Alcantara Gorge (Gole dell’Alcantara) is an amazing stretch of landscape located not far from another Sicilian jewel - Taormina.
Contrary to typical canyons carved out by waters in soft limestone rock in the course of “zillions” of years (like Cavagrande or Pantalica), the Alcantara canyon is the result violent forces of nature.
It all started relatively recently in a geological scale. Apparently, few hundred thousand years ago two elements of nature – lava from the nearby Etna and water stood-up to each other in a short but brutal fight. As the result the thick ocean of lava invading today’s Alcantara Valley was split leaving few kilometers long and several tens of meters deep fracture. Then not surprisingly (as our Mother Nature does not like the vacuum), waters of Alcantara River rushed through the new passage on their way to the Ionian Sea. The rest is history - but this time stunningly beautiful one despite the “violent” origins.
Although it may be quite “simplistic” vision of what exactly happened in the Alcantara Valley thousands of years ago, overwhelming geological evidence proves that canyon was not carved by erosion. The canyon walls show the pattern of sharp pentagonal and hexagonal columns. According to volcanologists, such “organ-pipes”-like or woodpiles-like structures were created when the “sea of lava” flowing into the valley was rapidly cooling (possibly in contact with the water).
Map of the Alcantara Park
Alcantara's gorge was carved in the sea of lava
What can you say? A river runs through it!
The present flow of the river and the shape of the canyon is the result of at least three lava flows with the last one happening some 8,000 years ago.
Regardless of the season the water of Alcantara River is cold! Another particularity is that in difference to many Sicilian rivers that usually dry-up in summer, Alcantara River has water all year long. Officially Alcantara River has source as about 1300 m above the sea level near the town Floresta. In reality however the river is formed by waters running off the northern slopes of Mt Etna. This tallest active European volcano reaching about 3,330m (10,920 ft.) above the sea level is covered by more or less thick snow cap serving as seemingly limitless source of water. On the way down, the Alcantara River also merges with waters coming from Nebrodi and Peloritan Mountains .
The river is only 52 km (32 miles) long. Melting snow in combination with relatively short run across the Alcantara Valley to the Ionian Sea (it empties near Giardini Naxos) contributes to low-digits temperatures of the water throughout the whole year.
Upper Alcantara River at the entrance to the canyon
And soon the "hell" starts.....
Narrow passage across the lava rock
Fascinating forms and colors....
Violent waters of otherwise peaceful Alcantara river
Nature puts roots everywhere
Alcantara at the exit from the canyon (it's here where the water activities start)
In the dominated by Greeks Sicily the river (or rather a turbulent torrent) was called Assinos (Asines). The current name “Alcantara” reflects the Arab domination of the Sicilian Island. Arabs called the area “Al Qantarah” (meaning “arched bridge”) – a reference to an old bridge over the river. Later the original Arabian word was slightly altered to “Cantaris” gaining some Latin “colors”. Finally “linguistic transformations” led to the beautifully sounding name Fiume Alcantara (Alcantara River).
What makes the Alcantara Gorge a very unique place is its shape and structure. It is a deep, but narrow “crack” (in some areas barely few meters wide) in the vast plateau of lava. Basaltic walls (poor in silicon, but rich in such minerals as magnesium and iron) reveal dark bluish-steel like colors, a phenomenon especially visible in narrow passages impenetrable to the sun.
Surprisingly – the gorges were “re-discovered” and made available to the public relatively recently. For long, due to the dangers of steep cliffs and turbulent waters it was a “no-go” zone even for local inhabitants. Indeed it was only in 1960 when the area of gorges thanks to its unparalleled beauty was protected by the creation of the Alcantara River Park (parco Fluviale dell’Alcantara).
It includes Alcantara Botanical and Geological Parks. The park extends over tens of hectares of citrus orchards, olive groves, meadows, pastures and woodlands. Within its limits are also three old peasants’ houses – “Il Borgio”, “La Casa delle Monache” and “Il Poggio”. Restored and converted into farmhouses with restaurants, swimming polls and rooms they serve as the family homes available for overnight rentals for tourists as well as “little” public recreation centers..
