Routes from Larche through
the Tinée Region to the Vesubie.
Do take a rest day in Larche.
Be sure to carry extra water on all the routes in the region, as there are no sources of drinkable water, in many cases no water at all, between the towns or refuges.
Information and a reservation page for all the Mercantour refuges can be found following the links at http://www.cafnice.org.
Several paragraphs below, I highly recommend a route (rather a choice of several routes) which deviates from the GR5 - 52 for five or six days. It takes one or two fewer days to the GR52 to Menton and visits some exciting terrain in comparison to the official GR5 route and the first long day of the GR52, both of which I find rather dull.
Also, you spend two nights in Italy, with a chance to experience that culture. The route (or choice of routes) I recommend follows what the Alpes-Maritimes hiking officials are now calling "The Balconies of the Mercantour".
If you are taking the GR52, the total walking time to Boréon via the official GR5-52 route is 7 days (39 hours). On my more beautiful and exciting routes it is 5 days (28 1/2 hours) or 6 days (31 1/2 hours). You save 8 to 10 hours of walking and have a much more interesting trip. (Check out the photos below.)
If you are taking the GR5 to Nice, the total walking time from Larche to Saint Dalmas-Valdeblore on the GR5 is 6 days (31 1/2 hours) and about 32 hours via my more interesting routes.
Day numbers below are from Larche.
Day 1, Part 1, All Routes: from Larche to the Pas de Cavale.
Important: Ask at the Gîte de Larche about snow conditions on the Pas de Cavale (2671 meters). If they tell you it is blocked with snow, as it may be into late-July (as was the case on my second visit), the same "Salse Moraine Valley" (in the photo below) and the GR5 may be joined by a somewhat lower trail via the Col de Pouriac (2506 m). The trailhead is in Italy, four kilometers southeast of the GR5 on the main
highway from Larche. Figure that this detour will add an hour and
one-half to your walking time, more if you have to contend with snow banks. If you are an easy going walker, you might offer to
pay the gite owner or a hotel employee to transport you to the Italian trailhead by car. In that case your total time walking time will be an hour or two less than if you took the GR5.
If you are going
to follow the Lac de Vens route described below, I highly recommend you set out from Larche (1,675 meters, 5,500 feet) by flashlight
before dawn. You will want to be off the high and exposed passes
before mid-afternoon. So if you are staying in the Gîte de Larche or a Larche hotel,
ask if they will lay out coffee and bread for you the night before. In general, from Larche to the Mediterranean, it is wise to set off at 6 or 7 in the morning, to do your climbing before the sun is overhead.
Whatever your final destination, on the GR5 you leave Larche by the highway and quickly branch
onto a minor road, which, after an hour, curves southwards and enters
the Mercantour National Park. Now on a trail, you climb to the Pas
de la Cavale at 2,671 meters (about 8,800 feet) in a total of 4 1/2 hours (not including rest stops).
The scenery, looking ahead from the pass of the Pas de la Cavale, resembles a moonscape.
From the Pas de Cavale,the Lac d'Angelis on left below;,the trail
to Bouziéyas runs from there along dried river towards the right. The
photo beneath this one is placed further to the left, with a wider
angle view. Click any photo to enlarge.
(If you are taking the Lac de Vens route below which requires route-finding now, at the pass, is the time to study your map and my photos carefully, and to match landmarks.)
Descend on the GR5 to the lakes d'Angel in the Salse Moraine Valley at 2,343 meters. Looking back now at the Pas de Cavalle pass, you will wonder how you ever came down the cliff.
Looking back at the Pas de Cavale from Lac d'Angel.
To Saint Dalmas-Valdeblore on the GR5
Day 1, Part 2, GR5 Route:
The GR5 bears slightly to the right, and continues to the Refuge of Bouziéyas (at 1,883 meters) in just over two hours.
Town of Bouziéyas. In the distance, where GR5 passes tomorrow.
Even if you are planning to follow the GR5, do consider one day off route, as described below, to the high refuge of Vens rather than Bouziéyas, rejoining the GR5 at Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée on the second day.
