Come spring in Val D'Isère, the sun blazes down, bathing the white hillsides in light and warmth, and almost overnight the snow seems to melt away. Paths that have been hidden under a deep blanket of snow all winter soon become accessible and provide the perfect opportunity for hiking and a bit of alpine wildlife spotting.
The most accessible of these hikes can be found behind the popular Morris Pub in the centre of the town, where there is a public footpath that zigzags upwards to meet a path that runs along the side of the mountain. Once on this path, enjoying incredible views of the town, you can either hike to Le Daille or Le Fornet. Both walks are beautiful and offer stunning views and the opportunity to see some of Val D'Isère's less rowdy inhabitants.
The first of these, easily spotted (and heard) are alpine marmots. Having hibernated during the winter, in Spring and Summer these furry little critters can normally be found grazing for food in the long stubbly grasses on rocky slopes. Their dens are small holes or burrows in the ground and they use a loud whistling sound to communicate with each other. I saw dozens of marmots by following the path to Le Fornet; some would freeze on the spot and watch me suspiciously as I went by whereas others could only be seen as a large brown and black fluffy tail disappearing into the ground.
Above the path and further up the steep rocky slopes, dotted with wild flowers, we found an enormous herd of alpine ibex. These large mountain goats have long curved horns used for fighting off predators and competing for mating rights. They live above the snow line all year round and in winter occupy very steep rocky slopes where little snow has accumulated. Despite their lack of interaction with humans they are surprisingly calm and apparently unfazed by humans ogling at them, so I managed to get very close to take photos and watch them grazing and lazing in the grass.
Whilst watching the languorous ibex, I saw a flurry of movement further up the cliffs. It was a lone chamois dashing full pelt along incredibly steep terrain. These goat-antelope species are numerous in the region and are brown with characteristic black and white markings as well as small straight horns. I assume that this chamois was a male since the females live in large herds with their young, whilst males live solitary nomadic lives until mating season in November. With exceptional ability to navigate treacherous terrain the chamois can run at up to 50km an hour and jump a distance of 6 metres. During my hike I saw a couple of chamois but they tend to live at very high altitudes in summertime and are therefore not so commonly seen.
The final and most impressive animal that we spotted whilst walking on the cliffs above Val were the enormous golden eagles circling above us. With dark brown or golden plumage and a wing span of up to 2 metres, these eagles are truly spectacular to watch. Despite their size, they are difficult to spot against the dark grey of the cliffs and are definitely worth taking a pair of binoculars for. Nesting on the high cliffs, and preying on small mammals, such as the whistling marmots and even the chamois, the eagle has become the symbol of Val D'Isère.
If you would like to see some of these beautiful animals in their natural habitat then try hiking during your stay in Val D'Isère. Head to the Tourist Information Office for maps or pick up an IGN map for the area. Some more suggestions for hikes in the area can be found here.