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France

In France there are 12,553 named mountains which are spread across three main mountainous regions and six secondary regions. The main regions are of the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. The secondary regions are of the Ardennes, Jura, Massif Armoricain, Morvan, Vosges and the mountains found on the mediterranean island of Corsica.

The Alps are found in the east of France and spread over into the Swiss and Italian borders. The Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range system that lies entirely in Europe. It stretches approximately 1,200 kilometres. The Alps were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. There are 39,563 named mountains in the Alps. Here is the classification into subranges based on the SOIUSA system by Sergio Marazzi.

The highest peak in the alps is Mont Blanc at 4810m which is also the highest peak in Europe west of Russia’s Caucasus peaks. At 4,810m above sea level it is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. There are three towns which surround the base of the mountain with Saint-Gervais-les-Bains and Chamonix in Haute-Savoie, France and Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley, Italy. There are several ways of traversing the mountain: A cable crosses the mountain range from Chamonix to Courmayeur over the Col du Géant, and the 11 km Mont Blanc Tunnel runs beneath and connects France to Italy.

French Mountains

The Massif Central is located in central France consisting of mountains and plateaus. It covers approximately 15% of mainland France and is the largest mountain range in France. The elevation of the region is less than that of the Alps and the Pyrenees due to a large amount of erosion. The Puy de Sancy is the highest peak in the region at 1885m and also the highest volcanic peak in metropolitan France. The region itself was formed through volcanic activity over 10000 years ago.

Le Grand Galbert

Le Grand Galbert (2561 m) reflected in a mountain lake

The Pyrenees are situated in the south of France forming a natural border with Spain. The foothills begin in the eastern coastal town of Saint-Sébastien in Spain before becoming very prominent in the Haute-Pyrenees region in France and the Huesca region in Spain. The highest peak in the Pyrenees, found in the central Pyrenees, is the peak of Aneto at 3404m. The range continues west through Andorra, an independent principality surrounded by mountains, and down towards the western shores of Perpignan. The high mountain passes of the Pyrenees from part of the natural border between France and Spain which winds its way through the range. Not only a natural border between countries, the Pyrenees separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe.

High mountains above the clouds

While both being large mountain ranges in France, there are several key distinctions which separate the Pyrenees from the Alps:

The Pyrenees range has an absence of great lakes, such as those that fill the valleys of the Alps. There are fewer high mountain passes that provide access across the border, and the few passes that exists are of particularly high elevation. There is a large number of mountain torrents, locally called gaves, which form expansive waterfalls - a number which is only surpassed by the those of Scandinavia. Finally there is a high frequency of cirque valleys - where the upper end of the valley forms a semicircle of precipitous cliffs, effectively blocking access to the other side. It is for this reason that there are so few high mountain passes - the mountains at the end of the valley are simply impassable.

The view from Mont Mézenc 1753 m in the Ardeche towards the massif central

The view from Mont Mézenc 1753 m in the Ardeche towards the massif central

The Ardennes are primarily located in Belgium and Luxembourg but stretch across into France and Germany. They are best known for their rollings hills, ridges and extensive forests. The highest point in the Ardennes is the Signal de Botrange at 700m and is situated in Belgium.

The Massif du Jura is a sub-alpine mountain range located north of the Western Alps, spanning along the border between France and Switzerland. The highest peak in the Jura is the Crêt de la Neige at an elevation of 1720m.

The Armorican Massif covers a large area in the northwest of France, including Brittany, Normandy and the Pays de la Loire. The Mont des Avaloirs is the highest point is 429m. Historically the mountains that were in the region have been worn down by erosion.

The Morvan highlands are situated northeast of the Massif Central and extend north towards the Paris basin. The region of 3500 km is covered in thickly wooded areas. The Signal du Bois-du-Roi massif culminates in the highest peak called the Haut-Folin at 910m.

The Massif des Vosges is a range of mountains in eastern France near the border with Germany. There are large swathes of forest which cover the foothills of the various Vosges mountains. The summits are often absent of the forestry which covers the lower slopes - this has resulted in the summits being referred to as ballons - balloons in English. The range is a of average elevation, with the Grand Ballon the highest peak at 1424m.

