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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
There ten national parks spread across mainland France and the other French lands situated overseas. The first of these national parks was created in 1963 and the most recent was inaugurated in 2012 by the French Agency for Biodiversity. The French national parks cover a total area of 9162 sq.km, 2% of which falls to the protected lands in metropolitan areas.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Finally, here are some useful facts/tips about hiking in France:
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).
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.
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: