The Rivers of the Durance Basin

Chapter Contents:

The Rivers of the Durance Basin

The Durance - La Vachette to Le Fontenil 3km Grade V {}

This section is the highest possible bit of the Durance. You get on the Clarée at la Vachette and quickly come to the confluence with the Durance. You can see some of this from the N94 going up to wards Montgenèvre from Briançon. The hardest section appears to be about 1 km down where it's very bouldery. We walked up from le Fontenil and had a good look. The section here at the end of June is a serious looking and continuos grade V. However, I was told by a couple of different people that in August they actually run events on this section. I suspect that with a little less water the section become more technical and droppy. It's certainly worth another look. Above this obvious boulder field I had to cross a tributary and couldn't be bothered. Keep a close eye out for trees. The get out is at the next road-bridge at le Fontenil or carry on at grade III to IV into Briançon.

The Durance - Briançon Gorge 3km Grade III (IV-) 1hr {97}

This section has some impressive scenery as you paddle around the base of Briançon old town. It is an extremely good and quite continuos grade IV- paddle in high water, but unfortunately in normal water levels it tends to be a rather smelly grade III.Get in by turning right down into the valley off the N94 just outside Briançon on the way to Montgenèvre to le Fontenil. The bridge here is the get out for the previous section and the get in for this one. A hundred metres downstream is a large barrage to portage right. You may want to look at this first - not because it's particularly dangerous but because they extract water here and there might not be much going down to Briançon. The river from here is rocky and technical with a couple of nice gorges. Paddle through the town and past the campsite on the left, before you come to a collapsed weir. This must be inspected before you paddle so that you know where you're going to get out as the river is partly canalised above. In recent years this weir has collapsed entirely. It can now be run but I would much rather look at it in extremely low water to satisfy myself that there is no exposed reinforcement wire from the pre-stressed concrete that used to make up the top of the weir. If it is safe then a much better run would be to shoot the centre of this weir and get out by the confluence with the Gyronde. However, until we know it's safe get out here in the car park on the left or portage to continue on the next section.

The Durance - Briançon to Prelles 6km Grade II (II+) 1.5 hr {96}

This is a nice bimbly section with surprisingly big water. The whole section remains at grade II but the water moves swiftly enough and can be very good for beginners. The best get in is on the Guisane either by the road bridge or in the car park by the Hotel Guisane. Alternatively this could be combined with the Briançon gorge with people getting in below the get out for this section. From the Guisane get in you quickly join the rather small and smelly Durance on the left and then the river continues as a large grade II right up to the barrage at Prelles where you can get out on the right bank.

The Durance Gorge - Prelles to L'Argentière 7km Grade IV (V) 2 hrs {96}

Get in is on river left just below the Prelles bridge. There then follows about two kilometres of good paddling, including some fairly hard grade IV in high water, III+ in low, down to a portage. The railway tunnel marking this portage (tunnel and portage on the right) isn't too obvious, but it is very obvious that the river becomes hard, so there's little chance of accidentally doing the grade VI. The portage on the right bank is rather long, but there is a clear path that becomes very tricky in places, but leads you directly to a good get in. After getting back on, the water is a good heavy grade IV+ and not too difficult, or a technical IV- in lower water. It can be run without much inspection. «Slot and drop» is an interesting rapid preceded by a wooden structure over the right half of the river.

There's a nice sand bank to breakout on just after this structure. In high water this rapid appeared to be grade VI and we portaged it. At more reasonable levels it can be run with suitable protection. We didn't notice the rapid called “chicane” in high water, but it's fairly obvious in low water, a little before you go under the overhead pipe. The gorge proper is short and scenic with the overhead pipe spanning the gorge. On the whole it is easy to climb out of this section of river on the right, up to a minor road. It is possible to see parts of the gorge from this road. Egress is in L'Argentière, on the left, just below the road bridge, or continuing to the new L'Argentière slalom course.

A possible level marker is the two boulders at the get in immediately opposite the EDF danger sign. For our low water run the middle one was just covered and the further rock was 18" above the water.

The Durance - L'Argentière to St Cléments 18km Grade II (II+) 3hrs {96}

We did this in fairly high water after some recent rain. I think it would be difficult to get down the river in lower water due to the extensive gravel beds. As you near the Guil confluence, watch out for the wickedly cold wind coming up the Durance valley!

