The breathtaking Lac de Vaches walk starts from the Genepi chair lift, above the picturesque village of Pralognan-la-Vanoise.
Located in the Savoie region of the French Alps, this incredibly beautiful Alpine setting is the starting point for one of the most beautiful day-hikes we’ve ever walked.
First of all though I must confess! This all came about by chance – after eagle-eyed Nigel noticed a picture of it on Instagram!
Luckily he’d wisely added it to his “must do” list – because this fabulous image boasted the biggest stepping stones he’d ever seen!
Not only that, but despite this coming from Instagram, where let’s be honest, not everything is quite as idyllic in real life. I have to admit, that this image just looked absolutely incredible!
So, without further ado, there was only one thing left to do!
Yes – we just had to go and take a look at this mountain paradise for ourselves!
Let’s begin with our route from Pralognan-la-Vanoise. This short drive up the mountain took us towards Les Fontanettes and our overnight parking spot at the Genepi ski lift parking area.
Lucikly we arrived late in the early evening, just as people were returning to their vehicles after a long day in the mountains. Otherwise, I think finding a parking space would have proved a bit difficult. This is August and peak season in France is like everywhere else – packed!
As you’d expect, a few other motorhomes, campervans and “vannie” vans had already parked up for the night. So, we took a space beside them in a quieter section of the large, dusty but free parking area. Now, there’s no service area here, so maybe come prepared, although there were toilet’s close by.
Surprisingly for us, we were hitting the well-marked trails direct from our parking spot before 9am.
By now, the parking area that had emptied out the night before was almost full. It turned out to be a wise move, making our way up the mountain the previous evening. At least we’d avoided the trail of visitors now driving these narrow roads.
Ahead of us, ski slopes of flourishing meadow grass flowed down the mountain, either side of a wide tree line.
Just opposite our campervan, the chair lift now sprung into operation. Soon, queues formed. A mass of eager hikers, walking poles in hand and backpacks at the ready, paying their way before riding off into the distance.
Of course, we knew this was going to be a steep uphill path all the way! However, the legs were ready and the mindset in place – now a few hours of hard exercise was in store.
OK, I know what you’re thinking – why didn’t we just take the chairlift? Well, for those wanting to miss out the first very hilly section, this would be a great option, however, we had other more energetic ideas.
That was without the already intense heat. In actual fact, most days have touched 30C or above and today would be no exception. Thankfully, this meant we could carry and wear less, although in contrast, we also had to allow for extra water!
Luckily, the path climbed lead us alongside the steep ski slope through the shade of the trees. All the while, the whirl of the adjacent chairlift gliding overhead as it made its way towards the top of the slope.
As the tree line came to an end, out we emerged, puffing and panting from the steep path but rewarded with fine views all around us.
Our exit onto a gravel track brought us out at the top of Genepi chairlift. Here, those less energetic hikers along with mountain bike enthusiasts arrived in style and fresh-faced.
Ahead we could see the first refuge on the trail, deckchairs neatly laid out in the morning sun, where coffee was served to those who needed a caffeine boost.
Fresh mountain spring water oozed out from a log fountain, a typical Alpine refreshment of the most resourceful kind. Never ones to miss an opportunity to re-fill the bottles, so out they came, whilst we sipped from the coolest, freshest natural resource known to man.
Onwards we stride. More uphill sections follow but the track is wide and surrounded by fabulous mountain scenery. Then, we cross a bridge over a gentle stream, where the track changes.
We are now fringed either side by attractive stone walls. A street-like path is formed between the two, this old salt track still beautiful in appearance, blending in to the environment and guiding the way for us ever upwards.
Soon, we emerge out of the walls onto a rocky landscape. The mountain is changing, it’s more dramatic scenery, where jagged high peaks reach out towards the blue sky above. Those grassy meadows of winter ski slopes are no more.
We rise upwards, steadily on a zig-zag path towards this real mountain terrain.
