From time to time, I see in forums, people asking about what to do in France. The first thing they mention is usually Mont-Blanc and French Alps. It is undoubtedly the most impressive part of our mountains. But France does have other sites in terms of hiking and climbing. This article will provide you with highlights of what you can do. Of course there is much more than what is listed here, but the idea is to give an overview, as many SP pages about French areas and mountains already give complete information.
France has a great tradition of climbing, from the conquest of Mont Aiguille in 1492m by Antoine de Ville (considered as the beginning of alpinism) to the launch of free climbing in the late 70s and early 80s with Jean-Claude Droyer and Patrick Edlinger.
Hikers can also fulfill their wishes with more than a hundred GR trails (GR = Grande Randonnée / Long-distance Hike), throughout the whole country.
Ice-climbing, bouldering, snow-shoeing... you name it, we have it !
Main Climbing & Hiking Areas
South of Paris
The main attraction is the Fontainebleau forest. A mecca for most European boulder climbers, with 30 areas, each having with 50 to 100 routes . It is an incredible paradise for those wanting to explore climbing technics and train for bigger climbs, on a fine grit stone. In this forest a popular hike is the Circuit des 25 bosses (25 hills) providing an overall 1000m "ascent". It takes a day to do it.
Weather : hot and dry in summer, cold and rainy in winter. However as it is grit stone, it is better to climb there, when it's cold (from October to April is ideal).
Main hiking trails : GR1 and GR11 (around Paris)
Length of the area : 30 kms
Between Auxerre and Mâcon
Especially visited by Parisians and locals, Burgundy has nearly 20 cliffs (mostly limestone) of good level. Usually 1 pitch, sometimes 2 or 3. A lot of major routes (7th and 8th grade), and often steep cliffs for those wanting to improve their climbing abilities. Beginners will also find a fair amount of easy ascents. These cliffs are most of the time close to green fields and streams, giving a peaceful touch to the tough climbing.
Weather : rainy area, especially from November to March. Can be hot in summer.
Length of the area : 200 kms
Near Strasbourg and Mulhouse
Low mountains in Eastern France, close to Germany. Mostly a wooden area, but also provides some open spaces with interesting climbing cliffs in granit and grit. The most famous areas Martinswand and Hohneck.
As the altitude gain is not that high, it is nice for easy hikes for one or several days as huts are about everywhere in the range. Snow-shoe walks in winter are lovely.
Weather : continental pattern, thus very cold in winter, and hot in summer. But rather dry all year long.
Highest summit : Grand Ballon (1424m)
Main hiking trail : GR5
Length of the area : around 150 kms
We share this mountain range with Switzerland and Germany. A little higher than Vosges, it is also a great area for hikes of all kind (including snow-shoes in winter). The special thing about this range is that you have (on clear days) an incredible view on the Mont-Blanc chain, with Lac Leman at the bottom. A good climbing spot there is : Baume-Les-Dames.
Weather : continental pattern as well
Highest summit : Crêt de la Neige (1720m)
Main hiking trail : GR5
Length of the area : Around 170 kms (for the French part)
NORTHERN FRENCH ALPS
The first destination in France for mountain climbers from all around the world, with Mont-Blanc (highest summit of Western Europe) as their main target. A lot of legendary peaks around (Grandes Jorasses, Aiguille Verte, Les Drus...) provinding master class climbs, but also easier ascents on peaks such as Mont Blanc du Tacul, Dent du Géant or Dômes de Miage. Hikers shall not miss the TMB (Tour du Mont-Blanc) a trail going around the whole range in 2 weeks. If it is too big a challenge to hike or climb there, close to Chamonix you can head to Aravis or Chablais. Hardly any snow from may to october, and still a feeling of being close to the "big one". Further south, the Vanoise and Tarentaise are also splendid areas for walks.
Weather : alpine, with good sunny conditions from june to september. Winter are cold to the altitude, but provides a good amount of snow for all sorts of skiing.
Highest summit : Mont-Blanc (4810m)
Main hiking trails : GR5 and TMB (Tour du Mont-Blanc)
Length of the area : Around 130 kms (from Lac Leman to Modane)
SOUTHERN FRENCH ALPS
From Grenoble to Nice
The "other Alps" as we could call them. Less visited than the Chamonix part, they definitely are as beautiful and much wilder. Fewer road infrastructures, no Mont-Blanc tourists and a climbing quality (especially on rock) equivalent to the Northern Alps. Especially the Ecrins< with its famous La Meije. It takes sometimes 2 to 3 hours to approach the start of a climb, but it is a minor inconvenient for being almost alone.
Splendid hikes throughout this range as well. Around Grenoble there are interesting and pretty lower-mountain ranges such as Chartreuse, Vercors and Belledonne, but excellent for skiing and snow-shoeing in winter.
Closer to the Italian border, Queyras and Cerces are also very spectacular, with great autumn and spring colors. These two are even less visited than Ecrins being further away from big cities. One last area to visit is undoubtedly the Mercantour, a splendid national park north of Nice, with a rich wildlife and a beautiful mountain setting.
Weather : rather similar to Northen Alps, although the Eastern flank of Ecrins, Queyras and Cerces tend to have more sun in winter. Mercantour gets nicer weather than any other Alps sector.