Day 2 and Subsequently:
Lodgings are infrequent in the Alps Maritimes, so you have only a few choices: After the 7 hour, highly vertical day from Larche to Bousiéyas, it would be desirable to have a light day and to stay in an urban setting for a change, so you might wish to select a 5 1/2 hour walk to the pleasant and picturesque old town of St.-Etienne-de-Tinée.
Boucatin grazing, on side of Mt. Mounier, side-trip above the Col de Crousett. Looking back north towards Roya, the GR 5 runs for long distances over treeless ridges.
Furthermore, if you stay in St. Etienne, then it is a short day of about 4 1/2 hours to the Gîte d'étape at Roya (day 3) , followed by a 6 1/2 hour day to the fine Gîte d'etape at Longon (day 4). This is easily manageable, but note that after Roya you will be walking on completely bare mountain ridges with no water, and without protection from the sun. Then you have a 4 hour walk to Saint Saveur-sur-Tinnée (day 5) and another 4 hour walk to Saint Dalmas-Valdeblore (day 6).
The GR 52 branches off here to the north, with a 4 hour climb, mostly on bare ridges, to the Col du Barn, and an almost equal descent of 3 hours to Boréon.
View towards, on right, the Pas de Barn climbing from Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore on the GR52.
The more interesting alternative to the GR 5 and short-cut to the GR52: The "Balconies of the Mercantour":
The Balconies of the Mercantour route was originally concieved of to follow the alpine crest entirely in France, but in fact requires excursions into Italy. A link opened in late 2008 that makes the entire route accessible to average hikers if snow is off the trail. The first half of the route takes place in wild, pristine high-mountain country unique in an Alpine Crossing to the Mediterranean. The second half visits beautiful vistas, but is more civilized.
I give the Balconies of the Mercantour route, which I strongly prefer to the GR5, extensive treatment below, because I don't believe you will find this route described in detail anywhere else in English. The Balconies Route not only is starkly beautiful and scenically different from the rest of the Alpine Crossing, but it is a shorter by a day or even two to the Mediterranean. You should be able to judge from the pictures on this page whether the Balconies route is for you.
Day 1, Part 2 on my favorite variation from Larche via the Refuge de Vens rather than via Bouziéyas — a high mountain, path-finding route, but not requiring special skills:
Salse Moraine Valley from the Pas de Cavale. The off-trail route passes
on this side of the high, black and green ridges running from the right to the center of photo; then, turning
right, it passes out of view, before the mountains in
Click this photo to enlarge it).
The large photo has a dot to mark your approximate destination.
For those not used to walking off trail, this route may be scary. Both times I walked the route, my companions felt completely lost because we could not see where we were going. The second time I walked this route my very cautious young son-in-law was frightened out of
his wits because some thick fog temporarily rolled in on the ridge. The very qualities that makes this route scary to some makes it one of
my favorite routes. However, I would suggest that you might not want to undertake the
route alone, because, in the unlikely event of an accident, you are not likely
to meet anyone else on the way (and that is especially true in
June or September).
Needless to say, don't attempt this route if there is the least
sign of thunderstorms, or if thre is fog on the peaks; the "Col de Fer" on this route means "pass of iron", and this pass is known to attract lightning hits. Also don't attemmpt this route if your physical stamina is low.
Below is a Google Earth image looking south-south-east. The GR5 is shown from the Pas de Cavalle in red, as is the route cross-country to the Col de Fer on the way to the Refuge de Vens in green. The yellow line is the border with Italy. I recommend you click on the image to get the huge enlargement; then copy the enlargement for reference. Additionally, if you have Google Earth installed, this link will connect you to Google Earth forums. Search for "Cavalle Vens", and select the post "From Pas de Cavalle to Refuge Vens". That map is looking straight down with north at the top. You can manipulate it as you wish.
