Écrins National Park, set between the Northern and Southern French Alps, is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It’s a vast high mountain zone with over 150 summits above 3,000m and over 10,000 hectares of glaciers. Thousands of kilometers of world class hiking trails, endless opportunities for climbing, via ferrata, water sports and cycling make this an adventure lovers haven. What makes it even more special is that you’re likely to find true peace and solitude in the mountains here. Below, Fay and Matt Doyle outline some key information to help you plan a trip to Écrins National Park along with some of their favourite hikes to get you inspired in the South of the park.
How to Get to Écrins National Park by Plane, Car and Train
The park is a relatively short drive from Grenoble Airport; however this airport only seems to service winter tourism now – which isn’t helpful for hiking in the summer season. The other airport options within driving range are Geneva, Nice, Lyon, Marseille, and Nimes. You’ll be looking at between two and five hours drive to the park depending on which airport you choose. Prices can vary quite substantially between airports in the summer season, so we’d recommend looking around and working out what works best between cost and the time you have available for your visit. It is also of course possible to drive. If you want to have your own car and cut down on airfares and emissions, one option, if you’re coming from the UK, is to use Eurotunnel and Le Shuttle from Folkstone to Calais. If you want to be completely car free or need another option, it is also possible to use rail services, however, this will limit your options for hiking and adventure as many of the trails are accessible by car only. However, if you want some time to travel slowly and check out the area you’re in for your entire trip, this could be a worthwhile option. For example, there is the option to take an overnight train from Paris to Gap. From Gap, it is possible to get local buses to various towns and resorts in Écrins. We stayed in Orcières-Merlette, and it was possible to get a bus from Gap to the resort. In the resort itself, there were various cable cars and hiking from the front door, so it would be highly possible to do a trip to Écrins car free. There are many options for trains from the major airports listed above, and we’d advise checking out the opportunities for adventure in the areas that the trains service before booking to make sure there is plenty for you to do.
When is the Best Time to go to Ecrins National Park?
For hiking and summer adventure, the best time to visit Ecrins National Park is between July and September. The months of May and June tend to be much rainier, and because of the mountain environment, the weather can change quite quickly. Because of the parks position in the South of France, summers can be quite hot and are getting hotter because of climate change – reaching temperatures of over 30 degrees. This is likely to be a little cooler once you reach the mountains and are at higher altitudes, but we found the heat was quite intense when we were trying to hike.
Where to Stay in Écrins National Park?
It really depends on what you are interested in doing. If you have decided to travel without a car, we’d suggest staying in a resort, such as Orcières-Merlette. From here, there are hiking, biking and adventure trails from the front door, including various cable cars that run from July – end of August (weather dependent) that will take you higher into the mountains to make the most of the high altitude environment. It’s good to keep in mind that there are many areas of the park with no roads through, so choosing your base area wisely is important. It’s advisable to do some research into any area before you book accommodation to see how close it is to the things you want to do. If you’re plant based, France can be quite a challenging place to eat out too (or so we’ve found). So, looking at options where you can cook some of your own meals and doing a trip to a supermarket can be a great and affordable option – especially if you need to make things work on a smaller budget. We chose to base ourselves in the south of the park, but the key areas of the park that are worth looking at staying in are Les 2 Alpes, Entraigues, Corps, Le Monêtier-les-Bains, Gap and Orcières-Merlette.
Five Suggested Hikes in the South of Écrins National Park
Here are five of our favourite routes in the South of the National Park to give you some inspiration for what is available. These hikes barely even scratch the surface and starts to show you just how much is available in terms of hiking trails and time in the mountains here!
The Six Lakes of Orceries
Noted as one of the most stunning hikes in the area, this route is a must do. The start of the trail is accessible from the Drouvet Summit cable car station, and it is important to note this station is only an option between July and the end of August. This hike would be possible from the nearby town of Orcières-Merlette (where there is plenty of parking) but it would add close to 1,000m of elevation gain at altitude. There are some sections of the trail that are exposed with quite sheer drops off to one side. The views, however, are truly breathtaking – looking in all directions!
Roche Rousse – d’Estaris Lake
An alternate suggestion to the hike above (as it does take in some of the same areas) however, this hike has quite a different feel and is perhaps more accessible if you’re less keen on heights and exposure. Can be reached from Orcières-Merlette via cable car to Roche Rousse station. it is important to note this station is only an option between July and the end of August. This hike would be possible from the nearby town of Orcières-Merlette(where there is plenty of parking) but it would add close to 600m of elevation gain at altitude. If you want to cut this hike shorter on your return from the lakes, you can take the cable car back down to Orcières-Merlette.
The Pic de Morgon
A challenging route, but a rewarding one for those who want to take in stunning views of valleys such as Ubaye and the Durance. We’d recommend this hike in the afternoon to take advantage of the sunset views on your return journey.
Praphic – le Drac
A wonderful hike through varying landscapes and to a waterfall. This is also a great opportunity to spot marmots in the meadows as you go – they move fast so can be hard to spot. There are so many stunning views on this hike – especially into the valley on the way down. Steep uphill at the start, but once you’re up into the meadow, the climbing becomes more gradual. The village of Praphic and the winding road to get there is all part of the experience, with many of the cafes open in the village for refreshments before or after. Praphic itself is closed to outside traffic, but there is a large parking area very close which you cannot miss (as the road literally stops there). The car park can get quite busy, so it is best to plan accordingly.
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Champsaur – Pisse Waterfall
Another route that follows the Drac, you’ll see varying landscapes that contrast between alpine mountains, trees and foliage. This is a particularly beautiful hike to do in the morning as you watch the sun rise over the mountains. You’ll also be treated to a flurry of alpine herbs and flowers throughout the trail, which are a great mindful experience.