I think the first time I became aware of the Mercantour National Park was on a hike with the Vence AVF hiking group through the eastern portion of the park in May of 2016. We began the hike in Casterino (in the Roya Valley near Tende) and walked to the Refuge de Fontanalbe and then north to the Refuge Valmasque before returning to Casterino. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking and I was intrigued with learning more about this stunning French national park.
I did another hike with the AVF through a different portion of the park a couple of years later and my friends Doug and Maureen and I have done two hikes in the park over the last couple years: one from Saint-Martin-Vésubie to Lac Nègre and another from Casterino to the Refuge Valmasque and back. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time cycling through various portions of the park including the Col d’Allos, Col de la Cayolle, Col de la Bonette, the Roya Valley and more. It’s a remarkable area full of a wide variety of landscapes and scenery.
A few years ago I picked up a small booklet at the Office de Tourisme here in Vence called La Grande Traversée du Mercantour. It outlines a 17 stage hike that begins on the western end of the park in the small village of Entraunes and continues west and south to the coastal town of Menton. They also break the hike up into two smaller stages, a 9 stage hike from Entraunes to Isola 2000 and an 8 stage hike from Isola 2000 to Menton.
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Doug and Maureen are avid hikers and they’ve done a lot of backpacking over the years. Me? Sure I like to hike, especially here in France, but not as often as the two of them do. I have to get some bike riding in as well! And I’ve really only done one backpacking trip in my life and that was just for three or four days in the Rocky Mountains almost thirty years ago.
But, I like a challenge so I suggested to them last year that maybe we could try the second leg of this hike from Isola 2000 to Menton during the summer. They were quite enthusiastic about the idea and so we set about making plans. Maureen contacted all the refuges along the way, the small little mountain “hostels” where it is possible to eat and spend the night, and made reservations for the three of us at each of them.
Time passed and before I knew it the trip was just around the corner. Unfortunately, Maureen was having problems with her leg and decided to drop out of the hike. So, it was just Doug and myself. To be completely honest, I wasn’t 100% sure that I could even do the hike. Eight straight days of long hikes through the steep mountains of the southern Alpes? With no breaks? And a full, heavy pack on my back? I’ve never done anything like that before, not even close. But I knew I was in pretty good shape and like I said, I love a challenge so when the day arrived I was ready to go.
Doug and Maureen lent me some backpacking gear (a good hat, a backpack, a sleeping bag, etc.), gave me some pointers on what to bring along and on the morning of July 4th Mark, a friend of Doug’s, drove the two of us up to Isola 2000. It’s an almost two hour drive from Vence so we left early, at 06h00, hoping to get on the trail by 08h00.
Over the next two weeks I’ll write detailed accounts of each of the eight days and hikes. Follow along with me to get all the inside scoop on what we saw, what we did, where we went and how we fared. Lots of gorgeous photos as well. Due to weight and bulkiness I didn’t take my Nikon camera with me but my iPhone takes remarkably good photos.
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About the Mercantour National Park
Established in 1979 the Mercantour National Park contains over 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles) of hiking trails and 1,123 named mountains. It’s one of only nine national parks in France. The highest peak, Rocca Blancia, stands at 3,193 meters (10,476 feet). The park stretches for 90 kilometers along the Italian border from the town of Barcelonnette to the Côte d’Azur, passing through the Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments. It extends across six valleys: Haut Verdon, Var-Cians, Ubaye, Tinée, Vésubie and Roya-Bévéra. It features a large variety of lakes and rivers with Lac d’Allos being the largest high mountain lake in all of Europe.
Within its boundaries you’ll find everything from high snow covered mountain peaks to deep forested valleys to raging mountain rivers to green meadows full of tall grass and vibrantly colored flowers. Close to thirty small villages ring the park, many of them right on the edges of the protected terrain. Colmars-les-Alpes, Entraunes, Guillaumes, Roubion, Roure, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, Tende, La Brigue, Saorge and Breil-sur-Roya are just a few of my favorites. I’ve been to all of them on my bike.
The park also features an incredible selection of flora and fauna. You’ll find fat, furry marmottes scurrying across the mountainsides, nimble chamois (an antelope like animal) grazing near rivers and lakes, agile bouqetins (a type of wild goat) climbing up the sides of steep mountain cliffs and much more. These days there are even wolves in the park though it’s still incredible rare to actually see them in the wild. Bird species include owls, eagles, vultures, partridges, grouse and many more. In fact there are over 8,744 different animal species within the park. Over 2,700 plant species grow in the area as well including large coniferous forests with larch, silver fir, pine and spruce trees. Flowers are everywhere.
The park is comprised of two sections: the “heart” or “core” which is heavily regulated with strict rules to protect its environment and the “peripheral” zone which is a bit less regulated and where the various villages are found. There is little permanent human activity in the heart of the park which covers an area of 685 square kilometers (264 square miles). The peripheral zone is over twice as big with 1,365 square kilometers (527 square miles) with around 18,000 permanent residents.
Man has inhabited this area for tens of thousands of years. Over 37,000 rock etchings have been discovered and cataloged in the Merveilles Valley, most of which date back to the Bronze Age. For many centuries salt and chestnuts played an important part in the local economies. An old salt road ran from Nice to Cuneo, Italy and over the years it has been traveled by countless merchants, dealers, soldiers and everyday people. Being so close to the Italian border has meant centuries of conflicts and you will still find remnants of many old military buildings both in France and on the other side of the border in Italy.
In addition to the Grande Traversée du Mercantour (GTM) hike that Doug I completed a portion of there are numerous other multi-day hikes such as La Meije to Mediterranean Hike (12 days), Three Refuge Walk (3 days) and the Grand Tour of the Vallée des Merveilles (2 days). Countless day hikes exist that will suit every type of hiker and walker.
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About la Grande Traversée du Mercantour
When most people think of the Côte d’Azur they envision glamorous, elegant cities like Cannes, Antibes, St. Tropez or Nice. Luxurious beaches strewn with parasols and graceful chaise lounges. Opulent villas tucked away on the hillside among the flowering trees and greenery. Stately hotels situated along fashionable boulevards and stylish promenades. While all of this is true, there’s so much more to the Côte d’Azur than this.
Drive just one hour north of Nice and you’ll find yourself surrounded by tall mountain peaks and deep narrow valleys flush with coniferous forests, Alpine meadows and delicate mountain flowers. Drive another hour and you’ll begin to approach the high mountain peaks of the Southern Alpes where almost all the green has evaporated and been replaced with white and grey stone and rock. There’s so much more to the French Riveria than the beaches.
La Grande Traversée du Mercantour (The Great Crossing of the Mercantour) is a hiking route that allows one to experience the incredible beauty of this area on foot. It’s impossible to overstate the magnificent abundance of this astonishing region. It’s a unique experience that even the best words and photos can never really convey. Starting in the small village of Entraunes and working your way through some of the highest mountain passes in Southern France to finally emerge in the seaside town of Menton is a once in a lifetime experience.
It’s a demanding, challenging experience that is certainly not for everyone. Physically, emotionally and psychologically, this long, continuous hike can take a toll. Over 17 stages (remember Doug and I only tackled the eight days which comprise the second half of the hike), most of which involve at least five to seven hours of hiking through some pretty arduous terrain, you might question what ever made you decide to undertake this adventure in the first place. But the rewards are incomparable.
As Doug and I worked our way across the terrain, one step at a time, we kept coming back to one thing, over and over again. 99.99% of the people living in the south of France have never seen what we are seeing today. The heavy packs, the sore feet, the aching knees, the exhausted bodies: it’s all worth it for the moments when you stand on some high mountain pass and see the Southern Alpes stretched out before you. The blue sky. The white puffy clouds. The lakes and rivers in the valley down below. Flowers and trees spread out against the sides of the mountains like a dream. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Most of the trails Doug and I took are very well defined and very well marked. The French have an incredible system of hiking paths throughout the country, over 100,000 kilometers. They are divided into several categories with the “Sentiers de Grandé Randonnée” being the largest. These “GR” routes are marked with a distinctive red and white paint stripes that help keep you on track. Much of the hike Doug and I completed took place on the GR52. There are also numerous “balises,” wooden signposts to mark the way and point to various destinations in different directions. Along the Grande Traversée du Mercantour there are also small green and white markers attached to most of the balises which say “GTM.” There are occasional sections over large rocks and boulders where it’s just not possible to create a trail and during those times it’s very important to watch for the red and white paint stripes or you can get off trail very quickly.
