You're looking for hikes and treks in the French alps, but you think Tour du Mont Blanc and GR20 in Corsica are way too much busy ?
Yes, you're true, and Belledonne is a place where you can still feel what's beeing remote in an alpine wilderness. Trekking on GR738 trail, the Traversée de Belledonne is a chance to get out of the crowd and going off the beaten tracks is easy.
Belledonne is a perfect choice for active holidays, it has all what a mountain lover could look for.
Trails are mostly single tracks but they are well marked. So you can enjoy feeling by yourself surrounded by nature without exposing you to dangerous choices. Trails lead to quiet altitude valleys with drinkable creeks and mirror-like lakes. They are surrounded by steep rocky peaks who offer great opportunities to scramblers. Snow patches stay almost all summer on some north facing slopes giving an even more scenic atmosphere to the landscapes.
Mountain fauna is a common sight, ibexes and chamois will be all along your route, griffon vultures and eagles above your head.
Want some more informations and technical details about Belledonne mountain range ?
Read everything you need to prepare and organise your stay and hikes in this article.
Why is it called Belledonne ?
We know three explanations about the local toponymy. You will need to choose your own truth.
- It could come from the shape of the highest peak viewed from Oisans. Italian workers moving to France though passes were looking at it as a mother carring her child : La Bella Donna, the Beautiful Lady, Mary with Jesus in her arms.
- It may also comes from the plant the Beladone, the Deadly Nightshade. In the old times locals were giving the mountain names of bad stuff growing nearby.
- The one I prefer. It could come from old Gallic roots. Belle would be for Mountain and Donne for an Sacred/Hidden Valley. And yes Belledonne is like a secret valley, with crystal lakes and flowered meadows in between eery black cliffs.
What are the best starting points, basecamps for hiking in Belledonne ?
The official start and finnish of the GR738 are Aiguebelle (North) and Vizille (South). However the mountain range is never really far from small to middle size cities and they have better public transport service.
From North to South you will find : Pontcharra, Allevard, Prapoutel and Chamrousse.
Le Collet d'Allevard, Prapoutel (les Sept Laux) and Chamrousse are ski resorts. It means there is more people around these places but also more services : Hotels, BnB, Campings, Food store, Mountain gear ressellers, …
Chamrousse is the closest from Grenoble, only 45min from train and bus station, 1h10 from Grenoble Airport, 1h30 from Lyon Airport. It's, for me, the best place to start your hiking tour in Belledonne. The public transport is running daily all year long, you can find accomodation, basic food supply and restaurant any month. Sport shops are however opening only july and august and december to april.
How difficult is walking in Belledonne ?
Belledonne isn't easy. It's what people say, and for sure it's probably harder than hiking in Vercors or in a large track near Chamonix. But still, we have well maintained trails, you won't have to ford rivers, or need rock climbing tips.
When trekking you will walk either on flat grassy meadows or steep rocky moraines, it depends how high and remote you want to go.
The main route is well marked, printed in red on topographic maps and you find gps tracks of it. Finding your way will become a problem when wanting to climb on summits or taking alternative trails.
It makes Belledonne the perfect mountain for experienced hill-walkers, but it's better to go with a local if you're not looking for some adventure.
Is there snow in summer in Belledonne or on the GR738 ?
Depending of the amount of snow fallen in the winter and how warm has been the spring, yes, you can find some. We call these snow patches who remain sometimes all year round “Névés”. Crossing them can be tricky during a cold morning as they can be icy and steep.
The main passes are usually free of snow by the end of june.
So you usually don't need crampons or a rope if you come in july.By the end of september snow showers can cover tracks and stay for a few days, it makes the trail harder to follow.
But usually you can go all through Belledonne until end of october at least.
Is it allowed to camp, bivouac and light fires when crossing Belledonne ?
Yes and no ! It depends of local regulations. Due to recent abuses, presence of sheeps and guard dogs it's prohibited to overnight in some zones. However most of the range is still free to camp for a night and many places are remote enough to not disturb anybody.
Just keep in mind the Leave No Trace principles and stay away from sheep herds. Some huts are open and free to use, just like bothies. You can stay and rest in these cabins, especially if the weather is wet.
The common use is to leave it cleaner than when you arrived.
Is there mountain refuges along the route ?
Yes, the GR738 has been created for having the possibility of sleeping in a bed each night of your trip. It means you only have to carry some clothes and your camera ! You can eat at the refuge at night and get a take-away meal for the next day.
Is the water drinkable from the streams ? Do I have to carry my own for the entire trip ?
Usually water is clean and abundant in Belledonne. But it's always important to not drink if a sheep herd has been feeding up-stream. They can carry liver diseases and for sure you don't want to get it.
If possible, try to drink immediately after the well comes out the ground.
If you feel not sure about it you can boil it, filter it or clean with chlorine pills.
There is many small lakes and creeks along the route, it makes the refill easy. A 1l. bottle should be enough.
What kind of wildlife can I see when hiking on GR738 ?
Belledonne hosts many of the mountain animals you could want to see.
Some species are inhabiting any altitude :
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes – Renard) lets tracks at any altitude, from woods to summits. But the most common place to see it is around refuges and huts !
Wolf (Canis lupus – Loup), is present in the entire mountain range. Even if it's uncommon to observe it you can easily find tracks and clues of its presence.
Marmot (Marmota marmota – Marmotte) inhabits pastures from tree line to permanent snow, as the hibernate you can only see them from spring to autumn.
In the upper altitudes, around peaks, cliffs and screes :
Ibex (capra ibex - Bouquetin) will be the most common and the easiest to get close from. Males have huge horns who make them so tipical.
Chamois (rupicapra rupicapra – Chamois) is a lot more shy, they usually keep far from humans. But still, you can see them fairly well with binoculars.
Same for Mountain Sheeps (Ovis orientalis – Mouflon) who has big spiral horns, whereas Ibex has them almost straight.
Blue hare (Lepus timidus – Lièvre variable) is quite present, however you need to really look for if you want to see it.
Stoat (Mustela erminea – Hermine) is also living here and as the hare its fur is turning from brown to pure white when cold is coming.
In the lower areas, in the forests and at their limits with pastures :
European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus – Chevreuil) is a common sight in the morning.
Its bigger cousin the Red deer (Cervus elaphus – Cerf) is also present, at lower densities.
Wild boar (Sus scrofa – Sanglier) is shy but well represented. You have more chance to see it in the forest but it often surprisingly comes much higher.
Pine marten (Martes martes – Martre) is hunting for Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris – Ecureuil roux) and is sometimes possible to see.
Is Belledonne a good spot for birding ? Birdwatching ?
Which types of habitats can be found ?
Belledonne offers good opportunities to see mountains or alpine specialities. The ski resorts of Chamrousse can be a smart choice for birding. In the village, many goat willows, rowans and european spruces are growing along the streets and provide shelter and food for many species of birds. The ski slopes are located on alpine meadows and heathlands, whereas nordic ski takes place on a mire surrounded by a coniferous forest. Rocky slope's top can be reach by gondola lift winter and summer. There is a lot of hiking trails who can lead you to any habitat you want to prospect.
Which season is the best ?
In spring, streets are fulfilled with birds. Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax - Chocard), Citril finches (Carduelis citrinella - Venturon), Song thrushes (Turdus philomelos – Grives musiciennes) are an everyday sight. We can ear Black grouses (Lyrurus tetrix – Tétras lyre) singing from the streets, as well as Tengmalm/Boreal owls (Aegolius funereus – Nyctale de Tengmalm).
In summer, like everywhere it's somehow quieter but there is still some birds to spots. Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus – Vautour fauve) roam in the sky and we sometimes have Black/Monk vultures (Aegypius monachus – Vautour moine) paying a visit. Rock thrush (Monticola saxatilis – Monticole de roche) is elusive and you will have to be lucky ! But Water pipit (Anthus spinoletta – Pipit spioncelle) is easy to find.
Autumn sees birds coming back to busy life. Passerines gather in large flocks. Coal tits (Periparus ater- Mésange noire) or Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus – Tarin des aulnes) can be seen by tens. Eurasian pygmy owl (Glaucidium passerinum- Chouette chevêchette) is singing nearby.
Winter offers good chances to spot Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris – Accenteur alpin) and White-winged snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis – Niverolle alpine) without effort as they come directly at feeders.
All year long, depending on altitudes you can spot some species. White-spotted nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes – Casse-noix moucheté) is very common as there is plenty of Arolla pines (Cembros). Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra – Bec-croisé des sapins) are also quite common. Golden eagle (Aquila Chrysaetos – Aigle royal) flies over cliffs any season and Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius – Pic noir) keep guarding its forest. Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria- Tichodrome échelette) is more difficult to spot each time you would like !
Lammergeier (Gyps fulvus – Gypaete barbu) could be possible but it's still highly uncommon. You would have much better chances to see it going to south Vercors, only 2 hours driving from Chamrousse.
Rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta – Lagopède alpin) and Hazel grouse (Tetrastes bonasia – Gélinotte des bois) are highly elusive near Chamrousse, but it's not impossible you see some.
Of course there is many other species visible in Chamrousse and much more to discover. Let me know if you're looking for something special by clicking HERE.
Do I need to hire a mountain leader for hiking through Belledonne ?
Local guide is not mandatory of course and you can find easily by yourself routes and accomodation.
A mountain leader will just bring you directly to the good spots and arrange you the tour who suits the best to your projects ! He will advise you on the best places to stay and great restaurants, as well as he will give you easy access to unique experience and "beyond the scene" infos. He's the guy who makes you coming back !