Vanoise National Park, the first national park of France, lies just south of the Mont Blanc Massif along the spine of the Haute Alpes, or High Alps, in the Savoie region of France. A small park by American standards, the Vanoise National Park covers a little over 520 square kilometers (200 square miles) but encompasses an impressive diversity of flora, fauna, geology, views, and points of interest. Chamois, ibex, marmots, 125 species of birds including golden eagles, various owls, and three-toed woodpeckers, as well as an enormous array of alpine wildflowers all thrive in the valleys and peaks of Vanoise. The geology ranges from sedimentary sandstone and limestone to metamorphic schist and gneiss, all showing signs of the extensive glaciation that shaped the Alps. The tremendous range of altitude through the park (770m - 2796m or 2,541ft - 9,227ft) provides habitat for many species of flora and fauna, as well as breathtaking views of snow-capped Alps and green valleys.
Established in 1963 as the first French National Park, the Vanoise is separated into two zones: the Central zone, or park proper, with 528 square kilometers (203 square miles), and a Peripheral zone of 1450 square kilometers (557 square miles) which surrounds the central zone as a buffer of protection to ensure the pristine nature of the central park zone. The peripheral zone allows people less restricted access to nearly wild lands and the opportunity to experience traditional alpine community life without compromising the preservation goal of the central zone. The central zone abuts the Italian border and the Gran Paradiso National Park of Italy, which covers an area of 720 square kilometers (276 square miles), making this the largest protected area in Western Europe.
Despite their size and rugged nature, the European Alps are heavily used by hikers, farmers, herders, and skiers. The purpose of the Vanoise National Park is to preserve a section of Alps from the daily use by people, and to hike through this area is to see the Alps in their natural state, away from the crowds that frequent the more accessible portions of this extensive mountain range. The area the national park encloses could not have been more carefully chosen for its dramatic scenery and abundant wildlife.
One of the best ways to explore the Vanoise Park is by foot. There are nearly 500 kilometers of footpaths crisscrossing the park, varying in difficulty from easy to very strenuous. There are also some technical mountaineering and peak-bagging opportunities. In addition, the Grande Randonnie 5 and the Grande Randonnie 55, two long distance alpine trails, both traverse the park from north to south. Including the Vanoise National Park as part of a one of these longer hikes can be especially interesting; the change in climate, ecology, and environment from north to south along the Alps is swift and dramatic.
Tent camping is not allowed inside the park; however, overnight hikers have the opportunity to enjoy hut-to-hut hiking, as there are about eleven huts inside the park boundary and over twenty along its perimeter. As with all Alpine huts, or refuges as they are called locally, the accommodations vary from large bunk rooms to private double rooms. Most huts are manned in July and August and serve dinner and breakfast, which are generally included in the overnight fee. Reservations are strongly encouraged during July and August, although trails are passable and some huts are open from June through October (snow makes trails impassable during the late fall, winter, and spring).
If day hiking is more to your liking it is possible to do so from one of the perimeter towns. Four places on the perimeter offer interpretive walks of about two hours: Villarodin-Bourget, Champagny-en-Vanoise, Val d'Ishre, and Pralognan-la-Vanoise. From any of these sites, other day hikes could be undertaken as well. Due to the remote nature of the Vanoise National Park, hikers should have basic outdoor skills, carry plenty of water and food. In addition, all hikers are asked to respect the following guidelines: do not bother the animals, do not pick the wildflowers, do not camp, fish, or hunt, do not bring your dog. Stay on the trails, and respect those living near the park and the work of those managing the park.
Reservations in any of the overnight huts may be made from May 15 on through the Centrale de Riservation du Massif de la Vanoise, Maison du Parc et du Tourisme, F- 73710 Pralognan-la-Vanoise, phone (33) 5 49 08 71 49. During July and August, reservations are handled through any of the 15 information offices in the peripheral zone of the park. French mountain guides may be hired to lead you through the park. There are also some American travel companies, such as Distant Journeys, that lead hikes in this area.
Thanks to by Sarah Kirn of Distant Journeys for this contribution.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication