Hiking Fer a Cheval in the French Alps: Spectacular walk only the locals know about

A side valley off the well-trodden route between Geneva and Chamonix provides one of the best-kept hiking secrets in the French Alps.

It's funny how you can be just over the mountains from the alpine resort Chamonix and well-known ski stations, and a short drive from a crowded motorway, yet feel so remote.

Fer a Cheval is tucked into a corner of the French Alps against the Swiss border and has but a single wooden chalet housing a restaurant. Half the time it's closed. The valley is always open, but only locals seem to know it. I've been coming here since I was a child growing up in Geneva and, decades on, it hasn't changed.

The nearest village, Sixt, is the smallest of blips on the tourist radar because it's sometimes (though improbably) listed as one of France's most beautiful villages. For its surrounding scenery, certainly. The village itself is just a gaggle of sturdy houses plus a small medieval abbey and church, straggling along an ice-blue mountain river spanned by a geranium-draped bridge.

Seven kilometres further on, Fer a Cheval (which means horseshoe) is a cirque or ring of cliffs scooped out eons ago by a mighty glacier at the head of the valley. The cliffs form rearing, straight-up walls 700 metres high, backed by 3000-metre mountains. Some 30 waterfalls plunge off the cliffs' rocky rims, the thinnest vanishing in veils of spray before reaching the valley floor.

The cirque's easiest walk of just three mostly flat kilometres amply showcases this splendid geological formation. Follow the signs to Bout du Monde which, despite its name (End of the World) is only 20 minutes away on a path that, as in a fairy tale, leads through a small forest, across a wooden bridge and through flowery meadows. Then follow the river upwards, cross another bridge and loop back to your starting point at the carpark.

There are in fact other buildings concealed in this landscape, but the only one that the casual walker will encounter is a rustic buvette (bar) open only in summer, where you can refresh yourself under green Perrier parasols on a sun-soaked terrace.

A few other chalets and refuge huts hide higher in the mountains. Chalet du Boret is another 70-minute hike away across rocks made slippery by waterfalls. The path occasionally reverts to iron-staple steps and a cliff edge. You're rewarded with staggering views.

There are numerous walks of differing difficulties, but all have you right in the middle of this amphitheatre of cliffs with 360 degrees of views and waterfalls. If you're lucky you might see a bearded vulture (or lammergeier) floating overhead. Europe's largest vulture, once hunted by sheep farmers, has been making a comeback in the French Alps, where there are now 40 pairs, with several making a base in this area.

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June is the best season for waterfalls, when snowmelt is at its peak and marmots warm themselves in the wildflower fields. Your hike will be accompanied by a continuous thunder of water. The wildlife is frisky at the end of spring. Trout flit in the emerald pools formed by burbling streams. Bring binoculars with you and you might spot ibex or chamois lurching across the cliffs on precarious ledges.

Late October is my pick, however, for its explosion of autumn leaves. The entire valley turns russet and orange and yellow. The mountains are clear, the sky often blue, the biggest waterfalls still tumbling.

On a weekday, you can hike here and scarcely encounter another soul. The restaurant is closed, but no matter. Bring a baguette, sit on a rock and gaze at scenery to make the soul sing. You're not far at all from madding crowds, yet a world away.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Etihad flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi with onward connections to Geneva, a little over an hour's drive from Fer a Cheval. Phone 1300 532 215. See etihad.com

STAY

You could stay in Chamonix or Geneva and visit on a day trip. Chalet-Hotel Neige et Roc in Samoens near Fer a Cheval combines traditional chalet décor with contemporary comforts. See neigeetroc.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/france 

savoie-mont-blanc.com 

Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense.

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