Ken Roberts - - Bicycling

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selecting high mountain roads to ride

September 2008 : see also revised version October 2009

what's here

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why ride high mountain roads?

Let's say there's these fundamental kinds of terrain for road bicycling:

  • flat land (or gentle)

  • foothills and hillsides

  • high mountains

Flat or gentle terrain usually has flat or gentle roads, or any steeper hills tend to be small. The satisfaction of riding comes in easily reaching another place, or in getting to the top of a small rise, and in how quickly the work of climbing is followed by the reward of gliding downhill.  The achievement challenges are either to cover long distances or to compete at who can go faster. What makes touring interesting is usually human structures and natural things close to the road, especially water features like lakes and creeks.

Foothills have can have steep roads of substantial length; views out across the lowland which are big enough to be notable; climbs long and hard enough to be satisfying to "conquer"; descents long enough to be memorable as serious fun; sometimes interesting rock formations and waterfalls alongside the road -- as well as all the human structures and water features that make touring in flat terrain interesting.

High mountains can have very long climbs and descents - (long enough to get boring). Views so big that you can only see all of it in detail on days with clear dry air. Challenges include just getting to the top of a big climb at all; sometimes handling a wide range of temperature and weather conditions at different altitudes on the same road. Views can include bigger more dramatic rock formations and peaks closer to the road than typically in the foothills. And much more likely to see snow during the normal bicycle riding seasons -- not just in winter. But they often have fewer interesting human structures.

How is it worth it to choose high mountains rather than foothills or hillsides?

It's worth it when there's sufficient special or extra benefit for the extra effort and cost it takes to ride higher. So for selecting which high mountain roads, it helps to identify what kinds of features can make them special relative to foothills and flat terrain, and identify kinds of extra costs which perhaps could be reduced.

special positive features:

  • pointy mountain peaks and rock formations: these are visually dramatic from contrast of rock with sky, and contrast of rock with green plants.

  • snowy peaks and glaciers: these are visually dramatic from the contrast of bright white with everything else in the natural environment. For this, selection of the season to ride is almost more important than the selection of the specific road.

  • water features: Seeing a lake from above is often more visually dramatic than from the side, and mountain roads are more likely to offer that angle. Seeing reflections of mountain peaks on the surface of a lake is more likely on a mountain road.

  • longer climb could be felt as a bigger achievement. But usually this is not proportional. Typically what makes the achievement feel bigger is that it's a "famous" achievement, famous with other bicyclists (especially racers), or even the general public. Sometimes the achievement feels worthy because it's "the biggest X in region Y". Or perhaps sometimes because it has some remarkable view or special road feature.

  • longer descent could be felt as more fun. But usually this is not proportional. Perhaps it feels like even more if it goes thru different ecological (or sociological) "zones"?

  • buildings offering food or lodging in a spectacular and/or difficult natural environment

typical costs

  • longer climb takes more time and effort to reach those special high mountain rewards. This cost could be reduced by choosing a road which starts at higher altitude (or by using motor vehicle to take rider and bike higher on road before starting pedaling).

  • longer climb is more likely to feel too hard, leave the rider unable to enjoy further climbing again later in the day, or on the next day. The obvious solution is to find out the range of steepness numerical grades of the road, and see if it fits my own capabilities and current desire for challenge.

  • longer climb is more likely to feel boring, if the road characteristics and view do not change much for a long time.  This cost could  reduced by choosing roads with a variety of curves and variety of steepness and with major changes in viewpoint.

  • longer descent is more likely to feel boring, if the road characteristics do not change. For me the most important feature to make a descent interest is curves, especially of there's a variety of tightness. Variations in steepness are also nice, but usually not enough to address my boredom unless combined with curves. Changes in viewpoint are not so important for me on descent if the variations in curvature and steepness are there. I find I often enjoy riding thru tunnels on descent. (A road with steepness too low is going to need to have more interesting curves in order for me not to get bored on descent).

  • longer descent which is steep is more likely to make me get tired of having to spend so much time pressing my brake levers.  The obvious solution is to find out the range of steepness numerical grades of the road, and see if it fits my own preferences -- different riders have different feelings about what counts as downhill "fun". Of course weather can be a key factor.

  • human structures which are not viewed as pretty. This is largely a matter of taste. Many riders do not enjoy seeing large power transmission towers along high mountain roads - (but bicyclists often see railroad tracks in the mountains as "pretty", especially when they have short trains with bright red cars running on them). Non-skiers (and some skiers) tend to see ski lift towers and cables as a negative, especially when there's no snow underneath them.

Those are the features I'm going to focus on in different sections below.

Snow is a very special feature of high mountain roads, with a very different strategy for handling it, so I'm going to treat that strategy first, then go to the specific features.

snow + selecting season to ride

For me views of snow make a big difference in how much enjoy riding in the mountains -- I really like seeing the contrast of bright white and dark rock, bright white with green trees, bright white with blue sky.

My thought is that there's three categories of mountain scenes:

(a) those with such interesting rock or water structures (pinnacles, vertical cliffs, lake, waterfall) that they are sufficiently wonderful without the enhancement of snow - (though often the presence of snow makes them even more wonderful) - (examples are the Sella and Groedner / Gardena passes in the Dolomites);

(b) those with sufficient permanent year-round snow to be wonderful even after all their seasonal snow has melted away - (though the presence of the additional seasonal snow makes them more wonderful) - (examples are the views west from Grosse Scheidegg to the Fiescherhorn + Mönch + Eiger, or on various sectionns of roads around Mont Blanc);

(c) all the other mountain places, which are much more spectacular with substantial seasonal snow than without.

Here's my assessment of how to apply this:


  • southern Alps of France (Barcellonette and south): much better in April and early May than later.

  • Embrun + Briancon area: riding there by late May or early June should be better.

  • Galibier + Iseran area: riding there by late June (or perhaps early July) should be better.

  • Roselend + Saisies (Beaufortain) area: late April and May.

  • Megeve thru Montets: views of snowfields on Mont Blanc are great any time of year. (but June is even more wonderful).


  • Grand St Bernard: June or before would usually be better.