This secondary mountain range is not on mainland France, it is found on the mediterranean island of Corsica. The island is located southeast of the French mainland and west of the Italian Peninsula. The island contains a single chain of mountains that cover two-thirds of Corsica. The highest of the Corsican mountains is that of Monte Cinto at 2706 m. The island features one of the most famous and toughest long-distance hikes in Europe: The GR20 hiking trail.

The view across the Alps to the west from Chamrousse

The view across the Alps to the west from Chamrousse

French Region High Points

Following an administrative reorganisation of the countries previous 22 regions in 2016, there are now 13 regions in France. Below are the various highest points for each of the respective regions - in order of highest to lowest.

    Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes - Mont Blanc 4810 mProvence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur - There are 1975 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is Barre des Écrins at 4102 m.
  • Occitanie - There are 2069 named mountains in Occitanie. Perdiguère / Perdiguero is the highest point at 3222 m.
  • Nouvelle-Aquitaine - There are 729 named mountains. The Pic Palas is the highest point at 2974 m.
  • Corsica - There are 472 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is Monte Cinto at 2706 m.
  • Bourgogne-Franche-Comté - There are 256 named mountains. Crêt Pela is the highest point at 1495 m.
  • Grand Est - There are 910 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is Grand Ballon at 1424 m.
  • Centre-Loire Valley - Le Magnoux 504 m.
  • Pays de la Loire - There are 19 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is Mont des Avaloirs at 429 m.
  • Normandie - There are 44 named mountains. The highest point is the Signal d’Ecouves at 420 m.
  • Brittany -There are 49 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is Roc’h Ruz at 385 m.
  • Hauts-de-France - There are 81 named mountains. The highest point is Le Chêne Nain found in Watigny at 295 m.
  • Île-de-France - There are 47 named mountains. The highest and the most prominent mountain is the Colline de la Revanche at 231 m.

Hiking in France

France has an excellent diversity of landscapes, from the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc in the Alps to the views of the Mediterranean sea from Corsica. Each of France’s 13 regions offer something different and unique. The Alps are not the same as the Pyrenees in the same way that the Massif Central is not the same as the Massif des Vosges. Every region has a large number of hiking trails, varying in difficulty. France is a paradise for hikers, walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers and outdoors lovers in general. In France there are around 180,000 km of marked walking trails. These trails can be found in both the high mountains to the south and the flatter areas to the north.

The trails in France are marked by the following signals:

  • GR refers to Grandes Randonnées (long distance walking tracks). The signs are red and white.
  • GRdp refers to Grandes Randonnées du Pays (tracks that loop around a particular area). The signs are red and yellow.
  • PR refers to Promenades et Randonnées (these are generally shorter tracks). The signs are yellow only.

French hiking trails indication

The signs above would be found on a Grandes Randonnées trail. Left - Straight ahead, Centre - Turn right (or turn left depending on direction of arrow), and Right - Go back or off course, turn back to find the correct sign. For the most part trails are well signalled and well maintained across France, however it does require some practice not to miss some of the markings, as they can be obscure. Markings are often found of tree trunks, but could also be found behind some new growth. Depending on the surface, some markings can be found on the ground on rocks - these are often the most useful as you look where you are placing your feet.

The yellow sign posts in this photo are found throughout most trails. They are often found at points of interest and at the intersection of trails. They provide useful information such as the direction of the trail, the name, the distance to a certain point and they offer an estimated time to complete the trail. For most users the estimated time is fairly accurate as it is an average time - for more experienced users the time may be shorter, and for less experienced users the time could be longer. It is important to be sure that you have the capacity to complete a selected trail and that you are aware of the difficulty.

The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP), the French association of hiking clubs, produces useful guides (topo-guides) for the various tracks throughout France. Whilst often this information is in French, local tourist offices usually can offer you anglophone trail guides. The difficulties for many of the trails are included in these guides which will help you to decide which trail to do.

