Trekking in the French Alps

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Trekking in the French Alps
France

The French Alps, as the name would suggest, are the parts of the Alps mountain range that lie within France.

Located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions, this range has some of the best and most densely located peaks in Europe.

Not only are they one of the largest and highest mountain ranges in the world, the French Alps stretch 1,200 kilometres across eight different countries: France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.

Most ranges within the French Alps lie entirely within the country, but there are some, such as the Mont Blanc massif, that cross into neighbouring countries – Switzerland and Italy. Mont Blanc, which translates as ‘White Mountain’, is almost 5,000 metres high, making it the highest mountain in the Alps and Western Europe.

Around 120 million people visit the Alps each year, drawn in by its magnificent scenery – from mountains and forests to lakes and waterfalls – as well as the activities on offer.

The French Alps really is the ultimate destination in France year-round.

A huge variety of winter and summer activities are available in the French Alps. Even though it is best known for its outstanding skiing and snowboarding opportunities (with snowshoeing, sledging and impressive apres-ski), summer activities include hiking, mountaineering, biking and rock climbing

The French Alps is famous for walking and there are routes that start and finish in various places all over the Alps. One of the most popular areas is the Southern French Alps, including The Champsaur Valley for its alpine farmer’s system of hedgerows and fields and the impressive limestone Dévoluy massif, with nearby blue turquoise waters of the Serre-Ponçon and Sautet lakes.

One of the reasons that the Alps is so stunning and well preserved in terms of nature is that there has never been any industry in this area. As a result the area, the air is pure and the flora and fauna can freely thrive on the mountainsides and in the valleys.

Whilst out trekking you can expect to see everything from streams running through green fields, valleys that have been carved out by snow and ice over thousands of years, lakes reflecting the mountains around them and wildlife that ranges from butterflies and marmots to wild boars, golden eagles and even wolf packs or lynx.

For flora lovers, there are thousands of different species of flowers including blue gentians, orange lily, wild daffodils and over 60 species of orchid.

In terms of average costs for a trekking trip in the Alps, it is hard to give a benchmark or guideline as this will be entirely dictated by your choice of accommodation – either in a village or refuge – choice and length of trek, whether you use a guide, etc.

Highlights
  • Unique and varied walking with ability to taper distances according to ability.
  • An experience that you can repeat again and again and still get goosebumps.
  • Nowhere in the world offers so many soaring peaks in such a compact area – from the Himalayan-like Valgaudemar Valley, 22 kilometres in length, scattered with peaks towering 3000 metres above, to the rolling alpine landscapes of the Champsaur Valley – within just an hour of each other.
Walk Map
About the route
  • Travel

There are many different villages in the French Alps and depending on which one you choose, transport options will differ.

Virtually all of the key areas where you will base yourself for the treks are accessible via main roads, and in the summer months there is no need for snow chains or large vehicles.

Many of the villages are also serviced by the SNCF train service which has links from Paris (in the form of an overnight sleeper), Valence, Grenoble and Marseilles.

If you’re coming in from further afield, airports you can fly into include are Grenoble, Marseilles, Nice and Lyon or even Geneva.

Just be sure to check on a map the proximity of airports and stations to your village. Many airports offer shuttle options into the mountains during peak season.

  • Length

There are countless walks, ranging from a few hours to a few weeks. If you really want to explore, go off for a few days and stay in mountain refuges along the way.

The classic long distance route in the area is the Tour du Vieux Chaillol. This can be done as a guided or self guided trip and lasts seven to eight days – a suggested itinerary follows below.

All along the way, the paths are well marked and easy to follow – some sections are quite steep, and some might prefer to take poles, but all in all, the walking is easy and safe, albeit relatively long on some days.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

As mentioned above, trails vary wildly in terms of grade and difficulty. For families there are plenty of great walks with easy paths, gentle gradients, spectacular views and places to rest up or eat and drink.

On the flip side, some of the more adventurous trails such as the Tour du Vieux Chaillol, have daily average ascents of 600 meters and up to 1150 meters.

For these it is recommended to have a good level of fitness at the very least and do some long walks and climbs locally before setting off.

  • Experience

Unless you are hiking in the winter, it is more important to have a good level of fitness than previous trekking experience.

Most of the trails in the French Alps can be conquered with a decent level of aerobic fitness, well-worn in hiking boots, a set of poles and a good attitude.

  • Permits

The good news is that there are no permits required or fees to pay to trek in the French Alps.