  • Col du Grand Ferret: since trail is dirt, going too early season runs risk of lots of mud -- or of the pass being covered with snow. If in doubt, use Grand St Bernard instead.

  • other southwest Switzerland around Martigny: better before late June.

  • central Switzerland around Andermatt: better before late June.

  • Grosse Scheidegg: earlier is better, but early July should still be OK.

  • southeast Switzerland (around St Moritz + Tiefencastel): much better in late April and early May than later.


  • east side of Stilfserjoch / Stelvio: often still good in late June.

  • other passes around Bormio: try to get there by late May.

  • Dolomites: spectacular rock formations any time of year. (but May + June are even more wonderful).

  • Col del Nivolet + Val Savaranche up+back (before June should be better). For crossing Col de Nivolet to connect with Val Savaranche (for like for riding around Gran Paradiso) might have to wait for July to feel confident that the trail will be mostly snow-free and not muddy.

selecting mountain roads with special characteristics

based on the discussion under "why ride high mountain roads?", here's what I'm going to focus on for selection:  

  • views of pointy peaks or interesting rock formations

  • views of year-round snow

  • lakes or waterfalls

  • interesting climb

  • fun descent

  • views of interesting human constructed features (e.g. villages)

  • animals

pointy peaks or interesting rock formations

I myself I'm not all that impressed by seeing high summits or ridges with a smooth profile. Because the hills and ridges around where I live have mostly smooth profiles, which is nice -- but why should I put in the time and effort to ride high if I'm going to see basically the same kind of shapes? So I prefer to select roads with views (and close views) of pointy peaks.


  • Sella + Grödner / Gardena + Pordoi

  • Falzarego + Valparola

  • Giau + Fedaia

  • Tre Croci / Misurina


  • Grosse Scheidegg

  • Lac d'Emosson -- side trip above Finhaut, between Col de la Forclaz and Col des Montets (France) -- big view of the snowy Mont Blanc mountains and rock peaks.

  • Susten

  • Pas de Morgins (east side: view of Dents du Midi)


  • Combloux + Col du Joly + posssibly around Plateau d'Assy -> (views of M.B. peaks)

  • Montets (south side) -> (M.B. group)

  • Iseran (though the pointy peaks are not so close)

  • Galibier

  • Croix de Fer (east side: view Aiguilles d'Arves)

  • Roselend (some rocky peaks + cliffs on southwest side of road)

  • ? Cayolle (some people feel this has interesting rock formations, but it didn't work so well for me).

see also: viewpoints for Mont Blanc mountains (09jun)

snow year-round

For me, snow enhances the interesting visual contrast of almost any mountain view. I've found that seeing the same pass with snow is much more dramatic for me than without. In another section I've discussed the timing strategy for riding near "temporary" seasonal snow. In this section I'll give some suggestions for riding by snow which does not depend on timing -- because it's there all year round. (though usually it's even more spectacular to ride these roads when they are enhanced by additional seasonal snow.) 


  • Grosse Scheidegg (esp. west side, even bigger views if ride dirt path northwest from pass toward First) -> (view glaciers on Monch + Eiger, Fiescherhorn)

  • Lac d'Emosson -- side trip above Finhaut, between Col de la Forclaz (Switzerland) and Col des Montets (France) -> (glaciers + peaks of northern Mont Blanc mountains, including Mont Blanc itself, highest summit in Europe)

  • Col du Joly -- close view of Mont Blanc (road up to west side from Hauteluce or Beaufort, France)

  • Combloux -- close view of Mont Blanc ("old road" south from Sallanches to Combloux + Megeve, France)

  • Susten (west side)

  • Stilfserjoch / Stelvio (east side) -> (view Ortler + nearby peaks)

  • Bernina (esp north side) -> (Piz Bernina + Bellavista + Mortaretsch glacier, Val Roseg peaks, etc.)

  • Montets /  Chamonix -> (Aiguille Verte, Aiguilles de Chamonix, Mont Blanc)

  • Grand Ferret -> (view Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses, Mont Dolent) - (note: path over the pass has long dirt section, but also can get great views from paved road on southern side riding up-and-back from Courmayeur, Italy) 

  • Seigne -> (view Aiguille des Glaciers, Tre La Tete) - (note: path over the pass has long rough dirt section -- but can also get a close view of the Aiguille des Glaciers from paved road riding southwest side up-and-back from the Bourt-Saint-Maurice + Cormet de Roselend road in France -- and maybe (I don't remember clearly) some big views of Mont Blanc + Tre La Tete riding northeast side up Val Veny from Coumayeur, Italy)

  • Roselend -- road on southeast side of Cormet de Roseland has a very brief view of the snowy Aiguille des Glaciers - (side trip into Vallee des Glaciers toward Col de la Seigne gives closer view). Side trip to Col du Pre from road on northwest side has view of Mont Blanc.


  • Grosse Scheidegg (esp. west side, even bigger views if ride dirt path northwest from pass toward First) -> (view glaciers on Schreckhorn, Monch + Eiger, Fiescherhorn)

  • Lac d'Emosson -- side trip above Finhaut, between Col de la Forclaz (Switzerland) and Col des Montets (France) -> (glaciers + peaks of northern Mont Blanc mountains, including Mont Blanc itself, highest summit in Europe)

  • Susten (west side)

  • Bernina (esp north side) -> (Piz Bernina + Bellavista + Mortaretsch glacier, Val Roseg peaks, etc.)

