Les Houches lies 6 km down the valley from Chamonix and its ski domain extends from an altitude of 950 metres up to 1900 metres. The skiing combines long descents through pretty tree-lined slopes, with amazing views of the Mont Blanc massif and the Chamonix valley.
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.
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!
Hidden among the tree-lined pistes, you’ll find delightful mountain cafes and restaurants, offering some of the nicest lunches to be had in the valley. A word of warning for snowboarders and nervous skiers – Les Houches is littered with draglifts. Some, like the Plancerts and Grands Bois are marked as being ‘Tres Difficile’, but most of the drags tend to be quite frisky at the start and pull you forward at warp speed before settling back to a more gentle pace. When the snow is soft, deep ruts can also appear on the drag’s run up the mountain, which can be awkward for boarders. Les Houches is the location of regular international events and is home to the Kandahar World Downhill Ski Championships. This race 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. The area consists of 1 international black run, 12 red runs, 5 blue runs and 4 green runs, cross-country trails, and a snow park. Where possible, artificial snow coverage is provided by 67 snow canons covering 19 hectares. The Tourchet nursery pistes (not part of the main area, and can be found further up the road towards Chamonix) offers night skiing every Thursday.
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.
There are two nursery areas for beginners – one is in the village of Les Houches, and the other is on top of the main ski area. The Tourchet nursery area is found by the main church in the village, about 1km up the road from the Bellevue lift. You’ll find two draglifts and two pistes here on which to practice. If you are part of a mixed group, you may want to accompany your friends up the main ski area. There are two nursery slopes at the top – the Mont Blanc which is at the top of the Bellevue lift, and the Ecole piste, at the top of the Prarion lift. The Mont Blanc piste is the slightly longer run of the two and both pistes are served by a draglift.
There are two access lifts to the main Les Houches ski area. A small cable car at Bellevue takes you from the centre of town up to the far left of the ski area, at 1800 metres. Once at the top, the immediate area is pretty flat – perfect for beginners, but not so great for snowboarders looking to get to the snowpark (but Bellevue is still the lift you should take if you want to go straight to the park). Car parking is limited at Bellevue and it can be easier to head about 1km along the road to the Prarion gondola, where parking is plentiful and the new and efficient gondola whisks you up to the centre of the ski area. The top of the ski area at Les Houches gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, and is bathed in sunshine. The downside is that you are on a plateau, and there is some schussing required for both boarders and skiers to access some of the pistes. From the top of both the Bellevue and the Prarion lifts, you need to head across the flat plateau to access the runs at the back of the ski area. From Prarion, it is not too bad and you’ll soon be heading downhill, but it requires a little more effort from Bellvue, particularly for those on a board.
Beginners will enjoy the nursery slopes of Mont Blanc at the top of the Bellevue lift, and Ecole at the top of the Prarion, before progressing on to the nice and gentle blue runs of Abbaye and the top section of Aillouds. Once you’re feeling ready for a longer challenge, you can follow the Aillouds piste all the way back to the bottom of either the Bellvue or the Prarion lifts. With a 900 metre descent down a lovely tree-lined piste, it’s a very long and satisfying run for leisurely skiers. Be careful if there hasn’t been any recent snow as this run is served by snow cannons and can suffer from being hard-packed and icy.
The Col de Voza is a lovely red run for intermediates to play on and for advanced riders to start their day. Fontaines red run takes you around the back and through the trees - just remember that the start of this run off the Crozat chair is pretty flat and you’ll need some speed to get you over to the main section of the piste. There are two other red runs down the back towards Saint Gervais that also take you through the trees. Plan du Cret is a sweet run that is generally quiet, and finishes up on a track that takes you to the Plancerts draglift, so speed merchants and boarders may prefer to come down the wide and fast Plancerts piste instead. The view from Plancerts is pretty special as you can see right along the valley towards Sallanches and Domancy in the distance. The Plancerts draglift is one of the least friendly drags in the area, as it has a rough and jerky start. 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. These front runs are sheltered by the trees, and so have minimal sun damage on them. However, because Les Houches lies at quite a low altitude, the snow here is supplemented by snow cannons, so these runs can be hard-packed and icy if it hasn’t snowed for a while.
For the advanced skier, no trip to Les Houches would be complete without a ride down the Verte des Houches, or as it’s more famously known, the Kandahar. This World Cup black run is accessed from the top of the Voza-Prarion or Kandahar chairlifts, and takes you straight back down to the village. The pro’s do this in less than 1 minute, 30 seconds if you want to take a time trial! Weather conditions permitting, the race takes place at the end of January and the run is watered to make it especially icy for the racers, so it can be a real challenge trying to keep your edges. Moguls are in short supply at Les Houches – your best bet is to head to the Grand Bois red runs, and play on the moguls next to the draglift.
With a vertical drop of 900 metres, the runs down the front of Les Houches ski area provide the longest vertical descent in the area. The world famous Kandahar run, on the Verte des Houches piste is a steep, hard-packed and sometimes icy skiing challenge for even the most advanced rider. The alternative red run Mur des Epines is the same length and provides a little variety. Both take you down to the Bellevue cable car lift, 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 new Prarion gondola lift. The super-efficient gondola will have 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.
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 (note – there is a lively draglift at the bottom of Plancerts). 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.