Access to water

Always take water with you for any hike that you do. Try your best to take enough water for the entire hike unless you are certain of a water access point. Keeping hydrated during any outdoors activity is important - knowing where access points to drinkable water is vital. Many French towns, villages, hamlets offer drinking fountains. There are three important phrases to be aware of when looking for water:

  • Eau potable = Drinking water - Safe to drink
  • Eau non controlée = Untreated drinking water - usually fine, often found in high mountains where the water is from a local source, however there is no guarantee that it is safe - drink at your own risk. If you are desperate, take it, but be sure to replace your water as soon as you have access to eau potable.
  • Eau non potable = Non drinking water - Avoid drinking.

Occasionally in the summer months the fountains which would normally be running are turned off in an effort to safe water. In this case, if you are struggling to find water, a top tip is go to a local cemetery. Normally there is a fountain which visitors use for watering flowers. It is important to remember to be quiet and respectful when accessing them.

High mountain water point - direct from source - non controlée

High mountain water point - direct from source - ‘non controlée’.

Finally, here are some useful facts/tips about hiking in France:

  • European emergency services / mountain rescue number is 112
  • Sunscreen is advised
  • Remain on marked trails, whilst the risk of becoming lost is low, even the locals manage to get lost sometimes.
  • Have a fully charged phone with you in case of emergencies, have a way of recharging your phone if you plan on a multi-day excursion.
  • Always let someone know where you are going before you head off.
  • If possible hiking during the weekdays, if not start early in the morning to avoid crowds on weekends.
  • Always take food and water with you. Whilst there can be places to find food during your hike, it is not a guarantee and often most shops will be shut on sundays.
  • Take your rubbish with you, leave the mountain clean and as untouched as possible.

Flora and Fauna

France's flora and fauna are as varied as its range of topography and climate. It has forests of oak and beech in the north and center, as well as pine, birch, poplar, and willow. The Massif Central has chestnut and beech; the subalpine zone, juniper and dwarf pine. In the south are pine forests and various oaks. Eucalyptus (imported from Australia) and dwarf pines abound in Provence. Toward the Mediterranean are olive trees, vines, and mulberry and fig trees, as well as laurel, wild herbs, and the low scrub known as maquis (from which the French resistance movement in World War II took its name).

A cheeky chocard (local to the Alps) drawing focus from Mont Blanc in the distance

A cheeky chocard (local to the Alps) drawing focus from Mont Blanc in the distance.

The Pyrenees and the Alps are the home of the brown bear, chamois, marmot, and alpine hare. In the forests are polecat and marten, wild boar, and various deer. Hedgehog and shrew are common, as are fox, weasel, bat, squirrel, badger, rabbit, mouse, otter, and beaver. The birds of France are largely migratory; warblers, thrushes, magpies, owls, buzzards, and gulls are common. There are storks in Alsace and elsewhere, eagles and falcons in the mountains, pheasants and partridge in the south. Flamingos, terns, buntings, herons, and egrets are found in the Mediterranean zone. The rivers hold eels, pike, perch, carp, roach, salmon, and trout; lobster and crayfish are found in the Mediterranean.

French alps flora

Ibex found in the Valoise national park

Ibex found in the Valoise national park

French Mountaineering achievements

The history of alpinism and mountaineering is one that is woven across the France and the Alps. Here is a list of some of the important mountaineering achievements attributed to France:

  • 1492 - The first recorded mountaineer is Antoine de Ville of France. He climbed Mont Aiguille (2087 m).
  • 1760 - Alpinism is invented. Horace Bénédict of Switzerland offered a reward to anyone who could find a way to the summit of Mont Blanc (4810 m)
  • 1786 - The first ascent of Mont Blanc was achieved by Jacques Balmat and Dr. Paccard of Chamonix, France. They left from Chamonix on the 2nd of August, camping halfway before finishing their ascent on the 4th.
  • 1800 - Napoleon Bonaparte led his army across the Alps through the Great St.Bernard Pass towards Italy.
  • 1808 - The first female ascent of Mont Blanc. Again by a Chamonix local - Marie Paradis.
  • 1823 - The Chamonix guides company was established. The first association for guides in the world.
  • 1935 - The first ascent of the north face of Grandes Jorasses 4208 m, part of the Mont Blanc massif.
  • 1963 - The first on ten national parks in France, the Vanoise national park, was established. The national parks protect a total area of 3710 square km.
  • 2012 - The most recent national park of Calanques was created.