STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park
Day 1 – July 4: Isola 2000 to Refuge Questa

July 18, 2022

This article is covers day one of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park. You’ll find links at the bottom to the other days.

Monday morning, July 4th. Day one. Doug had arranged for his friend Mark to drive us up to Isola 2000. We wanted to get as early a start as possible on the trail so we decided to leave Vence at 06h00. I had done all my packing the night before so I was ready to go. Carole and Myla walked with me to Doug’s apartment, about 10 minutes away. The light was just beginning to filter through the buildings and trees. Just a minute or two after arriving at Doug’s apartment building he came through the front door. A few minutes later Mark arrived and we were off.

It usually takes anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours to make the drive from Vence to Isola 2000, depending on the traffic and what kind of vehicles you might get stuck behind in the mountains. It’s a very nice drive, down to the Var River and then up north through the Tinée Valley. I have cycled this area many, many times riding through the valley and up the mountainsides to villages like La Tour, Bairols, Ilonse, Roure and many more. I’ve also driven up and down the valley as well to villages like Saint-Étienne for the Fête de la Transhumance. If you continue on past Saint-Étienne you’ll reach the end of the valley and eventually pass over the Col de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe.

Traveling up the M2205, about 70 kilometers from Vence is the small medieval village of Isola, snuggled deep among the trees and hills next to where a small river called the Torrent de la Guercha tumbles down from the high mountain tops and empties into the Tinée River. It’s here that you make a right turn and follow the M97 up into the mountains towards Isola 2000.

Isola 2000 is a relatively new addition to the area, so named because of the altitude where the city is located. A winter sports resort conceived by Frenchman Michel Renaud it’s built on land ceded to France by Italy under the 1947 Treaty of Paris. It was built in 1971 in this location specifically because the microclimate there produces the maximum possible amount of snow at this latitude. In fact, during the 2010/11 winter season Isola 2000 was the snowiest resort in all of France. Located 17 kilometers from Isola it has seen the Tour de France pass through two times, once in 2000 and again in 2008.

The road from Isola up to Isola 2000 consists of numerous switchbacks and hairpin turns. As we drove up the road Monday morning we were delighted to see a small family of chamois (a kind of mountain antelope very common in the southern French Alpes) crossing the pavement. It was our first wildlife sighting of the trip, of which there would be many, many more to come. Several cars were stopped at the side of the road, just watching the chamois, as they seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere.

I had only been to Isola 2000 once before, when I climbed the Col de la Lombard on my bike, but I had done a bit of research before leaving and knew exactly where we needed to get dropped off to pick up the trail of the La Grande Traversée du Mercantour (the 17 stage hiking trip across the national park that we were doing half of). Once Dave dropped us off we loaded our packs on our backs, located the first of many balises we would see that day, and set off into the wilderness at almost exactly 0h800, our intended goal.

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Lacs de Terre Rouge & Baisse du Druos

Balise #90 was where we began and one of the weathered wooden panels pointed us towards the Baisse du Druos, the only high peak we would be going over this first day. A small green and white emblem which read, “GTM Grande Traversée du Mercantour,” was tacked next to the Baisse du Druos to confirm this was indeed our correct path.

We began to climb almost immediately, but nothing too serious. The path was well defined, mostly dirt and small rocks, and well marked as we walked up the slope sprinkled with larch and pine trees. My pack felt heavy on my back. I was not used to hiking with such a heavy pack (about 26lbs) but I soon found that I got used to it rather quickly. To my amazement, before long I barely even noticed it.

We passed several more balises as we continued the steady climb up the mountain giving us a wonderful view of the ski resort and the valley below. Green grassy meadows and flowers were spread out everywhere on the large open expanses of the hillside and eventually the trees began to become a little more sparse. We made good progress and reached balise #93 sometime around 09h30. We continued to follow the panel pointing us to Baisse de Druos (accompanied by the green and white GTM emblem). By now most of the trees and grass were gone, though a little remained here and there. Now we found the ground covered mostly with rock. To our right we passed by a small collection of lakes known as the Lacs de Terre Rouge.

Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.
Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.

A cluster of switchbacks led us up to the summit, Baisse du Druos (2,628 meters / 8,622 feet), where we found balise #94. Almost all traces of vegetation were gone by now, only a few resilient flowers and some lichen on the stones remained. From the peak we could see back into the valley from which we had emerged as well as down into the neighboring valley where we were headed. This peak also marks the border of France and Italy, so for the rest of the day we would be in Italy. I don’t like to leave France (why should I?) but hey, it was just for a day.

We had a short rest at the top, checked our maps and our phones and took some photos. I was feeling pretty good and Doug said he was as well. The weather was beautiful, clear blue skies with a few clouds here and there. The sun felt warm on our backs. It’s always a great feeling to reach the first summit of a hike, especially a multi-day hike. It gives you confidence and provides reassurance that you can indeed finish what you’ve started.

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Laghi di Vaslcura & Lago del Claus

We could see a large lake (with a few smaller ones around it), Laghi di Valscura, far down below us with an abandoned military building sitting along the shoreline. Unfortunately, the excellent system of balises for which France is so well known aren’t quite the same in Italy, at least not on the portion of trail that we were hiking. The trails are marked with signs and markers but the posts are not numbered like they are in France, something which really helps one keep on track over a long distance. The trail going down was not hard to follow though it was almost entirely covered with rock and so a bit rough on our feet. We took off our packs when we arrived at the abandoned building and had a snack, a drink and a bit of a rest.

Another hiker was lounging in the grass, maybe even taking a little nap. He perked up when we arrived and we practiced our French for a few minutes talking with him. He was headed in the opposite direction and really seemed to be in no hurry to get going again. In fact, he was still there, asleep in the shade when we left.

From here we headed south-east towards another lake, Lago de Claus and were soon met with the most amazing “paved roadway.” I say paved but there was no concrete or asphalt. No, this was a very old road constructed by the Italian army to make the King of Italy’s trips into the mountains easier. I can’t even begin to imagine the time and energy it took to find the rocks, move them, dig out a trail for them to cover and arrange them on the ground in such a way as to form this beautiful, almost completely flat roadway. The rocks fit together in an awesome intricate pattern like a big stone jigsaw puzzle. I’ve tried to find more information about these roads, including exactly when they were built, but so far I’ve come up blank.

For a few kilometers our trail would alternate between stretches of grass, dirt and these incredible spans of manicured rock. Walking on them was a real joy and made the trail much easier. In my mind I could see the former Italian King, with a large entourage of horses, mules, men and equipment, making his way across these “roads” towards a hunting lodge somewhere deep in the mountains.

Our big climb for the day had ended at Baisse du Druos but we still had a fair amount of little ups and downs along the way to the refuge. Some were quite steep (though short) while others were more gradual. A sort of roller-coaster terrain if you will. Now heading almost due south we passed another small lake with yet another old, ruined military building. Before long we arrived at Lago del Claus and a sign which informed us that we had only twenty minutes to the refuge, though we still couldn’t see it.

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Refuge Questa

We continued on and shortly we crossed a small rise and there, across a large field of mostly rock, sat the Refuge Questa. We knew it was right next to a medium sized lake, but there was no sign of the lake at this point. As we got closer we could see that the lake was situated in a bowl below the refuge. France (and a lot of Europe) has been experiencing a drought this year and because of the lack of snowfall during the winter and rain during the spring all the lakes in this region are well below their normal level. Once we could see the lake it was very easy to spot the dark outline on the rocks where the water level was during normal times.

It was just 12h30 when we reached the refuge, we’d made the hike in about 4 1/2 hours, about 1/2 hour ahead of schedule. We spoke a bit to the young man who was in charge and then sat at picnic tables to eat the lunches we had brought with us. Most of the refuges throughout the mountains in France (and Italy) employ a “dormitory” type of sleeping arrangement. Sometimes there are multiple small rooms which can hold anywhere from four to twelve people. Sometimes there are larger rooms that can hold up to thirty or forty people. This particular refuge offered an alternative that we didn’t find anywhere else: small wooden cabins built away from the main refuge that could hold two to four people. They also offered a yurt that could hold up eight people and another large tent.

Maureen had booked us into one of the small cabins that could hold two people. It wasn’t tall enough to stand up in and just big enough to hold two mattresses, but it was our own private space and that beat sleeping in a big room with a lot of other people. We got all our stuff settled into the cabin and then took off to soak our feet in the lake. Even though it was very close it was a bit of chore getting down to the water because the walls of the bowl in which it sat were pretty steep and completely covered in large rocks. But we managed without too much difficulty and spent some time with our feet in the icy water.

As we were getting ready to climb back up to the cabin we noticed some dark clouds rolling in and we started to feel a few raindrops. Once we were inside the cabin the storm let loose and the rain poured down all around us. It even hailed for a few minutes though the hailstones were not very big. As I mentioned earlier rain has been very scarce this past year so any rain is a good thing. And, luckily, we were safe inside out cabin when it came. If we had still been out on the trail it would have been another story entirely as you would not want to be hiking over large rocks during a storm like this. The weather held for the rest of our trip and this was the only rain we encountered. Though I must say we would probably not have objected to some rain during the last day when it was quite hot.

Dinner that night was a bit of a disappointment, at least for me. Being a vegetarian is not always easy in France or Italy and basically all I received was a large bowl of polenta. Doug had some sausages with his. C’est la vie. I was amazed at how quickly the terrain dried out after the huge thunderstorm. Just a few hours later it was like it never even happened. Everything was once again dry as a bone. I guess the ground was just so dry is soaked it up immediately.

We bedded down for the night tired but pleased to have completed our first day. The cabin had a plastic roof that allowed us to see the night sky and it was truly amazing, so luminous and full of stars. It’s always a great reminder to get out of the towns and cities and see what the night sky actually looks like in the wild. Just amazing.

Follow our path for the day. (Video copyright Michel Peracchia FFRandonnée 2022)

Stats for the day:
Approximate Distance: 11.6 kilometers (7.2 miles)
Total Time: 4 1/2 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +635 meters (2,083 feet)
Elevation Gain in Flights of Stairs: 228
Approximate Descent: -440 meters (1,444 feet)

This article covers day one of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park. Click one of the links to read about the other days.

Intro | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8

Juste les Faits:
What: Hiking across the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes
Where: Isola 2000 (Alpes-Maritimes) to Refuge Questa (Italy) (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: 04 93 16 78 88
Park Website: mercantour-parcnational.fr
Hike Website: randoxygene.departement06.fr
Facebook: ParcnationalduMercantour
Download a PDF of the entire Grande Traversée du Mercantour: ParcnationalduMercantour

2 thoughts on “Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park
Day 1 – July 4: Isola 2000 to Refuge Questa

  1. I loved reading this first day’s episode! I hope I can find the others. Several friends and I are looking to do some multi-day hikes. This one looks doable for us, though up to now, we’ve always done ones where we could stay at a BnB each night. I don’t know that I want to stay in a dormitory! Nor do I want to carry the weight necessary to be able to camp. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Debi, stay tuned, I’ll be posting full accounts of the other days over the next two or three weeks. The Grande Traversée Mercantour hike which we did the last half of takes place in a very protected section of the national park. There are no BnBs here. You’re only real options are camping or staying in the refuges. There are plenty of other multi-day hikes where you could arrange to pass through more populated areas where a BnB would be possible, but not on this hike. Note that we were able to stay in a hotel the last two nights of this trip, but the first six required refuges. Hope that helps.

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