Adventures in the Gorges du Verdon, the Grand Canyon of Provence

“Provence”. The name probably makes you picture cute villages and lavender fields, but did you know that it is in this area that you can find one of Europe’s most grandiose canyon?
It looks like that:

 

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A million years back, during the last ice age, the river found its way in the rocks, creating the Gorges du Verdon.

 

Difficult to seize properly the dimension of the Canyon on a picture… Try to imagine that the limestone walls are 700 m (higher than 2 Eiffel towers on top of each other!) and that the emerald river Verdon runs in the canyon over 25 kilometres, creating a fantastic playground for outdoor lovers.  By foot, by car, by canoe or climbing, discover in this article the many ways to explore this jewel of Provence.

Hiking the Sentier Martel, a 100 years old trail

The sentier Blanc-Martel is part of the GR 4, a 240 kilometres trail linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This portion, perfect for a day hike, opened in 1928 when the Touring Club de France took advantage of an abandoned power plant project and converted the abandoned tunnels to make the site accessible to the public. Since then, the popularity of the Gorges du Verdon never decreased and nowdays thousands of hikers discover it every summer.

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Highlight of the hike: the 274 Imbert’s stairs

The most impressive part of the hike is the “échelles de la Breche d’Imbert” (Imbert stairs/ ladders),  a succession of 274 stairs, that seem to rise to the blue sky of Provence. This 70m climb will leave even the most sportive breathless!

 

How to hike the sentier Blanc Martel

It will take you around 6h to hike the sentier Blanc-Martel (16km). You can do the hike both ways, starting from Point Sublime or Chalet de la Maline.
It is a bit more challenging if you end in the chalet de la Maline: the elevation is a bit higher and you will have to climb the stairs up :-).
The path is marked as reserved to experience hikers due to its lengths, and the fact that there is no way out except finishing the hike. Only plan this hike if you are in good shape and leave early in the morning.  The path is safe, this section is easily accessible even if you are not really comfortable with heights.

Leave your car either at the start or finish point. In high season a bus links Point Sublime and Chalet de la Maline twice a day (6 euros). You can also try hitching as many people drive along the impressive Route des cretes (see below).

 

What to pack for the hike

  • proper shoes to hike: sneaker or hiking shoes. The path can be a bit slippery.
  • a torch as the tunnels are not illuminated and are 750m long
  • plenty of water (2L per person): it is not recommended to drink the Verdon
  • a picnic
  • suncream
  • a bit of cash for the bus back

Driving the Route des Cretes

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The small road waves through the mountain. You are climbing: 800m, 900m, 1000m. You enter a tunnel, horn to signal your presence to potential cars coming the other way.  Driving around the Gorges du Verdon is an activity by itself. Bikers, this is a road to put on your bucker list!

 

Route des cretes: the most impressive part that you should not miss! The road starts from La Palud-sur-Verdon and gets you to the highest and narrowest part of the gorges. Drive it clock wise and plan to spend 1h-1h30: the point of the drive is actually to stop at the many belvederes (point of view, in French).

Once you are back at La Palud-sur-Verdon, continue the road to Moustier-Sainte-Marie. After a few kilometres,  the landscape radically changes as the canyon opens up over turquoise lake Sainte Croix.

Other activities in the Verdon

By water – canoeing, rafting or paddling

For nautical activities, choose the 12km long and 4km wide Lac de Sainte Croix as your base.
Canoeing and rafting is possible in the Gorges depending on the level of the water, regulated by the Castillon damn. Check the possibilities once you are the area. Many companies offer this service, the price usually varies between 35 and 70 euros.
Another popular activity is to rent a pedal boat on the lake to get to heart of the Gorges. No previous experience nor booking is needed and prices starts at 15 euros.

 

On the cliffs

The place is a paradise for rock climbers, it’s more than 1500 routes that climbers can choose between to run on the cliffs of the Verdon.

Many schools offer rock climbing or bouldering initiations on “easiest sites”. You can even book a one week course if you want to get your climbing skills to the next level.

Make it happen: Explore Gorges du Verdon, in France

Exploring the Verdon is part of my 5 day itinerary “Pleasures of Provence”

Getting there

If you fly, Nice airport will be a good choice, it’s then a 1h45min drive to reach Castellane. Regional buses run from Nice, Marseille, Grenoble, Aix-en Provence. 
Renting a car to explore the area is highly recommended.

 

When to go

The region is nice almost year around, you might want to avoid the winter when the roads can be slippery or potentially closed due to snow.
July and August is the peak period, don’t show up without a booking for an accommodation, everything gets booked months in advance.

 

Where to stay

To explore the area, you can stay in Castellane or Moustier-Sainte-Marie, villages located on each side of the canyon.

A good budget option is to stay in the camping in the Gorges. You will appreciate their coolness in summer. Renting a cabin in these camping is a great option for spring and summer. We stayed at the camping Indigo which we can recommend (20-30 euros per night for a tent and 2 people).

 

Where to eat

The Auberge du Point Sublime, located at the point of view of the same name, is a good place for hikers. You can also buy there a freshly made sandwich before starting to hike (4 euros).

 

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