Nature, History and Adventure in the Ardèche Gorges National Park
The Ardèche Gorge National Park protects the 32km of gorges that stretch between Saint - Martin d'Ardèche and Vallon Pont d'Arc. The so-called Grand Canyon of Europe is older than the dinosaurs, having formed hundreds of millions years ago, yet, in these turbulent times, it requires our protection.
The fantastic diversity of life - from mediterranean vegetation to forests of chestnut trees - make the Ardèche Gorge National Park high priority with conservationists. If you visit, you can scale the 200-300m limestone cliffs, kayak in the sparkling Ardèche river and spot rare species - only don't you dare drop your crisp packet!
The Ardèche Gorge National Park feels light and heavy at the same time, teeming with living and breathing fauna yet eerie with the echoes of an ancient human presence. Some of the earliest cave paintings ever discovered are nearby, images between 30 000 and 32 000 years old, in the Chauvet Pont D'Arc. Though these are some of the oldest paintings known to man, the techniques used are thought to be innovative and unique to the era. Take a look at one of around a hundred pictures below - not bad for 30 000 years ago, when thumbs had only recently become opposed to each other!
The fragility of these ancient paintings, from the Upper Paleolithic era, prevents the public from seeing them. Yet, similar evidence of early human inhabitants is common throughout the Ardèche gorges, with arrowheads and flint stones often being found in the caves. The very, very old meets the young in the Ardèche, as the gorges are a nesting site for Bonelli's eagle and the Egyptian vulture. Many species of bats, fishes and insects inhabit the national park, infamous for its rich eco-diversity.
Unsurprisingly, there are stringent rules which visitors to the Ardèche Gorge National Park must follow, to protect the magnificent environment from the wear and tear of heavy footfalls. Here are just a few of the guidelines taken from a decree and prefectural law on the official website:
- Respect the animals, plants, minerals and archaeological riches.
- Wild camping is permitted - yet only in specific areas and reservation is required.
- Bring back your waste to the end of your descent.
- No entry into the reserve after 6 pm or night navigation.
The emphasis park officials place on care and sensitivity to other beings helps preserve the unique ecosystem, so conducive to producing rich and disparate life forms, of the Ardèche gorges. Despite this emphasis, the park also encourages humans to push their limits and feel alive in the Ardèche Gorge National Park and take advantage of the incredible experiences to be had in mountains, rivers, cliffs and caves.
You can hike up the mountains, winding around some or all of the 250km of marked trails. You can go caving, following in the steps of prehistoric humanity.
The mountains and cliffs in the Ardèche Gorge National Park are prime spots for climbing - more experienced climbers can scale marked routes with their own ropes, scramblers can scramble and first, second or third timers can try out the via ferretas or the accrobranches. If you're looking for detailed information and advice about climbing in the Ardèche, follow this link to get in touch with evasion travel - an activities company who know literally thousands of routes in the area.
The long, clear Ardèche river is perfect for beginners to try kayaking and canoeing - wide and slow-flowing, with spectacular views on either side. Its a Grade II, so as long as you know how to swim and have a little direction, you'll be able to enjoy the sensation of gliding down the river, soaking in the sights. Paddling through the clear water - with rapid spots tricky enough to keep you on your toes - surrounded by sheers cliffs and rich vegetation, its not surprising that thousands of people enjoy a scenic river descent each year. For an easy ride, head to the Ardèche river in the summer. In the spring, there's the river's a little fuller and the water flows a bit faster, but you can still take it pretty easy. For those of you who fancy a challenge, try paddling in the opposite direction!
As if you needed another reason - the Ardèche National Park has a few dashes of randomness, unusual activities that you're unlikely to find anywhere else.
- Underground walks in the Aven D'Orgnac - ranging in difficulty and length, with more adventurous and milder options on offer.
- Have a go on the “Vélorail”, a pedal-powered cart on wheels that makes a 12km -descent on a disused rail track. Suitable for all ages, totally silent and very little effort, the trips starts in Boucieu-le- Roi and finishes in Colombier-le-Vieux, passing by many stunning works of art. Reservation is essential.
- Check out the Forest of Games - a theme park dedicated to games made out of natural elements - pebbles, green oaks, bamboos, driftwood and basalt. Located in the Laoul woods use a few kms from the Gorge, this quirky theme park has 60 attractions, a mix of old and new board games, all crafted out of the fruits of the earth.
Avignon is the closest airport to Vallon Pont D'Arc, the gateway to the Ardèche Gorges National Park. The airport is serviced by many airlines including easyjet, who offer cheap flights to Avignon from Bristol, Gatwick and Luton. You might also choose to drive, as the journey is just as beautiful as it is long between the UK and the south of France. Check out this story, with good reasons and a bit of info on road trips to France.
You can wild camp in the Ardèche Gorges National Park, but only in specific areas and you must reserve first. There are also naturist camp sites (not to be confused with nudist) which have privileged spots in the national park by the river. Alternatively, you might opt for the comfort of a gite (an even Frencher word for chalet) - evasion travel offer self-catered gites with a 20% discount.