Where to go and what to see:
Stairs leading down to the beach
... and the beach itself
George Belvedere (Belvedere delle Gole)
The belvedere is located next to the main entrance to the park and parking lot, on the left side of the lounge-bar-restaurant-pizzeria “Al Quantarah Charme”. It offers best views on the mouth of the gorges and the beach. From the belvedere there is also access to the lift leading down to the beach.
Alcantara Gorges Trail (Sentiero delle Gole)
This is the “must-to-do” activity for visitors to Gole dell’Alcantara. About 1 kilometer long trail along the left bank of the river offers views on the gorges from the top of the riverbanks. In most interesting places the trail provides access to belvederes with spectacular views on the canyon and river. With few exceptions (bad weather) the trail is open year-round.
On the way you should stop at:
Trail along the canyon (mus be beautiful in Spring!)
Trails (stairs leading to one of the scenic-view platform)
Magic of the Mother Nature - along the Gole Alcantara
Layered structure of the lava rock
and more of the lava rocks
Alcantara River at the exit from the gorge
Lift giving access to the downstream entrance and beach
Downstream Entrance of the Alcantara Canyon
At the entrance to the canyon there is a larger opening with a beach. It is a charming place giving a unique opportunity to see the canyon from the bottom. The towering walls quickly narrow the upstream opening changing also the colors from light “brownish” to dark bluish. At low water level (usually from late spring till fall) it is possible to access the canyon walking in the water for some 100-150 meters upstream. In fact only small fraction of the gorges is accessible. Its major part is impenetrable due to deep, turbulent waters, strong currents, whirls and (if these obstacles are not convincing) - several meters high waterfall barrier.
Crystal-clear, shallow and relatively lazily moving water at the entrance gets deeper, stronger and darker to the point where it becomes dangerous. These dramatic changes of shapes and colors, enhanced by variations of intensity of light offer a truly memorable experience. For safety such adventure requires a waterproof suit with integrated boots (fortunately it is available at the entrance).
The area is accessible by the long zigzagging flight of stairs. While taking this path is part of Alcantara’s experience, for some it may be physically too challenging. The good news is that visitors can also take a lift to get down to the river and most importantly to come back in the same “effortless” way (provided that an extra fee is not an “extra effort”).
During rainy seasons, Alcantara Rivers quickly swells. While strong current, whirls and cascades make the gorge more dramatic, muddy colors of water take away a lot of magic fairy-tale like ambiance. It is also a more dangerous place so incursions into the canyon are forbidden at that time.
Eleonora trekking trail leads along the banks of river from the main entrance to the park towards the Peco Valley. The trail goes down to the river level ending at the Plane Tree Beach (“plane tree” is one of the native species to Alcantara Valley). The section of the river between the Plane Tree Beach and Gorges Beach at the downstream mouth of the canyon is ideal for water activities (although due to icy temperatures you should be one of those “hard-to-die” species or at least wear “overalls”.
Along the trail visitors can enjoy presence of green meadows, can stop at swimming pools and solarium as well as visit the Agriculture Museum and little farm with domesticated animals (baby goats, donkeys, rabbits….) so children can also have their portion of fun.
Trekking the river
This adventure is an “extension” of the Eleonora Trail starting at the Plane Tree Beach. Led by river-guides and protected by wetsuits, groups hike the river in an upstream direction walking in the water between lava rocks, crossing small waterfalls and cascades. The water trekking ends at the downstream mouth of the Alcantara Gorge. The fees include the access to the lift from the Georges Beach to the Georges’ Belvedere.
This adventure is for more “seasoned” tourists. Led by river guides and protected by neoprene wet-suits, boots, jackets and helmets (provided by guides), groups penetrate the mouth of Alcantara Gorges and the most downstream part of the canyon and river (some 100-150m up the river). On the way back, participants can let themselves to be carried along by the water passing between lava rock, descending rapids, small cascades….. The Body Rafting ends at the starting point at the Georges Beach next to the lift (included in the price of the ticket). As an alternative, seasoned trekkers can consider coming back to the Georges Belvedere by taking long “panoramic” flight of steps.
Of interest for visitors (especially younger) is also the Museum of Land (MOL). The museum includes several exhibition areas and a modern 4D multimedia room where the visitors can learn about the geology, flora and fauna of the Alcantara Valley and possible scenario of how the gorges were created.
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