10 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in France
France has a striking diversity of landscapes, from the snowcapped peak of Mont Blanc to the deep blue seas of the Mediterranean. Every region offers inspiring hikes, with trails ranging from easy to advanced, that are sure to impress. Be awed by the alpine scenery in the Chamonix Valley while hiking past glaciers and wildflowers. Amble the country lanes of Alsace to discover storybook hamlets nestled in the rolling hills, or walk from one ancient hilltop village to another in the rugged Luberon Mountains of Provence. Modern-day pilgrims can follow in the footsteps of medieval Christians on the Camino de Santiago trail in the Pyrenees, and history buffs can trace the WWI battlefield sites along the Normandy coast. For the most dazzling seaside panoramas, hike from the beautiful perched village of Eze on the French Riviera to the peaceful beaches of Eze-sur-Mer. One of the most legendary trails on the list is the GR20 in Corsica, but it is only advised for well-trained hikers, whereas anyone could enjoy the gentle nature walk at the Cirque de Gavarnie to admire soaring granite rock walls and marvelous waterfalls.
1 Tour du Mont Blanc
The snowcapped peak of Mont Blanc is one of the world's most spectacular nature sites. At an altitude of 4,810 meters, this legendary mountain is the highest peak in Europe. Many climbers dream of conquering this mountain, but ascending to the top is extremely strenuous and requires exceptional fitness as well as a guide. However, Mont Blanc is not just for mountain climbers. It is possible to find moderate sections of Mont Blanc that can be approached as short hikes. The Tour du Mont Blanc is a system of hiking trails that covers 170 kilometers of the mountain, with many different starting points including Courmayeur, Les Houches, and Chamonix. All trails feature mountain huts along the way where hikers can stop to rest and get refreshments.
Le Chemin des Rognes is a challenging mountainous route that begins in Bellevue and ends in Baraque des Rognes and takes three to four hours. Although it's difficult, this hike offers wonderful views of the Chamonix Valley, the Aiguille du Midi, and the Aravis Mountain Range. In the Chamonix Valley, the Glacier de Argentière route is a 2.5-hour hike on a steep incline, ascending 90 meters with breathtaking panoramas at the top. Accessible from the Grands-Montets à Argentière cablecar, the hike begins in Lognan. In the Chamonix-les-Houches and Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc valleys, La Charme is a short 40-minute hike on a wide, rolling path accessible from the Mont Blanc Tramway at Le Fayet or Saint Gervais. Along the way, hikers will pass by a farm where they may buy goat cheese and will also come across the modern Le Prarion Hotel and Restaurant overlooking the gorgeous scenery. The hike ends at the Chalet de la Charme, a traditional alpine guest house with five comfortable rooms. In the Valle d'Aosta, the Maison Vieille Refuge route is a two-hour hike accessible from the Courmayeur funicular. This relatively easy hike ends at the Maison Vieille, a rustic mountain lodge in a sunny valley.
2 The Gentle Nature Walk at the Cirque de Gavarnie
In the lush National Park of the Pyrenees Mountains, the Cirque de Gavarnie is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site that's accessible to most visitors. An easy loop walk begins in the historic village of Gavarnie, past the Hôtel du Cirque and horse stables, and then follows the stream up to the head of the valley. With almost no incline, this trail lends itself to more of a stroll than a hike. The breathtaking scenery, with sheer 3,000-meter-high glacier-formed granite rock walls enclosing the valley, gives the impression of being a cathedral in nature. Adding to the splendor are numerous rushing waterfalls; the most grandiose is the Grande Cascade, which is the highest waterfall in Europe. Enjoy the peacefulness of this incredibly beautiful and unspoiled nature site. The scenery has no modern developments, only small rustic chalets, pastures of grazing goats, and little footbridges that cross the gurgling mountain stream. Listen to the chirping of the birds and take in the glorious site of the cirque's snow-covered peaks. The gentle, circular walk takes about one hour to complete.
For a more challenging hike in the Pyrenees National Park, advanced hikers should take the trail up to the Brèche de Roland at 2,804 meters.
3 The Legendary GR20 Trail in Corsica
The GR20 hiking trail in Corsica is one of the most famous and toughest long-distance hikes in Europe. With its dramatic gorges and rocky hillsides, this legendary trail is popular with advanced hikers. The sun-drenched path traverses the island of Corsica from north to south, covering a landscape of rugged hillsides and wild gorges. Besides being a test of physical endurance, the trail is in remote terrain, which adds an element of psychological challenge. Only those who are sufficiently trained should attempt the hike, but the effort is rewarded with incredible scenery and panoramic views.
4 Hikes to the Most Beautiful Villages in the Luberon Mountains
Off-the-beaten path and ruggedly beautiful, the Luberon Natural Regional Park (Parc Naturel Régional du Lubéron) is a UNESCO-listed nature reserve in the Haut-Vaucluse region of Provence. The Luberon has many hiking trails and walking paths in between its ancient hilltop villages and historic towns. An excellent short hike is from Gordes to Roussillon. Begin by exploring the medieval hilltop village of Gordes, listed as one of the prettiest villages in France. Then go on a 10-kilometer hike along scenic roads to arrive in Roussillon. Another village perché (medieval perched village) also on the "most beautiful village in France" list, Roussillon stands on an ochre cliff overlooking a stunning landscape. Just outside of town, Roussillon has a short hiking trail along vibrant paths of ochre rock.
From Roussillon, a wonderful all-day hike is from Roussillon to Lourmarin, another of France's "most beautiful villages." This 28-kilometer hike travels through country roads and footpaths until reaching Lourmarin, nestled in a protected valley at the base of the Luberon Mountains. Lourmarin has a traditional Provençal village ambience and is a the perfect place to end up after a long hike because of its inviting restaurants, outdoor cafés, boutiques, and hotels.
5 Paths through Rolling Hills to Picturesque Alsatian Villages
In the charming countryside of Alsace, verdant, vine-covered hills are dotted with fairy-tale villages and little hamlets. The quaint Alsace villages are found in the Regional Natural Park of the Northern Vosges, a UNESCO-listed World Biosphere Reserve. A moderate eight-kilometer hike in this area is from Bergheim to Riquewihr. Begin in Bergheim, a tranquil little village surrounded by medieval town walls. This village is a 4-star "Village Fleuris," because potted geraniums and other bright blossoms adorn the buildings. Take the walking paths through an idyllic landscape towards Riquewihr. Hikers will notice the church steeple of Riquewihr upon approaching this storybook village, listed as one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" (Most Beautiful Villages of France). The village has well-preserved half-timbered houses with vibrant flower-bedecked balconies.
For an easy hike, continue three kilometers from Riquewihr to Mittelwihr, a tiny hamlet nestled among a patchwork of farms. Another scenic hike is from Mittelwihr to Kaysersberg, which can be reached by a six-kilometer country road into the Weiss Valley. This historic town was a Free Imperial City in the 13th century and has retained its medieval ambience. Kaysersberg's handsome old burgher's houses are decorated with colorful potted flowers in the traditional Alsatian style.
6 The Nietzsche Path from Eze Village to Eze Beach
One of the most picturesque trails in France, the Nietzsche Path on the French Riviera offers a challenging hillside hike with splendid seaside panoramas. This steep path follows in the footsteps of the famous German philosopher. Its starting point is the lovely medieval village of Eze, known as the "nid d'aigle" (eagle's nest) because it is perched 400 meters above the sea. Shaded by oaks and olive trees, the trail overlooks the Mediterranean coastline and the Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula in the distance. On a clear day, it's even possible to see all the way to the coastline of Italy and the island of Corsica. Although the scenery is dreamy, this hike is difficult, with an extremely steep stone stairway that winds through the overgrown hillside. While taking on the incline, stop to admire the mesmerizing blue and turquoise waters. The hike takes about 1 1/2 hours and ends at the shores of Eze-sur-Mer, a pleasant seaside area with beaches, hotels, cafés, and restaurants. Eze-sur-Mer is also a popular place for water sports. The Nietzsche Path may also be approached in the reverse (which is convenient if arriving by train), by hiking up from Eze-sur-Mer to the hilltop village of Eze.
