Super Alpine

46.0780° N, 6.8376° E

Cirque Du Fer à Cheval

A horseshoe of mountains at the end of the Giffre valley

Haute Savoie, France

Cirque Du Fer à Cheval

Leaving the A40 motorway you would be forgiven for thinking unspoilt nature was just a dream. The town of Cluses is the gateway for the massive frontier busting Portes du Soleil ski area and the, albeit smaller, Grand Massif ski area. We leave cosmopolitan Cluses behind and head down the Giffre Valley — which The Financial Times called ‘France’s hidden valley’ in 2013. It doesn’t seem that hidden today.

We are staying on the D907 all the way to its end passing through ever-expanding villages until passing Samoens. Things quiet down, especially out of season. Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval is the last village on the Giffre river and in Autumn we only have a couple of road cyclists to fight for the last croissant in the patisserie. Thankfully they are easily diverted into more calorific produce.

Sheep grazing on the slopes

The final piece of the D907 is single track crisscrossing the river, the asphalt becomes less interesting for the local workforce to maintain before disappearing at a rough and ready parking area. The horseshoe was already apparent before leaving the road. In fact, you can Google Street View you way right up to it. Disappointing really.

On arrival, you are almost surrounded by limestone cliffs forming a natural amphitheatre that allows for nearly 360-degree views. The second-largest ‘Cirque’ in France, this oddly named nature reserve has over 30 waterfalls descending its 700m escarpments and is looked down upon by peaks rising to 3000m.

It doesn’t look particularly wild as this dry Autumn has turned the taps off many of the waterfalls and the nature reserves chalet doesn’t seem short of visitors. Busy through the summer season, the reserve’s chalet stages exhibitions on the local flora and fauna and its adaptation to these high altitudes. The waterfalls are a major attraction during the summer months when the snows melt.

Heading down the valley on foot it becomes quiet, with only the odd hiker for company. Among the natural landscape, farming is still undertaken with sheep and goats often found on its slopes. It’s an out and back trail to the end taking around 1.5 hours so any diversion off the main trail is welcomed.

Pic de Tenneverge

It’s an easy hike with nothing around but the walls of the valley. The river is a constant companion. At the far end of the reserve Pic de Tenneverge looks back down the valley and it’s furthest point the reserve touches Switzerland. The horseshoe also backs onto the Chamonix valley and is clearly visible from Brevent and Aiguille du Midi on a good day.

In its own way, it’s a little like Yellowstone. A tiny, tiny version. It’s mostly untouched nature, spoilt only by the people who come to see it.