This means that you can make your trekking trip as cheap or as expensive as you like by choosing your accommodation and villages according to budget.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

For some of the longer walks it’s worth doing it with a tour agency at you will have all your accommodation along the route pre-booked, with half board catering in gites and refuges, picnic lunches and baggage transfers included.

From a safety perspective, going with a guide means that you will always have access to a radio or phone with signal should anything go wrong and you wipe out your chances of getting lost in the mountains.

Guides can also show you where to spot wildlife and explain the geology and history of the features you will see on your walks.

On the other hand, routes are generally well-marked and the popular trails will have individuals and guided groups traversing them regularly throughout the day. It is worth picking up a map from the village info centre or your accommodation before you set off and taking a phone.

best time to walk

Conditions in the French Alps are suitable for walking all year round and lower altitudes, however from November until May, winter walking equipment may be needed and if venturing up higher, it is important to have a knowledge of avalanche hazard and safety.

If you are planning to trek during the winter months you will need snow shoes on virtually all of the high trails.

From late spring through to autumn, there are good trekking conditions but the weather does get particularly cold in the morning and at night, especially during autumn.

The weather is also subject to changing quickly. One minute you may be enjoying a clear sky and another your range of sight could be reduced to zero due to fog and low clouds.

For most people, the best time to go is during the warmer months – late May until late September – to guarantee trails being open and walkable. There are countless day walks taking in ridges, lakes and peaks.

If you want to take on a longer journey for a bit of a challenge, why not use the network of long distance footpaths – GR routes (Grande Randonnée), that criss-cross the high mountains of the Ecrins National park?

When planned well, this incorporates multiple vistas and scenery and you can stay in mountain refuges along the way.

Below are a handful of the most popular routes, ranging from a day to a week with varying difficulties. Of course there are hundreds more, which can be accessed from different villages in the French Alps.

You can get a hiking map and the train/bus schedule from the tourist information centres. You will need the bus/train schedule if you are doing a one-way route from a village outwards.

One-day Treks

Chamonix to Argentiere (via Grand Balcon and Lac Blanc)

Overview:

Starting in Chamonix, this route takes you up the Grand Balcon trail, followed by the Lac Blanc trail and then work back down to Argentiere, where you can catch a train back to Chamonix. Perfect for anyone in good shape that wants some great views.

Difficulty:

Moderate

Duration:

8 – 10 hours

Highlights:

This epic trail combine two of the valley’s best trails, the Grand Balcon and Lac Blanc trails, both of which allow you to see the Alps from a unique perspective.

En-route you can stop at PlanPraz to rest up and enjoy breakfast/lunch. Lac Blanc (translating as white lake) is located in the mountain and provides a panoramic reflection of the mountain range on a lake. The Grand Balcon trail provides an unobstructed view of the Mont Blanc mountain range all the way.

If you don’t fancy the full combination, you can do one or the other as they are both half-day treks. The Lac Blanc trail is regularly voted as the best one-day trek in the French Alps due to its scenery. The trail to Lac Blanc is well maintained and although it is part of the tour des aiguilles rouges, it is not nearly as crowded as the tour de Mont Blanc which circles the Mont Blanc.

La Lechere to Le Grand Crêtet

Overview:

A relatively easy climb up to Le Grand Crêtet via Refuge du Nant du Beurre (2080m) with great views of the Beaufortain Massif .

Difficulty:

Easy

Duration:

5 hours (including stops)

Highlights:

The terrain on this track is easy to walk and the scenery is reminiscent of the Sound of Music.

On arrival at Le Grand Crêtet, you can sit outside on the terrace overlooking the Vanoise Massif and see Mont Blanc towering in the distance.

Our Top-pick

Tour du Vieux Chaillol

Location:

Champsaur and Valgaudemar Valleys, Southern French Alps

Overview:

A classic long distance walk in the French Alps in and around the beautiful Ecrins National Park, which can be guided or self-guided.

Difficulty:

Moderate

Duration:

6-7 days

Highlights:

This tour around the iconic “Vieux Chaillol” summit combines stunning alpine scenery, wildlife and flowers, and a range of beautiful mountain refuges night after night.

Completing the trail over six or seven days allow for an easy pace with enough stops for photos, wildlife spotting and for taking in the spectacular views.

A suggested itinerary would look like the below:

Day 1:
Arrival and preparation

Day 2:
St Jaques to La Chapelle – 6.5 hours

A fantastic first day sampling the 22 kilometre long ‘Himalayan’ Valgaudemar valley.

Day 3: 
La Chapelle to Vallonpierre – 7.5 hours

The first big climb where you will see glaciers and snow capped mountains as a backdrop to pretty meadows and fast flowing rivers.

Day 4:
Vallonpierre to Champoléon – 7.5 hours

Crossing the col de Vallonpierre over in to the Champoleon valley with a steep descent.

Day 5:
Champoléon – Refuge du Tourond – 2 hours

An easy day’s walking with a gentle walk up to the Refuge du Tourond up one of the side valleys.

Day 6:
Refuge du Tourond to Chaillol – 6 hours

The second big climb of the trip takes you up to the Col de Venasque which offers a very different landscape. Views look out over Chaillol and the Champsaur valley with rolling hills and hedgerows.

Day 7:
Chaillol to Chauffayer – 7-8 hours

A longer final day traversing round the terraces overlooking the Champsaur valley and round back to the mouth of the Valgaudemar valley where you finish up.

Longer (multi-day) Routes

Tour du Mont Blanc

This is one of the most notorious treks and takes two weeks hiking around the infamous Mont Blanc Massif.

Generally led by an experienced guide, the loop crosses three borders and climbs over six passes, traversing beneath glaciers and meandering through Alpine villages.

Needless to say, the walking is sustained and strenuous often at high altitude.

Tour Des Ecrins

The Tour des Ecrins is one of the most popular high mountain Alpine treks.

A circular 12 day tour around the Ecrins National park, that involves relatively sustained and strenuous walking, often at high altitude.

This trek is best suited to fit and adventurous walkers, covering an average of 15 kilometres with 1200 metres of vertical ascent.

La Meije to mediterranean – Grand Traversée

A variation on the Grande Traverse des Alpes, this guided trek starts in La Grave and covers 200 kilometres.

You will pass through the best of the Ecrins, Queyras and Mercantour parks over 12 days, finishing in Nice ready for a swim in the Med.

Haute Romanche Valley Trek

This route winds through the varied mountain landscapes of the upper Romanche valley over the course of a week.

Traversing some of the best mountain scenery in the Alps – including the Plateau d’Emparis and Pic du Mas de la Grave (3020 metres high) – this trek is hard work but finishes at the beautiful source of the Romanche river

Accommodation

If you are doing multi-day treks, you will see the word ‘refuge’ pop up a lot as your only accommodation option on the mountains. A mountain refuge in France is by definition a “hut” and hikers use these to stay overnight, have a meal, and meet other hikers.

They are generally inexpensive but depending on the popularity of the route and their size, can book up in advance so it pays to factor this into your planning. Many of them offer clean, if simple, sleeping arrangements but spine-tingling views

Accommodation in the villages and on the mountain range from rustic dorm-style accommodations or simple mountain inns to all out, five-star hotels with pools and saunas. Wherever you choose to stay, reservations are recommended in the peak summer months of July and August.

Some of the most popular places to visit and stay include Chamonix, Annecy, Vercors, Grenoble, Aix-les-Bains, Val d’Isère, Evian-les-Bain and Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval.

What to do

Aside from trekking and taking in the scenery of the French Alps, there are plenty of amazing things to do.

Have a look at what activities are going on in and around your village, from ice skating and move nights, to paragliding and food festivals.

Les 2 Alpes resort recently launched a new outdoor festival giving visitors the chance to watch and try a range of activities. Les 2 Alpes Outdoor Festival gives you the opportunity to take on 100 kilometres of mountain bike tracks, three trail running competitions and an obstacle race.

If you would prefer to watch than take part, you can witness slack-lining above the lake, as participants attempt to break the high-line world record, or check out some aerial acrobatics as The Paragliding Pre World Cup also takes place during the festival each June.

If you’ve never seen an underground cave system at the peak of a mountain then you need to visit southern France.

The incredible Via Ferrata system enables you to use ladders, handholds and wires to traverse towards a cave located at the peak of a mountain.

The Southern French Alps are also where you can try out spending a night in a tree tent. As the name suggests, this popular options involves camping out in large canopies hanging in the trees, with some activities being conducted by a local outdoor specialist.

At a glance
Skills RequiredHiking, Walking
Difficulty 1/5 - 3/5
Starts at Massif des Ecrins départ du sentier du Ministre (avant Gioberney, 05800 La Chapelle-en-Valgaudémar, France
Finishes at Chauffayer, 05800 Aubessagne, France
Length of route 5 - 150Km
Average time to complete 1 - 15 Days
Possible to complete sub-sectionsYes
Highest point 2500 metres
Permit requiredNo
Equipment neededPoles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots
Countries visited France