Updated August 2014.
What is more beautiful than cycling in the high Alps? Cycling in the Alps up to an alpine lake!
Most of the largest high altitude lakes are created by man-made dams – usually built to supply hydro-electric power. Many of the highest dams in the world are situated here. From a cyclist’s point of view, there are three great things about Alpine dams:
- Dams are often very high, accumulating water from Glacier melt
- Dams need quality access roads for the service personnel
- These roads are often “dead-ends” and thus have virtually no traffic
10 22 great cycling climbs up to alpine dams / lakes (map at bottom).
#1. Lac d’Emosson
A steep climb to a stunning location. The first dam at Emosson was built in the 1920’s to supply electricity to the Swiss National Railway.
Note, the 3rd photo above: there is a slightly insane road that is ride-able above the dam up to a smaller dam / lake above. Details from Chamonix here. Details via Martigny via Col de la Forclaz here. Finally, a third way via mountain bike that also includes taking the very scary tunnel to get to the far side of the lake – see here.
#2. Lac de Roselend
Above Beaufort, the route over Cormet de Roselend appears frequently in the Tour de France.
While there is a direct way up via Col du Meraillet, the better route is via the super steep Col du Pré. This allows superb views from above the Lake – as well as letting you ride over the dam itself on the way to Roselend. Remember the lake is several kilometres below the summit. Details of both sides here. For a fantastic mountain bike route high above the lake, above 2000 metres, see here. Finally, a route via Col du Pré, with a detour to another beautiful Alpine Lake/Dam: Lac de Saint Guérin. Details here.
#3. Colle delle Nivolet
Perhaps the most beautiful final 15 kilometres that I have ever ridden. Seriously.
This very high Italian pass (2612 metres) along the French border in Piemonte has two big dams and several lakes. An amazing place. And every Sunday during the summer, the top several kilometres are closed to motorised traffic. Paradise. Details here.
#4. La Grande Dixence
The biggest of the many alpine dams in the Valais region of Switzerland.
This gigantic dam collects water from 35 glaciers. At 285 metres it is currently the 3rd highest dam in the world – a third higher than the Hoover Dam. It weighs more than the great Pyramid of Cheops. Details here.
#5. Lac de Sanetsch
The huge climb over Col du Sanetsch to the lake is one of the very best climbs in Switzerland. A beautiful, quiet road – usually ignored by cyclotourists.
There is only a road on the south side. But at the dam is a little cable car that will take bikes up/down the north side from near Gsteig. Eric once carried his bike up the trails here. Only recommended for the slightly crazy. Details here. I also cycled it when it was closed and covered in snow: Beautiful.
There are several dams near the top of Grimselpass. From the north, this climb is huge. From the south, the hairpins are unbelievable. Details of both sideshere. I also climbed it as part of the Alpenbrevet cyclosportive – see here.
#7. Lac de Mauvoisin
Another steep, beautiful, deserted road up to the 13th highest dam in the world. The start point is the same start point for Verbier and near the start for Col du Grand St. Bernard.
See the video in the link: It’s necessary to brave a little tunnel to get up on top of the dam. Details here. With a mountain bike, it is possible to go much higher past and above the lake – see here.
#8 Route des Lacs – Pyrénées
This is my favourite paved route in the Pyrenées. This lessor know climb in fact passes 5 Alpine dams/lakes including the fabulous Lac de Cap de Long. Truly amazing.
#9. Lac de Mont Cenis
The beautiful Lac de Mont Cenis is entirely in France, but most of the gigantic south side climbs out of Italy. Col du Mont Cenis is situated just north of this beautiful lake. Don’t forget to take a 7 km detour on a beautiful little road to Col du Petit Mont Cenis. Details of both sides here. It’s also possible to do a loop around the lake (gravel on west side) – along with a detour searching for Hannibal – see here.
#10. Lac de Grand Maison
This large French lake is near the top of the legendary north side of Col de la Croix de Fer (and Glandon).
