Holidaying on the wild side in the French Alps

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I had long wanted to take Brian and the acorns to the French Alps. To be precise, to the valley of the Clarée River near Briançon, where I spent three happy family holidays some 30 years ago. It finally happened this summer, with an unforgettable holiday of camping and hiking and wild swimming that surpassed all our expectations.

** Warning – this is an epic post! **

Camping in the French Alps

With a brand new tent and camping gear borrowed left, right and centre from my family, we set up camp for five days at the Huttopia Clarée campsite, in the eponymous valley north of Briançon. Five days for a dreamy holiday on the wild side in the French Alps.

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Camping by the Clarée River

Hiking & wild swimming in the French Alps

We have come a long way since our first summer of wild swimming in France, two years ago. While back then a quick dip in a shallow river or a swim in a lifeguarded lake felt like an achievement, we now enjoy putting more wildness into our wild swims. We have become better swimmers, and more adventurous ones at that.

If last year’s wild swimming highlights were our upstream swim in the gorges of the Ardèche River, our lake swim in heart-shaped Lough Ouler, Co Wicklow, and my very first wild Atlantic swim in West Cork, this summer saw us smash our altitude record.

In 5 days in the French Alps, we fitted in 2 superb hikes and several outdoor swims in stunning mountain lakes, 2 of which were at altitudes of 2,359m (7,739ft) and 2,504m (8,215ft) respectively. Talk of a high of wild swimming!

So here are, from the lowest to the highest in altitude, 5 stunning spots for outdoor swimming in the French Alps.

1. La Roche-de-Rame

“Very beautiful lake with luminous water and tree swing.”

This is how the swimming lake of La Roche-de-Rame is described in Wild Swimming France (affiliate link), along with stunning pictures of said luminous water. Only it was slightly overcast when we got there. Still, the car park was jam-packed and the lakeside was busy with families looking to escape the stifling heat.

While most adults eshewed the cool, green water, leaving it to the children (a recurrent sight when wild swimming in France), we had a lovely swim with a view over the surrounding mountains.

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Mont-Dauphin

But the crowds, and the need to find somewhere to eat lunch, soon had us move on to nearby Mont-Dauphin. This UNESCO-listed fortress was built by military engineer Vauban in the late 17th century, atop a rocky outcrop sculpted over millenia by the Durance and Guil rivers.

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Following a much-needed lunch break at a streetside café, we explored the sun-baked streets of the former garrison town, until the heat had us looking for the next swimming spot.

The memory of bathing with my siblings in a hot water pool near Mont-Dauphin during one of our family holidays sprang to my mind. 

2. Hot springs of Phazy 

Hardly 5 minutes’ drive from the fortress, the hot springs of Phazy are located just off the N94 road.

Nothing has changed much since I visited this spot in the late 1980s. Below the Rotunda, the hot water (27C all year round) springs from a boulder of local pink marble and flows into 4 concrete pools – the lower, the cooler. Its high mineral content has created a salt meadow in the surrounding area, something rarely seen so far from the coastline and at such altitude (900m/2,950ft).

The thermal springs of Phazy have been known since ancient times for their curative properties for a range of ailments, but all efforts to create a spa resort were short-lived. The site is now managed by the local towns of Guillestre and Risoul, with free public access all year round – something the acorns made the most of!

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3. Lac de Rama

It was the end of our first day in the French Alps. After our third dip of the day, this time in the shallow, fast-flowing Durance River, the sun was already drawing long shadows along the valley, and our campsite was still nearly an hour drive’s away.

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Dam building in the Durance River

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Still, soon after La Roche-de-Rame, we took a sharp turn left off the N94 to try and find one last swimming spot.

The excellent directions on the book Wild Swimming France (affiliate link) took us down a narrow road by the Durance, to reach the so-called Site de Rame. The promised lake was still nowhere to be seen.

Parking near other cars by the dirt track, we walked through brush and birch stands, until what can only be described as a jewel of a lake appeared in front of us.

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Nestled among towering mountains, the lake of Rama caught the last rays of the late afternoon sun in a shimmering array of greens and blues. I loved everything about this hidden spot – the jewellery-box setting, the luminous colours, and the crystal clear water of course.

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As the stillness of the evening closed in on the calm waters, our first day of outdoor swimming in the French Alps came to a close.

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4. Lac Laramon & Lac du Serpent

Our next swim came after our first family hike in the French Alps – a long, steep trek in stifling heat towards Lac Laramon and Lac du Serpent in the high valley of the Clarée River, Hautes-Alpes.

If I had somewhat worried that this beloved area of the French Alps might fail to live up to my childhood memories, then my doubts were soon put to rest.

If anything, the mountains look more alive than 30 years ago. The villages of the Clarée Valley seem to be thriving, with few isolated chalets left derelict. Despite the ever-increasing visitor numbers to this beautifully fragile alpine valley, traffic and parking are effectively managed with shuttle buses and park & rides.

