From peaks and plateaux to forests and gorges, the Vercors is a haven full of adrenaline-rush activities, finds Elinor Sheridan.
In 1930, there were 50 children’s homes in the villages of the Vercors, all promoting a healthy lifestyle of ‘une cure de lait, l’air et de soleil’. A place to rest and recover in nature, the exceptional landscape of the Vercors Regional Natural Park is certainly the ideal spot to recharge, but it’s also a land of adventure, a playground in the Prealps if you will.
Call of the Wild
We set off at daybreak on the GR91 Traversée du Vercors hiking trail at Corrençon-en-Vercors. Local guide Gaël Ferrari leads us into the wild heart of the Vercors, where there are no houses or roads. Covering 17,000 hectares of land, the Hauts Plateaux Nature Reserve is the largest land-based reserve in France, and has more than 1,000 species of flora, some of which we spot, such as gentian and Edelweiss that poke out from limestone fissures. It is also home to marmots, ibex, the black grouse, golden eagles and bearded vultures.
As we follow Gaël along one of 200 routes that crisscross the reserve, we come across lapiés, where pure limestone has eroded over time to leave mesmerising grooves in its surface. Further along the trail we pass a memorial to Second World War French Resistance fighters, who had hoped to capitalise strategically on the Vercors landscape, which they saw as a natural citadel protected by cliffs that served as ramparts. Here we spot the 45th parallel line plaque informing us we are standing midway between the Equator and the North Pole, as well as on the same latitude as the oldest national park in the world, Yellowstone.
We stop for herbal tea provided by Gaël at the Cabane de Carrette, a refuge hut, and from here we diverge from the Grand Randonnée and head east towards Le Grand Pot. This is where our trust in Gaël is tested, as we arrive at a basin bordered to the other side by an imposing mountain ridge… Or so we’re told, as a mer de nuages (sea of clouds) has concealed it. He points east regardless, and promises us there are cols and rochers hiding somewhere over there. We head back along the Sentier du Ranc de l’Abbé, having completed a 15km hike back to Corrençon-en-Vercors for a well-deserved lunch, during which we are rewarded with a view of the mountain ridge as the clouds retreat.
At Zecamp, we meet the owners, biathlete Loïs Habert, his wife and Olympic champion Marie Dorin and their friend, cross-country skier Robin Duvillard. We learn that the road-skiing part of the biathlon was originally created as a summer training exercise for cross-country skiers, before becoming a competitive sport. Here they have a trail plus equipment to help you on your way to becoming a road skier and sharpshooter. Anxious about messing up in front of professional athletes, but eager to give it a go, I put on the protective gear, hop in a golf cart and make my way to the course in convoy with my fellow biathlon novices.
At the site, Loïs gives us the safety instructions for the Walther air rifles and sets up some target practices. Happily, I make my way along the row without too much trouble.
The roller-skiing, however, is a completely different matter. Although I knew from the beginning that my lack of coordination would hinder my appreciation of this activity, I click my boots into the skis and roll off into the distance… the distance being a grass verge, and not the carefully laid out 5.5km of trail that weaves through the forest. Helped back onto the tarmac, I shuffle along tentatively, only to resemble a giraffe on ice until eventually falling. In the 20 or so minutes of roller-skiing, that was my only fall, but I can guarantee I laughed many more times, and thought to myself more than once how relieved I (and probably everyone in the vicinity) was that I didn’t have a rifle strapped to my back like the professionals.
It’s a great activity that offers plenty of adrenaline whether you wobble along at a snail’s pace or reach anywhere near the 50km/h speeds at which the biathletes can hurtle around the track.
From one set of wheels to another, I set off à velo from Bois Barbu just outside Villard-de-Lans. On this day I complete a 40km trip around the Vercors Quatre-Montagnes, with climbs totalling more than 600 metres, including the steep climb to the Col de la Croix Perrin. Yes, that’s right – by bike. No, I’m no seasoned cyclist, and yes maybe it was an electric bike, but I’m still going to claim it.
