Despite being the closest from the regional capital Toulouse, the Ariège is paradoxally the less knwon and visited region of the French Pyrenees, overshaddowed by the Basque country and its strong regionalism, the Western and Central Pyrenees (Béarn and Bigorre) with their world famous sites, Andorra with its dirty cheap disount shops, and the sunny Eastern Pyrenees with their climate appreciated by lovers of mediterranean atmospheres.
The lack of SP peak pages, apart from those on the border, illustrates this lack of interest perfectly.
Two thing may partly explain it:
- Most of the peaks fail to reach 3000m, despite being close
- Unlike Luchon or Cauterets, no famous spa served as headquarters during the golden era of Pyreneism of the 19th century. The exploration of the Ariège occured relatively quite late, in the same moment than Picos de Europa !
From the topographic point of view, the Ariège is a region of high peaks, making well the continuity of the Central Pyrenees. Very few peaks exceed 3000m, but a very big crowd of peaks almost reach this limit, around 2800m. However, the Ariège has the specificity that practically no road, contrary to the Bigorre for example, climb very high, which subsequently makes these peaks much more remote and challenging to reach. This one of the reasons that partially explains why, paradoxally located close to Toulouse, the peaks of the Ariège are the less popular in the French Pyrenees. A pity for mass tourism, but a windfall for mountaineers looking for authentic feelings of freedom, enhanced by the fact that many areas have excellent quality of rock and very entertaining scrambles.
The stereotypes of the Ariège describe it as an obscure green and wet region, rainy as can be since being the last bastion of the oceanic climate, with secondary not-so-interesting peaks, flowed into a mass of unpenetrable forests, swarming of dangerous creatures such as bears, as well as its not less dangerous stubborn locals, usually armed with hunting guns, constantly removing the FFRP trails marks, and ready to deflate your tires if you park too close of their property or on a private track.
This is of course a caricature, not to take seriously . And this "remoteness" is what makes, indeed, all the lure of the Ariège. The Ariège is a region of tiny roads, small well-preserved villages with the most authentical and prettiest Pyrenean architecture one can find in the whole range. Traditions, like the gastronomy and the hand-made craft, are well preserved. This also a high place of the Pyrenean pastoralism, with world famous cheeses. Inhabitants are "high in colours" and, except the usual percentage, usually very welcoming and easygoing. Generally very proud and enthusiastic as soon as you show any mark of interest about the place and the way they live.
Coverage and subregions
This section intends to answer anyone asking himself "should I attach it here or not".
The Ariège region is above all a historical region, which takes its name after the Ariège river, and then the Ariège watershed, with its tributary rivers (Hers, Lèze, Arget...). During the last couple of centuries the Ariège is also the name of an administrative départment of France, symbolized by the number "09". The Ariège is usually divided itself in three historical subregions : the Couserans, West, and the Comté de Foix, which is divised itself, from the mountain perspective, between the Vicdessos (Middle) and the Ax county (East). The North part of the departement corresponds to another historical region named "Lauraguais".
Except for the Lauraguais where it gets near Toulouse, the département corresponds exactly to the water divide and the hydrographic watershed of the Ariège river.
The Couserans makes the border with :
- The Garonne/Garona valley, East
- The Val d'Aran and the Pallars.
- The Vicdessos is roughly the counterpart of the Andorra mountains
- The Ax county faces the French Cerdagne (another topographic exception with Val d'Aran, as the french part of "Cerdanya flows south), and the Eastern Pyrenees, watershed of the Têt and Aude rivers, not yet defined on SP as an area.
Subsequently, a significant portion of the border of the Ariège corresponds to the water divide between the Mediteranean sea and the Ocean, and, what's interesting, not only along the Pyrenean main ridge.
View Ariège in a larger map
Natural park & red tape
The Parc Naturel des Pyrénées Ariégeoises was created officially in 2009 after being for a long time a project. One of the goals was to make another entity out of the Parc National des Pyrénées, in order that tourists concentrate less on the latter and focus more their attention to the whole range. We can also say that it makes somehow the french continuity (or replica, it depends from the point of view !) of the spanish Parque Nacional de Aigüestortes i Estany De Sant Maurici, the same way Ordesa y Monte Perdido connects to the french Parc National.
