Winter holidays in France

When it comes to exciting winter holidays in France, Sally Guillaume is leader of the pack.

Two or three times a year, in company with an expert tracker and her high mountain guide husband Bernard, she leads a small group of lupine aficionados into the Alps in search of wolves.
“It’s very rare to actually see the wolves,” says Sally, founder of our France activity holidays partner Undiscovered Mountains. “It’s more about the fun of tracking them in the snow and learning about them. Because we can see their footprints easily we can say whether they’re on the hunt or at play.”
Undiscovered Mountains’ wolf tracking holidays are some of their most popular trips and they invariably fill up, such is the passion they inspire in wildlife enthusiasts. Group sizes are limited to around six or seven people so as not to disturb the animals in the wilderness. The financial benefits of ‘wolf tourism’ also help to convince local people – who are not always in favour of having large, clever predators in the area – that their presence is worthwhile.
“The wolves being here is a very controversial and interesting subject,” agrees Sally, “and we explore both sides of the argument. Most farmers are against them and there’s a big anti-wolf movement, which we discuss, and we meet a farmer who explains the issues objectively, explains the government compensation scheme for farms affected by wolves, and introduces his guard dogs. We also know a naturalist photographer who has spent years tracking the wolves trying to film them.”

Authenticity and flexibility

Sally, Bernard and family live and work on the outskirts of the idyllic and relatively lesser-known Ecrins National Park. “You’re not in a big purpose-built ski resort here. Instead, you’re staying in family-owned and run gîtes or hotels in small villages, with a real French alpine ambience. I think that sense of authenticity is key with our trips.”

Authenticity is important, but so too is flexibility. In the winter, your activities are dependent on what the weather is doing far more than with summer holidays. Sally says: “We have that indispensable local knowledge, so we can quickly adapt when the weather doesn’t cooperate – if the snow’s not there, for instance – and switch to an alternative but similar activity.”

There is no shortage of thrilling winter activities here, some of which may surprise you, and none of which are anything as destructive to the natural environment as the downhill skiing industry.

Our winter holidays in France take place mostly in the south-east of the country, in Ecrins National Park and the nearby Queyras Regional Natural Park. While snowshoeing or cross country skiing here, you may see chamois or ibex off in the distance, golden eagles in the skies above, and you may even hear the occasional howl of an alpine wolf. You’ll travel with companies that make a point of hiring local guides to lead their groups, that are engaged with the issues of the communities they work in, and passionate about creating holidays that are fun and memorable but low-impact. And they’ll always have a recommendation on what to choose from the menu.

“I suggest trying génépi, the classic local drink distilled from a high-altitude flower picked in summer,” advises Sally. “Food-wise, you’ll see tourtons everywhere, which are delicious fried pastry squares with sweet or savoury fillings. And the local lamb is excellent, of course.”

When to take a winter holiday in France

The main season for winter mountain activities in France is between November and April; the higher you go, the snowier and colder you’ll find it. From December onwards the snow should be falling heavily, and midway through the season it will be getting cold enough for waterfalls to freeze, allowing ice climbing.

If you’re hoping to join Sally Guillaume on her popular wolf tracking holidays, though, look at going towards the start or end of the winter season. “Due to the logistics involved, we run the wolf tracking holidays just two or three times each year. Timing is important in winter, when their enormous territory has been reduced by snowfall, so you’re more likely to find them and tracking becomes easier, but it’s not such heavy snow that you can’t get around easily.”

Where to go on winter holidays in France 

Ecrins National Park is one of the largest national parks in France, yet it happily remains off the beaten track for the most part. Local guides will often explain the fragile habitat here, and the wildlife that inhabits it, as you go along. Given that in the depths of the winter you’ll often have the trails entirely to yourselves, you’ll have no trouble following the conversations. Accommodations vary from luxurious renovated farmhouses to classic French mountain hotels and wooden chalets ideally located for getting out and about in the park with ease.
Other winter holidays in France might see you based in the mountainous Queyras Regional Nature Park, on the French-Italian border. With many lovely alpine villages and large, modern refuges, Queyras is perfect for snowshoeing holidays from Saint Veran, and ski touring.
We generally don’t promote downhill skiing, because so many resorts rely on unsustainable artificial snow – but if that’s your thing then consider the Chamonix Valley. Families love a rustic, ski-in, ski-out property that can easily be reached by car or train rather than flying, and is particularly fantastic for anyone with accessibility requirements.

Our top Winter Holiday

Alternative family winter holiday in Chamonix, France

Alternative family winter holiday in Chamonix, France

Easter family ski, yoga & circus holiday

From £835 7 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2022: 12 Feb, 19 Feb
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Winter or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Winter holiday activities in France 

There’s a fantastic range of unusual winter activities in the French Alps that go far beyond the downhill skiing and boarding that dominate. Wolf tracking is perhaps the most unique, but you might join a small group tour for a week of snowshoeing or ski touring in Ecrins National Park. Led by a local high mountain guide who will be able to escort you safely well off-piste beyond waymarked routes, you’ll have the time of your life in pristine landscapes blanketed with snow, the only tracks ahead of you those left by animals.

Ski touring requires you to be a competent intermediate with some degree of off-piste experience. For snowshoeing, you will be travelling over flat terrain for the most part, but with the occasional steep ascent, so although regular hikers should be fine, getting in some extra training beforehand will be helpful.
Not all activities lend themselves to a full week. Winter activity weeks allow you to create an itinerary that suits your interests, trying a wide range of experiences, as Sally Guillaume explains: “Our tailor made holidays use an activity points system. So you get a certain amount of credits, and can buy more as well. The credits are used against activities of your choice that might last a day or half a day, or just a few hours. You choose what you want to do.”
So one day you might learn how to snowshoe or cross country ski, but the next you might use ice axes and crampons to climb a frozen waterfall, learn how to build an igloo, or mush your pack on a husky sled ride.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Axel Antas-Bergkvist] [Intro: AlbertHerring] [Where to go : Quentin Lagache] [Activities: Joris Berthelot]