Click any image to Enlarge:
Directions from the Pas de Cavalle to the Refuge du Vens: . Allow 4 walking hours from the Pas de Cavalle to the
Refuge de Vens. This comes to about an 8 1/2 hours of walking day. Decend from the Pas de Cavalle to the lakes —Lacs d'Angel on the GR5. Stay left of the lakes, and descend to about 2200 meters, crossing the dry river. At the bottom of the rounded ridge, bear left. Begin climbing .Once you have passed by the top edge of the rounded ridge that will have blocked
your view to the right, a series of little
lakes becomes visible, and you will keep these on your right as you continue to climb.
Looking back during the climb. Little lakes are below
towards left. Pas de Cavale is located
just left of middle of photo. The
Pas de Cavale location is
marked on the larger version of
that pops up when
you click on the small one.
pass above the uppermost little lake, and come to a sort of a mini-valley
that has a trail in it, running off slightly to the right. Eventually this
becomes a ridge trail, somewhat exposed on both sides, following cairns.
At the end of the ridge, you turn sharply right by about 135 degrees,
angling backwards down the slope, and at the bottom turn sharply
left again on a faint trail that soon meets another, better and waymarked trail
that comes up from the right.
Refuge and lake of Vens.
thereafter, now on a regular trail, you reach the Pas de Morgon at 2714, almost the same elevation as the Pas de Cavalle, and then the signed Col du Fer at 2,684 meters, then cross
the Collet Tortisse, and descend to the Refuge de Vens, at 2,366
meters, on a lake of the same name.. This is one of the wildest
corners of France. In resume, on this day from Larche you climb 1000 meters, descend 500, climb 500 and descend 300.
If the weather was not conducive to the route finding, it is possible to reach the Refuge de Vens from the gîte
d'étape at Bousiéyas, by walking on the road 2 or
3 kilometers to le Pra, and then taking the marked trail which leads up
to the Refuge de Vens, either directly in 4 hours or via the Col
du Fer in 5 hours. If you come to Vens via this route through Bousieyas, it adds
a day to your trip. But you could skip Vens and walk directly to the Rabuons refuge, in which case you do not lose a day (total walking time from Bousieyas to the Rabuons refuge is about 7.5 hours).
I remember my visits to this stark and remote country as being very much worth the effort and the detour. My companionswho liked more civilized surroundings, staying on a wide trail, and less effortdid not agree.
Day 2: Important: You can descend from the Refuge de Vens to Saint-Etienne-du-Tinée to rejoin the GR5 without losing a day or having climbed extra elevation.
To do so, following trail signs, climb 300 meters (1,000 feet) and descend 1300 meters (4,000 feet) in about 4 1/2 hours.
Day 2: Continuing from the Refuge de Vens to the Refuge de Rabuons on the Balcons du Mercantour route.
The map below, drawn by me upon a Google Earth screen shot, shows the paths of the GR5 and GR52 through this part of the Mercantour Park. I strongly recommend that you enlarge the photo to examine it in detail.
The GR5 and GR52 are shown in purple. The various Balcon de Mercantour routes are shown in red and green. Note how the GR52 cuts back north to join the Balcon route. Note also that the Balcon route visits higher elevations.
From the Refuge du Vens, the trail passes along the
north side of the Vens lakes. Make a brief detour to see the view
where a stream exits to the lip of the plateau. Then, after passing
another lake, climb over a pass. After the pass, where
the path on the right descends towards St.-Étienne-de-Tinée,
bear left and climb slightly onto the Chemin de l'Energiea true road (but with no way to drive to it) built between the World Wars to permit
construction of a hydroelectric plant (that never materialized).
About 5 kilometers long and practically level, the Chemin continuously
has excellent views of the Tinée valley until, near the end, it passes through
two tunnels. Climb briefly to the Refuge de Rabuons (tel.04 93 23 04 11) at 2,510 meters,
located beside a lake and sourrounded on three sides by foreboding mountains of black rocks. The Rabuons refuge is
isolated, basic and small, but has a wonderful ambiance, a solar shower, and cheerful service. (See the refuge on its "rock" by enlarging the second photo below.) Walking time from the Refuge de Vens is 4 hours.
a high route over Mount Tinebre to Rabuons for mountaineers quite exposed and difficult, that usually requires crampons and ice ax. Check with the staff at the Refuge de
Vens if you are a mountaineer.
Tunnels on the "Energy Road", seen from the trail to the valley.
From the Rabuons refuge (2,523 meters), if you should wish to rejoing the GR5, you can descend to St.-Étienne-de-Tinnée
(1,300 meters - 4,000 feet) in under 4 hours.
Day 3: Continuation of the Balcons du Mercantour Route to Refuge Laus, or in a longer day, to the Santa Anna Sanctuary, both in Italy.
There are two ways to begin from Rabuons: (A) If (big if) the snow is off the Corborant pass (3007 m - 9,900 ft), AND you are willing to use your hands a bit, AND if you are willing to descend a scree slope...i.e., if you are a bit of mountaineer, AND if you are willing to climb 500 meters (1,500 feet), descend 1,400 meters ( 4,600 feet), and climb again 300 meters (1,000 feet) you can take the Corborant pass to the Alexandris Foches (Laus) Refuge in about 5 or so walking hours.
(B) Otherwise, if you are not commfortable descending in scree or if conditions don't permit Route A, you can take the recently opened (fall 2008) route, lower in altitude(highest point about 2650 m), but longer in distance and time, trail to the refuge. It involves an assent of approximately 130 meters (400 feet), a descent of 500 meters (1,600 feet), an assent of 400 meters (1,300 feet), and another descent of 650 meters (2,100 feet). This would take 6 or so walking hours.
Mountain crest dividing France and Italy,
near the lake of Rabuons. Corborant Pass
is behind ridge on right.
Details on Day 3 Option A: On my first crossing from Rabuons to Italy in 1995, I used the pass of the Corborant, at 3,007 meters
(9,900 feet), the highest point on my traverse between Lake Geneva and the Mediterranean. Because of snow along
the steep trail on the French side (and no crampons or ice ax),
I climbed up and around on some snow-free ledges. On the Italian
side, there was initially a slope of shifting scree, snow-free, which I cautiously slid down in a sitting position. Unless the pass is snow-free and you are also comfortable with using your hands and with sliding on shifting stone scree slopes, you should not attempt this alpine route. Once onto hard ground, you continue south past two lakes, pick up a track, and turning northeast, descend on the road almost to San Bernolfo.
You then have a choice. You may climb back up 300 meters to the Foches (Laus )refuge.
Or, you can continue to Santa Anna in one day, a 4 hour walk by the low route (Option B under Day 4) from this point. It is about 8 hours in total, and thus you will gain a day.
Details on Day 3 Option B:
Refuge (on left) and Lac du Rabuons from new trail (click photo to enlarge).
In the summer of 2009 I used the newly created trail now visible on geoportail.gouv.fr (click to add the IGN maps in the advanced version) and probably on recent maps, that runs southeast along the French side of the crest. I can recommend this trail for average walkers provided all the snow is off the trail. Ask at the Rabuons refuge if the trail is clear (in a normal year by mid-July), making very clear to them your level of skill. (The guardian, being a mountaineer, as in most refuges, is likely to assume that it is easy to go around snowfields by climbing up and down the rocks, or to hack out steps to cross them.) If there is snow on the trail, descend to St. Etienne-de-Tinée, and either follow the GR 5 or if you are not a "purist", take a bus or a taxi to Isola 2000 and pick up the Boreon trail there, saving a day or two.
View from the new trail towards Auron village, 1000 meters (3300 feet) down, where the GR5 passes.
The new trail is wide, about one-half the width of a road lane. From Rabuons it climbs to the south, crosses a col, and contours around a bowl (see two photos immediately below), all over slabs of rock and stones.
The rock-filled bowl.
Please click to enlarge each image:
This portion is slow going, taking about 2 hours, as you much watch your step .
Leaving the bowl, the trail is in normal dirt and you can double or triple your speed. Another hour bring you to the trail's end at a signposted cross trail . If bad weather has suddenly rolled in, you can descend to Douans in the valley (1100 meters below). Otherwise, turn left and climb to the Pas de Colle Longue at the Italian border.
