Whitewater Kayaking Guide to the Rivers of the French Alps

River running in the UK is often a cold wet affair and after a hard winter’s river running our thoughts often stray to warmer climes. With the advent of cheaper air travel, UK paddlers have been searching far and wide for warm sun and great whitewater, but with the current economic climate and the price of air travel rocketing paddlers are starting to look a little closer to home. If we told you that there was a place only a day’s drive away, that boasts a generally warm and sunny climate, beautiful mountains, great food and drink, and, most importantly, loads and loads of fantastic whitewater runs to suit every level of paddler, you’d probably think that we were having you on right? Well, such a place exists. And it’s just across the channel in France. That place is the Southern French Alps…

Why the French Alps?

For many years the French Alps was host to an annual migration of UK paddlers. It was the traditional location for many canoe clubs’ annual summer trip and it was a favourite amongst hordes of University clubs, who would make the campsites of the durance Valley their homes for weeks on end. To some degree it still is, but over the last few years, the French Alps has been somewhat overshadowed by other, further-a-field, more exotic locations. The change to the Euro from the Franc and its subsequent strengthening didn’t help matters, as it has certainly driven the overall cost of a trip up, but the fact is that the Southern French Alps still offers pound for pound, or Euro for Euro, a fantastic location with so many great sections of whitewater rivers that you can spend a week there and barely scratch the surface. It’s also a great place to go with non-paddling family or friends and the region is a veritable Meca for outdoor sports of all types, so there’s plenty to see and do off the water to keep ever body happy.

When To Go

If you’re a seasoned alpinist or are looking for pushier water then May and early June can offer big flows, but the rivers should be treated with respect, and you’ll find that the hazards on even the lower grade runs increase significantly in seriousness. Last year there was heavy unseasonal rainfall at this time and the rivers became very dangerous, and one point the French Authorities even closed the rivers to rafting and paddling, due to some very serious incidents and even a tragic death.

Even without the rain you can expect big Spring meltwater levels, but by mid-June things will have settled down a bit, the high flows will have started to run off and the area will provide you and your group an incredible amount of diverse and varied river runs. By the end of June, and into July, there are generally great, more manageable, levels for all and this is the time that many clubs favour to make their trips.

Of course, as we know, rivers can change on almost a daily basis and the above is not set in stone. Factors which can affect the water levels and the length of the alpine season are the amount of snowfall that the region receives during the winter months, and, as we mentioned above, rainfall.

Getting There

The fact that you can drive there with a roof rack full of boats is a great advantage. There numerous ferry companies that run regular channel crossing services, from Dover and Folkestone. Driving to the Alps from a French Channel Port normally takes about twelve hours (using the motorways/toll roads), so add on an hour and a bit for the ferry crossing and any distance you may have to cover in the UK and you’re looking at a journey time of anything from 14 to 20 plus hours. The best way to tackle this is by having two or more drivers share the driving, so you can take shifts at driving and sleep every couple of hours and do the journey in one push. Food, fuel, loo and coffee stops are also recommended every three to four hours to keep you awake and the blood flowing in your legs! We usually catch a late (graveyard shift) ferry and then motor through the night using the above system. This cuts down considerably on the amount of traffic you’ll encounter and can save a couple of hours off the trip. Alternatively, you may want to break it down and stop overnight. There are plenty of cheap roadside motels along the way, or a cheaper alternative is to catch a few hours shut eye in one of the pleasant rest-stop areas or Aires as they are called. We’ve certainly spent more than a few hours snoozing in bivvy bags in such spots.

We’d highly recommend taking a route that avoids driving through Paris and we usually opt for the motorway route from Calais down through eastern France passing Reims, Dijon and Lyon along the way. Playboaters amongst you may want to take a stop at the latter to check if the famous Hawaii Sur La Rhone play wave is working.

This route utilises the motorway system, which in France is paid for by tolls. This can add a reasonable amount to the total cost of your trip and if you have the time you may wish to use main roads, as these are usually free. It goes without saying that a good European atlas is a must, and make sure that all your vehicles have the necessary equipment/spares that are required by law, such as emergency triangle, spare bulbs, first aid kit etc. A quick search of the larger motoring websites will tell you what you’ll need.

Where to Base Yourself

The main centres to stay at revolve around the bigger and more popular rivers. Briançon offers camping possibilities and has some nice apartments. It’s close to the Durance and Guisane. L’Argentiere la Bessee is a small town but has a popular campsite, which sits on the banks of the Durance, right next to the slalom course section. This means that there’s plenty of scope for paddling straight from your tent door, and you can run the classic runs of the Durance Gorge, and the Gyronde and take out just a few yards from your camp. It also sports a nice lake, so it’s good for family fun. It’s fairly central location between the larger centres of Briançon and Embrum makes most of the classic runs fairly accessible. On the downside it is a popular spot with the Uni Crowds, so can get a little noisy at times, and the main road runs directly past it, on the opposite side of the river, so it somewhat distracts from the alpine ambience.

Guillestre and Embrum are also popular places to stay, as they offer a little more if you’re looking for après paddling eateries or nightlife, and the campsite next to the famous Rabioux Wave was always another popular choice for paddlers.

Gear We Go

Although the air temperature is generally hot the water in alpine rivers is snowmelt so is positively freezing! By all means take a short-sleeved cag and board shorts, but be sensible and dress for the swim. Alpine runs are generally faster than UK ones, and it’s easy to get caught out. A long john wetsuit, or thermal layers and dry trousers/dry-suits will offer you more protection on your legs in the case of a swim and a long sleeved cag is also a good idea. It can get pretty cold at river level if the weather turns overcast, or you’re in the bottom of a gorge. We usually save the ‘shortie’ for playboating or short fun runs, or if we do wear it on longer river sections we always take a long sleeved cag and thermal as well. Good footwear is essential and it needs to have a solid grip sole for moving about over rocky terrain.

It goes without saying that you should be taking your usual river running safety gear. Every paddler should be carrying a personal throw-line, whistle and knife and the group should have at least a couple of longer bank-rescue bags amongst it, as well as first aid kits, pin kits and split paddles.

Boats are a personal choice, but we’d certainly veer towards a general river runner or a full on creek boat. Of course, if you have the roof-rack space then taking a playboat too is great for those play sessions on the Rabioux Wave etc. But if one boat does all then you’ll have a much better time and have more fun on the river in a river runner or creek boat.

A Word of Caution

No matter how many times we visit the French Alps, the speed and power of the water is always a bit of a shock. Even on easier runs the water is fast and eddies can be few (or speed by way to fast). The rivers are generally higher in the afternoons due to the day’s sun melting the snow up high. Take your time. Warm up on a lower grade river than you would normally attempt and get yourself into alpine mode. If you’re going to try something that’s a little pushier than normal. Give yourself plenty of time too; be realistic in your estimations on how long a run will take you. Factor in extra scouting/portaging; allow time to deal with any mishaps… The curfew on the water is six and it’s bad form at best to break this… And no one wants to find themselves at the bottom of an alpine gorge with the sun starting to set.

Running Styles/Group Size

As we’ve mentioned above alpine runs are fast and eddies can be sparse. This means that they are best suited to smaller groups. In our opinion groups from three up to about five work best, maybe six at a push. With this in mind if you are part of a larger group consider splitting into smaller more manageable groups.

Eddy hopping works great on alpine rivers and most runs are predominantly of the read and run, boat scouting variety. Having said that there are occasions where bank scouting, setting safety and portaging are advisable. Be aware of your group and if you’re the lead paddler make sure you always leave plenty of time to grab that eddy a long way before any hazard. Clear river signals are also a must, and five minutes, before you get on to make sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet, can prove invaluable.

OK, that’s enough about what, why when and how… It’s time to hit the rivers!

The Classic Runs and Beyond

If we were to produce a blow by blow account of all the rivers of the South Alps we’d need a book, not a few pages, so the following is to give you a flavour of what to expect and to help you plan your ideal itinerary as you organise your trip. There’s lots of good info on the web, but we’d also highly recommend getting hold of a copy of Whit Water South Alps by Peter Knowles. It’s a few years old now, but it’s still packed with excellent river info.

The Durance

Briançon Gorge Grade 3/4

This section has some fantastic scenery as you paddle around the lower part of Briançon old town. It’s an excellent paddle in high-water and quite solid grade four, but we’d give it a miss in lower water. Get in by turning right down into the valley off the N94 just outside Briançon on the way to Montgenèvre to le Fontenil. The bridge here signifies the get in. The river is rocky and technical with a couple of nice gorges and the guidebook describes it as ‘nice introduction to technical paddling – steep yet forgiving’.

The Durance Gorge Prelles to L’Argentière Grade 4/5

The get in for this alpine test-piece is on river left just below the Prelles Bridge. Once you’re afloat you can expect some good solid action, including some reasonably difficult grade four in higher flows, and three to four in lower. Next, comes the infamous portage. Keep your eyes peeled for the railway tunnel, which marks the portage. Both the tunnel and the portage trail are on the right but it is fairly overgrown, and you really, really don’t want to miss the eddy. The portage on the right bank goes high and may seem scarier than the rapid below, it isn’t! But soon enough the trail leads you back to a good get in. After the excitement of the portage is over the water is a good heavy grade four to for plus depending on level. There are some great ‘named rapids’ such as ‘Slot and Drop and ‘Chicane’ to keep you on your toes, and care should be taken in high water as a portage could be advisable. As you exit the gorge feeling satisfied the river joins the Gyronde on the right and then continues down to L’Argentière where we’d recommend taking out on the right at the slalom course/campsite.