This section consists of a large volume, grade II river. It's not as quick, nor as interesting as the Briancon-Prelles section but is still suitable for beginners. We finished the paddle at the get in for the succeeding section, but there is a bridge over the Durance just before the Guil confluence and this would provide a good get out avoiding the large gravel beds and lake here, unless you plan to continue to Embrun.

The Durance - St Cléments to Lac de Serre Ponçon 14km Grade III (IV) 2hrs {97}

A scenic, large volume section of river which is very popular as a first section on a new trip to the Alps. Grade II for about a mile or so the river then becomes bouncy grade III even in high water. The Rabioux rapid -- where the river rejoins after splitting around an island -- is a favourite play spot and can provides a very good lunch spot. We usually waste a good few hours here. This point is often used as a get out point as there is a camp-site and small road to this point. Note that in the last couple of years a bypass has been constructed around Châteauroux. To get to the Rabioux follow signs off of the N94 to Vallée du Rabioux. You cross the railway line and follow the road around to the end. There is a campsite down here that is quite good.

After the Rabioux wave the river continues with the same sort of conditions at grade III down to Embrun and a get out on river right just as the lake comes into view. There is a ramp here used to get rafts out of the river. This leads into a caravan park and leisure area by a swimming pool (connected directly to the lake) which you can jump into for the perfect finish. To drive to this get out, go through Embrun and turn right off the main road before you go over the river. It's signposted for a caravan park and there is some extensive parking here by the swimming pools. If you go over the main road bridge and turn immediately left into an industrial estate - there is the local canoe shop. There are small signs for it (L'Artisan du Sport).

Crévoux 5½km Grade V {}

A tributary of the Durance, joining above Embrun. The uppermost section is a deep and extreme gorge and sounds dead dangerous with lots of blockages and few breakouts. The lower part is a bit more manageable. Drive up the D39 towards Crévoux and go up a track on the river right bank just after you cross the Crévoux. One hazard to note is under the road bridge there is a small sloping wier with some metal rods on the left. After this the gradient decreases a lot. You can get out at the road bridge before the Durance confluence or as for the last section of the Durance.

Rabioux Torrent 5½km Grade V then IV {}

A stupid looking torrent which everyone drives over on the way to the Rabioux wave. There are three sections. The uppermost region may be possible from Cascade de la Pisse? but Haas comments that there is at least one dangerous undercut and some artificial steps to portage. He also says to watch out for iron plates and the remains of a knackered aqueduct.

The upper section is from the road bridge on the way to the Cascade de la Pisse to the N94 road bridge in Châteauroux. The lower is from the N94 bridge to the confluence with the Durance with the easiest get out being at the Rabioux wave. The upper section is rock with a steep gradient and eddys to stop in. The lower section is very steep gravel beds with very little chance to pause and catch your breath. In the lower section, after the railway bridge there is a short natural tunnel in the rock face which should be checked for obstruction by trees. After this is a strong tongue which may be blocked by rocks in the middle and the passage can be tight in low water.

They are (1994) building a bypass for Châteauroux which should make access to the Rabioux campsite better, but watch out for building rubbish tossed in the river for the next few years. (1996 - looks like it's still OK.)

Vachères 4½km Grade V then IV {}

A tributary to the Durance which comes in below Embrun. The usual get in is to turn right off the D40 above Baratier to a campsite. You can also continue up the track on river left and inspect above for 1½km up to some artificial steps. The river has a very steep gradient with few breakouts. In the lower region the gradient is easier and the EDF plant adds a bit more water. The first 4 bridges are OK but the next is a pipeline bridge which marks a section to be wary of. Get out as for the last section of the Durance.

The Upper Guisane - La Casset to Chantemerle 17km Grade III then IV (V) {97}

The get in is in the village of La Casset, and the water here is fairly interesting, around grade IV+. You can also skip this and get in by some small man-made lakes on the way into La Casset from Briançon.

From La Casset there was about a mile of grade II-III gravel bed type canoeing, before the river comes together and runs into a grade IV section at Guibertes. This is visible from the road, and is quite straightforward apart from the start. The paddling continues at grade III down to the get out at Chantemerle by the roadside.