The gardian of the Rabuons refuge warned me not to take any of the other trails to Italy indicated by dashed lines on some maps (but not easily visible from the new route), because they have not been maintained and are quite dangerous.
The climb from the above-mentioned trail junction takes a good hour, mostly through beautiful rolling meadows full of sheep. There is only one short exposed portion of the trail where you must watch your step. At the col one sees the remains of military fortifications and barbed wire. You spot the Lake (not the village) of St. Bernalfo, near the refuge, 650 meters below, about an hour and one-half by the sinuous closed-off road and/or the partial trail. I saw three chamoix in this valley. The refuge is five minutes to the left of the lake, just over the crest of a hill on the road (Tel Italy (39) 0171-959-606). The refuge is open continuously during July and August and on weekends from May to October. When the refuge is closed, it may be possible to use a matress in the winter bivouac room, if you are carrying your own food. Call for details.Figure about 6 hours in all from Rabuons. Via this routing, you will definitely want to spend the night at the Refuge Alexandris Foches at Laus.
Refuge Alexandris Foches at Laus
Since it was mid-week in July, I had a room with four bunk beds for myself, and never met anyone in the bathrooom. The meal consisted of four courses: pasta; meat; cheese; fruit.
Day 4: From Refuge Laus to Santa Anna:
It is possible to combine this day with the next one to make one v long day of 7 or 8 hours from Laus to Isola 2000.
Santa Anna (tel. Italy (39)0171-959-125), your destination, is a sanctuary, a place of worship, and a famous pilgramage destination in Italy; but the sanctuary also runs what amounts to a large, inexpensively-priced hotel at which anyone can stay. It was nice for a change to have sheets, large towels and my own bathroom, and to enjoy watching the mixture of pilgrims and tourists. The menu at Santa Anna was similar to the night before, four courses—except that pizza was substituted for the meat. Santa Anna has a separate cafe that I wish I had investigated, because half-board is not obligatory.
Looking back (down) from the Passo del Bue (Pas de Boeuf
(a military building on a snow patch is visable
There are two ways of going from Laus to Santa Anna:
A) The exciting, risky, crest route near the French-Italian border: In 2009 I took the crest route from Laus, which involved climbing up to the Paso del Bue (Pas du Boeuf) (Beef Pass) (a climb of 700 meters from Laus). Average walkers must avoid this route; you must be sure-footed, very careful, and willing to undergo exposure to heights.
The trail to the pass was badly maintained in several places, and required walking several hundred meters (yards) in footsteps on a steeply sideways-slanted hillside. In other words, it was a bit dangerous and absolutely required fabulous balance or trekking poles! The Paso del Bue is quite exposed (see photo above) and requires care.
After the pass, the trail continues over slabs of rock and stones for about 1 mile before reaching dirt. In the photo at left, the trail runs about one-third of the way down the slope beneath the cliffs, and turns right into a gap in the ridge. Some maps show a trail along the very crest between France and Italy, but the Laus guardian told me that this was very dangerous. The correct trail shown in the photo is now on the Geoportail site and probably on recent IGN maps; but was shown on the special map with booklet available from IGN called "Haute Tinée Alta Val Sutra (#6 in the series Alpes San Frontières—the best map from the Pas de Cavalle to Santa Anna, if it is still available..)
At a branch in the trail in view of a stone military building, a direct trail to the left leads towards the pass, but it looked eroded and dangerous; I chose to go to the right, scrambling up an eroded slope to a better trail that went in front of the military structure. From there, after a flat stretch, it takes some scrambling up steep somewhat slippery slope on an eroded but safe-enough trail to the Paso Saboulé. From the pass, you can choose between two very good trails is to Santa Anna. The shorter route, by perhaps one-half hour goes left to the Passo Tesina. The longer route crosses into France, passes by some nice alpine lakes before crossing back into Italy on a road carved steeply into the mountainside (here I saw two bouquetin), and descends by a closed-off dirt road to Santa Anna. Total walking time is about 6 hours. The rough route described above, while exciting, should only be taken by those equipped with trekking poles, and who are wiling to undergo a degree of risk, exposure, and difficulty, and not by the average trail walker.
