Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex’s Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Venture into Vast Forests for Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing
If downhill skiing and crowded resorts aren’t your thing, the forests surrounding Pays de Gex offer a peaceful winter wonderland perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. With over 125 miles of marked trails winding through pine forests and across snowy meadows, you can immerse yourself in the tranquility of nature.
One of my favorite areas is La Vattay Nature Reserve near Gex. This protected habitat is home to deer, foxes, and over 100 bird species. Glide along wide tracks carved through verdant forests, taking in the magical scenery. More adventurous routes lead up and over hills, rewarding you with panoramic views across the countryside. The reserve has different circuits for all levels, from gentle paths to challenging climbs.
For snowshoeing, head to the Plan d’Hoton forest near Cessy. The hilly terrain makes for an invigorating adventure. Trek through snow-laden trees, crossing burbling creeks and open clearings. Keep an eye out for animal tracks crisscrossing the powdery snow. With no set paths, you can wander freely and find your own route. The area has over 12 miles of trails to satisfy any snowshoeing expedition.
If you need a break, stop at one of the forest cabins offering hot drinks and Savoyard snacks like tartiflette. Refuel while enjoying the woodsy scenery from their terraces. Some also rent equipment, so you can try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing without bringing your own gear.
What else is in this post?
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Venture into Vast Forests for Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Discover Charming Mountain Hamlets Untouched by Mass Tourism
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Sample Savoyard Specialties at Cozy Local Restaurants
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Immerse Yourself in the Peaceful Countryside on Scenic Hikes
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Explore Impressive Underground Lakes and Caverns
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Visit Historical Châteaux and Learn the Region's Rich History
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Experience Thrills on Exhilarating Sledding Runs
- Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Relax in Thermal Waters at Picturesque Spa Towns
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Discover Charming Mountain Hamlets Untouched by Mass Tourism
Dotting the alpine landscapes of Pays de Gex, quaint mountain villages offer a glimpse into traditional Savoyard life. Bypassed by major tourist crowds, these hamlets have retained their authentic charms and rhythms. Meandering along cobblestone lanes, you’ll feel transported back in time.
One of my favorite spots is Cessy, located just southeast of Gex. Wandering the narrow medieval streets, you’ll discover 16th-century townhouses bearing decorative wrought-iron balconies. Peek inside the 12th-century Église Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul, adorned with impressive wood carvings. At the top of the town sits the ruins of Château de Cessy, offering panoramic vistas across the surrounding countryside.
For a taste of mountain life, head to Challex. This farming village nestled on the slopes of the Jura Mountains has fewer than 1,500 residents. Stroll through the quiet alleys and seek out the centuries-old washhouse once used by villagers. Nearby, Grottes de l'Ours provides intriguing subterranean tours of ancient quarries and mines dug into the hills.
Foodies should visit Ferney-Voltaire, just minutes from the Swiss border. Its covered market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays overflows with local cheeses, charcuterie, and Alpine specialties. The town is also home to several cozy bistros serving authentic French fare. Café de la Place dishes up classics like steak frites and salade lyonnaise using locally-sourced ingredients.
The tiny village of Collonges commands striking views across Lac Léman and into Switzerland. With its mountain perch, only 18 families call this secluded hamlet home. Walking its peaceful lanes feels like entering a different world. Nearby, Fort l’Écluse offers tours of its medieval fortifications and military museum chronicling centuries of Franco-Swiss history.
For Alpine character, head to the ski resort of Mijoux. While lively in winter, its off-season tranquility is unparalleled. Stroll along Rue Centrale, lined with chalet-style buildings bearing geranium-filled window boxes. Sample cured meats and Raclette melted over potatoes at cozy Savoyard restaurants before browsing handmade crafts at local shops.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Sample Savoyard Specialties at Cozy Local Restaurants
Tucked away in the valleys and mountainsides of Pays de Gex, local eateries serve up hearty French Alpine cuisine passed down through generations. Savoyard specialties adapted to the region's climate and ingredients will tantalize your taste buds and warm you on chilly days. From fondue dripping with melted cheese to meats slow-cooked in wine, a memorable meal awaits.
My favorite spot for authentic fare is Auberge du Vieux Moulin in Lélex. Housed in a 17th-century mill perched next to a burbling stream, the cozy dining room exudes old-world charm with its stone walls and wood beams. Owner Gilbert crafts each dish from local ingredients, many sourced from his own farm. Opt for the set menu to sample classics like garbure, a veggie-packed meat stew, and diots de Savoie, regional smoked sausages flavored with garlic and spices. Finish your meal with a decadent serving of génépi, an herbal liqueur made from Alpine flowers.
For Raclette, head to Le Savoyard in Gex. This unpretentious bistro serves the gooey melted cheese with slices of ham, potatoes, pickles, and bread. Raclette's origins lie with Alpine herders who warmed cheese wheels over fires in the mountains. Though the preparation has evolved, the flavor remains sublime. Beyond raclette, the restaurant offers Savoyarde fondue blended from three cheeses and Beaufort tartiflette baked under a crust of potatoes.
In Divonne-les-Bains, Brasserie du Casino dishes up French classics with a creative twist. Seared scallops come drizzled in foamy Swiss Gruyère sauce and Morbier cream tops their escargots. Rich darling spätzle pasta and parsleyed chicken fricassee pay homage to the bordering Franche-Comté region. For dessert, tempt your sweet tooth with their decadent Mont Blanc: a verrine of chestnut cream, meringue, and whipped cream.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Immerse Yourself in the Peaceful Countryside on Scenic Hikes
Far from the crowded slopes, Pays de Gex's tranquil countryside offers over 600 miles of scenic hiking trails. Wandering along peaceful wooded paths and over rolling hills, you can immerse yourself in the majestic landscapes of this corner of the Jura Mountains. With circuits ranging from easy rambles to multi-day treks, hikers of all levels will find blissful adventures.
One of my favorite areas is La Haute Vallée de l'Orbe near the village of La Pesse. Follow the GR59 along the Orbe River through the protected Vallée de Joux. Towering pine trees and mossy boulders line the path as you cross log footbridges over crystal streams. Keep an eye out for curious marmots whistling warnings from their burrows. Higher up, Lake Brenet's still waters reflect the surrounding evergreens and sawtooth Alpine crags. Its easy 4-mile circuit makes a pleasant half-day hike.
For panoramic views, traverse the countryside surrounding Col de la Faucille. At nearly 5,000 feet altitude, this mountain pass divides Pays de Gex from the Valserine Valley. Trails on both sides of the col lead through rolling pastures dotted with wildflowers in summer. One summit trail climbs from Menthières to Pain de Sucre, rewarding sweaty trekkers with vistas stretching from Lake Geneva to Mont Blanc on clear days. Those based in Gex can take the chairlift up to simplify the ascent.
Near the village of Crozet, the Circuit des Cascades offers a picturesque journey past various waterfalls cascading down forested hillsides. Starting from Lélex, attempt the steep yet scenic climb to Fort l'Ecluse. The ruins of this 13th-century fortress occupy a stunning clifftop perch high above the Rhône Valley.
For multi-day adventures, traverse the iconic Grande Traversée du Jura long-distance trail. Following red and white blazes, the 310-mile route crosses the entire Jura range from north to south. Passing through both Switzerland and France, highlights include crashing waterfalls, rocky gorges, and panoramas atop the range's highest peaks. With plentiful mountain huts and villages along the way, you can tailor the journey to your own pace and schedule.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Explore Impressive Underground Lakes and Caverns
Venturing below the surface in Pays de Gex reveals a fascinating underworld of glittering lakes and winding caverns carved out through the ages. Spelunking through dim passages, trekking along subterranean waterways, and cruising crystal clear pools offer thrilling adventures along with insight into the region’s natural wonders.
