Route des Grandes Alpes
The Route des Grandes Alpes is a 684 kilometre tourist route starting on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) that heads through the French Alps finishing at the Mediterranean Sea (French Riviera). On paved roads, it crosses 16 Alpine passes, many made famous in the Tour de France, including Col de l’Iseran – the highest paved pass in Europe. It’s an excellent cyclo-tourist route.
The goal of these articles
The goal is to provide details of this great route, but also provide you some route planning idea/options. Each post will feature a map that shows the official route, but also includes an option or two that I believe improves the route.
Part 2 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 2
Part 3 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 3
Part 4 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 4
Part 5 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 5
Part 6 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 6
Part 7 is here: Route des Grandes Alpes – Stage 7
Stage 1 Thonon-Les Bains to St-Jean-de-Sixt
Official Route (blue track on map):
Distance: 91 Kilometres
Ascent: 2600 metres
Descent: 2100 Metres
A gentle enough start, the official route includes only one famous pass: Col de la Colombière, but more than any other stage, it is a no-brainer to add a detour that not only skips a slightly busy stretch but adds the legendary Col de Joux Plane. I’ll explain the map below.
The Official Route
The official route (blue on map) starts gently enough winding through the Gorges de la Dranse. Just two climbs this stage (profile at the bottom of below map). It is very gently uphill – but never steep – all the way to Morzine. Here the road turns up – but only slightly – to Col des Gets (1173 metres) – the first pass of the trip.
From here, it’s perhaps the least impressive stretch of the entire route-to-the-sea – from Morzine to Scionzier (to skip it see below). Then the first big climb: Col de la Colombière.
2009 Tour de France: Contador and the brothers Schleck climb Col de la Colombière:
When is the Route des Grandes Alpes Open?
Before I begun discussing detour options to the official route, let’s talk weather.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is “when will Col xyz Open?” The answer: It depends. It changes every year depending on the weather, and how much snow fell during winter (how difficult is it to clear). For the Route des Grandes Alpes the biggest worries are of course the highest climbs: Col du Galibier (2642 metres), and especially Col de l’Iseran (2764m) and Cime de la Bonette (2802m). But also the remote and difficult to bypass Cormet de Roselend (1968m).
Below – May 4th 2013 – Cormet de Roselend cleared road ends here several kilometres below summit:
Broadly speaking, the entire route should be open from mid-June through to September. Iseran will rarely be open before this. May is asking for trouble on the highest cols. Some years October and even into November “might” be possible.
I’ll try and give some guidance throughout this series on when roads are likely to open/close as well as possible alternatives routes. I’ll link to the official government traffic sites for each region – the best source for up-to-date information on the status of a col. But remember, weather is unpredictable. I’ve been hailed and snowed on many times in July.
Now let’s talk a couple of excellent detour options for stage 1.
Detour 1: Col de Joux Plane
You must do this detour. Far better than the official route:
The green track on the top map shows the detour to Col de Joux Plane. One of the more famous climbs in the north French Alps, it will appear in the 2016 Tour de France (but in opposite direction). This is the less famous side of Col de Joux Plane, but it’s still steep, challenging, and scenic. It’s also a quieter climb than the official route that heads through Les Gets. It probably adds 600 metres or so of additional ascent.
Enjoy the views of Mont Blanc while descending:
Detour 2: Col de Romme
The official route up Col de la Colombière is fine. Very nice. But if you want an extra challenge, there is an alternate, super steep, way via Col de Romme (orange route on map).
It was a feared “secret” route enjoyed by locals until it appeared in the 2009 Tour de France. It adds perhaps 300+ metres of additional ascent.
I beat all the pros to the top of Col de Romme by several hours 🙂
I’ve included on the top map Col de la Ramaz (2016 Tour de France), and Col de la Joux Verte (Avoriaz). Both are lovely climbs and loops could easily be added by the very ambitious.
Also on the map, beyond Samöens, is Cirque Fer du Cheval. It’s a beautiful World Heritage Site – basically high mountains shaped like an amphitheatre. Not a tough ride, but worth a peek. Great hiking above. Finally, half way up Col de la Colombière, is the very well preserved Chartreuse de Reposier monastery.
Weather: Col de Joux Plane and Col de la Colombière should be open around the beginning of May until late October or early November. If closed, Joux Plane can be bypassed via Col des Gets (stay on official route), and Col de la Colombière can be bypassed by riding through the Gorges des Evaux starting near Bonneville. Official Haute Savoie Col opens/closed map here.
I get quite a few emails asking me about touring the Route des Grandes Alpes, so this is an attempt to provide a more public response to questions. Feel free to leave feedback on any additional information that may be useful – I do know the north French Alps very well.
However, the very last post in this series, as the route approaches the Mediterranean, will also be for me, as I don’t know that region well. 🙂
Col de Joux Plane in winter:
Thanks very much for starting these articles, it’s on my bucket list to do. Very much looking forward to the rest,
Excellent and brings back happy memories.