  • Furka (west side) -> (view Rhone glacier, but the Rhonegletscher is not like it used to be)

  • Gietroz + Finhaut -> (view Trient glacier + Dome du Gouter)

  • Forclaz -> (Trient glacier)

  • Grand St Bernard -> (Grand Combin + Mont Velan)

  • Nufenen / Novena (west side) -> (Finsteraarhorn + Lauteraarhorn distant, Blinnenhorn + Ticinco peaks close)

  • (road has long dirt section from La Fouly) Grand Ferret -> (Mont Dolent) - (views are better from the southern side in Italy)

  • Männlichen from Grindelwald (haven't tried it yet, supposed to be paved, only ridable as up + back - [there is supposed to be a hiking trail to Kleine Scheidegg with bicycling not permitted) - (Switzerland near Interlaken)


  • Combloux -- close view of Mont Blanc ("old road" south from Sallanches to Combloux + Megeve, France)

  • Col du Joly -- close view of Mont Blanc (road up to west side from Hauteluce or Beaufort, France)

  • ? around Plateau d'Assy, above Passy + Servoz

  • Montets /  Chamonix -> (Aiguille Verte, Aiguilles de Chamonix, Mont Blanc)

  • Iseran (some) -> (N side of Averole + Ciamarella + Pointe de Charbonnel)

  • Lauteret (East side road toward Briancon, West side road toward La Grave) -> N side of Ecrins + Pelvoux mountains. (Col du Galibier has some views of year-round snow in the Ecrins + Pelvous mountains, but not as big as from the Briancon-Lauteret road further southeast)

  • Seigne -> (view Aiguille des Glaciers) - (note: path over pass has long rough dirt section -- but can also get a close view of the Aiguille des Glaciers from paved road riding southwest side up-and-back into Vallee des Glaciers from the Bourg-Saint-Maurice + Cormet de Roselend road in France -- and maybe (I don't remember clearly) some big views of Mont Blanc + Tre La Tete riding northeast side up Val Veny from Coumayeur, Italy)

  • see also: viewpoints for Mont Blanc mountains (09jun)


  • Val Ferret toward Col du Grand Ferret -> (view Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses, Mont Dolent) - (note: path over the pass has long dirt section, but also can get great views from paved road on southern side riding up-and-back from Courmayeur, Italy) 

  • Stilfserjoch / Stelvio (east side) -> (view Ortler + nearby peaks)

  • Grand St Bernard - (but can see more of the snowy Grand Combin from the north side in Switzerland)

  • Val Veny toward Col de la Seigne -> (view Mont Blanc, Tre La Tete). I'm remembering that the road up from Courmayeur is kinda steep kinda sustained, but I'm not sure how high and to what views it goes paved, before it changes to rough gravel + dirt.

  • Nivolet -> (France-Italy frontier peaks) - (also view of Gran Paradiso if hike above road)

  • Fedaia -> (close view of Marmolada, actually a little too close to see lots of the snow up high)

  • Sella + Pordoi -> (distant view of Marmolada, which allows seeing all the high snow)

  • Gavia (from north side + near pass) -> (Ortler-Cevedale peaks, but not close)

  • Tonale (a little snow on north faces along east side road, and a glacier visible from lower on west side)

lakes or waterfalls

I love riding near water, lakes or streams or rivers. Wide rivers are rare in the mountains. Streams are pretty frequent (so they're not a strong distinguishing feature for selection). Lakes are not so frequent up in the mountains. And with mountain roads you often get to see the lake from above, which is different (and often more visually dramatic) than on flat or gentle valley terrain.


  • Mont Cenis: big lake, the road runs alongside above it. (France / Italy frontier)

  • Grimsel (north side): two lakes (Switzerland)

  • Nivolet (south side): two lakes under dramatic peaks (NW Italy)

  • Roselend (north side): big lake, and a waterfall or two -- even better view with up + back side trip to Col du Pre from road on northwest side of Cormet de Roselend (France)

  • Grosse Scheidegg: waterfall on east side / creek alongside bike rt 61 on west side / lake on the loop with Brienzersee (Switzerland)

  • Misurina / Tre Croci: lake surrounded by interesting peaks. (NE Italy)


  • Oberalp: lake just west of the pass, but somehow its position relative to the road is less dramatic than others. (Switzerland)

  • Gavia: decent lake or two, but for me didn't seem linked to dramatic setting (maybe I need to go back on a different day) - (NE Italy)

  • Bernina: not that big a lake, and somehow doesn't link to the dramatic peaks nearby (Switzerland)

  • Iseran (north side, lake lower down toward Tignes): nice lake both close as ride by and it also enhances distant views from higher up, but it's just not at all close to the pass. (France)

  • ? Lauterbrunnen valley (not sure how high you can ride toward Kleine Scheidegg, or to Muerren or above) (Switzerland near Interlaken) -> (waterfalls, paid-admission walk up along Truemmelbach falls is famous.)

lakes or waterfalls on loop routes

  • Lac du Serre-Ponçon on loop with Vars or Parpaillon (France)

  • Brienzersee on loop with Grosse Scheidegg (Switzerland)

interesting climb up

What I like on a long climb are: variety of curves, some variety of steepness (but not much of steepness too high, or I'll burn out my muscles), pretty villages, nice views across the valley already low down, rock formations or pretty creeks close alongside the road, variety of views.

For me one of the big problems of riding in the high mountains is long climbs that get boring, so what I do not like are mostly long straight sections of constant steepness, and long sections with lots of dense trees on both sides (so I don't see a view).

Also I prefer to avoid climbing up roads where if I ride on the right side of the road, most of the time I'm riding on the up-slope side of the road (away from the side which has the better view outward and downward) -- especially on roads with significant motor vehicle traffic in the uphill direction. Because when such a road makes a sharp curve toward the right, cars overtaking me have limited visibility around that curve, so they might not see me riding until they're close to me. Since I'm climbing I'm slower so I'm spending more time in that limited visibility situation, and the speed difference between the motor vehicle and me is larger.

Here's some roads with climbs I found interesting:


  • Grosse Scheidegg (west side from Interlaken thru Grindelwald on bike rt 61)

  • Susten (west side): curves, rock formations, short tunnels, variety of steepness.

  • Croix (west side from Bex thru Gryon to Villars-sur-Ollon)

  • Champex (north side from Martigny, and southeast side from Orsieres is also nice)


  • Misurina / Tre Croci (both sides)

  • Mortirolo (north side from Mazzo di Valtellina): notorious for being very steep, but I also found it to have nice views down low, interesting variety, and interesting human structures along the way.

  • Pordoi

  • Gardena / Grödner (esp. east side, though southwest side is also interesting)

  • Giau (east side, though kinda steep)

  • Stelvio / Stilfserjoch west side from Bormio: not as spectacular or famous as the east side, but much more variety.


  • Iseran (both sides)

  • Sallanches thru Servoz on side roads to les Houches (near Chamonix)

fun descent

What I usually like for going down are: interesting curves, variety of slopes, little rollers, variety of curves, short tunnels

I usually do not like roads which are too steep, or too gentle, or too much straight.

I think there's wide variety of "tastes" among bicyclists for descents. I think lots of more skillful riders prefer steeper descents than I do. And some people like steep straight roads, so they can attain higher speeds. Those riders need to find a different list from mine.

Here's some descents that I've found interesting:  

  • Stelvio / Stilfserjoch (west side toward Bormio) (NE Italy)

  • Pordoi (east side to Arabba) (NE Italy)

  • Grödner / Gardena (east side to Corvara) (NE Italy)

  • Bonette / Restefond (north side to Jausiers) (France)

  • Lauteret (west side toward La Grave + Bourg d'Oisans) (France)

human structures

I usually like seeing interesting human constructions in all kinds of terrain: villages, cities, buildings. There's usually less of it in the mountains, and there's varieties of opinions among bicyclists about which kinds are positive or negative. Myself I like seeing colorful villages and buildings and railways; do not like big power transmission towers, and I'm more tolerant of ski lifts than many riders.

  • Grosse Scheidegg (west side): villages + Grindelwald (Switzerland)

  • Saanenmöser (if use the bike routes, not the major roads) (Switzerland)

  • Montets (south side from Sallanches): villages + Chamonix (France) 

  • Iseran (especially lower on the south side in the Haute Maurienne valley from Bessans thru Bonneval-sur-Arc).

lack of human structures

Some people sometimes (but not me most times) prefer to ride where there's little or no sign of human presence (other than the nicely paved road or well-trodden gravel path).

  • Fluela (SE Switzerland)

  • west side of Nufenen / Novena (south Switzerland)

  • Bonette (France)


especially domestic animals, but (non-violent) wild animals are interesting also.

  • Grosse Scheidegg (west side and upper east side): cows, sheep, goats, pigs (Switzerland)

  • Albula (south side) (and lots of other passes in Switzerland)

  • Saanenmöser (if use the bike routes, not the major roads) (Switzerland)

  • Pas de Morgins (west side if use secondary roads to west of main road) (west Switzerland)

  • Croix (west side from Bex thru Gryon to Villars-sur-Ollon) (west Switzerland)

  • Roselend (France)

  • Iseran (lower down on both sides) (France)

  • Seigne (up + back southwest side on paved road as far as Ville des Glaciers, and optionally continue on dirt to Refuge Mottet) (France)

favorite passes - with multiple strong features

Here's my favorites which combine multiple positive features:

  • Grosse Scheidegg, especially the west side, but some of the east side adds more. (Switzerland)

  • Susten west side, and going a little ways over the top to the upper east side adds more. (Switzerland)

  • Stelvio / Stilfserjoch, if combine both sides. (NE Italy)

  • Sella + Pordoi + Gardena / Grödner in various combinations with other passes. (NE Italy)

  • Roselend, mostly the northwest side if combined with out-and-back trips to Col du Pre, and also over to and partway down the southeast side, and possibly from there climb up into Val des Glaciers. (France)

  • Montets, south side from Sallanches thru Servoz + Vaudagne + Chamonix - (even better if include the north side thru Vallorcine to Finhaut + Lac d'Emosson).

favorite mountain loops - with multiple strong features

I love to ride loop routes that go over an interesting mountain pass and around thru an interesting valley, or over multiple high mountain passes. Here's some of my favorites:

  • Sella + Pordoi + Gardena / Grödner in various combinations with other passes, such as Valparola + Falzarego, or Giau + Fedaia, or just Campolongo. (NE Italy)

  • Stelvio / Stilserjoch + Umbrail as clockwise loop with start/finish in Bormio. (NE Italy)

  • Grimsel + Furka + Susten as counter-clockwise loop. (does have some uninteresting sections, but overall the variety of glacier views and lakes, the tunnel descent from Andermatt to Goeschenen, the sustained high-mountain atmosphere carries it for me. (Switzerland)

  • Grand St Bernard + Grand Ferret in clockwise loop with Orsieres (Switzerland) and Aosta + Courmayeur (Italy) - (but that includes long sections on dirt)

  • Grosse Scheidegg loop (bike rt 61) with the lake Breinzersee (north side), tend to prefer clockwise direction starting in Meiringen - (optional side trip up Lauterbrunnen valley). (Switzerland)

  • Martigny to Col des Montets: go up via Salvan + Gorges du Trient to Finhaut (sustained section climbing very steep dirt), (optional side trip up to Lac d'Emosson, and possibly above it?), thru Gietroz to (very steep downhill) Chatelard, out-and-back from Chatelard thru Vallorcine to Col des Montets, and return from Chatelard to Martigny by going over Col de la Forclaz. (mostly Switzerland, optionally some in France)

other famous loops:

"les Marmottes" (Croix de Fer - Telegraphe - Galibier - Lauteret in France): a great challenge, and I really enjoy certain sections of it (e.g. the descent west from Lauteret, the upper north side of Galibier) but it doesn't make my list of favorites as a total loop, because of some uninteresting sections that go on for much too long, and somehow the lakes and other view features just don't quite come together enough for me like on the Grimsel - Furka - Susten loop. So I feel like I want to just "skim" the best from this area of France with up-and-back rides, rather than riding it as a complete loop.

connect from Sea thru Alps France > Switzerland > Italy


see overview on Google MapsI finished riding every kilometer from the Mediterranean Sea over the high mountain passes of France + Switzerland + Italy to Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Dolomites northeast Italy.
see map

I didn't do it as a single continuous multi-day ride. Instead I rode most of is as single-day loop routes in different weeks and months over several years. So I rode over lots more passes and mountain roads than would be required to do it as a continuous tour -- something I'm glad for.

Even though I didn't ride it continuously, forcing myself to actually ride every kilometer in the same direction as if I did, exposed me to lots of wonderful roads that otherwise would not have tried.

