This page, like Gavarnie and Vignemale, is another secondary area of the Bigorre.
There is so much to write about it, that I thought such a page would be better than overloading the Bigorre.
I would like to thank the following people for their stunning photos of the sector, which I abundantly used here: Rafa , Franganillo, and Edouet.
This page is dedicated to Jean-Marc Bergeron, a great mountaineer from my former town Agen and its mountaineering club, who sadly left us in the end of 2010. He died far from the mountains but the Néouvielle scrambles always were close to his heart.
"The granitic region of the Néouvielle is remarkable by its amount of lakes, the beauty of its landscapes and forests.
It is one of the rare regions of the French hillside of the Pyrenees that evoke the very special charm of Spanish granitic valleys. The abundance and limpidity of the waters, the black scarps crowned with dwarf pines, lawns framed by bosks and crossed by adorable streams, the dark blue lakes, or green, whose banks are filled with rhododendrons, or decorated with even finer colours of flowers, make this region a paradise for walkers, painters, botanists, photographers, fishermen and, of course, mountaineers."
(Sample of the Ollivier guidebook, edition of 1937)
Robert Ollivier perhaps did not expect his words to be so accurate, when comparing the Néouvielle to Spain. It was in the meantime scientifically proved that due to the layout of this mountainous area, oriented as a gradual slope looking south to the sun, it enjoys a specific microclimate. Combined to the fact that the french northern mountainside gets more rain from the Atlantic, gathered the conditions to make it the botanical garden we see.
The variety of fauna and flora is unique: 370 animal species have been identified, such as the capercaillie, the crossbill, the gray partridge, marmots, chamois. Lakes and streams are the home few endemic species such as the Desman, small aquatic mammal also known as the Trumpet Rat. 571 different species of algae have also been identified. Even toads have been observed in the highest regions, and, as for flora, there is no other place in Europe where trees grow so high: the though "black pine" can be seen as high as 2600m !
Pic de Néouvielle comes from the old Occitan "Nèu Vielha", which means "old snows". The beauty of the landscape, so full of lakes, and omnipresent water, owes everything to the granitic nature of the terrain. Granite, unlike sedimentary stones, does not erode. Consequently, during the withdrawal of the glaciers, many stones accumulated as dams to form moraines, or when covering pockets of ice, formed depressions as it melted. The abundance of granite can be explained by the fact that the main ridge of the Pyrenees, in the Bigorre, does not correspond to the granitic horst, the "geologic main ridge". The Gavarnie-Perdido range, standing on the border and made of limestone, despite forming the water divide, is only on outstanding sedimentary fold. Specificity shared by the Ardiden area (its continuity, only cut by the Gavarnie valley), aside the Vignemale. Such asymmetry is partly explained by the important dip (geologic inclination), as well as the fact ice erosion was more active on the colder northern side. Further, granite converges again to the main ridge, at the Balaïtous more west, and the High Luchonnais via the Montious more east.
Counting the number of lakes in the Néouvielle could be summarized as a Chinese puzzle, or in one question: "from when a piece of water is a lake"... Despite few huge developments made by men, most of them dams, this richness was not too altered, and the hiker will be embarrassed with choices. For this reason, the Néouvielle is sometimes flatteringly designated as the "French Aigüestortes", for its similarities with the famous Spanish original.
The "Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle", adjacent to the National Park of the French Pyrenees (and often confused as being a part of it), was created as soon as 1935, much earlier than the Park in 1967. It covers 2313 hectares and aims to protect the biodiversity of the area.
The Natural reserve covers in fact a bit less than what is usually meant by the term "Le Néouvielle", the south part (Barada & Cap de Long) being a part of the National Park.
The Néouvielle region, as we could call it then, can be divided in eight valleys, a bit like a big oval Camembert oriented from SW to NE. Each of them has a specific character, provide different hiking goals (peaks or anything else) and will be described below.
By public transports
Due to its touristic popularity and ski resorts, the Néouvielle is quite accessible for the non-motorized hikers, in comparison with other French areas of Pyrenees.
Saint-Lary is served by the regular SNCF buses, via Lannemezan, on the Pau-Toulouse line. All timetables can be checked on the SNCF website : www.voyages-sncf.com. The Aure valley used to be served by train as well, until Arreau, but this line is currently used only for industrial purposes. There were talks about reopening it for passengers, but no one knows.