The Grande Traversée du Mercantour is also to be commended because it reduces the environmental impact by following trails that have been established for decades, if not centuries, thereby drastically reducing the effect on the surrounding areas. Many of these trails and paths were first pioneered by Victor de Cessole an early 20th century French mountaineer and philanthropist who, among other things, initiated the creation of the system of mountain refuges that makes this hike possible.
The Grande Traversée du Mercantour has been fully approved by the Mercantour National Park and provides a way for all of us to enjoy the exquisite wonder of this exceptional part of France in harmony with the environment.
A Day by Day Account of Our Hikes
Below is a listing of the eight day hikes Doug and I completed. There’s a link for each one for a much more detailed account. All of the stats listed here are approximate, based on what the guidebook says. In reality, our stats ended up being a bit different. Like I said before, my account and my photos can’t really convey the majesty of these places. But I hope they will give you some insight into what we encountered on our eight day adventure. Who knows? Maybe they will even inspire you to tackle some or all of this journey.
July 4 – Day 1: Isola 2000 to Refuge de Questa
Approximate Distance: 9.2 kilometers (5.7 miles)
Total Time: 5 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +635 meters (2,083 feet)
Approximate Descent: -440 meters (1,444 feet)
Probably the easiest hike of the trip, a great way to begin our travels. We left the ski resort of Isola 2000 at 08h00 and headed up through the mountains to our high point for the day, Baisse du Druos (2,628 meters) on the Italian border. A quick descent brought us down into a small valley where some old military buildings lay in ruin next to a large lake. From here we crossed several sections of magnificent “paved roads” constructed by the Italian military to make the trip into the mountains easier for the King of Italy. Eventually we arrived at the Refuge Questa where we had reserved a small detached cabin perched on a rock scree above the Portette Lake. We soaked our feet in the ice cold water to rejuvenate them after the first day. A huge thunderstorm (with some strong hail) rolled in late in the afternoon, but luckily we were safe in our little cabin. Thankfully, this was the only rain we encountered during the eight day trip.
July 5 – Day 2: Refuge de Questa to Boréon
Approximate Distance: 19.2 kilometers (11.9 miles)
Total Time: 7 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +650 meters (2,133 feet)
Approximate Descent: -1,460 meters (4,790 feet)
The second longest hike of the trip, both in time and distance. We left early, as usual, and descended a short way down a stoney path before making our way up through a small valley to the Col de Frémamorte (2,615 meters / 8,579 feet). The final portion of this ascent was quite steep with switchbacks cutting back and forth up the rocky side of the mountain. From the summit we had a marvelous view of the surrounding valleys and peaks. At this point we were back in France and as we descended towards Boréon we began to once again encounter trees, grass and flowers. We stopped for a short lunch near Lac Nègre and then made our way through a large conifer forest. Unfortunately the last seven or eight kilometers of the hike had to be rerouted onto an asphalt road as Tempête Alex had destroyed the trails back in October 2020. It was a real slog hiking on the hot pavement for such a long distance at the end of a long hike, but we arrived in Boréon eventually and got ourselves checked into the Gite du Boréon for the night.
July 6 – Day 3: Boréon to Madone de Fenestre
Approximate Distance: 12.3 kilometers (7.6 miles)
Total Time: 6 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +1,045 meters (3,428 feet)
Approximate Descent: -680 meters (2,231 feet)
When we first started researching this trip I knew this day was going to be a pivotal one for me, a “make it or break it” kind of day if you will. It came right after one of the longest hikes and it had a LOT of climbing, the second most of any day. We got an early start out of Boréon (07h00). The first part of the climb took us through some of the most beautiful forested areas that we would encounter on the entire trip. We followed a small river up through a valley full of larch, pine and spruce trees dotted with small pastures and lots of grass and flowers. We had to work our way through lots of “step” climbing, portions of the trail where you have to constantly step up as you would on a flight of stairs. Much tougher than just walking a steep incline. We stopped briefly at the Refuge de la Courgourde and then made our way past the Trécolpas Lake up to the high point for the day at Pas des Ladres (2,448 meters / 8,031 feet). Stunning views. Then the descent to Madone de Fenestre. We spotted several bouqetin, a kind of wild goat that lives throughout the Alpes and got some great photos. I finished the hike relieved and excited that I had done so well on this stage. I took it as a sign I could definitely do all eight days.
