You can swoon over postcard-perfect views of lavender fields billowing in summer breezes, or vistas of soaring Alpine peaks and wild, Atlantic-bashed coastlines, but you will never feel the true magic of France and the poetry of its landscapes until you sling on your hiking boots and hit the dusty trails.
And what wonders await hikers in France! From dormant volcanoes that last bubbled up during the last Ice Age to azure rivers corkscrewing through deep canyons, France has a trail to match every mood, moment and level of ability. Our eight favorite French hikes take in everything from cloud-grazing peaks to Provence’s drowsy, sun-kissed countryside and the wave-hammered beaches of the Basque Country.
Sentier du Littoral, French Basque Country
Best coastal day hike
25km (15.5 miles), 5–6 hours, easy
Beaches smashed by Atlantic waves, rocky coves, countryside blanketed in maquis (scrub) and fishing villages snuggled below high cliffs provide a hefty hit of the sea on this coastal stunner of a day hike in the French Basque Country. Forging a path between the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay, the Sentier du Littoral delivers one heart-lifting coastal view after another as it strides from Bidart to Hendaye via Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Highlights are plentiful. You won’t forget the views of the Bay of Biscay from Colline de Cenitz, the cheerful seaside buzz of St-Jean de Luz, Socoa’s chunky 17th-century fort and the dramatic cliffs of the Corniche in a hurry. Walk the trail from north to south for arresting views of the Jaizkibel mountain range, the granite crown of Les Trois Couronnes and the 905m (2969ft) peak of La Rhune, topped by Neolithic dolmens and stone circles and swirling with Basque mythology.
Technically, the hike is a breeze, but in summer in particular, make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen and water and walk in the early morning or late afternoon to dodge the relentless midday sun.
Chemin de Stevenson, Cévennes
Best hike for rural romance
270km (169 miles), 2 weeks, moderate
A love letter to Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who trekked across the Cévennes in 1878 with his stubborn donkey Modestine, this hike is one of France’s most classic – and captivating – long-distance rambles. You can read about the journey in Stevenson's travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Traveling from the forests of the Cévennes across the ragged granite Mont Lozère massif into the rolling farmland and valleys of Gévaudan and Velay, the route is the rural French dream in a nutshell.
Donkey or no donkey, the trail (also known as the GR70) is a real beauty, weaving from Le Puy-en-Velay to Alès through forested ravines and rolling cornfields, passing ruined châteaux and stone-built hamlets, and crossing sunbaked hillsides where cicadas and cowbells provide the backbeat.
Fiery sunsets give way to nights spent camping or sleeping at simple rural gîtes (guesthouses), as the scenery builds like a drumroll, saving the best for last – the Unesco-listed Parc National des Cévennes, bristling with beech, oak and sweet chestnut woods and scored by gorges, cliffs and rivers. This spectacularly biodiverse park is home to beavers, otters, roe deer and golden eagles.
The burly Scot and his mule no doubt found the climbs a piece of cake, but several ridge ascents turn what would otherwise be a gentle walk into a more challenging hike, so come prepared. Hiking the full route takes around two weeks, or you can just tackle one of the individual sections.
Lac Blanc, Chamonix
Best hike for mountain fiends
11km (7 miles), 5–6 hours, challenging
Mais oui, it is easier to take the cable car, but where's the fun in that? If you’re the kind of hiker who thinks it’s cheating to stand eye to eye with one of Europe’s most impressive mountains without breaking a sweat or getting a blister, this hike from Argentière near Chamonix to jewel-like Lac Blanc is for you, dear friend.
It’s all uphill from the starting point in Tré-le-Champ in Argentière, with more than 1000m (3280ft) of rocky and rugged ascents to negotiate, and a few dizzying fixed ladders to climb. But it’s well worth it – the Lacs des Chéserys are a tantalizing prelude for sapphire-blue Lac Blanc, with its out-of-this-world view of 4808m (15,774ft) Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.
Wildlife thrives at these craggy heights, so keep a look out for mouflon, golden eagles and, above all, ibex. The icing on the cake is getting to eat at – or even better, stay the night at – the Refuge du Lac Blanc, perched at 2352m (7717ft).
You’ll need a head for heights, a decent level of fitness and good timing for this one, as you’re dealing with proper Alpine terrain. The trail is only accessible from the second half of June through to September; before or after that, as the name ‘White Lake’ suggests, you’ll have snow to contend with.
Best hike for the sheer challenge
180km (112 miles), 2 weeks, challenging
Of the many thousands of miles of sentiers (hiking trails) spidering across France, the trek hailed as the most epic is the GR20 in Corsica. This two-week, into-the-wild, no-holds-barred, knee-crunching monster of a trek sends a shiver down the spine of even the most ardent and experienced hiker. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this beast of a hike exists on a Mediterranean island where most people come to chill on the beach.
