From Alpine glaciers, rivers and canyons to the volcanic peaks of the Massif Central – not to mention 3427km of coastline stretching from Italy to Spain and from the Basque country to the Straits of Dover – France's spirit-lifting landscapes beg outdoor escapes.
Walking & Hiking
The French have been die-hard hikers for centuries, due no doubt to the sheer variety of their country's landscape – alpine mountains, flamingo-pink wetlands, cliff-laced coastal paths, cavernous gorges, mythical forests – that begs deeper exploration on foot. Some of Europe's most inspirational trails are here and communing with the wild is not hard to do.
Paths & Trails
In all, the French countryside is crisscrossed by a staggering 120,000km of sentiers balisés (marked walking paths), which pass through every imaginable terrain in every region of the country. These range from blockbuster legendary hikes of magnificent, snow axe- and crampon-proportion (like the 10-day Tour de Mont Blanc in the French Alps), to timeless pilgrim trails along mellow fields and country lanes (such as the Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle or Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela in Spain) and short family walks around frosted lakes or in forests filled with giant sequoias and pine trees. Gentler trails in the French Alps follow old shepherd routes, while those along the Breton coast track ancient smuggler paths.
No permit is needed to hike. Trails cater to all ages and abilities, and are generally well-maintained and signposted. Bear in mind, though, that there is no substitute for a decent map and/or compass.
In southern France and on the island of Corsica, paths in heavily forested areas – including some sentiers du littoral (coastal paths) – are closed between 1 July and 15 September due to the high risk of forest fire. Always check with the local tourist office before setting out.
In the French Alps and Pyrenees, summertime lifts and cable cars open July and August to transport hikers up to higher altitudes.
The best-known walking trails are the sentiers de grande randonnée (GR trails), long-distance paths marked by red-and-white-striped track indicators. GR trails include:
- GR70 Follow in Robert Louis Stevenson's footsteps from Le Puy to Alès – with or without a donkey – in the sun-baked Cévennes.
- GR20 France's most famous GR trail: a 15-day trek crossing Corsica's untamed interior from north to south.
- GR21 Exhilarating, windswept hikes along the chalky cliffs of Normandy's Côte d'Albâtre.
- GR120 Coastal hikes along the spectacular, 140km-long Côte d'Opale, northern France.
- GR30 Nine-day loop covering 189km through the uncanny, grass-green moonscape of giant molehills in the volcanic Auvergne.
- GR34 Celebrated 'Customs' Officer' trail stretching for 2000km along the Atlantic Coast, taking in Mont St-Michel and seafaring Brittany.
Local tourist offices have mountains of information on walking in their area. They can put you in touch with local hiking guides, and set you up with short walking itineraries in their neck of the woods. Tourist offices often sell walking guides and books. Some helpful online resources:
- Grande Randonnée (www.grande-randonnee.fr) A good source of information (in French) on France's long-distance footpaths.
- GR-Infos (www.gr-infos.com) Information in English on France's long-distance footpaths.
- Parcs Nationaux de France (French National Parks; www.parcsnationaux.fr) First port of call if you are planning a visit to one of France's six hiking-rich national parks.
- Parcs Naturels Régionaux de France (French Regional Nature Parks; www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.tm.fr) Has the low-down on walking and hiking in France's 48 regional nature parks.
Sidebar: Favourite Hikes & Walks
- Day Hikes
- Short Hikes
Sentier des Crêtes, Port Cros (demanding but view-rewarding 7.5km hike on a Mediterranean island); Sentier du Point Sublime, Provence (short but stiff 4km trail through oak-and-pine forest and scarlet rock to a famous viewpoint); Pointe du Grouin to Cancale, Brittany (7km coastal walk ending with oysters).
- Coastal Walks
Sentiers du littoral in St-Tropez, Roquebrune-Cap Martin, Bandol and along the flaming red-rock Corniche de l'Ésterel (all Côte d'Azur); 25km along the coast in French Basque Country; Morgat to Cap de la Chèvre, Finistère (stunning, 13km hike along Breton clifftops).
- Family Walks
Sentier des Ocres, Roussillon (colourful, uber-fun hike through red-ochre formations in Provence); Sentier des Plantes, Île de Port-Cros (aromatic 4km trail from medieval fort to Mediterranean beach on a southern French island); Sentier des Siréniens, Castellane (2km trail through 40-million-old rock formations in Haute-Provence).
- Vineyard Walks
Maps & Guides
- Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre (www.ffrandonnee.fr) Publishes detailed French-language topo guides – trail booklets of major routes with topographic maps.
- IGN (www.ign.fr) Publishes reliable, well-written topographic trail guides; buy them at tourist offices and in bookshops.
- Guides RandOxygène (https://randoxygene.departement06.fr) An excellent resource for hiking in southern France's Alpes-Maritime département (adminstrative region); its maps and guides are both indispensable.
- Bretagne Rando (www.bretagne-rando.com) Essential resource for maps, guides and itineraries along Brittany's beautiful coastal paths.
- Pyrandonnées (www.pyrandonnees.fr) Walking in the Pyrenees.
If there’s one rule of thumb among hikers in France, it's never take the weather for granted. Conditions in mountainous, high-altitude areas in particular can change like the wind – from glorious sunshine and China-blue sky to thunder, lightening and torrential downpour in a matter of half an hour – and being trapped on a trail in adverse conditions is just not fun (not to mention dangerous).
