This article covers day five of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park known as the “Grande Traversée du Mercantour.” You’ll find links at the bottom to the other days.
A “milestone” day in the hike. We’re halfway there. When I started this eight day adventure I wasn’t 100% sure that I could make it to the end. I felt pretty sure I could but I’d never done anything quite like this before so my enthusiasm and confidence was tempered with a bit of uncertainty. Making it to the halfway point was a big boost for me. I’d done very well on the first four hikes, no real problems at all. So when we started the fifth day I was feeling very good. By the end of the day I knew there would only be three days left to go. My spirits and energy were very high.
This stage of the Grande Traversée du Mercantour follows a trail known as the GR52 for the entire day. France is rightfully famous for the wonderful hiking trails that criss-cross the entire country. It’s a fabulous system including national, regional and local routes that make hiking easy, fun and safe no matter where you are in the country. The GR52 is a very popular and well known trail in the system that runs from the village of Entraunes near the Col de la Cayolle in the Var Valley to Menton the last French town along the Côte d’Azur before you reach Italy.
Today’s hike would take us over the highest col in the entire trip, Baisse du Basto at 2,693 meters (8,835 feet), and through one of the most famous valleys in southeastern France, the Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders). Known for its numerous rock carvings (over 40,000) that date back more than 2,500 years, this valley is quite popular with day hikers. We saw more people on this stage of the trip than any other, including two fairly large groups with guides who were exploring the rock carvings.
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Leaving the Refuge de Nice
Doug and I got one of our earliest starts on this day, leaving the refuge just before 07h00. It was a beautiful morning with a bit of mist covering the landscape around us. The sky was clear, no sign of the clouds and rain that filled the horizons the night before. The sun had yet to clear the mountains around us though a few of the peaks were lit up by the bright, golden rays. The sky was a dark blue, the air was cool and clear. All and all, perfect weather for hiking.
The previous summer Doug and I (along with his wife Maureen and some other friends) had done a day hike from La Gordolasque (near the village of Belvédère) to the Refuge de Nice and back. While Doug and our other friends ate lunch at the refuge Maureen and I hiked an additional couple of kilometers up to the next lake, Lac Niré. So I had already been on this first little portion of today’s hike and knew what to expect.
Leaving the refuge we began the hike at balise #417. The sign pointed to Baisse du Basto saying it would take 2 hours to reach. We knew by now not to trust these time estimates, but it gave us a bit of a goal. We climbed for a bit over some huge rock formations that tower above the refuge before descending down into a small valley, the Vallon de la Fous. A tiny wooden foot bridge spanned the clear, fast flowing water of the la Fous and balise #418 confirmed that we were indeed headed in the correct direction.
At this point what was left of any greenery was starting to fade away. There were no trees to be seen anywhere though large patches of dark green grass still covered a fair amount of the ground. A few bushes here and there and some bright yellow wildflowers kept the scenery from appearing too bare. But, there was no doubt that this would be changing soon. Looking up ahead I could see more and more grey rock and less and less signs of anything else.
We climbed up and over more large rock formations until we arrived at the edge of Lac Niré. Surrounded almost entirely by rocks and boulders this mountain lake is the first in a small string of three lakes that lie at the foot of the north face of the Tête du lac Autier. Shortly after passing Lac Niré we spied one of the largest bouquetins (a type of mountain goat) we had so far encountered. Grazing in some grass near the small stream that connected the small lakes he didn’t seem particularly interested in or bothered by us and we were able to get pretty close and take some really nice photos. He had a huge set of horns and was really quite magnificent. Make sure to take a look at the photo of him in the gallery above.
Baisse du Basto
The trail continued to become rockier and rockier until we were hiking over nothing but large boulders mixed with smaller rocks and scree. At this point we had lost any semblance of what you would normally refer to as a “trail” and we were completely dependent on the red and white trail markings painted on the rocks to guide us in the right direction. We encountered a couple of other hikers who were moving at a much faster pace than we were and stopped to talk with them for a minute before they moved on. In their haste however our new friends missed one of the markings and ended up well off the trail. They eventually figured out what had happened, backtracked and then caught up with us again. A cautionary tale that it is very important to make sure you keep the painted markers in site when you are hiking over nothing but rock.
Before long we reached the summit of Baisse du Basto where, as you might expect, we had a magnificent view of not only the valley behind us but also the one now in front of us. Other famous mountains, including Mont Bégo, Mont Gélas and La Malédie are visible from this point.