For cliff climbing, don't miss Ceüse near Gap and Presles near Grenoble.
Highest summit : Barre des Ecrins (4102m)
Main hiking trails : GR5 and GR54 (Tour de l'Oisans)
Length of the area : 200 kms
From Valence to Marseille, and the Mediterranean coast
No snowy peaks here, just sun and limestone ! Provence is a paradise for cliff climbing. Most of its sites have had their part of fame in the French climbing history : Verdon, Buoux, Calanques for example. Lesser known you can also visit for excellent climbing : Dentelles de Montmirail, Sainte Victoire or the cliffs around Toulon. As far as hikes are concerned the landscapes is usually more mineral and drier than anywhere else. Along the sea however it gives a splendid view.
Weather : sunny for most part of the year, even in winter. In summer, temperature can go as high as 35°C and winter it doesn't go much below 0°C. One important factor in the cliamte there, is the presence of Mistral, a strong (up to 120 km/h sometimes) wind going down the Rhône river. It can makes the atmosphere colder, but usually clears the sky in one day.
Highest summit : Mont Ventoux (1912m)
Length of the area : 170 kms from Valence to Marseille and 200 kms from Marseille to Nice
From Bastia to Bonifacio.
In France, Corsica (Corse) is called the Island of Beauty. And it's fully deserved, with its 1000 kms of coast. In only 30-40 kms you go from the blue Mediterranean see to the 2000m+ brown peaks of Corsica. Almost anywhere you hike you have a view on the sea with nice mountain formations around you. The GR20 goes throught the island, and is probably the most famous trail in France. A real 2-week challenge with a lot of altitude gain/loss every day. Around the Aiguilles de Bavella you will find among the best climbs on the island.
Weather : even better than in Provence, as far as sun is concerned. Yet the higher parts of the island can be snowy in winter. Excellent for snow-shoeing.
Highest summit : Monte Cinto (2706m)
Main hiking trail : GR20
Length of the area : around 200 kms
From Perpignan to Biarritz
The Pyrénées range stretches from the Mediterranean sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It also is the natural border between France and Spain. Its summits are not as high as in the Alps (usually between 2000m and 3000m) but you do have a feeling of being in the mountains when you are there. Sharp summits, some glaciers and deep valleys constitute the landscape. Almost as many assets as the Alps... except that you don't have the same thousands of visitors every year. Much more authentic for sure. In winter, Pyrénées is great place for snow-shoeing and has some major ice-climbing in the Gavarnie area.
Weather : the French (North) side of Pyrénées is protected from the bad weather coming from Spain. Summers are warm, even in altitude and winters are as cold as in the Alps.
Highest summit : Grand Vignemale (3298m) - there is a higher summit on the Spanish side : Pic d'Aneto (3404m)
Main hiking trail : GR10 (GR11 on the Spanish side)
Length of the area : around 400 kms
MASSIF CENTRAL (Volcanoes)
France does have its volcanoes. Nothing compared to those of Chile or Ecuador of course. However Massif Central has a beautiful chain of exctint volcanoes between 1000m and nearly 1900m high. All of them are easy ascents on rather gentle slopes. As it is a volcanic area, there are some remnents of ancients volcanoes giving excellent cliff climbing, especially in the Chaudefour valley. In winter, risk of avalanches are low, you can therefore snowshoe and ski about anywhere you want.
Weather : rather agrreable all year long. Not too hot in summer and not too cold in winter, with reasonable rain falls bewteen november and april.
Highest summit : Puy de Sancy (1886m)
Main hiking trail : GR30
Length of the area : around 50 kms
French Climbing & Hiking Areas on SPHere is a list of the SP pages covering some climbing/hiking areas in France. I have included a column with the distance from Paris, as it is usually the entry point for most foreign visitors arriving by plane.
|______Areas______||____Region____||__Type of Landscape__||__Distance from Paris__||_______Photo_______|
|3||Bourgogne||Bourgogne||Hills and cliffs||200 kms|
|8||Corsica||Corse||Lower Mountains||1100 kms|
|10||Fontainebleau||Ile-de-France||Forests / Hills||70 kms|
|12||Haute-Provence||PACA||Lower Mountains||710 kms|
|13||Massif Central||Auvergne||Volcanic||430 kms|
|15||Polynésie||Oceania||Lower Mountains||15800 kms|
Useful informationWeather forecast : Meteo France
IGN (Institut Géographique National)
Provides excellent 1:25.000 and 1:50.000 topo map. The best in France.
Climbing Guidebooks : Boutique FFME
A good publiser for hiking and mountaineering books : Glénat
In France, we have the (stupid) particularity of having to mountain/climbing federations, sometimes even competing against each other.
If you need to register for insurance or look for a club, you can go through one of them (FFME being better for cliff climbing).
Club Alpin Français : CAF
Fédération Française de Montagne et d'Escalade : FFME
Mountain Huts :
A lot of the huts are owned by the Club Alpin Français. You can find a map of their location, on their website.
There are also some privates huts, but usually more expensive.
Even better to find a hut : refuges.info (suggest by Claude Mauguier)
Moving around France :
By road, you can check out Michelin website to find the best itinerary.
By train, no choice but travelling with SNCF. They have an excellent train service.
By plane, either with Air France (national company) or Easyjet (low-cost)