The Southern French Alps are gorgeous in summertime, with green meadows, fields of lavender and sunflowers and sparkly lakes. In fall and wintertime, however, the Southern French Alps have an entirely different charm. As the days get darker, people stoke up the fireplaces and the land is covered in a blanket of snow. Before the snow comes, the weather is perfect for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, kayaking and even skydiving. After it starts snowing, usually in December, the Southern French Alps turn into a skiing paradise.
In this article we’ll highlight the Southern French Alps in autumn and wintertime, and give you an idea of the amazing activities this gorgeous region of France has to offer for the whole family.
Autumn in the Southern French Alps
This area of France boasts many protected parks with splendid nature and wildlife. In the fall the many forests turn golden brown and red, making the area very attractive for nature photographers or painters.
- The Écrins National Park
Of the several parks in the region, the Écrins National Park north of Gap and Embrun is quite literally a jewel. This park boasts beautiful hiking and biking paths, and it’s even possible to hike to real glaciers. The Glacier de la Girose, Glacier de la Meije and Glacier Blanc are all part of the park. For lovers of extreme sports, it is also possible to take part in climbing and even ice climbing in this park. Especially the Vallée du Valgaudemar (Valgaudemar Valley), which ends at the Glacier de la Meije, is a hiking and climbing paradise. The valley is surrounded by massive mountains such as the Olan Mountain, which is 3564 meters high (almost 12,000 feet), the Gioberney Mountain and the Les Bans Mountain, which tops 3669 meters (over 12,000 feet).
Because of the nature of this rough terrain, the valley is largely untouched by humans, which makes it an ideal destination for adventurous hikers and climbers. The valley does contain a small village called La Chapelle en Valgaudemar, which mostly consists of picturesque houses built along the mountains’ sides. Close to the village you can also find les Oules du Diable, or the Devil’s Oules. These are deep grooves in the rocks carved out by the river de Navette. The cascading river and the old Roman bridge that crosses it are popular with visitors, despite the dangerous past of the river.
- Lac de Serre Poncon
South of the park lies the Lac de Serre-Ponçon, which is a 20-kilometer long (12 miles) lake. In the summer the blue water of the lake is used for many water sport activities. In autumn, it’s possible to kayak on the lake with a view of the high mountains of the Alps in the background. The Pic de Morgon, which towers over the lake, is an especially impressive mountain at 2324 meters high (7624 feet).
- Nearby Cities in the Southern French Alps
Even though most visitors come to the Southern French Alps for the splendid nature, there are also cities in the region that are quite worth a trip. In autumn, if you want to take a break from all the nature exploring, it’s easy to drive to one of the main cities in the region for a shopping or sightseeing trip. The main cities of the region are Gap, which lies to the southwest of the Écrins National Park, Embrun, which lies to the east of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon, and Briancon, which lies to the east of the Écrins National Park.
Gap (pin #1 on the map) is a scenic city with terracotta-roof houses and a beautiful white-stoned cathedral. It’s located in a valley at an altitude of 733 meters (2400 feet) and is surrounded by mountains. The fact that it’s so close to the Écrins National Park makes this an excellent starting point for an adventurous yet comfortable holiday. The city offers many restaurants and shopping opportunities. There’s a real French market every weekend on the Place Jean Marcelin and stores line the rue Carnot. To give you an impression of a holiday in Gap, see An American in the Southeast of France.
Embrun (pin #2 on the map) is situated on a cliff overlooking a valley and the river Durance, which flows into the Lac de Serre-Ponçon to the west. The location of the picturesque city ensures a dry and sunny climate, which gives the city its nickname “the Nice of the Alps”. The cathedral in Embrun is called Notre-Dame du Réal, and is one of the finest monuments in the region. Completely restored in the 20th century, the cathedral houses beautiful examples of stained glass, an ancient organ and a real treasure chest. Embrun also offers many shops and restaurants, and is especially popular amongst water sports tourists for its proximity to the Lake Serre-Ponçon.
Finally, Briancon (pin #3 on the map) has the highest altitude of all cities in the European Union at 1326 meters (4350 feet).