The last few minutes to Santa Anna are on a tarred road.
B) The other route from Laus to Santa Anna involves going back down to S. Bernolfo or to Callieri, (a descent of either 300 meters or 450 meters). From Callieri the trail leads directly to Santa Anna via the Tesina Pass (a climb of 1,000 meters and a 400 meter descent). From S, Bernolfo the higher trail passes through the forest, and then requires a descent of 100 meters of an open slope to the Callieri trail. These less exciting routes are pretty, easy and safe, and take only about 4 or 5 hours.
If you are are combining this day with the next one, you will save almost an hour by not descending to Santa Anna.
Day 5: From Santa Anna to Isola 2000
An excellent trail leads from Santa Anna up to the ridge line in one hour, and to the Col de Lombarde, above Isola 2000, in another hour. The descent to the ski village can be accomplished in less than an hour. Total time is under 3 hours.
As the name indicates, Isola 2000 is at an altitude of 2000 meters. This ski village, like Auron on the GR5, may offend many hikers who prefer infrenquented pristine areas, but it can be bypassed only by saying in Italian refuges (in beautiful settings) that add a day of walking to the GR52. There are only two hotels in Isola 2000: the Hotel Druos ** in summer almost always has last-minute nice rooms without board at a reasonable price; the Pas de Loup***, less available, includes all meals. There is no gite d'étape or refuge. The restaurants, such as the popular La Marmotte or La Raclette, specialize in alpine cuisine, but also serve traditional French cafe dishes. The hotels and residences in Isola 2000 are connected together side by side, and under them can be found a continuing passageway - shopping mall. Walk through the mall and you will come upon the market, shops and restaurants. There is bus service to Nice.
Day 6: From Isola 2000 to Le Boreon on the GR52 or St. Dallmas-Valdeblore on the GR5
It takes just over an hour from the Isola 2000 village to climb to the Col de Mercière at 2,343 meters. From there in summer you can descend through the fields, cutting off the curves of the sinuous dirt road that forms the official trail, until you reach the lovely pine, larch and fir forest.
You walk easily through this enjoyable forest on a dirt road closed to traffic, first descending, then almost keeping level, for 1 1/2 or 2 hours until the Col de Salesé (2031). Just before the col you meet and join the GR52. You are now off the Haute Tinée 2 map, but on the GR52 map if you are using a French Topoguide. In any case, the route is signposted and waymarked. From the col you descend on a highly trampled trail to the Parking area in 1 hour, and then by the tarred road to Boreon (1526 m) in another 1/2 hour. Total time is 5 to 5 1/2 hours.
A wolf sanctuary in Le Boreon—containing about 20 wolves—may be toured in a couple of hours. Le Boreon has a pleasant lake, much visited by tourists for the day, and a restaurant serving trout you are supposed to catch yourself (but they bent the rules). There is at least one hotel and also in a Gite d'étape, as well as bus service to Nice. As you are now on the GR52, covered in detail in a topoguide, my detailed trail description ends with Boreon.
Should you wish to rejoin the GR5 rather than walk the GR52 (see my discussion of the choice between the two on the next page), just before the Col de Salesé (after about 3.5 hours of easy walking from Isola 2000) you must take the GR52 in the opposite direction . The topoguide walking time from this point to St. Dalmas-Valdeblore is about 4h50m, or about 8.5 hours from Isola 2000. There is no intermediate lodging point, unless you bivouac near small lakes 20 minutes below the Pas de Barn. (If you are willing to walk to St. Dalmas-Valdeblore by an alternative to the GR52, it appears from maps that you could save at least an hour and perhaps two by going via the abandoned hamlet of Mollières.)
The Balcons du Mercantour trails described above are worthy of your strong consideration. They provide the stark beauty of a truly high level route; the excitment of some more difficult trails—if you choose them; the novelty of an excursion into Italy; and a savings of one or two days walking time if you are continuing on the GR52.