Val Thorens is the highest ski resort in Europe and often has some of the best snow in the continent. It’s also a convenient gateway into the rest of the Three Valleys, the largest lift-linked ski area in the world.
Sitting pretty at the head of the Belleville Valley, at 2300m Val Thorens, or 'VT', is the highest ski resort in Europe and many of its lifts ascend to over 3000m. For skiers and boarders this means there is often good skiing here even in a poor season, and good snow helps everyone, whether they are beginners learning how to turn, intermediates appreciating crisp firm pistes, or experts looking for well preserved powder.
The sheer extent of the 3 Vallees is also breathtaking. The Belleville valley alone contains three connected ski-resorts (Val Thorens, Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville), 8 peaks above 3000m, over 70 ski lifts and over 300km of pistes. Rather illogically, it also contains more than one valley, because it includes the slopes between Val Thorens and Orelle - the mysterious "Fourth Valley". But that is just the start of the skiing available. Two lifts away from the centre of VT is the Col de la Chambre, from where you can ski all the way down to Meribel, 1400m below, passing by some of that valley's best skiing. And it only takes two more lifts to reach Courchevel.
And Val Thorens is more than just a base station. The resort is not exactly pretty - it's too modern for that - but it's compact, largely traffic-free, and has some good bars and restaurants and a wide choice of ski schools. It’s also surprisingly sunny: its slopes face North but the village mostly faces South and West. And it’s very convenient: almost all VT's accommodation is ski-in/ski-out, and the resort is relatively easy to get to.
The only problems are in poor weather; there are no trees nearby and a North-facing ridge above Val Thorens is no place to be in a blizzard. When a storm blows in, the top lifts often have to close. But you would be very unlucky if this happens frequently during your stay. A more common experience is to step out of a lift at around 3000m, and gaze across the mountain tops, taking in one of the most beautiful views in the Alps.
There are plenty of ski rental outlets to choose from, but the shops tend not to compete on price (at least not for walk-in customers), so if you want a discount, you're better off booking in advance. SKISET has five outlets in Val Thorens, so one should be close to your accommodation, and will discount rental prices by up to 50% if you book online here.
ALPINRESORTS.com also works with several ski hire shops in the resort and can secure discounts of up to 60% if you book online here.
+ High altitude and snow-sure
+ Good variety of local slopes
+ Easy access to the huge 3 Valleys area
+ Convenient ski-in, ski-out resort
- Bleak and cold in bad weather
- Lacks charm and authenticity
- Crowded if the other 3 Valleys are short of snow.
The resort of Val Thorens is built on the west-facing slopes on the east side of the valley and the skiing stretches across the western flanks, with plenty of north-facing slopes, meaning good snow conditions are virtually guaranteed here.
This is the ridge accessible from Meribel (via the Cote Brune lift) and Les Menuires (from either the Bruyeres 2 bubble or Mont de la Chambre high speed chair) as well as from Val Thorens' Plein Sud and 3 Vallees lifts, so it's something of a crossroads. At the top there are a lot of runs to choose from, but the signposting is very good, so you should not end up in the wrong valley by mistake unless there's a white-out (in which case take care). Beginners and less confident intermediates can descent into Val Thorens on three blue runs; Pluviometre, Plein Sud and Corniche. All of them are gentle and require fast schusses if you don't want to do any pushing. You can also do part of the journey on black runs or red runs. The blacks are not very steep but can be testing because they are not groomed regularly and mostly face South, so they can be icy.
Above the resort there are some enjoyable, mostly West facing, red and blue pistes from the top of the Funitel Peclet Funitel, an impressive, modern, comfortable, queue-eating 25-person gondola with seats. This ascends from just below the resort, so most people staying in Val Thorens can ski down to it. The top of the lift is at 2945m but advanced skiers will want to ascend even higher by taking the Glacier drag, which will take them above 3000m, and gives access to a steep black slope with plenty off-piste to the sides. There's more off-piste below the Funitel. From it's top there is also a special piste for sledging.
The greater proportion of the skiing is accessed from the collection of chairs, bubbles and cable cars starting from below the resort base and reaching up to 3000m (usually in two stages). These service the broad North-West facing flank between the Pointe de Thorens and Col de Rosael. Underneath Pointe de Thoren,s the Col chair rises to 3133m, giving access onto the Chaviere Glacier. Across the flank most of the skiing starts from above 3000m and is largely intermediate, though there is plenty of interesting off-piste between the marked trails. At the Col de Thorens and the Col de Rosael you can descend into the mysterious fourth valley ("Maurienne Valley") heading twoards Orelle..
Cime de Caron is a mountain of two halves. The first half, traversed by the Caron bubble, is a long, gentle North-facing, blue run which usually has excellent snow and is perfect for novices graduating from a nursery slope. The second half, covered by the huge, emblematic Cime Caron cable car, is anything but gentle. In times past, Cime de Caron was the highest point in the Three Valleys, and it is still a legendary summit with excellent views on a sunny day - allegedly you can view a thousand summits in France, Switzerland and Italy. Beginners and less confident intermediates can descend back down in the cable car, but advanced skiers are spoilt for choice. The red and black runs heading back to the cable car base station are deservedly popular as are the plentiful freeride opportunities between these pistes. This is also the starting point for long off-piste itineraries into the Vallon du Lou and the the Maurienne valley. The black Combe de Rosael piste which also descends into the Maurienne valley is not to be trifled with: parts of it are steep, and often moguled and icy too as it's South facing. Ther is one drawback to skiing in this area, however. There is almost always a queue for the Cime Caron Cable car.
The most deserted skiing in the resort area is usually on the much underrated reds and blues in the Boismint sector, between its eponymous lift and the Plan de l'Eau chair. This is also another jumping off point for itineraries into the Vallon du Lou, and for these you don't have to queue for a cable car.
The mysterious "Fourth Valley" of the 3 Valleys is accessed by either crossing over from Val Thorens at Col du Thorens, Col de Rosael or Cime Caron, or riding the 3 Vallees Express bubble up from the small ski resort of Orelle in the Maurienne Valley. The base of this lift is the hamlet of Francoz, just off the N6 Autoroute and not far from the Modane Tunnel linking France and Italy. The official ski area starts at the top of the 3 Valleys Express: there are no pistes going down all the way to Francoz and Orelle. The main attraction of the valley for skiers is the Pointe du Bouchet, whose Sommet des Pistes is now the highest lift-accessed point in the Three Valleys at 3230m. This gives access to red runs at the top, blue runs at the bottom and off-piste opportunities off the back onto the Glacier du Buchet. Taking a guide is strongly recommended. For non-skiers there is a zip-wire.
Skiers from Val Thorens can reach Les Menuires on skis from either the Col de la Chambre (see above) or from Boismint via the flat-ish Boulevarde de Cumin or via the off-piste itineraries from Boismint and Cime Cron into Vallon du Lou. Return on piste is via the Col de La Chambre, although off-piste skiers can get to the bottom of the Plan de l'Eau lift in Val Thorens' ski area via itineraries from the Pointe de la Masse (guide recommended). St Martin is further down the valley, and easily reached on skis from Les Menuires by using the lifts and pistes on the East side of the valley (IE: the Meribel side). There are also about 5 buses a day connecting St Martin, Les Menuires and Val Thorens. See the saparate Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville guides for the skiing available here.
The three valleys have excellent lift and piste connecetions between them, so most intermediate level skiers and above will be able to start off from Val Thorens and reach anywhere in Meribel, Courchevel or La Tania and return within a day. But don't start too late, or get sidetracked, and keep an eye on the lift closing times. It's an easy return journey on skis but a long and very expensive one by road.
The lift system throughout the valley is excellent, Val Thorens in particular leads the way in high-speed large capacity gondolas and the recent edition of the Bouquetin gondola has really improved the links with Méribel. The Cime Caron cable car is still a bottleneck, however, so if you want to venture into the Fourth Valley (Orelle), you're generally better off crossing over at the Col De Rosael or the Col de Thorens. And if you must use the Cime de Caron cable car, get there early, before the hoardes from the Meribel and Courchevel valleys arrive.
Les Menuires and St Martin have also invested heavily recently with new chair lifts on Mont de la Chambre, the new base cable car from St Martin, the new 6-man Becca chair andthe Granges six-man chair, which really opens up the ski area between St Martin and Les Menuires to Val Thorens-based skiers..
There are two different types of ski passes you can buy:
Until recently there was a third pass you could buy, the Belleville Valley Ski Pass. This made excellent sense for intermediates on a tight budget because it covers all the the runs in Val Thorens (including Orelle), Les Menuires and Saint Martin de Belleville. This is the largest valley in the 3 Vallees, and just on on its own, is a bigger skiing area than that of many famous ski resorts. It total it covers 300kms of runs, separated into 171 pistes (17 black, 52 red, 79 blue, 23 green). Unfortunately the pass has recently been discontinued but it might be brought back soon, so keep an eye out for it.
For total beginners Castor & Pollux, 2 twin covered 240m long magic carpets in the Plein Sud sector,(free) and Musaraigne and Campagnols, two 200m long magic carpets in the Peclet sector are free of charge as is the Roc drag lift.
There is also a special half price pass for near beginners who are starting to improve. This covers the above free lifts plus the Cairn gondola, 2 Lacs and the Caron cable car. You can buy it by the day of the half day.
In good conditions Val Thorens is perfect for beginners, with nursery slopes situated right next to the resort and a pleasantly progressive network of blues expanding out from the resort centre. Snow conditions are also often much better than they are in resorts at lower altitudes, and that helps beginners because it's much easier to learn to ski on crisp snow than it is on ice.
Beginners also don't need either to buy a lift pass on their first day or to master the art of riding a drag lift. There are two sets of magic carpets called Castor & Pollux (in the Plein Sus sector) and Musaraigne and Campagnols (in the Peclet sector), which are both around 200m long and free of charge. The Roc drag lift (when they're ready for it) is also free to use. And when they want to explore beyond the nursery slopes there is a special beginners pass which is half the price of the normal adult Val Thorens-Orelle local area pass (see the Val Thorens Lifts and Ski passes section for more details.)
But in poor weather beginners can get very cold, disorientated and frustrated by the lack of visibility, so they might want to move down the vlley to Les Menuires with a good value 'Beginners ski pass' above the Croisette which includes lessons and access to 16 lifts.
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Pretty much all of the mountain in Val Thorens is accessible to stronger intermediates, who have no reason to fear the steeper slopes of Cime de Caron. Following that to the base of the Caron bubble gives you access to the Boismint chair and several of the best reds in the Three Valleys. This is an excellent choice when you're heading down the valley towards Les Menuires.
On the main western flanks, the high runs are typically slightly steeper and generally blessed with excellent snow. The red Col is a particularly fine run, if a little short. The lower ones tend to be slightly flatter and are excellent cruisers and confidence-builders. The Peclet glacier offers a nice array of mainly reds and the corresponding blues on the Méribel side of the valley are very characterful, particularly Pluviomètre and Mont de la Chambre, which is an alternate route down to Les Menuires.
Les Menuires and St Martin
This sector has some excellent motorway skiing. Pramint and particularly the longer Jerusalem (which, if you carry on down Biolley to St Martin gives you over 1000m of vertical) are marvellous reds on the wings of the resort. 3 Marches is a great run to take at speed and Allamands has a nice mix of humps and switchbacks. Most of the reds from the Becca chair and the Mont de la Chambre are suitable for relatively confident intermediates and the Masse is worth visiting for the views from the top alone.
Early intermediates are better off in the St Martin area as the blues above Les Menuires can get very crowded with through traffic. Grand Lac is a pleasant blue under the new Granges chair.
