Following all the recent confinements and travel restrictions, many have taken up walking for the benefits of fresh air, healthy exercise and the chance to admire some wonderful scenery. With such amazing diversity of landscapes, it’s little wonder that France is fantastic for walking, with thousands of kilometres of well-maintained and signposted trails suited to all levels.
Walks in France are broken into two categories: PR, or Petite Randonnée, are short circular walks or day walks indicated in yellow, and GR, or Grande Randonnée, are extensive hikes that last several days and are indicated in red and white. Both are divided into three levels: easy, medium and difficult.
From the snowcapped peak of Mont Blanc to the Mediterranean, wherever you choose, hiking is a great way to get to know the local culture, cuisine and, of course, wine. Let’s take a look at some of France’s best walks:
Tour du Mont Blanc, Haute Savoie
With an altitude of 4,810 metres, the legendary Mont Blanc is Europe’s highest peak, and the Tour du Mont Blanc is a system of hiking trails of varying levels, with many different starting points, including at Chamonix, Courmayeur and Les Houches. A series of mountain refuges allow hikers to eat or even stay overnight in alpine-style guest rooms.
Lac Blanc, Chamonix, Haute Savoie
This famous mountain hike in the Aiguilles Rouges region begins with a cable car ride offering stunning scenic views. The trail, which takes between three to four hours, ascends steeply to the summit, with views of the beautiful, glacial lake and a spectacular panorama over the Mont Blanc massif.
Cirque de Gavarnie, Pyrénées Mountains
In the National Park of the Pyrénées Mountains, the Cirque de Gavarnie is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and easy loop that begins in the village of Gavarnie and follows the stream up to the head of the valley, which is enclosed by glacier-formed limestone rock walls which create the impression of a natural cathedral. Numerous waterfalls tumble from its peaks, the most impressive of which is the Grande Cascade, which drops for over 400 meters, and is the tallest waterfall in Europe. Unbelievably, this walk takes just one hour from start to finish, making it ideal for young families.
For a more challenging but spectacular hike in the Pyrénées National Park, take the four-hour long trail up to the Brèche de Roland mountain pass, beginning at the Col de Tentes and leading to the French-Spanish border.
D-Day Beaches, Normandy
Most visitors choose to take guided tours to explore all the areas of significance in the five landing beaches: Sword and Gold, where British troops landed, Juno, which the Canadians took, and Omaha and Utah, the US landing beaches. These long sandy beaches and rocky cliffs offer not just a hike of remembrance, but also one of pleasure, passing through small seaside resort towns and charming coastal fishing ports.
Remembrance Trail, Nord-Pas-de-Calais
The Remembrance Trail is a marked circuit that links Albert and Péronne, two symbolic towns of WW1, enabling visitors to discover the main sites of remembrance on the Western Front in the Somme, including battlefield sites, cemeteries, memorials and museums. The tourism offices in both towns have information and maps, and guided tours are also available. In late spring, red poppies, a symbol of sacrifice and remembrance, bloom in the fields.
Grand Traversée des Alpes, Haute-Savoie to the Alpes-Maritimes
The GR5 trail runs for 660km from Lac Leman, or Lake Geneva, through the French Alps to Nice or Menton, passing Mont Blanc, the Vanoise, the Queyras and the Mercantour National Parks, with a number of refuges along the way. It can take anywhere from twenty-five to thirty days to complete, and is widely considered one of the best long-distant hikes in the world, for the beauty of the Alpine slopes and pastures, the snow-covered mountains and glaciers, and for the charm of the French villages it passes.
Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, Cévennes, Massif Central
A must for literary fans, this path follows in the footsteps of author Robert Louis Stevenson, who trekked across the Cévennes in 1878 with a donkey, recounting the journey in his classic travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.
The walk begins in Le Monastier and ends in St. Jean du Gard, and is considered one of the best long-distance routes in France, taking in the forests of the Cévennes, the Mont Lozère massif and the valleys of Gévaudan and Velay. It takes approximately two weeks, but is still a relatively easy walk.
GR 20, Corsica
The 180km long 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 one for advanced hikers. The path traverses Corsica from north to south, passing through rugged hillsides and wild gorges. It can take between eleven and fifteen days to complete, with huts available for overnight stays or shelter from bad weather.
