
There are, however, still at least three places in the Madonie – Piano Battaglia, Piano di Farina (close to Hotel Pomieri, down the SP54 towards Petralie) and the little valley just off the south-east corner of Piano Cervi – where shepherds still milk their sheep out on the mountains during the summer and make ricotta cheese in the wild, which is then taken down to be sold in local shops and markets.
Five minutes further on, you will come to a long, grassy meadow to the right of the track – the track crosses this meadow and snakes upwards through pines and beech. At a finger-post you can take either the steep uphill path or the winding track, to reach a grassland viewpoint, with rocks to your right and a view to the sea on clear days. The track then descends to re-enter the beeches and almost immediately you pass two more concrete gate-posts – 50 metres further Sentiero 11b goes off on your left, climbing upwards from a right-hand bend (photo 7, D on map). It is easily missed, so be careful. This is the start of your return path – if you are not doing one of the extensions (box below) turn left here.
For a longer out-and-back extension to the walk (add an extra hour) continue on Sentiero 11 – after five minutes on your right there is a superb viewpoint (E on map), with a view to the sea and down onto the little town of Isnello, nestling in its valley below Pizzo Dipilo/ Monte Macabubbo. The path then descends and emerges from the beeches, with a view across to Monte Castellaro. Ten minutes later, you reach a high point over a steep valley, in which you can see a tiny house, the Casa di Mastro Peppino (photo 8 above, F on map) – it will take you a further 10 minutes to descend to the Casa on the steep, winding track. If you turn back here, you will have added about an hour to the main loop.
Alternatively, turn left along a beautiful steep-sided valley (G on map), going south-westwards towards Monte Fanusi and the Costo di Castellazo – a half hour’s walk will bring you out on a plateau with stunning views off the western edge of the massif, down onto the autostrada and across to Rocca di Sciara and Caltavuturo. Out and return will add 2-2.5 hours to the main loop walk.
On the main walk, after the 11b turn-off, continue up the steepish climb for five minutes to an open meadow at the top and then descend straight ahead back into the beeches. The road bends right and then left and down into quite a dark part of the beech woods, where the constant coppicing of the beeches has created strange, bulbous trunks covered in moss (photo 9 below). After another five minutes, you reach the bottom and emerge in another long open meadow with forest-clad hills on three sides (H on Map) – as you rise up a short slope, on the right, half-hidden in rocks, you may find wild peonies in the spring (photo 10 below). To continue the walk, turn sharp left down the open meadow, to pick up the track going east.
The Ascent of Monte dei Cervi
At this point you have the option of another extension to the walk – the ascent of Monte Cervi (1794 metres, 5830 feet) itself – about 30 minutes each way. Walk straight across the top of the meadow, instead of turning down to the left, and begin to climb up past a group of large trees and follow the path (J on map), first up to the left, then bending rightwards along the ridge and up to the peak (K on map). The climb up is fairly straightforward, with a number of options, BUT it is more difficult to re-trace your steps downwards, as the various rings of trees at the summit look very much the same. This is exacerbated by overcast skies, where you can’t use the sun for orientation. Therefore I would recommend carrying a small ball of ribbon or string and tying a piece to a low branch at each turn or significant change of direction. Alternatively (but more time- consuming) make a small cairn of stones at the same points.
For the main walk, enter the forest at the bottom of the meadow and the track will take you gently downwards, on a lovely trail, back to Piano Cervi – you will soon see a fence running along on your left. After about 50 minutes of delightful forest walking from the turn up Sentiero 11b, you will arrive back at Piano Cervi (photo 11 below). Cut left across the edge of the meadow and on to the track (Sentiero 11) you walked out on. From here it is another 40 minutes back to the Portella Colla.