While most of the piste skiing in Val Thorens is not as steep as elsewhere, there are a few notable exceptions. Combe de Caron is a long and winding black with a precariously steep start and Combe Rosael is definitely the most challenging route into the Maurienne valley and was, until recently, an itinerary. Similarly the black under Cascades was previously off-piste and is an excellent bumps run.
On a clear day, however, it is the off-piste which is the real draw. Most of the mountain is skiable terrain so there is plenty to do between the pistes, though you have to watch out for rocks. The north-facing slopes along the main flank are all easily accessible. For longer runs, the old itinerary from the top of Cime de Caron that drops down 1300m to Lac du Lou is beautiful and challenging in equal measure. Alternatively drop-down 2000m of vertical through the Gébroulaz Glacier from the top of the Col chair down into Méribel.
In the Maurienne valley the new Bouchet chair has alleviated the need to walk from the top of the Col chair to access the Glacier du Bouchet. This, one of the most glorious stretches of off-piste in the Alps, is now easily accessible from the top of the Sommet des Pistes down the 930 metres of vertical that was briefly the black Pierre Lory, before the steep start claimed too many casualties.
The Glacier drag lift near the top of the Funitel de Peclet lift serves a short, sharp and very enjoyable West-facing black run with plenty of off-piste opportunities to the side. There is further off-piste below and raound the Funitel itself (keep an eye out as you go up in the lift).
Boismint offers an alternative way into the Vallon du Lou, with different routes and views to the Cime Caron ones.
All of the upper runs on the Masse are of a good pitch though only two are officially marked black, of which the Masse itself has a good steep shoulder at the start. In good conditions, Dame Blanche is also a fine run and Rocher Noir can develop good bumps. Across the valley, Leo Lacroix is steep, narrow and bumpy and the shorter runs of Pylones and Étélé can be challenging.
However, it is the off-piste which is the real draw here. The mountainside is largely unpisted from above St Martin all the way across to the outskirts of Les Menuires and there are many different routes that drop down to the villages that dot the road between the two. The area underneath and skier's right of the St Martin 2 chair is particularly good for progressing off-piste skiers.
The Masse is also a haven for off-piste, with great runs coming down under the Masse 2 bubble and the Lac Noir chair. Best of all, though, is the serene itinerary overlooking Val Thorens, which drops off the back down onto the Vallon du Lou and winds back around the mountain on the Boulevard Cumin.
Val Thorens has a snow park complete with half-pipe and a network of jumps and rails as well as a separate boardercross over in the Maurienne Valley. In Les Menuires there is a snow park that is excellent for learning as the jumps are marked in difficulty like the pistes and there are 8 slides and rails, 4 big airs, 2 table tops and a quarter pipe. There is also another half-pipe near Reberty.
In Val Thorens the Chalet des 2 Lacs has a roaring open fire and cooks a mean Tartiflette. Along the Boulevard Cumin on the way to Les Menuires is the beautifully positioned, small and traditional Chalet les Sonnailes and La Ferme, at the top of the Doron chair, is good value and has a lovely sun terrace with great views back up the valley towards Val Thorens. In St Martin Le Montagnard is a very small converted old barn serving beautifully presented modern French food. Alternatively, try Brewskis for traditional English pub grub and home-made pies.
At the beginning of the 1960s the Belleville valley was still given over to agriculture. In 1967 the centre of the lower resort of Les Menuires was built, during the height of France's crimes against alpine architecture, but many lessons had been learned by the time the attractively compact Val Thorens was added in 1973.
Val Thorens' appearance is not universally liked, however. If you want traditional alpine charm, you're in the wrong place and should head down the valley to St Martin de Belleville. Instead Val Thorens is proudly modern and purpose-built on a large scale. Many of the buildings have at least five storeys. If you rent a "chalet" in Val Thorens, it's often just a part of a bigger complex. And yet somehow the overall effect works. The key components seem to be sloping roofs, snowy streets, plenty of wood cladding and making sure each building echoes the design of its neighbours to achieve a cohesive look.
