Exploring the source of the Rhône is an adventure in itself. Its wild and powerful waters stretch for 812 kilometres through the Alps, the Rhône watershed to the Mediterranean Sea via its delta.
It is a unique source of life for the region, from the lakes to the fertile plains to the tributaries that line the banks of this mythical river. Come and discover the impetuosity and wildness of the source of the Great Rhône!
Geography of the source of the Rhône
The Rhône is a river that flows through Switzerland and France. It stretches for 812 kilometres, 290 of which are in Switzerland, where its source is located, in the south of the country and in the centre of the Alps, not far from the border with Italy.
The Rhône originates at the Furka Glacier in the Saint-Gotthard massif between the Gotthard pass (2,498 metres), Monte Rosa (4,634 metres) and the Sustenpass (2,259 metres), as a very shallow river winding through the upper Valais.
The main source of the river is at an altitude of 2,209 metres in the Rhône glacier in the western part of the Valais, a Swiss canton in the Ural Alps, near the Furka Pass. The river then flows in two directions, downstream to the southwest to Riddes and then north to Martigny before joining Lake Geneva (lac Léman).
The source and the Rhône glacier are located in the Gletsch valley, glestscher meaning glacier in German, an important crossing point for transalpine flows.
Characteristics of the catchment area
The Rhône watershed covers an area of almost 100,000 square kilometres (km²): it includes not only the sources of the Rhône glacier but also those of the tributaries that feed the Alps, the Vosges and the Massif-Central. The average annual flow of the river is 1700 cubic metres per second (m³/s).
Countries crossed by the Rhône
The river flows through two countries on its course: Switzerland and France. As it flows down to its delta in the Camargue at the foot of the Mediterranean, it passes through several important cities such as Geneva in Switzerland, Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and Avignon in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region.
A history at the source of the Rhône
Origin of the name
The name “Rhône” dates back to ancient times: it is thought to come from an Indo-European root meaning “to flow quickly“. This name could also be linked to the Romans who called the river Rhodanus.
The different uses of the Rhône
The river has always been very much a part of the history and culture of this region. For a long time, it has supplied the inhabitants with fish and drinking water.
Since the Romans, the Helvetians and the Burgundians have built various canals and dams in order to exploit the river’s riches and gradually make it easier to navigate.
Evolution of the developments
Formerly light and frequently destroyed by the river during floods, the developments remained modest until the modern era.
The first hydroelectric power stations in the 19th century marked the starting point for more substantial development, in particular to bring water to the factories and mills.
This culminated in the 20th century with the hydro-electric power stations, such as the Génissiat dam, which retains 10% of the river’s flow, as well as the canals for barge navigation on the Rhône.
These developments took time to be accepted because they significantly modified the flow cycle and the nature of the river and largely disrupted ancient practices.
Ecology from the source to the delta
The different ecosystems
The Rhône watershed is a very rich environment. It includes numerous wetlands, alluvial plains and a unique delta close to the Mediterranean Sea.
The climate is semi-continental with rainfall spread throughout the year, becoming more Mediterranean as it approaches Provence and the coast.
Animal and plant species
Several endemic or threatened species live in this environment.
For example, the Zingel asper, also known as the Rhone streber, a native species which is very sensitive to environmental changes, but also migratory fish such as the eel, reptiles such as the cistude turtle, amphibians such as the yellow-bellied toad or mammals such as the otter and the beaver.
The flora includes a wide variety of aquatic grasses, numerous wild orchids, alluvial forests, but also invasive alien species.
Threats to the environment
Despite a general state of improvement, the catchment area is exposed to numerous pressures linked to intensive use of the watercourse:
River navigation, from transport barges to cruises, agricultural (fertilisers, pesticides) and urban runoff, industrial pollution.
Major development projects also cause significant disruption to the river’s biodiversity and circulation.
- Map of the Rhône river
- Where to sleep (French) in the Rhône valley?
- Weather along the Rhône
- Taking the train in Switzerland and France
- Rhône road by bike
- Activities and leisure in Switzerland