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Gard

The Gard is one of 101 departments of France, including overseas territories, located in the Occitania region in the south of the country. The main feature of the Gard mountains is Cévennes Range, one of eight within the larger Massif Central, essentially France's only inland mountain system between the Pyrenees and the Alps, which it shares with the others. But the department is much better known for the Gard or Gardon River, from which it takes its name, including the Gorges du Gardon and the highest Roman aqueduct in the world, Pont du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Gard also has access to the Mediterranean Sea with its many places of interest. In total there are 372 named mountains in the Gard. Mont Aigoual (1,567 m / 5,141 ft) is the highest point. The most prominent mountain is Guidon du Bouquet (628 m / 2,060 ft).

Pont du Gard, France

Naming

The department gets its name from the river Gard, also known as Gardon.

This is a very old word that is found in many other languages throughout Europe: gård (Danish), garðr (Norse), gardaz (Proto-Germanic), and others. In turn, it probably means "yard, court, fence, enclosure, garden", and the like, and refers to the rich agro-pastoral history of this region dating back over three thousand years, as evidenced by the numerous megaliths found in its territory.

Pont du Gard, France

Pont du Gard, France, in December 2013. Ivan Kuznetsov

Today it is also a UNESCO site under the precise title “The Causses and the Cévennes, Mediterranean Agro-pastoral Cultural Landscape” (Les Causses et Les Cévennes, paysage culturel de l’agro-pastoralisme méditerranéen), where the first part, Causses, is a group of limestone plateaus in the same Massif Central, ideal for animal husbandry and agriculture.

Pont du Gard, France

The valley of Gard or Gardon River, France, near Pont du Gard of the same name. Ivan Kuznetsov

Geography and Landscape

The Gard is the easternmost of the 13 departments of Occitania, a region in the southeast of France between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps. It borders three other departments of the region: Hérault to the southwest, Aveyron to the northwest, and Lozère to the north. To the east of the Gard lies the Bouches-du-Rhône and Vaucluse departments in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

On a physical map, the Gard encompasses three distinct natural areas, which are the main features of its landscape, containing also many unique man-made attractions:

  • The Cévennes Range. The southernmost of the eight Massif Central subranges, it occupies the northwestern part of the department from the town of Anduze onward. The range is not only a cultural region of UNESCO but also the eponymous Cévennes National Park (Parc national des Cévennes), one of the 11 in the country. In addition to the megaliths, there are various architectural buildings scattered throughout its territory: towers and houses, huts and barns, stone walls and sheep fences, and the like, which will serve as landmarks during your hikes.
  • The Gardon River. The main river of the department has its source in Cévennes near the commune of Saint-Martin-de-Lansuscle and runs to the southeast where it empties into the larger Rhône River. The Gard is 127.6 km (79.3 mi) long. The river is also famous for its numerous gorges of the same name which form a canyon named Gorges du Gardon, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and the highest Roman aqueduct (the waterway and bridge over the river) in the world, Pont du Gard (48.8 m / 160 ft high and 275 m / 902 ft long), one of the main UNESCO World Heritage Sites in all of country and one of France’s Grand Sites. Near the canyon, there is also a second bridge—Pont Saint-Nicolas-de-Campagnac.
  • The Mediterranean Sea. On the southern borders of the Gard department touches the sea a little east of the city of Montpellier, where historically one of the largest ports, marinas, and seaside resorts of France and all Europe, or rather a series of at least two ports, La Grande-Motte and Le Grau-du-Roi, was formed. The latter also includes Port Camargue, named after the Camargue Regional Natural Park (Parc naturel régional de Camargue), created to preserve a unique ecosystem in the vast mouth of the same Rhône River.

The central part of the region on both sides of the Gard River is more flat, but it is far from being a true plain, it is an area with many uplands. Here is also located the main city of Gard—Nimes, a former Roman colony, which is even often referred to as the “French Rome”, thanks to its main architectural landmark—the Arena of Nîmes (Arènes de Nîmes) or Roman amphitheater, very similar to the Colosseum in Rome itself or, say, the Arena of Verona.

It should also be noted that the northeast of the department captures part of the French natural and cultural region of Provence with its famous Lovanda fields, vineyards, and other beauties.

Pont du Gard, France

The Pont du Gard Visitor Center and Museum is located on the right or north bank of the Gard River. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

On the right or southern bank of the Gard River and Pont du Gard you will find a cafe, toilet, souvenir shop, and other services. Ivan Kuznetsov

Getting to and Around Gard

The easiest and fastest way to reach the Gard mountains is from two major regional centers, Montpellier to the west and Marseille to the east. Both have international airports. The distance from them to Nîmes is 50 and 120 km (31 and 75 mi), respectively.

