Mercantour National Park a Multi-day Hiking Adventure
When most people think of the Côte d’Azur, they visualize elegant, glittering cities like Cannes, Nice, St. Tropez or Antibes. Grand hotels and opulent beaches. Extravagant villas, splendid boulevards and stylish promenades. Of course, all of this is true but what many people who never venture very far from the coast never get to see is the other side of the French Riviera.
If you drive just one short hour north of Nice, you’ll find yourself amid deep forested valleys, lush alpine meadows and tall snow-covered mountain peaks. And flowers. There are flowers everywhere. It’s all part of the Mercantour National Park, one of only nine national parks in France. Established in 1979, the park contains over 1,700 hiking trails and 1,123 named mountains. It’s a remarkable area full of a wide variety of different landscapes and scenery.
The park extends across six valleys, and there are what seems like countless lakes and rivers. It is made up of two sections: what is called the “heart” or “core”, which is heavily regulated with strict rules to protect the environment, and the “peripheral” zone, which is a bit less regulated and where you will find various mountain villages such as Allos, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, Saint-Etienne and Tende.
A few years ago, I came across a small booklet at the Office de Tourisme in Vence (where I live) called La Grande Traversée du Mercantour. It outlines a 17-stage backpacking adventure that begins on the western end of the park in the small village of Entraunes and continues west and south to Menton on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. For those not wanting to tackle the full route, it is also broken down into two smaller options, a 9-stage hike from Entraunes to Isola 2000 and an 8-stage hike from Isola 2000 to Menton.
I love to hike in France, but I’ve never done much backpacking. Just a short four-day trip in the Rocky Mountains over thirty years ago. So it was a bit of a surprise to everyone, myself included when I found expressed interest in making one of these long backpacking hikes. I spoke to my friends Doug and Maureen, avid hikers and backpackers, and we all agreed to tackle the route from Isola 2000 to Menton in July 2022. Sadly, Maureen had to drop out, and Doug and I made the trip.
We set off from Isola 2000 on July 4th after a friend drove us up from Vence. To be completely honest, I wasn’t even 100% sure that I could finish this trip. Eight straight days of long hikes through the steep mountains of the southern Alpes? No days off? All with a heavy pack on my back? I’d certainly never done anything even remotely close to this before. But I love a challenge and was in good shape, so I felt pretty optimistic about things.
The daily hikes vary in length, with the shortest being just over six (6) kilometres and the longest just under 21 kilometres. There is a lot of climbing and descending. Every day was a trip up, over and down at least one mountain, often two or three. The elevation gains ranged from around 470 meters to almost 1,100. Due to the differences in distance and elevation gain, the hikes take nearly the same time. Doug and I averaged between 5 and 7 hours of hiking each day.
Each night we stayed in a different mountain “refuge.” These refuges are mountain hostels where hikers can eat and spend the night, usually in a large room with bunk beds and many other hikers. Doug and I would eat breakfast each morning at the refuge, and they would pack a sack lunch for us to eat during the day. At night we were served a simple, yet quite satisfying, dinner.
The Mercantour National Park features an incredible selection of flora and fauna. Nimble chamois (a beautiful antelope-like animal) can often be seen grazing near a river or lake. Agile bouquetins (wild goats) climb all over the steep rocks and precipitous mountain cliffs. My favourite animals are the fat, furry marmottes that scurry across the hillsides hiding in the holes they have dug in the dirt. Owls, vultures, grouse, eagles and woodpeckers are some birds you’re likely to see. Over 2,700 different plant species grow in the area.
Most of the trails in the park are very well-defined and extremely well-marked. Numerous “balises,” wooden signposts, mark the way and point to various destinations in different directions. Red and white paint stripes can also be found on rocks and trees to remind you that you are on the correct path.
Mercantour in 8 Days
Our first day took us to Italy to the Refuge de Questa, where we spent the night. It was the easiest day of the trip and a great way to get started. We crossed over several sections of magnificent “paved roads” constructed by the Italian military for the King of Italy to use when hunting in the mountains.
Day two, the longest hike, brought us back into France to the Gite du Boréon, where we rested up for day three, which had a lot of climbing. The trail from Boréon to the Madone de Fenestre took us through some of the most beautiful forested areas we would encounter on the trip. We followed a small river up a valley full of larch, pine and spruce trees and then made our way past Trécolpas Lake and over the Pas des Ladres where we were greeted with absolutely stunning views.
Day four seems like it should be the easiest of the eight hikes since it’s only about six (6) kilometres, but it is one of the most difficult. The trails give way to huge sections of rocks and boulders, which you must climb over carefully. The ascent up to Pas du Mont Colomb (at the height of 2,548 meters) was long and steep. The trail down the other side to the Refuge de Nice was even more treacherous. When we finally arrived at the refuge, we stopped at the Lac de la Fous and ate our lunches while soaking our aching feet in the ice-cold water.
We passed through the Merveilles Valley (Valley of Wonders) on days five and six. This portion of the park contains over 37,000 rock engravings created over 5,000 years ago. It’s forbidden to leave the trail for most of this portion, and you can not even use hiking sticks unless the tips are covered with rubber.
As we neared the end of the trip, we knew we were getting closer and closer to civilization again. In fact, on the last two nights, we stayed in hotels making everything a little easier. We passed through the town of Sospel on our last night and then headed down to the seaside. Our last day was the most difficult. It’s a long hike from Sospel to Menton with a lot of descending. It’s hard to believe but going down is more difficult than going up! The last two and a half hours before we arrived at the coast were quite challenging. The summer sun was much hotter here than in the mountains, and the long, narrow downhill trails were treacherous and slippery.
Not to be Missed!
When we finally arrived in Menton, I was exhausted but satisfied. It’s hard to even begin to count the highlights from this trip. As Doug and I worked our way across the park, through meadows and fields, over hills and mountains, and across streams and rivers, we repeatedly returned to one thing. 99.99% of the people living in the south of France have never seen what we see today. The sore feet, the aching knees, the heavy packs: it’s all worth every moment for the times when you stand on some high mountain pass and see the Southern Alpes stretched out before you. The blue skies and the white puffy clouds. The rivers and lakes in the valley down below. Trees, bushes and flowers spread out across the sides of the hills. I wouldn’t trade one minute of it for anything.
Photographs (all by Steve Wilkison except #15):
1. Doug and Steve on the trail.
2. A small lake high in the Mercantour National Park.
3. The Refuge de Nice on the edge of Lac de la Fous.
4. Doug soaking his feet in the Lac de la Fous.
5. Resting along the trail.
6. A “balise” at the top of Pas des Ladres.
7. Climbing down is often much more difficult than climbing up.
8. Near the end of the trip, Menton and the Mediterranean Sea are in the background.
9. In the Merveilles Valley.
10. A lush green valley in the Mercantour National Park.
11. A high mountain lake in the Mercantour National Park.
12. A bouquetin alongside the trail.
13. Flowers, flowers and more flowers.
14. The long and winding trail.
15. A nice big trail and tall pine trees. (photo by Doug Neihart)