Hiking trails are well-maintained and signposted, and also heavily used. Yet they never feel overcrowded, and litter is all but absent.

Everywhere you look, the mountains of the Clarée Valley are teeming with life. High above the jagged peaks of the Écrins range, golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) glide, swoon and circle majestically in the bright blue sky. Every so often, the loud whistle of a marmot (Marmota marmota) echoes between the precipitous slopes and around the alpine pastures where they dig their burrows.

Everywhere, wildflowers gently sway in the mountain breeze – blue alpine bellflowers (Campanula alpestris), great yellow gentians (Gentiana lutea), pink houseleeks (Sempervivum), among the fields of rocks and sweet mountain grass.

All along the valley, the aptly-named Clarée River babbles joyfully between clusters of blooming fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and stands of larch trees, or cascades down narrow gorges and steep inclines.

For all the panting and puffing (it’s only halfway up that we realised the thinner mountain air might have something to do with it!), it felt like walking through a painting.

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Hiking in the high valley of the Clarée River feels like walking in a painting 

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“Happiness is not to be found at the top of the mountain, but in the way you climb it.”

Then that unmistakable feeling when you get to the top, after huffing and puffing up an alpine trail for a couple of hours and you lose your breath all over again at the sheer beauty of it all.

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Then we even swam in said painting! Yes, that’s right – Brian and I swam in Lac Laramon, at an altitude of 2,359m, no less. Now that’s wild swimming in the French Alps!

“You guys are a bit crazy” Jedi muttered as I handed him my camera to capture the moment. Other hikers had rolled up their trousers and carefully waded in. But we were the only swimmers. Apart from a dog, on the far side of the lake.

After the sweltering hike, the exquisitely cool water felt like a balm on my skin, washing away dust and sweat alike.

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Without goggles, we couldn’t observe what lay in the crystal clear depths of Lac Laramon. But the breathtaking panorama more than made up for it. From the water, Lac Laramon looked like an infinity pool, bounded only by sky and mountains.

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Lac Laramon (alt. 2359 m/7,739ft)

From Lac Laramon, it was hardly half an hour to reach Lac du Serpent (“lake of the snake”). Squirrel and Mermaid waded in the cool green waters, but couldn’t manage a full dip.

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Lac du Serpent (alt. 2448m/8,031ft)

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As the sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds, we started on the long thigh-busting descent.

Making more family memories to add to my own collection – holidaying in the French Alps had delivered again in the most spectacular fashion.

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Exploring the ruins of an old shepherd’s hut near Lac du Serpent

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Stunning Lac Laramon, as seen on the way down from Lac du Serpent 

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Dried-out bog pool by Lac Laramon

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Blueberry picking with a view 

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Fireweed / Epilobes (Epilobium angustifolium)

5. Lac des Béraudes

Little did we know that we would break our altitude record while swimming in the French Alps only 2 days later.

On the fourth day of our camping holiday in the Clarée Valley, we set off for Névache, from where the shuttle bus took us all the way into the high valley, to the chalets of Laval.

It had rained the day before and, although the sunshine had come back, the temperatures had plummeted and a chilly wind was blowing.

As we started on the steep ascent towards Lac des Béraudes, we soon felt grateful for the light cloud cover and cool breeze. The trail leading to the lake might only be 2kms long, but it involves a vertical ascent of 500 metres (1,650ft). Whether it was the cooler temperature, or the numerous stops along the way, or improved fitness, I don’t know, but the hike didn’t feel as taxing as the previous one, most noticeably in the breathing department.

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The trail to Lac des Béraudes starts through a stand of larch trees

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Time for a break to catch our breath

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We soon were walking above the tree line, into a high mountain landscape of screes and scarce vegetation – the realm of rock and ice. Barren yet a delicate ecosystem. Rugged yet vulnerable. Immutable yet ever-changing. 

Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed.
It watched us arrive.

Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

I soon found myself explaining to Jedi that Ice Age glaciers had gouged and sculpted the immense valley spreading below our feet, grinding down rocks and leaving behind erratic boulders as they retreated. He looked as bemused as I felt some 30 years ago when my dad told me. 

As we huffed and puffed our way up the treacherous trail towards the lake, the sun finally burnt through the last wispy clouds.

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Having seen no pictures of the lake prior to our family hike, I had no particular expectations.

But nothing can prepare you for this. As you walk the final stretch over the moraine dam, past the yellow signpost, the Lac des Béraudes simply takes your breath away.

Lac des Béraudes (alt. 2504 m/8,215ft)

The lake’s luminous waters have kept the colour of the glacier they were born from – ice-blue. The hue and opacity of an actual turquoise.

It is a bewildering gemstone set in an utterly mineral landscape. Harsh, unforgiving – a wild place over which wind, snow and ice undisputably hold sway.