France:  My route started in Nice and Menton in France along the Mediterranean Sea, then north thru France over high passes (including Restefond / Bonette) to Briancon, over Montgenevre into Italy (including going over Colle della Finestre) to Susa, over Col du Mont Cenis and its big lake and back into France. Next over Col de l'Iseran, highest paved road pass in Europe, and over more high passes to Chamonix - Mont Blanc. Then over more passes into Switzerland and down to the city of Martigny in the Rhone river valley. (I also rode two different loops to connect with the north shore of Lac Leman / Lake Geneva in France).
details see Route des Grandes Alpes | map

Switzerland:  Unfortunately the famous high mountains of canton Valais of Switzerland which are close east of Martigny do not have any high passes to ride over, so instead my route went further north into the Simmental region and east thru Gstaad to the Thunersee lake and the city of Interlaken.  Next over some great high passes going east thru Andermatt to the city of Chur in the Rhein river valley, and then south to St Moritz and Pontresina in the Engadin valley, and south over the Bernina pass toward Italy.
details see Switzerland high passes + West-East traverse | map

Italy:  My route stayed high at first, east from the Bernina pass to Bormio and a side trip to Stelvio pass (Stilfserjoch), second highest paved road pass in Europe. Next south over Gavia pass, and east to the city of Bozen (Bolzano) in the Adige river valley. Then climb up into the heart of the Dolomite mountains and thru those to Cortina d'Ampezzo -- and a loop further east thru more great Dolomite spires to Misurina.
details see northeast Italy high passes + West-East traverse | map

opposite direction:  Because most of my riding was loop routes, putting the other half of the loops together makes up a route in the opposite direction from the Dolomites of Italy thru Switerland and France to the Mediterranean Sea. Except there are two gaps: first between Tirano, Italy and Pontresina, Switzerland - (because I took the train instead. and the railroad follows a more spectacular route than riding the road). Second between Bourg St Maurice and Val d'Isere - (because I do not like the vehicle traffic on that road, so I don't want to ride it slowly going uphill).

ride it continuous someday?  I don't think I'll ever ride the whole thing in a continuous multi-day route. It's just not my style. The only section I did in multiple days was Pontresina, Switzerland over Bernina + Livigno to Bormio, Italy (with side trip to Stelvio pass) and over Gavia + Aprica to Tirano, Italy -- which I was happy with. The two larger sections which I'd mostly likely consider for continuous multi-day routes would be: 

  • Switzerland East to West: Start from Chur or Reichenau (or Ilanz or Disentis) thru Andermatt (over Sustenpass and Grosse Scheidegg) to Interlaken to Martigny (or continue further west or south).

  • France South to North (only in late spring / early summer): Start in Embrun with a loop around (part of?) Lac du Serre-Poncon (or start in Barcellonette with up and back north side of Bonette / Restefond?), then over Izoard + Montgenevre (but not again Colle delle Finestre) to Susa, Italy, then back into France and north to Chamonix, possibly continue to Martigny.

It's hard for me to imagine doing a point-to-point route in northeast Italy, because the loop routes are so great both in the Dolomites and around Bormio, and because there's so much great hiking and climbing to do on non-bicycling days.

simpler fix to flaw in Route des Grandes Alpes


endlessride on the Hike + Bike forum in response to my "grander" northern variation, pointed out that ...
there's another way to address my problem with the Route des Grandes Alpes:
Ride over (big + steep) Col de Joux Plane (via Samoens) to get views of Mont Buet and Mont Blanc. And for better views of Lac Leman, then climb over Col du Corbier (with some steep sections) to Evian-les-Bains -- or to avoid the second climb, just ride to Evian after reaching Thonon in the obvious way.

my reply on

Yes those sound like very good ideas: riding over Joux Plane and Corbier. And much shorter distance than my alternate route. I’ll have to try riding those. Sounds like a simpler fix to the “flaw” I was feeling. I’ll put those ideas on my web-page report.

Regarding traffic thru Chamonix, thanks for drawing attention to that. I don’t have much problem with the non-primary roads thru Servoz + Vaudagne to Les Houches and then west of the main road going into Chamonix from the south. But then north thru Argentiere to the Col des Montets, I agree there’s more traffic on some road sections which are not wide (and possibly some limited visibility curves?). Something that might help with the final curves up to the Col des Montets is the opening of the Tunnel des Montets.

Continuing north thru Vallorcine + the frontier at Chatelard + over Col de la Forclaz, my memory is that the road seems a little wider—more like lots of other roads included in the Route des Grandes Alpes, though perhaps more drivers tend to drive it at higher speeds than lots of other mountain roads (though I doubt there’s a shortage of high-speed drivers on the road thru les Gets to Thonon-les-Bains). I might not want to ride it at a busy time, but mid-week on non-peak-holiday season seemed OK for me.

Between Chatelard and Martigny, the main road road can be avoided completely by riding (steep) up thru Gietroz to Finhaut, then the dirt road in the Gorges du Trient down to le Tretien and then (again paved) thru Salvan to Martigny.

And I take your point about the seriousness of climbing over the Col de Joux Plane. One report says it has a total vertical of 1000 meters, finishing with about 400 meters at steepness around 9-10% grade. Sounds at least as hard as any other climb on the normal Route des Grandes Alpes - (and I suspect harder than climbing thru Servoz + Vaudagne + Chamonix over Col des Montets).

my second reply on

I’m not sure the views of Mont Blanc from Col de Joux Plane are going to satisfy me.

I took a further look at the map, and I’m measuring Joux Plane as around 32 km from Mont Blanc.

But I remember from riding other passes on the Route des Grandes Alpes that I had other views which were closer than that, and I wasn’t that satisfied. Like I remember seeing MB while climbing the southeast side of Col des Aravis, and I think that’s about 28 km from MB, and climbing from Hauteluce up the south side of Col des Saisies I remember seeing MB, and now I’m measuring that as only 25 km away, and I remember feeling that I really wished I were seeing it closer.

What was a satisfying view of Mont Blanc for me: riding on the Combloux road between Sallanches and Megeve—about 9 km away. also from Col du Joly—which I haven’t ridden over (yet—so far I’ve been deterred by the lack of asphalt).

On the other hand, seeing le Mont Buet close up sounds pretty good.

