The Route des Grandes Alpes is a road route, almost 700km long, through the French Alps. It starts at Lake Geneva and finishes on the Mediterranean coast, crossing some of the highest and most beautiful mountain passes in Europe.

The Route des Grand Alpes map with driving and walking routes. Our route is in green.

We started in the Chamonix valley (which was on the original route, but now bypassed due to amount of traffic in the area) and joined the route at Flumet. Headed south over the Col des Saisies (1633m) and Cormet de Roselend (1968m) and then into some of our skiing territory. Bourg-Saint-Maurice, which is at the base of Les Arcs (where we went skiing earlier in the year), passed Tignes and Val d’Isere, both regular ski areas. We stayed overnight in car park outside Val d’Isere on the start of Col d’Iseran (2764m).

The lady at Tignes
Val d'Isere
Nightstop at the bottom of Col d’Iseran just outside Val d’Isere.

We went for a very scenic morning walk along the Isere Gorge up to mountain refuge. Back in the van and up to top of Col d’Iseran, the highest mountain road pass in Europe. It overlooks a lot of the Val d’Isere ski area and it’s a very interesting exercise in summer trying to relate the terrain to winter conditions and figuring out where the ski runs are. Downhill and along the Maurienne valley for a lunch stop at Bonneval-sur-arc, an olde worlde French village where life seems to have hardly changed in centuries.

Bonneval-sur-Arc, picturesque village, but a bit like Italy there’s always someone’s parked car to give it a modern feel !!

Time to turn upwards again. This time along a very familiar stretch, Col du Télégraphe (1570m) and Col du Galibier (2645m). I know these intimately from having struggled up them on a bike a few years ago. We spent the night at the carpark at the top of Col du Télégraphe.

Col de Galibier with the ever present pleased bunch of cyclists!

Next day we ‘tackled’ the Col du Galibier. It’s a tough old climb but a lot easier in the van than on the bike. We passed a number of strugglers .. how I empathised! Of course there were others who looked as if they were racing up for PB times. There are all sorts of people climbing these classics.

Galibier 2
It’s bleak but beautiful at 2,645m on Galibier pass.

We stopped on the roadside for picnic lunch on way down Galibier. You do feel you’re really ‘in’ the high mountains.
We carried on through Serre-Chevalier and town of Briançon before tackling another Tour de France classic climb, the Col d’Izoard (2361m). No mobile data signal at the top so we drove down until we found a layby, with a good signal, for our nightstop. We can’t do all the internet stuff without mobile data coverage 🙂

Another day, another col. This time Col de Vars (2111m). We stopped at the top, had a ‘mountain’ picnic lunch and went for an afternoon walk.

Mountain woman at Col de Vars.

We headed down to Barcelonnette and turned up yet again for Col de la Cayolle (2326m). The Tour de France has gone up this but not since the 70s. The good thing about mountain passes that the TdF has used in recent years is they are wide enough to get all the tour traffic up and down them. This route, however, had numerous width, height and weight restriction notices. It is a very narrow, twisty road running along side a river gorge i.e. sheer wall of rock one side and a long drop off the cliff on the other side. Not too much traffic on it but nearly every passing was a challenge. Some of them required a number of vehicles making co-ordinated forward and reverse manouvres so all could pass … always a bit of a challenge when you’re 2.2 metres wide! Not quite as bad as the Passo di Gavia in Italy but most definitely a squeaky bottom journey.

How bad can it be? … eyes on the road!

Needless to say we didn’t have our intended stop on the way up. We made it to the top without a scratch and just a little apprehensive as to how bad the descent was going to be. But it was a lot easier, bit more room and fewer sheer drops … and it was almost as scenic as the ascent. We spent the night at a very pleasant ‘layby’ with great views and no traffic after nightfall.

Morning cuppa, the day after the scary assent of Col de la Cayolle

We picked up the Var river on the way down. This river, and its tributaries, were a regular and spectacular companion until it and us reached our destination at the Mediterranean coast at Nice. Very pretty valley with nice villages and lots of walking routes. It was at this stage that we started planning our ‘walking holiday’ return to the Route des Grand Alpes!
Just when we were thinking how idyllic the whole scene was we passed through a ‘modern’ french ski resort at Valberg on the way up to Col de la Couillole (1678m). Functional, ‘modern’ buildings can just about be passable when surrounded by metres of snow but they have few redeeming features in Summer time!
Narrow, twisty roads and spectacular gorge made for a great descent into St Sauveur sur Tinée, where we had a picnic lunch stop by the riverside.
Time for another col, Col st Martin (1500m) and down the Vésubie valley before starting the Col de Turini (1604m). Very wiggly ascent to the top where there are a number of hotels and restaurants and lots of bikers. Not surprisingly we were not the only ones travelling the Alps route. We encountered a lot of bikers on the way. At least they are easy to pass, if sometimes they are travelling at speed on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Kath was quite taken with their leg out acknowledgement when we slowed down/pulled in to let them overtake.
We spent the night in another quiet layby shortly after starting the descent. We’ve had plenty of scenic sections on our drive down the Alps but the descent of Col de Turini was still able to give us some wow moments.

Hard to capture the views on phone/camera … you have to be there !

Down into Sospel and we turned towards Nice (the original destination) whereas the current route carries on directly south to Menton. We went over our last col, Col de Braus (1002m) before dropping down to the madness of Nice in August summer holidays … I’m missing the mountains already 🙂

From Chamonix to Nice, we covered 670km, went over 12 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 17,000 metres and averaged around 40km/hour. It is one spectacular drive. We spent 5 nights free camping in the mountains.