The Sunshine Run part 1 – L’Argentière to St Cléments Grade II

A great section for a warm up, or for paddlers of less experience, although it can become a bit of a drag in low water. Lots of bouncy water, small waves and holes to practice your skills on before you get to the takeout, complete with ice cream and a canoe shop at the take out for St Clément

Sunshine Run Part 2 – St Cléments to Embrum Grade 2/3

A pretty, larger volume section of the river, which is really popular as the first section on a new trip to the Alps, or as a fun run in playboats. It kicks off with some grade two for a bit; before the river becomes bouncier grade three. Soon enough you’ll reach the famous Rabioux Wave, it is a favourite play spot and you’ll probably be greeted with a small crowd of spectators on the bank and an eddy full of hotshot playboaters. This is a great lunch stop, and you can certainly while a few hours away from playing on the wave. After the high action of the Rabioux the river continues with a mix of grade two and three, but with plenty of great eddy lines for tail squirting and cartwheeling, and lots of splat, rock-spin style moves if you’re quick. There’s even the odd tasty play-hole or two to catch on the fly. Soon enough you’ll reach the town of Embrum and the take-out is on the right at the raft take out. Again you can get coffee, beer and ice cream and it has a reasonable canoe shop too.

The Onde Grade 3/4

Many groups choose this as their first alpine run but get caught out by its speed. The main tricky rapid (4) lies right at the start, and t is possible to put in below. But even then at the grade, the little Onde punches above its weight. It’s fast and shallow river and can suffer from nasty tree issues, especially in early season. Small groups are best and despite its grade, it’s not ideal for novices until they have had a chance to warm up on a few of the more forgiving runs, as an extended capsize or swim could be painful. As the saying goes, ‘ I was setting up for a roll and the first thing that went through my mind was a… Rock!’
It can be hard on kit too and we’ve certainly seen a few pairs of paddles bite the dust.

To get to the put in drive up through Valloise towards Les Grésourières, following the road on the left bank. You can park at a wide area by a road bridge over the river leading to a campsite. You can choose to walk over the bridge and carry up to a little to put in on river right and get a short warm up down to the bridge. On river left, just after the bridge, just above the first trick drop, or again on river left just below the drop.

Once the first drop is over the rest of the river is fast moving grade three al the way down to the confluence with the Gyr. Get out on river right, just before below a large road bridge. Don’t try to go down further as there is a nasty barrage lying in wait.

The Gyronde – Grade 3/4 (6)

The river is grade three and four for around three clicks before it passes below a footbridge. Get out on the right after this as soon as you see the next stone bridge and portage the ugly, dangerous and generally unrunnable drop. Follow the small road on the right bank until you see a worn path back down to the river. If you want to push things you can get on straight away, but the drops are manky and we tend to push on and put in a bit lower when things calm down a bit. Once this is passed the river drops down to grade three again. All the way down to L’Argentière. Be careful of a nasty man-made weir about two, or so, kilometres downstream. It has a lot of debris in the base and at higher flows, it forms a very nasty hydraulic with a vicious towback. It has been run and can be sneaked on the left, but we’d recommend opting for the very short portage on the river left bank. From here it’s a cruise down to the confluence with the Durance. Continue down and take out at the slalom course/campsite on river right.

The Gyr – Grade 4/5

One of our personal all-time favourite Alpine runs. A late afternoon blast down the Gyr followed by a cold beer outside the bar overlooking the takeout. This is a run for seasoned paddlers and offers fast furious action from start to finish. It is both incredibly fun (or scary depending on your outlook) and incredibly freezing in equal measure. The later in the day you choose to get on the Gyr, the bigger it will be! In our opinion, if you’re confident, experienced and skilled enough to be getting on the Gyr then the higher the better. We reckon that the best water level is when you can hear the rocks rattling down the riverbed. A surprisingly disconcerting sound! This provides a very fast and furious non-stop grade five-run with hardly any eddies. Be aware though that the nature of the Gyr can change rapidly and hazards can appear and disappear quickly, so drop by drop account would be pointless. Walking up and inspecting the run before you get on (via the river left path) is easy and is highly recommended. If it’s your first descent it will certainly help to decrease the fear and increase the fun. The get in is at the bridge by the holiday complex at Pelvoux, and the get out is immediately above the bridge in Vallouise as there may be reinforcement wires just below this bridge. This river section is quite short, but it is certainly worth the effort and was good fun.

The Guil

Of all the fantastic rivers in the region, the Guil is our absolute favourite. It has it all. From gentle bumbling on it’s very lowest stretch to the drama, challenge and excitement of the Château Queyras and Gorge de L’Ange Gardien gorges, through to the sheer smile-inducing quality of its whitewater laden middle section and its rarely run main gorge, a veritable mini-expedition. We’ve had more excellent alpine days on the Guil than any other river.