Maybe my problem is that I’ve just been “spoiled” by riding too much on spectacular roads.

further thoughts:

These two climbs add substantial vertical and steepness of climbing over the official Route des Grandes Alpes thru les Gets to Thonon-les-Bains.

I've seen a report that the road up the north side of Col de Joux Plane from Samoens climbs about 1000 vertical meters, and finishes with about 400 vertical meters with steepness around 9-10% grade. And that the south side from Morzine climbs about 700 vertical meters, including two sections of about 200 vertical meters at around 10-11% grade, and other sections around 9-10%.

I've seen a report that the road up the northwest side of Col du Corbier from Seytroux thru le Biot climbs about 500 meters, including some sections of about 100 vertical meters each with steepness around 9-12% grade. And that the southeast side from la Solitude thru Bonnevaux climbs about 400 meters, including a section around 9-11% grade.

la plus grande Route des Grandes Alpes

the grander Route of the Grand Alps of France, 08sept

see also the alternate simpler fix

About a year ago I first pointed out the deficiencies of the official Route des Grandes Alpes and proposed some "grander" high passes, especially in its northern sections. Now I'm even more convinced that the alternate northern section thru Chamonix and Martigny to finish in Evian-les-Bains on the shore of Lac Leman is grander and better -- because now I've ridden over those grander high passes, and connected every kilometer between them.

It's also much longer than the "official" route from Scionzier + Cluses over Col des Gets to Thonon-les-Bains. And instead of staying only in France, it goes thru Martigny and Monthey in Switzerland. But that's in order to include the grandest mountain roads with views of the highest peaks of France.

list of passes + towns

Here's the "grander" northern section which I've now finished riding through, starting from around Cluses and Scionzier:

  • climb from Sallanches thru Servoz + Vaudagne + Chamonix up to and over . . .

  • Col des Montets (to Chatelard)

  • Gietroz + Finhaut (to Trient) - [these are optional: could go from Montets to Forclaz without them]
    . . . optional side-trip: climb above Finhaut to Lac d'Emosson for grand view of Mont Blanc mountains

  • Col de la Forclaz (to Martigny)

  • Pas de Morgins (to Evian-les-Bains)

optional side trips

  • ? climb higher to Plateau d'Assy (? or even Plaine-Joux ?), from Sallanches, for bigger views of Mont Blanc - (but I haven't checked that).

  • climb to dam of Lac d'Emosson from Finhaut for grand view of Mont Blanc mountains from their snowy north side. (and asphalt road also goes higher toward second dam + lake, but gets narrow, very steep, and exposed to fall).  (The dam can also be reached by cog railway or funicular lift -- so it might possibly be a way to take mechanical lift up and then ride bicycle down, but I haven't checked that at all).

  • climb to Salvan + le Tretien in the Gorges du Trient from Martigny -- (and descending from Finhaut to Martigny by way of the steep dirt trail ("route de la Cha") to le Tretien and then on paved road down thru Salvan is an alternative to going over Col de la Forclaz).

  • climb Bex > Gyron > Villars-sur-Ollon is pretty + interesting. (east from near Monthey)

  • ? climb from Troistorrents to Champex for big views across valleys (and perhaps the snowy Grand Combin peak), from Martigny.

  • ? climb to Champery for closer views of the Dents du Midi, from Troistorrents - (but I haven't checked that).

  • longer westerly route (toward Evian) thru Vinzier + Larringes + Marin has more pretty farms and quieter roads than the more direct route on the D21 from Chevenoz down to Evian-les-Bains.

how it's grander

Here are some ways the longer route to Lac Leman thru Switzerland is more spectacular than the "official" Route des Grandes Alpes over Col des Gets to Thonon-les-Bains.

  • every pass crossings of the "grander" route above is higher than les Gets.

  • the descent thru the "balcons de Leman" to Evian-les-Bains has way more and bigger views of big Lake Geneva / Lac Leman than the descent of the "gorges" into Thonon-les-Bains.

  • the waterfront of Evian-les-Bains along the lake is way prettier than Thonon-les-Bains.

  • there's way more pretty farmland taking the "long western" way thru Vinzier + Larringes + Marin down to Evian, than what's on the "official" route thru les Gets.

  • les Gets doesn't have much view of high or spectacular mountain peaks -- and no peaks with year-round snow. Contrast that with . . .

  • the climb from Sallanches thru Servoz to Chamonix has close views of the grandest mountains of France: the Mont Blanc massif, then the climb from Chamonix to Col des Montets has further views of big snowy peaks near Mont Blanc (especially the Aiguille Verte)

  • the climb thru Trient over Col de la Forclaz has views of the snowy Glacier du Trient (and the road to Gietroz has views of the snowy Dome du Gouter.)

  • side trip to Lac d'Emosson from Finhaut has big views of the northern Mont Blanc mountains, of their snowy north side.

  • the climb from Monthey to Pas de Morgins has views of the Dents du Midi, and further west down toward Evian are views of the dramatic pyramid of la Dent d'Oche.

Also this northern section is way "grander" than most of rest of the Route des Grandes Alpes south of Barcellonette. My feeling is that if the additional length of this grander northern section is a problem, then skip some of the southern sections to make time for it.

concerns along this section

Here's some concerns about riding from Sallanches thru Chamonix and Martigny to Evian-les-Bains:

  • vehicle traffic from Chamonix thru Argentiere to Col des Montets. (I don't know how to avoid this other than by taking bus or train, and I don't know the bicycle policies for the bus or train). Hopefully the opening of the Tunnel des Montets will reduce the traffic on the highest section, but there's lots of traffic interaction problems other than that which would remain.

  • very steep climb from Chatelard up to Gietroz. I find it an interesting challenge. But if you don't want to take that on, you could: (a) walk up it (but it's not short); or (b) go to Finhaut by the other road, and skip Gietroz; or (c) skip both Finhaut + Gietroz, and just stay on the main road and ride it directly from Chatelard to Trient and Col de la Forclaz.

  • vehicle traffic climbing from Monthey west up to Pas de Morgins. I would not climb up most of the main road from Monthey. Instead it worked well for me to climb mostly on secondary roads to the south of the main road.

