Eight of the best winter sports in Isère, France

Isère is the third largest ski area in France, meaning there’s no shortage of winter adventures to be had, especially for travellers wishing to get immersed in nature — from Nordic skiing and dog sledding to frozen waterfall climbing and ski paragliding.

Ski touring in Villard-de-Lans. This sport allows mountain-goers to discover off-the-beaten-track areas thanks to skins attached to the skis, which create traction for uphill treks.

Photograph by www.focus-outdoor.fr
By Isère Attractivité
Published 26 Nov 2021, 15:00 GMT, Updated 30 Dec 2021, 14:09 GMT

Speeding down slopes is a pillar of mountain culture, but slow down the pace and the scenery around you will come into focus. If you’re looking to reconnect with nature this winter, the department of Isère, sprawled across the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France, is just the ticket: it spans four massifs (Vercors, Chartreuse, Belledonne and Oisans), two regional nature parks and the Écrins National Park, where glassy lakes, snow-laden forests and peaks reaching for the sky suggest there's an adventure to be had around every corner.

The region’s epic mountain ranges are threaded together by 22 resorts, some of which are international favourites. Glacier skiing and reliable snow lure adrenalin-seekers to Les 2 Alpes, while the mellow terrain of Alpe d’ Huez is connected to other Oisans resorts through a convenient ski lift system. Elsewhere, there’s the revered family vibe of Vaujany and Oz-en-Oisans; the comfort of Chamrousse, the closest resort to Grenoble; and the Alpine allure at Les 7 Laux and Villard-de-Lans. And the best news? It’s easy to nip between the resorts using local buses.

With such diverse landscapes, there are countless sports and activities on offer. Here's a pick of some of the most engaging options, and where to try them.

1. Nordic skiing 
Breathe in that pure mountain air during a Nordic skiing trip, an umbrella term that covers various skiing disciplines where the heel of the boot is detached from the skis. Taking cues from the age-old Scandinavian sport, cross-country skiing allows you to slide along flat and uphill pistes without the downhill rush, making it a great option for beginners. If you’re more experienced, there’s also skate skiing, which requires a more energetic, diagonal motion. Try it at the dedicated Nordic site of Haut Vercors, on the Vercors Massif, with 95 miles of marked pistes. La Royale, where skiers cover a loop of 18 miles through the dozing villages of Corrençon, Villard-de-Lans and Saint-Julien en Vercors, is an especially popular route.

2. Snowshoeing 
To experience the grounding stillness of the mountains, there’s the snowshoeing routes of Isère, winding through forests and glades with a dusting of snow. Wildlife enthusiasts can join chamois-spotting tours organised by guides in the resort of Les Deux Alpes, while for sprawling views, head out on a sunset trek with ESF ski school to Pré de la Pierre — a clearing overlooking the striking Belledonne mountain range. Alternatively, for full nature immersion, walkers can explore the ethnobotanical Corniche trail through the Piégut forest in Auris en Oisans — one of the largest spruce forests in Europe.

A view of the snow-laden peaks of the Vercors Massif, one of Isère's four mountain ranges.

Photograph by www.aufildeslumieres.com

3. Dog sledding 
Huddled into sleighs and gliding through silent, icy landscapes behind a host of huskies is a wildly enthralling way to experience the plateaux of the Vercors. This area is crisscrossed by 31 miles of sled dog tracks, and several local operators offer both rides and mushing lessons. For closer encounters, there’s always the evening cani-balade trip with Team Ehawee: snowshoe-wearing hikers are guided through a forest by huskies, in the glow of headlamps, before refuelling at a campfire pit-stop with steaming mugs of coffee and Scandinavian nibbles.

4. Ice climbing 
Not just the reserve of extreme mountaineers, anyone can have a go at ice climbing — you just need a thirst for adrenalin and eye for adventure. Following the lead of guides from Oz-en-Oisans, even novices can tackle the 270ft-high Symphonie d’Automne, a towering frozen waterfall in the Grandes Rousses massif: slip on crampons and chip away at the crystalised falls with ice axe in hand. After pausing to catch your breath at the top, there’s only one way down — a thrilling abseil towards terra firma. If you get a taste for it, other scenic climbing spots near the resort include Mur d’IceBill and Chacal Bondissant.

