The difference between the northern and southern French Alps

By meteomorris on 15 December 2017 · 10

You can often read about the northern French Alps and southern French Alps in the weather forecast, but that sometimes raises questions. In this article I'll try to explain what the difference is between both regions and why there's a distinction in the first place.

The northern French Alps

With the French Northern Alps we mean the mountains in the Haute Savoie, the Savoie, the Isère and the mythical resort of La Grave. It's a region with big valleys (Grésivaudan, Maurienne, Tarentaise, Vallée de l'Arve) and fairly large cities (Grenoble, Chambéry, Annecy, Annemasse, Albertville, Cluses, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc).

Here you will find very large ski areas such as Les 3 Vallées, Portes du Soleil, Espace Killy, Paradiski, Chamonix Mont Blanc, Alpe d'huez and Les 2 Alpes. But also smaller and more traditional ski areas such as La Sambuy or Bonneval sur Arc.

Most of the snow that comes down in the northern French Alps comes from the west or northwest. Snow from the southwest often results in a Föhn or rain with a snow line at high altitude. Snow from the west to west-northwest reaches the entire region, but it's hard for snowfall from the northwest to north to reach the Haute Maurienne and La Grave. On the other hand, the Haute Maurienne and the eastern part of Val d'Isère often benefit from a retour d'est. Especially the higher parts of Valfréjus and Val Cenis profit a lot from this weather phenomenon.

Westnoordwestelijke stroming
Westnoordwestelijke stroming

The ski areas in the west of this region are often situated at lower altitude and that's what we call the pre-Alps. The season often starts a bit later and ends somewhat earlier because it's easier for the warmer air masses from the Atlantic Ocean to reach these parts. If you go deeper into the Alps, the summits become higher, the valleys become narrower and the terrain more rugged. Especially once the cold air has settled itself in the upper valleys of the Haute Maurienne, Haute Tarentaise, but also the Chamonix valley, it will be considerably colder. The cold air creates micro climates that can be the difference between rain or snow in the middle of winter.

Well-know snow magnets in the French northern Alps (when the current comes from the west to northwest are:

The border between north and south

The division between the northern French Alps and the southern French Alps is clearly visible on the maps when the current comes from the west-northwest. Clouds and snow generally don't cross the line south Vercors - Col the la Croix-Haute - the southern peaks of the Dévoluy, the col Bayard - the southern peaks of the Ecrins - Col du Lauteret - Mont Thabor -Bonneval sur Arc. That looks something like this.

You can easily see the difference between the northern French Alps and the southern French Alps. There are clouds and fresh snow in the French northern Alps and it's sunny and dry in the southern French Alps. The northwest of the Hautes Alpes tends to pick up a bit more snow, but you don't have to expect any precipitation more to the south and east.

The southern French Alps

With the French Southern Alps we mean the mountains in the Hautes Alpes, the Alpes-de-haute-Provence, and the Alpes Maritimes. Not many people live in this sunny region where you can already feel the vibe of the Mediterranean. The largest city is Gap with 44,000 inhabitants, but another mentionable city is Briancon with 12,000 inhabitants (and direct access to the slopes). You can find some famous ski resorts in the southern French Alps such as Serre Chevalier, Montgenèvre, Vars-Risoul, Praloup and Isola 2000. But also relatively unknown small gems such as Saint Véran, Abriès, Pelvoux or Crévoux.

Most of the snow that comes down in the southern French Alps comes from the west or the southwest. A current from northwest to north often causes a cold wind from the north. Snow from west to southwest reaches the entire region, but snow from the west sometimes finds it hard to reach the resorts in the east of the Queyras. However, those resorts pretty much always profit from a retour d'est, especially resorts like Saint Véran, Abriès and Isola 2000.

Storm from the southwest
Storm from the southwest

These areas get less storms to process, but once a storm passes, it brings a lot of snow. In this region, the transition from a beautiful (Indian) summer to winter can be abrupt, especially in the areas deeper in the Alps. When the first winter storms pass in November and cold air can settle in the narrow valleys, summer is over. On the other hand, the season is long and it might take a while in spring before it starts to look and feel like summer again.

They might have less storms to process, the dry air preserves the snow very well and it stays fresh for a long time. Another advantage of the southern Alps are the many larch forests. There are a lot of slopes that grow larch trees up to an altitude of 2200 and 2400 meters, which are perfect for the better tree runs.


  • Chester_Tartsnatcher
    Chester_Tartsnatcher op 15 December 2017 · 17:01
    Interesting and a difference about which I wondered.
  • Storpotatisen
    Storpotatisen op 15 December 2017 · 18:19
    Great stuff!
  • Chester_Tartsnatcher
    Chester_Tartsnatcher op 15 December 2017 · 19:33
    Abries and the Queyras get les retour d'est.

    Do the other southern French Alps resorts like Vars-Risoul/La Foret Blanche get any of this?
  • idoherman
    idoherman op 16 December 2017 · 11:15
    actually, could you load a map with breakdown of all the alps regions?
  • AdamStekl
    AdamStekl op 16 December 2017 · 20:13
    Great article. Thanks for extending my knowledge. Mediterranean vibe, larch trees up to 2400, sounds lovely.
  • meteomorris
    meteomorris op 17 December 2017 · 00:27
    @all Thanks @idoherman what exactly are you Looking for?
    May the powder be with you.
  • rossymcg
    rossymcg op 17 December 2017 · 12:05
    actually, could you load a map with breakdown of all the alps regions?idoherman op 16 Dec 2017 11:15
    you don't think he does enough already?
  • malcolmmoore155
    malcolmmoore155 op 20 December 2017 · 08:16
  • mmp3
    mmp3 op 27 December 2017 · 14:24
    fantastic read Morris... After skiing most of these regions my whole life... I never knew !!!! thanks
  • Arjen
    Arjen op 27 December 2017 · 15:29
    @idoherman We've already included lots of regions in the site. Just type in 'Savoie' or 'Wallis' in the 'choose resort' box on the top left and you'll get an overview of the resorts in that region.
    One day, they'll invent synthetic powder, ban all kinds of work and give you a free liftpass...


You need to be logged in to post a comment in this topic. Login or create an account.

Upgrade to wepowder Pro

  • Extended 14 day forecast
  • Slope angle and exposition terrain layers
  • Inspirational freeride routes
wePowder Pro