Here's how I remember climbing from Monthey to Pas de Morgins: From center plaza of Monthey, go south on main street toward Choex, to and thru wood covered pedestrian bridge. Then at first climbing SSE toward Choex. turn R for Chenarlier + Outre Vieze (idea is to roughly follow SE side of Vieze creek), roughly W and S with a couple of zigzags, then steady SW, then down + curve sharp R, cross creek and climb NE a ways up to Troistorrents. turn L to climb SW toward Champery, cross railroad tracks, a little ways further then turn R at sign for Morgins, climb steeper -- with nice views E + SE across valley, and views close to Dents du Midi (highest summit is 3257m). Higher up road goes W thru woods -- no more views, but pleasant enough. All was on good pavement, except some erosion near the top. Rejoined main road and took that W up thru Morgins to Pas de Morgins, continued down other side to pretty lake in town of Chatel.

  • vehicle traffic on the main roads (including D21) from Abondance to Evian-les-Bains. Generally I found it fairly managable and comfortable because I was going mostly downhill (though there were some climbs). The lower section north + west from Chevenoz can be avoided and taken instead mostly on quieter and prettier roads by going thru Vinzier + Larringes + Marin further west, then turning back east to finish in Evian-les-Bains. That's how I climbed up going the other way, and that's how I'd take it next time for riding down.

opposite direction?

I have the whole way between Evian-les-Bains thru Martigny and Chamonix to Sallanches in both directions, and I liked it both ways. Here's some thoughts on how I might make ride it next time if I were going north-to-south:

  • Evian-les-Bains to Chevenoz:  I would not ride this on the more direct main roads (including D21) climbing uphill, because of the vehicle traffic. Instead I'd ride thru Marin + Larringes + Vinzier or something like that.

  • Chevenoz thru Abondance to Chatel: I'd be more concerned about managing the vehicle traffic doing this in the uphill direction. Last time I rode it pretty early in the morning, and that felt mostly OK.

  • Pas de Morgins down to Monthey: I might consider going down this all on the main road, turning right into the Monthey city center -- the vehicle traffic has more risk and danger and requires more skill and careful riding strategy than taking the secondary roads -- but some sections felt pretty interesting for riding downhill when I did it that way before.

  • Martigny to Chatelard: I might prefer to climb up the Gorges du Trient thru Salvan + le Tretien to Finhaut.

  • descent from Gietroz to Chatelard is too steep to be fun for me. I might consider skipping Gietroz in this direction. On the other hand, the road avoiding Gietroz from Finhaut down to the main road is not so interesting as a descent, mostly kinda straight (and then have to climb a little to reach the main road).

  • going from Col des Montets thru Argentiere to Chamonix was much more comfortable for me in the generally-downhill (south-bound) direction.

loop tour?

What about making a loop between Cluses + Sallanches to the south and Thonon + Evian-les-Bains to the north? one side by the "official" route and the other by the "grander" route?  Some thoughts:

  • I'm still not much interested in riding the "gorges" south of Thonon-les-Bains in either direction, so the west side of the loop would have to be some other roads. I've tried riding a route over Col de Jambaz, and that was more interesting, but not to excite me to ride it again.

  • Col de Joux Plane between Samoens and Morzine seems interesting to try (I've never checked it, but I think it was in a recent Tour de France stage). But how to connect to something else which would avoid the "gorges"? one idea is go east of the "gorges" thru le Biot.

  • I don't know anything about riding between Evian and Thonon. But if I avoided the "gorges" by going thru le Biot. I guess I could just bypass Thonon and connect directly with Evian.

shorter loops

anyway there's so many shorter sections that I'd gladly do again as loops (or up and back):

  • Sallanches thru Plateau d'Assy + Servoz + Vaudagny + les Houches to Chamonix (or further to Col des Montets), up-and-back.

  • Martigny up thru Salvan + Gorges du Trient to Finhaut + Chatelard (or further to Col des Montets), then back over Col de la Forclaz to Martigny.

  • Martigny to Champex (or further to Orsieres, or to Col du Grand St Bernard) out-and-back. (I'd also like to try climbing Bex to Col de la Croix, though I've never checked it).

  • Monthey to Pas de Morgins + Chatel: climb up on the secondary roads further south (? with side trip to Champery, but never checked that ?), and descend the same way -- or if I felt I could manage the vehicle traffic, descend the main road back to Monthey center.

  • Evian-les-Bains, climb up on quieter roads with pleasant farms thru Marin + Larringes to Viznier, go back some other way thru the "balcons de Leman" to Evian, perhaps with side trips to pretty viewpoints. (I'm not much interested in doing Pas de Morgins as an up-and-back ride from the west side; I didn't find the main road thru Abondance that interesting for road-bicycling in either direction.)

2008 report

During 2008 I rode from Martigny to Monthey, and from Monthey over the Pas de Morgins to Evian-les-Bains on Lac Leman, and it worked fine -- and there was indeed a great view of the Dents du Midi on the climb up the east side of the Pas de Morgins.  Also I rode over Col de la Forclaz from southwest to northeast, and liked that better than riding in the same direction from Finhaut down the Gorges du Trient. But I did like riding from Martigny thru Salvan up along the Gorges du Trient to Finhaut. I also rode up and down the village of Gietroz (between Chatelard and Finhaut) in both directions, so that's another option for adding a climb to the overall route.

Also some riders have mentioned Col de Parpaillon (2650m) (roughly between Embrun + Barcelonette) as an interesting high pass to cross -- although much is unpaved. So that might be a worthy alternative to Col de Vars (2108m) for including in "la plus grande Route des Grandes Alpes".


see also

around Mont Blanc

what's heresee Map of route + passes

  • overall

  • list of passes and towns

  • highlights

  • concerns + changes

see also:


The Mont Blanc massif is really spectacular, and I'm glad I got to ride around it.  I got to see lots of it on the non-southern sections, and I would gladly ride those again -- and next time check out some of the optional side trips on the west and north sides.

But in the southern sections the paved-road passes are too far from the Mont Blanc massif, so for most of those I would take some alternate strategy:

(a) time my tour to ride them when there's still some seasonal snow on the ground to make them more spectacular -- likely early season soon after the passes open (say in May or early June).

