Distance: About 14 kilometers round trip
Difficulty: Somewhat difficult, lots of climbing and fairly long
Approximate Time: At least 5 to 6 hours for the entire hike, depending on your pace
I’ve only been on a handful of hikes in the wonderful Mercantour National Park but I have to say, every single one of those hikes has been absolutely magnificent. I’ve made several hikes starting near the town of Tende, but this hike begins a bit farther west, near the beautiful little mountain village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie. The ascent to Lac Nègre is a stunning route along trails and paths that wind through forests filled with towering pine, larch and arolla trees. Tall grasses, exquisite mountain flowers, placid meadows and wild, tumbling rivers and streams surround you on all sides. As you approach the end of the hike the trees will begin disappear and eventually you will arrive at Lac Nègre where the sky towers over a rocky landscape of ocher granite rock walls and steep slopes. Nestled at the foot of these hills the lake spreads out across the terrain like a dark stain on the rock. There is hardly a tree in site nor any trace of civilization. Quiet, stark and devoid of almost all color, the lake presents quite a contrast from the peaceful, bright, vibrant forest from which you started.
[more info after the photo gallery]
The Starting Point
The hike begins at the Salèse car park which can be easily reached from Saint-Martin-Vesubie, a starting point for numerous hikes throughout the area. Take the M2565 north out of town to the M89. Just past the Lac du Boreon you’ll reach Parc Alpha, a wildlife park that offers unique opportunities to observe wolf packs in their natural habitat. Continue on the M89 for a few kilometers until you come to the Salèse car park. At the end of the car park you’ll find the GR52 trail marked with balise N°434, the official start of the hike. Be careful to head in the right direction, towards Col de Salèse, as this same trail will also take you to other destinations (Le Boréon & Lac des Adus for example).
The first portion of the trail runs from balise N°434 to N°435. You’ll pass by the Vacherie de Salèse, two small farmhouses where cattle are sometimes kept. The trail rises gently through the woods and for periods of the hike you will have a river running right along side next to you. Since you are on a GR trail it will be marked with red and white lines, so keep an eye out for those. That said the trails are very wide and prominent, you shouldn’t have any trouble staying on the correct path as long as you follow the directions at each balise.
After about 2.5km, and just past the Chardole spring, you’ll reach balise N°435 at which point you will join a gravel and asphalt road for a small distance. Shortly you’ll come upon balise N°436 and the Col de Salèse. Continue on towards Lac Nègre and at about 3.1km you will reach balise N°268, at which time you are no longer on the GR52 (note the change in the balise numbering), but rather a local trail now featuring yellow markings. Shortly after this point you’ll come to a nice wooden bridge which has been built across a large stream that tumbles down from the mountainside over a large spray of rough rocks. It’s very picturesque and I’m sure you’ll want to take some photos here.
When you reach balise N°269 you’ll veer to the right. From this point on the trail becomes a little bit steeper. The streams and rivers become faster and more wild. A significant stretch of the trail here has been developed by using rocks and stones to build very rough “steps.” Someone put a lot of time and effort into this and it does make it easier to ascend and descend. At balise N°270 take a few minutes to explore the two smaller lakes you’ll find close by, they are really quite beautiful and don’t require too much of a detour. We stopped here on the way back to eat some lunch. Back on the main trail you’ll find things become a bit steeper on the final ascent to the lake, but it’s only 15 more minutes or so further on. The trees gradually begin to disappear as more and more rock replaces the grass and soil. To the south you have some magnificent views of the mountains on the other side of the valley.
As you approach the lake you may find patches of ice and snow still on the ground, even in mid-June. Sometimes it is possible to skirt around them but most of the time it is faster and easier to just cross straight over. Of course, you’ll want to be careful as the snow can be quite slippery. When we were there most of the patches were on level ground and the snow was quite soft so were were able to walk across it with very little difficulty.
After one last little hill the lake will suddenly appear before you. It stretches north through the rocky terrain forming something of a bowl with the rough, rocky slopes around it. It’s a wonderful little reward for all the climbing you’ve done so far. As I mentioned earlier there’s really not much plant life at this height, it’s quite barren and desolate. A few little trees and some moss on the ground and rocks. Which is not to say it isn’t absolutely stunning. There’s something about the desolate bleakness of this lake that really appeals to me.
A well marked path runs along the east side of the lake (the right side) and takes you to the far end of the water. The trail continues up to the Pas du Préfouns where the French and Italian border lies. It’s only about another hour from the lake but due to weather and time constraints we chose not to venture on past the lake during our trip. In reading other accounts of this hike, from folks who have continued on to the Pas du Préfouns, it appears to be quite scenic up at the top and well worth the extra effort so I definitely plan to continue the hike further on my next outing here.
This is an “out and back” hike so once you reach the lake, or if you continue on to the Pas du Préfouns, just turn around and go back the way you came. Obviously the way down is a bit easier and shouldn’t take you as long as the climb up. If you are interested in alternate routes back there are a variety of options that will add some distance on to your hike and still get you back to where you started.
This area is said to be home to a variety of fauna, including chamois, mouflon, ibex, wolves and eagles, but I have to say, on our trip we encountered none of them. I made this hike with my friends Doug and Maureen in the middle of June. We only encountered a few other hikers here and there and for most of the day we were pretty much on our own. This might have had something to do with the weather, which was cool and overcast, as I have heard that it can get quite crowded on these trails during the summer. I will also note that even in mid June it was a bit cooler than we had anticipated. We all wished we had brought an extra layer of clothing and even some gloves. We encountered a pretty stiff wind at the lake that made it even colder. Next time I’ll remember to be better prepared. Better safe than sorry.
Parc National du Mercantour
Just a quick word about the Mercantour National Park. Stretching from the Italian border on the east through the Alpes-Maritimes department and into the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, it is one of only ten national parks in France. Covering almost 700 square kilometers (300 square miles) it is famous for being one of the wildest, most diverse national parks in France. Nestled between the Côte d’Azur and the high peaks of the Alpes it’s a truly remarkable place, one that I have enjoyed hiking and biking in many times. There is so much to see and do in this park that entire books have been written about it. If you love hiking, mountain or road biking, canoeing, kayaking, canyoning, rafting or just simply exploring the great outdoors, you will find something extraordinary in this park.
Important Notes: This is a hike that should only be considered in the late spring, summer or early fall. Even then you will almost certainly encounter some snow at the top. Avoid the hike at all costs should there be any chance of rain as the trails will be very slippery and dangerous. As always you’ll want to make sure you have good hiking boots and plenty of water. I would suggest at least one liter of water for this hike, more if you are hiking in the heat. You will NOT be able to find food and water anywhere along the hike. The best time to make this hike in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the winter is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll probably want a hat and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. During the spring and fall (maybe even the summer!) you’ll want a jacket and even gloves and a warm hat. You should always hike with a first aid kit, a good knife, a raincoat, a flashlight and a whistle. If you are hiking alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.