Discover the Cevennes region located between Languedoc Roussillon and Auvergne in the Mountains of the South of France. Hiking trails, History of France.
Cevennes National Park in Southern France
Welcome to the Cevennes National Park in Lozere state. Country with multifarious facets, exceptional area trifling with all lights. Located in the South of France in the Languedoc Roussillon region.
Land of shale and
South of the Lozere are the Cevennes, protected by National Park status, rising above the plains of the Languedoc and the Mediterranean. The Cevennes is a maze of deep valleys with winding rivers of clear waters and hill slopes covered in forests of sweet chestnut along with the mulberry which was planted in days gone by for feeding the silkworms bred in the mills called magnaneries. A country of rebellion and tradition, the Cevennes gradually reveals a bit more of itself at each bend in its winding roads or on a path where it is pleasant to stroll.
More than a mountain chain, the Cevennes are in fact a multitude of many-sided open spaces. The summits are made up of a succession of slightly undulating plateaux, sometimes green like the Mont Aigoual or markedly flat as on the Mont Lozere between Le Bleymard and Le Pont de Montvert. This is the centre of The Cevennes National Park. The western part of these high grounds slope gently downwards on either side of a dividing line of water originating at the extreme end of the Mont Lozere, on the crests of Jalcreste and Minier.
The countryside opens out over the vast limestone spaces that are called the Causses. Below these bare surfaces, the Mediterranean side is hollowed out by deep and narrow valleys (les valats), dominated by crests and swept by the force of the torrents of the Cevennes. Before rejoining the Languedoc plain, the southern valleys widen and transform under the influence of the Mediterranean.
In the past, the Causses and the Cevennes were the domain of the forest and wild animals. The "Beast of Gevaudan present in the 18th century disseminated fear in the area for several years. Today the region is mainly the domain of wild boar and hikers. The real emblem of the cevenol countryside is the chestnut tree, also called the bread tree. It grows in most places of an average altitude although is sometimes found at over 900 metres if the exposition is good. It shares the scenery with green oak trees that are as common in the area.
The population if the high valleys in the Cevennes has dwindled more and more, and even if animal farming is one of the main local activities the economy of the area is mainly based on tourism. It is an ideal region for nature lovers but also has a rich patrimony and architectural heritage, a rich and sometimes terrible history.
When walking in the Cevennes, it is possible to
come across Protestant temples like in Anduze or Catholic churches, old memories
of the dreadful religious wars of the 17th century and reminders of the violent
and bloody period of the
Also the magnagneries, silk worm breeding houses at the origin of the wealth of the Cevennes in the 19th century. Numerous hamlets and villages with typical Cevenol architecture are worth visiting: the fortified village of La Garde-Guerin, Le Pont de Montvert, Florac, seat of the Cevennes National Park, St Laurent de Treves, with its dinosaur footprints engraved in the limestone, Meyrueis and Roquedols castle. Between two swimming expeditions in the refreshing and clear waters of the Gardon, it is therefore possible to discover the beauty of the countryside of today and yesterday.
"Knowing how to walk without being noticed, in silence, and without leaving any traces" Kenneth White
The Cevennes, the southern part of the Central Massif turned towards the Languedoc, have a particularly arid climate. The rivers are usually very low but violent rains may cause sudden rises in level with catastrophic floods.
The deep valleys are narrow, separating jagged ridges calls serres. The slopes are mostly forested. On schist soil, up to 800 m, there is the chestnut tree, that has fed generations of Cevennes people.
Above 800 m are the moors with their lovely colors in the mild season. On Mont Lozere, Mont Bouges and Mont Aigoual you may find vast surfaces covered with different varieties of broom and coramon heather as a result of the lands being left untended.
The Holm oak, that used to be exploited, usually combines with the white-flowering, fragrant shrub like heather at the bottom of the valleys, and also with common heather, which gives a dark honey, and bell-heather on the numerous fractures in the schist. Holm oak does not grow above 500 m..A long the edges of the uplands of Mont Lozere and Mont Aigoual (GR66 Mont Aigoual roundtrip), between 1000 and 1500 m we find beech forests... an entirely different world !
