France's cuisine may be legendary, but its natural beauty can be a feast for the outdoor connoisseur. From the dramatic coast of Normandy to the ritzy Riviera, France offers active travelers an exciting menu of beautiful destinations and exhilarating activities. Approximately the size of Texas, the country boasts six national parks, 137 natural reserves and 32 regional natural parks. And though there is plenty for visitors to experience beyond these public lands, they are an excellent starting point for encountering the stunning diversity of this region.
If any one place were chosen to epitomize the natural wonders of France, it would have to be Vanoise National Park. Situated in the High Alps along the eastern border with Italy, this alpine wonderland was established as France's first National Park in 1963, and, with Italy's adjoining Paradiso National Park, now comprises the largest protected area in Western Europe. Much like America's Yellowstone, the area bounded by Vanoise could not have been more carefully chosen for its dramatic scenery and abundant wildlife. With over 300 miles of footpaths criss-crossing the park (including two long-distance trails), numerous towering peaks, and a spectacular array of flora and fauna, Vanoise will keep even the most ambitious visitor occupied for weeks.
Just to the southwest of Vanoise, in northern Provence, lies the National Park of the Icrins. Also located in the breath-taking High Alps, this preserve is characterized by steep canyons, jagged mountains, and an exceptionally long winter season. In summer, sunny days and a casual atmosphere amidst nearby towns leaves no doubt that you are in Provence. Outdoor enthusiasts love the inviting ambiance, blessedly free of industry and large crowds. Hikers delight in some 600 miles of marked footpaths in the Park, which is home to chamois, ibex, marmots and grouse. Mountain biking, water sports and other activities also await active travelers.
Further south along the Italian border, Mercantour National Park harbors sparkling mountain streams, alpine lakes and the renowned Vallie des Merveilles (Valley of Marvels), which features thousands of Bronze-Age rock engravings. Situated just an hour's drive north of Nice, the park is home to chamois, mountain goats, marmots, and white hares. A long-distance trail (GR52A) traverses the park— from Colmars, across to Sospel, to the Col de Tende— and offers an excellent route for witnessing all of its wonders. (See Outdoor France: Activities for an explanation on France's trail system.)
Nestled in the emerald waters of the Mediterranean Sea, off the Cote d'Azur, the National Park of Port-Cros welcomes the spectacular arrival of migrating birds each spring and fall. The birds make the Nle de Port-Cros, part of the Hyhres islands, their first landing as they venture north from north Africa each spring. To the delight of bird-watchers, the island becomes a resting and nesting place for cuckoos, orioles, swallows, turtle-doves, nightingales and many more. A glimmering jewel in the warm Mediterranean sun, the park is also home to a magnificent variety of plant life, and is France's only island park.
Located in the south-central Languedoc-Rousillon region of France, the National Park of the Civennes delights outdoor lovers with its treasure-trove of wildlife. The park's location, in an area of wild mountains with a pleasing lack of commercial development, is one of the more remote parts of the country. Naturalists enjoy the opportunity to see more than one-third of all French plant life here, not to mention 135 species of birds.
Furthest west of the major parks, the National Park of the Pyrinies, stretches 62 miles along the southern border with Spain. This rugged sanctuary thrills visitors with its fabulous landscapes, myriad lakes, immense cliffs and waterfalls. One of the last refuges of the brown bear, the park abounds with wildlife. In a stunning display of beauty and variety, wild plants include high alpine species such as the dwarf willow. Trails criss-cross the park, providing ample opportunities for hikers, including the GR10 long-distance trail, which traverses the park. See Outdoor France: Practicalities for contact information for all parks.
Regional Parks & Reserves
The concept of regional nature parks in France grew out of the desire to protect rural lands from urbanization, tourism and large infrastructure projects. They are joint efforts between the local and national governments. Two popular examples are Haute Vallie de Chevreuse, just south of Paris, and Camargue, in the south of France.
The Haute Vallie de Chevreuse features rich human culture, with villages dating to medieval times, numerous historic abbeys, not to mention modern art centers. It is also a fantastic place to enjoy nature within a stone's throw of Paris. Two long-distance footpaths, GR1 and GR2, cross the park — as do several short trails. Far to the south, the Camargue region is famous for its horses, and so the perfect way to discover the park is on horseback. Long-distance hikers can cross the northern tip of the park via GR 653.
Nature reserves in France exist first and foremost to protect endangered wildlife, special geological formations, and the migration paths of various wildlife. Many natural reserves have reception centers and are open most of the year. It is, however, recommended that visitors phone ahead before visiting the reserves. See Outdoor France: Practicalities for the address and phone number of the head office.
GORP presents here just a taste of the abundance of France's outdoor activities and fabulous adventure destinations. We've selected a soupgon of the many possibilities in adventuring to whet your appetite and encourage you to explore for yourself. Outdoor France awaits. Don't just take our word for it. Discover and savor France for yourself.
Special thanks to Russ Collins, creator of Beyond the French Riviera for providing some of the information on this page.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication