La Route Des Grandes Alpes, 665 km of the best mountain ranges France has to offer. Bringing you from lake Geneva to the Mediterranean sea. While passing some of the highest and most beautiful mountain passes I have ever seen. Some of those mountain passes are so high that they are only open for a couple of months per year.
2009 was the year it was all gonna happen. I had decided to start my own business. And since I assumed I wouldn’t have much time for a holiday in the near future, I wanted to have one last (for the time being) memorable holiday. Since my business would be motorcycle related it would be only fitting to make a motorcycle road trip. This road trip would become Route des Grandes Alpes. And so on the early morning of 9 September 2009 I took my trusted Honda CX500 and left together with my best friend Casper.
But the Grand Alpes aren’t next door. And so we first had to drive a long and tedious 965 km long drive to Lake Geneva. Since we both share the philosophy that a holiday starts when we set off, we took almost 2 days to reach Thonon-les-Bains. Because that’s where Route des Grandes Alpes starts. To be more precise the route starts with the D902. Which in turn starts at a small meaningless roundabout in the centre of Thonon-les-Bains.
Thonon-les-Bains itself is a concrete jungle like so many others. But not to worry, only 5 minutes outside of Thonon-les-Bains is where the real fun starts. There is where the mountains start to rise and the houses are trade in for a river and trees. We ended up driving another half an hour, to Saint-Jean-d’Aulps. Here we found a campsite called Le Solerey. A small simple campsite next to a river with all the facilities we needed. And so we set up our tents for the first night in the Grandes Alpes.
Gorges du Pont du Diable
In 1892 a France carpenter gets permission to start building stairs so that a visit to the gorges becomes easier. A year later the gorges open for tourists to visit. But it would take another 15 years before the entire gorges became accessible.
If you have the chance you should definitely try to go and see Gorges du Pont du Diable. Gorges du Pont du Diable is a 15 minute drive from Thonon-les-Bains. Here you can make an hour long walk through the beautiful gorges with its azure blue river. Entrance fee is €15 and don’t forget to put on some sturdy walking shoes.
Adres: Le Jotty, 74200 La Vernaz, France
GPS: 46.304670, 6.615782
Read more: Gorges du Pont-du-Diable
Saint-Jean-d’Aulps to Tignes-les-Brévières
187km / ± 3hours
Day 2 promised to be a 187 km long drive. It would be the first day without any highways. And so it finally started to feel like a propper holiday. Despite that we faced our first mountain climb soon after we set off, we would drive through green mountain valleys and passes for the majority of the day. But with the highest altitude of the day barely missing the 2000 meter mark we had nothing to complain about.
On the way we passed Col de la Colombière and Lac de Roselend. They are both beautiful places where you should definitely stop to enjoy your surroundings. But my fondest memories I still have from Tignes-les-Brévières. Because after 200 km we both felt we had driven enough for the day and so we decided to go look for the nearest campsite. This turned out to be the municipality Campsite of Tignes-les-Brévières.
The campsite itself was on the side of a mountain. Right next to a reservoir. While overseeing the valley 150 meter below us. Even though the campsite itself was the bare minimum of what you would expect, it made everything worthwhile with its spectacular views. So if your like me and you care less about luxury and more about nature I can definitely recommend you Camping Municipal de Tignes-les-Brévières
Tignes-les-Brévières to Guillestre
200km / ± 3h 20minutes
While waking up to the view of Tignes valley we started on our 3rd day on the Grandes Alpes. After breakfast we packed up our tents and hit the road again. The 3rd day would be the day of the high mountain passes. Not only we would pass the well known Col du Galibier with its 2645 meter altitude. But we would also pass the Col de l’Iseran, with its 2770 meter altitude not only the highest mountain pass of the route but also one of the highest mountain passes of Europe.
Quite soon after leaving we would arrive at the highest of the two, Col de l’Iseran. Besides the wide views and the small chapel on summit there isn’t much to see on the Col de l’Iseran. The most exciting part is the climb up with a climbing rate that would reach up to 12%.
Col du Galibier
Much more exciting would be the weller known Col du Galibier, best known for the cycling stages in the Tour de France. This makes the col really popular with many (amateur) cyclists. This probably also makes the col the busiest col of the entire route. And it was on exactly this point where my trusted CX500 decided to give me some trouble. I don’t know if it was because of the thin air, but where the cyclist would normally cheer for there fellow cyclists to reach the top, they now also cheered for me. I had to go back all the way to first gear to even get on the summit of Col du Galibier.
And my “walk of shame” wasn’t finished yet. Because when we stopped at the summit we considered walking a bit to get a better view. Only after a measly 150 meter of walking I was already out of breath from the thin air. And so we moved on. Eventually after 200 kilometers of driving we decided to call it a day and found a real nice campsite in Guillestre
With its centre at 2042 meter Saint-Véran is the highest village in France and the 3rd highest village of Europe. The village itself is named after a 6th century Bishop, who, as legend tells, drove away a dragon.
The small village of Saint-Véran is only a 30 minute drive from Guillestre. Once arrived there you can explore the entire village…by foot. Because the village is closed off for traffic.
Adres: Saint-Véran, France
GPS: 44.7008, 6.8692
Read more: Saint-Véran (French site)
Guillestre to Menton
256km / ± 4h 35minutes
After staying in Guillestre for an extra day it was time for the last part of the route des Grandes Alpes. Not only was this part the longest with 256 kilometer and about 4,5 hours of driving. It also turned out to mentally the hardest to drive. The weather had turned around. And all day long it was a bit colder without any sun. So far so good and manageable… until we were about half way.
At Beuil we stopped to fill up on petrol and get a short brake. As we were getting ready to hit the road again it started pouring down on us. And so we decided to wait for the rain to pass. That took almost 2 hours of waiting, but finally the rain stopped. Glad that we missed out on the rain we got back on our bikes and continued our journey. But our relief of missing out on the rain showers was soon to be forgotten. Because as we passed into the next valley we caught up with the rain showers. And this time there was no place to shelter so we had to push through. That afternoon we continued, numb from the cold and completely soaked. And while the weather was forcing us to slow down our pace it got later and later.
Soon it would become dark. We were close to the finish, but not close enough. As we started to get hungry we went to eat dinner. A good moment to warm up and collect our thought. Would we stay here and finish tomorrow, our would we continue into the dark? But as we didn’t know how long this weather would last, and we didn’t want to risk another day of rain and cold we decided to push through. And so it was that at 11 in the evening I started to taste the salt in the air. And with every kilometer that we drove we felt the temperature of the surrounding air rise. We were almost there.
We finally arrived in Menton boulevard just before midnight. Completely exhausted and with no campsite open in the middle of the night, we didn’t waste anymore time. Instead we went to the nearest hotel we could find. The next morning we found a campsite in the hills overseeing Menton and the mediterranean where we put our tents again. Only the rain didn’t stop hunting us. And so after another raining night we decided to move more westwards along the Côte d’Azur, where we finally settled in Antibes.
Drive this route yourself
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Note: I cannot guarantee the correctness of this route. You can use this route as a base for your own route, but always make sure that you check the route yourself before driving and prepare for any unforeseen circumstances.
Featured image: Route des Grandes Alpes 2018 | Nissan Leaf II flickr photo by JayUny shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
Tignes: Tignes, Luglio 2011 flickr photo by mat’s eye shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
Col du Galibier: Col du Galibier, France flickr photo by rjshade shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
Menton: Menton flickr photo by © Axel Naud shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license