The Lower Guisane - Chantemerle to Briançon 8km Grade IV+(V) 1½ hours {94}

The get in is in Chantemerle at one of the car parks or laybys. You immediately come across a broad bridge with an apparent weir at its far end where the piste goes over the river. This may be shot on the right but should be inspected for debris. Further down is a small island with a weir on the left hand channel. Avoid this because of a nasty towback. The right hand channel has no weir and is only grade III. The next hazard is a clearly marked large weir, which should be portaged on the right. Getting out is easy. This weir has been shot, but it contains iron bars and is dangerous.Below the weir the fun starts. The river is now much more continuous, maybe grade V in sufficient water. We actually paddled it without inspection, but care is needed, particularly because of the tree hazard. Breakouts do exist, fortunately. At high levels this river is tremendous fun and remains very good with less water. The normal get out point is at a road bridge on the way into Briançon. There is a curved weir below this bridge which may be run at certain water levels.

The Upper Clarée - Névache to Plampinet 3km Grade IV (V) 1½hrs {97}

We got in by a campsite where the river is flat just below Névache. The road runs right by the river so it's not too far to walk! The section immediately below Nevache is a bit unrelenting and begins at grade IV(+) gradually dropping in severity as you get downstream until it becomes grade III by Plampinet. The river is fast and bouncy below the bridge between Plampinet and Névache, and this is a popular get in place, below it is grade III all the way. You can get out just after Plampinet or carry on into the next section.

The Lower Clarée - Plampinet to La Vachette 11km Grade III then II {97}

Below Plampinet the river is a fast, easy passage, and is particularly scenic. Trees are a potential hazard everywhere. The get out is in a little lay-by immediately outside La Vachette. In '94 there was a small road bridge blocking the river about 1km downstream of Plampinet which needed care but seems to have been removed. Otherwise no significant problems.

Camping is easy in this valley. There are a series of areas set aside for regulated wild camping and will include a stand pipe and primitive loo. You are possibly still supposed to register at Nevache before camping, there used (1988) to be a charge of about 2 FFr per person.

The Gyr - Pelvoux St Antoine to Vallouise 3km Grade V 20min {97}

One of the all time Alpine favourites. It's fast, furious, fun and freezing! Beware that the river bed is shallow and highly changeable with a number of features changing in the last few years. Also you should watch for trees here. The rafters regularly remove obstructions but I have seen a boat wrapped around a tree across the river here. The paddler was lucky to get out before his boat bent.The best water level is when the rocks can be heard clunking down the river bed. This usually gives an extremely fast grade V run. As long as there is some water flowing over the base of the bridge pillar downstream river left at the centre of Valloise the river should be OK.

The get in is at the bridge by the holiday complex at Pelvoux. The paddle down soon becomes a good heavy grade V. A branch in the rocks a mile downstream has been removed by a landslip. This river now narrows and is particularly interesting for a while around this area! After this the river was good fun grade IV+ and V- and could be inspected from the boat. Inspection by foot is very easy by the path on river left.

The get out is immediately above the bridge in Vallouise as there may be reinforcement wires just below this bridge. This river section is quite short, but it is certainly worth the effort and was good fun.

There may be more canoeing in the upper reaches of this river; there is certainly enough water around though there are lots of nasty looking cataracts towards Aiguilles. If you have time available after doing this section, some exploration may be worthwhile (although the Haas guide refers to this stuff as VI, VI S to impossible!). The campsite at Vallouise is a good base for this valley, and is large enough to cope with canoeists. Alternatively, camp at the get in point on the Onde, which is isolated and possibly free, until the French go on holiday after July 14th after which the campsite has a guardian.

The Onde 3km Grade IV then III 40min {97}

This a very fast and shallow river with a bad tree problem. This is one river we always sweep for trees before taking novices down the river. Swims can be quite painful here too and paddles are definitely at risk.

Drive up through Valloise village towards Les Grésourières, following the minor road on the left bank of the Onde. You can get in at a wide area by a road bridge over the river leading to a campsite or drive up another kilometre for a more interesting get in where the river approaches very close to the road with a IV+ or V section. Do this or get in below for some fast grade IV down to the bridge. The rest of the river is grade III down to the confluence with the Gyr. Get out on river left in the campsite, about 500 metres after the last bridge. Don't go down to the confluence, as the barrage there is dangerous although if someone does end up here it is easy to get out on the left at the confluence.

