Les 3 Vallees

Les 3 Vallees

Les 3 Vallees

The French Alps are the stuff of snowboarding daydreams. Those who have been to the southeast of France during the winter months return home with tales of bright blue skies, non-existent liftlines, and most of all, untouched in bounds powder runs accessible just a few turns off the groomed trail, left pristine by vacationing tourists who prefer the cat tracks. It's a place where powder panic doesn't exist and after a long day floating through the light, high elevation snow, prolific wine and cheese await at every apres spot in the villages. It sounds dually magical as it does far off, but in actuality, chasing powder and brie in the same trip is much more accessible than it seems and well worth the trip.

Last winter, I developed a minor obsession with Les 3 Vallees, an interlocking area in southeastern France of four valleys (the area began with only three valleys, hence the name) and eight resorts. I had heard a little bit about the area from friends that had visited. Late at night, Instagram rabbit holes gave way to the Google-ing of trail maps and image searches that revealed photos that were above treeline, bluebird, and swathed in sparkling, white snow. The sheer scope of 3 Vallees was unlike anything I had every seen, growing up on the tree-cloistered mountains of New England. I watched Rusty Toothbrush edits from Meribel and anything that the Banging Bees put on the internet. And then, as if the universe was reading my mind, an opportunity to cross the Atlantic in search of carving and camembert presented itself.


In early January, I packed up my boardbag, brushed up on the meager French I had studied in high school and hopped on a flight in San Francisco, set to touch down in Paris in twelve hours. Getting to the Rhone-Alpes is way easier than it sounds; Air France runs direct flights to Charles De Gaulle Airport from SFO, SLC, NYC, and most other major hubs in the US. From Paris, the flight to Lyon is a quick hop and from there, it's easy to grab a shuttle to any of the resorts at 3 Vallees--it's just over two hours to Val Thorens, the resort I would be calling home for my first French snowboardig experience.

The trip to the Alps was a quick one. Barely four days all said and done. But it was enough to get a glimpse of why Les 3 Vallees is such an epic collection of resorts. One ticket gets you access to every one of the mountains spread across the valleys--a practically unthinkable network of lifts spread across acres upon acres of groomed trails and seldom-tracked terrain between. Our group was afforded three days on hill, one at Val Thorens, one at Meribel, and one at Courchevel. Winter had started slowly in Europe, but storms hit during our stay and while visibility was often low, the snow was on point. I was determined to experience as much of each of these three 3 Vallees resorts as possible, and in doing so, hopefully provide a little insight as to why this massive mountain zone should definitely be on your list of winter destinations.

Les 3 Vallees

Les 3 Vallees

Les 3 Vallees trail map.


Val Thorens

Val Thorens

Club Med Val Thorens

Club Med at Val Thorens is located in the middle of the slopes, literally ski in and ski out to the sliding glass doors. p: Club Med

Val Thorens was the first resort we rode as well as our home base for the quick trip to France. Seemingly dropped into the snow at the top of a winding, road of switchbacks, the entire village at Val Thorens is built smack dab in the middle of the ride-able acreage. Trails crisscross over and under village streets as they make their way toward the lifts. Doors open directly onto the snow. Basically all of the hotels and restaurants in Val Thorens are literally ski in and out. Val Thorens is the highest resort in Europe, topping out at 10,597 feet. Its altitude and the Glacier de Péclet allow the mountain to open in mid-November and keep its lifts running into May. Its home to plentiful steeps, spread out in a way that mitigates crowds. Liftlines are few and far between. As an introduction to the riding that Les 3 Vallees has on tap, Val Thorens is welcoming, challenging, and easy to keep lapping until the lifts close.

Located in the center of the resort, our home for the weekend, the Club Med Val Thorens had automatic sliding doors on the ground floor that you walked out of and immediately strapped into your snowboard in order to make your way to the lift a few hundred yards downhill. To say the access was easy would be an understatement. Every day after riding, we stashed our gear within a few feet of the entrance and just a few steps further inside were silver spacesuit-clad women offering apres cocktails and French cheese and crackers. Previous to the trip, I had never stayed at any sort of all-inclusive resort and had no idea that Club Meds were located away from sunny, Caribbean locales. While the resort company is often associated with more tropical locations, it was started in France and so there are multiple locations just within Les 3 Vallees. The hotel was quite new and iconically European ski chic. Purple and blue lights lit up the walls in the lobby. An indoor climbing wall reached up two stories alongside the corkscrew staircase. On the second floor, two different restaurants. On the third, a giant lounge and bar, offering gratis drinks all day long. The whole environment was foreign to me, as the lodging I am most familiar with is less all-inclusive, more BYO-everything: hostels, small cabins, or the living rooms of generous friends. The easy Club Med experience made the entire few days so seamless. Snowboard, eat, sleep, repeat. Everything taken care of.

The only thing you really have to think about when staying at such a location is taking runs. And, if you want, Club Med and Val Thorens will supply a guide that will lead you to exactly the terrain in which you are interested. We signed on with a local snowboarder who was eager to take us all over the resort, though he wasn't as stoked on our North American tendency to dip into off-trail powder stashes. The first day we rode, it was snowing and visibility was very limited. It's likely our guide had our best interest in mind as we dropped half-blind into unknown territory, but the fluffy, fresh snow was too inviting. Val Thorens has plenty of terrain, but the way it funnels into one major village made it the easiest area to navigate.

Val Thorens

This face wasn't open the day we rode Val Thorens, unfortunately. The chairlift is one of the ways to access the other, connected resorts.

There are plenty of lodging options in the plethora of villages that dot the resorts of Les 3 Vallees, but with a lift ticket for all of Les 3 Vallees, leapfrogging from resort to resort via chairlifts is easier than shifting hotels. The second and third mornings we started on the chairs at Val Thorens and easily ended up across the valleys at Meribel and Courchevel, resulting in an all-too-quick but comprehensive experience of the varied terrain of this giant resort system

Val Thorens trail map

Restaurant Jean Sulpice

In the center of Val Thorens is Restaurant Jean Sulpice, the highest Michelin starred restaurant in Europe. It's a stark contrast from the bring-a-brown-bag lodges that speckle North America, where Chef Jean Sulpice blends traditional French cuisine with elements from the surrounding mountains. Spending the day snowboarding at Val Thorens and following it up with a meal at Sulpice's restaurant is honestly, a perfect way to experience 3 Vallees.

Jean Sulpice

Jean Sulpice, the youngest chef to be awarded two Michelin stars in France.

Club Med Val Thorens

Nighttime entertainment at the Val Thorens Club Med is lively, cocktail-fueled, and often lit by blacklights. p: Club Med

Courchevel

Courchevel is sprawling when it comes to terrain, as well as options for lunch. On hill amenities are 100 there.

Les 3 Vallees

Sprawling views in the French Alps.

Club Med Val Thorens

Nighttime entertainment at the Val Thorens Club Med is lively, cocktail-fueled, and often lit by blacklights. p: Club Med

Meribel


Meribel

Meribel

In 1938, the first lift was set up above the town of Les Allures at what would become Meribel. World War II halted construction of the resort for a few years, but once the war was over, the the area expanded quickly, incorporating three on hill mountain towns: Meribel Village at 1,400 meters, Meribel Centre at 1,450 meters and Meribel-Mottaret, the highest at 1,750 meters. We hit the jackpot at Meribel. The previous day's storm had opened up to blue skies and our guide was Marie, a former competitive boardercross racer who was stoked to lead us to all the off-trail stashes we desired. Important note: Meribel has tons of in bounds, easily accessible lines that require avy gear--bring your beacon and score all the untouched snow you would like. Second note: It's normal to wake up during a trip to France in a hazy, self-inflicted cheese fog. Luckily, making your way through Les 3 Vallees resort-to-resort provides all the breathtaking views and fresh air you need to wake up. From Val Thorens, it took only half an hour to get to Meribel: a lift, a cat track, a few more trails and a lift--all fun to ride in their own right--and we were welcomed to this area of the valleys with a picturesque bluebird powder day.

