Let’s all agree that there is no adrenaline rush like charging down a memorable ski slope. We all remember those special runs, and France is home to some of the most iconic in the world. They are the types of slopes that validate you as a skier, and you will likely refer to them as the ultimate benchmark of your entire lifetime experience on skis or a snowboard. Here are six of France’s not-to-miss ski runs—some off-piste and designed expressly for experts, but others manageable for beginners and intermediates—that all standouts in their own unique way.
1. Vallée Blanche
With Mont Blanc looming next door, the glacial valley of Vallée Blanche in Chamonix falls into the expert category. Not only is it the most famous off-piste ski route in the world, but at nearly 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), it’s also the longest. Accessed at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, the first ridge to descend is typically done via rope and/or crampons and regardless of your level, a guide is highly recommended and avalanche gear is essential. There are several routes down the valley walls, but if you ski all the way back to town in Chamonix, you’re dropping a whopping 2,700 meters—nearly 9,000 vertical feet.
2. Combe de Caron
The highest ski area in Europe, Val Thorens features 100 miles of wide open, low-angle slopes that largely resemble a treeless, massive white bowl. One exception is Combe de Caron. The Combe begins at 3,145 meters, one of the highest skiable points in Europe, from which every angle is filled with a sweeping view of the entire Rhone-Alpes region.
Although the Combe is in-bounds, it feels a little like falling off the grid when you drop over a steep precipice that will instantly sweep your guts into your mouth. You continue down a long run that alternates between powdery and bumpy, through rocky, winding corridors for nearly 2,000 vertical feet until you find yourself back in civilization under a chairlift, headed toward the Maurienne Valley.
3. La Sarenne
Measuring around 10 miles—nearly as long as Vallée Blanche—this not-too-steep run in Alpe d’Huez is officially Europe’s longest black run, and it’s all in-bounds. Skiers who like silky terrain will be pleased to know that it’s almost always groomed. From the top, Mont Blanc lies like a beacon in the distance and the craggy summits of Ecrins National Park dot the landscape in front of you. The top half of La Sarenne is the steep section and sweeps you into a narrow bottleneck before you settle into a smooth, relaxing glide at the bottom in the Gorges de Sarenne.
4. Le Pas de Chavanette
The Le Pas de Chavanette (also known as the Swiss Wall) is an orange-rated (as in, beyond expert) steep mogul field features a slope angle of 40 degrees. It’s part of the Portes du Soleil resort system on the French/Swiss border, and it can be accessed from Avoriaz. After the initial 75 feet, skiers can choose from a couple of different routes down, one much wider and less steep than the other. The initial part of the run is extremely narrow. Because of the limited turning area, moguls can grow to the size of cars, and the space between them can get icy. In other words, tight turns are a must.
The wider, easier slope continues to the left, while those who choose the steep, direct route plunge between two rock bands in a chute that slims down to about 10 yards across at one point and brings to mind a halfpipe. There is a flat runout at the bottom that takes you directly to a chairlift back up to the French side of the ski area—or it’s possible to continue skiing to the Swiss town of Les Crosets.
5. La Face
Made famous when numerous Olympic ski racers complained about its steepness during the 1992 Albertville Games, the most notorious black run in Val d’Isere received a similar reception when used for the World Alpine Ski Championships in 2009. Accessed easily at the top of the Olympique gondola, the first half of La Face is relatively flat and relaxing, featuring a sweeping panorama of jagged white peaks. Then the slope takes a left turn over what in certain snow conditions can be a small cornice, and suddenly you can see the entire village of Val d’Isere between the tips of your skis. The best time to catch it is in the morning after a big snowfall, or when the sun is shining to soften it up in the afternoon.
6. La Saulire
Though a red run, there is something distinctly regal about La Saulire, which begins at 2,700 meters at the Meribel-Courchevel meeting point. Looming peaks across the way look close enough to touch when they’re not entirely shrouded in a snow cloud. This run is best hit first thing in the morning when the groomed snow feels like velvet corduroy. The slope takes you 1,300 meters—that’s nearly a jaw-dropping 4,000 vertical feet—to the end point in Meribel. The length of it feels like a cross-country ski, but gravity is on your side the whole way. For those who want to savor the afternoon on the slopes, La Saulire is also a classic grand finale before clicking out of your bindings and heading out to après.
Originally written for Atout France.