7 Route Napoléon on the Camino de Santiago
The medieval Routes of Santiago de Compostela was the most important pilgrimage route during the Middle Ages. Pilgrims embarked on months-long journeys from all over Europe to reach the revered pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims went there to venerate the tomb of Saint James the Apostle, which had been relocated from the Holy Land. The Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle (Way of Saint James) route is still popular among modern-day pilgrims and hikers. Some travelers spend weeks or even months to complete portions of the trail or the entire journey.
To experience this pilgrimage route in a challenging one-day hike, one interesting small section of the Camino de France (the French section of the Camino de Santiago) is the Route Napoléon from Saint-Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles in Spain, just past the border with France. Saint-Jean Pied de Port is a charming town, 55 kilometers from Biarritz, in the Basque Country of Southwest France. The town's cobblestone streets and red-shuttered houses with red-tiled roofs are typically Basque. The 27-kilometer road to Roncesvalles takes hikers on a pedestrian trail through the Pyrenees Mountains, ascending around 700 meters in altitude. This advanced hiking route has sections with a very steep grade that are extremely difficult, but the sensational views reward the effort. Along the way, little plaques featuring scallop shells (the symbol of Saint James' pilgrims) confirm that this is the Camino de Santiago. Roncesvalles is a beautiful ancient village with a historic pilgrims' hostel and convent.
8 Coastal Walk in Bassin d'Arcachon or on the Dune du Pilat
The Bassin d'Arcachon is a pristine nature site in southwest France about 72 kilometers from Bordeaux. A relaxing seaside retreat, the Arcachon Bay has seven kilometers of sandy beaches, as well as fishing piers and the largest marina on the Atlantic Ocean. Enjoy a refreshing coastal walk beginning at Arès in the Bassin d'Arcachon. The area is a marshland nature reserve with a 7.5-mile trail. This scenic pedestrian route is a great place for birdwatching.
One of the top tourist attractions in France lies 12 kilometers south of Arcachon, the Dune du Pilat. Because of the wind and tides, the four-kilometers-long by two-kilometers-wide sandbank is always changing shape. A protected reserve, the Dune du Pilat is a marvelous place for taking nature walks under the bright blue skies. Birdwatchers will be able to spot native species like the Kentish plover. Photographers appreciate this site because of its unique landscape, and paragliders enjoy the perfect wind conditions and interesting views.
9 Hikes through Forests and Farmlands in the Béarn Mountains
The historic Béarn region is an idyllic rural area of rolling hills and mountains about 40 kilometers from Lourdes in the Pyrenees region. Just outside of Jurançon, a narrow two-lane country road takes travelers up to the Montagnes Béarnaises (Béarn Mountains), a lush mountainous area of deeply wooded groves, ravines, crystal-clear rivers, and rushing waterfalls. The forests are interspersed with small farms and pastures where goats graze. Beautiful hiking trails wind around through the forests and valleys.
10 Somme Battlefields Circuit of Remembrance
With its lagoons, sand dunes, and marshes, the Baie de Somme in Normandy is a majestic seaside landscape. Nature lovers will appreciate the invigorating coastal scenery, and history buffs will enjoy following the Circuit of Remembrance, which traces the sites of the WWI battles of 1914 to 1918. The Circuit of Remembrance is a commemorative walking tour that begins in Villers Bretonneux, the location of the National Australian Memorial; continues in Froissy; and stops in 10 other locations. The Somme Tourism Office offers a self-guided audio tour that may be downloaded onto an MP3 player.