After about 90 minutes walking, the most beautiful location imaginable came into view – the Lac de Vaches.
Stepping stones lay flat on the shallow water crossing through the centre of the lake. Then behind the cinematic image lies the white icy glacier, wedged between the rocky crevices.
Around us, the needle point peaks of the mountains, now in touching distance, rise towards the sky. We can just make out the tiny figures of athletic, daring mountaineers, roped up all along a craggy, dramatic ridge.
We pause momentarily on the stone slabs of this mesmerising Lac de Vaches walk, taking in the breathtaking scenery whilst enjoying the relative emptiness of the surroundings.
With each step, our feet connect with the perfectly placed stepping stones, laid through this lake in the neatest fashion. For a moment, we feel as if we are walking on water.
Now we had a choice – either continue on towards the Refuge of the Col de la Vanoise or turn back to the start.
The glacial views and the temptation of refreshments at the refuge proved the best option. Following the well marked-signs, we continue on for another hour.
Leaving the blue waters of the lake, we climb another zig-zag type path of small stones. All the while, the glacier views ahead of us come closer. The scenery from every other direction makes us feel happy to be witness to such incredible landscapes.
As the path finally reaches a grassy plateau, another lake appears. Here we pause to take in the crackling ice of the glacier, whilst the cry of playful Marmots echoes through the air.
Now the refuge came into sight. Set upon the Col de la Vanoise, where panoramic views surrounded us. At 2515 meters high, the snow left on the higher mountains beyond, gave way to a picturesque, idyllic setting.
The highest peak here – Pointe de la Grande Casse, stands at 3855m high. How small we feel in its shadow.
Before taking a well earned break for charuterie and fries at the refuge, we take a walk a little further on along the path. From here, the views open out again towards yet another lake – what a place this is.
The great thing about the French mountains is the brilliant refuges that are built in some of the harshest terrain. This one is no exception. Commanding a prominent position on a flat plateau, this large stone and timber building looks more like a hotel!
The dining and sleeping options are just as splendid as the location. We choose a picnic bench on the outdoor dining area and rest our limbs over lunch.
Our return walk back down the mountain followed an alternative route towards the dry Lac de Assiette.
Here, the circular formation of the lake gave a strange image to the land. Walking through this dry lake bed seemed even stranger.
Now the path took a different turn underfoot. Smooth, sloping rocks mixed with narrow, gravel and dirt sections made the route more difficult. Today was hot and dry, making the rocks slippy on the shiny rock surface.
Some sections required a little assistance from my backside, easing me down like a slide!
Just as the path down the mountain became a little more normal underfoot, we came to a crossroads!
Now what do we do? One path veered up a grassy mountain side, the other carried straight on down the mountain. With only one sign and neither of the two locations saying “Genepi chair lift”, we thought we’d ask a passer by.
First though, we double checked the walking map instructions that we’d snapped a photo of on our phone. This said to take the right hand path, unfortunately for us, we found out it should have said “take the second right hand path and ignore the first one”!
In the meantime we asked a few confused looking French walkers, none of whom knew for sure, but all carried on up the steep path on the right.
So, with that, we took that option too – the wrong option! At the top of the steep path came a steep down hill path leading onto the salt track that we’d walked up earlier.
We later found out, if we’d have continued straight on there would have been another right turn which would have lead us back to our parking area. Oh well – we’ll know for next time!
Eventually, our route back down to the van took the same path that we’d started out on alongside the ski slope. Feeling a little disappointed that we’d not done the full circular option, meant only one thing – an extra glass of wine to drown our sorrows!
Despite the bit of a mishap at the end, we absolutely loved this walking route. For those wanting an idea of time, we took around 7 hours to complete the walk.
We can safely say, the Lac de Vaches walk is probably one of the best day-hikes we’ve done! So what are you waiting for? Here’s one to add to that “must do list” and we hope you enjoy it every bit as much as we did.