Exploring the Gorges d'Ardèche: A Driving Tour
The wild and beautiful scenery of the Gorges d'Ardèche nature reserve features dramatic gorges, chalky white cliffs, and prehistoric caves. With its pristine turquoise waters, the Ardèche River winds its way around the gorges. In some places, the waters are gentle enough for swimming; in other places the river is ideal for white-water rafting. Other outdoor activities include canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and scenic walks. The area is a paradise for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and camping enthusiasts. It's also popular with French families for summer vacations.
The following driving itinerary is designed for a full-day excursion, with stops at the most important natural features and attractions. The circular route covers about 85 kilometers, and the complete journey requires at least two hours of driving time (not including stops). This driving tour takes travelers through the diverse aspects of the Ardèche countryside-from peaceful river banks to exhilarating viewpoints and fascinating caves.
Begin the driving tour in Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, at the southernmost edge of the Gorges d'Ardèche. A small community of about 800 residents, Saint-Martin d'Ardèche is an old fishing village on the Rhône River with opportunities for swimming and canoeing right outside the village. The historic village has charming architecture and many cafés with outdoor terraces. Saint-Martin d'Ardèche is surrounded by wild scrubland and the vine-covered hills of the Côtes du Rhône. This area is popular for hiking, camping, and family vacations from spring until November.
Address: 07700 Saint-Martin d'Ardèche
Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac: Magical Caves and a Museum of Prehistory
Aven d'Orgnac is one of the most splendid caves in France that are open to the public. More than 7 million visitors per year come to see the caves, museum, and nature site. Take a guided tour of the immense caves filled with magical stalagmites and stalactites. The tour takes visitor deep into the caves, which are well illuminated and equipped with railed staircases. The Museum of Prehistory transports visitors back in time 350,000 years through fascinating exhibits including sound experiences, visual displays, and interactive features. Considered the best prehistory collection in France, this museum offers surprising cultural discoveries.
During the summer, the site also organizes spelunking cave trips accompanied by expert guides. Adults and children over 12 years can participate in this activity for an additional fee; harnesses, helmets, lights, and lanyards are provided. This exciting underground experience gives visitors a sense of what it was like for explorer Robert de Joly who rappelled into the cave's natural entrance on August 19, 1935.
The Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac lies 17 kilometers west of Saint-Martin d'Ardeche. The caves are 50 meters to 120 meters underground. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and warm clothing (the cave has a constant chilly temperature of 13° Celsius). For spelunking, wear comfortable clothes and sneakers or cross-training shoes.
Address: Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac, 07150 Orgnac-l'Aven
Travel into the wild landscape of the Gorges de l'Ardèche to discover the region's most spectacular nature formation. The Pont d'Arc lies 15 kilometers north of Aven d'Orgnac. Leaving Orgnac l'Aven, follow the D317, which later becomes the D176 west. In a few kilometers, there is a viewpoint on the right with rewarding panoramas. In Barjac, turn north and cross the Ardèche River. On the far side of the bridge, turn right and follow the sign "Route Touristique des Gorges de l'Ardèche." The road (D290) follows the course of the river for the most part. At first, it winds through rock galleries, and there are some little grottoes along the way to Pont d'Arc. Arriving at this site is a splendid moment. Spend time admiring the view. The Pont d'Arc is a large, naturally formed bridge of rock that arches over the expansive Ardèche River. The arch reaches 34 meters above the water level and spans a breadth of 60 meters. The sandy stretches on the river banks are popular spots for swimmers, boaters, and kayakers.
Address: Le Pont d'Arc, 07150 Vallon-Pont-d'Arc
Grotte Chauvet Pont d'Arc (Prehistoric Cave)
While in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, discover an incredible prehistoric cave near the Pont d'Arc. The Grotte Chauvet Pont d'Arc is the oldest decorated cave in France. An amazing testimony to the work of prehistoric man, this cave is covered in paintings and engravings dating back 36,000 years. The cave astonished the world when it was discovered, not only because of its age but also because of the technique of the paintings. Images of bears, bison, lions, mammoths, and horses are beautifully rendered in an expressive, artistic fashion. It is difficult to fathom that the drawings were created so long ago. Due to the fragility of the prehistoric art, the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave is now closed to the public. The French government has supported a project to create a replica of the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave, which will be open to tourists in the spring of 2015.
Address: La Caverne du Pont d'Arc, Montée du Razal, 07150 Vallon-Pont-d'Arc
Aven de Marzal
To make the circular loop in this driving tour, head 24 kilometers southeast from Vallon-Pont d'Arc to Aven de Marzal in Saint-Remèze. The dripstone cave of Aven de Marzal was discovered by the famous French speleologist Edouard Martel in 1892. The cave is notable for its stalactites and stalagmites, sinter formations, crystals, and the wonderful range of colors-pure white to ochre and brown. The caves are 125 meters below the surface and include two spaces: "La Grande Salle" (The Large Hall), also called the "Salle du Tombeau," is a massive cave 40 meters below ground with dimensions comparable to the interior of Notre-Dame in Paris; "La Grotte" lies 126 meters below ground and is also known as the "Salle des Diamants" (Hall of Diamonds) because of its calcite crystals that shine like diamonds under a spotlight.