July 7 – Day 4: Madone de Fenestre to Refuge de Nice
Approximate Distance: 6.4 kilometers (4 miles)
Total Time: 5 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +755 meters (2,477 feet)
Approximate Descent: -430 meters (1,411 feet)
At only 6.4 kilometers this might seem, on paper, to be the easiest hike of the trip. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of this hike consists of walking, climbing, crawling and/or scurrying over large rocks and boulders. The first half of the hike is a steady ascent to the Pas du Mont Colomb (2,548 meters / 8,360 feet). It’s slow going because it takes time to pick your way through the rocks and make sure you always have steady footing. Much of the time there is no “trail” so you must be very careful to look for the small red and white paint strips that signify you are indeed on the correct path. Several passages required steep climbs and other places could only be navigated on all fours. Not easy with a full pack on your back! A final long, steep winding trail led up to the Pas du Mont Colomb, making switchback after switchback along the side of the mountain. I somehow managed to get off trail at one point and had a very difficult (and a bit scary) time getting back on. When we finally arrived at the summit one peek over the other side told us the descent was going to be even worse. The guidebook describes it as “a narrow, steeply-inclined gully, one of the most technical sections of the route.” Indeed, it looked like an almost straight down drop. Needless to say we took things very slow and careful going down. It was stressful and taxing, to say the least. This kind of descent takes a lot of energy and really wears you down over an extended period of time. It’s tough on your feet and knees. When we finally reached the valley floor we had a nice, fairly level walk along the side of le Lac de la Fous to the Refuge de Nice. We stopped at the lake just before the refuge and soaked our tired and aching feet in the cold water while we ate lunch. We were even able to play a couple games of pètanque at the refuge!
July 8 – Day 5: Refuge de Nice to Refuge des Merveilles
Approximate Distance: 9.7 kilometers (6 miles)
Total Time: 6 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +670 meters (2,198 feet)
Approximate Descent: -760 meters (2,493 feet)
It’s a pretty straight shot from the Refuge de Nice to the Refuge des Merveilles following the trail in a southwesterly direction. Doug and I climbed over some very large rocks on our way to Lac Niré and a string of three more smaller lakes. Along the way we came across a bouqetin with a huge set of horns. He didn’t take much interest in us so we got as close as we could and took some photos. We passed over some more scree slopes and then made our way up to the first summit of the day, Baisse du Basto (2,693 meters / 8,835 feet). A quick descent took us down into a small valley with the Lac du Basto on our left. We began to see some beautiful quartz rocks and boulders. Some of them were really large and looked absolutely amazing sitting amongst the other rocks. Another summit, Baisse de Valmasque (2,549 meters / 8,363 feet) was reached through a series of switchbacks up the side of yet another mountain covered with loose rock. We proceeded down the other side into the Merveilles Valley (Valley of Wonders) and entered a protected zone where hiking poles were no longer allowed. This is the portion of the park where over 37,000 rock engravings can be found. Created over 5,000 years ago, these are the largest collection of rock engravings in Europe. We were able to see several examples from the trail (it’s also forbidden to leave the trail in this area) and came across two tour groups that were exploring the area with guides. The descent continued down to the Refuge des Merveilles where we were able to eat lunch and then stash our packs in the dormitory.
