The Ardèche River flows for about 125 kilometres from its starting point near the village of Astet to a spot near Pont-Saint-Esprit where it joins up with the Rhone River. The valley it carves is a magnificently scenic area of south-central France and it includes a 30 kilometer stretch known as the Gorges de l’Ardèche where the limestone walls extend up to 300 metres (almost 1000 feet) high in places. There’s a lot to see and a lot to do all along the river. Villages, lavender fields, ancient caves, castles and much more. Canoeing, kayaking, swimming and hiking are very popular activities in the area. But, by far, the most famous and most spectacular feature is a natural 60-meter stone arch spanning the river known as the Pont d’Arc. It’s like a perfectly designed and engineered bridge, but it’s all natural, formed when the river broke through a narrow escarpment. It acts as the informal “gateway” to the Gorges de l’Ardèche.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Located about five kilometers from the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, this large, natural “bridge” is a favorite with tourists from all over France and the rest of the world. You’ll know why when you take one look at it. Dating back at least 500,000 years the beautiful bridge has two sandy beaches, one on the north side and one on the south side. They are perfect for a swim, a picnic, or even a nap on a warm, sunny summer afternoon. The arc is 54 meters (177 feet) high and 60 meters (197 feet) wide. Water from the Ardèche River gradually infiltrated the limestone rock and eventually created this huge opening. Over the centuries both man and animals have used it as a natural way to cross over the river. There is a wide and varied amount of flora and fauna in the area which you can experience either floating down the river or hiking on one of the many trails in the immediate area.
Pont-d’Arc has been reconized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014 and is second only to Mont Blanc as the most visited natural feature in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Almost 1.5 million people visit each year. Just last month (February 2020) the Frenchman Sébastien Tyrode created a bit of a stir when he flew under the ark with a “paramotor,” a paraglider sail with a light engine and propeller integrated into a protective cage worn on the pilot’s back.
Looking Towards The Future
Since the creation of the Gorges de l’Ardèche route at the end of the 1960s, the Pont d’Arc has been a very popular place. Since 2015, landscaping has been initiated as part of the “Operation Grand Site.” This will take place over several years and will favor access to the site by gentler modes of transport: shuttles, pedestrian routes, bikes, etc. Recently a new trail has been developed that explores the “hidden history” of the bridge. The trail is punctuated by drawings, written information and sound recordings which build up a better understanding of how the natural stone arch at Pont d’Arc was formed, of human activity, agricultural practices, the start of tourism and of outdoor sporting activities.
The Legend of the Pont d’Arc
This is a bit odd and honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but here goes: The legend of Pont d’Arc says that one day, the Lord of Sampzon married a very pretty girl from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. The young bride had many previous lovers and suitors. After the wedding, taken with jealousy and afraid of losing his new wife, the Lord locked her in the dungeon located at the top of the plateau of the Rocher de l’Arc, the large stone wall from which the bridge had not yet been formed. One day a very ugly Pilgrim asked the Lord for asylum. He welcomed the Pilgrim into their home and agreed to show him the beautiful landscape of which he was so proud from the top of the plateau. While the Lord narrated his victories and described the land the pilgrim stole his wife and the two fled to the nearby Rhone River. Watching them disappear, the Lord begged the good god of husbands to return his wife to him. His wish was immediately granted and a terrible noise was heard as the plateau opened in two giving way to the waters which carried the lovers and their boat to the feet of the Lord. The arch of the Pont d’Arc was born. As the Lord hugged his wife in his arms, the Pilgrim turned into a horned devil and disappeared with a strong smell of sulfur.
I first visited the Arc on my bike one summer day a few years ago. Parking in nearby Vallon-Pont-d’Arc I followed a wonderful 95 kilometer loop down to Pont-Saint-Epsrit that took me past the Arc, through lavendar fields, past caves, next to the gorges and over bridges. I stopped for awhile at the Arc taking in the scenery and marveling at the view. The next day I was back via car to spend some quality time there. I lounged on the south beach and took a swim up the river and under the Arc. What a blast to swim under the huge arch and look up at it from the water. The south beach is mostly used for swimming while the north beach is used for a lot of canoe and kayak launching. The weather was great and I had a spectacular morning.
As I said earlier, there is a lot to do in this area. Consider spending a day or two or even more here to experience everything that is available. You can rent canoes and kayaks for short or long trips down the Ardèche and through the Pont d’Arc. There are also guided tours you can take in small boats if you’d like to let someone else do the navigating. If you like to hike there are tons of great trails. There’s a lavendar museum nearby, several castles, lots of beautiful villages and so much more. This entire area is one of my favorites places in France.
Only a few kilometers away from the Pond d’Arc is the famous Cauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave which contains some of the earliest known Paleolithic cave paintings, around 30,000 years old! Werner Herzog directed a wonderful movie about the cave called Cave Of Forgotten Dreams which is available on Netflix. You can’t visit the actual cave anymore (they are trying to protect it), but a fantastic replica has been built that is said to be every bit as good as the original.