The site offers a 50-minute guided tour, with interesting commentary about the geology. Visitors descend 380 steps and take 361 steps to go back up. Wear warm clothing; the cave has a constant chilly temperature of 13° Celsius. The Musée du Monde Souterrain (Museum of the Underground World) displays the ladders, boats, and apparatus originally used to explore the Aven de Marzal caves. "Les Dinos de Marzal" ("Dinosaurs of Marzal") is an amazing "prehistoric zoo" with life-size models of prehistoric insects, animals, and dinosaurs. Visitors are awed by the representations of enormous lifelike dinosaurs in the natural environment. The site also has a boutique that sells adorable stuffed-animal dinosaurs and a restaurant with pleasant outdoor seating.
Address: Aven Marzal, 07700 Saint-Remèze
Grotte de la Madeleine
Continue on the winding roads about seven kilometers south from Saint-Remèze to the Grotte de la Madeleine. The Madeleine Cave is found in the heart of the Ardèche Canyon on the scenic road overlooking the Ardèche River. This enchanting cave was discovered by a shepherd in 1867 and is a marvelous sight to behold. Visitors are stunned by thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. The dripstone formations are especially noteworthy for the irregular "excentriques" and sinter shapes. Take a guided tour and learn about the cave's formation over millions of years, first by subterranean rivers and then by erosion from dripping rainwater. The visit includes a one-hour guided tour with a special light show and entry to the site's natural history museum. Nearby is the Belvédère de la Madeleine viewpoint with sensational panoramas of the landscape.
Address: Gorges de l'Ardèche, 07700 Saint-Remèze
Belvédères de la Corniche
On the circular tour through the Gorges de l'Ardèche, after Grotte de la Madeleine, the stretch of the D290 road beyond the D590 road winds around, following the river. This section is known as the "Haute Corniche" and is especially picturesque. The best viewpoints are Belvédère de la Cathédrale (a view of the Cirque de la Madeleine); Balcon des Templiers and Belvédère de la Maladrerie (a magnificent view of the huge bend of the Ardèche); Grand Belvédère at the end of the gorge; Belvédère du Colombier; and Belvédère du Ranc-Pointu, above the last bend of the river overlooking the Rhône Valley. Along this route, some of the viewpoints (belvédères) have ample parking places. Be sure to park in a safe location that is obviously designated for tourists; falling rocks are often a danger on this stretch.
To conclude the driving tour, continue 20 kilometers south of Saint-Remèze to Pont Saint-Esprit. From the village of Pont Saint-Esprit, the road crosses the Rhône River at the point not far north of its confluence with the Ardèche Rive. Notice the graceful old stone bridge that is nearly 1,000 meters long. From this spot, there is an exceptional view of the river and Saint-Esprit village.
Charming Villages in the Ardeche Region
This picturesque "village perchée" is a typical medieval perched village high on a cliff overlooking the Ardèche River. About 49 kilometers north of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, the village is well worth a detour. The village has retained its quaint medieval character, seen in the cobblestone streets, winding alleys, and charming archways (the most famous is the Fachinière passage). The town square dates from the 12th century and Eglise Sainte-Madeleine is a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture. The village is also renowned for its boutiques that sell artisan products from the region, such as goat cheese, salt with herbs, and local honey.
Labeaume lies in the heart of the Ardèche region, 45 kilometers northwest of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche. This quaint little village is surrounded by three rivers and nestled in a cliff of limestone rock. The village delights visitors with its old stone houses, narrow walkways, and cobblestone streets. Many tourists enjoy getting lost in this medieval maze. Above the village is an ancient château, and just below it is the Place Sablas lined with 100-year-old plane trees. The countryside around Labeaume is filled with olive groves; Labeaume's terroir is ideal for making fine olive oil. Nearby, on a limestone plateau, is the hamlet of Chapias with Gallo-Roman origin. This tiny town has a noteworthy chapel, the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Délivrance. From mid-July to mid-August, Chapias hosts a music festival.
About 50 kilometers north of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, Vogüé is listed as one of France's "Plus Beaux Villages" ("Most Beautiful Villages") because of its lovely architecture and gorgeous setting. This medieval village was built around a cliff and is dominated by its 12th-century château of the Lords of Vogüé. The village is a cluster of old houses leading to the castle and a maze of winding cobblestone streets interspersed with many arcades. The oldest parts of the village date from the 11th century, although the imposing towers are from the 17th century.