By Fiona Quinn, guest writer
Isère’s parks and mountains are the envy of France. In the south east of the country, this spectacular Alpine area is a summer and winter playground.
Isère’s mountains are just right for lovers of the outdoor life. The landscape has mountains, high plateaux where livestock graze, glaciers, deep river valleys and trails for hiking and cycling, skiing and swimming.
With 23 ski resorts, 1,029 kilometres of slopes and 293 ski lifts, Isère is France’s third largest ski region after neighboring Savoie and Haute-Savoie.
Four mountain ranges make up the parks: Oisans which is part of Ecrins and was France’s first National Park, and three Regional Natural Parks: Belledonne, Chartreuse and Vercors.
Discover more from the Isère Tourism website.
Ecrins National Park and Oisans Mountains
South eastern Isère is mostly made up of the grand Oisans massif mountain range and part of Ecrins National Park with its 100 peaks and four glaciers. Established in 1973, Ecrins was the first of France’s nine National Parks.
Ski Resorts in Oisans
The Oisans is the area for the best known ski resorts in Isère. Alpe d’Huez is famous for its 21 hairpin bends and the longest piste in Europe; Les Deux Alpes has the largest skiable glacier for thrill seekers. Both are above 2,000 m/6,562 ft.
For families and the less ambitious, there are plenty of smaller village ski resorts. Choose from Auris-en-Oisans, Vaujany, Villard-Reculas, Oz-en-Oisans, L’Alpe du Grand-Serre, Col d’Ornon and Les Signaraux.
Summer in Ecrins National Park and Oisans Mountains
In summer, take to the mountain bike trails, hike or horse ride through the alpine meadows where ibex, marmots and chamois roam. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the golden eagle, the emblem of the park soaring high above you.
The GR5, Europe’s premier walking trail passes through the Ecrins; as does one of the Via Alpina routes from north to south.
Many of the legendary passes of the Tour de France are here in the Oisans. Truly enthusiastic cyclists can try their luck on Glandon (1,918 m/6,292 ft), Télégraphe (1,568 m/5,144 ft), Galibier (2,642 m/8,667 ft) and La Croix de Fer (2,068 m/6,785 ft).
Chartreuse Regional Natural Park
The Chartreuse Regional Natural Park is north of Grenoble between Isère and Savoie. It’s a beautiful protected area of land with 52 villages inside the park.
Like all the other natural parks, its wildlife is legendary. But Chartreuse has the distinction of containing nearly half of all the mammal and bird species in France so take a pair of binoculars and stout walking shoes with you.
It’s probably most famous for the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, founded in the 11th century by St Bruno and the head monastery of the Carthusian monks. The impressive complex of buildings where Chartreuse liqueur was first created is in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse.
You can walk up to the impressive site and enter the ‘Desert of Silence’ for the view. You can’t visit the monastery which is still occupied by monks, but you can visit the Museum nearby.
Winter ski resorts in Chartreuse
The major ski resorts are located around Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse. Take the ski lifts up to slopes that suit children and families. There are some more challenging slopes but most Chartreuse ski resorts are slightly lower than those in the rest of Isère. They include Col de Marcieu, Coeur de Chartreuse, La Ruchère, Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet.
Nearby Col de Porte is 1,326 m/4,350 miles above sea level, attracting skiers and snowboarders.
Summer in Chartreuse
The Col de Porte makes a tough mountain climb for cyclists. It featured in the Critérium du Dauphiné cycle race – a precursor to the Tour de France.
Explore the Grésivaudan valley which sits surrounded by the great mountains of the Chartreuse to the west. Worth a visit is the small Château du Touvet, built to protect against the Dukes of Savoy. Its ‘Remarkable Gardens’ are typically French with their terraces and small walled gardens, though the Italian-style water staircase is a unique feature in France.
Belledonne Regional Natural Park and Massif
The Belledonne Regional Natural Park is north east of Grenoble. With peaks over 2,500 m, the strikingly rugged and wild mountain range has few visitors.
