Ubaye Valley – An Active Holiday Guide
The Ubaye Valley in the Alpes de Haute-Provence takes its name from the Ubaye river which carves a steep course for 70 km from the Italian border to the stunning Lac de Serre-Ponçon. The D900 road follows the river’s meandering course opening up access routes to an outdoor sports paradise nestled between the Alps and Provence.
The Ubaye Valley is rich in history offering an authentic cultural experience and an insight into Alpine life of a bygone era when the inhabitants moved around using a network of mountain trails. These trails now provide hikers and bikers with access to some incredible terrain.
The geography of the Ubaye Valley is pretty unique in that the south facing slopes are dry and rocky and the north facing slopes are humid and forested. Despite having 3000 m mountains, a major river system, lakes and forests, the Ubaye Valley is not as developed for tourism as other areas in Provence and is quiet, beautiful, inexpensive and well-suited to outdoor sports enthusiasts. There’s a lot of great wilderness to explore and if you’re looking for an active holiday in France, the Ubaye Valley is hard to beat.
Ubaye Valley Highlights
The only commune in France with 30 mountain peaks over 3000 m, Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye is a Mecca for mountaineers. Located right on the border with Italy, it is crossed by the GR5, the GR6 and the Via Alpina long distance hiking trail which runs from Trieste to Monaco. The trail through the hamlet of Fouillouse at the foot of the Chambeyron Mountain is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque sections.
Strategically situated between the Alpes de Haute-Provence and the Hautes-Alpes departments, Pontis overlooks the Lac de Serre-Ponçon and the confluence of the Ubaye and Durance rivers. The village’s narrow roads are bordered by charming stone walls and wind their way up to a lookout to reveal a breathtaking view over the dam and the largest man-made lake in Europe. Don’t miss the Morgonnet walking trail for its views over the lake, or a refreshing swim in the lake at Savines-le-Lac.
Passing through a dramatic landscape of tiny, irregular fields backed by the jagged silhouettes of 3000 m mountains, you’ll reach immaculate Little Barcelona or Barcelonnette which shares cultural links beyond just its name with both Spain and Mexico. Picture sunny squares and restaurant terraces backed by views of snow-capped mountains. Although snow falls here from December to April and there are several ski resorts nearby, summer is the main tourist season. Barcelonnette is a jumping off point for active holidays in the Mercantour National Park and adventurous activities throughout the Ubaye Valley and you’ll find tour operators and guides for everything from whitewater rafting to tandem paragliding. Don’t miss the market in Place du Gravier on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, or a nice lunch sitting outside at one of the many restaurants lining Place Manuel.
The highest town in the Ubaye Valley, Val-d’Oronaye is known for its Nordic skiing with 30 km of cross-country ski pistes extending to the beautiful Lauzanier valley. In summer, don’t miss a hike up to the Roburent or Oronaye lakes, or a cycle over the Col de Larche to the Lac de la Magdelena a few hundred metres beyond the Italian border.
The mountain resort of Pra-Loup near Uvernet-Fours is a year round outdoor sports hot spot. Skiing, mountain biking, paragliding, climbing and hiking are all on offer. Around the village of Uvernet a series of natural beaches along the Bachelard River offer a great opportunity for a refreshing swim. Mountain bikers don’t miss the 14 km enduro trail from Pra-Loup to Barcelonnette.
Famous for its Roman bridge and fort built on a cliff overlooking the lake, Le Lauzet is also a centre for outdoor activities. Don’t miss the mountain bike trails around the lake, the canyoning in the Ravin de la Blache, or the rock climbing at La Roche where you’ll find 25 sports routes between 4c and 7c. To organise a canyoning or rock climbing trip around Le Lauzet, contact Vertical Ubaye.
Nice Côte d'Azur (2 h 53 min)
Pharmacie Bureau, 46 Rue Manuel, 04400 Barcelonnette.
La Poste, Place Paul Reynaud, 04400 Barcelonnette.
Taxi Station, Place Aimé Gassier, 04400 Barcelonnette.
Outdoor Activities in the Ubaye Valley
Bathed in sunshine for much of the year, the Ubaye Valley is a Mecca for outdoor sports enthusiasts. From Le Lauzet to Maljasset, and the whitewater of the Ubaye to the 3000 m peaks of the Mercantour National Park, the dramatic landscape holds untold possibilities for rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing and paragliding. And, the vast Lac de Serre-Ponçon, with its thermal winds that are so reliable you can set your watch by them, is one of France’s top kitesurfing destinations.
Rafting and Kayaking in the Ubaye Valley
The Ubaye is one of Europe’s classic whitewater rivers, an unspoilt and natural flowing river with surprisingly warm water. The river carves a steep course from the border with Italy to the Lac de Serre Ponçon and a trip down the river is a great way to experience the region, whilst at the same time getting a good soaking!
Whitewater rafting on the Ubaye with IBAYAK Rafting | © IBAYAK Rafting
The Ubaye is the only major river system in the southern French Alps that has escaped damming and is naturally fed with run-off from the Monte Viso Massif. As a result, you can paddle the river every day from spring through to autumn making it a hot-spot for river runners. The natural flow means that water levels change with the seasons; high water is experienced with spring snow melt and after heavy rain, and floodwater can alter the river’s course. So, river runners need to be flexible and adapt to conditions on the day.
Commercial rafting on the Haute Ubaye is possible in spring during high water. The put-in is at the bottom end of the Saint-Paul sur Ubaye gorge and the descent begins with fast flowing boulder strewn rapids and runs through La Condamine and some easier class 3 water all the way to Jausiers.
Below Jausiers the paddling becomes more straightforward with one class 3 rapid. After Barcelonnette the river widens with easy gravel bar rapids down to Les Thuiles. This easy section of river is a good high water alternative if the Upper Ubaye is too full on. In summer, the rafting companies use the section for hot dog kayaking.
From La Thuile the paddling gets interesting again, the river gets progressively steeper and narrower and the gravel bars are replaced with boulders. It’s this section that draws kayakers from all over the world. Further down the spectacular Ubaye Gorge can be classed anything from 4 to 5+ depending on the water level and should only be attempted by very competent kayakers.
Rafting & Kayaking on the Ubaye | Go >
Book a Rafting or Kayaking Trip
Rock Climbing in the Ubaye Valley
With it’s jagged limestone peaks reaching up to 3000 m, the Ubaye Valley offers plenty of opportunity for rock climbing.
Trad climbers can choose from several legendary peaks at elevations as high as 3400 metres. For climbers who prefer bolted routes, the Ubaye Valley has 3 designated climbing sites, La Roche, Saint Paul sur Ubaye and Meyronnes, which combined have over 140 sports routes from 4a to 8b.
Book a Climbing Trip
Canyoning in the Ubaye Valley
The ravines branching off from the Ubaye gorge offer some of the best canyoning in the South of France.
Canyoning at La Blache in the Ubaye Valley | © OT Alpes de Haute-Provence
Book a Canyoning Trip
Mountain Biking in the Ubaye Valley
Breath in the fresh Alpine air and take on the mountain bike trails of the Ubaye Valley. Whatever style of riding you’re into, XC, Enduro or downhill, the Ubaye Valley has a trail to suit.
Hitting a jump in the Pra Loup Bikepark | © praloup.com
From Pontis to Larche more than 340 km of FFC waymarked trails criss-cross the valley, and the epic Transubayenne trail stretches 100 km from east to west taking in the best of the region either from the Col de Vars or the Col de Larche on the Italian border to the Lac de Serre-Ponçon.
Official cross-country MTB routes are waymarked on rocks, trees and posts, etc. An arrow indicates the direction to follow and the number refers to the FFC trail map. The difficulty from easy to very difficult is indicated by colours green, blue, red, black. Pink represents the Transubayenne.
Pra Loup is the main downhill mountain biking area in the Ubaye valley with fast and technical trails. From the 04 July to the 30 August, the resort’s main gondola brings you swiftly to 2000 m where you can access 5 downhill tracks and the bikepark. The trails are generally bone dry throughout the summer and you’ll notice that locals know how to handle a bike through a dusty berm!
Mountain biking in Pra Loup | Go >
Beyond the waymarked trails and downhill tracks, with a bit of effort you can access some incredible high Alpine terrain and design your own ride on remote singletrack that locals have used for hundreds of years to cross the mountains. This type of riding is epitomised in Hans Rey and Dan Atherton’s descent of the 3320 m Pointe d’Aval in the film Summit Hunters:
Ice Climbing in the Ubaye Valley
Despite its reputation for bright sunshine, the Ubaye Valley is one of the coldest valleys in France and as a result, from as early as the 20 November, the first waterfalls freeze. These tend to be north facing, high altitude falls such as Vallon de Mary, Pré des Fabres and Vautreuil.
Mountain guide, Daniel Granier, leads an ice climb in the Ubaye Valley | © ubaye.com
The Ubaye Valley’s early season cold temperatures means the ice climbing sites are accessible relatively easily in December and January before the big February snowfall arrives and the La Bonette and La Cayolle cols are closed to traffic. Another early season bonus is that the avalanche risk tends to be lower than later in the season. From about the middle of March onwards, freeze-thawing is more frequent, and the nights often aren’t cold enough to re-solidify the ice.
It’s important to remember as well that conditions will vary greatly between each site, with low altitude ice climbs like the Gorges de Bachelard succumbing earlier to freeze thaw conditions. Warmer temperatures doesn’t necessarily mean that the ice isn’t climbable, but you will need to check with local guides on the stability of the ice on the day.
Icefalls like La Bérarde near Saint Christophe en Oisans are renowned for their reliable ice. Others sites Sauze, Gourette or Les Enfers are known for their high flow and possibility of ice columns forming, sometimes up to 600 vertical metres. In general, all the ice climbs in the Ubaye Valley are very accessible and because the area isn’t as well known for ice climbing as other parts of the Alps, you’ll meet relatively few other climbers.
WARNING: Ice climbing requires very specific technical knowledge. Employ the services of a qualified guide and never climb alone.
Skiing and Snowboarding in the Ubaye Valley
The terrain in the Ubaye Valley isn’t as steep as resorts in the northern Alps and lends itself to mellow pistes, fantastic tree runs and easy lifts. The resorts are also less crowded than big resorts further north and if powder is your thing, you’ll find plenty of easily accessible off-piste that doesn’t get tracked out in the first 5 minutes.
Skiers and boarders up for another run in Val d’Allos | © verdontourisme.com
Local ski resorts include Pra-Loup, Sainte-Anne 1800, La Condamine, Le Sauze 1700, Jausiers, Vars and Val d’Allos. During the ski season a free bus does the rounds of the resorts from Barcelonnette. Pra-Loup’s pistes link up with Val d’Allos. Cross country skiers should head to Val-d’Oronaye with 30 km of pistes extending to the beautiful Lauzanier valley.
Please leave a comment below if you need specific advice for your trip to the Ubaye Valley, or if you have any recommendations to help us improve this guide. Happy holidays!