Perhaps add total ascent for alternative routes for charity and the hard of math 😉
Tough first day, even on a road bike. Fully loaded cyclo-tourist will need to break this stage in 2 if they want to make stage 2!
Thanks Will for starting this series! Very excited to follow all the instalments. I did a version of the route in 2014.
For day 1 another thought could be to add a route for those starting in Geneva (as many do) who don’t want to do the slog to Thonon (as that is the worst section of the entire lac leman loop). We wanted to start off easy on day 1 so from Geneva we went over Saxel and a bit of the Vallée Verte before taking on Col de la Colombière. Very enjoyable.
Tim, very good point. Getting to Thonon from Geneva on bike is not much fun at all. Let me think about what I would do if leaving from Geneva. Your Saxel idea sounds wise.
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The best of this stage for me is Joux Plane. The most boring climb with heavy traffic is Col des Gets. Ramaz and Joux Verte are fine. Colombiere via Col de Romme at 30°C + was very very hard and raspberry’s beer wasn’t best clue. 🙂 Cycling around Samoes don’t miss short detour towards waterfall Cascade du Rouge.
Yes, I totally agree. I truly don’t understand why Col des Gets is on the Route des Grandes Alpes and Joux Plane is not. The Joux Plane detour adds a famous climb and avoids a busy road. A no brainer.
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I’m planning a group ride along this route for later in the year, so I’m watching closely – thank you for all the detail!
Hi Will. I rode the Route des Grandes Alpes in 2015 north-south fully loaded with panniers and a tent. It’s really nice to relive the climbs in these articles – Iseran, Galibier, Bonette etc. When I was looking at this last year the internet was lacking a comprehensive write up on the route – that gap is filled now! Great work!
I have thought about going back and doing the route in the opposite direction some time, in which case it will be great to have this resource. (Not this year though – I’m heading East to ramble around the Dolomites and surrounds)
Out of Thonon I’d skip the Dranse valley entirely – too much traffic on D902. Take D26 to Armoy, Vailly, Lullin, cols de Terramont et Jambaz, down to Mégevette where you turn left to Messy and over Ramaz to Taninges (or skip Ramaz from Messy, just ride to Mieussy and Taninges). There are other options (eg Armoy, Orcier, col du Feu, Lullin).
Otherwise get on D902 but turn left at the first crossing of the Dranse to Féternes, Vinzier, Vacheresse, Bellevaux, over col du Corbier which takes you almost to St-Jean d’Aulps near Morzine. Then take the first right to Essert-Romand, and over col de l’Encrenaz to Taninges.
And Will – many thanks for the excellent descriptions and photos.
Thanks Thomas, that is indeed a better route than the gorges
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Hi Will, these are great articles, thank you!
I wondered what your thoughts would be about doing the route in reverse? Or does this take the “good” or “recommended” routes up the cols? I am doing the Etape in July ’19 but have some time before (likely 9 days of riding) and fancy a little cycle touring trip which would need to see me finishing in Saint Martin de Belleville, where we are based for the Etape. Starting points for touring will depend on where I can get the train to from London (maybe Geneva, maybe Nice).
Would love to hear your thoughts.
Best wishes, Emily
I don’t think there’s any problem doing the route south to north. Most of the climbs, especially the bigger ones are fun on both sides.
Best of luck,
Hi Will, Did you come to any conclusions about a good route from Geneva? The Lac Leman loop along to Thonon doesn’t sound attractive
It’s a difficult question. You want to join the route by or before Morzine as the first interesting climb starts here and the stuff before is fine if skipped.
But it’s not easy to map a quiet route from Geneva to Morzine.
The main road from Thonon to Taninges over col des Gets is the worst section of the Route des Alpes – no charm, and plenty of traffic. There are several prettier alternatives. E.g. Thonon, Armoy, Vailly, St-Jeoire, Cormand, Marignier, Scionzier (with or without additional climbs such as col du Feu, Plaine-Joux, Mt-saxonnex…).
Or Thonon, Marin, Vinzier, Vacheresse, Bonnevaux, le Biot (over Corbier). A little after St-Jean d’Aulps turn right to Essert-Romand and col de l’Encrenaz, miles better than col des Gets (however there have been intermittent road closures there due to a landslide, hopefully that’ll be solved).
From Geneva to Thonon there are small roads off the lake. Get the 200K Michelin map and stay on the white roads. E.g. Jussy, Bons, Orcier, Le lyaud.
If you do not insist on starting from Thonon, there are many small roads that will take you from Geneva to the foot of the col de la Colombière. Same map, too many options to explain. If you want to make it a mountainous day to Morzine go through Bons, col de Saxel, Villard, col de Plaines-Joux, Onnion, Messy, col de la Ramaz, col de l’Encrenaz, Morzine.
Agree, over Col des Gets is not a great stretch. In fact, I always forget it’s part of the official route and why in my post I suggest taking Joux Plane instead. FAR more interesting and quiet.
I’ve been planning to do this route for a while. I set off on Sunday and have just found your feeds. I wish I had them earlier in my planning, but they will prove really useful, thanks!