Whitewater Kayaking in Hautes-Alpes (Briançon)

Whitewater Kayaking in Hautes-Alpes (Briançon)

20/05/2022 0 By WetandMucky

Briançon a base for adventure

View across Briancon

If you are considering a Whitewater Kayaking trip to the Alps, here’s some useful information. The Hautes-Alpes make up the area of mountains to the southeast of Grenoble. To the east lies the Italian border and to the south, the Alpes de Provence. The region is dissected by the Durance Valley, with the Parc National des Écrins to the west and the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras on the east. At the head of the Durance valley, where the Guisane and Durance rivers converge, is the ancient fortified city of Briançon which is the perfect location for exploring the delights and adventures of the surrounding area.  It is also one of the most popular areas for Whitewater Kayaking, particularly amongst visitors from the UK.

Picturesque walled city of Vauban (Briancon Old Town)
Picturesque walled city of Vauban (Briancon Old Town)

Getting there

Our group generally drives from the UK, with a couple of people that have flown in to join the party at later dates.  The French autoroutes have great service stations and lots of roadside rest and picnic points, with most having clean and well maintained public toilets. The scenery from Grenoble to Serre Chevalier is stunning; mountains, waterfalls, forests and glaciers. We have always crossed the Channel by ferry as it breaks up the journey and gives the opportunity to have a hot meal before the long stint of motorway driving.  However the Eurotunnel is a time saving option if you don’t want to eat on the ferry.

Remember to check the rules for driving in Europe before you depart, you will need to carry Hi-Viz vests for all passengers, Euro spec breathalysers, a full spare bulb kit for your vehicle and you must carry your V5c or VE103 if in a hire or leased vehicle.  You may also need to buy a Crit’air ticket for driving through some cities and regions, don’t forget your driving licence and to fit headlamp deflectors if required for your vehicle (most models do require them) – These items can be bought at the Ferry port or Tunnel, but it’s cheaper to get them sorted before you leave.

Don’t forget, the autoroutes are toll roads, you will need to pay at various checkpoints along the route – expect to budget around 100-120EUR each way, slightly more if you go through the Fréjus tunnel, the toll stations have a choice of cash or card lanes, don’t get caught out in the wrong lane or you will hear the wrath of French horns!

Here’s a brief guide to driving out:

From the Dunkerque or Calais ferry ports or Eurotunnel hub, head for the following major cities in turn: Reims, Dijon, Lyon, Grenoble, then for Briançon.  The drive is pretty flat and monotonous for much of the first few hours, but the views across expanses of rolling fields is pleasant enough, once you hit Lyon and turn towards the mountains the roads become gradually narrower and more winding, the views are breath-taking as you get closer to your destination.

What to expect

After hours of driving through France and only seeing French or European registrations don’t be too surprised to roll into Briancon and see a plethora of UK vehicles on the river banks – it’s like Mecca for paddlers. 

If you are new to Alpine paddling some things to be aware of are:

  • The water is cold! Yes it may be 30 degrees and sunny up top, but the rivers are either snow or glacier melt and will be shockingly cold – dress for the swim, not the paddle, you may look cool in just a BA and board shorts but you will regret it if you take a dip.
  • The water will seem a lot faster than many UK rivers you may have paddled before, swimming on some rivers can mean long boat chases and difficult scrambles to get re-united with your kit so brush up your rescue skills before you go
  • It is here that you realise that rivers run downhill – sounds obvious but it still takes your breath away to jump on the Gyronde, Onde, Guil or Lower Guisane and realise you are looking VERY downhill…
Looking UP the river - Whitewater Kayaking the Middle Guil
Middle Guil – looking “uphill”
  • Don’t forget your sunscreen – arms, face, ears, hands and legs, 20 minutes standing around waiting for shuttles with no shade will soon punish you if you have forgotten.

Suggested Rivers

It’s good to start on the “easier” rivers to warm up and acclimatize to the conditions and hone your skills, you will notice how different it feels to UK paddling, here’s some suggestions for the first couple of days:

Durance – Briancon to Prelles – Grade 2/2+ – A perfect first run of the holiday, we often do it the first afternoon we arrive, it’s a short shuttle and an ideal introduction without being too stout.

Lower Durance – Sun Run, St-Clement to Embrun – Grade 3-/3+ – An introduction to bigger volume river running, this river is wide with big bouncy wave trains and minimal eddies.  Also taking in the classic playspots of Rabioux Wave and Embrun Wave, both have played host to international freestyle competitions – worth inspecting before you run them for the first time

Upper Guisane – Le Casset to Chantmerle – Grade 3 (4-) – Fast flowing, real alpine feel and cold, continuous fun and lots to keep you entertained.  Inspect the S-bend rapid first and know where to get out, this section won’t be for everyone, 700m of continuous fast Grade 4ish with little to no eddies, for those not running it take the long portage down the road and join back up just above the bridge over the river, get out near the car park in Chantmerle, inspect the get-out first as the eddies are tight and below here you will be into the Lower Guisane which is a very different river and the difficulty steps up considerably.

