PARADISE FOR WALKERS
Stay at AlpBase; A Walking Paradise
Simply put we are in a walking paradise, where the majority of outdoor activists are mountain hikers. In our valley there are over 740km of marked paths, and in the Hautes Alpes a total of 6,800km.
The trails vary from a family circuit taking less than an hour through to major multi-day routes. The season runs from April until November and with 300 days of sunshine good weather is almost guaranteed!
On our doorstep is the Ecrins National Park (30 times larger than the Chamonix Valley) with a huge range of wildlife including Chamois, Ibex and Golden Eagles, and 1,800 varieties of plant life and flowers including Edelweiss and alpine orchids.click here for walks in Gerendoine, Ailefroide and Ecrins National Park.
Walking is something that we do a lot of, both as a family as a couple. We know this area very well as a result and so can advise on the best walks for the time of year. We also offer as standard free use of walking information sheets, guidebooks and maps. We can organise guided walks if you so wish, or self-guided walking itineraries to suit your requirements.
The other main reason to use us as a base for your walking holiday is because this area is so huge that it is easy to waste time finding what is best relevant to the time of the year. This is especially true in Autumn (September to early November) arguably the best months of the year, when the colours are simply amazing - deep reds and gold's in the forests, rising to early winter whiteness on the peaks above - yet there are tours and itineraries that really show of the season's parade of colours that you simply would not find if you had come to this without local knowledge.
The final reason Why AlpBase is simply because of the sheer abundance and diversity of hikes in the Vallouise Valley, making it a near-perfect base for a walking holiday. Let us explain a little more.
There are two main centers in our valley. The first is the village of Vallouise where are based, and the second is Ailefroide; France's second centre of Alpinism after Chamonix. Though both lie at a junction of valleys, Vallouise is open and sunny, while Ailefroide is more confined between huge rock walls and shadowed by amazing alpine landscapes. At the head of the Vallouise Valley there’s a broad open plain known as the Pré de Madame Carle. The rubble-strewn Glacier Noir drains down towards it from the west, but above big glacial slabs in the north the tumbling Glacier Blanc gleams in the sunlight. Both entice with prospects of exciting mountain walks among the highest of the high peaks.
Consequently if you walk around the Ailefroide end of the valley the trails tend to be steeper and longer, whist down at the Vallouise end the trails tend to be flatter. Thus from the tributary valley of Entre-les-Aigues stretching off to the west, to the footpaths in the main valley, the slopes above the hamlet of Puy Aillaud and then up into the Chambran Valley to the north, you really have everything and practically all from your doorstep.
The reason family walking holidays are so popular here is because the weather is stable and sunny bad weather days are rare so maximizing your days outdoor.
Secondly families can enjoy a huge range of outdoor activities on rest days or when you want a break from the trail. But the biggest reason of course is that there are so many short, easy and fun walks for families that you can do literally from your doorstep where you will see wild animals like marmots and chamois and see a huge range of beautiful flowers, and alpine scenery.
There are many locations where you can take your family and we have been talking a lot about Vallouise so here's one up in the spectacular Dormillouse Valley close to us in distance but a world away in terms of scenery and atmosphere!
Name: Village de Dormillouse
Total duration up and down: 1.30 hours
Height gain: 260m
Distance from Alpbase.com: 25 minutes by car
Drive straight through L’Argentière La Besse and follow signs for Freissinieres, keep going through Freissinieres past Les Violins hamlet to parking at very end of the road. The path leads up to the village of Dormillouse from here. Dormillouse has just 5 permanent inhabitants, rising to about 21 in the summer months. All provisions are taken up by mule. There is no vehicular access. A very authentic high mountain village with a lot of history, that feels more Nepalese foothills than Ecrins Alps!
Tips: 2 gites that serve food and drink make a day of it with children. You can really get a feel for how tough it must have been living in the mountains in the old days. Look out for the old flour grinding shed on your right just as you cross the bridge and enter the village.
Nestling in the south-western part of the French Alps between Vercours and Queyras is an area known variously as the Dauphine, Ecrins or the Oisans. The region includes the southernmost 4000 metre peak in the Alps, the Barre des Ecrins (4102m) as well as host of other significant mountains including the Pelvoux (3943m), the Pic Sans Nom (3913m) and the Meije (3982m), the last major alpine summit to be climbed. Making a tremendous circuit of these peaks is the GR54 long distance footpath which follows a rugged loop around the entire range. More serious and demanding than the Tour du Mont Blanc, it is ideally suited to the experienced mountain walker, as the average daily ascent and descent is in the order of 1000 metres. During the course of the walk the path climbs over many dramatic high passes and drops into deep pine-clad valleys, but luckily for us this beautiful region receives only a fraction of the numbers of visitors compared to its more famous northern neighbour.
