Tour of Oisans and Ecrins
The Tour of Oisans and Ecrins footpath is one of the three great hiking trails in the French Alps (with Mont Blanc and the Vanoise),
but it is without doubt the most unspoilt of all, and the hardest too: 184 kilometres, 14 mountain passes and over 12 800 metres of inclines.
Leaving from L'Oisans, the GR 54 footpath takes you on a journey through mountain villages, deep valleys and high Alpine passes, watched by emblematic wildlife, discreet but present.
Less than 100 metres after the start of the GR54 footpath, you arrive at an impressive waterfall. This is a daughter of the Sarennes mountain stream, which takes its source in the glacier of the same name in the Alpe d'Huez ski resort. It then rushes down a steep-sided valley before reaching the village of Huez, and then plunges into a gorge linking it to the River Romanche. A refreshing break before taking on the first climb of this grand tour.
The arrival in Besse-en-Oisans leaves no hiker indifferent. Besse, with its listed historic buildings, is the kind of village you will never forget. With its stone houses built closely together, as if for protection from the rough winters, and its narrow streets inviting visitors to take a stroll, Besse deserves more than a passing glance.
Why not take a break at the terrace of the Café des Touristes, next door to the village’s only grocery shop, or a little further up, in front of the bakery where they serve the traditional Tourte de Besse?
A welcome break before the steep climb up to the peaceful Alpine pastures of Emparis. Almost 3000 hectares of playground facing the grandiose panorama of the Aiguilles d'Arves and the Meije.
The Emparis Plateau
The mule path follows the edge of the Southern border of the plateau which is completely dedicated to pastoralism and tourism. It offers an exceptional view of the Meije whose marked relief contrasts with this gentle landscape. It welcomes 7 refuges and pastoral cabins as well as remarkable fauna, like the Mountain Hare and the Mountain Apollo butterfly. The challenge for this site is to preserve its pastoral character.
The Small Apollo is a rare and protected butterfly. It has finely striped black and white antennae, and a tiny red ocellus (eye) on each of its forewings. With a wingspan of 60 to 80 mm, it is the lord and master of the orangey-yellow beds of mountain saxifrages where it takes care of its eggs and feeds its caterpillars.
Agricultural work in Spring and Summer
In Spring the soil had to be moved up the land using crates pulled by mules. Ploughing, sowing, planting followed rye (which stayed in the ground for two years), barley, oats and potatoes. Summer was not finished until the barns were full of hay. Scythes that had been beaten on an anvil, rakes, and nets were used every day. In order to ensure the overwintering of the animals, a certain number of loads (around 80 kg of hay) were necessary: 25 for each dairy cow and 5 for each sheep.
Agricultural work in Autumn and Winter
From September, cereal crops were cut with the scythe and the sickle, dried in “bourles” (small stacks of ten sheafs) on the top of the land (fields). Once beaten, the grains of rye were dried in the sun «soleillaient », they were taken to the mill and then to the oven to be made in to black bread. From the end of November until the beginning of May, the animals had to be tended to in the stables. The manure from the cows was transported to the fields using sledges, while the sheep dung was dried and cut in to, pieces, and burnt to produce heat and energy for cooking. In the dairy, milk was made in to butter and cheese.
Perched on a large, partly immersed pebble, the dipper sways to and fro with its tail aloft, and then dives down head first into the swirling water. This surprising passerine is unusual in moving underwater against the current in search of food. Thanks to a thin membrane protecting its eyes from the water, it can spot its prey (worms, small shellfish, water insect larva), before lifting its head out of the water and letting the current carry it gently along. It then takes up a new surveillance position and starts the process all over again.
To test your head for heights, there is nothing like this new, life-size game played facing the Meije a steel walkway suspended over empty space. The first few steps are daunting, but reaching the end of the walkway – or rather, empty space – calls for even more courage! Beneath your feet, all the way down below is the village of Les Fréaux, nestling against the Romanche, and above you, the giants of ice. If you add in the element of air, with gusts of wind blowing all around you, then strong sensations are guaranteed!
Sainte-Anne du Chazelet oratory
Although it stands beside an ordinary road, the Chazelet oratory is famous for one of the most beautiful panoramas of the Alps and the Meije mountains. Built in dry stone, the edifice is at 1 834 m and overlooks the valley and the Ecrins and Meije mountains. It has been sketched, photographed and painted many times, including in the famous Meije by the Japanese painter Foujita.
Recently a new orientation table was placed a few metres above the oratory. In two parts, it shows the northern slope of the Meije and the southern slope in the direction of Chazelet and Savoie.
La Grave terraces
On the south-facing slope of La Grave, terraced farmland and villages are inseparable. This is a European-wide landscape uniting many architectural, archaeological and natural elements. This mountain farming system was shaped mainly by past and present agricultural activity. The steep terrain at the time required terracing for it to be farmed. These former planted terraces are today natural meadowland, which is mowed or used for grazing. It is highly sensitive to this new pastoral usage, and is little by little showing signs of soil erosion.
Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Church
Listed as an historic monument, Notre Dame de l'Assomption church towers over La Grave. In First Romanesque style, this remarkable building is thought to date from the 11th century, making it the oldest building in the town. All around the church is a cemetery with graves marked by wooden crosses and decorated with brass hearts, facing the giants of ice.
Villar d’Arène communal oven
Pies, raviolis and crozet pasta are some of the main culinary specialities in Villar d'Arène, but above all it is the famous Pô Buli (“boiled bread”) that has made the village’s reputation. Once a year, in November, the village inhabitants make this bread using an ancestral recipe. For over 500 years, it has been kneaded with rye flour and boiling water, and then baked in the communal oven in the centre of the village, near the Penitents’ chapel.
Romanche valley, Charles Bertier
The marmots’ "bosse"
The alpine marmot is naturally present on grass at altitude. Here, it occupies a singular place which we call the marmots’ "bosse». This hibernating rodent is only visible between April and October. The marmot lives in a family and respects a hierarchy. Games, grooming, fighting and biting ensure the dominance of a couple as well as the cohesion of the group. Each animal participates in the delimitation of the territory by rubbing its cheeks on rocks and also by urinating and defecating there. When there is danger, the marmot emits a high and powerful whistle in order to warn the others.
In early August, the felwort’s violet stars open in the sunshine. At the base of each of its five petals, two shiny pits full of nectar attract insects. A member of the gentian family, this beautiful flower is a perennial that survives the cold season with its persistent winter bud close to the ground, surrounded by a rosette of protecting leaves.
Butterflies and moths
Water colour in the meanders
A flying predator
The eagle is the archetypal predator. Everything about it suggests strength and daring. Its appearance, of course, with its impressive expression highlighted by the prominent brow ridge, but above all its fearsome weapons: rapid flight, which can be adapted to even the most acrobatic situations, and sharp, powerful talons. Its keen eyesight helps it detect its prey, from the marmot to the young chamois, ptarmigans and hares. In winter, it often takes its food from the dead bodies of animals, helping towards the natural cleansing of nature.
Golden eagle, the Ecrins' mascot
The Petit Tabuc site is ideal for the golden eagle to nest. The golden eagle is amongst the protected species that are considered rare in Europe. The size of the populations that have been registered in the Ecrins massif, bestow a strong responsibility on the Park for conservation of the species. Counting takes place regularly since 1985 along with monitoring of reproduction, causes of disturbance and mortality.
Rupicapra rupicapra, the mountain goat was not at first solely a creature of the mountains. The species is more attached to rocky escarpments and steep slopes than high altitude. But strong human pressure on chamois made them withdraw ever higher. Coveted as a hunting target, they have found refuge here in the Ecrins National Park.
The mountain streams relinquish their secrets to an attentive hiker. The master of this little world is a small brown, red and grey bird with a short tail and a pure white breast, separated from the darker abdomen by a light brown stripe. We can often see it in the air, flying close to the water to snap up insects. The dipper owes its name to its eating habits to find water larva, it dips its head into the water and grips the riverbed to walk against the current.
Lover of old stones
Saint Claude’s church in Le Casset
With its disproportionately high spire, the Casset church never goes unnoticed. Its four-sided Comtois steeple was modelled on the collegiate church in Briançon. The church is listed as a Historic Monument and is placed under the protection of Saint Claude. In its present condition, it dates from the 18th century. The previous building was constructed prior to the 16th century. Inside, the eye is immediately attracted by the choir ogives, creating an intimate atmosphere, particularly since the unusually large spire does not suggest an interior of such a small size. The choir was rebuilt in 1716-1717, probably after the previous chapel burnt down. Traces from this period can be seen on the keystone. The wrought-iron choir gate has the inscription "HM 1717", a date that can also be seen in the apse, on the wrought iron railing of the impost of the axial window, and on the baptismal font.
The front of the nappes
The two slopes of the Chambran valley are very different: the right bank, minerals are very present. There are granites and gneiss making up the crystalline base of the Ecrins massif. On the left bank, the prairies are sandstone and chalky. These are part of the glacial thrust sheet: they are ancient sediments deposited mostly to the East, in the Alpine ocean, then carried here by compression at the time of the formation of the Alps.
Evolution of pastoralism
In the valley, the ruins of numerous piles of stones resulting from the removal of stones in the hay meadows are witness to another age. Most of these old prairies are now grazed by sheep. Pastoralism has evolved: no more local flocks so less hay, the valley is now occupied by a large flock from the Haute-Provence Alps.
At an altitude of 1700 meters, this hamlet is inhabited in summer, at the beginning of the summer pasture. The old dairy has been spruced up to become a snack bar. It’s pretty little chapel dedicated to Saint Jean is very simple and bare.
Remnants of a way of life that has disappeared, the Chambran chalets were once a high-altitude village where flocks stayed during the summer months. Today this is a welcome stop along the GR54 and the starting point for hikes towards Lake Eychauda.
Le Sarret chapel
Before 1930, the main road passed in front of Le Sarret chapel. Burials took place in Le Poët until the 1940s, when the cemetery was moved to make way for the new road to Pelvoux.
The White Penitents
In the 19th century, the White Penitents took part in the religious life of the villages of Le Poët and Le Sarret. All the male villagers were members, and they played a special role during funerals. They first sang the misere in front of the deceased’s house and then accompanied the funeral procession, dressed in hooded habits, with a banner, bell, staves and lanterns. A macabre confraternity whose symbol was a skull and crossbones...
Le Poët chapel
A portrait of St-Pancras, the patron saint of the Poët chapel, was once painted on the façade, dressed as a crusader. On his feast day, 12 May, there was a morning mass and we made rice pudding to share with inhabitants from other towns who had journeyed there. Almost two months earlier, the feast of Saint-Joseph was celebrated with a mass in Le Sarret, with families from neighbouring villages invited to eat stew and the traditional rice pudding.
It is already there on the Napoleonic land register, and was renovated by the town less than 10 years ago with original stone and fire-resistant brick for the vault. Each village had a communal oven saving wood and social ties explain the importance of shared bread baking. Almost a whole month, day and night, between November and December, was devoted to baking bread. The ritual is now carried on in summer baking during religious feast days or other local events.
Pastoral activity in the Selle valley, dale
The ibex, a survivor
The alpine ibex
The pastoral hut and the walkers' shelter
White throated dipper
From Le Bourg d'Oisans, the Tour of Oisans and Ecrins footpath begins its grand tour with the help of handrails to reach the small villages perched on the mountainside. It descends towards the Sarenne mountain stream and then goes up to the mountain pass, with a panorama over the Monts de Lans. We then go down towards Clavans and the Ferrand valley, before a fine climb as far as Besse-en-Oisans, at the edge of the vast Emparis plateau. Above, Col de Souchet offers a five-star view over the Meije. A descent of almost 1000 metres leads to La Grave. You then walk along the River Romanche as far as its source on the mountain pastures of Villar d'Arène. When you arrive at Col d'Arsine, the spectacle is astonishing. The mountainous setting is an invitation to visit the Arsine glacier lake before beginning our long descent along the Petit Tabuc mountain stream as far as the Guisane valley and Monêtier-les-Bains. Our destination is Vallouise via Col de l'Eychauda and the peaceful chalets of Chambran. 8 km of road along the Onde mountain stream bring us to the Jas Lacroix alpine pastures. Crossing Col de l'Aup Martin, the highest point in all the tour, is always rich in adventure, and the descent towards the Pré de la Chaumette is equally exciting. To reach Lake Vallonpierre and Valgaudemar, you have to take care crossing no less than three mountain passes carved out in the schist. Along the Séveraisse, the footpath joins La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar and then rises through Villar Loubière as far as the Souffles refuge and the impressive Col de la Vaurze. Equally impressive is the descent towards the unspoilt Valjouffrey. The rich green Col de Côte Belle contrasts with the schist landscapes we have seen until now. Valsenestre, in the Béranger valley, comes as a well-earned break before we set off for the last few twists and turns. We arrive at the vertical Col de la Muzelle, leading to the Vénéon. One last mountain pass takes us to the biggest lake in L’Oisans, the Lauvitel, and we are back in Le Bourg d'Oisans. We have come full circle!
You can follow the GR® 54 footpath either from Le Bourg d'Oisans, L'Argentière, La Grave or from any other village along the way.
The best time to do the tour is between late June and mid-September. Find out about weather conditions and snow levels on the mountain passes in early summer. Some passages, near high mountain areas, cross difficult terrain. It is possible to sleep in the open air all along the GR (see regulations in the National Park) and in campsites, hotels, gîtes or refuges. On some stages you will need to take your own food with you.
In mountain pastures, protection dogs are there to protect the herds from predators (wolves, etc.).
When I hike I adapt my behavior by going around the herd and pausing for the dog to identify me.
Find out more about the actions to adopt with the article "Protection dogs: a context and actions to adopt".
Tell us about your meeting by answering this survey.
Oisans Park house
Rue Gambetta, 38520 Le Bourg d'Oisans
04 76 80 00 51
Video presentation of the natural resources of the Oisans mountain and its crafts. Information, documentation about the Park, projections, reading space for children. Accessible to people with reduced mobility. Free admission. All animations of the Park are free unless otherwise stated.
Grenoble SNCF station.
Airports: Grenoble Isère www.grenoble-airport.com
Lyon Saint-Exupéry www.lyon.aeroport.fr
or Geneva www.gva.ch
Daily bus services between Grenoble-Le Bourg d’Oisans.
VFD coaches +33(0)4 76 80 00 90
Access and parking
The Bourg d'Oisans is 50 km from Grenoble by the motorway A48 (exit 8 "Station de l'Oisans), the N85 and the D 1091 from Vizille.
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