Personally, I arrived in Nîmes in just half a day by the TGV high-speed train from Paris from the main French railway company SNCF, whose ticket could be bought at Sncf-connect.com. However, the booking system is quite difficult. My VISA credit card issued in Russia just didn’t work on the site even in 2014, not speaking about nowadays. These trains are also quite expensive. A good alternative to SNCF is Ouigo.com.

Further, from Nîmes throughout all the department, you can travel by local buses Lio.laregion.fr. The Pont du Gard is just 24 km (15 mi) from the city. The buses also reach all the distant villages at the foot of the mountains, including Anduze, and others, which I will name further.

If you are traveling by your own or rented car, or even better by bicycle, do not miss the most scenic mountain road in the region, the Corniche des Cévennes (D907), from Saint-Jean-du-Gard and Florac, which is 50 km (31 mi) long. You can return by taking the parallel road B983 or N106, making a circle—that is 100 km (62 mi) in total — a great distance for a whole day behind the wheel or in the bike’s saddle.

Pont du Gard, France

Is it possible to walk across Pont du Gard? Definitely yes. And even ride a bicycle. Ivan Kuznetsov

Mountains of Gard

As I said before, most of the 372 named mountains in the Gard department, including the highest of them, are concentrated in its northwestern part in the Cévennes Range, one of eight within the larger Massif Central. It is the main mountain system in all of France, and the only one located entirely in its territory. Surprisingly, it is hardly known outside the country, remaining in the shadow of the Alps and even the Pyrenees. But, whoever does find it on their travel map will make a real discovery, as I did in December-January 2013–2014. It was my second stop after Paris, where I returned after circling the entire country through the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and Normandy after 3.5 months.

In particular, the highest peak of the Gard in the Cévennes, Mont Aigoual (1,567 m / 5,141 ft), is located deep in the range in the Buffer Zone of the Cevennes Biosphere Reserve (Zone tampon de la réserve de biosphère des Cévennes) in Cevennes National Park on the border with Lozère department hosting the highest peak of the entire Cévennes, Mont Lozère also known as Sommet de Finiels (1,701 m / 5,580 ft).

It is a large and relatively gentle peak, and is one of the most famous, and consistently popular viewpoints in the region because a road leads to its summit. The mountain has hosted several Tour de France finishes, including most recently in 2020. But it can also be climbed on foot along a marked trail from the nearby villages. At the top you will find one of the oldest meteorological stations in France, collecting among other things data on rainfall in the wettest region of all of France. Speaking more of water, the mountain also gives rise to the Hérault River, another major water artery. It surpasses the Gard River by more than 20 km (12 mi) and flows from north to south.

Besides Mont Aigoual, there is only one other peak in the Gard department above 1,500 m (4,921 ft)—Croix de l’Hermite (1,508 m / 4,947 ft), located in the same area.

The rest of the region is not devoid of elevations up to 1,000 m (3,280 ft). For example, all along the banks of the Gard River, which in some places reaches more than 100 m (328 ft), you will find many cliffs that you can climb while hiking to view the riverbed and its picturesque surroundings from above and get a more complete panoramic view. Particularly around the settlement of Collias, one of the main ones on the river and closest to the Pont du Gard, there are three nearby cliffs of Brazza (115 m / 377 ft), Bimbo (106 m / 347 ft), and L’oeuf (96 m / 314 ft). If you want to climb a bit higher, there is also Silence (150 m / 492 ft), a separate peak, just west of these three.

But even if you don't go to the most famous bridge of France (although it's still hard to believe), visiting one of the department’s towns you are also likely to find yourself on the hill. Say one of the largest cities after Nimes, Uzes, where I lived for two weeks, is located at an altitude of 167 m (547 ft). It is a cozy French town in which you can feel the real spirit of this country, different from the Parisian one, which is familiar to many. From the walls of the medieval city fortress, Duché Palace, named after the Dukes of Uzès, opens a beautiful view of the green surroundings, which can be explored on one of several marked hiking trails. The town is also famous for being the nearest one to the spring from which the Romans transported water to Nîmes via the Pont du Gard.

At the opposite end of the list of the highest peaks of Gard is La Montagnole of 80 m (262 ft) high—confirming what I said about the lack of a real plain here. It can only be found in the very south of the department, where it crosses into the Mediterranean Sea.

Best Hikes in Gard Department

The main hiking areas in the Gard department coincide with its three main natural regions. They are Cevennes National Park in the northwest, Pont du Gard and Gorges du Gardon, a UNESCO site and nature reserve, in the center, and Camargue Nature Park in the south, which although devoid of high mountains, has many marked hiking trails, too.

Cirque de Navacelles Hiking Trails

Along with Mont Aigoual, the second popular hiking spot in Cevennes National Park is the Cirque de Navacelles. As the name implies, it is a giant mountain circus or canyon around a tiny village of no more than a dozen houses, deep in a valley in the southern part of the massif on the border with the department of Hérault. It is also another of the Grand Sites of France in the region. The circus can be explored on a series of marked hiking and biking trails, including the main one at the bottom of the canyon, the namesake “Cirque de Navacelles Ring” (Randofiche le cirque de Navacelles) of 10 km (6 mi) or 3:30 hours long, which can be extended as desired further as it is connected to other trails going hundreds of kilometers (mile) to the other attractions of Cevennes National Park.

Pont du Gard Hiking Trails

The Pont du Gard area is also full of trails. From here, the bridge is not only suitable for a day trip from Nîmes (but also for the more distant Montpelier and Marcelles), but also for a real hiking adventure. Namely, there are five main options here:

  1. To get to the bridge you will anyway have to walk 1.5 km (0.9 mi) from the parking lot and visitor center, which is also a namesake Pont du Gard Museum, tracing the history of the Roman aqueduct through the models of various objects, virtual reconstructions, multimedia screens, and so on (admission to the site is free, but not the museum) along the "Memories of the Garrigue" trail (the “rock”), representing various features of the Mediterranean landscape, the basis of which are olive trees, which the bridge is surrounded like a forest in all directions.
  2. Then you can walk along both banks of the Gard River along the "Aqueduct Trail" of 3.5 km (2.1 mi) long, and of course over the bridge itself (except on July 12 and 13 every year, when it is closed for the festival), although originally it was only a waterway — the passage was added afterward.
  3. More: the bridge crosses GR6 (Grande Randonnée), a 1,348 km (4,422 mi) long hiking trail running from the Gironde department on the Atlantic coast of France to the French Alps. So you can come to it on foot. But I, for example, reached it by bike from Uzès, which I left in the bushes for the duration of the hike. It’s about 40 km (24.8 mi) round trip.
  4. If that’s not enough, there is also a bigger circuit of about 20 km (12.4 mi) along the "Promenade et Randonnee" trail on the rocky hills with shrubs and olive trees to the south of the bridge, to the town of Saint-Bonnet-du-Gard and back.
  5. Another option for hiking in the Pont du Gard is to go all the way to the Gorges du Gardon, located 15 km (9.3 mi) to the west from the bridge. The canyon can also be reached from the nearby town of Collias via a circular trail of 11 km (6.8 mi) long or you can take a separate hike on one of the marked trails in the reserve of the same name.

Pont du Gard, France

The Gardon River right under the Pont du Gard is quite shallow, so that the spillage of water does not threaten to defeat the bridge. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

Pont du Gard had three sections with many arches through which you can view the distant towns on the east side of the bridge and the wildlife on the west. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

Pont du Gard is made of huge stone blocks. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

The Garde River winds along its course, forming a picturesque valley that almost never loses its green splendor, even in mid-winter. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

Forest around Pont du Gard. Ivan Kuznetsov

Pont du Gard, France

Hiking trail near Pont du Gard. Ivan Kuznetsov

Camargue Hiking Trails

The main hiking area in the south of the department, the Camargue Regional Natural Park (Parc naturel régional de Camargue), including the Cooperation Area of the Camargue Biosphere Reserve (Aire de coopération de la réserve de biosphère de Camargue) in the neighboring Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, also offers more than a dozen marked trails ranging in length from 1:30 to 4 hours in different parts of the park. In particular, there are great loop trails from its three main towns on its borders: Arles in the north, as well as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône in the south, by the sea, which can also be reached by car, bus or bicycle. The main route in the interior of the park is around the huge Vaccarès Pond (Étang de Vaccarès) where thousands of wild birds winter or live permanently, including the magnificent pink flamingos.

Massif Central Ski Resorts

For skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, there are no ski resorts in the Gard department but there are more than 10 ski resorts in the Massif Central, which are located throughout the range. It is also one of the main areas for skiing in France.

The largest ski resort in the Massif Central is Le Lioran with more than 60 km (37.2 mi) of slopes and more than 15 ski lifts.

Other major areas for skiing in the Massif Central with more than 10 km (6.2 mi) of slopes and more than 5 ski lifts each include the following in descending order of size: SuperBesse (Puy de Sancy—the highest peak of the massif of 1,885 m (6,184 ft), Le Mont-Dore, and Chastreix (Puy de Sancy), which are located close to each other and connected by ski lifts (in this case the area is superior to Le Lioran), as well as Chalmazel and Laguiole in other parts of the range.

The main ski resorts near Nimes are Prat Peyrot-Mont Aigoual and Bleymard Mont Lozère with more than 5 km (mi) of slopes and more than several ski lifts—yes, both mountains are good not only for hiking but for skiing, even if they are quite small compared to others above.