Winter in Belledonne
Belledonne is a favorite place for local skiers from Grenoble Its highest peak, the Grand Pic de Belledonne, reaches 2,977 m/9767 ft with 250 kms/155 miles of slopes.
The small ski resort of Le Collet d’Allevard that sits above the valley was the training ground for the 1968 Olympics. Today it’s geared up for families and also offers 8 pistes specially lit up for night skiing.
Two of Isère’s most popular winter sports resorts, Chamrousse and Les Sept-Laux, are in the Belledonne massif. With 90km of pistes, Chamrousse – the closest resort to Grenoble – includes the famous ‘Casserousse’, where French ski legend Jean-Claude Killy won the Olympic gold medal in 1968. It’s one of only seven resorts in France accredited as Flocon Vert, guaranteeing a commitment to sustainability.
Les 7 Laux, made up of three pretty villages, is particularly good for cross-country skiing with plenty of easily accessible off-piste routes through the trees. Col du Barioz is the best place for nordic skiers.
Summer in Belledonne
Belledonne is known for its spas in the Pays d’Allevard valley. The colourful spa town of Allevard-les-Bains has some of the most sulphur-laden waters in the world.
Les 7 Laux area blossoms in summer when it becomes home to the Espace Bel’Velec. This collection of 8 different cross-country mountain bike trails covers 111 kms/69 miles and a variety of slopes linking villages to Prapoutel-Pipay.
Check the Les 7 Laux website for all information.
Vercors Regional Natural Park
To the south of Grenoble, the Vercors Regional Natural Park spans both the Isère and neighbouring Drôme departments. Created in 1970, much of the landscape is white limestone with river gorges. Vertical rocky cliffs and distinctive peaks or ‘needles’ like the distinctive flat-topped Mont Aiguille. Described as one of the seven wonders of Dauphiné, the 2,085 m/6840 ft peak looms over the rivers.
Vercors is the place for animal lovers. Take binoculars and you might spot some of the 135 nesting birds and possibly a golden eagle or two. Or keep your eyes open for the chamois, red deer, roe deer, mouflon (mountain sheep), wild boar and ibex that freely roam the mountainous countryside.
The Vercors is known for dizzying balcony roads cut into the edge of the rocky cliffs with steep drops in places. The Gorges de la Bourne winds along the canyon created by the Bourne River. The Route de Presles is a narrow, tricky 7-km road with plenty of open tunnels and passages hewn out of the cliff face.
Pont-en-Royans is one of the more famous villages where colourful 16th-century houses cling to a ledge of the rock face over the Bourne river below.
Winter in Vercors
Near Vercors National Park
To the south of Grenoble, on the edge of the Vercors Natural Regional Park, the Château at the Domaine de Vizille is one of the most prestigious castles in the Dauphiné region. The Domaine parkland with its exquisite gardens, a deer park and ornamental lake is classified as a “Remarkable Garden”. Tour the Museum of the French Revolution for an insight into that incredible period when France changed for ever.
Isère’s parks, mountains and in winter, its ski resorts make for a part of France that is worth visiting all year round.
Read more about Isère here: how to get there, main attractions, cities and villages plus food and drink.
More about the 7 great mountain ranges of France.
The Tour de France 2020 in Isère
In 2020, the Tour de France passed through Isère on three consecutive days, starting with a rest day on September 14th, 2020. On September 15th, the Tour crossed the Chartreuse via the Col de Porte, which first featured in the 1927 race. It went towards Grenoble via the Revel in the Belledonne massif, and reached the Vercors via the climb up to Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte. The Tour finished after a descent to 1,023 m/3,356 ft at Villard-de-Lans which has hosted the tour 12 times.
About guest writer, Fiona Quinn
Fiona Quinn is a francophile travel writer and editor. She’s lived in France on and off during the past 30 years, including as a student in Paris, ski saisonnaire in Savoie and Haute Savoie, and a home-owner in sunflower-filled Charente.
Check out her website.