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Outdoor France - the wild parts

Unspoilt natural environments in France

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France's great outdoors

Page index Alps and Jura North east
South of Toulouse Central southern France National and regional parks

    France is a big country; and it is a country where the countryside is big. On the other hand, as an old country, where humans have worked the land for over two thousand years, it is a country where much of the "natural" environment has been shaped - for better or worse - by the hand of man. There is little in the way of genuine "wilderness area" in France, such as one can find in the USA or Canada; but that is not to say that there is no such thing as "wild France". There are plenty of parts of this large country which remain, to this day, relatively wild and untamed, and a destination worth seeking out by nature lovers, ramblers and adepts of the "great outdoors".
    For anyone wishing to escape from city life and find rural peace and quite, almost any part of rural France will fit the bill; but there are areas of France that are more deeply rural, and less populated than others. In particular, there is a large swathe of France, running from the Belgian border in the north east, to the Pyrenees in the south west, that is unofficially known as la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness), which contains many of the least populated areas of France (other than high mountain areas), plenty of wide open spaces, and ample opportunity for hiking, rambling , cycling and outdoor activities. This diagonal can be seen on the map opposite (or below on small screens)..

Eastern France

    In the northeast, the area includes the Ardennes hills, with their forests, and the  open spaces of the Champagne and Lorraine regions, rolling farming country that has seen considerable rural depopulation over the last hundred years. In the northern part of Burgundy, between Paris and Dijon, lie the Morvan hills, quite forested in parts, and peaking at over 700m (2,000 ft.) The Morvan is a popular area with weekend hikers, on account of its easy access from Paris.

Central southern France

Massif Central uplands    The southern-central bulge in the "diagonal" is the area of the Massif Central mountains, which include some of the emptiest parts of France. The Massif Central includes most of the regions of Auvergne (chosen by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten regions of the world to visit) and Limousin, as well as the north of the Midi-Pyrénées region, and the north of the Languedoc region, and the west of the Rhone-Alpes region. Many long-distance hiking paths cross these hills, passing through some pretty wild and desolate areas, such as the barren limestone Causses in the south (in the departments of Lozère and Aveyron), traversed by the chasm of the Tarn gorge, the granite Aubrac in the middle (Aveyron and Cantal departments), and the Chaîne des Puys ( volcanic uplands running through the Puy-de-Dome, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Ardèche departments: see photo). This is the part of France for lovers of wild wide open spaces. A very sparsely populated area is crossed by the A 75 Clermont-Ferrand to Montpellier motorway, which runs for over 100 miles at an average altitude of over 800 metres, with three peaks at over 1100m (about 3,500 ft).

South of Toulouse

Cirque de GavarnieThe Cirque de Gavarnie in the High Pyrenees National Park
   South of Toulouse, the rolling countryside of Gascony slowly rises up to meet the foothills of the Pyrenees, then the high Pyrenees themselves. The Pyrenean foothills are wooded with steep valleys, and offer plenty of opportunities for rambling and hiking. The high Pyrenees, which culminate at over 3,000 metres, offer classic high-mountain terrain, and plenty of tracks, including some recommended only for experienced mountaineers.

Alps  Jura and Vosges

The Vosges mountainsThe Vosges mountains in eastern France - dividing Alsace from Lorraine

     To the east of the Rhone valley (a line running from Lyon to Marseilles), lies the other great natural area of France, the French Alps and their foothills (the Vercors, the Bugey). This zone offers plenty of very attractive mountain scenery, ranging from the dry terrain of the Verdon area of Provence, to the eternal snows of Mont Blanc. Many areas of the Alps have been heavily developed for winter sports,  but away from the ski resorts,there are many hundreds of square kilometres of untamed hill and mountain, well equipped with marked hiking trails, linking valley to valley, or village to village. The high Alps are home to two of France's  best-known national parks, le Mercantour and les Ecrins.

     North of the Alps, running up the northern side of the border with Switzerland, the Jura mountains in the Franche Comté region offer another large mountainous area. The high Jura is characterised by spruce forests and meadows, as well as lakes and streams and plenty of hiking facilities.
     Finally, stretching northwards on the frontier between Alsace and Lorraine, the Vosges Mountains are a largely forested area of uplands with peaks over 1000 metres, and hundreds of kilometres of hiking and cycling trails.


See About-France.com Wildlife in France and Birds in France  pages

Protected Areas, national parks, regional natural parks

Natural areas in France     The areas described  above include most of France's (few) national parks (in the high Alps, the Cévennes and the Pyrenees), plus a large number of "Parcs naturels régionaux" (a phrase which is often mistranslated into English as "national parks"). There is no fundamental reason why some areas should be designated national parks, and others regional natural parks; the distinction is largely an administrative technicality, akin to the difference between "state parks" and "national parks" in the USA.

Camargue wetlandsRiding across the Camargue wetlands  
    The map above shows the location of the main regional parks (green) and national parks (purple). The former include the parks of  Lorraine, the Morvan, the Chaîne des Puys, the Forez-Livradois, Millevaches en Limousin, the Camargue wetlands, Monts d'Ardèche, Grandes Causses, Luberon, Vercors, Haut-Jura, and others. Many areas not included officially in "parks" are protected areas under the EU Natura 2000 natural heritage programme.  

Going further:

Click here for a detailed map of France, which you can scroll and zoom on any area.

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With twice the surface area of Great Britain, and about the same population, France is a country with plenty of countryside.  Away from the big urban areas round Paris, Lyon and the north of France, France is essentially a rural country, with plenty of wide open spaces. This is particularly the case in the hill country of central southern and central eastern France. The great uplands of the Massif Central, the Jura and the foothills of the Alps offer a wealth of opportunities for visitors wanting to
"get away from it all".

►►  More useful travel  pages 
Long-distance hiking trails in France
Cycling and cycleways in France
The regions of France
The Massif Central uplands
Driving in France
Avoiding Paris - routes from Calais
Ferry services to France
French rail travel
Flights to France
Winter sports in France
Gites and holiday cottages
Bed and breakfast in France
Rural campsites in France
Independent hotels in France

La diagonale du vide - France

Empty France - the diagonal of sparsely populated areas

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