Last summer, we were introduced to the Vanoise National Park, France’s oldest national park. Located in the heart of the French Alps, this park is an undisputed jewel within France’s natural heritage. You will find untouched wilderness, rich biodiversity and breathtaking mountain landscapes. From picturesque Pralognan-la-Vanoise, the gateway to the Vanoise, we explored the scenic landscape both walking and cycling. But even the keen, experienced mountain hiker or mountain biker will certainly not get bored here. In this blog, we go into detail about what there is to do.
Vanoise National Park in a nutshell
The Vanoise National Park was established in 1963, making it the first national park in France. The park covers an area of about 534 square kilometres in the Savoie department. Vanoise National Park borders the Italian National Park Gran Paradiso, with which the park has a partnership.
The park is named after the Vanoise mountain range, which covers most of the protected area. The purpose of establishing the park was to protect and preserve the region’s unique flora and fauna. But also to support traditional agriculture in this mountainous landscape. For this reason, you won’t find any facilities for skiers or snowboarders in the heart of the park.
Ecosystem and biodiversity
The Vanoise National Park is home to a remarkable variety of flora and fauna. Besides edelweiss, gentians and alpine roses, more than 1,500 different plant species are found there. Over 100 of them are officially protected. The guides in the park can tell you which species these are and point them out for you.
There are also around 125 bird species, including the majestic golden eagle and the protected bearded vulture. Other species include ibexes, chamois, badgers, martens, foxes, mountain hares, stone partridges and lots of marmots. Wolves have also been present in the park since the late 20th century, but the chances of encountering them are very low. We didn’t see them anyway. Preserving the aforementioned animals and their natural habitat is one of the park’s main objectives.
Outdoor activities in the Vanoise National Park
The Vanoise National Park is all about pure nature and overwhelming mountain landscapes. The best way to enjoy this, we find, is by hiking or cycling. So during our visit to the park, we did both.
Hiking in Vanoise National Park
The park has more than 400 kilometres of marked hiking trails winding through breathtaking landscapes. Whether you are looking for a leisurely stroll along a mountain lake or a challenging climb, you will find routes for every level of experience and fitness. For instance, you have many easy walks through picturesque valleys, forests and along babbling mountain streams. There are also hiking routes for the more experienced hiker. These can be both day hikes and multi-day treks, such as the Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise.
Absolute recommendation: the Tour de l’Aiguille de la Vanoise
Accompanied by Stephane, our guide, we walk a shortened version of the park’s most iconic hiking trail: the Tour de l’Aiguille de la Vanoise. On this scenic circular walk, we walk completely around the 2,800-metre-high Aiguille de la Vanoise. Although this is certainly not the highest mountain on the route, it is the absolute eye-catcher.
The route takes us further past mountain meadows and waterfalls to the idyllic Lac des Vaches (Lake of Cows). This lake, where you won’t encounter any cows by the way, is surrounded by impressive peaks over 3,000 metres high. We also pass a beautiful glacier and a picturesque mountain lake. During the hike, we additionally enjoy the rich flora and fauna. We would not have noticed most plant species but also animals without a guide. But fortunately, our very informative guide points out the most unusual species. We learn to recognise edelweiss, for instance, and even at a distance we notice the large numbers of marmots.
Officially, the route starts from picturesque Pralognan-la-Vanoise. Since, according to our guide, the first part is not the most interesting, but rather time-consuming, we first take the ski lift to restaurant Les Barmettes. Fairly soon after the start of the hike, the guide leads us over a not-too-high mountain pass. This path is part of the hiking trail to 2300-metre-high Moriond. On the other side of the ridge, we pick up the official route again towards Refuge du Col de la Vanoise. At this mountain hut, we enjoy a great lunch on the terrace in the sun. We then hike back to the ski lift via Lac des Vaches.
The shortened walking route takes 3 to 3.5 hours excluding lunch break. The official, full route takes almost 5.5 hours according to Komoot and is classified as a strenuous hike. In contrast, we found the short version very doable and would rather refer to it as easy to moderate.
Inspiration for other hikes in the Vanoise National Park
On Pralognan-la-Vanoise’s official website, there is an easy-to-read map showing all the hiking trails available in the park. There are so many of them that you will probably not be able to see the wood for the trees. To help you choose, the site offers a search filter that allows you to search by difficulty level, for instance. From green (very easy) and blue (easy) to black (very tough). There is also a handy free app for your mobile. Besides practical information about a hiking route, the app offers an interactive map so you can actually never get lost.
Walks in winter
Vanoise National Park lends itself not only to beautiful hikes in summer. In winter, too, you can go there for the most beautiful walks. Shrouded in a pearly white blanket of snow, the landscape reveals itself as one big fairytale. The park offers enough snowshoe hikes to keep you entertained for at least a week.
Mountain biking in Vanoise National Park
Prior to this trip, we told our friends that we were also going mountain biking. We got questioning looks mostly. “Mountain biking in the mountains? Are you sure?” Even my wife, who has virtually no experience of mountain biking in the Netherlands, let alone in the mountains, was sceptical. We then let experts convince us. According to them, with the advent of the eMTB, mountain biking in the mountains is no longer the preserve of the young, very experienced mountain biker. In Vanoise National Park, we took the test.
Absolute recommendation: mountain bike trail to Refuge de Péclet-Polset
In the picturesque town of Pralognan-la-Vanoise, our home base during our visit to the park, we pick up our rental bikes. After the necessary explanation on how to operate the silent power source, we are ready to go. The Pralognan-la-Vanoise tourism office gave us another map of routes. Plus a suggestion of where best to go in the limited time we have. It will be part of trail 9 on the map: a red (read: medium-difficult) trail to Refuge de Péclet-Polset. The final destination in our case is cheese farm Le Ritord, at about 80% of the total route.
After having to get used to the gravelly surface at first, we cycle up the hill with the greatest of ease. We follow the wildly flowing Doron de Chavière all the way to the cheese farm. The stunning, varied mountain landscapes and beautiful nature along the route exceed our wildest expectations. How beautiful and peaceful it is here, we think, every few hundred metres.
We drop in at the cheese farm’s tiny shop. Just when we want to pay for a delicious piece of Beaufort cheese, we discover that we have almost run out of cash. And paying with card doesn’t work here. So, we turn around and follow almost the same route back to the village. But since this is in the opposite direction, the world – and thus the route – seems completely different. All in all, a nice conclusion to a special visit to this oldest national park in France!
Inspiration for other mountain bike trails in the Vanoise National Park
We don’t have much experience of mountain biking in the mountains ourselves. That’s why the best tip we can give you is to walk into the local tourist office in, say, Pralognan-la-Vanoise. Tell them what your experience is and ask them to come up with ideas. They can also help you find good addresses to rent an eMTB.
Pralognan-la-Vanoise and the other places around the national park
Vanoise National Park is surrounded by some picturesque towns from which you can quickly get into the park. We were in Pralognan-la-Vanoise, a charming mountain village with a large square full of cosy terraces and restaurants. This village is most conveniently located to the heart of the national park. Other places you can nevertheless also consider as a home base for your visit to Vanoise National Park are:
Tignes: a famous ski resort that transforms in the summer months into a beautiful outdoor area where you can hike, mountain bike and water sports on the beautiful Lac de Tignes.
Val-d’Isère. This charming mountain village not only offers access to one of the world’s best ski resorts, it also has a picturesque old town with traditional Savoyard architecture. In summer, you can enjoy beautiful walks in the mountains here, as well as mountain biking.
Modane. This historic town is known for its impressive architecture, including the Fort de la Redoute Marie-Thérèse. It offers numerous opportunities for hiking and cycling in the surrounding mountains.
We visited Vanoise National Park at the invitation of l’Agence Savoie Mont Blanc and the Tourism Office of Pralognan-la-Vanoise. We compiled the content of the blog independently and objectively based on our own impressions.
Answers to practical queries about visiting Vanoise National Park
The Vanoise National Park is located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France, in the Savoie department. The park lies on the border with Italy. Just north of the park you will find the ski resorts of Tignes and Val d'Isère. To the west are the ski resorts of Les Trois Vallées. View the map of the area here.
The nearest major towns from where you can quickly reach the Vanoise National Park are Moûtiers in the west, Bourg Saint Maurice in the north and Modane in the south. These three cities can be easily reached by train. From there, take the bus or a shuttle to Pralognan-la-Vanoise, the gateway to the heart of the park.
Another option is by private car or rental car. The quickest route to Pralognan-la-Vanoise, goes via Albertville and Moûtiers.
A comprehensive overview of transport options can be found in this pdf.
Basically, you can visit Vanoise National Park all year round. For hiking, the summer months from July to September are the most ideal. It is comfortably warm then and there is relatively little precipitation. The months of November, May and June have relatively high precipitation.
There is an extraordinary amount of information about Vanoise National Park on the park's official website. However, we could not find an English-language version of the information, except through the Rando Vanoise site. An excellent alternative is the official website of Pralognan-la-Vanoise. Here you also have a clear map with all the hiking trails there are in the park. By the way, there are so many of these that you can easily spend a week or more here! Pralognan's tourism office also has a handy app for your mobile. The free app contains all the practical information on hiking but also mountain biking routes! And with the interactive map you can actually never get lost.
The Vanoise National Park was established partly to preserve and protect biodiversity and nature. For this reason, there are no facilities for skiers and snowboarders in the heart of the park. However, you can take the most beautiful walks on snowshoes there.
We stayed in Pralognan-la-Vanoise during our visit to Vanoise National Park. This mountain village is an ideal home base from which to undertake various outdoor activities in the park. There is ample accommodation in Pralognan-la-Vanoise. We spent the nights at the comfortable Edelweiss. Here we had a spacious room, parking and a full breakfast. In addition, we had a delicious dinner there. Also nice is the spa and especially the jacuzzi that you have all to yourself (do book in advance). Very friendly and helpful staff!
In Vanoise National Park, you can go on beautiful multi-day hikes. Along the way, there are many mountain huts (refuges) where you can then spend the night. Rest assured: the mountain huts are neat and comfortable these days and you can often book single and/or double rooms!
In the Savoie Mont Blanc region, Savoyard cuisine is generally a culinary delight. And the Vanoise National Park is no exception in this respect. The mountain huts, for instance, usually offer good and delicious cooking. You will find mostly typical dishes from this part of the region. And, apparently, they take into account that their guests have consumed a lot of calories beforehand during their hike. Indeed, the portions are considerably larger than what we are used to.
In Pralognan-la-Vanoise, the western gateway to the heart of the park, you have a wide choice of restaurants. None of them has a mention in the Michelin Guide; for such restaurants you can go to the well-known winter sports destinations in the immediate vicinity. Yet you can also eat (more than) wonderfully in Pralognan-la-Vanoise. One restaurant that stood out for us was La Bergerie Les Prioux just outside Pralognan. Here we enjoyed a delicious cheese fondue and Raclette. But it is mainly thanks to the particularly cosy ambiance that we would like to come back here again. Note: you can only pay with cash!