Big and small beeches, shadow and sun loving plants, grasslands, patches of grass, Scotch pine, warty birches, spruce turning golden in autumn, a mixed planting of stunning beauty. It is hardly possible here to describe ail the aromatic plants, herbs, bushes and flowers found on those uplands and slopes as they make up a third of the entire French flora.
For those who would like to know more about plants there are publications like the Revue Cevennes of the National Park which offer relatively simple articles about the vegetation.
Of Stones and Men
Man has always built and constructed with local rock. In the Cevennes all constructions are in perfect harmony with the surroundings. Front generation to generation know-how has been passed on: choosing, cutting and placing stones.
The oldest constructions made by mankind in the Cevennes date from Neolithic times; numerous relics like pots and silex tools go back to 4000 BC. Along the mountain ridges one finds menhirs and burial places that witness the passage of men and their newly domesticated animals on their seasonal trek to green pastures. Barrows are ancient tombs of tribes that came from the north in the course of the last millennium BC. Then Celts occupied large areas of the Cevennes and built roads that were later on used by the Romans.
The Romans occupied the region up to the 5th century. They brought prosperity: potteries, gold, silver and leadmines, thermal, agriculture... and an extensive network of roads was constructed and improved.
In the 10th century, after the invasion of Visigoths and later of Saracens, the Cevennes were controlled by monastic orders like Benedictines and Cistercians who built countless abbeys and cleared large areas of beech forests to be replaced by chestnut plantations.
After the dark period in the 14th century (climatically changes, plague, famine, the Hundred Years' War) in which the natural vegetation took hold of the landscape again, chestnut trees were cultivated again in the 15th century and soon this crop replaced all other crops. Man fashioned the mountains to his liking by flattening the slopes: they built walls behind which the earth was held, earth that was often carried up from far down in the valley. Welcome to the Cevennes. Edition Terroir, BP20, 07140 Les Vans.
The only French national park in the low mountains, the Cevennes National Park is home to a significant permanent population and cultural heritage.
This peculiarity gives it a role that is not necessary shared by other national parks: the research into conditions of a balanced development integrating the protection of heritage and ensuring the continuation of agro-pastoralism necessary to maintain the biodiversity and the landscapes of the area. To-date it is one of the areas in Europe where the strongest biological enrichment took place in the last twenty years. General features. Total surface of the protected area: 3210 Km', of which,
91,270 ha (82 % in Lozere, 18 % in Gard) distributed over 52 communes among which 117 hamlets or farms inhabited by over 600 inhabitants. This core zone includes 3 % of grounds owned by the Park administration, 7 % of grounds owned by communes, 30 % by the State and 60 % by private owners. It is strictly protected by law. Over one hundred farms actively contribute to keep large surfaces of land open (33%) while the rest of the area is covered by forest (49% of which is privately owned).
Peripheral zone: 230,110 ha (54 % in Lozere, 36 % in Gard, 10 % in Ardeche) distributed over 117 communes (around 4 000 hamlets and 41 000 inhabitants). This area has no legal status but a specific management programme aimed at promoting local economic initiatives and at strengthening the actions of protection undertaken in the core area.
Altitudes: highest one, 1,699 m (Mont Lozere); lowest one, 200 m (Basses Cevennes); average altitude of core area, 1 200 m; average altitude of peripheral zone, 650 m.
Causse Mejean, limestone plateau belonging to the Grands Causses system (Sauveterre, causse Noir and Larzac); mean altitude: 1000 m; grazing of sheep (for meat and milk).
Mont Lozere, granitic massif; highest point: 1,699 m; breeding of cows, transhumance of sheeps.
Bouges mountain, granitic and schistose massif, wooded northern slopes; highest point: 1,421 m; breeding of cows and sheeps, forestry.
Gardons valleys, all excavated in the schiste: the Vallee Longue watered by the river Gardon d'Ales, the Vallee Française by the river Gardon of Sainte-Croix and the Vallee borgne by the river Gardon of Saint-Jean; breeding of goats and sheeps; bee-keeping; chestnut grove.
