© Graham Pinkerton
© Graham Pinkerton
Les Houches ski area in Chamonix
Discover the best of the Chamonix Les Houches ski area
Les Houches lies 6km down the valley from Chamonix town and its ski domain extends from an altitude of 990m up to 1,900m. The skiing combines long descents through pretty tree-lined slopes, with amazing views of the Mont Blanc massif and the Chamonix valley.
With a mix of gentle slopes, long descents and tree-lined runs, the Les Houches ski area is the perfect resort for the whole family (see the piste map). The area consists of four black runs, including the international world cup slope, 13 red runs, eight blue runs and two green runs, cross-country trails, and a snow park. 'Ski Camp' is an area specially designed for young children, found around from the top of the Prarion gondola. It offers sledging, teepees, and snow tubing, all nicely laid out around a picnic area. Le Tourchet nursery area (not part of the main ski area, and can be found further up the road towards Chamonix) also offers night skiing every Thursday.
The area is certainly not the highest in the valley, and the snow here can be the first to suffer when the weather warms up, but its great advantage is that most of the skiing is through pine and larch forests. Not only does this make the skiing here more charming than the more exposed areas further up the valley, but the trees offer shelter when the winds are high elsewhere, and definition when the snow is coming down or during white-out conditions. Another bonus about skiing here is the abundance of characterful mountain restaurants you'll find hidden in the forests at the side of the pistes.
The pistes in Les Houches lie on grassy hillsides, so even if the snow is thin, there is small chance of scraping your skis or boards on rocks. The ski-out is generally open throughout the season thanks to the great snow cannon coverage on the sheltered lower runs, so no queuing for the gondola back down to the village – always a bonus! Even if you are not staying in Les Houches, you can access the area by taking the free bus (included in your lift pass) that runs from all the villages in the Chamonix valley to Les Houches. Les Houches is a great area for mixed ability groups, as the slopes at the top of the mountain range from green nursery slopes right through to the famous “Verte” black run used in the Kandahar World Cup skiing!
Les Houches is the location of regular international events and is home to the Kandahar World Downhill Ski Championships. This race takes place every two years and has become one of the main sporting events in the Chamonix valley and is representative of the excellent skiing reputation that Chamonix possesses. Les Houches also serves as a training ground for the French National Ski Team.
Please note, Les Houches ski area is not covered by the Le Pass ski pass, however, holders of the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass are able to use the ski area.
Beginner areas in Les Houches
A great family resort, the Les Houches ski area offers gentle undulating slopes for beginners. There are three nursery areas for beginners in Les Houches. One is in the village of Les Houches, and the other two are higher up in the main ski area.
With the Le Tourchet nursery slope in the centre of the town, you can be close to the bars, restaurants and public transport. If you fancy enjoying the views then 'Ecole', at the top of the Prarion gondola, allows beginners to enjoy gentle slopes at a higher altitude.
Le Tourchet nursery area is located not far from main church in the centre of Les Houches, about 1km up the road from the Bellevue cable car. You’ll find two drag lifts and two pistes here on which to practise. The shorter drag lift gives you access to the lower part of the piste whilst the longer one takes you to the top of the ski area and allows you to get more turns in, before getting back to the bottom. The slopes have a very gentle gradient and are nice and wide, allowing you to make confident, large turns.
Look out for night skiing on the Tourchet piste - on certain evenings during peak season the slopes are floodlit and there is music and hot drinks at the bottom.
There are two nursery slopes at the top of the mountain in the main Les Houches ski area. The 'Mont Blanc' area is at the top of the Bellevue cable car and the 'Ecole' is at the top of the Prarion gondola. The Mont Blanc piste is the slightly longer run of the two and both pistes are served by their own drag lift. Ecole also has a slow-moving chairlift which you can use to practise getting on and off. The gradient at Ecole is incredibly shallow, so you might want to progress onto one of the nearby blue pistes once you've mastered the basics.
Head down the back side of the mountain to the Melezes chairlift which takes you to a variety of wide blue pistes. These slopes tend to be slightly quieter than other areas in Chamonix valley, making them great for beginners to practise on. A word of caution - don't go any lower than the bottom of the Melezes lift as you'll end up on a red piste and the only way back up is an incredibly long and difficult drag lift. When ready to return home, you can ski blue pistes all the way back to the bottom of both the Prarion gondola and the Bellevue cable car.