It’s at the point where the roads finally gets a little less steep – so while participating in La Marmotte you can enjoy the views. Details of all 5 ways up Col de la Croix de Fer see here.
Oberalppass is not the hardest climb in the cycling Mecca region around Andermatt, but it is still over 2,000 metres and is certainly idyllic.
It featured in the June 2010 Tour de Suisse and even has a train station at the top for the famed Glacier Express. Details here.
#12 Mattmark See
Another gigantic dam in the Swiss Valais. The first nine kilometres is the same road that leads to Zermatt and the Matterhorn, so there is some traffic. But once the route turns towards Saas Fee things get quieter.
It’s not the hardest climb but 1580 metres of ascent is no joke. More details here.
#13 Lac de Moiry
Again, a gigantic damn in the Swiss canton of Valais. The ascent to Lac de Moiry has to be one of the hardest of these alpine lake climbs. 2100 metres (7000 feet), hard work.
I took the harder but quieter route via Vercorin – it adds 300 metres of climbing but has far less traffic. See the map for the easier route, which I used for the descent. More details here.
#14 Lac de l’Hongrin
Beautiful vineyards, a challenging climb, a long tunnel, military checkpoints, an alpine dam/lake, and a beautiful castle – this loop has it all.
And most of it is virtually deserted! Details here.
#15. Lac de Saint Guérin
With the same start point as Roselend, this great route leads to a smaller, but very pretty dam / lake.
Stop for a drink to enjoy the view, but don’t stop, as this lake is only part way up the fantastic climb to Cormet d’Arèches. Details here.
#16 Lac des Gloriettes
High in the Pyrenées above Gavarnie is a fabulous, deserted ride to Cirque de Troumouse. On the way down I made a small detour up to the dam at Lac des Gloriettes. Details here.
#17 Lac Tseuzier
A smaller dam in the Swiss Valais high above Sion. The climb starts through beautiful vineyards and finishes with a bunch of tunnels and the dam.
#18 Lago di Place-Moulin
Starting from Aosta (Italy), this long ride starts in the same valley as the road to Col du Grand St. Bernard. The paved road ends at the dam. But there is a good quality gravel hiking trail / road that goes for several kilometres to the far end of this long, slim lake.
#19 Lacs de Plan d’Aval et Plan D’Amont
Two high and beautiful dams in the Haute-Maurienne. Starting in Modane, there is a great quiet road that passes by several 19th century perched forts before heading up the ski slopes above Aussois to the dams. As is often the case, the paved road ends at the dams, but one can explore higher with a mountain bike. Details here.
#20 Lago di Beauregard
Another damn in the Val d’Aosta. Lago di Beauregard in Valgrisenche, Aosta, Italy is under repair through 2015, so the water levels are low. The paved climb is still quite interesting, reaching almost to 2000 metres – high above the lake. But there are a couple of great unpaved roads that allow one to go higher.
#21 Lac de la Sassière
Most of this ride requires a mountain bike. This ride actually starts at a lake. The giant dam/lac du Chevril on the main road that leads to Val d’Isère. Form here is a fantastic, little known paved road up to barrage du Saut. From this lake the paved road ends, but the fun starts.
A superb, unpaved road up to the Dam/Lac de la Sassière. And from here, there is an old military trail that leads up to Col de la Bailleta (2852 metres). Plenty of snow even in July. Details here.
#22 Lac de la Girotte
Another unpaved climb. Starting in Beaufort, part way up the paved and beautiful climb to Col du Joly is a steep, gravel hairpin-filled deserted road up to Lac de la Girotte.
A FINAL WORD:
This list is by no means even remotely comprehensive. Feel free to suggest your favourite alpine lake /dam cycling climb.
Map: Red = Switzerland; Green = Italy; Blue = France.
View Cycling Climbs to Alpine Lake / Dams in a larger map