One of the area’s most spectacular sights awaits at Lac Souterrain de Cerdon, France’s second largest underground lake. Plunging into the inky depths of Grotte de Cerdon, this stunning pool stretches over half a mile long and reaches depths of nearly 250 feet. Formed through the erosion of limestone over millions of years, its ethereal blue waters shine under the cave’s lighting. Visitors can glide across the still expanse aboard silent electric boats, taking in the dramatic scale of the caverns surrounding the lake. Massive stalactites drip down from above, while towering columns and draperies line the cavern walls. It’s an otherworldly experience sure to spark your imagination about what mysteries may lurk in the darkness beyond.
Adventure seekers should also visit the caves of Hautecourt and Crozet, just minutes from each other. These wild caverns offer thrilling guided tours along slippery walkways and wobbly suspension bridges. You’ll need to watch your step and duck your head as you descend into narrow passages. The reward comes as you emerge into soaring chambers adorned with delicate rock formations. In some spots, only a thin crust separates you from gaping shafts plunging into the depths. It’s an exciting opportunity to push your limits and delve into the underbelly of the Jura Mountains.
For a family-friendly underground adventure, head to Grottes de l'Ours near Challex. These ancient mines and galleries feature expansive caverns with astronomical names like Salle du Zodiaque and Grande Salle Géode. Kids will enjoy spotting the namesake bear sculptures carved into the rock walls throughout the cave. Panels also detail the history of gypsum mining in the area dating back to the 1400s. After working up an appetite, replenish yourself at the site’s restaurant specializing in fondues and other cheesy Alpine dishes.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Visit Historical Châteaux and Learn the Region's Rich History
Stepping back in time awaits at the châteaux dotting the landscapes of Pays de Gex. Wandering their turreted towers, ornate rooms, and sprawling grounds transports you to the intrigues and elegance of bygone eras. Beyond their visual majesty, these estates unlock the fascinating histories of medieval lords, Enlightened philosophers, and savvy industrialists who shaped the region.
Rising from pine forests near the village of Gex, Château de Voltaire stands as the famous philosopher’s home-in-exile for over two decades. His sharp wit and calls for reform often clashed with Parisian high society and the Catholic Church, forcing his retreat to the estate in 1759. The château still brims with 18th-century furnishings, artwork, and over 25,000 books from Voltaire’s vast library. Costumed guides share lively anecdotes about his time there fiercely writing and entertaining distinguished guests. The gardens also offer peaceful trails to wander past monumental cedars and the stables housing Voltaire’s printing press.
Travel back to the Middle Ages wandering the ramparts of imposing Châtel de Crédoz. Perched on a wooded bluff, its strategic location allowed Savoyard nobles to monitor the lands below in the 14th century. Ascending the spiral stone staircase inside the cylindrical keep, you’ll emerge on the crenellated rooftop for sweeping views. Displays inside the fortress tower detail its evolution and the archaeological artifacts discovered onsite. Don’t miss the eerie oubliettes once used to imprison enemies.
History buffs should also visit the twin châteaux of Longchaumois. Now ruined stone shells, they were bombarded by Swiss forces in the 16th century during regional religious wars. Their tumultuous past is highlighted in the small onsite museum. For a majestic still-intact château, head to Dardagny near Russin. Its grand façade and soaring halls reflect the tastes of Geneva’s aristocracy who long used it as a countryside retreat.
While many estates highlight medieval and aristocratic life, Château de Prévessin-Moëns focuses on industrial history. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the château housed the administrative offices of local quarries and cement works that drove the area’s economy. Its museum displays minerals, building materials, and machinery illustrating Pays de Gex's transformation. Restored workers’ cottages outline the quarrymen’s daily experiences through thematic rooms.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Experience Thrills on Exhilarating Sledding Runs
Beyond snowshoeing and cross-country, Pays de Gex offers plenty of thrills for adrenaline junkies looking to speed downhill. Grab a sled or tube and head to one of the area's dedicated sledding hills for an exhilarating winter joyride.
