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Despite the distinctive Route des Grandes Alpes signage, following the Route requires care. The dedicated IGN touring map will keep you on track, while the Route des Grandes Alpes (Ed. Gallimard) makes a highly informative travelling companion. A dedicated website gives current route information plus advice for cyclists and motorcyclists.
When is the Route open?
The Conseil Général des Hautes-Alpes also publishes a list indicating the state of the Cols and access to sites at altitude.
Association Grande Traversée des Alpes,
created in 1971 to promote sustainable tourism and activities between Lac Lèman and the Mediterranean.
Visit the website for itineraries, information and places to stay.
Beaufort-sur-Odon is located in the heart of the Beaufortain valley and is the centre of production for the famous AOC Beaufort cheese.
The Lac de Roselend lives up to its “rose land” name in early summer, when thousands of rhododendrons burst into vibrant bloom. The lake covers 320 ha and was created by the construction of the present barrage supplying water to the hydro-electric station of La Bâthie, some 120m lower.
The Glacier de la Gurra seeps across the peaks of the Tarentainse, high above the run up towards Tignes.
The Fort d’Esseillon , constructed on five levels above the Gorges de l’Arc between 1817-34, was originally designed to defend Piemont from French attack. Eventually the territory was ceeded to France as part of Savoie.
Below the Col du Galibier stands this huge monumant to Henri Desgrange, founder of the world-famous Tour de France cycle race.
Where to Stay
32 av. de la République
+33(0)4 92 21 02 94
Well situated close to the town centre and a few minutes’ walk uphill to the walled city. A family-run hotel, it is comfortable with spacious rooms, some with views over the town to the front. For breakfast, why not wander up to the Italian patisserie in the old town.
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Route des Grandes Alpes
Stage Two: From the Beaufortain to Briançon
- Bonneval-sur-Arc One of the most beautiful and best-preserved mountain villages in France, Bonneval-sur-Arc
- Cormet de Roselend The high-point marker at the Cormet de Roselend (1968m)
- Approaching the Cormet de Roselend The final stage of our early autumn climb to the Cormet de Roselend took us through the snow-line.
- Val d'Isère The Fornet cable-car is the first stage in a long haul for skiers heading to the Glacier du Grand Pisaillas above Val d’Isère.
- Approaching the Col du Galbier The route towards Galibier, where a narrow tunnel under the Col summit aids traffic caught out by unforeseen snow.
After the winding, initially wooded ascent from Beaufort-sur-Doron and its cosy neighbouring valleys, the final push up onto the Cormet de Roselend (1967m) feels almost like entering another country. The famous Tour de France stage now passes the 800m-long Lac de Roselend, created in 1961 with an 800m-long barrage to provide hydro-electric power, has a top-of-the-world remoteness which heightens its haunting, wild natural beauty.
From here the Route continues to climb, passing through craggy and often snow-covered landscapes which bring a tangible sense of drama to this section of the Route.
A skiers’ paradise
The onward descent through Bonneval-les-Bains is a more relaxed affair, however, and is eventually rewarded by the welcoming sight of Bourg St Maurice. The bustling town (whose rail terminus receives Eurostar direct Ski-Train services each winter) is overlooked by the family ski station of Les Arcs, linked by the sensational Vanoise Express cable car to neighbouring La Plagne creating the vast Paradiski area. From ‘Bourg’ the Route climbs once again, this time into the Tarentaise National Park. The road threads its way through a deep valley past the very different ski stations of La Rosière, Villaroger and Sainte-Foy Tarentaise, while pale aquamarine glaciers ooze silently over the nearby mountains. An indication of the seasonal extremes is conveyed by the nearby presence of montagnette farming villages like Le Monal, constructed for summer occupation only.
Things open out briefly beside the vast concrete barrage of Tignes-le-Chevril, topped by the road providing access to the twin ski villages of Val Claret and Tignes-le-Lac, part of the famous Espace Killy. The Route, however, now enters the series of tunnels before passing through Tignes’ illustrious partner ski village, Val d’Isère.
On top of the world
After passing through the heart of the village and its smaller neighbour Le Fornet, the road turns and climbs gently at first before scaling the valley side more determinedly, adding the surreal sensation of travelling uphill between piste-markers, on a road which in winter serves as a scenic (Blue-graded) ski run. The climb continues past the Belvedère de la Tarentaise, only finally relenting when we reach the Col de l’Isèran (2764m), one of the highest passes in Europe. It’s an exposed, often wind-blasted spot, and there's a real sense of achievement on the triumphant long swoop down through the Parc National de la Vanoise towards Bonneval-sur-Arc (1800m), unquestionably one of the most beautiful and best-preserved mountain villages in France. Bonneval also offers downhill skiing, and there's more in Lanslevillard and Lanslebourg, in the heart of the Val Cenis area. Just across the Col du Mont Cenis (painted by Turner in 1820) lies a vast lake set beside the old trade route to Turin. Today the valley (along with Morzine) hosts La Grande Odyssée, an annual dog-sledding event attracting professional teams from throughout the world.
Border Country: into the Maurienne
Pressing on down the valley past Bramans and the formidable Fort d’Esseillon, we reach the Maurienne Valley, and busy centre for local industry. Near Modane lie the trans-Alpine Frejus road and rail tunnels, the latter commenced during Sardinian territorial rule and completed in 1872. Shortly after Orelle (whose cable-car accesses Val Thorens and the huge Trois-Vallées ski area) the bustle is left behind, as we join the legendary climb to the Col du Télégraphe, a classic stage of the Tour de France, spiralling relentlessly through tree-lined hairpins to the 1566m summit (from which military telecommunications were pioneered during WWI).
From here we sweep down into the ski village of Valloire, before another steady climb gradually takes on a heightened sense of drama. Eventually the route is reduced to a narrow ribbon of tarmac set between vast walls of grass-clad gypsum. The final ascent creates an eerie sense of remoteness, plus an occasional dusting (or more) of snow. Fortunately, when the summit of the Col du Galibier (2645m) is closed by unseasonal snowdrifts travellers can generally continue to pass, thanks to a 370m-long single carriageway tunnel opened in 1890 around 100m below the Col. Emerging later from the far end in fine weather brings a heart-stopping panorama towards the Parc National des Écrins, while at the roadside is a monolithic monument to Henri Desgranges, creator of the Tour de France. Welcome to the Briançonnais.
Into the Southern Alps
Below Galibier the Route joins the main road from Grenoble at the Col du Lauteret (2058m) for the long cruise down a broad valley through the villages of the Serre Chevalier ski domaine. Ahead lies Briançon, at 1326m Europe's second highest city (and itself connected to the Serre Chevalier area by a modern gondola ski-lift. It's also a rich reward for the journey so far, with much to see in the historic Ville-Haute, which was fortified during the 17th Century by military engineer Vauban, who added a formidable citadel-style defensive complex.
© Roger Moss
Route des Grandes Alpes
Sometimes known as the Tour of the Glaciers, join us on a high-altitude walk in the Vanoise national park, staying overnight in remote refuges and barely touching tarmac throughout. Our guest author Mark Tennent, describes the tour, and you can accompany him for real by booking onto one of his guided holidays.
Diary of a mountain biker riding the Mont Blanc tour.
Don’t miss the annual Mexican-themed festival in the Vallée de l’Ubaye.
Alpine Exploratory give us a taste of the guided walks provided by the holiday company as we accompany the founder Simon Stevens on the Mont Blanc tour.