July 9 – Day 6: Refuge des Merveilles to Camp d’Argent
Approximate Distance: 12.9 kilometers (8 miles)
Total Time: 6 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +610 meters (2,001 feet)
Approximate Descent: -985 meters (3,232 feet)
The trail from the Refuge des Merveilles to Camp d’Argent involves more descent than climbing. It starts off with a quick ascent to the Pas du Diable (2,340 meters / 7,677 feet), passing by several lakes on the way. Then a long descent continues over the Col de Raus and the Baisse de St-Véran. By now the rocky terrain of the high mountains had started to be replaced with huge pastures of grass. Not a lot of trees, just grassy slopes as far as the eye could see. Just before reaching the Col de Raus we came across a huge herd of sheep. They were spread out all over the mountainside and they were making a lot of noise. At first I assumed it was because we were passing through, but even long after we were gone we could still hear them bleating across the valley. Before long we reached Pointe des Trois Communes which offered exceptional views of the surrounding countryside. We passed by some old abandoned military installations and barracks and arrived at the D68 road where a small station supplies visitors with information about the Mercantour National Park. We had to walk along the road for a short distance (never much fun) but soon enough we were back on a trail that led us to the top of a small ski station in Camp d’Argent. We followed the ski lifts down to the tiny hamlet and located our lodging for the night, an actual hotel! They didn’t open for another three hours so we ate our lunch, had a drink at a nearby restaurant and explored the immediate area. We were getting much closer to the coast now and much lower in elevation. We knew that the end was close. As we like to say, “The horses could smell the barn.”
July 10 – Day 7: Camp d’Argent to Sospel
Approximate Distance: 19.5 kilometers (12.1 miles)
Total Time: 7 1/2 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +470 meters (1,542 feet)
Approximate Descent: -1,850 meters (6,070 feet)
At 19.5 kilometers this trek from Camp d’Argent to Sospel is the longest hike of the trip. It involves a moderate amount of climbing but the most descending of any of the hikes. The entire first half consists of a series of gentle rollercoaster ups and downs through a heavily wooded forest along the side of a deep valley. We were in the shade most of the time and Doug set a fast pace as we were in a position to make some really good time. Once again we passed by some old, ruined, abandoned military installations, one of which had a destroyed American tank resting in front of it. When we came out of the forest we traveled along the side of mountain for a short distance until we began a long, but not especially steep descent into Sospel. I was excited to get to Sospel, the first real village we had seen since we began one week early. Unfortunately, it was Sunday so many of the shops and businesses were closed, but we did find a small grocery store, a boulangerie, the tourist office, several restaurants and a bar that were open. We checked into our hotel and had dinner for the first time at an actual restaurant. Doug had a hamburger and I had a veggie burger. Some ice cream for desert made the whole thing seem like we were really back in civilization.
July 11 – Day 8: Sospel to Menton
Approximate Distance: 17 kilometers (10.6 miles)
Total Time: 7 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +1,150 meters (3,773 feet)
Approximate Descent: -1,480 meters (4,859 feet)
Based on the distance and elevation gain Doug and I both suspected from the beginning that this last leg of the trip might be the most difficult. We told ourselves it didn’t really matter. It was the last day! At 17 kilometers it was not quite the longest, but very close. It featured 1,150 meters of climbing – almost 4,000 feet – (the most of any hike on the trip and quite possibly more climbing than either Doug or I had ever done in a single day) and 1,480 meters of descent – almost 5,000 feet – (the second most of any hike on the trip). When you put this altogether you are faced with a formidable day of hiking ahead of you. Everything went pretty well for the first five hours until we reached the second summit, Col du Berceau (1,090 meters / 3,576 feet). The guide book had characterized it as “steep, stony and technical.” They were not wrong. The first hour or so was pure hell. A very narrow, very steep path covered in small pebbles and rocks made everything very, very slippery. The second section was a bit better but still quite steep and rocky. I became a bit overheated and dehydrated due to the relentless sun, humidity and high temperature. About 1/2 hour from the end I ran out of water, but luckily we ran into a kind man who let us refill our bottles from his outside spigot. I can honestly say that this final descent was the worst 2 1/2 hours of hiking in my entire life. Just brutal. But… we made it! We finished! We were in Menton. I felt like we deserved a parade in our honor for what we’d accomplished!
What: Hiking across the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes
Where: Isola 2000 (Alpes-Maritimes) to Menton (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: 04 93 16 78 88
Park Website: mercantour-parcnational.fr
Hike Website: randoxygene.departement06.fr
Download a PDF of the entire Grande Traversée du Mercantour: ParcnationalduMercantour