Just outside Gex, the Col de la Faucille makes an ideal high-altitude sledding spot. Starting from the top near the ski lifts, you can blaze down four different groomed tracks winding through the trees. One path even has timed sections, allowing you to compete for the fastest run against your family or friends. With over 5,280 feet of vertical drop possible, speeds top 40 mph as you whoosh around banked curves and straightaways. The only catch is you'll have to take the lift back up between runs. But the panoramic views across the Jura Mountains and Geneva Basin are worth the ride.
For a smaller slope focused just on sledding thrills, check out La Combe à Jordan outside Divonne-les-Bains. This dedicated run is lit at night, allowing you to sled under the stars. Multiple slope angles let you pick how steep and scary you want to go. While you won't match the speeds of Faucille, you can still reach 25 mph while spinning and drifting around wide curves. Nearby food stands supply warm drinks to fuel your evening of winter play.
If tubes are more your speed, head to Domaine de Challex near Chézery-Forens. Their groomed path includes fun banked turns and undulations guaranteed to send you airborne. The family-friendly slope means little ones can tube safely while you can ratchet up your adventure on one of their high-performance tubes. When you need a break from the whooshing and crashing, warm up by the firepit with vin chaud.
For a backcountry experience, venture across the border to La Vattay nature reserve near Switzerland. Their groomed sledding area offers stunning alpine scenery as you sail between snowy pines. Alternatively, trek out into the powder to find your own virgin slope to conquer. Just be mindful of potential hazards like creeks, trees, and rocks when sledding off-trail.
Off-Piste Adventures: Exploring Pays de Gex's Hidden Gems Beyond the Slopes - Relax in Thermal Waters at Picturesque Spa Towns
After adventures in the snow-cloaked mountains and forests of Pays de Gex, unwinding in steaming thermal baths offers the perfect après respite. Scattered across the region, historic spa towns beckon with healing waters bubbling from natural hot springs. Each destination provides a soothing setting to soak your cares away.
Arguably the most scenic spot lies just over the border in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland. Rising from the shores of serene Lac de Neuchâtel, the compact Old Town lanes lined with pastel-hued buildings exude quintessential Swiss charm. But beneath the pedestrian zone bubbles thermal springs heated to 100°F. At Bains des Rochers, sink into either the indoor or outdoor pools offering sweeping lake views. Its water composition rich in magnesium and sulfate promotes relaxation. Steam rooms, Jacuzzis, and massage jets provide extra pampering.
For rustic elegance, head to Divonne-Les-Bains. This historic spa town has attracted visitors seeking healing since the 16th century. Its stone bathhouse exudes vintage character with its stained glass ceiling and mosaic-tiled pools. But don’t be fooled by the old-world trappings—the facilities boast every modern wellness amenity. Beyond mineral bathing, indulge in specialty treatments like underwater massages and hydromassage therapy targeted to specific needs.
Nestled where the Valserine River flows out from the surrounding Jura Mountains, Lélex also boasts natural hot springs. Its intimate bathhouse provides a peaceful setting to soak while gazing through arched windows at the lush green valley. Keep an eye out for paragliders drifting by. The water’s high calcium content nourishes skin while improving circulation. Lélex also offers Nordic-style walking circuits and snowshoeing trails foractive recovery.
For spa-hopping, stay near the village of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. Within a 2-mile radius, you’ll find three distinct thermal establishments. At Thermes Saint-Gervais, indoor and outdoor pools lined with mountain stone complement state-of-the-art saunas. The more contemporary Spa Deep Nature tempts with chromo-therapy baths and hydro-massages. And at Le Fayet Bains, restored 19th-century baths maintain their vintage ambiance. All provide pure relaxation in what’s nicknamed “the valley of thermal waters”.
Wherever you choose to soak, the warm mineral waters promise both physical and mental rejuvenation after braving the elements. Whether unwinding in historic bathhouses or sleek modern spas, the therapeutic benefits and picturesque settings ensure a satisfying experience. Focusing on wellness through thermal bathing provides a counterbalance to exertion in the mountains. And nothing beats the sublime sensation of muscles loosening as your body reaches a state of blissful tranquility. Pays de Gex delivers luxurious options to refresh both body and spirit.