Meribel's terrain is a veritable playground of steeps, rolling cat tracks, and powder-filled bowls of all sizes. Each time we got off the lift, we were greeted with unridden, fresh snow in a variety of directions. Marie was able to efficiently move us from place to place to cash in on the snow, which was extremely helpful in such expansive terrain. While hiring a guide at a resort isn't as familiar a practice in the US, it's an option for getting the lay of the land very quick at the biggest ski resort in the world. ESF or Ecole du Ski Francais offers guides for both in bounds and off piste (https://www.ski-school-meribel-mottaret.com/escape/guide-offpiste) and not only covers Meribel, but all of 3 Vallees.


Meribel


Meribel is an acclaimed Alps destination not only for its terrain, but also its heritage as a site of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and its thriving apres and nightlife. The infamous La Folie Douce sits at the mid-station of La Saulire. Thumping techno emanating from this popular spot (the larger of the two locations found at Meribel and Val Thorens) can be heard across the trails once it gets to be late afternoon—it’s pure European apres and culturally worth a check out once you’ve logged runs for the day. Off hill, Hotel Le Savoy, a luxe spot in Meribel Centre is packed after the lifts stop running and is an iconic location to grab drinks and snacks. If your budget is more PBR than champagne, Jack’s Bar runs two-for-one drink specials and also has live music. There’s also plenty of clubs that stay open into the wee hours of the night, but there’s so much snow on offer at Meribel, there’s no shame in passing out early to get turns the next day.

Meribel trail map

Courchevel

p: Patrice Mestari/Courchevel

Courchevel

Courchevel

Courchevel

The storm moved back in the day we headed to Courchevel. While it looks distance on a map, dropping off the backside of Val Thorens and getting to Courchevel is actually pretty easy. We followed a cat track that alternated between steeps and flats pretty much directly to the third resort of the trip, cruising by Meribel in a foggy white out that promised more snow to come.

To say that Courchevel is sprawling would be an understatement. The terrain seems to go on forever, with plenty of above-treeline steeps accessible from the lifts. The resort, the furthest east in 3 Vallees, is broken down into smaller villages named for the altitudes in meters on which they are positioned: Courchevel 1300 (Le Praz), Courchevel 1550, Courchevel 1650 (Moriond), and Courchevel 1850 (now referred to just as Courchevel). The resort was built beginning in the 1940s, and 1850 was the first village to be built entirely from scratch, as opposed to from an existing mountain hamlet. It is this area that is the mountain's most well-know as it is a winter stomping ground of the rich and famous with its six-star hotel palaces and Michelin-starred restaurants. But don't let the upscale experience of 1850 keep you from visiting the iconic resort if your bank account isn't lined with excess euros. The lower villages offer more reasonably priced lodging, lift tickets are not expensive, and both the groomed red runs as well as the notable couloirs of the Saulire lift have plenty of snow and don't care about your budget. Also, the predominantly north-facing terrain keeps snow conditions good even after storms have ended. In addition to it's prolific terrain, Courchevel is billed as a resort that has the total package for families, so if you're traveling with your crew, you're in luck. There's steep terrain, windy, mellow trails, and a family park, as well as plenty of all-day apres and on snow options for visitors less inclined to strap into snowboards.


Courchevel

p: Patrice Mestari/Courchevel


Our day at Courchevel was tempered by the challenging visibility, but the snow was soft and fast. We cruised from 1850 down to the bottom, lines of kids in red and white jackets and pants snaking behind ski instructors. Due to the socked in weather, we didn't get to experience some of the best zones that this mountain has to offer, areas just out of reach behind the cloud cover, but it was a good sign that the Alps were getting stormy weather after a slow start to the season. Two of the many reasons for a return trip: the Equinox bowl looks incredible with the right conditions and is only a short hike off the Roc Merlet lift. The Grand Couloir, which overlooks Courchevel 1850, which would be insane with fresh snow.

Three days at Les 3 Vallees is definitely not enough to experience this sprawling resort system, but even a quick journey to this part of southeastern France provides more than enough reason to plan a return trip.

Three days to ride Les 3 Vallees is far from enough, but any time spent in this amazing area is well worth it. For more information on Val Thorens, Meribel and Courchevel, as well as the rest of Les 3 Vallees: Les3vallees.com/en

Courchevel trail map