With its stunning glacier-topped peaks, rolling green farmlands, delicious cheeses and wines, and charming huts, the French Alps can seem like a fairy tale plucked from the shelf, almost too good to be true. But the French Alps are every bit as good as they seem, and this Ryder-Walker tour, hiking along the base of the famous Mont Blanc, from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Val d’Isère, highlights the best of the region.
Hiking from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Val d’Isère
The trip begins in Bourg St. Maurice, a small town in the Tarentaise valley. Commonly referred to as just “Bourg,” this outpost in the heart of the French Alps has maintained its medieval history well, with its stone-paved winding streets, small boutiques and restaurants, and central cathedral. Using Bourg as a base, you’ll explore the lovely French villages of La Thuile, La Nant and Les Echines-Dessus before descending to Les Echines-Dessous, all the while traveling through the mountainous farms ubiquitous in the French Alps and sampling local meats and cheeses.
Next, it’s onto St. Foy-Tarentaise, a village at the base of the ski area, St. Foy. A former farming town, the houses and buildings have maintained the stone and wood of traditional rural France. Yet, the hotels and amenities are all luxury, with several spas to soak in after a day of hiking. This will be your base for several days as you explore the panoramic valleys of the upper Tarentaise, wandering in and out of quaint hamlets like Le Falconniere and Le Mirroir, visiting the solitary 400-year old church Eglise St. Michel, and hiking to a mountain hut near La Motte at the foot of the Point de Archebloc near the Italian border.
The final hotel is in the legendary ski resort, Val d’Isère. Highlights from the days here include visiting the endearing village of Le Monal, the traverse from St. Foy to Lac du Chevril by Tignes, the views of the glacier-capped Mount Pourri, and the day spent in the Grande Sassiere Nature Reserve. Moreover, after hiking the incredible Gorges Malpasset on the final day, you’ll celebrate with a magnificent lunch with the French Alpine Club at the Refuge du Prariond, a mountain lodge nestled in a glacial valley.
It’s hard to talk about France without mentioning the food. Simply put, you’ll eat well here, every meal, all the time. Even the picnics you’ll have on the trail put America’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and granola bars to shame. For the French, a picnic means local meats like saucisson, a dried sausage, and cheeses like Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Reblochon, and goat cheese (both fresh and aged). It means olives and baguettes, chocolates and biscuits, and maybe even some cider or wine, if you feel like your legs will still carry you down the mountain afterwards.
But even with all of these outstanding ingredients, the lunches are just a primer for the dinners, multi-course affairs where you’ll encounter an array of salads, meat dishes, cheese plates, and cakes, all served with delicious French wine. As this is the Alps, expect to find treats like raclette, a melted cheese poured over meats and potatoes, tableside and several varieties of fondue. Other specialties include tartiflette, a baked dish made with potatoes, bacon, onions, and Reblochon cheese, risotto, polenta, gnocchi, and fun, fresh pasta dishes.
Formed when the African tectonic plate slammed into the European plate, the Alps stretch 600 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia. These mountains have been shaped and carved by glaciers, and there is evidence of this geology everywhere you look in this region. Indeed, the Alps are one of the best places to study the effects of glaciers with its U-shaped valleys, seracs, snowfields, hanging valleys, plummeting waterfalls, horn-shaped peaks, knife-edged aretes, and enormous cirques.
There are also several places to see active glaciers, including Mont Blanc, which you travel within sight of for much of this trip. Although climate change has had a toll on its glaciers like it has in much of the world, the Mer de Glace glacier near Chamonix, France, is still one of the longest glaciers in Europe, stretching for 3.5 miles (5.6 km) on the northern side of Mont Blanc.
People, too, have had an influence on this land. Groups as diverse as the Ligurians, Celts, Walsers, Rhaetians, and Romans have all made their mark on this region. Moreover, as the pressures of population forced herders to seek available space in the high country, another force shaped the land: livestock and small farms.
As you travel through the Alps on this iconic Ryder-Walker trip, you’ll witness this balance of wilderness with agriculture, a lovely mix of the charming brown Braunvieh cattle grazing at the base of glacier-capped peaks. This is, in fact the magic of the Alps, that the extensive systems of hiking trails used by ancient traders, herders, and pilgrims, have been maintained, allowing everyone today to still experience their beauty and their wonder.
Learn more about our guided French Alps: Mont Blanc & The Tarentaise Mountains trek.