Although not as well known as many regions in the Alps, the Oisans or Hautes Alpes offers some superb mountain walking and without the crowds normally associated with such popular trails. It is a difficult region to divide into distinct areas but we have had a go below:
ECRINS NATIONAL PARK
The Massif des Écrins is one of the most spectacular hiking regions in the whole of the Alps. Most of the area is a national park, with summits over 3000m high. The area is simply huge - the national park is the largest in France, covering an area of 92,000 hectares (227,332 acres), with a peripheral zone nearly twice that size. In simple terms it is 30 times bigger than the Chamonix Valley - and criss crossed by well over 1000Km's of well-marked trails. The vast majority of which are accessible from AlpBase. Hung about with glaciers, more than 100 peaks rise to well over 3000m and hence the reason why this area is referred to as the Hautes Alpes (High Alps) because it comprises the largest concentration of big mountain peaks in France; the Barre des Écrins, the highest mountain in the area and which gives its name to the area, is 4102m.
Yet the region, because it is so well organised, is suitable for all walkers, from alpine novices to experts. You will find well marked trails, an abundance of flora and fauna, very few people outside the prime summer weeks (15 July to 15 August) and fantastic weather.
The Ecrins National Park has abundant wildlife. Look out for eagles, chamois, willow grouse, marmots, black grouse, ptarmigan, blanchons, and even stoats....in all 167 rare and valuable species. The flora is equally diverse – 1,800 varieties with 387 rare species. Away from the traditional lavender fields of Provence you might find blue thistles, lilies and purple gentians and high altitude plants such as androsace, saxifrage, silene and edelweiss.
The walks and hikes in the Ecrins range from local 30 minute family trails to the Tour of the Oisans (GR 54), a multi-day hike across the entire Massif! The six valley bases or The Ecrins Valleys which make up this area include the following:
La Vallouise, La Romanche, La Guisane, Valgaudemar, Valjouffrey and the Vénéon Valley.
There are two main centers in our valley. The first is the village of Vallouise where are based, and the second is Ailefroide; France's second centre of Alpinism after Chamonix. Though both lie at a junction of valleys, Vallouise is open and sunny, while Ailefroide is confined between huge rock walls, and with forest crowding its outskirts. At the head of the Vallouise Valley there’s a broad open plain known as the Pré de Madame Carle. The rubble-strewn Glacier Noir drains down towards it from the west, but above big glacial slabs in the north the tumbling Glacier Blanc gleams in the sunlight. Both entice with prospects of exciting alpine walks among the highest of the high peaks. If you walk around the Ailefroide end of the valley the trails tend to be steeper and longer, whist down at the Vallouise end the trails tend to be flatter. Thus from the tributary valley of Entre-les-Aigues stretching off to the west, to the footpaths in the main valley, the slopes above the hamlet of Puy Aillaud and then up into the Chambran Valley to the north, you really have everything and practically all from your doorstep.
Here are a few classic examples:
- Le Pont de Gerendoine - 1 hr., 20m. height gain - from your doorstep
- L'Ubac - 1hr., 20m. height gain - from your doorstep
- Le Pre de Madame Carle – 1.30 hrs., 200m height gain – 6 minutes drive
- Vallouise Discovery Trail – 2 hrs., 5m. height gain – from your doorstep
- The Eychauda Lake – 2 hrs., 240m height gain - 10 minutes drive
- Le Tete d’Oreac - 2.30hrs., 190m. height gain - 15 minutes drive
- The Claphouse Valley – 3 hrs., 572m height gain - 10 minutes drive
- Refuge des Bans - 3.30hrs., 540m. height gain - 10 minutes drive
- The Glacier Blanc – 4 hrs., 686m height gain - 15 minutes drive
- La Condamine - 8 hrs., 1,470m. height gain - 10 minutes away
One of the region’s main access routes between Grenoble and Briançon via Col du Lautaret journeys through the Vallée de la Romanche along the Park’s northern rim. At its western end Bourg d’Oisans makes a good base, for it's conveniently situated close to a junction of valleys (the Vénéon lies to the southeast) and has good public transport connections. However, the best walking opportunities lie further east, in the vicinity of La Grave and Villar d’Arène. You are now at the foot of the Lautaret pass, with the Meije bursting out of the valley to the south and an impressive group of high mountains clustered nearby. Trails lead among and below these peaks, visiting remote huts and wild inner glens inhabited by marmot and chamois. The more gentle country north of the Romanche, whilst lying outside the National Park, also has countless walking routes, with glorious views to the big mountains on the far side of the valley. The multi-day Tour de l’Oisans, which follows GR54 on a circuit of the northern and central Écrins, begins and ends in Bourg d’Oisans, travels along that northern hillside and comes down to La Grave before heading southeast across Col d’Arsine to gain Le Casset in the Vallée de la Guisane.