But ultimately looks, even good looks, play a secondary role to convenience in Val Thorens. You don't build a resort at 2300m for aesthetic reasons: you do it so almost every building can be ski-in/ski-out. In Val Thorens in the morning skiers and boarders don't walk up to lifts but glide down to them on gentle slopes. (Some are rather too gentle and require a push or hop along a flat stretch at the end.) And those big buildings have their uses. Val Thorens is compact enough that you can walk or slide to almost anywhere in the resort you want to get to - something you could never say of Meribel or Val d'Isere, for instance. And the resort is almost entirely traffic-free. The five car parks are all sited around its edges or are underground (book your car parking at least a week before your arrival). For an extra price you can also have your car cleaned during your stay.
To many of its visitors' surprise, Val Thorens is generally quite sunny. Although most of its skiing is North-facing, the resort itself mostly faces South or West and the surrounding area has more sunny days than the resorts in Haute Savoie. But weather at 2300m can change very fast, and when a storm blows in or a prolonged cold-snap arrives, you can get an unpleasant reminder of why, until the late 20th century, no one tried to live at this altitude in the Alps in the middle of winter.
Val Thorens proudly boasts the highest après-ski in Europe and has a good selection of lively bars. The Frog and Roastbeef has live bands and happy hour after skiing and the nearby Viking pub is a local favourite. Le Tango and the Ski Rock Cafe are also popular. The Red Fox specialises in afternoon karaoke and live music draws the late crowd to Malaysia.
There are lots of bars in the Croisette area of Les Menuires and a nightclub called New Pop. In Bruyeres the Taverne is a nice bar and there is also another club called Leeberty. Brewskis is the epicentre of all things après ski in St Martin.
Le Blanchot is a good local restaurant in Val Thorens with a bumper wine cellar, specialising in local Savoie wines. For a more gastronomic treat try l'Oxalys restaurant where the chef has just won a distinguished award for "Young Chef of the Year". The Fitz Roy Hotel and Bergarie restaurants are both higly recommended too. Try the Le Funitel and Le Scapin for pizza and pasta. El Gringo, a lively restaurant and bar, serves mexican food.
The sports centre in Val Thorens has recently been overhauled and the new swimming pool is a vast improvement.
Outside the immediate confines of the resort, there are several activities for those who like snow and mountains but don't like skiing and boarding. The zip wire from Sommet des Pistes at the top of the Bouchet lift down to the Col de Thorens is great fun, as is the special sledging run for toboggans that comes down from the Funitel Peclet.
On a sunny day, taking the bubble then the cable car to Cime Caron enables even non-skiers to see one of the best views in the Alps. There is a bar and restaurant at the top if you think such beauty is best accompanied by food and drink. Non-skiers, novices and nervous intermediate skiers can avoid the black and red runs descents by riding the cable car down. determined non-skiers can then take the bubble from mid mountain all the way to the base station below Val Thorens, but the blue run alternative is very gentle and should be within the capability of most beginners after two or three days of lessons.
For those who prefer to let an engine do the work, there is ice driving, ice karting and skidoo riding after the pistes have closed. Ask at the tourist office for further details and times.
About 5 buses a day connect Val Thorens with Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville. Les Menuires has more of the same type of activities as Val Thorens (swimming, indoor sprts centre, wellness, sledging, skidoos etc) but there are some different ones as well such as cycling down the slopes on special fat bikes ("Roc 'n' Bike) or descending on a family-oriented bobseligh on rails (Speed Mountain). See the Les Menuires Other Activities section for details.
The village atmosphere of St Martin is better at providing a cultural experience. There are some beautiful 17th century Baroque churches both in the village and along the road up the valley. Free concerts are held in Notre Dame de le Vie in St Martin. St Martin was also once the temporary home of the infamous Marquis de Sade and is allegedly the setting for his novel The 120 Days of Sodom, which some people might draw inspiration from.