Pointe du Raz to Cap Sizun, Brittany
Wild and windy Pointe du Raz, Brittany’s westernmost point and France’s equivalent of Land’s End, offers breathtaking clifftop walks, widely considered among France’s most beautiful, and an authentic slice of Breton life. Highlights are the views of Sein Island and the Phare de la Vieille, or Old Lady’s lighthouse. Take a detour to the interior of Cornouaille to discover Locronan, one of the most picturesque villages of Brittany.
Pink Granite Coast Trek, Brittany
This rugged pink granite coastline stretches between L’Arcouest and Trébeurden, taking around six days to complete. En route, there are large rock formations all along the coast which have been eroded over the years to form extraordinary and fascinating shapes. This wild and picturesque coast also has beaches and pretty harbours, with several island bird sanctuaries accessible at low tide.
The Arcachon Bay, Gironde
The sweeping Arcachon Bay on the Atlantic Coast has seven km of sandy beaches, as well as oyster ports, fishing piers and the largest marina on the Atlantic Ocean. One popular coastal walk begins at Arès and loops for 12km through a marshland nature reserve, a great spot for bird-watching.
Some 12 km south of Arcachon lies the 2.7-km-long sandbank and protected reserve, the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune, which is ideal for walks and offers extensive views over the Arcachon basin.
The Basque Coast Trail, Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Running 25km between Bidart and Hendaye, near the Spanish border, this coastal hiking trail passes through the region’s most beautiful scenery, including the beaches of Lafitenia and Erromardie, and Pointe Sainte-Barbe, with its incredible views of the bay and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Between Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye, the Basque Corniche offers magnificent ocean and mountain views.
The Mediterranean Balcony
This Mediterranean walk runs between Menton and Marseille along the GR51 route, passing through picturesque hilltop villages, pine woods by the sea, and plateaus with mountain views. Depending on where you are in the region, you can get on the trail from several different points.
The Nietzsche Path, French Riviera
The Nietzsche Path is a challenging hillside walk that follows in the footsteps of the famous German philosopher, who spent some of the 1880s in the area. The trail takes around 1.5 hours between the perched medieval village of Eze and its coastal counterpart Eze-sur-Mer, which has a pine-tree backed beach, cafés, restaurants and a station. En route, there are sweeping coastal views that, on a clear day, extend as far as Italy and Corsica.
Mare a Mare Sud, Corsica
The Mare a Mare, or sea to sea walk spans approximately 77 km, and takes an average of five days to complete. It starts in Porto-Vecchio in the southeast and ends at Propriano in the southwest. It is a relatively easy walk, with various highlights along the way, such as the archaeological sites of Castello de Capula and Castellu di Cucurazazu, the 11th century Romanesque church of Carbini and the church Saint Jean Baptiste near the village Poggio.
The Pilgrim’s Trail, Mont St. Michel
This 6.5km walk begins at Bec d’Andaine and heads across the sands to the island of Mont St. Michel, dominated by its famous Abbey. Religious pilgrims have walked this route since the Middle Ages, making it one of the oldest and most scenic walks in France. It takes approximately two hours and is only possible during low tide, with guided walks available.
Route Napoléon, Pyrénées-Atlantiques
The Camino de Santiago is the most important medieval pilgrimage route in Europe, ending at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, to where the tomb of Saint James the Apostle was relocated from the Holy Land. One of the most interesting and challenging sections is the Route Napoléon, an advanced 27km hike which begins in the Basque town of Saint-Jean Pied de Port, runs through the Pyrénées Mountains ascending around 700 meters, and ends in Spain at the village of Roncesvalles, where there is a pilgrims’ hostel and convent.
Verdon Gorge, Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur
The Verdon Gorge is a river canyon of turquoise crystal clear water, surrounded by dramatic rocks and vegetation. It’s also one of the most versatile hikes in France, suitable for all levels of hikers.
One popular walk is the 16 km Martel trail, which crosses the dramatic canyon and descends steeply into the valley, passing picturesque swimming spots. It takes about six hours from start to finish, so completing the entire trail at once may not be possible unless you can arrange a car at the end of the trail.
The Dordogne Valley
A UNESCO biosphere reserve, the Dordogne Valley is recognised for its valleys of dramatic cliffs, thick oak and chestnut forests, caves, wild streams and arid plateaus, through which the Dordogne River meanders. Scattered throughout are medieval villages and castles, offering hearty food and history. Choose between short, circular walks or extensive hikes.