The Gyronde 6km Grade III(IV) 2hrs {97}

We usually get in on the Onde at the Valloise campsite, portage the barrage on the right hand bank through a scenic nature trail, get back in for 200m and again portage the second barrage on the right once more. Alternatively you can drive to the second barrage and get in here if you are not camping at this campsite.

The river is grade III and IV for around 3 kilometres before it passes under a brown wooden footbridge. Get out on the right after this as soon as you see the next stone bridge and portage the next rapid which is grade VI. Follow the minor road on the right bank until you see a worn path back down to the river (500 metres or so). Exactly where you get in is up to you as this section goes from the grade VI into 500m of grade V, then some grade IV and on to grade III again. To portage all the hard stuff requires a walk of about 500m to 1km to a new campsite. The rest of the river is grade III down to L'Argentière. Mind out for a weir 2 km down river which has a fair amount of rock in the bottom. Get out in L'Argentière is by some steps on the left after the town bridge. Alternatively you can continue to the new slalom course lower down. The river is grade II with one very small natural weir where a large pipe crosses the river to the EDF plant. The weir looks to be runnable at all levels.

The Fournel 5km Grade III-IV {}

We are not convinced that this river is possible, but here is what I have heard: This runs into the Durance at L'Argentière-la-Bessée from the same side as the Biasse. To get there take the road up to La Salce and stop at the car park where the road dies. The get in is by this car park and from here the river is initially easy but rapidly speeds up and becomes hard for the middle finally easing off again before the get out before an artificial step. The egress is between the 1st and 2nd bridges above a very high step. The next step is full of holes and provides a useful guage. A good level is if the top is dry and all the water is going through the holes.

The Upper Biasse 4km Grade V 4 hrs {97}

This is a very Corsican style of river. I couldn't see any gauges, but at the level we ran this it was an excellent paddle with great views. The river would probably be very dangerous in high water, as it's very continuous but a very pretty paddle. There's some great looking climbing in this valley too and we think it's got cheap camping.

Access to the Biasse is by following the D38 from where it branches off the N94 just north of La Roche-de-Rame until you come onto the D238 around Pallon, where the road runs by the river for a while.

Two km above Les Viollins by the D238 the get in is at a car park at the end of the road at Dormillouse. About 1 km below a footbridge there is a grade VI fall by a picnic site to go round on the left by the road. The rest is grade III-IV-V depending on the level, with one tricky double drop before Fressinières (V). At Fressinières there are some grade V or VI rapids which will need a look. You can exit here, or continue to the campsite for a further 2.5 km of grade II-III.

The Lower Biasse 4km Grade II {97}

From Fressinières to Pallon, flat until a dam. Pretty views.

The Uppermost Guil - Abriès to Château Queyras 10km Grade III (IV) 3 hrs {97}

I'm not sure quite how to divide this section. If you have novices then they can go from Abriès but need to portage 500m - 1km just above Aiguilles, and also another kilometre 5km further down. For more advanced paddlers the upper section is not especially worthwhile and it would be better to get in at the grade IV above Aiguilles.

At high river levels, it is possible to paddle the Guil from Abries, or even above. The river is a shallow easy grade III with one weir to portage 1km down. Once an obvious barrage by the road is reached above Aiguilles the river should be inspected. This barrage is dangerous as it contains wire loops at the bottom and below here the river is grade IV for about 300-400 metres as the river drops over a series of broken weirs. This is visible from the road above Aiguilles, and is marked by a broken pipeline on the river left. Immediately after this at Aiguilles, there is a very flat sheet of concrete which terminates in a one foot weir complete with a significant stopper. This is probably best portaged otherwise shoot this straight!

Below Abriès the river is grade III for another 3 or 4km until the road begins to climb away from the river, marked by a dilapidated bridge. Here a set of landslips has created about 500m of grade IV.

The only feasible get in for those who want to portage is to follow the road until it rejoins the river - but this is over a kilometre. This would be a better get out unless you intend to run these rapids. In this case get out before the bridge at the base of Château Queyras by a large car park.

