Tour Reports
The Route des Grande Alpes is a tourist itinerary through the French Alps between Lake Geneva and the French Riviera passing over all the highest passes of the French Alps. It also hugs the Swiss and Italian borders so feel free to explore off route.

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During late May to September it becomes the play ground for mostly French, Italian, German, Dutch and increasing number of American bikers. Having done this route in part or in full 7 times over the years I’ve met bikers here from as far away as South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and even a couple of French want-to-be’s from Quebec, so even if your travelling alone there is always someone to park along side, admire the view and do a bit of tire kicking.


Unveiled in 1937, the Route des Grande Alpes (Great Alps Route) runs from Thonon-les-Bains to Menton, from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, is 684 km long and includes 16 passes, among the highest in the French Alpine massif: six of them culminate above 2,700 metres.

The road starts at Évian, through Thonon, Morzine and Cluses to Chamonix. It then heads to Saint-Gervais and Megève, over the Col des Saisies (1,633 m). It then passes through Beaufort, Bourg-Saint-Maurice and onto Val-d’Isère. The road then crosses the Col de l’Iseran (2,770 m). The road then passes through Modane and over the Col du Galibier (2,642 m) and then the Col du Lautaret to La Grave. The road heads to Briançon and then over the Col d’Izoard (2,361 m). The road then heads through Embrun and over the Col de Vars (2,111 m) and onto Barcelonnette. The road then climbs the Col de la Cayolle (2,327 m) to Entrevaux, then follows the Var river to Nice.

In May/June 2010 I blogged here about my last run along this route but never got time to give a proper description of the route so over the next posts I’ll break down the Route des Grande Alpes into it’s 8 main stages, I’ll give full descriptions, photos, road maps, places to stay, both useful and probably utterly useless information and any other crap I can think of that might help you plan your trip to my view of bikers Mecca!

There is a fair load of work involved in this so I can’t upload a new stage every day, it will probably take me a week or 3, so if you sign up to the blog either on the home page or Twitter you will receive a notification as to my latest upload.

Practical advice:
The trail reaches an altitude of 2,300 metres at several points. It is a wise to pay attention to changes in the climate and temperature between the valley bottoms and the passes, it can be hot on minute and bloody freezing 10 mins later! From June to September the weather is perfect for riding but it can change drastically from one valley to another as in all high mountain areas so be prepared with thermals, rain gear and a high-vis jacket. Beware that some petrol stations don’t take credit cards so have cash just in case. In France some of the ski resorts completely close for the summer season so make sure you don’t plan to stay in a ghost town. Also, many of the hotels etc don’t open untill 6pm so if you get to your hotel at 5pm and it’s closed just go for a beer untill it opens. The Cols or Passes leading from France to Italy may be open on the French side but closed on the Italian side, there is little communication between the French & Italian road authorities so check your fuel tank before crossing into Italy as you may have to double back.

Road conditions – check the status of the Cols/Passes:
InfoTrafic: Alpes Du Nord
Bison Fute

Route Des Grande Alpes – Stage 1 – Thonon to Grand Bornand »

Biking Routes - France 4 Responses so far

4 Responses to “So what the hell is Route Des Grande Alpes anyway?”

  1. Trumpet1050 says:

    Hi Dennis
    Well it looks like I have another 7 day pass out at the end of May, and after your fantastic guidance last year for the Pyrenees Tour I am eager to get back out there. Would you think I could realistically get down from Calais do a few of the stages and get back before the rolling pin comes out?

    I am thinking 1 long day to get somewhere near the start then 3-4 days doing some stages plus a day to get back to Calais, leaving 1 day spare.

    The guidance was spot on last year so would be grateful for your respected advice Dennis.

    Cheers Paul

    • Denis Smyth says:

      Hi Paul,

      Sure, a week is no problem if you are willing to put in 2 long days, you could do either the Alps or Pyrenees. Off the top of my head you could do comething like this which would see you in some of the best parts of the Pyrenees for 3 nights and with a full 3 and a half days riding in the high central and Basque Pyrenees. This route might need a little fine tuning and you’ll need a back-up route just in case the higher roads still have snow. In late May you really should have no problem, but you know yourself with the weather these days and it’s still a little early in the year to make that call. I have some contacts down there telling me they’ve had some mental heavy snow this year but I should know by late April – early May when the passes will be cleared and open.

      There’s some magic roads in the eastern Pyrenees, most especially on the Spanish side so you could easily do something like this then back in to France east of Andorra. From there you could visit Rennes le Chateau for a quick search for the Templar gold before heading up through the Gorge du Tarn via the Millau Viaduc (always a buzz and loads of places to stay there – if you book soon). With a bit of fine tuning this could be a great option as you’ll get into the Tarn area before the holiday camper van season gets into full swing..