Descending from Col du Lautaret to Briançon (Europe’s highest town), the Guisane skirts the northeastern edge of the National Park. The upper part of the valley is bounded by some rugged rock scenery, the middle section is broader and open, while in the lower third the ski resort of Serre Chevalier. In summer, when there is no skiable snow, the Serre-Chevalier téléphérique, which rises to 2491m, can be used to gain access to a series of high trails that follow ridge crests or descend into neighboring valleys. Downstream from the Serre Chevalier resort Briançon, on the other hand, is an historic attraction situated at a confluence of rivers in the valley of the Durance.
On the western side of the Parc National two main valleys cut into the range with access from the N85 Grenoble–Gap road. The southernmost of these is the Valgaudemar. La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar is the modest base here, located just 9km from the road head. The huge peak of L’Olan rises north of the village, and there’s a narrow glen cutting back to the south. At the head of the valley a mountain cirque provides plenty of scope for walks to huts, tarns and viewpoints.
This northernmost valley on the western side of the Écrins Park is watered by the Bonne River which drains west of L’Olan. Road access is from La Mure on N85, but really this is as far as you can get from AlpBase and walks and hikes in this region are arguably at the very limit of what can be accessed if based in Vallouise.
It is remote country indeed as any trekker who has tackled the Tour de l’Oisans will attest to. Still the Valjouffrey Valley offers some worthwhile treks and if you have the time is not to be missed. I climbed the North Face of the Olan in 2009 at the start of autumn, and found the valley very remote yet possessed of an austere beauty.
THE VENEON VALLEY
The Vénéon rises in the glacial heartland of the Ecrins massif and flows roughly northwest out to the Romanche a short distance upstream of Bourg d’Oisans. The Vénéon is a gem of a valley fed by a number of attractive tributary glens, all of which are well worth exploring on foot. An infrequent daily bus service runs from Bourg to La Bérarde, the final village situated at the road head where the upper Vénéon is joined by the Etançons torrent – the latter draining glaciers on the south side of La Meije. Within the valley there are several small centers, but the biggest and best known is without doubt La Bérarde, a smaller and more basic version of Ailefroide at the head of the Vallouise Valley.
This amazingly long and spectacular glaciated valley full of huge hanging waterfalls and amazing rock formations ends abruptly at a large car park underneath a steep sided zigzagging path. From you can walk for 4 hours or for days! The classic hike in this valley is the Dormillouse Trail - 5 hours long with a height gain of just under 1000m. It will take you the unique hamlet of Dormillouse which has just 5 permanent inhabitants, rising to about 21 in the summer months. All provisions are taken up by mule. There is no vehicular access. It really is a very authentic high mountain village with a lot of history, and one that feels more Nepalese foothills than Ecrins Alps! Yet this is just the start if the walks in this area. But don't worry. If you want to see the hamlet but not do the 5 hour yomp thee is a direct route up that only takes 40 minutes!
The other real classic in this valley is the lakes circuit from Dormillouse. This alpine trail will take you between 5 and 6 hours and can be done any time between May and early October. From the parking at very end of road, follow the path up to Dormillouse bearing left onto a smaller path shortly before arriving at village. Follow this up through the woods, alpine meadows and eventually mountain trail terrain as you arrive at the first of two large mountain tarns. The perfect spot for a breather and some fantastic photographs as you can now look down the entire length of the valley. Moving on you pas the largest alpine chess board in the world - a really weird collection of cairns spread higgledy piggedly across a huge flat slab of granite. The path leas down and round to the second lake and eventually back down to your car. Truly a grand day out!
Tips: I prefer to do the circular tour of lakes anticlockwise, therefore going on the right fork where the path splits. The second lower lake (Lac Faravel) is very nice to stop for a picnic. If you look carefully around this area you can see vague stone circles which are the remains of very old settlements.
QUEYRAS REGIONAL PARK
Less than an hour's drive from AlpBase you will come to the Queyras Regional Park. It is part of the Hautes Alpes, lying to the south-east of the Ecrins National Park. The Queyras is a nature reserve that is quite unique in the Alps. Throughout the park’s 650 sq.km there are many mountain trails across wild, colourful countryside full of both traditional flowers of Provence as well as those from the Arctic and the Caucasus. The Queyras is also remote; it is one of the oldest mountain ranges of the Alps, and it was one of the last ones to be opened up to mountain tourism towards the end of the 20th century. As a result it is still, to this day, relatively untouched by environmental destruction.
The Queyras is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the French Alps. Despite its comparatively high altitude (walks are typically between 1,500m. and 2,500m.) it has the pleasant charm of pastoral mountains, with its Mélèze forests, fresh white water torrents, and classic alpine meadows. The mountains and valleys are magnificent, with gorgeous views and clear skies. The area, like the Ecrins Massif enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year. But best of all for the mountain walker are the footpaths which are well marked and will typically consist of easy-to-walk-on earth trails, rather than the rocky scree strewn paths one typically finds in the high Alps.
The Queyras Mountains are magnificent for hiking, whether you are an alpine novice or a seasoned pro! There are no glaciers and so the region is safe to traverse. Several of the main Queyras summits can be reached by the ordinary walker without specialist equipment or skills. But a few of the peaks require more experience and specialist equipment. All the basic day hikes however, are suitable for any fit hill walker. The whistles of marmots are everywhere but you will also see Chamois and the impressive mountain Ibex. There are also a myriad of birds including finches, choughs (red bills), alpine choughs (yellow bills), alpine grouse, ptarmigans, ravens and even the occasional Golden Eagle! The flora is equally diverse with an abundance of alpine flowers such as gentians (spring, purple, trumpet and giant yellow), lilies, alpine orchids, asters, irises, anemones, Blue carline thistles and of course the edelweiss. Please don't pick these protected flowers but take as many pictures as you want!
The air is clear and the views breathtaking. Because of the mountains, small loop-hikes are fairly limited, but these do exist from Molines or Pierre-Grosse towards St Veran, the highest village in the Alps! And in addition there are a couple of short loops west of Molines and La Rua. There are also many possibilities for half-day or less hikes, possible by simply heading up the hillsides through the trees, then back down to the valleys.
There are some great long hikes in this area, including the 13 day Tour du Queyras (the GR58). This classic follows the border between Italy and France, following the GR58 and GR541 trails. The route includes the highest point possible on any of the French GR's with 24 cols above 2000m and options to climb up to 17, five of them above 3000m. But there are also many classic 3 to 7 hour hikes. We have done around 10 hikes in the Queyras but in the most modern guidebook "Queyras - Pays du Viso" there are more than 25!
As usual with all alpine areas there are a myriad of events for walkers and mountaineers throughout the seasons. Check out the section marked AREA for more information.
As we have said millions of times before this region enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year. So whenever you come you are likely to find good weather. The winter months from late November to late March are to be avoided if you have come for walking.
From April until late June you will walk in t-shirts, through alpine pastures brimming with fresh flowers under deep blue skies and end of winter snow touching the majestic peaks around you. Yet you will see or hear almost no-one except the odd shepherd or mountain farmer.
July to end of August temperatures in the Ecrins range from 25°C to 28°C, but heavy late afternoon showers can occur. It is also the busiest period of the calendar and the mountain refuges are always very busy.
September is often more settled than July or August, and a lot quieter, but with slightly lower temperatures. Early October you will find the colours at their most intense, yet you will still be walking in t-shirts or a light fleece. This for us is the best time for hiking in the Ecrins. But the end of October or early November the region already feels like it is ready for winter and by mid November usually we get our first big dumps of snow.
Walking guidebooks in English:
1. Walking in the Ecrins National Park. Kev Reynolds Cicerone guide. ISBN 1 85284 322 5
2. Tour of the Oisans: GR54. Andrew Harper ISBN 1 85284 157 5
3. Walking the Alpine Parks of France & Northwest Italy by Marcia R. Lieberman (The Mountaineers, Seattle/Cordee, Leicester, 1994) Includes a selection of day walks within the Écrins National Park.
4. Walking in the Alps by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe, 2nd edition 2005) Covering the whole range from the Alpes Maritime to the Julian Alps, a section is devoted to the Écrins.
5. Tour of the Oisans: GR54 by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe, 2008) A walking guide to this challenging circuit.
6. Classic Walks in Europe by Walt Unsworth (Oxford Illustrated Press, Oxford, 1987) An inspiring book for the adventurous walker; a chapter by Andrew Harper is devoted to the Tour de l’Oisans.
7. Walking & Climbing in the Alps by Stefano Ardito (Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, 1994) This glossy hardback is a translation from the original Italian. Describing a number of multi-day tours in the Alps, it includes an eight-day walk from St-Véran in the Queyras to La Grave at the foot of La Meije.
8. Alpine Points of View by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe, 2004) A collection of 101 full-page colour photographs, plus text, illustrating the rich diversity of Europe’s premier mountain range from the walker’s viewpoint. The Écrins region is well represented.
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