Château Queyras Gorge 2km Grade IV+(VI) 15 min {96}

This can be inspected from river left, from a minor road. Where the road and river separate is the end of the most difficult part. It is possible to climb down to a rock platform in the gorge and it may be worth doing this. The gorge looks horrendous from above because it is not possible to judge the scale well. It is actually easier than it looks, but the width of the gorge is much less than a boat's length! A safety crew on the platform should be considered. Beyond this point a swimmer has to go down about 200-300 yards of grade IV before being able to land around the corner.

In high water levels, the gorge is probably a good grade V due to its commitment. In low levels its fairly easy. In very high levels, it is considered to be dangerous. High levels exist if it is easy to paddle at Abriès.

The get out is where the river passes under a minor road bridge.

The Gorge de L'Ange Gardien 3km Grade IV+ (V) 2hrs {96}

This section is more Corsican than any other river I've done in this area with the possible exception of the Biasse. The gorge is really a steep valley and so inspection and portaging are generally no problem with one notable exception. The falls are difficult, up to grade V, and so should be inspected before being shot. We paddled this in high water without too many problems, but we had a few close shaves.

The get-in is at the road bridge at the end of the Château Queyras gorge. There is a mile of easy water before an old bridge marks the start of hostilities. There is one unpleasant looking drop in a genuine gorge which cannot be portaged but has a nice big eddy just above the drop. A few drops beyond this there is a grade VI drop where the river rushes through a narrow constriction on river right. This section finishes where you meet the main road, near the L'Ange Gardien bridge.

The Guil - L'Ange Gardien Bridge to Maison du Roy 8km Grade IV (VI) 2 hrs {97}

Where the road crosses from river left to river right is the start of a grade V fall, the "Triple Step". The get in is below this according to preference. This section down to the road bridge at La Chapelue is good grade IV+. From here the river is an excellent grade IV paddle and can get quite meaty in high water levels. Three kilometres below La Chapelue the river turns back to the road by a landslip and this section is a very steep graveyard section that generally requires inspection. Care is needed as it's very rocky. A few kilometres further down, near where the road enters into a long tunnel there is a very nasty rapid, "the Slot", where the river squeezes past a huge boulder through a 4-5 foot slot. This rapid is obvious from the road, but not from the river, and it helps to have bank support here. This can be shot but is very risky. From this point, the river can be paddled without bank inspection at grade IV or IV+ but be prepared for some good stoppers. Get out just before the river empties into the lake.

The Guil Gorge 4km Grade IV (V) {92}

The level in here is controlled by the dam, however during times of rain they frequently flush the dam and so provide water for the gorge section. Obviously this means that the water could fluctuate while you're in the gorge, but this isn't all that likely.

You can get in by climbing down the bank near a lay by after the first tunnel after the dam. Throw ropes are needed to lower the boats initially and a bit of rope assisted scrambling is required. Once on, the river is grade IV with one portage about 750m downstream. You can get out at the next road bridge (la Pont d'Eygliers) but this is a pain to drive to so do the next section as well to a more convenient get out. Its pretty too!

The bridge at la Font d'Eygliers has a gauge, and a good level seems to be from around 10 to 40cm. Above 50 will probably be grade V.

The Guil - Mont Dauphin Gorge 5km Grade III (III+) 1.5 hr {97}

A very scenic river section which sweeps around the back of the Mt. Dauphin rock in a wide, open gorge. The get in is at the Pont d'Eygliers which is reached by a rather precipitous road from Guillestre. From here there are no special hazards before the get out at the N94 road bridge. An alternative get out would be to use those described for the L'Argentière - St. Clements section of the Durance.

There is a river gauge 50m below the N94 road bridge on river right, but I didn't manage to see what it read. This could be a useful gauge.

The Rioubel 3km Grade III {}

This is a very small tributary to the Guil, joining the Guil just after Guillestre with the Chagné. It can be reached up the D902 by turning off east about 2½km; below Vars. The get in is a confluence of two streams by a rambling hut. The 1st 2km are easy open rapids which then gorge up becoming hard for the next 2½-3km. Don't try and continue to the Chagné confluence. I walked up a lot of this and it isn't at all practical. So carry out up to the road on the left. Prior inspection of the egress is going to be required.


Copyright © 1989 - 1997 Pat Thoyts