The Heart of the Alps: Trail Running in the Aosta Valley, Italy
We looked up at the steep mountains surrounding Gressoney Valley. “So, how high are we climbing tomorrow?” I asked our guide, Davide…
“Maybe 700 or 800 meterS for the first section, straight up the side of the valley”, he replied. “But it’s worth the effort, because at the top, you will find Paradise!”.
As trail runners, we are always going to be enticed by the prospect of a tough climb. Whether it’s for the physical challenge, fitness benefits, technical training or the thought of a rewarding view or drink at the top; the reason doesn’t matter as long as the desire to do so exists. So I found myself, the next morning, wielding my hiking poles and making slow but steady progress up the side of the valley.
I wasn’t disappointed. Just like our experiences during the rest of the week’s adventure trail running in the Aosta Valley, the paradise that awaited us at the top of the climb was worth the effort. It reminded me of Yosemite, full of lush greenery, steep-sided rock faces with plunging waterfalls, streams and evidence of wildlife. If you are passionate about running (or hiking) in the mountains, you have to have this place high on your list – it was stunning.
The reason doesn’t matter as long as the desire to do so exists
Trail Running in the Aosta Valley
We spent most of our time in two valleys:
- Ayas Valley around the town of Champoluc, and
- Gressoney Valley.
They both sit in the Aosta Valley, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography (as I wasn’t, before visiting), sits south of Zermatt, on the south-side of the mountain range that includes the Matterhorn and Breithorn mountains, and the Monte Rosa Glacier.
A tale of two valleys
Each of the two valleys we explored has a different character.
The main town in Ayas Valley (Valle d’Ayas) is Champoluc, at 1,568 metres above sea level. Champoluc is surrounded by well-marked hiking trails and many ski pistes, making it part of the Monte Rosa ski area in winter.
The mountains immediately around the town are not as steep as those around Gressoney, meaning it was easier for us to get out running without a long steep hike to kick things off.
Gressoney, on the other hand, reminded me of a smaller version of the Chamonix Valley. While also part of the same ski area as Champoluc in winter, in summer you can bag a vertical kilometre for breakfast, if you have the desire and strength.
This is one of the many reasons world-class ultra runner Lizzy Hawker did much of her UTMB training in this area, and has chosen to created a tough race of her own that passes through here: The Ultra-Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), which is taking place in September.
In summer you can bag a vertical kilometre for breakfast
In both the Ayas Valley and Gressoney Valley areas you can find stunning mountain and glacier views, attractive old buildings and castles, not to mention many welcoming mountain huts (‘Rifugios’) offering beer, excellent food, and, of course, the option of Genepy or Grappa to spice up your day.
Enjoying some downtime in the Aosta Valley
One of the other big attractions to the region, apart from the trail running itself, was to have the opportunity to explore and learn about the culture and history of the area. Many of the surrounding villages are so remote and it was humbling to consider what life may have been like for the Germanic merchants and farmers who originally came over the mountains from (modern-day) Switzerland and settled in these valleys more than 700 years ago, building and living in small, wooden houses perched on the mountainside.
When not out in the mountains there is plenty to do in the towns. Three of our favourite experiences were the thermal spa in Champoluc (Monte Rosa Therme), practicing our swing in the shadow of the mountains, at Gressoney’s golf driving range, and a combination of local wine-tasting and a tour of the Walser Museum in Gressoney centre. These filled our afternoon downtime before we headed out for one of many filling and tasty meals at a local restaurant.
For more trail running inspiration, read these:
- Trail Running in Italy’s Aosta Valley – photo gallery
- Places to go trail running – inspiration and ideas for running vacations all over the world
- Trail running in Chamonix – including a guide to planning a running vacation, UTMB and more
- Matterhorn Ultraks – trail running in Zermatt, Switzerland, a mountain-lover’s paradise
- The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Trail Running
Traveling to Italy’s Aosta Valley: How to Get There and Where to Stay
The best place to fly in to explore the Aosta Valley is Milan, which has two airports. Either airport is good to fly in to, especially if you are planning on renting a car to get to the Aosta region. Milan is a major international destination and you can fly direct to there from all over Europe and further afield.
The area is quite large so it will help to have a car to get around in, and you can take your pick of places to stay! The following hotels are highly-rated in the area and would make great places to stay as a base for exploring the surround mountains: