Accommodations and Route
To rejoin the GR5 in Les Houches, leave Chamonix by the main road north of the Arve River, and where this curves left stay right, passing right of a pond onto a trail. You meet the GR5 before Les Houches and cross back over the river at the road bridge in Les Houches. This route requires a climb and descent of about 60 meters (200 feet), and takes less than 2 hours.
Alternatively, you could walk te entire way on lanes on the south side of the Arve river, eventually crossing the main highway, to pick up the GR5 in the center of Les Houches. Easygoers can take a bus from Chamonix to the center of Les Houches, or to either of the two télépheriques mentioned in the next paragraph.
Accomodation South of Chamonix– Plan ahead, or else!
The route Chamonix––La Houches––Contamines-Montjoie––Col de la Croix de Bonhomme is a segment of the Tour of Mount Blanc (TMB). The TMB is very popular and heaviily booked by individuals and tour groups. This Internet site has a list of all the gites and refuges on the Tour of Mount Blanc: http://www.montourdumontblanc.com/fr/index.aspx. Those in Bourg St. Maurice and after are on the latter part of the TMB after it returns to France, oso are not applicable. I have looked at the calendar for many of the gites and refuges. They get booked up. There are also some hotels in Les Contamine-Montjoie, which also can be booked up. Several are rather epensive.
After leaving the TMB, the next refuges are Refuge de Plan de la Lai and Gite de Plan Mya. While mainly available, these can be booked up a few days a month, so plan ahead! The refuge de Presset is much further along and 700 meters higher. It is very heavily booked, and frequently not available.
View from the Hotel de Prarion
The Col de Voza is the first pass you climb on the GR5 after leaving Les Houches (an altitude gain of about 3,000 feet. A 30 minute, 600 feet uphill walk off the GR5 from the Col de Voza up the ridge to the northwest brings you to the Hotel de Prarion. Easygoers have the choice of télépheriques: One to Bellvue, 500 feet above the Col de Voza to the East, the other directly to the Prarion. In good weather, I recommend choosing the telelherique to the Prarion, because of the ambiance and view.
View of Mount Blanc and the Col de Voza from Le Prarion:
The Prarion hotel (with also a dormitory) has a terrace with fantastic views of Mont Blanc in good weather . It is very pleasant to have breakfast, lunch, a drink or a coffee there (or just sit), and observe the mountain and the main climbing route to the summit. Meals are expensive and medicore here according to reviews in 2018. An easy descent of fifteen minutes puts you back on the GR5. From the Col de Voza the GR5 descends 400 meters to the valley floor.
The Col de Tricot Variant of the GR5
The Variant via the Col de Tricot climbs (with three narrow areas over rock secured with cables), descends steeply to a long, swaying, Nepal-like suspension bridge with a floor of wood planks, high above a torrent. (Only one person at a time should be on the bridge, and it should not be used during high wind, thunderstorms, or slipery weather.) From there the trail climbs continuosly about 1500 feet to the Tricot pass, then descends to the Miage valley and climbs another 500 feet before descending again to Les Contamines-Montjoie. This gives a total vertical climb from Les Houches of about 5,000 feet. It is possible to eat and sleep in the Miage valley, which would shorten this long day by an hour and one-half.
Bionnassay Suspension Bridge (click to enarge):
View from the Col de Tricot :
In bad weather you must always choose the main route. Which route to choose in good weather? The views of the Bionassay Glacier and from the Col de Tricot are very good but, in my opinion, not spectacular enough to require the extra effort and time. One could spend some of the time saved on the lawn of the Prarion hotel taking in the view, perhaps with a beverage, and then walk the main route. The photos from the Prarion, of the suspesion bridge, and from the Col de Tricot above may help you decide.
View after Contimines-Montjoie:
The only hotels in the valley are found in les Contamines-Montjoie, so if you wish to stay in one, you will need to remain on the east side of the river, a detour from the GR5. Les Contamines is about 5 hours from Les Houches, and 6 1/2 hours from Chamonix. The Col deTricot variant adds 2 1/2 hours.
On to the Isère River
After the excitement of the Mont Blanc area, the Beaufortain section of the GR5 is calmer and less interesting.
Unless you are willing to walk very long daily distances, it takes three days from Contamines-Montjoie, to reach the Isère, . Your first night will be at the Refuge du col de la Croix du Bonhomme, a 5 1/2 hour walk from les Contamines-Montjoie. The next day you have a choice of refuges: A 6 hour walk brings you to the Refuge of Presset at 2,514 meters, a twenty minute detour off the GR5, in which case your next day is about 5 hours 15 minutes; or you continue on, for a total6 hours 40 minutes of walking to a small private refuge, Chalet of la Balmes. From there it will take you 4 hours to reach hotels in Landry on the Isère, or you may continue to one of the refuges in the northern Vanoise Park.
Lac de Roselend.
Your alternative, to save a day, would be to pass by the Refuge du col de la Croix du Bonhomme, and walk another 2 hours to the Refuge du Plan de la Lai near the Lac de Roselend. The following day, a 7 hour walk from the Plan de la Lai will bring you to a Gîte d’étape at Velezan, a 10 hour walk will bring you to a hotel at Bellentre, or in another 45 minutes you can reach the Isère at Landry.
The GR 5 in the Vanoise Park
The two IGN 1:25,000 maps that cover most of the Vanoise park are 3534OT and 3536ET. There is also a map that may be bought locally that covers the entire park, as well as hiking guides.
Bushwhacking above the Entre-les-Lac Refuge to regain the GR5:
The 6,200 foot climb up along the Ponturin stream from Landry on the Isère River at 777 meters (2500 feet) to the Col du Palet at 2, 652 meters (8,700 feet) provides an excellent lesson in Alpine ecozones. One has a choice of Refuges along the way. The view from the Col du Palet is panoramic, but as you descend to the east you have a clearer look at the less than attractive valley below containing the ski-resorts of Val Claret and Tignes.
You now choose between the 2 days shorter, higher level GR55 variant (you can detour through the town of Tignes first if need be), or the longer GR5. The author has walked the GR55 route, which was lovely isolated high valleys with glacier views, and also a part of passed through GR5 route as far as Val d’ Isère, which was also lovely, strewn with wild flowers. The glaciers appear once you cross the col d’Isèran, the highest on the GR5 If you take this route, overnight in Val d’Isère, and prepare for the subsequent long day across the 9,000 foot Iseran Pass to Bessans, or a shorter day to Bonneval-sur-Arc (followed the next day by a stretch along GR5E to Bessans).
The southern Vanoise Park is a beautiful and popular area, strewn with steep glaciers. On the GR5 these are the last glaciers that you will see up close, so I don’t recommend descending to the valley..
Refuges in the southern Vanoise are few, and usually booked up well in advance. So are the towns in the valley below! Plan ahead! Unless you are exhausted or tired of mountain views, or can’t find a refuge spot, try to avoid the valley route, the GR5E.
Modane—a 1,200 meter (4,000 foot) drop from the main Vanoise trail—is the least attractive town along the GR5. The railway station lies a couple of kilometers west of the center of town, and is only four hours distant from Paris by TGV, on the main railway route from Paris to Rome, .
The GR 5 from Modane to Briançon
What comes down goes up! Your first day out of Modane you will be climbing 1,350 meters (4,400 feet in 5 hours, and staying either in the Refuge du Mont Thabor at 2,500 meters, or two hours further along (in France) at the Italian Alpine Club Refuge de la Vallée Etroite at 1,765 meters.
From the Vallée Etroite refuge, you can continue down the hill on GR 57A to Bardonecchia. Trains from Rome to Paris stop here, before the Frejus tunnel to Modane. It takes 4 1/2 hours by train to Paris.
There are three routes of the GR5 from here to Briançon. The GR5B passes on an exciting, precipitous rocky outcropping with stupendous views into Italy. The problem—assuming you are coming from the Vallée Etroite—is that to continue on to the next place with lodging, Montgenèvre, takes 10 1/2 hours. Or one has to double back an hour to Plampinet, in about 7 1/2 hours total.
From the Vallée Etroite, the main GR 5 route reaches the Clarée Valley in 3 hours , and one has a choice of a hotel in the “basse ville” of nearby Névache, a gîte d’étape in Névache village, or of a gîte d’étape or hotel in Plampinet, one hour further on GR5. If you are planning on the GR5C, you will want to stay in Névache.
Since this day can be on the short side if you don’t follow the GR5B I recommend you take the detour to the Aiguille Rouge at 2,545 meters, with an excellent view towards the glaciated Ecrins mountain massif and, in the other direction, into Italy. Briefly take GR5B; then, in a kilometer, turn left and climb back northwards to the peak. Afterwards, there is no need to retrace your steps on GR5B. Rather, continue along GR5B in the same direction you were going before, and at the point that GR5B reverses direction to head back north, take the GR 57 instead downwards. This crosses the highway to Col de l’Echelle. If you are going to Névache, turn right, and walk down the highway (low traffic) for a kilometer; where this bears left, continue straight on a dirt road that leads into Névache. If you are going to Plampinet, cross the highway, and continue straight on the GR 57 trail.
On the GR5 from Plampinet you can walk to Montgenèvre (with several hotels and all services) in about 6 hours, and to Briançon in 2 1/2 hours more.
The GR5C is surely the most spectacular route to Briançon, but it is also 8 hours long and very exposed. Despite what one book says, it does not require mountaineering skills. Do not attempt the GR5C if you have acrophobia, or if the forecast calls for bad weather; and do start very early in the morning. I found this variant quite sensational, with many long views. The panorama from the Croix de Toulouse is stupendous. The final steep descent of 700 meters (2,300 feet) to Briançon is thrilling; it passes through many military fortifications and provides an almost continuous birds-eye view of the town below..
Do not pass Briançon by; it is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of your GR5 trip. The nearest Gîte d’Étape to Briançon is located in L’Envers-du-Fontenil, one-half hour above the upper town. If your budget permits, do stay in a hotel in the “Cité Vauban”, the walled upper city of Briançon that was a military bastion, and take a rest day. The lower city is fine, and has more services, but lacks charm.