Information about the 114km of navigable sections of the Haut Rhône (upper river Rhone), Canal de Savières and Lake Bourget

The Upper Rhône is theoretically navigable from Lyon to Seyssel dam. In practice, it is made up of isolated sections, and the two big gaps in the location map right are likely to remain indefinitely. The situation in 2016 is as follows: navigation is possible from the confluence with the Saône at Lyon to La Feyssine lock in Villeurbanne, a distance of 9.6km. This lock built in the 1980s cannot be operated, and will only be of interest if the upstream Canal de Jonage is restored from PK 11 to PK 30. The canal is conceded to Électricité de France, with locks to be built inside the enormous existing chambers. There is no date yet for these works. From PK 30 to PK 66 (Sault-Brénaz), the Upper Rhône will remain a free-flow navigation offering variable depths. The project designed in 1999 involved local improvements to increase the available depth, and the provision of buoyage to mark the channel, but navigation is at present incompatible with ecological conservation in the area of the confluence of the river Ain. The waterway of interest to boaters thus begins upstream of the dam at Sault-Brénaz, at a point defined here as PK 0. It extends 81 km to Seyssel. At PK 62 there is a link through the picturesque Canal de Savières into Lake Bourget, the biggest natural lake in France, with the important tourist and spa resort of Aix-les-Bains on its eastern shore. This link from Chanaz to Viviers-du-Lac, a few kilometres north of Chambéry, adds 23km, so the total navigable length of the Upper Rhône/Lake Bourget system is 104 km.
This section has four diversion canals and hydropower plants built by the CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhône) in the 1980s. Boat elevators bypassing each power plant were provided, but were never much used, hence the project started in 2000, after a study by the author, which involves building a short bypass with one or two locks at each of the four hydropower plants. The works started at the upstream end, and bypasses with two locks each were built at the Chautagne and Brens (Belley) power plants. A single lock is to be built at Brégnier-Cordon, starting in 2018, for a cost of €22 milllion. The works are entirely funded by CNR. The fourth modern dam at Sault-Brénaz is expected to keep its ramps and boat elevator, since the Rhône rapidly becomes unnavigable downstream of the village.
Owners of trailed boats are strongly encouraged to make use of one of the numerous ports de plaisance indicated in the route description to explore this navigable section.

haut-rhone-regHistoryThe upper river Rhône was historically navigated up to Le Parc, at the entrance to a narrow gorge with rapids. To develop combined passenger and freight steamer services from Lyon to Aix-les-Bains, a large lock was built at Sault-Brénaz in the 1880s, to bypass the rapids here. Then in 1897 a private concessionary opened the Canal de Jonage with two hydropower dams and locks (a double staircase at Cusset). Génissiat dam (70m high), was completed in 1948, with Seyssel dam a few kilometres downstream to create a compensating reservoir. In the 1980s the CNR built a series of hydropower schemes, which brought significant changes and created a virtually navigable waterway through most of the length of the Upper Rhône, using the diversion canals. These are now being linked up with 38m locks, but the final objective of through navigation from Lyon is only a remote prospect.

Key Waterway Dimensions

  • Max beam: 5.25m
  • Max height: 6.00m
  • Max draught: 2.00m

Local Waterway Links

The cruise up the river, with its dramatic Alpine landscapes, and through the charming Canal de Savières to Lake Bourget is a unique experience on the French waterways. Few boaters have undertaken this cruise to date, because the waterway is isolated from the main system. When the navigable length is increased to just over 100 km by around 2020, it should become feasible to transport hire boats here and develop the traffic. The CNR distributes an excellent brochure in French, English and German setting out all the navigation rules and instructions for using the locks.

There are 7 structures overcoming a difference in level of 78m between Lyon and Seyssel (not taking into account the 12m rise in the 36km free-flow section between Jons and Sault-Brénaz). The first is the lock built at La Feyssine (Villeurbanne) as part of a major ring road in Lyon. The following two locks were built by EdF under the Jonage hydroelectric scheme. These locks, of substantial dimensions (114 by 16m), were rarely operated and became disused after the last paddle steamer plied the route from Lyon to Aix-les-Bains (post-World War II). Proposed rein­statement involves building new open walls, gate abutments and gates within the existing chambers. The other four structures are the hydropower dams completed during the 1980s. Two of these, Chautagne and Brens (Belley) have substantial locks 40 by 5.25 m, one above and one below each power plant, with intermediate basins. These locks are operated by remote control following the instructions on the control panels. A technician can be called in case of difficulty.
At Brégnier-Cordon, a mobile elevator is operated on request (giving 24 hours notice), between ramps in the bank above and below the power plant. The elevator can handle boats up to 5 tonnes, with a maximum length of 9.50m and maximum beam 3.40m. The telephone number of the local mechanic to be called for operation of the elevator is posted at each ramp. A single lock is to be built here, starting in 2018, to replace this cumbersome and little-used facility.
There is a conventional do-it-yourself mechanised lock at Savières, with navigable dimensions of 18m by 5.25m. The lock is operated simply by selecting the direction of passage and pushing a button on the control cabinet by the lock side. The cycle is automatic.

