Things to Do in the French Alps (other than Skiing)
Towering high above France and Italy, the French Alps are home to some of the tallest mountains in Europe. This is where you’ll find the iconic peak of Mont Blanc, which reaches to almost 5,000 metres in height, as well as countless other mountaintops rising thousands of metres into the sky.
It’s a dramatic place to visit. Given the high altitude and abundance of snow, you’d be forgiven for thinking that most travellers visit the French Alps for skiing.
There are a lot of ski resorts, but skiing isn’t the only thing to do here. In summer, you can hike, bike and even canoe and kayak your way around the French Alps, while in winter if skiing isn’t your game, then you can try your hand at snowshoeing or dog sledding.
It’s an adventure travel paradise. To inspire your next backpacking excursion, here are our favourite things to do in the French Alps (other than skiing)!
Things to Do in the French Alps in Summer
While the French Alps might be best associated with snow-capped mountaintops and winter sports such as skiing or snowboarding, in summer the region turns into an adventure playground for outdoor lovers. When the sun is shining and the snow has melted, there are so many great things to do in the French Alps. Here’s an overview of the best summer activities.
The French Alps are best known for the mountaineering opportunities that the tall mountain peaks offer to adventure enthusiasts. The tallest mountain in the range and one of the tallest mountains in Europe is Mont Blanc, which rises to 4,800 metres.
For mountaineers, Mont Blanc is the ultimate peak to tackle in France. Although it will take a lot of training, plenty of experience and the right gear, it’s a feasible challenge to accomplish in the long run.
If you’re not ready for the big one yet, then don’t worry. There are plenty of other mountaineering routes across the French Alps, with Chamonix being the most famous base for activities in the summertime.
If you’d rather soar over the French Alps instead of slogging your way up them, then don’t worry, because the region is a hub for paragliding activities. The scenery couldn’t be better and, even if you’ve never flown before, there are plenty of companies and instructors offering tuition or simply taking tourists on tandem glides.
The Chamonix Valley, which offers superb views of Mont Blanc, is a favoured paragliding destination in summer.
If mountaineering and paragliding are too extreme, then there are also countless hiking routes through the French Alps that can be enjoyed in the summer months once the snow has melted. Some of the best are also the simplest and easiest to follow. You can spend a day hiking around the edge of Lake Annecy or enjoying the countryside at the base of the mountain range.
More adventurous hikers can ascend to Lake Blanc or tackle multi-day hiking routes through the mountains to glaciers or stunning viewpoints.
If you’re multi-day hiking or mountaineering, then you’ll likely spend a few nights in the great outdoors camping. Waking up as the sun rises over the mountains to the fresh, crisp alpine air couldn’t be a more refreshing experience.
Camping is also a great way to save money in the summer high season, and there are plenty of camping grounds across the region. Many hiking trails also have basic refuges, buildings where you can spend the night during summer when you’re on the trails.
The valleys and mountains of the French Alps are one of the best places in the world for canyoning.
Val d’Isere, Chamonix, Megeve and many more destinations offer brilliant canyoning tours, which will take you deep into the heart of the Alps.
Canyoning involves hiking, climbing and cliff jumping, and you’ll jump or abseil your way down thundering waterfalls, float along rivers that slice through the canyons and explore parts of the valleys that you otherwise would never be able to reach.
With so many mountain peaks, cliffs and precipices, the French Alps are the perfect territory for rock climbing.
You don’t need to be an expert, because there are outdoor (and indoor) climbing routes across the region that cater for all abilities. There are few better places to learn than here.
Once again, it’s Chamonix that holds the rock-climbing crown, and it’s a great base if you’re looking to learn more or to hone your skills.
The French love nothing more than cycling. In summer, the mountain passes come alive with pelotons racing up to altitude. The Tour de France often passes through the region, taking on the highest and toughest passes. If you’re into road cycling, the options here are endless.
But more than cycling, the French Alps are obviously a great destination for mountain biking too, with plenty of tough trails offering sweeping views of the peaks and the valleys.
Kayaking and Canoeing
The rivers and lakes of the French Alps are great for kayaking and canoeing, and you can find a whole range of routes that are suitable for beginners through to experts.
You can take a gentle paddle around Lake Annecy or Lac Blanc or throw yourself into the white waters of the fast-moving rivers, which are fed by the glaciers high above.
White Water Rafting
If you want to tackle the raging rapids and rivers of the French Alps, then a great way to experience them is to join a white water rafting tour.
You need little experience for many of the routes, and you’ll be led through the rapids by expert guides. Just prepare yourself for a thrill and prepare to get soaked to the bone, because even in summer the glacial waters are frighteningly frigid.
Things to Do in the French Alps in Winter
Winter is when the French Alps come alive with snow sports, but there’s so much more than skiing to be found here. While you won’t be summiting mountains or doing much hiking, you can try your feet at snowshoeing, you can ice dive beneath frozen lakes, or scale huge sheets of ice if you try a spot of ice climbing. There’s a lot to do during the winter months. Here are our favourite winter activities in the French Alps (that aren’t skiing!).
If you’re an avid hiker or trekker then it’s possible to explore the best trails in the French Alps, even in winter. You just need to strap on a pair of snowshoes.
The sport is big in the French Alps, and you’ll be able to hire snowshoes at ski resorts and in towns across the region. You can snowshoe on your own or you can join organised snowshoeing excursions if you’ve never been snowshoeing before.
If you’re looking for a faster-paced winter activity, then dog sledding might be for you.
In winter, you can find huge husky dogs pulling sleds through the snow and across the ice. It’s a great way to experience the snowy landscapes and panoramas of the French Alps.
Be prepared for a rough ride though, because the dog sleds take you through mountain passes and over peaks. Although it’s action packed, it’s not exactly the most comfortable mode of transport!
Ice diving is one of the most unique winter sports you can enjoy in the French Alps. But be prepared to get very, very cold!
At lakes in Val Thorens and Tignes – destinations that are better known for skiing than scuba diving – you can don a dry suit and head into the icy depths deep below the surface.
You’ll also be diving at altitude, a unique experience in itself that comes with its own challenges, and you’ll need special training before you’re allowed under the ice. It’s worth the time and the money, but ice diving is not a sport for the faint of heart.
Another thrilling winter sport that takes place across the French Alps is ice climbing.
The winter alternative to rock climbing, ice climbing sees intrepid climbers making their way up glaciers, frozen waterfalls or sheets of vertical ice that cover the mountains.
You’ll need quality gear to climb safely, but there are lots of outfits in towns across the region offering ice-climbing trips and instruction.
While the snow and ice might put a halt even to the hardiest of cyclists and mountain bikers in winter, fat biking is becoming a popular alternative outside of summer.
Fat bikes are just that – mountain bikes with huge, fat tyres that are used to tackle everything from sand dunes to glaciers. The bikes are designed for extreme off-roading and they are perfect for the snowy trails of the French Alps in winter. You can usually rent them from ski resorts and take on the trails at your leisure.
Although igloos aren’t exactly a traditional French custom, the French Alps are the perfect place in winter to spend a night in one of them.
While you can head out and build your own igloos and snow shelters if you have the know-how, a safer bet is to join an igloo excursion, where igloos are already set up for camping.
Like in Scandinavia, the rise of igloos and ice hotels is also expanding into the luxury market; you don’t need to be a backpacker to enjoy an icy stay these days.
You might not want to ski, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the après ski. If you’re staying at a ski resort and enjoying the other winter activities the French Alps have to offer, then you can’t skip out on the after-parties!
After a hard day of adventuring in the snow, head to the bars for drinks and music that all too often last far too long into the night and well into the early hours of the next morning.
For fast-paced action that all the family can still enjoy, then a spot of tobogganing is one of the best ways to spend a winter’s day in the French Alps.
Take on the ski slopes, but don’t worry about skiing, because all you’ll be doing is sitting back on the toboggan as you drift down with the snow. It’s an epic way to experience ski resorts as a family, especially if you’ve got young kids who aren’t ready for skiing yet.
In the dead of winter, there’s little that can beat stepping into the warm waters of a thermal bath after a long day of frigid outdoor activities.
Luckily, most ski resorts have their own thermal baths, even if it’s just a heated outdoor swimming pool. But if you want to enjoy a more traditional setting, then take a trip to Aix les Bains.
Aix les Bains has been a spa town since the Romans first settled in the region, and the natural, thermal waters have been soothing and relaxing bathers for centuries.
What’s the best time to visit the French Alps?
The best time to visit the French Alps really depends on what you want to do. For winter sports, you’re going to want to be here in the snow season, from December through to April. For hiking and mountaineering, you need to be here in the summer season, from June through to September.
Where are the best places to stay in the French Alps?
There are some great hubs in the French Alps that will put you close to all the action. Chamonix is famed for its mountaineering and it’s a great base for hiking, while the cities of Grenoble and Annecy (on the shores of the beautiful Lake Annecy) make for charming destinations.
How to get to the French Alps?
The French Alps are well connected, and you can find major international airports at both Grenoble and Lyon, and just over the Swiss border at Geneva. There are also high-speed TGV connections to these two cities, and most smaller towns have regional train and bus connections to these two transport hubs.