Olivier Le Monnier from Velectrip takes us on our electric mountain bikes along the ViaVercors, a 50km path through the region that links the villages of Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte, Lans-en-Vercors, Villard-de-Lans, Corrençon-en-Vercors, Autrans and Méaudre. Through fields, hamlets, wooded valleys and gorges, the route is accessible for all and well-maintained. We cross over the Bourne river and follow the trail alongside the Méaudret towards Méaudre; parts of the path are gravel and some are boardwalk due to sections being zones humides (protected wetlands). While the boost the electric mountain bike gives feels odd at first, it’s great being able to move so quickly, cover more ground and see much more without being so tired. You can appreciate the scenery without being breathless, and zoom up hills without feeling lazy, as you’re still pedalling.
Along the way we stop at L’atelier créatif petites fées, a pottery workshop run by former cross-country skier Hélène Rochas. The plates she’s currently working on are etched with the silhouette of the mountain range she sees from her studio.
Hélène is one of a number of artisans dotted along the ViaVercors who welcome visitors. We are also introduced to Marion and Yannick Rochas (unrelated to Hélène) at La Ferme du Pic Saint Michel in Lans-en-Vercors. Here we meet their herd of 60 Chamoisée goats, each with names beginning with a different letter depending on the year they were born – Yannik tells me his three favourite names this year are Sue, She and Shakira. After sampling some goat’s cheese, we get back on our bikes and head along the route of the old Grenoble-Villard tram to Lans-en-Vercors.
The ViaVercors is very well laid out and offers an excellent way to discover the scenery without worrying about traffic, and a chance to get to know the people of the area and their artisanal way of life.
Face Your Fears
On the only rainy day of the week, sheltered in the woods above Autrans, high up in the trees I find myself hurtling along ziplines and springing from platform to platform, strapped up in my safety harness. It’s a fun activity in which you challenge yourself and slowly gain confidence as you ‘learn the ropes’. I’m not scared of heights, but I’m not a fan of them either and so it was a relief to know there’s a variety of courses according to ability, and children as young as four are able to do it, something I remind myself of whenever I hesitate.
I won’t lie: I was rather anxious about the prospect of a via corda in the Vercors. In contrast to via ferrata’s fixed cables, steps, ladders and bridges, via corda has only a couple of carabiners located along a cliff side. Instead of being directly attached to the rocks, you are tied to other members of your group, with a rope running between you that is then looped through the fixed carabiners – it’s a true test of teamwork and cooperation. We set off in a chain of nerves from Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte through the woods and towards the three rocky needles – Les Trois Pucelles – which can be seen from Grenoble and which, according to legend, were once the daughters of the Lord of Naves who were turned to stone by Charlemagne.
On our ascent, we pass the graffiti-covered ski jump from the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. Thanks to the accrobranching in Autrans, I had some experience with a carabiner, and although at first I cling onto the rock like some sort of barnacle, I soon find myself scrambling up crags without much hesitation. I also wasn’t too eager for the abseiling part – lowering myself backwards off a 20-metre ledge isn’t something I’d ever jump at the opportunity to do, but I have to say it is exhilarating. Encouraged by Jehan Roland’s pep talks and motivational singing – think French Beyoncé in a safety helmet – I clamber up rock faces and try to find footing on narrow ledges that I doubt even a mountain goat would be happy to perch on.
The reward is spectacular: at the top we are greeted with a panoramic view of the Vercors – a patchwork of coniferous forests and a Bleu de France sky with cotton clouds. We look towards the Valley of Grésivaudan and Grenoble sprawled out beneath us and the sheer height we are at finally sinks in. Seeing the landscape from such a high point, admiring the Vercors, the Chartreuse, Belledonne and even Mont Blanc all at once is an incredible experience that makes me reluctant to leave. Especially when the way down is via zipline…
What Goes Up…
There’s something much scarier about a completely horizontal zipline between two rocky needles than a slanted one that pulls you along quickly. It is onto this glorified washing line (it’s safe, of course, just horribly horizontal) that I clip my harness and pull myself across – until I reach the halfway point and Jehan shouts “STOP!”.
Thinking the worst and that I’m about to fall into the expanse below, relief floods through me as Jehan shouts, “Smiiile!” and snaps a picture of me clinging from a wire with Grenoble in the distant background. It’s a great shot, although I don’t think my parents will be too keen to see it! We return to the car full of adrenaline and a huge sense of accomplishment, and pop to the bistro in Saint-Nizier for some well-deserved nourishment. It is here, on tucking into the famed Ravioles de Royans, that I gasp as I look up at the needles between which I’d been ziplining only 15 minutes earlier. From the dizzying heights of the peaks we plunge to the depths of the earth via the Gorges de la Bourne, a balcony road – made partly by pickaxe, partly by sheer force of will – which meanders down to Pont-en-Royans and the Grotte de Choranche. Full of cavernous spaces, chasms and underground rivers, the cave was first explored in 1871.
We follow the illuminated trail and learn that it is through the same karstic terrain that we saw on our nature hike with Gaël, that drops of water have dripped down into the caves, becoming lime-saturated on their journey before depositing a solution which over years forms into stalactites and stalagmites. These fragile fistulous stalactites can grow to be up to three metres long; these caves, we are told, are home to some of the best examples found in Europe.
It’s a fairytale experience in which you see the reflection of these straw-like stalactites in the emerald pools of water, and in the vast Cathedral chamber – 40 metres wide and nearly 25 metres high – there’s an immersive sound and light show which tells the tale of the four elements and the creation and discovery of these otherworldly caves. For a less adrenaline-filled activity and spot of respite, a water-tasting session at the Musée de l’Eau in Pont-en-Royans will have you sampling some of the 900 different sparkling and still waters on offer at the bar.
Or if you’re feeling inspired by the fresh air and want to meditate on your time spent in the Vercors, François Querini runs yoga classes around the region, and will even meet you – as he did with us – on the grass just outside Zecamp. It’s a great opportunity to relax, recharge and reflect on a fun-filled adventure in the Vercors… and maybe even begin to plan a return visit in the winter season. After all, there are many more adventures to be had in this magical and most natural of adventure playgrounds.
Fly to Grenoble or Lyon, then pick up a hire car to explore the region at your own pace.
Where to Stay
Auberge de la Croix Perrin
Located in Lans-en-Vercors, this eco-conscious auberge has rooms from €79 per night for two people sharing, and also has a restaurant with forest views and a spa.
Tel: (+33) 4 76 95 40 02
Zecamp offers accommodation from €88 per night, a restaurant and a wide range of sporting activities.
Tel: (+33) 6 47 57 74 48
Musée de l’Eau
Stay at the museum’s hotel from €70 per night and enjoy the riverside setting, spectacular views and a cinema room. The excellent on-site restaurant serves a lunchtime menu du jour (€13.90).
Tel: (+33) 4 76 36 17 90
Where to Eat
Les Hauts Plateaux
In Corrençon-en-Vercors, at the entrance to the Hauts Plateaux du Vercors reserve, the restaurant sources ingredients from local producers and includes a salon de thé and wine bar. It’s the perfect spot to unwind after a day of activities.
Tel: (+33) 4 76 95 29 97
Le Clariant en Vercors
A picturesque mountain auberge serving lunch, or enjoy the gastro dinner (€65) or torchlit dîner soirée à la flamme (€45) experience in the evening.
Tel: (+33) 6 82 42 45 19
What to See & Do
Biathlon Ski-Roue initiation
Half-day track pass with equipment hire (includes boots, poles and roller skis)
Tel: (+33) 4 56 00 56 30
La Glisse Velectrip
Experience the ViaVercors on an electric mountain bike.
Tel: (+33) 4 76 16 84 27
Musée de l’Eau
Enjoy a water-tasting session at the museum.
Entrance: €6.90 for adults, €4.50 for children.
Tel: (+33) 4 76 36 15 53
Grotte de Choranche
Explore the cavernous spaces, chasms and underground rivers of these magical caves.
Tree Climbing, Autrans
Nature Hike in Réserve
Naturelle des Hauts Plateaux – explore the area with local guide Gaël Ferrari.
Tel: (+33) 06 76 13 80 49 for more information.
Outdoor Yoga session with François Quérini
Tel: (+33) 06 82 63 16 28
Pottery Workshop with Hélène Rochas
Tel: (+33) 06 71 00 57 50
Via corda session with Jehan Roland at Les Trois Pucelles
Tourist information: isere-tourism.com; vercors.fr; tourisme.saint-marcellin-vercors-isere.fr
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : The Vercors is a hiker’s paradise © Elinor Sheridan
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