There is no draught limitation in the regulations for navigation on the Upper Rhône. The sill depth of Savières lock is 2.50m and a depth of 2.00m is available throughout the navigable length of the river and the Canal de Savières.

The lowest bridge is at Portout, on the Canal de Savières, offering a minimum headroom of 3.50m. On the Rhône itself, the minimum headroom is 6.00 m.

There is no towpath.

VNF – Direction territoriale Rhône-Saône
– 4, rue Jonas Salk, 69007 Lyon
CNR – 2 rue André Bonin, 69316 Lyon Cedex 04

Click to enlarge

Upper Rhone map

Route description
Upstream from Saône confluence in Lyon
PK 0.0    Confluence with Saône at La Mulatière/Gerland
PK 0.6    Bridge (Pasteur)
PK 2.2    Railway bridge (Perrache)
PK 2.5    Bridge (Galliéni), tramway lines T1 & T2
PK 3.0    Bridge (Université)
PK 3.5    Bridge (Guillotière)
PK 3.9    Bridge (Wilson)
PK 4.3    Bridge (Lafayette)
PK 4.5    Footbridge (Collège), residential moorings l/b
PK 4.9    Bridge (Morand), metro, Lyon (Place des Terreaux, Hôtel de Ville and Opera) 400m r/b
PK 5.3    Bridge (de Lattre de Tassigny)
PK 6.0    Bridge (Winston Churchill)
PK 7.9    Railway bridge, strong current, dangerous
PK 8.0    Road bridge (Raymond Poincaré)
PK 9.6    Lock (La Feyssine) in short cut, l/b, rise 2.50m, not in operation

Continuously navigable section from Sault-Brénaz to Seyssel
PK 0.0    Sault-Brénaz u/s elevator ramp, future lock entrance, current d/s limit of navigation on Haut Rhône (after completion of Brégnier-Cordon locks)
Sault-Brénaz is 67 km from the confluence of the Saône in Lyon.

Boat portage ramp leading out of the old lock chamber at Sault-Brénaz to the upper reach, which is several metres higher. A lock could take the place of the ramp.
Boat portage ramp leading out of the old lock chamber at Sault-Brénaz to the upper reach, which is several metres higher. A lock could take the place of the ramp.

PK 0.8    Dam (Villebois) r/b, end of diversion canal
PK 4.5    Montalieu-Vercieu boat moorings and water park (La Vallée Bleue) l/b in widening, with sheltered basin, 110 berths, water, electricity, good slipway, €4.60 – 8.40
In the absence of the projected lock at Brégnier-Cordon, the port de plaisance is essentially used by day boats and water sports.
PK 5.5    Island l/b, camp site and restaurant r/b
PK 8.1    Overhead power lines
PK 10.0    Bridge (d52/D119a, Pont de Briord)
PK 10.6    Briord port de plaisance (Marine Technique), pontoon moorings r/b, 38 berths, water, electricity, slipway, restaurant,
Interesting archeological museum in the village.
PK 13.1    Creys-Malville nuclear power station (disused), private mooring l/b
PK 15.5    River enters narrow gorge (Défilé de Malarage)
PK 16.5    End of gorge, river widens, small island r/b
PK 16.8    Castle (Mérieu) l/b
PK 21.6    Le Port de Groslée suspension bridge (d60), pontoon moorings u/s r/b, no services, restaurant, village 500m r/b
PK 23.4    River divides, take middle channel, keeping towards l/b side
PK 24.7    U/s tip of La Sauge island, navigation in l/b arm
PK 25.4    La Sauge r/b
PK 27.6    Évieu bridge, village 200m r/b
PK 28.0    Navigation enters Brégnier-Cordon diversion canal r/b
PK 30.7        Brégnier-Cordon lock (projected, level with the power plant), rise 13.70m
Works could begin on this lock in 2018. In the meantime, passage by boat elevator using upstream and upstream ramps.
PK 33.3    Brégnier-Cordon bridge (La Bruyère), Maison du Rhône environmental interpretation and visitor centre u/s r/b, village 1200m r/b
PK 34.9    Bridge (d992)
PK 35.2    Murs-et-Gélignieux boat moorings at camp site r/b, 80 berths, water, electricity, slipway, no overnight mooring, opposite water sports area in canal widening, l/b
PK 35.9    Brégnier-Cordon dam l/b, end of diversion canal
PK 45.2    D/s tip of Chantemerle island, keep to l/b arm
PK 45.6    U/s tip of island, heading d/s keep to l/b arm
PK 47.2    Navigation enters Brens-Belley diversion canal, r/b (canoes and other portable boats continue right on bypassed Rhône, weirs with portage paths)
PK 47.7    Bridge (Brens-Virignin), D31a
PK 48.7    Belley downstream lock, rise 7.30m
PK 48.8    Intermediate basin level with Brens hydropower plant, mooring l/b (halte nautique)
PK 49.0    Belley upstream lock, rise 10.00m
PK 50.3    Virignin bridge (La Combe), boat moorings in small basin u/s l/b (no services, but good mooring for Belley, Virignin village 2.5 km.
PK 52.2    Belley bridge (d1504, landing stage u/s r/b for trip boats only), town centre 2 km
PK 53.6    Belley-Magnieu pontoon moorings r/b (Belley 3200m)
PK 55.9    Canal enters narrow gorge
PK 56.4    Bridge (Lit au Roi) at end of gorge
PK 56.5    Canal widens into Lac du Lit au Roi
PK 56.9    Massignieu port de plaisance l/b, 130 berths, water, electricity, showers, slipway, no overnight mooring
PK 57.1    Île aux Oiseaux island in middle of lake
PK 57.9    End of lake, beach l/b
PK 58.6    Bridge (Cressin-Rochefort)
PK 61.9    Dam (Lavours) l/b, end of diversion canal
PK 62.3    Junction with link to Lac du Bourget via Canal de Savières, entrance lock l/b
PK 62.7    Moorings at Auberge de la Paillère, r/b
PK 64.7    Railway bridge (Vions), Aix-Culoz line
PK 66.9    Bridge (Pont de la Loi, D904), Culoz 1800m r/b
PK 67.2    Navigation enters Chautagne diversion canal, r/b
PK 70.1    Chautagne downstream lock, lift 7.30 m
PK 70.3    Intermediate basin level with hydropower plant, mooring l/b (halte nautique)
PK 70.6    Chautagne upstream lock, rise 10.00m
PK 72.6    Overhead power lines
PK 75.8    End of diversion canal, Motz dam l/b
PK 77.7    Confluence of the river Fier, l/b
PK 78.3    Entrance to bay r/b (water sports area)
PK 79.3    New bridge (Seyssel), d/s tip of island
PK 79.6    U/s tip of island
PK 79.8    Seyssel port de plaisance (Port Galatin) l/b, 26 pontoon berths, water, slipway
PK 80.0    Suspension bridge (Pont Vieux), Seyssel (Haute-Savoie) l/b, Seyssel (Ain) r/b
PK 81.0    Seyssel dam, upstream limit of navigation 200m below dam

