Guide to hiking the Valgaudemar Valley of the French Alps, known as the French Hymalaya

View on Brêche des Roux from behind Refuge de Chabournéou in the Valgaudemar Valley of the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France
A day after we completed our previous hike in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France, we started a new two-day hike. This one started in the valley of Valgaudemar, a valley that is great for hiking, walking, climbing, cycling or just a scenic drive. There is a reason that the Valgaudemar Valley is advertised as the 'Himalaya Français' (French Himalaya), what do you think that is? Hint: it may have something to do with steep mountains and rugged peaks. But don't let those intimidate you, because it is possible to enjoy them even without having to climb them.

The main road through the valley will lead you trough cute little villages and along beautiful waterfalls. We, however, came here to hike, so we skipped most of the cute villages and made our way to where the road ends.

As it was getting late when we drove into the Valgaudemar Valley (we'd taken too much time preparing some of the best gnocchi ever at a viewpoint overlooking the town of Gap), we decided that we would spend the night in Chalet/Hôtel du Gioberney at the end of the road. This differed from our original plan, as we wanted to locate Refuge du Clot Xavier Blanc down in the valley. However, this hotel did allow us to take a much needed shower and get a good night of sleep before starting this next hike.

Day 1, hiking to Refuge du Chabournéou via the mountains, September 23rd, 2017

Great mountain view from a hotelroom of hotel Le Gioberney in the Valgaudemar Valley, Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
What a view!

Good morning! What a view from our hotel room, and then to consider that we would be hiking into this view. We quickly packed our last gear and drove back down the winding road to the parking at the start of this hike. 

From the parking, we took a small trail down to the river, crossed it via a bridge, and continued up the other bank. Up on this bank are the signposts and refuge information signs, so lets see this place as the start of this hike. 

From this place, there are only two ways to go (not counting the track back to the river). You'll either take the trail back to the Chalet/Hotel du Gioberney or (as we did) the trail to Refuge de Chabournéou and Refuge de Vallonpiere. This trail will follow the flank of the mountain on the left side of the valley towards the impressing peak of Le Sirac (mountain seen in the image on the right).

The first part of this trail is quite an easy hike as it has almost no slope. Wherever the trail spits, make sure to take the one on the left to stay on the flank of the mountain until the splitting where you can either go right and stay on the flank, or left and zigzag up the mountain to Cabane du Pis

You decide! Either go right, stay on the mountain flank and take the fastest and most accessible trail to Refuge deChabournéou (our way back and also the trail to take if you want to go to Refuge de Vallonpiere); or go left and take a longer, less accessible and higher altitude track to Refuge Chabourneou via Cabane du Pis. As making things more complicated than they are is really my thing, we took the longer trail on the left.

Curious sheep trying to eat a Hiker's backpack in the Valgaudemar Valley, Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
'Huh, what are these weird two legged animals
doing on our mountain?'

After turning left, the trail began a seemingly never-ending zigzag up the mountain (1620 meters to 1940 meters). I hate zigzags... We came across a large herd of sheep when climbing this section of the track as they came stumbling down the track (one of them tried to eat one of our backpacks, though did not succeed). 

At about 1800 metres, we reached a sloping alpine meadow in a highland valley. The zigzagging continued through this meadow. Somewhere in this valley had to be Cabane du Pis, a small unguarded hut (4 persons) that was no more than a wall with a door under a large boulder. You can't miss it when you stick to the track!

Hiking up to Cabane du Pis hut in the Valgaudemar Valley, Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
Hiking up toward Cabane du Pis.

We took a break at Cabane du Pis, where the views were great! I can only imagine what this place must look like in spring when all flowers are blooming. However, as the only frequent visitors to this refuge seemed to the resident sheep herd, the place had been turned into a muddy cocktail of urine and faeces. I'd rather not sleep in that...

At Cabane du Pis, another trail coming from behind Chalet-Hotel du Gioberney joins the trail we were on from the north. Taking this track might be a nice one-day round hike, yet I don't know how long that would take you. We continued south towards Refuge de Chabournéou.

After Cabane du Pis, the trail leads through a large-bouldered river and up the flank of the left-hand mountain again. It slowly climbs up along the flank via avalanche paths and rocky outcrops. Don't trip here, as it might turn you into a human avalanche.

Hiking from Cabane du Pis hut to Refuge du Chabournéou hut in the Valgaudemar Valley of the Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
Looking back on the trail between Cabane du Pis and Refuge de Chabournéou.

At about two or three hours walking from Cabane du Pis, we got a first glimpse of our final destination of today: Refuge de Chabournéou. This refuge is situated on a rocky outcrop of Le Sirac, overlooking the valley below and the Northern flank of Le Sirac. 

From the moment we saw the refuge, it was about another half an hour, down a small section of steep, muddy, eroded zigzags, through the beautiful valley of Brêche des Roux (seen in the first picture of this post) across a large-bouldered river and down a track on the other bank.

At the time we were in the French Alps (September), Refuge du Chabournéou was unguarded. The only accessible areas in the refuge were the spacious communal area, its two dorms (32 beds) and an off-season toilet. The communal area has large windows that provide amazing views of the valley and Le Sirac. The off-season toilet is located some 10 or 20 meters below the refuge, down a slippery path through herbaceous vegetation (so take a lamp when you need to go at night!). 

Important to know: there is no running water when the refuge is unguarded. When we were there, water was provided in several 1.5 liter plastic bottles at a rate of one or two euros per bottle (to be deposited with the payment for the night in the deposit box). However, it's best to assume that there is no water available, as you can't predict whether all of the plastic bottles are used.

Day 2, hiking down through the valley, September 24th, 2017

After enjoying the great view from Refuge de Chabournéou for the last time with a bowl of hot oatmeal and a coffee, we set off again. 

We'd decided to take the fastest way down the mountain instead of the longer one via the flank of Le Sirac, as we were tired of five days in the mountains and as we discovered patches of snow covering the trail on the flank of Le Sirac when exploring it with the binoculars. I'm still not certain that it was the best choice, as the route via the flank of Le Sirac must have been great! Yet, by shortening this day, we could already be half way to the Pyrenees by nightfall.

Red blueberry bushes in fall in the Valgaudemar Valley of the Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
Blueberry fields in the valley.

So, down we went, via the zigzagging trail into the valley. We ran down to the valley floor in about 15 to 20 minutes. It's clear that this is the most travelled route, as the trail is quite accessible and there are many shortcuts in-between zigzags. According to many of the notes in the guestbook of the refuge, it is also doable for families with kids and inexperienced people. I agree, unless you're well prepared!

After reaching the blueberry fields in the valley, the trail follows the flank of the same mountain as the one followed the previous day (a few hundred meters lower and in the other direction thought). It took us through large patches of avalanche paths while slowly descending.

After these avalanche paths, the trail led through a meadow with some shrubs here and there. After crossing a river in this meadow, the trail goes up a little and joins the trail of the first day at the splitting to Cabane du Pis. 

From here, it's quite straightforward: just hike back to where you came from, hop in your car, and start heading to wherever you want to go next. Or go back up to Cabane du Pis if you want to enjoy hiking this terrific piece of zigzagging trail again. I don't recommend hiking that one a second time though.

A look back at Le Sirac mountain after hiking in the Valgaudemar Valley of the Ecrins National Park, Alps of France
A last look back into the valley.

Practical information

Acces: By car, set your navigation to lead you to the village of Rif du Sap and keep following the road to a parking at your right, a few hundred meters after a big zig-zag in the road.
Huts: Chalet/Hôtel du Gioberney or Refuge du Clot Xavier Blanc at the start of the hike, Refuge de Chabourneou, and an additional night can be spent in Refuge de Vallonpiere.

Distances: Parking - Cabane du Pis, 2 to 3 hours; Cabane du Pis - Refuge de Chabournéou, 2 to 3 hours; Refuge de Chabournéou - Parking, 3 to 4 hours. (Distances are personal estimates and may differ depending on experience and fitness)
Highest point: 2160 meters
Height difference: 600 meters
Prices: Varying, Refuge de Chabournéou (unguarded in September 2017) 8,- per night deposited in a letterbox in the refuge. Parking was free when we were there. Additional water may cost a few euros at Refuge de Chabournéou.
Highlights: Mountain and valley views and possible marmot and sheep encounters.
Safety: Always be prepared, know your boundaries, and don't proceed if you are uncertain. Water may not be available at Refuge de Chabournéou off-season.

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Guide on a three day hike to the Glacier Blanc in the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of FranceHiking guide on a two day hike in the Valgaudemar Valley of the Ecrins National Park in the Alps of France

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