      For the Alps you could do something like this Again you’ll need a back-up route as it’s more likely for some of the high passes to still be closed..

      Have a blast ;)

  2. ChristineKellyQC says:

    Hi Dennis

    Superb website and I hope you can find the time to respond to my query.

    We’re considering spending 4/5 days driving (no bikes on this occasion, due to other halves with us) in France and we fancy doing a “best of” road trip given this is our first trip of this sort to the region.

    Would it be possible for us to start and finish in Grenoble/Geneva and do the Route des Grande Alpes down and then Route Napoleon back up to our starting point within 4 days? I have no idea if this is a good idea or madness!

    We’re happy to drive about 6 hours a day as that still leaves time for a leisurely lunch and taking in the views.

    If this is madness, could you suggest a better/shorter “loop” that allows us to start and finish in Geneva/Grenoble?

    What’s the best direction to do this in?

    We’d be doing this between 25 Sept and 1 Oct 2018 and we can’t wait!

    Look forward to your reply and thank you!

    • Denis Smyth says:

      Hi Christine,

      Sorry for the late reply, I’m having a busy time of it at the moment.

      Doing the route you have planned would be easily doable on a motorbike in 4 days, but I suspect you’d need 5 days in a car if you strictly want to do the full Napoleon route to the coast then the Route des Alpes from the coast to Geneva. Route Napoleon is about 320km on good roads so that’s easily possible on day one. Although I’d not go all the way to the coast as you can easily end up wasting a whole day in traffic. The traffic all along the coast from Cannes to the Italian border is nuts at the best of times, I’d leave the coast for another time.

      Once you get onto Route des Grande Alpes don’t expect to cover much more than 300km per day, and as the full route is 900km from the coast to Geneva you need 3 days to do it comfortably enough to enjoy it stress free. And that 300km I’d expect would take you 6-7 hours driving, but as I’ve never done it in a car it’s hard for me to judge. Most of the D roads on the Route des Grande Alpes are narrow and slow going. If you get stuck behind a camper or lorry you’ll not find many places to pass safely, on a bike it’s no problem, but in a car, and if you’re unlucky with traffic, bad weather or roadworks a 300km day can very easily stretch to 8 hours driving time.

      The end of September is a great time to do it as there should be little or no traffic, but be aware there is no guarantee the high passes like Galibier or La Bonnette will be open, they tend to close down around mid-late October with the first snow but Mother Nature makes her own plans without consulting us. Road works may also close a pass so be sure you have a map and a backup route if a pass is closed and be at least fairly familiar with the map and route before you head off. If in a car I’d not want to plan on driving more than 200-250km per day on those roads because you want to leave time to enjoy the scenery etc.

      I’d take the Route Napoleon as far as Castellane, come in from the west via Gorges du Verdon if you can, it’s a little off route but worth it. Then on day 2 head east towards Entrevaux then start the journey north on Route des Alpes via Gorges du Daluis, Gorges du Cians or across by Valberg and up via Col du Bonnette (if the weather is good) aiming for Briancon on the 2nd night. Depending on your route day 2 will be about 220km via Col de la Cayolle, Col du Vars and Col d’Izoard which should be a relaxed 6 hour drive.

      Day 3 head north via Col du Galibier (if closed head via Col de Montgenèvre and Lac/Col du Mont Cenis) then Col de l’Iseran, Cormet de Roselend, Col des Saisies and overnight in maybe Bourg-Saint-Moritz or Beaufort. Day 4 will then allow you another easily doable drive to Geneva via Col de la Colombière. If it were up to me though after Col de la Colombière I’d head west and aim to spend the 4th night in Annecy, Geneva is not bad as cities go, but Annecy is well worth spending a little time in or around the town and lake. You’d not see everything on this route but you’d certainly be on the “best of” theme. Whatever route you decide on I’d try to keep it to a max of 250km on Route des Alpes to keep it stress free for the driver, keep a close eye on the weather, check each evening with hotel reception for roadworks/weather on your intended route and be familiar with your map. Over the years I’ve found it best to be flexible on Route des Alpes in spring and autumn as the high passes are at the mercy of Mother Nature, so knowing your map and having a backup plan/route is highly advisable.

      Check out the download page, I’ve got something like 30 satnav routes for the region, including Routes Napoleon and Grandes Alpes you can use to work out a route.

      Hope this helps,

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