Port Galatin, a bold investment by the local council long before the locks were built
Port Galatin, a bold investment by the local council long before the locks were built

Canal de Savières and Lac du Bourget
PK 0.0     Junction with Rhône  (PK 62), Savières lock, mechanised, do-it-yourself, push-button operation, max rise 4.25m, bridge
PK 0.2    Chanaz port de plaisance l/b, 115 berths, night €17, water, electricity, shower, campsite, village 500m
PK 0.5    Turn north from Rhône into Canal de Savières
PK 0.7    Footbridge, access to campsite and boat harbour north bank
PK 0.9    Chanaz boat moorings (timber boardwalk) south bank, village with hotels, restaurants
PK 1.2    Bridge (Chanaz)
PK 2.5    Private mooring north bank
PK 2.7    Private mooring north bank
PK 4.2    Portout bridge and landing stages for trip boats, restaurant
PK 4.4    Portout marina r/b, 60 berths, night €17, water, electricity
PK 5.0    Stake marking entrance to Canal de Savières, navigation enters Lake Bourget
Straight line distances across lake to each point indicated, from the canal entrance heading south to the port de plaisance entrance channel (Port des Quatre Chemins).
PK 6.0    La Châtière port de plaisance west shore, 150 berths, & 04 79 54 25 40, night €17, water, electricity, shower, slipway, Conjux 700m south
PK 6.7    Châtillon harbour beneath castle, north-east shore, & 04 79 35 00 51, 150 berths, night €17, water, electricity, shower, attractive picnic area, restaurant
PK 8.5    Saint-Gilles private harbour west shore
PK 10.5    Port de plaisance west shore (for visit to abbey)
PK 10.8    Hautecombe royal abbey, west shore, burial place of princes and princesses of Savoy
PK 12.0    Brison harbour east shore beside railway halt, & 04 79 35 00 51, 58 berths, small village
PK 13.4    Grésine port de plaisance, east shore, 131 berths
PK 15.1    Pointe de l’Ardre headland, east shore
PK 16.8    Le Grand Port yacht harbour east shore, & 04 79 61 28 29, 893 berths, night €17, water, electricity, shower, crane, slipway, Aix 3 km
PK 18.2    Aix-les-Bains harbour (le Petit Port) east shore, & 04 79 61 28 29, 464 berths, night €17, petrol, water, electricity, shower, camp-sites, town centre 2.5 km
PK 19.0    Bourdeau port de plaisance, west shore, 34 berths, château and village 70m above lake on west shore
PK 21.3    Charpignat port de plaisance west shore, 440 berths, & 04 79 25 93 90, night €17, water, electricity, shower, slipway
PK 21.4    Le Bourget-du-Lac small town, port de plaisance (Bras Mort de la Leysse), 94 berths
PK 22.5    Outer mole of breakwater marking channel entrance
PK 22.9    Port de plaisance (Terre-Nue), east shore, 28 berths
PK 23.0    Port de plaisance (Quatre Chemins) at southern end of lake, & 04 79 35 00 51, 187 berths, night €17, water, electricity, shower, Chambéry 10km