The Hautes-Alpes area of France is a mountain bikers paradise. The stuff dreams are made of. Endless fast-flowing singletrack through wild landscapes. Spectacular glaciers, majestic towering rocky peaks and deep unspoiled valleys, mountain pastures and vast forests, riddled with a huge concentration of the finest quality natural trails. Add to this the fact that the area receives over 300 days of sunshine a year on average and it’s many peoples’ idea of mountain biker heaven!
Hautes-Alpes: Welcome to the biker heaven
Situated between Provence and the Alpes du Nord, this region is the highest mountainous Department in France and an incredible destination for year-round outdoor activities. Yet it is still relatively quiet compared to the busy resorts of the Savoie and Haute-Savoie further North. I’ve been visiting the area for the last 20 years, initially for mountaineering and backcountry ski trips, but over the last decade, my interest has shifted to mountain biking and the potential in this area. Exploratory trips and journeys through these mountains allowed me to explore more and more of the fantastic trails here, as well as touching on this area whilst guiding for other companies over the last few years. It’s certainly my favourite part of the whole of the French Alps to ride in, and I’ve visited a lot of places! If it’s road-riding you’re into, the area is equally amazing, blessed with magnificent mountain passes that are also some of the most iconic climbs in the Tour de France; Col du Galibier, Col de l’Izoard, Col Agnel to name a few.
The Hautes-Alpes is vast, you could spend a lifetime exploring its landscapes, but to give you a taste of the area’s potential, I’ve focused on highlighting a small corridor through the department that showcases the incredible trails, epic scenery, and warm hospitality that I recommend to anyone visiting the region for the first time!
Riding in La Grave – 2000m of a technical descent
First up is La Grave, a small town best known for its legendary big-mountain skiing terrain. From here, an iconic lift gives mountain bikers (and hikers and climbers) access to a spot where it almost feels like you can touch the glacier. Several incredible high alpine descents of almost 2000m are possible from here…there aren’t many places where that’s possible! Just like it’s freeride skiing in Winter, it’s not a place for novice riders, with trails that are steep, technical and demanding of a high level of skill and experience. There are no easy, flowy trails to find your feet here, with the easiest runs being harder than any black graded trails you would find in the UK… But for those that come looking for that, the place is very special.
If that’s not the kind of riding you’re into though, you needn’t fear, as the sunny south-facing side of the same valley also contains some fantastic varied singletrack riding through stunning scenery, with a relatively small amount of effort to get there. Several marked loops provide some great day rides, and you’re unlikely to see anyone else out… Which is crazy, given how good the riding is! The Auberge Edelweiss is in the centre of the village and a perfect place to stay for bikers. Owners Robin and Marlon are super friendly and welcoming, the food is incredible, the beds comfy, and there is a great bar to choose your post-ride drink of choice and a lovely terrace on which to sit and drink it as you watch the sun drop down over the Glacier de la Meije above. On top of this, the hotel has a bike store, workshop, and even e-bikes to rent…. If only all hotels catered for cyclists this well!
Prime trails for all levels of rider in the Serre-Chevalier valley
Moving South-East, and over the famous Col de Lautaret, you drop into the delightful Serre-Chevalier valley, winding its way down towards Briancon. Beautiful balcony trails, fast-flowy singletrack, switchbacking trails through steep wooded hillsides, and loose, rocky, technical trails mean the riding here has something to suit every taste of mountain biker. If you’re new to the sport or prefer less technical riding then the valley trails are gentle but beautiful, and there are marked options for all levels of rider. In early Summer the singletrack forms a thin ribbon through carpets of Alpine wildflowers of every colour and is truly spectacular. Visit in Autumn and you’ll find hillsides of every shade of yellow, green and brown, highlighted by the incredible low sunlight at that time of year.
Briancon – endless opportunities for motivated riders
Located at an altitude of 1326m, at the confluence of 5 valleys, Briancon is the highest town in France. Heavily fortified by French military architect Vauban in the 18th Century, the city is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its old walled Citadel full of narrow streets, cafes, bars, restaurants and shops is a lovely place to spend time. In addition to this, it also happens to be at the centre of some incredible mountain biking! It is possible to use the lifts at nearby resorts Montgenevre and Serre Chevalier to gain height, then descend on fabulous woodland singletrack trails, often from ancient forts perched high on the hillsides above the town. If you are prepared for some hike-a-bike then the opportunities are endless. Access laws in France mean that mountain bikers are lucky to be able to ride almost anywhere, excluding National Parks, and providing you are always courteous and respectful of hikers and other trail users, you will usually be greeted with friendly smiles and conversations about “how on earth you got a bike up here?” wherever you are!
Beyond Briancon, and over the Col de L’Izoard, you begin to enter the Queyras regional natural park. Covering an area of 65,000 hectares, this incredible mountain playground is full of beautiful flora and fauna, unspoilt scenery, and trails that will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear. It is one of my favourite areas to ride in the World and each time I return I’m still discovering new trails. Again, there are a series of marked day rides for different ability levels, all of which are good fun and give a great sample of the riding in the area, but the real fun lies away from these. Looking at maps of the area you’ll get a sense of just how many trails there are here. Of course, to get the most out of it it’s worth getting some local knowledge so you don’t end up climbing up the area’s best descent, or scrambling down ladders and the few trails that really don’t work for bikes!
There’s obviously a whole lot more to the Hautes-Alpes than the few places talked of above, but as I mentioned, it’s far too big an area to discuss in one blog post!
Travelling to the area can take a little more effort and planning then to some parts of the Alps, with Geneva and Turin being the nearest airports, and hiring a car pretty much essential from there. Driving is a good option as to get to a lot of the places in the Hautes-Alpes you really need a vehicle. An alternative option for good riders looking for an inclusive week exploring the riding in the areas described is to join an Endless Trails MTB trip. The Hautes-Alpes Enduro Safari runs in late June/early July and September 2020, and is a week long mountain bike adventure through the area. All airport transfers, transport during the week, hotel accommodation, meals each day, professional guiding, lift passes and van support are included, leaving flights to Geneva as the only logistic to organise yourself. It’s a great way to experience the Hautes-Alpes with minimal organisation needed on your part and guaranteed incredible riding. To find out more head to endlesstrailsmtb.com.
So there you have it…time to start thinking about planning a mountain bike trip to the Hautes-Alpes next year?!
For more adventures follow Julia on Instagram @Julialikesbikes.