Another goal was to provide more assets to protect the wildlife, like for example the brown bear, whose presence of the last specimens is highly controversial in the region.
Who says natural park says inevitably regulations, and then potential red tape, but surprisingly such section is not available in the official website. However, we can easily imagine the following:
- Do not wildcamp near roads or villages, rather over the tree-line
- No fires
- No trash
- No flower-picking
- Close gates behind you when crossing fences with cattle
- Beware if wildcamping, despite they are not many, bear territory !
The Eastern-Europeans can reassure themselves, there is no offtrail regulation or something like that.
France by car and public transports
The main towns of the Ariège's piedmont are Saint Girons, Mirepoix, Ax-Les-Thermes, Foix, Tarascon-sur-Ariège.
The two-last are particularly well served by a main road directly from Toulouse, recently transformed partly into a motorway (E66) in its north section. This motorway was named "L'Ariégeoise" for touristic purposes, despite a mini cultural scandal, since it crosses the Lauraguais region and stops precisely where the Ariège begins, and the locals subsequently prefered "La Lauraguaise".
Busses and trains also go in this direction, and Tarascon-sur-Ariège, which is a hub to reach a wide range of mountains, in particular the Pique d'Estats surroundings.
Other major roads like the A61, going East, or the A64, going West, serve other regions of the Ariège located further aside, by leaving them and taking roads leading south to the mountains.
Spain and Andorra by car
Just like the Luchonnais, the Ariège is a cul-de-sac without many road crossing the border.
The closest passage on the West is the Garonne valley, via the Val d'Aran and Saint-Béat. The Val d'Aran is reached either from the Ribagorça valley and the Vielha tunnel, or the mountain pass Puerto de la Bonaigua, over 2000m, from the Pallars region.
There is no other passageway until the East of the Andorra border, understand the east end of the Ariège. The Puymorens tunnel gives access from the Cerdagne (Cerdanya), and the pass "Pas de la Case" (Pas de la Casa) from Andorra.
However, many of the previously mentioned mountains of the border are reached from the Spanish hillsides as well. For this purpose, check the route pages of these mountains.
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The emblematic mountainous unit of the Couserans is the group of Mont Valier (2838 m), which extends quite far to the north. It is the only place in the Ariège which owns a glacier (a small one however).
The Valier is a very characteristic tooth-shaped mountain, recognizeable in the skyline from many remote viewpoints.
Other remarquable peaks are located along the main ridge, including Couserans tallest, Maubermé (2880). But bue to the fact that Val d'Aran is located in Spain but hydrographycally speaking part of the north mountainside of the Pyrenees, the Ariège tends to contain "less and less" of the main ridge of the Pyrenees, then less big peaks, as we move west to the valley of the Garonne.
We find, in the deacreasing order of importance, and going West :
- Barlonguère (2802)
- Mail de Bulard (2750)
- Maubermé (2880)
- Crabère (2629)
A region south from the border then in Spain, but connected to the West Ariège ridge is worth mention. From the Canéjan valley or Aran, one can reach the Montlude (2517), gorgeous viewpoint to the Maladeta. The Sierra de Armeros with its collection of lake, connected to the Maubermé, is also a must-see, despite a long approach.
Finally, the Couserans also contains a fair number of interesting small secondary peaks aside the main ridge, on the northern piemont of the Pyrenes, like:
- Calabasse (2210)
- Pic de l'Har (2425)
- Tuc de Pourtillou (2427)
- Pic de Soubirou (2277)
North from these areas, fading out into the Lauraguais, the Pyrenean piemont is covered by huge and dense hardwood and conifer forests, which make the fame of the regionas much as the peaks, not to say more.
The Couserans owns also a collection of beautiful waterfalls, like the very famous Cascade d'Ars, as well as many famous natural sites such as the Cirque de Cagateille, both near Aulus-Les-Bains.
The Vicdessos owns the tallest group of the Ariège, which encapsulates all three-thousanders. It consists in the Montcalm (whose top is entirely in France), Pic de Sullo, and the Pique d'Estats, highest of the Ariège and Easternmost 3000 of the Pyrenees.
However, due to their not-so-accidented morphology (compared to other areas like the Luchonnais), as well as the climate getting closer to the mediterranean weather, they do not own any glaciers.
Two other important mountainous unit are to be mentionned as well.
In the west, a range that extends north from the Mont Rouch (2800) to the Pic des Trois Seigneurs (2199), makes the natural border with the Couserans. This group also includes the Pic Rouge de Bassiès (2676).
In the East, the wild Aston massif, more East, culminates at Pic de Serrère (2912m), and includes Pic de Tristagne, Pic de Medecourbe (2913), Pic de Thoumasset (2741), or Pic d'Espaillat (2263) more north. This group is very wild and rarely visited due to long approaches. But the walks are very rewarding for those seeking tranquillity.
East from the Puymorens pass, the Ax county makes the easternmost part of the Ariège, and provide a foretaste of the Mediterranean Pyrenees, with a drier climate, and lots of lakes that remind the neighbouring Spanish regions.
The Puig Pedros (2842), in the Mérens massif, is the most charimatic area. It is a close neighbour of the emblematic Carlit, however entierely in the Cerdagne (next area east). Pic d'Etang Faury (2702) and Pic de l'Homme (2464) are the other remarkable peaks of the group, in the Orlu Valley.
As we go north, we meet a depression in which is located the town of Quérigut. East from it is located an "administrative anomaly" in the french valley of Carcanet, part of the Ariège but flowing south.
Then we reach another group of mountains located north, which consists in Pic de Tarbésou (2364), Pic de Serrembarre (1839), and Pic de Saint-Barthélémy (2348).
The wide Plateau de Beille, with its ski resort, is a last remarkable site worth mention.
Wild camping :
As mentionned, it is not very clear about regulations, no informations on the website of the park. Anyway, because you are never sure how the locals can behave, do it over the tree-line and far from roads
Unguarded huts :
The Ariège is locally famous to own the highest density of open sherperd huts in which hikers can sleep when not in use. However, there is no precise regulation about it. Keep in mind that :
- The rule "first arrived first served" doesn't apply. If others come after you, they must sleep in as well.
- The boss of the boss is the sherperd. He owns the hut and if the way you use it doesn't please him, you must go.
Their list can be found here.
Guarded huts :
There is a fair amount, however not as dense as the rest of the Pyrenees : Refuge de l'Etang d'Araing (1965), Refuge de l'Etang Fourcat (2445), Refuge de Bassiès (1650), Refuge de l'Etang Pinet (2242), Refuge de Rulhe (2185), Refuge des Estagnous (2240), Refuge des Bésines (2104), Refuge d'En Beys (1980), Refuge de La Chioula (1600).
Accomodations in valleys :
Finally, there is a huge quantity of accomodations in the valley, the problem is to find them. The website of the park can be a starting point, but use mostly Google with location's names, added with "gîte", "chambre d'hôte", etc etc
[img:684844:aligncenter:medium:Morning Maladeta panorama from Montlude]
Due to the copyright policy of the IGN, it is not possible to scan and include map samples without permission. The only way to consult them online is via the database Géoportail, easily browsable via the site ClicGPX (we need to unzoom, move to the east-central Pyrenees and rezoom again)
Two types of maps are usually found in France for the Pyrenees :
- The TOP 25 series of IGN, high quality maps at the 1/25000 scale, mandatory for hiking the high regions mentioned above (Maubermé, Valier, Montcalm, Aston, Carlit). Several maps cover the area described in this page: 2048OT (Valier), 2148OT (Videssos), 2249OT (Puymorens), 2047OT (St Girons), 2047ET (Bastide de Serou), 2148ET (Ax-les-Thermes), 2247OT (Montségur). See the France index for a more accurate look.
- The Rando Editions series, at the 1/50000 scale. This kind of map is usually enough if we stick to the trails, as well as for the soft relief of the forehills of the Ariège. One map covers most of area described in this page: the N° 6 Couserans. However a small part, the Ax county, is covered in the next one, N° 7 Cerdagne-Capcir.