Katie Bamber heads to popular ski resort Les Deux Alpes in summer to hike in the national park, raft on its glacier-melt rapids and mountain bike among the world’s bravest…
I’m no stranger to the charms of mountain towns in summer. At least, not any more… Not since I became one of those that can’t help but quote the over-quoted quote of smug mountain dwellers: “I came for winter, but stayed for the summers”. A ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho led to three years living there, a place as busy in summer as in winter. The axiom might be a North American favourite but the realisation Alps-side that mountains are just as good – if not better – in summer is not… Chamonix and Morzine attract big summer crowds, as must Innsbruck and the Jungfrau (not that I’ve seen it first hand).
My summer mountain trips so far have included the Jura and Three Valleys. But blame it on the clientele of Sun Valley, the certified solitude of the Jura and shoulder season in the Three Valleys, but every mountain town and resort I’ve visited in summer months has been, well, quiet… And that’s not a bad thing. When lifts stop spinning we have e-bikes to power us uphill and the mountains all to ourselves.
But, when I rolled into Les Deux Alps mid June, after an easy journey (as far as mountain travel goes), I found the town buzzing and alive, with people and energy and endless activity.
- Les Deux Alpes is an hour’s drive – 65km by road to the west – from Grenoble, a swift three-hour train journey from Paris, for those wanting to travel by rail.
While it’s skiers and their stoke that generally energise resorts through winter, it’s the mountains themselves that come alive in summer, as snow melts and rivers flow hard and fast (skip ahead to rafting), wild flowers and animals come out in force, and you find yourself in a more hospitable landscape with, let’s face it, more to do…
While I could easily write an ode to mountain resorts in summertime, I’m likely preaching to the converted. So instead here’s why Les Deux Alpes is the best mountain resort for a summer holiday.
The village of Les Deux Alpes
Les Deux Alpes is sat on a high mountain plateau at 1,650m, overlooking the Romanche valley on the fringe of Écrins national park. It’s surrounded by mega peaks; La Muzelle sits at one end of the village; you can throw a stone and hit La Meije of the infamous La Grave. Layers of mountains are silhouetted against the next in the late afternoon haze, and pub tables are filled with happy bikers, dusty from a day riding.
With a busy centre, Les Deux Alpes stretches north to south between two older villages – Mont de Lans and Venosc – once the grazing pasture for both villages’ cattle. Now the streets are full of cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants, with mountain trails (for skiing/biking/walking) on both sides.
Mountain biking in Les Deux Alpes
There couldn’t be a better race to catch, nor a better time to visit Les Deux Alpes. The Mountain of Hell event is on – a legendary downhill mountain bike race (picture the the Grand National for bikes) that sees hundreds of riders descent over 2,500m of vertical from the glacier at 3,400 to the valley floor over snow, rock and dirt, sandy berms and pine forest switchbacks.
Camper vans fill (beautiful) cliff top car parks, but an occasional escaped camper is visible hiding behind a brow or a tent setting up camp early evening. Afternoons make for long beers in the sun, with every inch of wall in town propping up a bike. There’s a buzz about the resort – is it the hype of the upcoming bike race? The evening before the big event has a festival-feel, with kids’ bike races, ridden by MoH pros, around the square. This was my welcome to Les Deux Alpes; I thought this the Mountain of Hell effect, but it turns out that Les Deux Alpes is always alive with riders and mountain travellers mid summer.
Rusty, and certainly not up to the Mountain of Hell qualifier, I start out on the greens and blues on the Vallée Blanche side of the resort, a lower but recently expanded area with beautiful biking terrain and easy flow trails. An afternoon was spent cruising on an e-bike with Trail Hunter MTB instructor Antoine, skirting the resort’s outer trails with just cows for company, and barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer in the region.
Step it up again on the downhill trails and enduro routes of the bike park, with 103km of trail and four lifts, and you’re ready to sign up to next year’s MoH – go on…
Road biking in Les Deux Alpes
Every Tuesday during the summer, a road or pass is closed to motor traffic for cyclists, for more peaceful, safe riding. Famous mountain passes in the region to take on are the Col du Galibier, Col du Lautaret, Col de Sarenne (to Alpe d’Huez), Ornon, the Iron Cross and Glandon. From the valley, cyclists can take the Venosc cable car back to resort or take on record holder Marco Pantani’s time of 21 minutes, climbing from Venosc to Les Deux Alpes.
Hiking in Les Deux Alpes
Les Deux Alpes is beautifully situated at the edge of Écrins National Park. Fabrice, our guide, collects us from Les Deux Alpes and drives us along the valley and fast-flowing glacial river, up a hairpin-bend road, through the narrow streets of St Christoph-en-Oisans that overlooks a crashing waterfall, to the trailhead. Vestiges of old infrastructure remain, from ancient farmers and shepherds in the region – a stone bridge, a tumble down shelter – as we head along a trail towards the park. It’s impossibly beautiful; butterflies rise like clouds from puddles as we criss cross over streams and the river leading to one of many glaciers deep within the park’s highlands. Wildflowers are out in force, and we spot gliding birds and hear the whistles of marmots.
This is a ‘rando gourmande’ hike, which, although it does peak with a lunch of dreams at a remote mountain refuge, is focussed on the local flora of the edible kind. Fabrice pulls fern (Polypodium vulgare) from the ground, which fills our mouths with a liquorice taste as we hike. He rolls nettles to break the sting and we eat the leaves, which taste somehting like peas. We find wild spinach that grows quinoa seeds and rhubarb growing in the shade; If the weather turns, as it can do so quickly in the mountains, and we’re stranded in an old farmers hut needing sustenance, it’s Fabrice who’ll save us all. It luckily doesn’t happen… By late lunch, we reach Refuge de la Lavey for galette-on-galette (like a pancake or crêpe) filled with goats cheese and nuts, then chocolate and honey, with homemade kombucha. A three-hour hike-in calls for a quick turn around and we set off back to base, this time on the other side of the river.
Stopp at La Guingette in L’Alleau hamlet, just before Venosc, for a glass of wine at the most idyllic spot on the river. Mountain days don’t get much better…
Summer skiing in Les Deux Alpes
One of just a handful of glacier ski resorts for summer skiing, Les Deux Alpes offers the closest thing to a full-scale ski operation in the Alps at 3,600m, with several lifts spinning and near to 1,000m of vertical to ski. That’s plenty for a good morning on the hill.
It’s my first time summer skiing, and I’m blown away by the conditions as well as the atmosphere up top. Mostly racers in training and ski camps make up the numbers on the glacier, but the atmosphere is electric. As well as skiers, there are mountain bikers, looking to set off downhill; this is the start to the notorious Mountain of Hell mountain bike race that sees the sport’s best descend 2,500m from glacier to valley…
Assuming I was coming up for a novelty ski – my ignorant idea of summer glacier skiing – I couldn’t have been more impressed with a two-hour ski session under the sun, with killer views in every direction. I’d say it’s perfect for beginners wanting to try out skiing for the first time (it’s cheaper, the clement weather helps and the softening snow is ideal) or intermediates wanting to hone their skills.
Paragliding in Les Deux Alpes
If there’s anywhere for it, it’s here in Les Deux Alpes, taking off from the high alpine balcony (on which Les Deux Alpes sits), surrounded by mighty mountains.
Harnessed to parapente guide Xavier, I run over the grassy slope at the cliff edge, tucking up my legs and dropping ten metres, maybe 20, before (relief…) we catch the wind and soar over the deep-cut valley Romanche. It’s a very hot day and there’s not much wind, so we stick close to the rocks, occasionally swooping out over the valley 700m below (giving stomach somersaults) before finding the cliffside again to regain altitude catching thermals.
Unexpectedly, Xavier’s phone rings (ringtone, Pump It Up) punctuating my concentrated bubble of vertigo and dumb awe, and I begin to relax and enjoy the flight and my sightseeing tour of the vast mountainscape from the sky.
Watersports in Oisans
You might be far from the coast but the mountains have plenty of fresh (and frigid) water for summer fun. From SUP paddle boarding at Lac du Chambon to white water rafting down Vénéon river, there’s plenty of water-based activity, depending on your energy levels.
North of Les Deux Alpes is Lac du Chambon, perfect for cycling around (a flat, easy route) but even better for paddle boarding. Taking a SUP onto le Lac du Chambon’s still waters is perfectly serene. To top if off, there’s lake-side lodge La Cabane au Bord du Lac, for lunch, dinner or sundowners.
Based at Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans (an eight-minute drive from the bottom of the Venosc gondola – from which the rafting company can fetch you), Vénéon Eaux Vives offers rafting, canoeing, canyoning, hydrospeeding and… hotdog rafting (which, I’m told, is a sportier craft for really rapid rapids).
Our raft for eight and route through (what feels like) thrashing white water along with some gentle bobbing is perfectly sporty enough. And the scenery is unbeatable, gazing CGI-like mountains and forest through a rainbow mist of river spray. Beaching our raft for the first time on an island splitting the river, we wade upstream and body surf the deep rapids a few times over. We haul the raft onto the pebbly riverbank a second time and head, on foot, to a waterfall. A bit more bobbing, a few more rapids, and all too quickly it’s over.
Yes, there’s more than enough to do in Les Deux Alpes in summer. More than that, it’s not exactly soft adventure… I’ll be back same time next year for the Mountain of Hell, and, feeling like I’ve barely scratched the surface, to explore more of what Les Deux Alps has to offer.
- Lunch at Chalet Mounier, at the Venosc end of town, either at its Michelin starred Le P’tit Polyte or, for a more relaxed time, on the sun terrace. After lunch, you’re welcome to spend the afternoon on a sun lounger or swimming in the pool.
- La Fromagerie, that’s even better than you’d even imagine an Alpine cheese shop to be…
- La Guingette at L’Alleau for an afternoon glass of wine
Stay at Hotel Cote Brune (recently upgraded to a 4-star hotel), from €163 per night for two people with breakfast
2023 Summer dates from 17 June to 27 August
Glacier skiing 2 May – 9 July, tickets from €45
A 6-day pedestrian pass costs €56.50
Mountain bike lift pass from €29.50 6-day
Guided hike with Bureau des Guides €45 per person
Rafting Vénéon Eaux Vives from €28 per person