“Wow! This is the most beautiful lake ever!”

Mermaid who, only minutes before, felt unable to take one more step, immediately forgot all her throes. The Lac des Béraudes was the perfect reward for a tough second hike in the French Alps.

We ate our picnic on a large flat rock overlooking the lake.

Coming up for lunch 

We then went exploring a bit further along the lakeshore. Brian had already decided to go for a swim. Despite the sunshine, I struggled to keep warm and chose to sit this one out.

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Brian was getting ready when two fellow hikers came the other way. “Brave man!” they said as they walked past us.

A few minutes later, they gave Brian a round of applause and a loud cheer as he lowered himself into the turquoise water of Lac des Béraudes.

How about that for wild swimming?

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And he’s in! Round of applause please 

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Feeling small 

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Brian got dry and dressed, and we kept walking along the lakeshore. We had our eye on a small snow patch at the top of the valley.

Getting there proved more challenging than expected – there was more sliding down the precarious scree field than actual walking! 

Squirrel and Pebbles immediately stepped onto the dusty snow, and looked surprised to find it so cold and slippery – as if snow in summer was somehow different from the white stuff of winter!

Spot that snow patch!

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Jedi and Brian, soon followed by the rest of the family, scrambled their way to the base of the waterfall trickling down the slope to feed the ice-blue lake.

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At the waterfall 

As we made our way back down to the lake, the wind seemed to have stopped and the sun felt warmer.

“I’m nearly tempted to go in” I said to Brian as though it were a secret. Then, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”, as I hurriedly put on my bikini.

The turquoise water was undeniably chilly, yet the vise-like sensation on my feet and legs (as happened while dipping in an Irish river post-sauna last March) was noticeably absent. 

1,2,3, and I kicked away from the shore in my unique take on the breaststroke.

Putting my head in for the front crawl was not an option. If the water of Lac des Béraudes were not so blue, it would appear milky, as it is anything but clear. Besides, swimming in such a spectacular setting, you might as well enjoy the stupendous views.

I couldn’t stop smiling. I did it!

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Woohoo!

“Lac des Béraudes – 2504 m” reads the yellow signpost at the moraine dam.

Brian and I swam in that lake. A high altitude swim in the French Alps that will be hard to beat, should we ever wish to.

Maybe next year? It goes without saying that this was only the beginning of our summer addventures in the French Alps!

One last look before the knee-buckling descent 

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Doesn’t this boulder look like it’s growing hair ? 

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Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links. Should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on one of them, I may receive a small commission and your purchase will help support this site.

 

 Lou Messugo  The Helpful Hiker

 

13 Responses to “Holidaying on the wild side in the French Alps

  • That is a truly epic post, and what a holiday it sounds. 3 different swimming locations in one day, hot springs and an opalescent lake. Just wow!! Fabulous photos as ever too. It sounds like your summer was fantastic

    • It was an epic holiday indeed! We already want to go back to the Alps asap but there is so much to explore in France, as your trip in the Cevennes reminded me. I already miss summer to be honest…

  • Wow, wow, wow!!!! This is such an inspiring post. I would so love to do this with my children; I am saving it for my “round the world” dreams. Thank you so much for the beautiful pictures and story. #fearlessfamtrav

    • Your comment brought a huge smile to my face so thank you 🙂 . So very happy that you found the post inspiring. The French Alps are an incredible playground for families!

  • Oh we do love a mountain holiday…and a spot of wild swimming. Your trip takes it to another level with your high altitude dips! #fearlessfamtrav

    • We have become wild swimming addicts, and those alpine lakes were simply irresistible! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Looks gorgeous. It’s been many, many years since I was in the Alps and even then it was a winter ski holiday. Must add a summer visit to the list of places to visit with the bikes! #AllAboutFrance

  • Wow! A word that often gets overused, but it’s 100% justified here. I can’t believe you swam at such a high altitude, it must have been so cold. The blue of the highest lake is unbelievable. I’m in awe of you and your family trekking so high on this awesome holiday. Thanks for sharing with #AllAboutFrance

  • What fabulous photos – it must have taken ages to put this beautiful post together. Thanks for sharing, and bravo for braving the high altitude lakes. #AllAboutFrance

  • It looks so beautiful! I’ve only been to the French Alps in Winter so it very different – although just as beautiful.
    I’m sure my kids would love it there. We’re surrounded by mountains now that we live in Colorado so we’ll have to get out exploring locally – and then hopefully make it to the French Alps again some day!

  • Wow this is so stunning and looks fab to get away from the crowds #fearlesafamtrav

  • This is an epic post and a lovely account of your time in the French Alps. It must have been so cold swimming in those mountain lakes! Good on you. Thanks for sharing on #fearlessfamtrav

  • You weren’t wrong when you said this was an epic post but with scenery like that to discover and such high swimming achievements how could it be any shorter! #AllAboutFrance

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