Col de la Bonette, located in the Mercantour National Park in the French Alps, is only a couple of hour's drive from the seafront in Nice. It is the seventh highest paved road in the Alps at 2,715m, one of the most spectacular mountain passes in Europe, and has been featured on the Tour de France. At the summit of the pass there is a short loop around the Cime de la Bonette peak that takes you up to 2,802m above sea level - here you've reached the highest paved road in Europe, and although it is only a couple of kilometres long it's still worth the small detour.
Driving the Col de la Bonette
The Col de la Bonette connects the town of Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée with the town of Jausiers, and is also part of the Route des Grandes Alpes itinerary through the French Alps. In total the distance between the two towns is about 42 kilometres, with tight hairpin bends and superb panoramic views from the road. The road has mostly smooth tarmac, and the only downside is that it is quite narrow - and there are no lane markings in the middle. However due to the open landscapes it is often fairly easy to spot oncoming traffic from a distance. Just before the summit is a gravel track leading off the road, which reconnects with it later after having reached its highest altitude of 2,680m. This short stretch running parallel to the Col de la Bonette is known as the Col de Restefond.
Although the landscape might not seem that diverse at first, the Mercantour National Park is in fact one of the most beautiful regions to explore - and although much of it can be admired from the road it is also a great area for hiking. In the late spring or early summer when the pass opens for the season it is not uncommon to drive on the road framed by high snow-walls - a pretty majestic sight. In the summer the landscape turns green, with sheep grazing in the rolling hills surrounding the pass, and if you're lucky you might even spot an alpine marmot. Towards the end of the season in October the nature gets a golden glow to it, with rich yellow and brown replacing all the greenery. With that said - there is no wrong time of the year to experience this beautiful road. In the winter the road is closed - the Col de la Bonette usually opens in early June - although there have been times when it has opened already in early May if they can clear the snow in time - and stays open to mid-October, sometimes even longer.
You will pass by ancient structures - the former military barracks were part of the Maginot Line of the Alps during World War 2 - and en route there even is a lovely place to stop for lunch. The traditional Halte 2000 restaurant sits in an unique location at 2,000m, with a terrace overlooking the mountains - the perfect place to stop when you want a pause from driving.
The open road awaits...
Where to stay close to the road
In the remote Alps it's not always that easy to find top quality hotels that stay open in the summer - some only open for the ski season. Luckily there are a few gems not that far from the road that we recommend.
If you begin the ascent from south to north your finish line will be the small town of Jausiers, home to just over a thousand inhabitants - and also the charming 4* Villa Morelia. Surrounded by a green park this hotel has renovated rooms, an outdoor swimming pool, and a restaurant on site - the perfect place to relax before or after your Col de la Bonette adventure.
Close to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, located about 1 hour south from the summit of the pass, are two exceptional small B&B:s, both with gourmet restaurants and a few tastefully renovated rooms. On the Col de la Couillole is the Auberge Quintessence with a private large parking area that can be accessed with low cars. The nearby Auberge Lo Robur only offers street parking in the tiny hilltop village where it is located - however the view from the building over the valley is absolutely magnificent.