The summit of Baisse du Basto was quite different than the other mountain passes we had encountered which were often large, majestic crests towering above the surrounding areas. Baisse du Basto (marked with balise #401) was a simple little notch in the mountain that we passed through on our way down the other side. Our guidebook cautioned that this portion of the hike, being at such a high altitude, could potentially still be covered with patches of snow (known as névés) but we didn’t encounter any on this particular day.
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Baisse de Valmasque
We had one more summit to cross before we would reach the Vallée des Merveilles. From the Baisse du Basto to the Baisse de Valmasque was about another hour of hiking. We descended down into the valley and passed by the Lac du Basto on our left where we took note of balise #95. Another huge boulder field awaited us where we were quite surprised to find some large stunning pieces of white quartz. A few of the pieces were quite large and sitting amongst the other rocks and boulders they were very impressive.
The ascent up to the Baisse de Valmasque looked very, very steep from the bottom. I’d now climbed enough of these stretches however to know that looks can sometimes be deceiving. The sign at the bottom next to a large lake said it was a 30 minute hike to the top. Doug pushed on ahead of me and it quickly became clear that he would reach the summit in much less than 30 minutes.
The path was well defined, lots of dirt and stones but no really big rocks or boulders. A collection of switchbacks wound back and forth up the mountainside and prevented the trail from becoming too steep. I kept a steady pace and arrived in about 20 minutes, Doug said he did it in about 15. We met up with our new friends from earlier (the ones who had gotten a bit lost) and it turned out that one of them was from Saint-Paul-de-Vence, just a few kilometers from where we live in Vence. Balise #94 marked the summit.
At this point our climbing for the day was basically finished. From here it was a pretty straightforward descent down in the Vallée des Merveilles. Lots of switchbacks and even more “step-downs,” little steps in the trail that resemble stairs. These are usually not difficult to navigate but they often require more energy and stamina than a simple flat trail.
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Vallée des Merveilles
The Vallée des Merveilles is what is known as “an open air historical monument” and as such there are some very specific regulations that apply to this portion of the Mercantour National Park. Specifically you are forbidden from leaving the marked trails and from touching any of the engravings. If you use batons (walking sticks), which almost every one does, you must add rubber tips to the ends while you are in this area. There can be strict penalties and fines for anyone not following the rules so it’s important to follow these guidelines when you are in this region. Rules for hiking through this area were also posted, though only in French.
Doug I were separated for bit of time as he forged on ahead of me. He came across a sign that he thought said walking sticks could be used only on the trails. In fact it said that walking sticks could not be used even on the trails. He came across a group of sightseers who were being led by a guide who admonished him for using his sticks and thinking that he was doing nothing wrong Doug was a bit confused, but of course he put his sticks away. When he told me the story we realized his mistake in the translation of the sign.
Our hike down into the valley brought some much welcome greenery though there were still no real trees to be seen anywhere. More and more grass appeared and less and less rock. We passed by several small bodies of water, too small be named lakes. As we entered into the section of the valley where the rock carvings can be seen numerous signs appeared alongside the trail with information about the area, the drawings and the people who left them.
Shortly after we passed the Lac des Merveilles we came upon the famous Chef de Tribune (Tribal Chief) rock art. This is one of the most well known pieces of rock art in the valley, depicting a character with two small arms, a two-horned symbol of a bovine on his chest and a large dagger pointed at his head (along with other engravings as well). In the photo gallery I’ve provided a photo of the actual rock along with another where the art is highlighted making it much easier to understand. A group of hikers with a tour guide were gathered around the rock and the guide was giving a short lecture about the piece.
From here the trail became relatively level and before long the large Lac Long Supérieur where the Refuge des Merveilles is situated came into view. It’s a beautiful lake situated in small bowl-like area with mountains towering around it. A damn at the far end controls the release of water father downstream. Finally we could see a few pine trees dotting the landscape around the lake. As we walked along the trail we encountered quite a few other hikers, more so than at any other time during the trip.
It was a relatively short distance to the next balise(#93) and at one point Doug and I came upon an older couple who were just ahead of us. The husband was actually a fair distance ahead of his wife who was trailing behind. She was moving rather slowly and Doug and I do our best to not get caught behind slow walkers as it can really ruin our rhythm. Sometimes it’s easy to avoid but other times there is no quick way to get around someone on a very narrow trail. Doug made a point of walking very closely behind the woman hoping she would take notice of us and step aside to let us pass (the polite thing for someone to do). I’m sure that she did in fact notice him behind her but she made no effort to stop and let us by. At some point Doug became a bit frustrated and hopped up onto the ground beside the trail and ran quickly around her before hopping back down onto the trail in front of her. I don’t know what her problem was but she was not happy about this! I then did the same and we moved on along the trail leaving her far behind. I tell you this little story because she will appear again later in the day.
Refuge des Merveilles
Because of its location in the Vallée des Merveilles (and close proximity to the nearby and much more populated Vallée de la Roya) the Refuge des Merveilles is one of the most popular refuges in the Mercantour National Park. It’s usually quite full during the peak summer months of hiking.
Very quickly we found ourselves at balise #92 and then the Refuge des Merveilles where we arrived at about 13h00 making for a total of about six hours hiking. We had decided to wait and eat lunch at the refuge rather than stopping along the trail so the first thing we did was sit down our packs and dig into our lunches. There were several large picnic benches set up next to the refuge and we found a nice place in the warm sun to eat.
Arriving at your destination just after lunch on a hiking trip like this actually has some drawbacks. We were basically looking at 8 or 9 hours before we would be able to go to bed. Now in another situation we might make use of this time hiking and exploring the area around the refuge but seeing as we had just finished hiking for 6 straight hours over some very difficult terrain we were not really up for that. I did spend a little time walking around the immediate area where there were a bunch of signs with information relating to the valley and the rock carvings.
So, what do you do with your “down” time? I tend to get bored quite easily so it can be especially challenging for me. I had a couple of books downloaded onto my phone so I did some reading and we basically just lounged around. There was a dart board at the refuge so we played with that for a little while. Some of the people who worked at the refuge were playing an interesting game where they tossed pieces of metal a long distance onto what appeared to be a piece of very soft lead (or something similar). We never did figure out the rules exactly but we had fun watching them for awhile.
When the refuge opened later in the afternoon we got ourselves checked in and found our beds. This particular refuge featured two huge dormitory rooms with up to 30 bunk beds in each one. We requested beds on the lower levels (much easier than climbing up to the top bunk in the middle of night after getting up to use the bathroom).
As we were bringing our backpacks into the refuge I accidentally (and very slightly) brushed against a woman standing in a narrow hallway. It turned out to be the woman from earlier on the trail who had made no effort to let us pass. Doug was behind me and he said she gave me a very dirty look. What the hell. It was a very slight brush and I apologized, in French.
A nice hot shower is always a very welcome activity at the end of a long day’s hike so we were a bit dismayed to discover that this particular refuge only had cold showers. Now, you might think, OK, not a huge deal, anyone can deal with a cold shower now and then. And while this might be true in general, I promise you that up in these mountains, even in the summer, the water is COLD. But, we plowed ahead because even a cold shower is better than no shower at all. It also turned out that there was no electricity at this particular refuge so we did not have a chance to charge our phones, something we had been able to do at every other refuge along the way.
The group of young English hikers arrived a few hours after we did and we were quite surprised to hear that they found this hike more difficult and challenging than the one the day before. We did not. They all seemed in good shape and good spirits and we talked a bit about the day and what was in store for tomorrow’s hike.
Dinner was served at 19h00 and as with most of the refuges our names were placed on table where we were supposed to sit. Doug and I joked that it would be just our luck to be seated with the woman (and her husband) who we had now offended not once but twice. And, sure enough, we were. But, as with a similar experience on day two of this trip Doug charmed them in no time and before long we were telling them about our life in France and the woman seemed to forget all about our earlier problems. Doug has a way of making friends with just about anyone.
After dinner we were all off to bed. The huge dormitory rooms were a bit odd but I was able to fall asleep pretty quickly. I dreamt of the hotel we would be staying in the next night in Camp d’Argent!
Stats for the day:
Approximate Distance: 12.5 kilometers (7.8 miles)
Total Time: 6 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +670 meters (2,198 feet)
Elevation Gain in Flights of Stairs: 159
Approximate Descent: -760 meters (2,493 feet)
This article covers day five of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park. Click one of the links to read about the other days.
What: Hiking across the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes
Where: Refuge de Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) to Refuge des Merveilles (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: Office de Tourisme/Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée – 04 93 02 41 96
Park Website: mercantour-parcnational.fr
Hike Website: randoxygene.departement06.fr
Download a PDF of the entire Grande Traversée du Mercantour.