The historical city center of the city is highly fortified and consists of a collection of ancient buildings and narrow streets. Several of these buildings were classified as part of a World Heritage Site in 2008. The modern part of the city nowadays houses many shops, restaurants and cafes. Furthermore, the population of the city triples in the winter period for the skiing season, as the city is the base station of the large Serre Chevalier ski resort.
- Seeing the region from above
If you want to get a closer look at the mountains of the Southern French Alps, it’s also possible to view them from above. At the Gap Tallard Airport, planes depart almost every day carrying skydivers. It’s also possible to board a helicopter that takes you to the Glacier de la Meije. This glacier is popular amongst experienced skiers as you can ski or snowboard on the glacier itself. Another way to discover the mountains in an entirely new and exhilarating way is to try your hand at hang gliding, at for example la Grave or the Glacier de la Meije.
Winter in the Southern French Alps
Come December the Alps are covered in a white blanket and the small villages in the region start to look like something out of a fairy tale. The hiking boots are exchanged for snowshoes, and lovers of photography and painting suddenly have an entirely different environment to portray.
- Skiing / Snowboarding
The biggest draw of the region is of course skiing and snowboarding. In fact, one of the largest ski resorts in France can be found in the Southern French Alps. The resorts in the Southern Alps offer very reliable snow cover and some of the highest pistes in the country. Resorts such as Serre Chevalier, Orcières / Merlette, Les Orres, Puy Saint Vincent, Vars and Ancelle. The latest resort is particularly good for families and beginners, as the slopes are relatively easy. Check The Slopes in the South of France for more details on some of the best ski resorts in the area.
- Experiencing the Southern French Alps as a local
To give you an idea of a proper winter holiday in the Southern French Alps, we’ve selected one vacation rental apartment to highlight the possibilities. The accommodation is a 2-bedroom wooden chalet in La Bâtie Neuve, which is close to Gap and lies on the edge of the Écrin National Park.
The chalet can sleep 4 people, and is equipped with all the comforts you have in your own home. There’s a large entrance room where you can sporting equipment such as skis or climbing gear. The cozy living room has a view of the large private garden, so if you want to try your hand at painting you don’t even have to leave the apartment! If you do want to venture outside there’s a large garden that is part of the property. Especially for the kids this can be a big draw in the winter, as there’ll be enough snow to build plenty of snowmen and have a proper snow fight!
Furthermore, there’s an open kitchen that is equipped with all cooking utensils you need, as well as a stove, microwave and dishwasher. A dining table that seats four is perfect for a family dinner. If you don’t feel like cooking extensively, you can try a simple cheese fondue with cheese from the region. The villages of La Bâtie Neuve and Chorges (with its famous local market) are just a few minutes’ drive away, and here you can find all the things you’ll need at the bakery, pharmacy or grocery store. Alternatively, there’s also a nice restaurant to take the family after a long day of skiing! If you are a fan of cooking new dishes, however, there’re plenty of traditional meals in the Southern French Alps to inspire you.
- Southern French Alps Food
The Southern French Alps offer a range of different ingredients and also a range of various dishes. A famous specialty of the region is the tourtons. These are fried pastry squares that are filled with savory ingredients such as potato, cheese and onion puree. The tourtons make a fun appetizer to hold the kids over until dinner.
Another specialty is the Oreilles d’Ane. These “donkey ears” have wild spinach as the main ingredient, which is collected when the leaves resemble the shape of a donkey’s ears.
Other ingredients often used in traditional dishes are cheese and wine. Example of these dishes are ravioles, fondue savoyarde, fondue bourguignonne, raclette and tartiflette. A famous drink in the region that’s especially great after spending a long day in the snow is vin chaud, or “hot wine”, which will warm you up right away!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this little taste of an autumn or winter holiday in the Southern French Alps.
What’s your favorite winter holiday destination?
Related apartment rental posts from New York Habitat:
- Vacations in the French Alps: Villas, Chalets and Accommodations
- Hit the slopes in the South of France this winter!
- South of France Travel Deals: Provence, the French Riviera, Alps and Marseille
- Provence’s Food Culture and Famous Southern French Cuisine
- Create your own Tour de France through the Alps and the South of France