Once in Saint-Lary, there are several ways to penetrate the massif without the help of a private car :
- The travel company Costa Voyages regularly operates shuttles to the Orédon, Cap de Long, Aumar and Aubert lakes ("route des lacs") during the high season. Contact them for more information, or ask/phone the Saint Lary touristic information ("Maison du Parc National").
- The cable-car of Saint-Lary leading to the Pla-d'Adet ski resort works in summer. Pla-d'Adet is not a very convenient place to reach the heart of the mountain, but it saves a significant elevation if one plans a several-days hike. The area of the Lacs de Bastan is reached via the ridge of Hèche Barrade, (exposed and unstable, album here).
- The ski-resort of La Mongie (Tourmalet pass) is served by the SNCF buses, and there is a direct connection from Tarbes. Other alternative ways of transportation can be found here (winter season) and here (private shuttles, irregular schoedules, contact them by phone). The valleys of Ets Coubous, La Glère, and Campana de Cloutou are then well reached.
- Since Gavarnie is served also by the SNCF buses, Gèdre and Pragnères below have their stops too. Vallée du Barrada is then served too.
Spain by car
All trailheads in the Aure valley are quickly reached from Spain thanks to the tunnel of Bielsa.
In order to reach the others, we need to circumvent the whole massif anticlockwise: Campana du Cloutou, Ets Coubous, La Glère or Barrada : the furthest the longest. Driving down until Arreau to catch the road of Col d'Aspin is not needed: another secondary mountain pass connects to it, and avoids a significant drive: take the road to the Hourquette d'Ancizan in the homonym village. The other end reaches directly Payolle. The drive is very scenerical and you will enjoy it. Then, the next pass, Tourmalet, is reached via Sainte-Marie-de-Campan. A last drive up in the diction of Gavarnie is needed for those seeking Barrada.
France by car
Thanks to the A64 (E-80) Motorway that goes very close along the Pyrenees on its section between Saint Gaudens and Lannemezan, the access to the Néouvielle is made very quickly. One can leave the A64 in Tarbes, Tournay or Lannemezan to reach either the Gavarnie, Campan and Aure valleys.
The map below shows the position of trailheads mentioned in each subregion :
- I : Dam of Cap de Long (Vallée de Cap de Long)
- H : Dam of Lac d'Aubert (Aumar, Aubert, Orédon)
- G : Dam of Lac de l'Oule (Vallon d'Estibère)
- F : Col de Portet (Lacs de Bastan)
- E : Artigues trailhead (Vallée du Campana de Cloutou)
- D : Barèges trailhead (Vallée d'Ets Coubous)
- C : Betpouey village (Vallée de la Glère)
- B : Pragnères power plant (Vallée du Barrada)
View Larger Map
Valleys & Subregions
View Néouvielle in a larger map
The valley constitued of these two famous artificial lakes is undoubtely the one that men transformed the most.
The Orédon lake, already existing in a natural state, was enhanced as early as 1882 to elevate artificially its level. It was the first dam built for industrial purposes in the Pyrenees, and one of the first in Europe. Russell, aware of these works, declared, bitter :
"Everyone heard of these interesting works over the Orédon lake, which the state is carryong out at great expense, which is meant to raise of scary number of meters the water level so that the Aure valley doesn't lack water. A dam will fullfil this goal, although spoiling the landscape, and perhaps collapse after some storm, flowing few villages in the valley. This sadly grave and costy .... But science wants the useful at any cost."
If he knew this was only the premise of the titanesque Cap de Long dam in 1945, he would have had perhaps a heart attack...
"Cap de Long" was known formerly as a valley with a myriad of smaller lakes known as "Laquettes de Cap de Long", the largest on them forming the Lake of Loustallat. The scale of this construction was, at this time, a real technological challenge, meant to be a showcase of the French expertise, somehow comparable to Viaduc de Millau nowadays. This good website relates it well.
Today, despite the way they radically changed the aspect of this valley, Orédon and Cap de Long are still impressive to watch. The fittings on Orédon are nowadays very discrete, making it looking almost like a natural lake with grassy shores, in which is reflecting the peak of Hèche-Castet, often mistaken with Pic de Néouvielle.
Cap de Long, on his side, looks like a dark blue long fjord. The wind that rushes into it, raising waves, make it look kind of scary and gloomy. But, for this precise reason, it drains crowds of visitors that come just for this only sight.