Upper Durance – Briancon Gorge – Le Fontenil to Briancon – Grade 3 – Superb and continuous fun water with the slide and drop at the barage being a great photo opportunity.  Shortly after you enter the short gorge section, look up to the picturesque bridge and the old town high above before running alongside the town park, beware the broken weir worth spotting your line before you run it, get out River right after the confluence with the Guisane near the big road layby.

After you’ve hit up these classics you will have a good idea of what the region has to offer, feel free to explore the other local rivers and spread out from there.  Drive over Col d’Izoard to the Guil valley for some fantastic runs, also worth a full day excursion over Col du Vars to the Ubaye Valley for some more classic sections, the Ubaye Racecourse is an excellent Grade 4 run, finishing near a beautiful mountain lake to chill out and take a cold dip before heading back along the banks of Lac-de-Serre-Poncon towards Embrun and it’s selection of restaurants – Chez Berulo in Savines-le-Lac for metre Pizza being our regular stop – yes pizza, by the metre!!

Entrance rapid to the Ubaye Les Thuiles - Whitewater Kayaking
Entrance Rapid (Class 4) Ubaye – Les Thuiles

Other Activities

If you feel the need for a day off kayaking there are plenty of other activities to do.  Whilst in the Guil Valley it’s well worth visiting Vincent near Chateau Queyras and booking a Rafting trip through the Chateau Q and Guardian Angel gorges, and down to Triple Step – a truly exhilarating experience, and a chance to run some Grade 4+/5/6 features that you may otherwise not have the skills to tackle in a kayak.

We have also taken time out for Mountain Biking – being a ski resort there are some world class downhill parks utilising the ski lifts to get to the top, you will need a Full Suspension bike, full face helmet and body armour – all available to hire at the local shops. For a full on downhill experience head to Serre Chevalier bike park or to Montgenevre near the Italian border.  If you want something slightly less hardcore but just as exhilarating it’s worth getting a car to drop you off at Col du Galibier, then riding off road all the way back to Briancon over 20km of downhill off road tracks through a stunning valley.  There are also gentler paths alongside many of the valley rivers for the less extreme riders, the path alongside the Lower Guisane is beautiful and perfect for scouting the river.

Col Du Galibier - 2642m - Looking down Serre Chevalier towards Briancon - Mountain Biking
Col Du Galibier – 2642m – Looking down Serre Chevalier towards Briancon

Other options include Via Ferrata, Rock Climbing, Paragliding, Glacier Walking, Hiking, High Ropes Courses, Aquaparks and probably just about any other adventure sport you can think of, the whole area is truly an adventure playground.

Via Ferrata
Via Ferrata near Monetier Les Bains

Via Ferrata

There are a number of these ‘iron ways’ in the area, clipped to a safety line, you can climb sheer rock faces using a mix of rock holds and metal staples or cross epic hanging bridges, with routes ranging in difficulty from easy and family-friendly to expert. For more details check out the FREE App created by Rob Benton of Ecrins Collective.

The app is available on Apple or Android.

Rob also offers a range of guided activities in the area, so please contact him if you are looking to expand your adventurous experience in and around Briancon.

Where to stay

There are numerous camp sites around the area with excellent facilities but our group has always preferred slightly more luxury – don’t be put off though, it’s more affordable than you may think.  Being predominantly a ski resort, summer is considered the off-season for the area so accommodation can be picked up very reasonably, especially when the costs are split amongst a group, it’s not unusual to be able to find a whole ski chalet with facilities including sauna, hot tub, etc for around 20-30EUR per person per night, check out some of the options available here:

Booking.com

Travel Insurance

As any traveller knows plans don’t always work out as you might expect so it’s worth making sure you take out the right travel insurance. Most regular travel insurance will not cover adventurous sports and you could find yourself being injured and not covered! 

Make sure you take out specialist sports cover before you travel – I have used Sportscover Direct for all of my alpine trips, the website is easy to navigate and the rates are very competitive.  They have a full list of sports which are categorised into groups, you don’t have to specify every sport your will be doing as each sport in that group and all groups below is automatically covered, just make sure that your most highest risk sport is covered.  For kayaking make sure you have sufficient cover for the grades of river you will be running.  Check out the prices here:

Sports Travel Insurance

Guiding

Historically many UK kayak coaches and guides ran trips out to the Alps, but since Brexit, there have been changes to working in Europe and now providers’ qualifications must be recognised by the French authorities with a Licence (Carte Pro) and they must hold a work permit to operate commercially.  There are still a small number of professional operators in the UK who run trips but far fewer than a few years ago.  There are however plenty of excellent local operators who run commercial guiding and coaching trips (see Ecrins Collective above) so don’t be afraid to check them out and support the local economy.

Also, don’t forget to take your bible – White Water South Alps by Peter Knowles and Ian Beecroft – Click the image to buy your guide:


I hope you found this information useful, it is by no means an exhaustive guide but a collection of pointers picked up over our years of visiting the area.

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