Between Italy and Switzerland are several border passes. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard may not be one of the best known, but it is one of the highest. However, you have to put in some effort to get here.
Colle del Gran San Bernardo Italian side
The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard is a border pass between the French-speaking part of the Swiss canton of Valais (Wallis) and the Italian region of Valle d'Aosta. Therefore, you will find both the French name Col de Grand-Saint-Bernard as well as the Italian name Colle del Gran San Bernardo. In this article, I choose to use the French name.
Valle d'Aosta is the smallest Italian region, but also the highest. It's here you find the Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, the second highest peak of the Mont Blanc massif and the highest point in Italy. Also, the region contains the highest peak located entirely on Italian territory: the Gran Paradiso. Well-known climbs include the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo) and the Colle San Carlo.
Wallis is a bilingual canton (French and German) home to Switzerland's highest mountains. It is an excellent holiday destination, as the climate here is sunny and warm. I also wrote about this area in the article about the Furkapass. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard starts in the French-speaking part.
The col is known for its Saint Bernard dogs. The pass is named after Bernard of Menton, who founded a monastery here in the 11th century. The monks helped troubled travelers who had lost their way in the mountains. To track them down, they used the famous dogs.
The north side
This one starts in the Swiss town of Martigny. The road to the col is a wide thoroughfare where you prefer not to be, but there is a nice escape route. Just outside Martigny, in Les Valettes there is a road towards Lac du Champex. This is a particularly nice climb via a quiet mountain road. However, make no mistake, it is really tough because the last 10 kilometers have an average percentage of 8.5%. This will add a nice climb to your palmares. After a short descent in Orsières you will get back on the route towards the Grand-Saint-Bernard.
The road from Martigny to Orsières is mainly flat, but after this it really starts to climb. Although it doesn't get tougher than about 6 percent. It's another 26 kilometers to the col. The further you get, the more beautiful the view becomes of the snow-capped mountains of the Grand Combin. After Bourg-Saint-Pierre, you ride through a 6-kilometer-long gallery, sometimes interspersed with a real tunnel. Although you ride mostly on the light side, lights are highly recommended.
At last you turn off toward the col. Finally, now the real work begins. Another 6 kilometers of climbing at 9% on a quiet road. The bare rocks along the road and the view of the snowy peaks make this a truly beautiful climb. Rugged and hard. This is what you come for. On the col is a hotel/restaurant. Also, there is a lake. When the weather is nice it is quite pleasant here.
The south side
The south side from Italy is definitely more beautiful. There are two routes starting in Aosta: via the main road and the minor road via Porossan. Aosta is a busy city, take note of that.
The route via Porossan is a real beauty. As soon as you leave Aosta you enter an oasis of calm. Nowhere is it really steep either, this is mountain cycling of the highest category. One tiny village follows another. After about 20 kilometers you reach the main road to the pass. Even in summer, the traffic is not that bad. After 3 kilometers, the road splits: left the through traffic towards the tunnel, right cyclists and tourist traffic towards the pass. Still 1000 meters of elevation to go in 14 kilometers. From here on, a fabulous landscape reveals itself. First the necessary hairpins and with 8 kilometers to go the landscape becomes open and rugged. The road is flattened against the mountain. The 'col feeling' is at its maximum and the legs can be felt now because of the length and height. The last few kilometers will be a struggle for most. But it is absolutely worth it. The Colle del Gran San Bernardo is truly a fantastic climb that you must have done.
Also, if you opt for the main road, it is enjoyable. The last 17 kilometers are the same as the route via Porossan.
The last 17 kilometers are the same as the route via Porossan.
The main road towards the pass can be busy both from Switzerland and Italy. Be prepared for that. Use lights to make yourself visible in the tunnels. Something you really should always do in the Alps. If possible avoid the busy times with lots of vacation traffic.
Don't wait to book. Many hotels offer free cancellation.
May 19, 2023, the south side of this col is scheduled for the 13th stage of the Giro d'Italia. This tough stage features three tough climbs and finishes in Crans-Montana.
Until the 1960s, both the Giro and the Tour passed by with some regularity. Especially of the Tour, this is remarkable because neither side is in France. But after that, it rarely happened. In 2006 the col was still part of the Giro route.
The last time the Tour passed here was in 2009. The 16th stage went from Martigny (Swi) to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (Fra) over the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard and the Col du Petit-Saint Bernard. Spaniard Mikel Astarloza crossed the finish line first. However, this win was later taken away from him after it was revealed that he had been caught using epo before the Tour.
Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard north
Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard south
Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard south via Porossan
Click on the image to download the route.
|16||Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard /
Colle del Gran San Bernardo
|18||Roque de los Muchachos||Spanje||2426|
|20||Col du Granon||Frankrijk||2413|
Start of the real pass road Swiss side
Splitting main road and pass road Italian side
Photos: Michiel van Lonkhuizen (CyclingCols): 3, 4 - Ron Pronk: 2, 5.