The road of the Couplan valley leads to both lakes. At the first is located the Refuge Hôtel du Lac d'Orédon. "Refuge" as it serves well as a mountain-hut, "Hotel" because served by a road. Cap de Long, 2160m, is reached after an impressive set of laces which make a popular cycling goal. Some refreshments stand in the high season near the trailhead heading to some three-thousanders like Pic Long, highest and hardest peak of the Néouvielle area, his lieutenants Badet Maubic and Maou, or the Campbieil -Estaragne duet (not always considered as part of the Néouvielle since out of the granitic terrain).
The historic trail used to go in what is now a cold ocean, and nowadays's approach is made via a trail along its south shore. In order to circumvent a small escarpment on the shore, significant ascent and descent are made in the only approach, and exhausted hikers often joke about the signification of the lake's name, being "Long" not only by coincidence :)
Another trail of this valley is worth mention: the "Balconies of Cap de Long", over the opposite north shore. As it name suggests, this is a breathtaking path going over a tiny stripe of grassy slope, under and over cliffs whose exposure is straight over the lake. It links the Breach of Hèche-Castet, also called "Pas du Gat", coming from Lac d'Aubert (next valley below), to Col Tourrat, passageway to the Barrada valley. From which we can also catch back the trail to Pic Long.
Aumar, Aubert, LaquettesPic de Néouvielle, drawing up the edges in all its splendour. And all popular trailheads to the "Montagne d'Aubert", as it was formerly named, often described as the most photogenic three-thousanders of the Pyrenees, are located here. The king has a small brother, the Ramougn, sharp extension of its east ridge that makes another small 3000er.
These sites are served by a road as well, built in 1972 despite the classification as a reserve in 1968. Which explains the high popularity (sometimes excessive ?) of this place. In order to remedy to this problem, the portion of road from Orédon to Aubert was featured with a toll in 1994, during the high season.
But this restriction is not as unlucky as it seems like. Between the trailhead of Orédon, convergence of the two valleys, and Aubert, is located a beautiful piece of trail going along a set of little emerald lakes, named "Les Laquettes", nestled in a fragile ecosystem of marshes. Usually spared with crowds, it is a must-see.
Further up, hikers can reach the Néouvielle by several ways, but not only. Some important passageways to neighbouring valleys, like the impressive Brèche de Chaussenque to the Vallée de la Glère, the Col d'Aumar to the Vallon d'Estibère, the Hourquette d'Aubert and the Col de Madamète to Vallée d'Ets Coubous, visiting the secret site of the Gourg de Rabas.
A set of interesting secondary peaks like Pic d'Estibère, Pic de Madamète, Pic d'Anglade, Soum de Montpelat, or the 2600m unnamed peaklet over Col d'Aubert make other hiking goals. As a descent to Orédon, it is adviseable to try the trail heading steadily over the lake till Cap d'Estoudou, another first-class viewpoint before hiking down.
Two very individualized peaks, which make most of the skyline from Lac d'Aumar, form the southernmost rampart of the area, over Aragnouet: Bugatet and Pic Méchant. As the last of the two suggests, they are not easy hikes despite under 3000, on wild and unstable terrain.
The valley has five little lakes gradually disposed: Lac du Pé d'Estibère or Lac Cascaret, nestled in a marshy depression in the heart of the forest. Lac de l'Ours and Lac d'Anglade, in the upper limit of the forest. Lac de l'Ile, with a rocky island as the name tells, on which grows a grove of few pines. And Lac Supérieur, at the start of the alpine level.
All these lakes host a rich aquatic ecosystem, including the truit fario. Blueberries and alpine Soldanellas are found in abundance. And it is precisely here that can be observed the highest trees of Europe. The only "tour of the lakes" justifies well a round-trip.
The Estibère valley is reached either from Cap d'Estoudou, previously mentioned, or from the trail elevating left at the upper end of Lac de L'Oule, described in the section below.
Pic d'Estibère and Pic de Gourguet close the end of the valley, ridge behind which is located the Aygues-Cluses valley, easily accessible thanks to the generous grassy slopes. Col d'Aumar, left, links to the homonym lake, and Col de Gourguet, right, to the upper Port-Biehl valley.
This is a fine and quite safe hiking terrain in winter due to generous relief.
Lacs de l'Oule & Bastan
At the base of it is located the largest artificial lake after Cap de Long, the Lac de l'Oule (built in 1922), whose dam is served by a road, and near which is located another "refuge-hôtel", the Chalet-refuge de l'Oule. Despite artificial, this large lake is not bad-looking, excepted when its level is abnormally low, revealing stratified sandy banks,