Route des Grandes Alpes (Great Alpine Road)
The Route des Grandes Alpes (Great Alpine Road) is a 684km long route trough the French Alps. This alpine road trip takes you from lake Geneva to the Mediterranean and includes some of the highest and most beautiful mountain passes in Europe.
The construction of the route started in 1909 in order of the French Touring Club. In that period, the Alps still were an isolated region of France with poor access possibilities. The construction of the route was not only an opening to the outside world for the mountain people, but also an opportunity for the upcoming tourism to discover this area with great cultural and natural heritage. The construction was finished in 1937, with the opening of the col de l’Iseran. The official road number is D902.
With the opening of the French motorways, the route has lost most of its importance as a traffic connection from north to south, making the Route des Grandes Alpes a spectacular road trip route. To make things even more attractive, some adjustments were made in 1995 to replace the traffic heavy valley of Chamonix with the Col de la Colombière and the Col de Aravis. The route ends no more in Nice, but in the smaller and authentic village of Menton.
From Thonon-les-Bains to Grand Bornand (93km)
We start our journey in Thonon-les-Bains, a small town at the shore of Lake Geneva. Lake Geneva is the largest body of water in Western-Europe, and with its length of 95km it greatly exceeds in size all others alpine lakes. The lake has a depth of 310 metres, which makes the bottom of the lake only 62 metres higher than sea level. To the South, we can see already the snowy peaks of the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain of the Alps. We take route D902 and head for Morzine.
The 2-lane road is winding trough the Vallée Verte (French for green valley). Rock formations, green bushes and trees provide some shadow against the hot sun. After 15km we reach the Gorges du Pont-du-Diable (Devil’s bridge canyon). This very deep canyon has been cut out by the Drasne River and provides some spectacular views.
We keep following the D902. About 10 km after our canyon adventure we reach the ruins of the Aulps Abbey. This was a major Cistercian site in the Haute Savoie region for almost seven hundred years, from its foundation in the 1090s to its suppression in 1793. The church was partially destroyed in 1823 by locals for its stones, but the beautiful façade remains standing. In addition to the majestic ruins of the abbey, classified as a historic monument in 1902, the three-hectare estate includes also some farm buildings, cellars, a gatehouse and a medicinal garden.
Eventually we arrive in Morzine, the most northerly of the French Alpine resorts. This charming town is dominated by chalets spread across a river gorge. Just before the town center of Morzine, the D902 makes a turn to the West. We keep on following the valley for a while until we reach the city of Cluses. There we leave the D902 for now, and start to follow the D4 to Le Grand Bornand.
Just after leaving Cluses, the road starts to climb. This is the foot the Col de la Colombière. With its 1613m, the Colombière is the first mountain pass over 1500m on our way. As we go higher, the trees start to make place for rock formations and alpine meadows. The climb is 16.3 km long. Over this distance, we climb 1108 m at an average percentage of 6.8%. The steepest section near the summit is 10.2%.
After the summit, it’s a 12km descend to Le Grand Bornand, a ski resort who owes its name to the river which runs through it.
From Le Grand-Bornand to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (98km)
Just after leaving Le Grand-Bornand we arrive in Saint-Jean-de-Sixt, an authentic alpine village with lots of little farms. There we leave the D4 and take road D909 to the South. After passing trough some other little towns, the road starts to climb again. We are now on the Col des Aravis (1486m). On the highest point of the mountain pass, there is a little chapel devoted to Saint-Anne for the protection of the travelers passing by.
Still following the D909 while descending, we pass the beautiful Dard waterfall. The waterfall has cut the rocks in a V-shape throughout the years, which gives a very special visual effect.
After this little stop we arrive in Flumet, where the D909 ends. Flumet is a small village of about 900 inhabitants situated at an altitude of 900 meters on a rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of two mountain streams: the Arly (which takes its source in Megeve valley and empties into the Isère) and the Arrondine (which comes from the Massif des Aravis, the mountain range we are driving trough).
We take road D1212 and start following the Arly River. Just before we enter the town of Ugine, at the point where the river and the D1212 split up, we turn left and start to climb out of the valley. In Queige we take the D925 to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Just after the town of Beaufort we start climbing the Cormet de Roselend (1968m). It’s a long 20,3km climb to the top with lot’s of gear shifting and hairpin turns, but the views are great. On the right side we see the Roselend Reservoir. Measuring 800 m long and 150 meters high, it can contain up to 185 million cubic meters of water.
After the summit it’s a 20km descend to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The road number also changes to D902, meaning that we are back on the orinal Great Alpine Road. Take your time and enjoy the spectacular turns.
From Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Lanslebourg (80km)
After leaving Bourg-Saint-Maurice, road D902 passes the Vanoise National Park. Created in 1963, it was the first French national park. The park is bordered by the biggest concentration of world-class ski resorts in the world. There were once plans to interlink all these systems and resorts to create the - by far - largest ski area in the world, featuring over 1000km of ski-slopes. However that vision was ended with the creation of the national park.
Soon we see also Lake Chervril (Tignes reservoir). After the second world war, France needed electricity and it was decided to build a hydro-electric dam in this valley. Whilst this was a great achievement for French engineering and was for the greater good of France, it meant that the old village of Tignes would be drowned. The dam was completed and the village was submerged in 1952. Once every 10 years the lake is drained for maintenance work and the remains of the old village becomes visible.
During this part of our trip, we only will be climbing and descending the Col de l’Iseran. With its 2770m it is the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. It connects the valleys of the Isère River and the Arc River between Val-d'Isère in the north and Bonneval-sur-Arc in the south. During the climb you will be driving trough a number of galleries and tunnels, with a maximum grade of 12%. In total, the climb is 48 km long at an average of 4%.
15km after the summit of the col we reach Bonneval-sur-Arc. It is listed as the most beautiful village of the Savoie region. The authenticity of the place is a wonderful example of what life was and what life in the Alps. Traditional architecture, urban planning and the layout of the town are rare witnesses of the traditional alpine lifestyle.
Bonneval-sur-Arc is also the highest commune in France, considering the average height, which is 2713 m. The village itself is situated at an altitude of 1850 m.
20km further down the road we arrive in Lanslebourg, the end point of this part of the trip.
From Lanslebourg to Briançon (110km)
Beacause the road number of the D902 changes in Lanslebourg, we are now following road D1006 and continue to follow the River Arc out of the valley. After 20km, we can see the Esseillon Barrier or Esseillon forts. These are a series of five fortifications built in the nineteenth century on a rock outcropping closing the upper valley of the Arc to protect the Piedmont region from a possible French invasion. It has four strongholds and a redoubt, which bear the names of members of the Savoy family.
Built between 1819 and 1834, the forts of Esseillon protect access to the Col du Mont Cenis, into the Sardinian kingdom (now Italy). Because of the Franco-Sardinian alliance of 1857, the forts never saw any combat, and were only used during the Second World War as prisons.
These fortifications were built on the model of Montalembert, which is based on a principle of perpendicular fortifications and cannon towers. The strongholds protect each other in crossfire. Four fortifications are on the right bank of the river Arc, with the fifth located on the other side of the river. A little bridge called the Devil's Bridge interlinks the steep cliffs housing the forts.
Driving further down the valley we eventually arrive in Saint-Michel de Maurienne where we leave the D1006 and cross the Arc River to take the D902 again. Immediately after the river crossing, the road starts to turn and climb: we are now on the Col du Télégraphe, the acces point to the north face of the Col du Galibier.
At the Col du Télégraphe we find another fort: the Fort du Télégraphe, also called Fort Berwick. Located at an altitude of 1,585m it previously accommodated a telegraph to send messages between France and Italy. This explains also the name of the col. The fort has two entrances with drawbridges. To allow access to different levels it has inclined ramps to allow easy movement of artillery pieces. It saw action in 1940 when it fired on the invading Italian forces with its 155mm guns. During the summer months the fort is open for visitation.
The Cols du Télégraphe and Galibier became mythical with cyclists as they are often used in the Tour de France. The Télégraphe is 11,8 km long, gaining 856 m in height at an average of 7.3%. After the top there is a small descent of 4,8km to Valloire. The actual climb to the summit of the Col du Galibier starts there and is 18,1km long at an average of 6.9% (height gain: 1245 m). The maximum gradient is 10.1% at the summit (el. 2645m).
At the south portal of the tunnel near the summit of the Galibier, there is a monument to Henri Desgrange, the first director of the Tour de France. Every time the tour climbs the Col du Galibier, a wreath is laid on the memorial.
When you thought you’d seen all the cols for now, you’re wrong. After the 8,5km descent of the Galibier we’re at the foot of the Col du Lauteret (el. 2058m). This col was carved out by a glacier, this explains the easy gradient of the slopes by which it is attained. For this reason, the Col has long been used as a communication route between Grenoble and Briançon, and also for reaching Italy across the Alps. The summit of the lauteret is also a road junction between the D902 and the D1091. We have to take the D1091 down to Briançon.
Because the Great Alpine Road is pretty long with lots of things to see on the way, we have cut this article in two. The last four stages will bring us from Briançon to Menton