Pizzo Carbonara is located at the centre of the Madonie mountain range in northern-central Sicily, the highest mountain of its range and the second highest of the island. It is a huge block of limestone rock, surrounded by deep valleys except on its southern and south-western sides were the passes at Piano Battaglia and Portella Colla reach 1605m and 1428m respectively. The whole Carbonara Massif – for such it is – rises slowly southwards out of the plain between the towns of Isnello and Castelbuono and thus folms a huge sloped high plateau, which to the south-west ends abruptly, dropping to the above mentioned passes.
On all sides but the northern one the Carbonara Massif is bounded by vertical walls, which are broken by vast gullies, some narrow, some very wide and often reaching far into the massif itself. The smooth appearance of Pizzo Carbonara reveals itself to be indeed rather rugged when seen from up close. The summit plain in fact is a neverending series of hillocks and crevices – in short, a typical karst formation. Underneath the surface caves can be found which, however, remain much smaller than the ones you find in other, similar regions. Often the caves have collapsed, leaving funnel-like hollows on the surface, the so-called dolines.
In contrast to the karst plateaus you find in the Alps, like the Altipiano delle Pale di San Martino or the Gottesacker Plateau in the Allgäu Alps, the Carbonara plateau does not> resemble a moonscape. Though not much less in altitude the 1000km which the mountain lies closer to the equator ensure a healthy vegetation. Out of the many cracks beneath the surface all kinds of small plants grow, from the ordinary grass to beautiful or rare orchids. The Dolines often are filled with dense forests of dwarf beeches, which indeed grow all over the plateau in thick patches. These in return are severe obstacles when climbing the mountain, since they are almost impenetrable.
Apart from Pizzo Carbonara itself the Carbonara plateau is home to several others of the highest summits of Sicily like Pizzo Palermo (1964m) and Pizzo Antenna della Principessa (1977m) as well as several unnamed ones, which all are higher than the next highest summit on Sicily Monte San Salvatore. However, they don’t rise much above the Carbonara plateau so that counting them as separate mountains doesn’t seem feasible. In fact, up on the plateau it is hard to determine where the actual Carbonara summit is as there are at least four peaks which almost the same height, that is within 20m of Pizzo Carbonara.
The most impressive of the mountain’s faces is its west face, which drops off from the summit plateau directly into the Isnello Valley below. The face is very rugged, with numerous ravines cutting through it, several of which can actually be used for an adventurous ascent. The longest of these valleys is Vallone della Trigna, a steep canyon which leads directly from Isnello to the northern part of the sloped plateau. The valley can be seen on the signature picture a bit left of centre.
The Pizzo Carbonara summit plateau
Pizzo Carbonara behind Monte Zuacalla
Do to the sheer size of the Carbonara Massif there are several possible starting points for an ascent of the mountain. The closest one is Piano Battaglia in the south, the farthest off is Castelbuono, or rather Rifugio Crispi above Castelbuono. The trailhead furthest down in elevation is Isnello, while probably the route through Vallone della Trigna is the most rewarding to the summit. The closest airport to Pizzo Carbonara is west of Palermo. From there the itineraries are identical up to the intersection between motorways A19 and A20.
Take motorway A29 direction Palermo
In Palermo the motorway turns into a four laned city highway which circles the city to its south
The city highway turns into motorway A20 direction Messina / Catania
Trailhead Piano Battaglia
Take motorway A19 direction Catania
Turn off at the exit Scilatto and take SP613 southeast to Polizzi Generosa
In Polizzi Generosa turn left (north) onto SP119 to Cefalù
At Portella Colla turn east towards Piano Battaglia
Trailhead Rifugio Crispi
Take motorway A20 direction Messina
Turn off at the exit Castelbuono and follow SS286 the town
At the end of Castelbuono turn off to the right in direction of San Gulielmo (look for signs). The road will take you to Rifugio Crispi, but it is advisable to start already at Contrada Castagna. From there a 1km long nature trail leads to the Rifugio.
Take motorway A20 direction Messina
Turn off at the exit Cefalù and head for the town centre
Shortly before you reach the town centre take SP28 south towards Isnello and Gratteri
A couple of 100m behind the Sanctuario di Gibilmanna turn right (still SP28) towards Gratteri and park in the saddle I Pianetti
Alternatively drive straight on to Isnello (SP84))
Orchis brancifortii, an endemic species to Sicily and eastern Sardinia
Pizzo Carbonara and its group belong to the Parco delle Madonie, which was established in 1989 and covers an area of approximately 40000ha. In the Sicilian parks you can climb and hike almost everywhere. Obstacles are the many barbed wire fences, which however may be crossed. They serve only for the pastures and to keep cattle sheep and horses from getting lost in the vast terrain.
Camping is not tolerated in the park, better look for accommodation in the nearby towns and villages (Cefalù, Isnello, Castelbuono, Polizzi Generosa). The northern coast of Sicily is close by and there you will be able to find all kinds of accommodation (see below).
You can quite easily find hotel rooms and apartments everywhere on the coasts. All European travel companies offer accommodation so a visit to your nearest travel office will find you some. In the mountains themselves accommodation is much harder to come by. Since camping is not allowed (see red tape) you have to ask at the local inns. Moreover there are some farms which offer “agriturismo” though on Sicily this often means only food and no rooms.
There are two huts, Rifugio Crispi, above Castelbuono and Rifugio Piero Merlino at Piano Battaglia.
Sicily is located very close to northern Africa (Marsala on the west coast is closer to Tunis than to any place on the Italian mainland), thus temperatures can get very high. March, April and early May are the best months if you plan to hike the mountains, the winter can be wet, the summer scorchingly hot, even as high up as Pizzo Carbonara.
Moreover you can have fierce winds on the summit so prepare for them. Also it is definitely not advisable to climb the plateau in foggy conditions.
Unfortunately there are no current topographic maps of Sicily. The best are reported to be more than 50 years old and probably are the same as the basis for the digital maps of atlanteitaliano.it.
As a workaround you can use street maps for general orientation together with a good guidebook (see below). The most accurate maps are scaled 1:200000, sometimes detailing everything down to forest and dirt roads through the mountains. I settled for
Since there are no good topographical maps of Sicily you should take care to get a good guidebook. The one I used is in general excellent. The Pizzo Carbonara route, however, though described in detail, is a bit off right at the beginning. The route starts at Piano Battaglia, not at Rifugio Merlino, as the book claims. With an additional steep slope scramble you'll reach the real route, however.