5. Ski touring
When you’re craving lesser-known paths beyond the busier mountain trails, turn your attention to ski touring, where adventure-seekers delve deeper into the frozen backcountry. The key to this discipline is wearing skins attached to skis, which create traction for uphill treks. Beginners should head to the resort of Oz-en-Oisans and admire the scenery along the easy 1.5-mile course on the Plateau des Lacs des Petites Rousses. Otherwise, over in St Pierre de Chartreuse, there’s the Espace Tour de Rando, Europe’s first area dedicated to the sport. Though, for a moonlit journey, book Chamrousse’s after-dark experience: named ‘best ski touring itinerary’ at the 2019 Ski Touring Trophies, it allows you to follow illuminated paths with the twinkly lights of the Grenoble valley stretching out before you.

The Nordic site of Haut Vercors, crisscrossed by 95 miles of marked pistes, is a popular place where to try cross-country skiing.

Photograph by Thomas Hytte

6. Winter paragliding 
If you’ve a head for heights, take to the skies to gaze down at Isère’s white valleys, toy-town villages and tiny skiers with a winter tandem paragliding flight, taking off directly from the slopes. While the flights may vary in length and ease, depending on your experience, there’s a mesmeric beauty to the wintry panoramas unfolding, however long you’re cruising from on high — from the glacier fields and electric blue lakes of the Écrins National Park to the peaks of the Belledonne range. Numerous operators offer flights from major ski resorts, including Air 2 Alpes and Air Ailes Parapente in Les Deux Alpes; Belledonne Parapente in Les 7 Lauz; and Parapente Isère, in Autrans-Méaudre-en-Vercors.

7. Skijoring
For something entirely different, there’s always skijoring — a mellow and gentler way to glide through the crystalline landscapes, where pink-faced skiers are pulled along by horses. Second Souffle riding school has a whole host of equestrian-inspired tours and are pros at taking well-versed skiers on an intro to skijoring in the resort of Alpe d’Huez.

8. Fat bikes and e-bikes
For an unusual challenge, hire a ‘fat’ bike and test you fitness while weaving through snowy forest trails. Hailing from the US, innovative tyres with extra tread make it possible to glide through deep snow, and the great white expanse of the Trièves region is a veritable playground for cyclists. Look to Grillet Sports, based in the commune of Gresse-en-Vercors, for their trips in among Alpine landscapes. Or, for more sedate cycling, taking time to gaze at all the white beauty, hire e-bikes from Les Deux Alpes-based Aventure Electrobike — an enterprise specialising in guided tours of varying difficulties, from easy, half-day outings to multi-day itineraries with stays in high-altitude mountain refuges. In Villard-de-Lans, meanwhile, Vercors Adventures curates biking biathlons for thrill-seekers — a combination of laser rifle shooting and cycling.

The scenic Chartreuse mountain range, where nature is unspoiled. 

Photograph by Alexandre Gelin

A taste of the mountains


There's more than one way to get immersed in nature — and food in one of them. To get a taste of the mountains, head to Grenoble: the capital of Isère, at the foot of the French Alps, this city has been named European Green Capital 2022 in recognition of its sustainable development goals. Jeanette is one of the many restaurants in this Alpine hub to favour traditional flavours, fresh products and short supply chains. Head chefs Manon Bocquentin and Thaïs Giannetti tell us more.

Tell us about Jeanette.
It’s a very small restaurant in the centre of the city. All our suppliers and ingredients come from within 19 miles of where we’re based to limit our environmental impact. This also forces us to use seasonal fruits and vegetables; our producers call us and tell us what they have, and then we create a menu around it — it changes every week.

What kind of ingredients can diners expect to taste?
We use a lot of local wild herbs from the mountains around us: meadowsweet, which gives a bitter almond flavour; wood sorrel, which is very acidic and works well with fish; and elderflower, which is floral. We collect the herbs ourselves, and we rely on market producers for the vegetables and other products we use. 

How do you achieve fresh flavours?
The herbs we use change through the year. For example, wild garlic flowers are the first herb to flourish in the spring, then the asparagus comes just afterwards. In winter, we use some of the herbs we’ve collected in the summer, dried and infused in syrups.

What are some of the region's typical foods?
A typical product of the region is the walnut. There’s also a fair quantity of apples and pears, and in the autumn, we use corn that grows just six miles away. Another speciality of the region is trout, which we buy from Vercours.

How to do it


Airlines including British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair fly direct from the UK to Grenoble in under two hours.

Alternatively, Isère’s main train station, Grenoble, has excellent national and international rail connections. Train journeys from London take around seven-and-a-half hours, changing in Paris. Find recommended journey schedules at snowcarbon.co.uk.

From the train station, Transaltitude buses (scheduled to connect with arriving or departing trains) take travellers to 14 resorts in under two hours.

For more information on Isère, head to alpes-isere.com.

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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