But it’s a beauty, too. Traversing the island from Calenzana to Conca, north of Porto Vecchio, it delivers non-stop drama, from deep ravines to glacial lakes, granite crags to wind-battered craters, peat bogs to snow-topped peaks and plains to forests. This is one of Europe’s toughest trails and the terrain is hardcore, with plenty of steep climbs, exposed scrambles and slippery crossings that will make you curse and madly crave more.
Some planning is required as you’ll be drawing water from springs and sleeping in mountain refuges. Note that wild camping is officially not permitted, but people may casually turn a blind eye if you’re discreet and gone by sunrise. The whole route takes two weeks, it will break your back and soul, but you’ll be raving about this walk forever.
Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Switzerland, Italy
Best long-distance hike
180km (112 miles), 10–14 Days, moderate-challenging
Insanely popular (and with good reason), the long-distance Tour du Mont Blanc throws you in at the deep end, whisking you through some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in France, Switzerland and Italy as it circumnavigates the gnarly, snow-polished peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. A test of grit and stamina, the trail twists up to sky-high passes, grazes glaciers and wild rivers, and plunges you into remote, beautiful valleys and meadows bursting with wildflowers.
Almost as memorable as the views are nights spent camping under starry skies or digging into a warm meal at a rustic hut plonked on a mountainside. You'll also relish peachy sunrises and sunsets, and the chance to glimpse altitude-loving wildlife such as marmots, chamois and ibex.
The tour is a summertime endeavor, accessible from late June to early September, but come prepared for wild weather at all times – conditions can change at the drop of a hat, as dazzling sunshine gives way to thunderstorms. There’s no need for technical gear (crampons, ropes, etc) but bring warm layers, waterproofs and solid boots.
Starting and finishing in Les Houches near Chamonix, the trail is best hiked clockwise so you can acclimatize for the tougher climbs towards the end. Planning is essential as the mountain huts get booked out months ahead.
Sentier des Ocres, Roussillon
Best hike in Provence for families
1.5km (0.9 miles), 1 hour, easy
With its spectacularly eroded rock formations, blushing a color chart of reds from dusky pink to rusty terracotta, this canyon in Roussillon in Provence feels more like the American Wild West, especially under a searing blue sky.
This former quarry was once an important center for the ochre mining industry, but today it's the cinematic backdrop for a short but astonishingly lovely circular trail, which weaves through a desert-like landscape of cliffs and ridges and groves of chestnut and pine.
It’s a terrific short hike for families, with information panels giving the inside scoop on local plants and wildlife. Wear solid walking shoes and avoid white clothes, as you'll get dusty. You can walk the route from mid-February to December.
Puy de Dôme, Massif Central
Best volcano hike
6km (3.7 miles), 1½ hours, moderate
The area that makes up France’s midriff remains sorely overlooked by hikers, but Auvergne’s long-extinct volcanoes are a geological and visual treat. Here, sleeping volcanoes that last blew their top more than 7000 years ago rumple the landscape. The countryside is blanketed in green, giving way to granite plateaus and glacier-sculpted valleys that can only really be appreciated on foot.
This wondrous landscape forms the vast Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne, and the jewel in its crown is the Unesco World Heritage-listed Chaîne des Puys, a 40km (25-mile) string of cinder cones and lava domes. The showstopper is 1465m (4806ft) Puy de Dôme.
Most folk jump on the rack railway to reach the top, leaving hikers to enjoy the peace of the Chemin de Muletiers, a short, steep old mule trail that hoists its way up wooden steps and along wildflower-fringed paths to the summit. This trail has been hiked for millennia, as pilgrims once used it to reach the Gallo-Roman Temple de Mercure, which now lies in ruins at the top. Uplifting views from the summit scan across a landscape puckered with volcanoes all the way to the Limagne plain.
Blanc-Martel Trail, Gorges du Verdon
Best canyon hike
16km (10 miles), 6–7 hours, moderate
One of France’s most stirring natural wonders is the Gorges du Verdon, where limestone cliffs razor above the startlingly turquoise Verdon River as it carves its way through the plateau to the Alps. In the shadows and hush of early morning, the canyon is utterly peaceful, enclosed by walls of rock reaching up to 700m (2297ft), but listen carefully and you might hear the screech of a golden eagle wheeling overhead.
You can admire the canyon from many viewpoints and picnic spots, but the way to truly get the measure of Verdon is to hike the Blanc-Martel Trail, which twists and turns through the gorge and down to the river. Later, the route sneaks along trails scored into the high canyon walls, occasionally dipping into a tunnel (bring a torch), traversing a bridge or teetering up a flight of wooden steps. It’s a proper day-long adventure, with the odd steep descent and ascent thrown into the mix.
As the hike is point-to-point, you’ll need to think about transport. The best option is to start your walk at Chalet de la Maline in La Palud-sur-Verdon and end at Point Sublime, where you can take a shuttle bus back to the trailhead. The gorge gets as hot as an oven in summer, so get a nice early start and bring plenty of sunscreen and water.