As western Europe’s largest country, with lots of high mountain ranges, extensive plains and long river valleys, France has plenty of scope for nature. Outside the busy cities and built-up southern coastlines, it’s easy to get away from the hustle and bustle to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. And there’s nowhere better to do this than in one of the national parks in France.
In the six official national parks on mainland France (plus one in the offing for 2019), you’ll find French scenery showcased at its best. Snowy mountain ranges with crystal glaciers and Sound-of-Music valleys feature in many, while in others it’s the less lofty heights of limestone gorges and endless forests that come centre stage. One of the national parks in France even takes mostly to the water. But all the parks share one common denominator: they’re all stunningly beautiful. Make sure to include at least one on your must-see list when you’re next on holiday in France.
Calanques National Park
Location: Provence Alpes-Côtes d’Azur
Highlights: marine life and dizzy cliff-top walks
Calanques borders on the bustling city of Marseille and enjoys two unique traits. Established in 2012, it’s currently the youngest national park in France and also its most watery. No less than five-sixths of the park lie in the Mediterranean.
Created as a marine reserve, Calanques is a haven for dolphins, turtles and fin whales, all regular visitors to this part of France. On land, wildlife includes geckos and lizards as well as a long list of birds.
Named after the limestone coves that smatter the coastline (many can only be reached by boat), Calanques is something of a marine paradise with plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and diving. Drier activities include dramatic cliff walks but abstain if you’re not too keen on heights.
Cévennes National Park
Highlights: Aven Armand cave and the spring bulbs
Robert Louis Stevenson famously trekked across this giant park in the late 19th century on the back of his donkey Modestine. The scenery went on to feature in his book, ‘Travels with a donkey’. Although Cévennes is one of the most inhabited national parks in France, little has changed since Stevenson and his trusty steed ambled their way through.
This is a land of chestnut forests, meadows grazed by sheep and cattle, and rugged cliff country in the north. It’s dotted with around 400 farms and has several quintessentially French villages. Other attractions include notable caves including Aven Armand (one of the largest in France), Dargilau and Bramabieu, and a carpet of bulbs in spring and early summer. Donkey rides are available but most visitors nowadays prefer to make their way more quickly on foot or by mountain bike.
Écrins National Park
Highlights: snow hares and views that literally go on forever
Another of the biggies, this national park has perhaps the most dramatic scenery of all. Its vast area comes packed with mountains – over 100 peaks rise over the park with the highest at 4,102m. There are no less than 60 lakes plus a good handful of glaciers and lush valleys. All this lofty nature makes for exceptional views and Écrins National Park is one of those places where the vistas literally stretch as far as the eye can see.
Keen hikers will find something of a paradise on earth here. The 700km of marked trails will satisfy even the most demanding walkers and there’s a good network of alpine huts along the way allowing you to break the journey. As well as eagles and vultures up high, look out for snow hares and ermine on the ground.
Fôrets de Champagne et Bourgogne National Park
Location: Haute-Marne/ Côte d’Or
Highlights: ancient forests and the Venus slipper orchid
Not quite a national park yet, but this giant area sandwiched between Champagne and Bourgogne will gain its official park status in 2019. It will become the largest in France – it almost doubles the giant Vanoise. And indeed, almost everything about the national park is big.
Take the forests of beech and oak, for example. They stretch for miles and date back over 200 years. They include some of the oldest woodlands in France and were witnesses to the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this park is something of a treat for walkers who will be more than spoilt for choice with more than 1,000km of possible hikes. The rare Venus slipper orchid thrives here as does the black stork, far less common than the white one and on the elusive side. Keep your eyes trained on those binoculars.
Mercantour National Park
Location: Provence Alpes-Côtes d’Azur
Highlights: cave paintings and nutcracker birds
This is one of the most highly protected national parks in France – no transport is permitted in the centre, making it something of a pedestrian paradise. There’s lots worth protecting too. The southernmost alpine frontier in France, the landscape provides plenty of dramatic sights of glaciers, mountain plateaux, pine forests and mountain lakes. Wild boar and the nutcracker bird are among the more unusual wildlife.
Mercantour also has more than its fair share of man made marvels. The rock carvings and cave paintings in the aptly-named Vallée des Merveilles are truly breathtaking. And while they’re considerably younger, the 15th century frescoes in the valley’s chapels are just as awe inspiring. See it all on foot, by mountain bike or, for the more intrepid, from underneath the wings of a hang glider.
Pyrénées National Park
Highlights: classic mountain passes and golden eagles
The Pyrénées National Park is the smallest on mainland France but what it lacks in size it more than makes up in scenery. Landscapes here are nothing short of dramatic and include sheer peaks, lush mountain valleys and infamous passes. Those at Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet have made or broken legions of cyclists over the years.
This national park gives you the chance to see traditional mountain life, hike some of Europe’s most demanding trails and scale some seriously challenging peaks. Wildlife comes into its own here too. You probably won’t see any but this is the territory of brown bears, reintroduced into the area not so long ago. Mink also keep to themselves but you’re bound to spot a golden eagle or two in magnificent flight above you.
Vanoise National Park
Highlights: possible glimpses of chamois and lynx, and certain sightings of edelweiss
Dating back to 1963, Vanoise is a veritable grandmother among French national parks. It’s also (currently) the largest and more than twice as big as many of the others. Vanoise spans two countries too – once its mountains reach Italy they become part of the Gran Paradiso national park and the two make up Europe’s largest park.
Mountains dominate the landscape here – peaks over 3,000m are common place – and with them, glaciers and mountain lakes. Something of a hiker’s paradise, Vanoise also makes good wildlife watching. You probably won’t be ticking the shy chamois and the even more elusive lynx off your list, but the majestic ibex do let themselves be seen. And marmots pop up regularly in the edelweiss-carpeted meadows.
See the national parks in France from the river
How better to see the splendours of the parks than from on board a luxury floating hotel? Several of our hotel barge itineraries make their way near and through some of the most stunning. Check out our itineraries and book your river visit to a national park.
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