Check the Occitania and France ski resorts maps in the World Mountain Lifts section of the site. It includes information about open ski lifts / slopes in Occitania and France in real-time with opening dates and hours. There are also year-round cable cars, funiculars, cog railways, aerial tramways, and all other types of mountain lifts.

Tourist Information

Before or after hiking in the Garda Mountains, visit one of the region's official tourist offices, the main one being located in Nîmes:

Nîmes Tourist Office (Nîmes Tourisme)

6 Bd des Arènes, 30000, Nîmes, Gard, Occitania, France

+33466583800

Nimes-tourisme.com

Tourismegard.com

Accommodation

Several basic types of accommodation are available in the Gard department: standard hotels, B&Bs, and campsites, among others. The large presence of the latter both in the mountains and in the seaside is a peculiarity of France.

But if you are a hiker and not a camper, look separately for “gîtes d’etape”, which literally means “a home to rest on the road”. Yes, the name most likely comes from “gypsies,” as the Europeans came to call the first natives of northern India, mistaking them for Egyptians (their real name is Romani people). In particular, there are still many of them in France. However, it refers to the travelers in general.

So in France, gîtes could mean completely different types of accommodation, including all three of the above, but at their core are mountain huts or old farms deep in the countryside converted into more modern housing, where there may be not only overnight accommodation in a common or separate room but also meals. Although some gîtes on the contrary may not have, say, bedding—as in bivouacs. So the main tip: Before choosing a place to stay, try to find out exactly what it is, where it is, and which types of services you will get.

They are collected and rated by the eponymous association Fédération Nationale des Gîtes de France, which gives the appropriate label to a particular hotel since 1955. Hence, if you see that word in the name and the green logo on its doors (virtual—on the hotels websites or social networks, and the real ones, of course), you know what to expect. They are usually located on long hiking trails (Grande Randonnée in French).

Here’s a list of basic lodging options in all the main parts of the Gard department:

Mont Aigoual

  • Hôtel "Les Bruyères"
  • Auberge Cévenole "La Pénarie Valleraugue"
  • Gîte “La Grande Draille"
  • Gîte "Les Cascades d'Orgon"
  • Gîtes "Aire-de-Côte"
  • Gîtes "De Roubigies"
  • Gîtes "Espériès"
  • Camping "Intercommunal Espérou"
  • Camping "Mouretou"
  • Camping "Le Terondel"

Pont du Gard

  • Hôtel "Au Temps des Cerises"
  • Hôtel "Le Colombier"
  • Hôtel "Le Mas de la Chapelle"
  • Motel "Le Clos De La Cerisaie"
  • Gîtes "Des Figourières Gard"
  • Gîtes "Le Mas Des Sagnes"
  • Château "De Collias Hôtel & Restaurant"
  • Camping "La Sousta"
  • Camping "Capfun Gorges du Gardon"
  • Camping "Le Barralet"

Port Camargue

  • Hotel Restaurant "Café Miramar"
  • Hôtel "La Frégate"
  • Hôtel Restaurant "Le Provençal"
  • Hôtel "Les Acacias"
  • Résidence “Les Caraibes"
  • Villa de vacances "Orée des Salines"
  • Résidence "Les Floralies"
  • Camping "Les Jardins de Tivoli"
  • Camping "Espiguette"
  • Camping "La Marine Tohapi"

Cities and Resorts

I have already named the main cities and resorts of the Gard department along the way, but here they are again if you are only interested in this section, as well as a few new ones.

The main and largest city is Nimes, the “French Rome”. The second most important city in the center of the region is a small town Uzes to the north of it, which I recommend visiting even more, because it has more of a sense of the spirit of the real provincial, rather than metropolitan France. Or at least there will be fewer tourists there, and in the off-season in winter, even locals.

Nimes, Pont du Gard, France

Nimes

In the Pont du Gard area there are no cities but there are many towns and villages such as Collias, Vers-Pont-du-Gard, Saint-Bonnet-du-Gard, Poulx, and many others.

The main bases for hiking at the foot of the Cévennes mountains are Alès, Saint-Jean-du-Gard (remember that the river originated in the mountains? hence the name), Anduze, Val-l'Aigoual, Le Vigan, Saint-Martin-de-Valgalgues, Saint-Ambroix.

There are also no major cities on the coast, but there are many resorts, too, including Palavas-Les-Flots, Le Grau-du-Roi, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, as well as Fos-sur-Mer and Port-de-Bouc in the neighboring Bouches-du-Rhône department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region.

On a separate note are Avignon, Arles, and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence which are literally on the border of the two regions. The latter two in particular are famous as the place where Vincent van Gogh lived for a long time and painted many of his most famous paintings, including the “Starry Night”.

Avignon, France - Pont Saint-Benezet famous on the Rhone River in Provence.

Avignon, France - Pont Saint-Benezet famous on the Rhone River in Provence.

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