Ecrins National Park is about a 90 minute drive east of Grenoble. It’s the largest National Park in France and features some of the wildest and most dramatic scenery in the Alps. Perhaps because of that, it remains relatively unknown, its paths less travelled than those famous trails further north around Mont Blanc. One of the most fun ways to enjoy it is via a gastronomy tour, staying in high altitude refuges and enjoying robust local produce.
Hiking at Ecrins National Park
The walking is quite strenuous and it’s better to take less rather than more. Whittle down your load to a change of clothes, a sheet sleeping bag, toiletries, sandals and of course a large water container. The trail starts at Gîte du Plan du Lac, near St Christophe en Oisans, and a hearty lunch with a glass of wine for courage is served before hitting the trail. The first few kilometres follow the valley floor alongside the gurgling River Vénéon.
The village of St Christophe en Oisans is perched high above the opposite bank, and the signpost points up the steep hillside, directly adjacent to a magnificent waterfall. Finally, after plodding up 600m, the tiny Refuge de l’Alpe du Pin pops into view. The guardian, Sylvie Danjard, prepares dinner – hiking makes you hungry.
Staying in a hikers refuge in Ecrins National Park
At 1805m, there’s no electricity, the toilet is outside and the running water comes out of a plastic pipe snaking down the mountain. The refuge can sleep twenty, all packed closely together on one platform. Sylvie is an excellent cook and her delicious herb soup is served with homemade bread and a glass of organic Cote du Rhone. Next are Oreilles d’âne, or donkey’s ears, a lasagne-like dish of wild spinach, sandwiched between layers of pasta and cheese. Local sausages are popular as is Comte cheese and finally her delicious fruit tart. Everyone sleeps well.
The next day it’s on to the next refuge and the track takes you through the forest and then starts to descend. The path takes a right into the Mariande Valley, then follows the Muande stream up to the Refuge de la Lavey at 1797m. This is a much larger building than the previous night and can take up to 60. Its situation is stunning, surrounded by 3000m peaks, with a snow filled glacier on the horizon. Facilities are slightly better than the previous night, as there are inside toilets, although if you want a shower, you have to brave the outdoors. They’re famous for serving world food and dinner is typically Nepalese – rice, dhal and strips of grilled meat.
Next morning, after crossing the Muande stream, it’s a steep zig zag up the mountainside, climbing to 2350m. At this altitude, some feel short of breath and it’s a bit of a slog, but the magnificent views more than make up for it. Then its a slight descent to the Lac des Fétoules, more of a pond really, a place that’s popular with campers.
A bit of luxury
From here it’s a scramble downhill, icy underfoot, back to the bridge over the Vénéon River. There’s another bit of climbing before you reach the delightful village of St Christophe en Oisans. The amusingly eccentric Café La Cordée supplies the beers and then welcomes visitors into their Hamman – just the thing for tired hikers.
The Tour Gourmand continues onwards to a couple more refuges but if you crave a bit of comfort take a taxi 14km to Vénosc and the cable car to Les Deux Alpes and the three star Hotel Le Souleil’Or. Dinner at their Le Shakisky restaurant is excellent.
Climbing the glacier in Ecrins National Park
If you’re aiming to hike the glacier in warmer months, it’s wise to get there early, before the snow begins to melt. You’ll need to be roped and the guide will ensure you are equipped with helmets, harness, crampons and ice axe. It’s then a ride by cable car and funicular up to 3400m. At this altitude, even though the sun is shining, fingers are a little cold to be fumbling with crampons, but they’re essential on the snow. The climb is steady, across what looks like plain pristine snow, but there are hidden crevasses so the guide’s knowledge is essential. It’s tough walking at this altitude and any cold is banished by a sea of perspiration.
Finally the snow runs out, replaced by a bed of rough slate, and you’re at the summit. At this altitude the views are stunning: on a clear day Mont Blanc to the north is completely visible and, looking south, you can just make out the distinctive shape of Mont Ventoux in Provence.
The Tour Gourmand is all inclusive and can be booked at www.berarde.com; Hotel Souleil’Or
For more information about the Vénéon valley, see www.montagne-oisans.com.
For more information about Les Deux Alpes, see www.les2alpes.com.
For further information about the mountains of France see www.france-montagnes.com.
Rupert Parker is a writer, photographer, cameraman & TV Producer. His special interests are food & travel & he writes about everything from wilderness adventure to gourmet spa tours. Read about his latest adventures on his website Planet Appetite.