When the snows melt, these mountains transform into perfect walking country. Tony Kelly explores the lush summer landscape

'Look, look!" cried Elaine, my guide, as she bent down to examine the pale-yellow flowers of the genepi, a herbaceous plant which grows in the high Alps. "I've been waiting three years to see one and here it is right next to the path." The genepi is related to the wormwood, the hallucinogenic plant from which absinthe is made, and it is also the base for a delicious liqueur. That evening, after a dinner of magret de canard cooked over an open fire at a rustic Savoyard restaurant, I had a glass of génépi with my coffee and was high in more ways than one.

Food and drink tastes better when you can connect it to the local landscape. That same afternoon, I had come across a herd of vaches de Tarine, horned alpine cattle who are moved on to the higher pastures in summer, where they produce a rich creamy milk scented with wild flowers and melted snow. This is the milk which goes to make Beaufort d'été, huge wheels of nutty, Gruyère-like cheese which was also on the menu that night.

When the snows clear to reveal a lush summer landscape of pine forests, green hills, lakes and mountain streams, waterfalls, glaciers and pretty little villages of stone and timber houses, this is the time when adrenalin junkies get their fix, with extreme sports such as climbing, canyoning, paragliding and white-water rafting. Locals reclaim their villages from theskiers. Markets and festivals feel genuinely French rather than laid on for tourists.

This is a great season for walking, from gentle strolls in the valleys to serious mountain hikes. I stayed in Sainte-Foy, a small-scale ski resort in the Tarentaise valley. In winter, this is at the heart of perhaps the busiest ski area in the world - the mega-resorts of Tignes, Les Arcs and Val d'Isère are all close by - but in summer it is just another alpine village with a population of locals and expats. Several of the ski chalets stay open in summer for walkers. From the balcony of Chalet Chevalier, in the hamlet of Le Planay Dessous, I could gaze across the valley to the glacier on Mont Pourri and the figure of a chevalier seemingly chiselled out of the rock. At Yellowstone Chalet, I lay in a Jacuzzi in front of a huge picture window watching the sun set. Both chalets are on the lower slopes and I had to remind myself that at 1,500m I was higher than Ben Nevis.

An easy walk from Sainte-Foy leads to Le Monal, a listed village of sturdy stone cottages and milk barns, surrounded by larch forests in the shadow of Mont Pourri. This is one of the traditional alpage villages, where shepherds lead their flock during the annual summer transhumance. There is a chapel, whitewashed and peeling, and hay meadows bursting with wild flowers. In summer the grass is gathered and left to dry before being piled into the hayloft for winter fodder. Flowers go in, too, vivid splashes of red, pink and yellow that turn the haylofts into Impressionist paintings.

From here I travelled into the Beaufortain for some of the most spectacular walking in France. I wanted to try out some sections of the Tour du Beaufortain, a lesser-known circuit than the popular Tour du Mont Blanc. After pausing to buy supplies in the market at Bourg St Maurice, I took the road into the mountains and over the Cormet de Roselend pass before lacing up my walking boots and heading for the hills.

I climbed 800m that afternoon, the vegetation changing with the altitude. Down in the foothills at 1,800m, cows with bells on their necks were being driven to summer milking stations. Elaine pointed out dozens of alpine flowers - yellow and purple gentian, red and bladder campion, saxifrage, stonecrop, arnica daisy, black vanilla orchid. We found eyebright, a common ingredient in herbal medicine, and admired the bell-shaped purple and white flowers of the bearded campanula. Higher up, we walked on rocky ridges and scree slopes, gazing down on valleys sculpted by glaciers and shifting snows. And always there on the horizon was the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc.

At the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, two long-distance paths meet at a historic junction of old packhorse routes. For anyone walking in the mountains, these refuges are a real blessing. If you're thinking bodies huddled together in sleeping bags on a cold stone floor, forget it - this one had duvets and bunk beds and solar-powered showers. Dinner was hearty mountain stodge - soup, polenta with beef, Beaufort cheese and chocolate cake, with a bottle of Savoie wine. After dinner, the staff produced a trumpet and a violin and proceeded to entertain a multinational crowd.

The next day I climbed to the Col de la Fenêtre, a narrow mountain pass where the natural formation of the rocks provides a window on to Mont Blanc. Vultures wheeled overhead and I heard the distant cry of a marmot. I drank water from a cool stream and breathed in the heady mountain air, getting high on the scent of an alpine summer.

Tony Kelly flew with easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyjet.com) to Lyon. Return fares in September start from around £120. He also travelled with Activity Leisure (0131-220 5881; www.activityleisure.com), which offers walking holidays in the French Alps. A one-week guided walk in the Beaufortain, staying at mountain refuges and hotels, costs £570 per person, based on two sharing, including airport transfers, the services of a guide and full-board accommodation.