(b) skip the southern sections, instead start in Sallanches (or Megeve) and finish with the "side trip" from Aosta up thru Courmayeur into the (Italian) southern Val Ferret. (Instead perhaps "skim" the the best paved-road sections around the south side by making a "base camp" around Beaufort and riding Cormet Roselend and the side trips.)

(c) replace some of the paved-road passes with hiking over dirt-path passes (Col de la Seigne (very rough + possibly muddy) instead of Petit St Bernard) - (? Col du Joly instead of Saisies + Megeve | Aravis + Colombiere, but I haven't checked that at all ?).

list of passes + towns

Clockwise around Mont Blanc, starting from Italy:

  • Aosta city
    [ optional side trip thru Courmayeur + NE up into Val Ferret ]

  • Col du Petit St Bernard (to Bourg St Maurice)

  • Cormet de Roselend (to Beaufort)
    [ optional side trip into Val des Glaciers, possibly all the way to Refuge Mottets ]
    [ optional side trip up-and-back to Col du Pre ]

    [? optional side trip up-and-back to Col du Joly (but I haven't checked that) ?]

  • Col des Saisies (to Flumet)
    [ shorter next would be to ride over Megeve to Sallanches
    . . . but I haven't tested that in the south-to-north direction. ]

  • Col des Aravis (to la Clusaz + St-Jean-de-Sixt)

  • Col de la Colombiere (to le Reposoir)

  • Romme (to Cluses + Sallanches + Chamonix) - [but I doubt I'd repeat that]
    [? optional side trip to Plateau d'Assy for bigger views (or even Plaine-Joux), but I haven't checked that ?]

  • Col des Montets (to Chatelard)

  • Gietroz + Finhaut (to Trient)
    [? optional side trip up-and-back to Lac d'Emossons, but I haven't checked that ?]

  • Col de la Forclaz (to Martigny)

  • Champex (to Orsieres)

  • Col du Grand St Bernard (to Aosta)

I've also done a route in the counter-clockwise direction, but that included three or four passes with substantial sections on dirt: Gorges du Trient, Cormet d'Areches, Col de la Seigne, Col du Grand Ferret.


Sections I liked and would gladly to again:

  • view of Mont Blanc riding up from Aosta to Pre St Didier.

  • side trip thru Courmayeur up into Val Ferret (the southern Val Ferret which is in Italy) -- great views of Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses (also of Mont Dolent if go all the way to Refuge Elena / Pre de Bar)

  • Cormet de Roselend north of the junction for Val des Glaciers. Also the side trip up-and-back into Val des Glaciers, and the side trip to Col du Pre, for some great views.

  • climb from Sallanches thru Servoz for views, then thru Vaudagne up to Les Houches for pleasant riding, quiet villages.

  • Chamonix town for me is a unique high-energy place. Close views of dramatic rock peaks. Sorta too close for viewing Mont Blanc itself -- but actually the other peaks in the Mont Blanc massif are more interesting than its highest point.

  • views of the Aiguille Verte around Col des Montets.

  • pleasant roadside scenery thru Vallorcine.

  • views of Trient glacier + Dome du Gouter thru Gietroz + Finhaut + Trient.

  • big views of the Rhone valley and then the steep vineyards coming down from Col de la Forclaz.

  • big views across the valley in several directions on both sides of the climb over Champex.

  • view of the snowy Grand Combin while climbing up to Col du Grand St Bernard.

  • the hospice at Grand St Bernard (where Sharon + I and friends once stayed a couple of nights during winter when the road was buried under snow).

concerns + changes

Here's some things I liked less, and might try to avoid next time:

  • Col du Petit St Bernard did not have views in proportion to the length of the climb. (The only alternative I can think of is the unpaved trail over Col de la Seigne, which is very spectacular, but very rough by road-bicycling standards, and could be very muddy on its southwest side, and some sections very steep).

  • Cormet de Roselend lower between Bourg St Maurice and the junction for Val des Glaciers isn't that interesting as a climb, not such great views (though I haven't tried it as a descent -- at least that way I'd be looking toward the north face of Mont Pourri).

  • Col des Saisies does not have views in proportion to the length of the climb. (next time I'd consider substituting Col du Joly, although it has a long unpaved section, and I've never checked it)

  • descent North from Col des Aravis not that interesting, nor was the climb up the south side of Col de la Colombiere, nor the descent of the north side of Colombiere. I do think that the Chaine d'Aravis mountains in view from much of these sections are rather spectacular with seasonal snow on them -- so I'd be interested to try this again in early season, soon after the road over Col de la Colombiere is opened.

  • descent north from Romme was too steep to be enjoyable for me, and didn't have views of the Mont Blanc massif. Next time I'd try the road from le Reposoir to Scionzier (but I've never checked that).

  • vehicle traffic climbing from Flumet to Megeve. Lots of cars and non-heavy trucks use that as a shortcut from Albertville to the  A40 autoroute and Mont Blanc tunnel, and it's curvy and not necessarily wide. Going south-bound (mostly downhill) seemed OK to me, but I haven't tried it riding north-bound (mostly uphill).

  • vehicle traffic from Chamonix thru Argentiere to Col des Montets. (I don't know how to avoid this other than by taking bus or train, and I don't know the bicycle policies for the bus or train).

  • vehicle traffic on section of main road from Martigny south to les Valettes and start of climb to Champex, including some curves toward the right with unfavorable visibility for climbing up south-bound because the road runs along the west side of the valley. Some of this is avoidable by going thru Croix section of Martigny and later a village to the west side.

  • vehicle traffic on the main road from Orsieres up to the Grand St Bernard tunnel entrance. At least the visibility around curves tends to be favorable for climbing up south-bound, because the road runs along the east side of the valley. I rode it pretty early in the morning, and felt pretty managable to me then.

Most of these problems are addressed by taking a different strategy for the southern sections -- see above under "overall". Basically my feeling about the southern side is that I like the paved-road sections (and side trips) around the upper part of Cormet de Roselend, and the rest I'd try to work around. Except that I like the Aravis mountains much better with seasonal snow on them -- but that's true of lots of mountain roads in Europe.

more . . .

see also


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