The 8 greatest nationwide parks in France: from untouched wildernesses to areas underneath three hours from Paris

From snowy mountains to dense forests, sprawling vineyards to glowing coasts, France is legendary for its landscapes, and the French place a correspondingly excessive worth on defending the pure surroundings – in addition to on getting out and having fun with the good outdoor. 

For the reason that Nineteen Sixties, France has established eight nationwide parks (together with one other three in French abroad territories) alongside a wealth of parcs naturels regionaux (regional nature parks) and réserves naturelles (nature reserves). 

Collectively, they have been established to guard France’s treasured wild locations and supply a significant refuge for every kind of uncommon crops, birds and animals – in addition to supporting issues comparable to native tradition, structure, heritage websites and conventional crafts. Some areas are untouched wildernesses whereas others are surprisingly near massive cities and cities. Hike to a mountain refuge, snorkel within the Mediterranean, canoe down a wild river or trek on horseback via an historic forest; France’s parcs nationaux are primed for journey.

How a lot does it value to go to the nationwide parks in France?

There isn’t any admission charge for any of France’s nationwide parks, however you’ll typically discover that lodging and actions in and across the parks are usually costlier than elsewhere. Peak season is through the French grandes vacances in late July and August when the parks are at their busiest and lodging is hard to return by, so go to throughout spring or autumn to keep away from the crowds.

Discover the planet’s most stunning adventures with our weekly e-newsletter delivered to your inbox.
Mountaineering in Vanoise Nationwide Park © Glasshouse Pictures / Getty Pictures

Discover the Alps in Parc Nationwide de la Vanoise

The oldest of the three nationwide parks studding the French Alps, the Parc Nationwide de la Vanoise was established method again in 1963 and, in some ways, set the framework for the French nationwide park system. Its purpose was to guard the fragile alpine surroundings surrounding the neighboring Tarentaise and Maurienne Valleys, an space of 529 sq km that features greater than 100 3000m-high mountains and sits alongside a few of France’s hottest ski areas (together with Tignes, Val d’Isère and the legendary Trois Vallées). Sharing a border with the Gran Paradiso Nationwide Park in Italy, Vanoise varieties one of many largest protected mountain landscapes in Europe.

As you’d anticipate, winter sports activities are vastly common right here. It’s an amazing place to attempt the bizarre outside pastime of raquette à neige (snowshoeing). In summer time, as soon as the snow melts, it’s equally common for climbing and mountain biking. has a wonderful number of hikes with full topographical maps that may be downloaded as GPS recordsdata. Carry binoculars if you wish to be in with an opportunity of spying on France’s largest colony of bouquetins (Alpine ibexes), which quantity round 1800. They roam across the higher slopes of the mountains, the place they’re famously tough to identify. 

A skier speeds down a snowy slope in the Hautes Alpes of Ecrins National Park in France
Hit the slopes within the Hautes Alpes of Écrins Nationwide Park © Westend61 / Getty Pictures

Observe shepherds’ trails in Parc Nationwide des Écrins

At 925 sq km, France’s second-largest nationwide park sits southwest of Vanoise, roughly bordered by the mountain cities of Bourg d’Oisans, Briançon and Hole. Like Vanoise, that is undoubtedly a park for mountain lovers. Greater than 100 peaks sit inside its borders, together with France’s second highest summit, the imposing Barre des Écrins (4102m). Its steep-sided valleys have been carved out by glacial motion, and there are nonetheless greater than 40 ice sheets to see, though – because of local weather change – they’re getting smaller with each passing 12 months. 

Écrins might be the park most favored by critical hikers. It’s as near wilderness because the French Alps will get, with only a single inhabited hamlet, Dormillouse. A number of nature reserves are totally off-limits to human guests. Some 700km of marked trails wind their method across the park, lots of which have been trodden by native shepherds for hundreds of years.

Excessive-altitude refuges (mountain huts) allow you to embark on some epic long-distance treks; when you have a reserving, you’re assured an area to sleep and, at some huts, a scorching meal cooked up by the hut warden. There are some traditional French hikes to sort out in Parc Nationwide des Écrins, notably the Glacier Blanc, the high-level trek from the village of Dormillouse, and the summit of Barre des Écrins

An adult chamois stands on a rocky cliff in the Alpes Maritimes of Mercantour National Park
A chamois sighting in Mercantour Nationwide Park © Alamy Inventory Picture

Spot wild eagles, wolves and ibex in Parc Nationwide du Mercantour

For most individuals, Provence conjures visions of pastoral France: sleepy hilltop villages, fields of lavender and fishing villages. However inland from the coast, Provence flanks the Alps, and lots of guests are shocked to find simply how wild and rugged Haute-Provence turns into. 

A lot of this mountainous a part of Provence is contained throughout the borders of the Parc Nationwide du Mercantour, an enormous 685 sq km space that takes in spiky peaks, steep valleys, distant mountain villages and even a handful of glaciers (it’s additionally house to the Cime du Gélas, which at 3143m is the third-highest mountain within the Alpes-Maritimes). 

Like the opposite mountain parks, Mercantour modifications character in accordance with the season. Blanketed by snow in winter, the park basks in Provençal daylight from round Might to September, which makes it good for summer time climbing. In contrast to different Alpine parks, a lot of it’s accessible by highway – though among the hairpin turns are fairly hair-raising, so be ready. Should you don’t fancy driving, an alternative choice for exploring the park is the picturesque Prepare des Pignes (Pine Cone Prepare) – a pleasant 151km-long railway line from Good to the mountain spa city of Digne-les-Bains.

Mercantour is an excellent park for wildlife recognizing. With luck, mouflons, chamois, ibex, golden eagles and even uncommon bearded vultures can all be seen right here. Controversially, Mercantour can be one of many parks the place wild gray wolves have been allowed to re-establish themselves, a lot to the fury of native farmers and shepherds. You’re extraordinarily unlikely to see them within the wild, although you possibly can see them up shut on the Alpha wildlife park close to St-Martin-Vésubie. 

One other distinctive sight is within the Vallée des Merveilles, the place over 36,000 historic stone carvings are engraved into the rocks, the oldest of which have been created greater than 1800 years in the past.

Landscape of a beach with people laying out in the sand and swimming in the sea with rocky cliffs in the background
Smaller seashores are a lot much less crowded in Calanques Nationwide Park, although they aren’t as simple to get to © Alamy Inventory Picture

Hunt down secret seashores in Parc Nationwide des Calanques

Whereas the sun-seeking hordes flock to the seashores of the Côte d’Azur in summer time, locals and savvy guests head to the a lot craggier, extra inaccessible seashores of the Calanques – the realm of excessive, rugged cliffs that extends southeast from Marseille. Composed of a community of steep-sided canyons which have been carved out over numerous millennia by climate, geology and time, the Calanques additionally provide entry to among the loveliest coves on the southern French coast: patches of white sand with water of a blue so vivid you’ll hardly consider your eyes. For a few years the Calanques have been effectively off the radar, however since 2012 they’ve been formally protected because the Parc Nationwide des Calanques

It’s value noting that whereas lovely, most of the Calanques are comparatively inaccessible. Attending to the extra distant ones typically entails a steep, sweaty trek alongside slim trails the place it’s simple to show an ankle, and the summer time solar could be punishing. Probably the most well-known is Calanque d’En Vau, a cove so good it is featured on many an area postcard. Port-Miou and Port-Pin are additionally value in search of out, whereas Calanque de Morgiou is among the few you possibly can drive to (albeit alongside a rollercoaster of a highway).

Go canoeing and caving in Parc Nationwide des Cévennes

The plush, forested hills of the Cévennes obtain fewer guests than lots of France’s better-known nationwide parks. The exception is excessive summer time, when the slim roads alongside its wondrous gorges, just like the Gorges du Tarn, are nose-to-tail with visitors (go to in spring or autumn to see the Cévennes at its greatest). 

Closely wooded with old-growth oak, beech and candy chestnut, the Cévennes mountain vary is a vital financial institution of biodiversity, as acknowledged by its standing as Unesco Biosphere Reserve: 2300 crops and 2410 animals have been recorded right here — extra species than anyplace else in France. 

It’s a preferred space for canoeing and rafting, with a number of information companies across the villages of Sainte-Enimie and La Malène providing guided journeys (like Locanoë). Should you don’t really feel like getting moist, you may simply hit the paths as an alternative. The Cévennes is famously featured in Robert Louis Stephenson’s 1878 travelog, Travels with a Donkey within the Cévennes. The long-distance GR70 (a.ok.a. The Chemin de Stevenson) traces his route throughout the park. Trekking a minimum of a bit of it’s a should if you happen to’re visiting – as is a cease on the Mont Aigoual Observatory, which gives panoramic views over the nationwide park. 

Increased up, the woods and canyons of the Cévennes give technique to a completely completely different – and altogether stranger – panorama generally known as the causses. Barren, windswept and largely devoid of vegetation, these eerie limestone plateaus type a part of a Unesco World Heritage Website, Causses et Cévennes. Underground, in addition they conceal a few of France’s most intensive cave methods, a number of of which could be visited – like Aven Armand and its cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites.

Hike the peaks in Parc Nationwide des Pyrénées

If it’s extra mountains you’re after, you’ll discover them in abundance in southwestern France – solely with out the glitz and glamour of the Alps. Whereas there are some small ski resorts right here (notably round Cauterets), the French Pyrenees really feel like a way more conventional nook of France, the place mountain agriculture and rural life proceed in a lot the identical method as they’ve for hundreds of years. Shepherds transfer their flocks up and down each spring and autumn from the plush mountain pastures in an age-old ceremony generally known as transhumance

If you wish to see conventional mountain life, that is undoubtedly the place to return. The Pyrenees are dotted with quiet villages and small rural cities the place you possibly can actually immerse your self in native life (they’re additionally one of many solely locations in France the place wild brown bears nonetheless roam, albeit reintroduced from japanese Europe).

There are six important valleys throughout the nationwide park: Vallée d’Aspe, Vallée d’Ossau, Vallée d’Aure, Vallée de Luz, Vallée de Cauterets and Val d’Azun. The encircling mountains are crisscrossed by trails, together with the long-haul GR10 and a number of other others which journey over the border into Spain. Among the many most spectacular walks is the trek to a trio of gorgeous pure amphitheaters – Cirque de Gavarnie, Cirque du Troumouse and Cirque d’Estaubé – the place historic glaciers have carved out enormous, breathtaking bowls from the mountains. The hike to Lac de Gaube by way of Pont d’Espagne from Cauterets is one other highly regarded route. 

A person snorkels with the Iles d'Hyeres in the background
Snorkeling in Port-Cros Nationwide Park © Alamy Inventory Picture

Go snorkeling in Parc Nationwide de Port-Cros

France’s solely island park covers a big space of the Îles d’Hyères, the small archipelago of islands that sits off the south coast close to Toulon. Affectionately recognized to locals because the Îles d’Or (Golden Isles), that is additionally the one French nationwide park that encompasses each land and sea: 1700 hectares of island (primarily on the massive isles of Port-Cros and neighboring Porquerolles), together with one other 2900 hectares of marine habitat, extending out 600m from the coast. 

Evenly wooded and sparsely populated (and in Port-Cros’ case, car-free), the islands are good for exploring by bike or on foot. Their abundance of small seashores and coves are improbable for snorkeling, so it’s value packing a picnic and loads of water. It’s also possible to set up diving journeys if you happen to’re up for going deeper or boat journeys to discover the coast. Notice that there is nowhere to choose up provides past the islands’ little ports. Common ferries run throughout from the harbor at Toulon.

Parc Nationwide de Forêts

Established in 2019, this newcomer marks a departure for the French nationwide park system: much less wild, rather more accessible (simply three hours or so from Paris) and nowhere close to any mountains or sea. It spans a big space of Burgundy and Champagne, with a number of little villages and cities dotted round its borders, alongside marshland, rivers and, in fact, some huge woods (roughly 500 sq km of them, together with crown jewels just like the Forêt de Chantilly and Fôret d’Arc-en-Bois, which collectively comprise round 50 million timber). 

Numerous trails have been established across the park, permitting guests to discover on foot, by bike or, maybe loveliest of all, on horseback – a becoming technique to get round, contemplating that traditionally, a lot of this space would have been the protect of French nobles trying to find wild boar, deer and different forest creatures. Most uncommon are the cigognes noires (black storks) who migrate right here from Africa to make nests on the prime of hundred-year-old oaks. It’s value wanting down in addition to up: Many uncommon mosses, lichens and woodland wildflowers thrive right here, together with the ultra-rare Venus slipper orchid (effective for choosing: a cool €15,000). 

In some ways, it is a cultural park as a lot as a pure one, celebrating the traditions and rural life in France profonde: native craftspeople, meals producers and winemakers have been an important a part of life right here for the reason that Center Ages, and their abilities are nonetheless extremely valued. Don’t miss the prospect to go on a guided hunt for truffes noires (black truffles); these prized mushrooms thrive on the roots of previous oak timber, however you’ll want native information (and a well-trained truffle hound) for an opportunity of discovering one.