Advanced runs in Les Houches
Better known for its family-friendly slopes, Les Houches is not exactly on the list of 'extreme' areas that one comes to expect from Chamoix.
However, the famous Kandahar run down the front face provides the longest vertical descent in the area. The Verte des Houches piste (to call it by its little known 'official' name) is a steep, hard-packed and sometimes icy skiing challenge for even the most advanced rider and is therefore not for the faint-hearted. This piste is the home of the Alpine Ski World Cup downhill course, and at 3,343m long with a vertical drop of 870m, the best downhill skiers in the world can race down it in about two minutes.
The alternative red run Mur des Epines is the same length and provides a little more variety. Both take you down to the Bellevue cable car, or you can take three sequential chairlifts to get back up to the top.
A quicker option is to cut across half way down the pistes and join the blue Aillouds piste that takes you to the Prarion gondola. The super-efficient gondola will have you back at the top in no time at all, where you can join the Table d’Orientation red piste for another long vertical descent back to the village.
Snowparks in Les Houches
The Bellevue snowpark has one route for beginner and one for expert freestylers. Expect to find small and medium kickers, features and jumps as well as tubing and ziplines. Access is from the top of the Crozat chairlift.
There is also a play area for children at the top of the Prarion gondola. Head over to the Ecole chair lift where you'll find inner tubes to slide down the hill on, a toboggan run, zip wire, and other child friendly activities. It's free but you do need a lift pass to get up there.
The best pistes in Les Houches
Home to rolling hills and wide pistes.
Beginners will enjoy the nursery slopes at the top of the Bellevue lift and Ecole at the top of Prarion before moving on to Abbaye and the top section of Aillouds.
The Aillouds piste is a sweeping blue run will take you from the top of the Prarion gondola all the way back to the bottom of either the Bellevue or the Prarion lifts. With a 900m descent down a lovely tree-lined piste, it’s a very long and satisfying run for leisurely skiers. Hidden among the tree-lined pistes, you’ll find delightful mountain cafés and restaurants, offering some of the nicest lunches to be had in the valley.
Col de Voza is a lovely red and Fontaines takes you around the back and through the trees. There are two other red runs down the back towards St Gervais through the trees to the Plancerts draglift, Plancerts has spectacular views towards Sallanches and Domancy.
Down the front of Les Houches, the Table d'Orientation which leads on to the Maison Neuve and the Mur des Epines are long runs back down to the village. Sheltered by trees, there is minimal sun on these runs, good if there's snow, but hard packed and icy if it hasn't snowed in a while.
No trip to Les Houches is complete without attempting the black World Cup Kandahar run - Verte des Houches.
Bad Weather areas in Les Houches
When the weather is cloudy or the snow is falling, it’s well worth checking out Les Houches. The lifts here are far more likely to be open if high winds are causing closures elsewhere. Additionally, the avalanche risk is a lot lower in Les Houches after heavy snowfall, so whilst the rest of the valley is shut to allow blasting of avalanche-prone areas, Les Houches can pretty much open up straight away. The other advantage of Les Houches is that because nearly all of its pistes are cut through trees and forests the visibility is about as good as it can be in a white out.
Head over to the back of the ski area and try the Fontaines and Plancerts pistes. The runs down the front back towards Les Houches are also sheltered by trees and are awesome in fresh powder. With black, blue and red runs to choose from, you’ll find a way down whatever your ability.
Backcountry areas in Les Houches
The trail starts at Les Chavants, near to the bus stop at the Prarion lift station. The route is marked along the way and climbs from 1,012m at the base to 1,860m at the top of the Prarion gondola – giving you a good old 848m uphill leg workout. The marked trail is here or you can find it on the piste map for Les Houches.
The Les Houches trail is a great introduction to the sport, as the route is clearly marked and has been chosen for its safety and accessibility. You don't need to be an experienced off-piste skier as the end of the trail brings you out into the centre of the pisted ski area. Touring kit of skis, boots, bindings and skins can be hired fairly inexpensively from most sports shops.