The Château Queyras Gorge – Grade 4 +

This, and the Gorge de L’Ange Gardien, which lies below are often seen as test-piece sections, indeed rights of passage into the ranks of the alpine paddler. It can be inspected from river left, from a minor road, with a little bushwacking. We warn you now that the gorge looks horrible from above, because, as we know it is always difficult to judge scale from above. Once to enter the gorge it is tricky and you need to be on your game but it is actually easier than it looks. It is very tight and in places, the width of the gorge isn’t much less than the average riverboat’s length. In may ways it feels a little like being flushed down a U-bend! There is an infamous undercut corner halfway down and care should be exercised, as it is very difficult to protect.

The get in is just past Château Queyras in the shadow of its impressive fortress and the get out is where the river passes under a minor road bridge.

The Gorge de L’Ange Gardien (Guardian Angel Gorge) Grade 4+/5

This section has a reputation and for good reason. It is more Corsican in feel and has many shoots and slide around and over high boulders. It also hides some treacherous siphons and undercuts, and it should be treated with care and respect. If in doubt… Scout. Inspection, and if needed portaging, are usually fairly easy, but with one exception.The get-in is at the road bridge at the end of the Château Queyras gorge. You then get a short warm up to stir before the remains of an old road bridge signal the beginning of the assault. It’s

The get-in is at the road bridge at the end of the Château Queyras gorge. You then get a short warm up to stir before the remains of an old road bridge signal the beginning of the assault. It’s difficult water throughout and there is one ugly looking drop, in a gorged in a section that was impossible to portage and very hard to inspect. It all adds to the adventure though and if you take your time, use good judgement and take care, you’ll be raving about it in the bar that night. The section finishes where you meet the main road again, close to the L’Ange Gardien Bridge.

The Guil – L’Ange Gardien Bridge to Maison du Roy Grade 4 (5)

If the Guil is our favourite river, then this is our favourite section. It starts with a bang at an impressive series of drops known as ‘Triple Step’. You can choose to get in above or below this depending on your mood. It’s trickier than it looks as each drop slows you and pushed to the right and more than one paddler has taken a rinsing in the bottom hole under the infamous ‘Curtain’. From here, in reasonable water levels the section down to the road bridge at La Chapelue is fairly solid four to for plus and from then on is a chunky grade four. With a few drops that call for an inspection, and possibly safety cover. Eventually, you’ll come to a large road tunnel on river right. There used to be a nasty slot rapid here, but flooding has changed the rivers features here considerably. From this point, the river can be paddled without bank inspection by solid groups at grade four and it’s all excellent read and run fun and some good punchy holes until you get to the take out at Maison Du Roy, where the river becomes a lake above the barrage.

Mont Dauphin – Durance Grade 3

A beautiful and picturesque section of the Guil that flows around the back of the Mt. Dauphin rock in a large, open gorge. The get in is at the Pont d’Eygliers and it’s a great section to float, especially for beginners, until you finally meet the confluence with the Durance. From there we’d recommend a bimble down the Durance until you get to St Clements and then take out there.

The Guisane

The Upper – La Casset to Chantemerle Grade 3/4

The get in for the upper is in the village of La Casset, and it begins with some nice rapids around grade three to four mark. If you want you can choose to get on next to some small man-made lakes on the way into La Casset from Briançon.

From La Casset there was about a mile of grade two to three gravel bed type rapids before the river rounds a noticeable right-hand bend and drops into a grade fairly long grade four section at Guibertes, popularly known as ‘S-Bends’. This is easily inspected, protected, or even portaged. But it is relatively easy apart from the initial lead into the rapid. From here the paddling continues at grade three down to the get out on river left at Chantemerle by the roadside car park. It’s a rafting put in, so easy to spot.

The Lower – Chantemerle to Briançon 8km Grade 4 (5)

The get in is the same car park as you tackle out at for the upper. You almost immediately come across a broad bridge with a nasty looking weir at its far end. This is Shelob’s Weir. It can be sneaked on both the left and right sides, but it is manky and has debris at its base, so caution should be used. To inspect or portage, get out above the bridge on river right. A few bouncy rapids follow until you reach the next hazard, a clearly marked large weir, which is usually portaged on the right. This weir has been shot, but it is a bit of a boat wrecker at lower water and has a powerful hole at higher flows. Below the weir the game really begins. The river is now much more continuous and you need to be on your toes. It’s definitely possible to boat scout all the way down, but be careful of tree hazards. In high levels, it’s fantastic fun all the way to the takeout, which is at a road bridge on the way into Briançon.

Info Box

White Water Europe South Alps by Peter Knowles is a must for the dashboard of any Alps-bound vehicle. It is packed with useful information, river guides and some really great maps.