Whether you are planning on visiting the Alps for a winter snow holiday, a walking holiday to photograph Alpine flowers or a family summer activity holiday, the weather and local conditions can make or break your trip. Here are a few tips to make the most of the different seasons in the Alps.
The winter snow starts to melt around April time, starting at the lower altitudes and gradually working it’s way up to around 3000m by June. In general the last snowfalls happen around the end of April but you can be surprised with a dump, even at low altitudes in May. This is a spectacular time of year as the first flowers come out, the hibernating animals wake up and the rivers are full to bursting with white water rapids.
It is ideal for walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers, flower and nature enthusiasts and kayakers, rafters and other white water sport lovers. The optimum month for these activities is around June. The weather is usually quite warm but not too hot, and enough snow will have melted for the rivers and flowers to be in their prime. June is also the month where the majority of the high road cycling cols are officially cleared for cycling.
In the high mountains, many of the refuges, that were closed for the winter open around mid June, making mountaineering summits possible.
As the summer arrives, the weather becomes more stable, especially in the Southern Alps, with pretty much guaranteed sunshine. However, the heat also generates dramatic thunder storms in the mountains and many a summer evening can be spent being entertained watching an electric storm striking the mountains around you.
The Southern French Alps in and around Gap has the sunniest weather as it gets the Mediterranean climate and boasts 300 days of sunshine per year. As you go further north the weather is more unpredictable. The warm sunny days are perfect for pretty much all activities, with rock climbing, canyoning, mountaineering, tree climbing, walking, paragliding, kayaking, swimming in lakes, via ferrata, biking…. and more all possible.
The water levels will gradually drop over the summer as the snow stocks melt, making white water slightly tamer and more canyons accessible (these are usually too dangerous in the big melt water period).
As the summer draws to an end, the thunder storms are less frequent and though the days can still be warm, the evenings are noticeably cooler. Campers will need a warm jacket! This makes September and October perfect for walking, climbing, mountain and road biking. As October draws to a close, the weather becomes noticeably cooler and in November the first snowfalls will arrive and it’s time to start thinking of winter sports again!
The French pastime of mushroom hunting is in its prime in October and this is also the time of year for Autumn leaves. The light in the Autumn is spectacular with none of the summer heat haze – just deep blue skies and the Autumn sun. For photographers – it is ideal. It is a quiet time to visit the Alps so for those searching for a bit of tranquillity.
One thing to be aware of is ‘la chasse’. Hunting is a hugely popular sport in the Alps and the season is Autumn so if you do visit at that time of year, don’t be alarmed if you come across armed men in fluorescent orange jackets stalking in the woods!
The snow starts falling in November and December and starts to make its presence permanent in higher altitudes by mid December when most ski resorts will open. This becomes more established as the winter season progresses. In general the best powder is in January when temperatures are colder and the days are shorter. Snow cover is usually very good at all altitudes so lower level sports like cross country skiing are also good.
An important calendar event to know about when planning your winter holiday is the French school holidays. They span for a whole month from around the 7th February to 7th March. This is when the French go skiing and it is the busiest time of year in resorts, on the pistes, on the roads… and in general is best avoided if possible.
March is usually good for skiing and ski touring with a generally good stable snow pack and longer sunny days. Towards the end of March the days warm up and for lower slopes and south facing slopes the snow will become more ‘springlike’ and slushy, gradually melting as spring arrives! Most ski resorts close between the end of March and end of April.
Sally Guillaume is Director at Undiscovered Alps.