Frequently recognized as the most magnificent road in the French Alps, this road through Combe Laval was constructed between 1861 and 1898 and originally served for the transportation of timber from the Forêt de Lente to St-Jean-en-Royans (France). It’s one of the French balcony roads.
Right now it mainly attracts cyclists eager to face the challenge of a steep climb and be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the Vercors region. The most spectacular stretch of the road, between St. Jean-en-Royans and Col de la Machine, cuts into the cliff-like side of the gorge and runs via a series of short, narrow tunnels. Nearly 8 mi (13 km) of lush, alpine beauty and dizzying heights. To go through this road, at Saint Jean en Royans, take the D 76 at the end of the village, direction Col de la Machine.
This road is famous because it was directly carved in the cliff and it takes to an impressive cirque above the Royans which is 4 km deep. The unique view on le "Golfe du Royans" from the Gaudissard belvedere is not to be missed. The road becomes vertiginous, going through tunnels and metallic roadways. Because of the beauty of its landscapes, Combe Laval is protected as a national heritage site under Articles L341 and following of the Environmental code (decree of 28 January 1991).
There is an easy explanation to why the Vercors is often being compared to a stone vessel or a citadel. Separated from its peripheral regions by staggering cliffs, the massif’s only connection to the outside world is through a few indentations in its rocky ramparts. Within the Royans, Combe Laval is amongst the most spectacular of these breaches: a magnificent cirque digging more than four kilometers into the Vercors walls. Surrounded by sheer peaks several hundred meters high, it certainly does not provide easy access to the plateau. However, an almost aerial road was built directly onto the cliffs in the 19th century. Along with the Petits Goulets and the Grands Goulets roads of the Bourne or Nan Gorges, this road provides one of the few spectacular access ways to the heart of the fortress.
This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in France. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a kind of road not for those who fear heights. There is little room for error on these roads. It’s normal for your palms to sweat looking at those photos, imagine what it must have been like before the barriers. It runs as a single track road along the mountainside for some distance with nowhere to pass another vehicle. Here one says a prayer that nobody is coming towards you until the road widens some kilometres further.
In the 19th century, the operation and management of the Lente forests became an economical priority. However, wood transportation is made difficult by the old Chemin des Chartreux running along the edge of the Combe. Eventually, a roadway project connecting Saint Jean to the Col de la Machine is set in motion but will take fifty years to be achieved.
The road still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs. Your heart will race as you pull up to the wall that is probably no more than 12-14” wide that separate you from a sheer drop of close to 1,000ft to an unquestionable cause of death! The road is carved into the extraordinary limestone rock face, begins to curve vertiginously over the upper valley of Cholet, which you ultimately tower over from a height of 600m.
The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) protected by short guardrails. Words can’t describe the road and pictures don’t do it justice. Combe Laval road, carved in a cliff, with its dizzying heights and spectacular views over the Royans Valley, would be the place of nightmares for the squeamish and in fact this road has been known to be closed to vehicles in certain weather conditions due to numerous deaths over the years. If you take liberties here it will be your very last mistake! A fall over the edge here and you are history in the time it takes to free fall nearly 1,000ft ,or more , and if that didn’t introduce you to your maker then the quickly pursuing GS would certainly finish the job off!
From the Col de Gaudissart, towering 600 meters above the gate of the Combe, the road is deeply carved into the rock. Eleven tunnels are needed to pass through the sheer peaks towering over Combe Laval. Sometimes underground, sometimes aerial, the road offers many breathtaking panoramic viewpoints. The fact that the road has gone from being an economical necessity to a touristic attraction in the 20th century comes as no surprise. There are not many roads like this in Europe, if you can handle the height and the prospect of a very long freefall this road absolutely has to be on the list of any road connoisseur.