Always check the forecast before embarking on any hike. Local tourist offices also display and/or provide mountain-weather forecasts. By telephone, call 32 50 or 08 99 71 02 plus the two-digit number of the relevant département. For a specific snow and mountain forecast, call 08 92 68 10 20.
Metéo France (www.meteofrance.com) is a reliable web source for weather forecasts all over France; click on 'montagne' for mountain-weather forecasts and 'bulletins neige et avalanches' for snow reports on springtime mountain trails.
Be it family-friendly peddalling along disused railway lines, canals and vineyards or powering it with the hardcore set up an Alpine mountain pass, cycling in France is brilliantly big and varied. Spring to autumn is the best season for cycling; summer in the Alps and the sun-baked south is hot.
Véloroutes & Voies Vertes
With a vast network of cycling paths designed especially for cyclists, France is pure two-wheeling joy. Véloroutes are designated cycling paths while voies vertes ('greenways') stretch for thousands of kilometres along old canal towpaths, disused logging roads, decommissioned railway lines and so on. Voies vertes are open to walkers and horse riders as well as cyclists, and many sections are paved to ensure a silky-smooth ride.
A growing number of pistes cycables (cycling lanes) link neighbouring towns and villages, and rural France enjoys an extensive network of secondary and tertiary roads with relatively light traffic.
In the French Alps and Pyrenees, road cyclists labour up gruelling, hairpin-laced cols (mountains passes) and down exhilarating bone-chilling descents. Tackling these hills with a mountain bike – vélo tout terrain (VTT) – or even an electric bike (increasingly widespread) might be seen as the soft option, but it sure is easier on the leg muscles.
For serious mountain bikers, alpine resorts such as Alpe d'Huez, Morzine and Les Deux Alpes are downhill heaven, as is the Parc National des Pyrénées, where ski stations open up to mountain bikers in summer with sentiers balisés (marked trails) and obstacle-riddled bike parks for honing technique. Most cable cars let you take your bike for free or a nominal fee with a valid lift pass.
In Megève, seasoned downhill competitor Alexandre at Bike Addict organises bespoke mountain-bike itineraries for families, hardened cyclists and everyone in between. Expect to pay around €80/245 for a two-hour lesson/day excursion.
Provence is the other popular mountain-biking region. North of Nice in the Vallée de la Roya, VTT Sospel maintains a network of 150km around Sospel for experienced riders. Beginners (minimum 10 years) and less experienced riders should head to the Ventoux Bike Park, with ramps and jumps in a forest. Southwest in Languedoc, Duverbike is a similar park with thrilling hollows, double bumps et al. Both parks rent VTT bikes and organise guided mountain-bike rides.
Maps & Itineraries
Local tourist offices are the obvious first port of call for route maps and itineraries.
- Freewheeling France (www.freewheelingfrance.com) Comprehensive site covering routes and nearby accommodation, bike hire and tours, and loads of practical tips.
- Union Touristique Les Amis de la Nature (www.amis-nature.org) Details on local, regional and long-distance véloroutes (cycling routes) around France.
- Fédération Française de Cyclisme (French Cycling Federation; www.ffc.fr) Going strong since 1881, this is the authority on competitive cycling and mountain biking in France, including freeriding, cross-country and downhill.
- VeloMap (www.velomap.org) For free Garmin GPS cycling maps.
- Véloroutes et Voies Vertes (www.af3v.org) The inside scoop on 250 signposted véloroutes and voies vertes for cycling, plus an interactive map to pinpoint them.
- Alsace à Vélo (www.alsaceavelo.fr) Comprehensive resource on peddalling along Alsace's numerous wine trails.
- Burgundy by Bike (www.burgundy-by-bike.com) Pair wine tasting with a pedal between vineyards in wine-rich Burgundy.
- Cycling Bretagne (https://cycling.brittanytourism.com) Cycling routes and tours and reams of practical advice on cycling in Brittany.
- La Provence à Vélo (www.provence-a-velo.fr) Tip-top route resource for cyclists in Provence; lots of suggested routes covering the Mont Ventoux area.
- Véloloisir Provence (www.veloloisirprovence.com) Superb cycling resource, detailing a range of colour-coded road and mountain-bike routes around the Luberon, Verdon and other areas.
Sidebar: Best Family Cycling
In the Loire Valley, 400km of marked bike routes – flat and perfect for zipping between the valley's fairy-tale castles.
- Canal des 2 Mers en Vélo
Peaceful towpaths along the 240km, Unesco-listed Canal du Midi (http://en.canaldes2mersavelo.com) link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean via canals.
- Autour du Luberon Véloroute
An insanely scenic, 236km route in Provence linking hilltop villages. Le Luberon à Vélo has the lowdown.
This purpose-built bike path in Provence's Luberon Valley follows the route of a disused railway line for 28km, and there are future plans to extend it.
Take your pick of idyllic islands to explore, both riddled with cycling paths and outlets renting every type of bicycle and children's trailer imagineable.
On the Atlantic Coast, Europe's highest sand dune can be reached by a silky-smooth cycling path from nearby Arcachon.