If you’ve come to the Alps to get away from it all, a hiking trip to one of 60 mountain refuges dotted off the track across the Haute Tarentaise/Maurienne is the perfect solution!
Refuges offer cosy stopovers for any type of hike – whether it’s an afternoon outing with the kids or a week-long orienteering exercise in getting back to nature. Many are manned in the summer; arriving at dinner time you’ll find log fires burning, warm tartiflette on the table and a carafe of wine ready to relax your aching muscles.
Some are easily accessible next to well-trodden paths, some you’ll find in total isolation at the top of a waterfall. The more isolated refuges get their supplies helicoptered in at the start of the summer, with any extras brought up throughout the season by mule, and the refuge-keepers live there full time.
You’ll find eco-lodges, old huts and new chalets; most with basic dormitory beds and toilets, some with nature talks or features like a river jacuzzi, all with a warm welcome. The combination of a full day’s hiking and a hot meal by candlelight will ensure the best night’s sleep you’ve had in ages!
There are some stunningly picturesque refuges and walks within easy reach of Tignes and Val d’Isere – including 53 in the Parc National de la Vanoise alone.
Refuges, a brief history:
Up until the 1700s not many people attempted to traverse the brutal landscape of the Alps and the hardy few that did would rest in monasteries. Many of these buildings, ruined and restored, can still be seen along the routes – like the Mont-Cenis, Simplon, and the Petit Saint-Bernard, accessed from La Rosiere.
In 1741 two young Englishmen, William Windham and Richard Pocock, changed the face of the Alps when they adventured through the Priory of Chamouni and on their return inspired others to visit in the Chamonix Valley with tales of the awe-inspiring Mer de Glace; the longest glacier in France.
In response to the unprecedented interest in the area that followed, the first refuge – a basic building with two walls and a wooden roof – was built in 1776 next to the glacier.
More huts sprung up along the routes to the Mont Blanc summit – at the base of the Aguille du Gouter in 1785 and the Grands Mulets in 1786. The first real cabin to be built on the route was the Cabane des Grands Mulets in 1853. Two more swiftly followed; the Refuge de l’Aiguille du Gouter on the route from Saint Gervais in 1858 and Refuge Gonella on the trail from Courmayeur in 1876.
The newly-formed French Alpine Club then prioritised the construction of new refuges and marked trails to boost tourism – and in the next 40 years to 1914 another 40 new refuges were built throughout the French Alps. Now the group manages 133 refuges in all of France, and there are many others run by private investors, towns or communes, or other groups – for example national parks like the Parc National de La Vanoise.
Who runs the refuges?
Once the snow melts and hiking season starts, many refuges are manned by ‘gardiens’, guards or caretakers living on-site. These are always people that have a passion for the mountains, so they’re very willing to share their enthusiasm, chatting about the area and its flora and forna. Usually a couple or very small team, they do everything – including maintaining the building, welcoming and catering for guests. They clean the refuge and bedding, prepare meals and offer guiding advice. It can be a tough job, but the rewards are great – living in stunning surroundings rarely seen by others.
A Night In Refuge du Prariond
Built in 1969 after the creation of the Park de la Vanoise, the Refuge du Prariond is one of the most accessible refuges nearby, a short 45 minute hike from the Pont St. Charles beyond Val d’Isère’s Fornet sector, at 2324 metres.
Nestled in the Isère riverbed, you’ll find it on a gorgeous plateau with incredible views of the Grande Aiguille Rousse to the South. In the summertime, this is the perfect place to catch sight of the local wildlife such as the ibex, chamois, or marmot, or to test your Tarentaise fauna knowledge thanks to the plentiful wildflowers.
The Prariond is run by local Laurent Bois-Mariage, his partner Isabelle Giraudeau, and their two kids, and they are assisted by Tej, a Nepalese who has helped run the refuge for the last 4 years. A trip to the Refuge du Prariond is a perfect overnight outing, thanks to the refuge’s quick access and Tej’s incredible Nepalese cuisine on Friday evenings. With a delicious exotic dinner followed by a well-deserved sleep in their spacious bunkhouse, an overnight stay is a refreshing way to recharge your batteries.
- €42 per adult per night half board in summer.
- website: prariond.fr
Find information on all the local refuges (in French) here or buy a map showing all the refuges and hike routes from Tourist Information Points across the Tarentaise. Most are manned until the end of September.
Refuges often book up so call in advance – you don’t want to get to an isolated refuge at dinner time only to find there’s no room at the inn!
Bring a torch! Most huts don’t have electricity, so when the sun disappears it’s candlelight only.
Most refuges provide duvets, blankets and pillows but bring your own sleeping bag liner or sheets.
Bring slippers or flip flops – you won’t be thanked for tramping your muddy hiking boots through the bedroom.
If you’re a light sleeper bring earplugs. Most refuges offer dormitory sleeping arrangements.
You won’t get much mobile phone signal on your hike or at the refuge, and there’s unlikely to even be electricity to charge a phone. So make sure you have no important calls and that if you want to take photos you bring a separate camera.
Running hot water is a luxury and showers often have an extra fee and time limit.