Mont Aigoual and Lingas, schiste and granite; highest point: 1,565 m; forests of pines, spruces, firs and beeches; forestry; transhumance of cows and sheeps.
Rivers: atlantic watershed, Lot, Tarn, Mimente, Tarnon, Dourbies, Trevezel, Jonte; mediterranean watershed, Gardons, Ceze, Herault.
Climates: mediterranean, oceanic, or continental ; from hot with an estival marked dryness (Gardons) to extremely cold and damp (more than 90 days of frost per year) at the hilltop of the mont Lozere.
Fauna: kept away from intensive agriculture and chemical treatments, the conservation area has become a refuge for fauna and particularly for small animals such as insects. However, the decrease of land under cultivation and the progression of moors and forests have also recreated favourable conditions for larger wild animals. In the last few years, a number of species have naturally returned to the area (otters, black woodpeckers, owls, vultures). Furthermore, the park has reintroduced red deers, beavers, copercaillies, mouflons, tawny and black vultures. Today, among the 2,410 species reported within the park, there are 70 species of mammals, 195 of birds, 31 of reptiles and amphibians, 23 of fishes and 1,824 of insects.
Flora : there is a wide range of vegetation, from the sub-alpine meadows of the Mt Lozere, home to some species typical of the polar circle to the warm rocky sheltered valleys of the mediterranean side where species from the dry sub-tropics grow. Also of interest are the vegetal associations linked to the evergreen oak (hot and dry climate) and the natural beech and fir grove in the heights of the northern slopes (wet and cold climate).
The park's ecosystems (incl. in the peripheral zone) are home to some 48 endemic species and another hundred rare or threatened plants. There is also flora specific to sub-alpine meadows and marshes (sphagnum peat bogs, carnivorous plants...). 33 of the 400 protected species of French flora are present in the park (Lilium martagon, Adonis vernalis, orchids...) and over 2,200 species in total are found within its boundaries.
The forest - half broadleaf and half evergreen - covers some 52,000 ha of the core area. Two-thirds of the species are originated from the region and one-third are evergreens introduced to the area. The large State forest of the Aigoual is the work of foresters at the end of the X1Xth century. The chestnut grove, cultivated for more than a thousand years features a typical landscape.
Management: the Cevennes National Park is managed by a public body, answerable to the Ministry of the Environment. Its headquarters are located in Florac (Lozere). Its management board (52 members) includes representatives of the local population and the national community. It is assisted by a scientific council and a panel of specialized advisory committees. 10 of its elected members form the permanent committee in charge of all general matters. The director, assisted by a deputy director, heads a team of 70 persons including field officers (wardens and chief-wardens) and specialized officers (in sciences; protection and land use management; information and communication ; administration). Seasonal personnel (20) completes the regular staff. The financial resources of a national park proceed mainly from the State and represent some 0,50 FF/year by French. The peripheral zone's management programme has its own budget provided by different ministerial sources. It is made available for specific projects aimed at maintaining a permanent population, at enhancing the quality of life and at developing tourism.
Dimension of the Cevennes National Park
In 1971, UNESCO launched the worldwide Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) with the purpose of enhancing scientific cooperation in studying the interactions between Man and his environment and the major concern of reconciling conservation and development. This programme has been directly applied within an international network of Biosphere Reserves in which the Cevennes National Park was integrated in 1985.
Twinnings: with the Saguenay National Park (Quebec) since 1984 and with the Montseny National Park/ Biosphere Reserve (Spain) since 1987. They enahle fruitful exchanges of personnel and experiences.
Discovering the Park
Three Ecomuseums: The multifacetted heritage of the park is presented area by area through three visitor tours. The Ecomusee of the mont Lozere houses a permanent exhibition at Le Pont de Montvert (tel. 04 66 45 80 73) which relates the natural and human history of the area. The Ecomusee of the Cevennes, in the "French Vallee" is made up of 15 places of interest which present the Cevenols' life and heritage. The Ecomusee of the Causse, with its worldwide famous sites, explains the human and ecological interactions between the gorges and the plateaux.
Walking in the open air: the park offers the highest density of footpaths (GR) in France and 22 educational walks (booklets and guides available in our information centres). During the summer, the park's "Festival Nature" offers a wide range of in- and outdoor cultural activities throughout the region. Many tours and activities led by professionals such as hiking, canoe- kayak, climbing, speleology etc...are organized. Horse riding, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and cycle touring are other available possibilities.
Attendance and information: your visit should start at the Florac castle which hosts our main information ccntre (open all year around, except on week-ends in the low season). During the summer another 20 information centres are open. All the park's editions, guides, maps, hooklets are available there (mailing possible upon request) as well as from local bookshops and tourist offices.
Guesthouses, Rural lodgings or B&B, fitted up with the help of the park offer exceptional conditions of stay with the inhabitants. Many rural inns, camping sites and hotels are available in the peripheral zone. Its rugged mountains cloaked in chestnut trees, and dotted with medieval hamlets that still offer some of the country's best goat cheeses, the isolated Cevennes region is one of France's best-kept secrets. For centuries, these wild and romantic hills were virtually impenetrable, and even now they still offer those who explore them the increasingly rare sense they are treading where few have been before.
Lying to the south-east of the Massif Central, about 80km north of the Mediterranean city of Montpellier, the region is a paradise for outdoors types. It offers everything from hiking and canoeing down deep ravines to the riskier activities of caving and canyoning. But the Cevennes also has a varied and sometimes grim history. It is the land of the Camisards, Protestant peasants who rebelled against persecution in the early 18th century after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, which had established legal tolerance of France's Protestant population. The bloody wars left a lasting impression on its hardy, pious inhabitants, who live mainly in small villages enclosed by stone walls and under the towering gaze of a church spire.
One of France's poorest areas, the Cevennes attracts many writers, artists and hippies eager to escape from the hordes of Parisians and other tourists who flock to nearby Provence every year. They roam the markets in search of home-made pates, donkey-meat sausages, organic eggplants or the earthy wines of the Languedoc. Others spend their days gently floating in the Herault and Tarn rivers, or fishing for trout. "A friendlier, more gentle way of life has been left behind here," says Tom Vernon, a British documentary producer who has retired near the village of Valleraugue to write a novel. It has two delightful cafes by the river where you can sip pastis, read a book or watch locals play petanque.
The stone village is an ideal jumping-off point to explore the 1567 meters Mount Aigoual, which lies on the edge of the Cevennes National Park, named a world biosphere reserve by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1985 to help roll back deforestation. The path is steep as it starts out from Valleraugue, but it is thankfully shaded by thick beech and chestnut woodland, winding its way past ruins of shepherd huts before emerging onto a jagged ridge with views overlooking deep ravines. Be prepared, however, to dive into the bushes to escape a head-on collision with hurtling mountain bikers who, like you, don't really expect to encounter anyone else. From the summit there is an impressive view of a desolate limestone plateau on one side and Mount Lozere's long granite ridges covered in heather on the other. The summit is crowned by a meteorological observatory that houses a collection of photos depicting weather patterns, types of clouds and winds or snow. The handful of hikers at the top, however, seemingly preferred to take a nap in a field amid the buzz of cicadas.
More intrepid hikers can follow the 265km Robert Louis Stevenson Trail GR70, named after the famous Scottish author who put the region on the map with his 1879 book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. You can rent a donkey to carry your pack, but most trekkers say it's a bit of a nightmare. They can stay in numerous gites d'etapes (guest house), hostels that vary in size and comfort but usually guarantee a friendly welcome and a home-cooked meal. The less energetic can retrace the main points of his journey from Le Puy en Velay to Ales St-Jean-du-Gard via Monastier-sur-Gazeille Pradelles, Langogne, La Bastide, Le Bleymard, Le Pont de Montvert, Florac, Cassagnas and St-Jean-du-Gard by car.
For non-hikers, the Tarn gorges and Herault River valleys are wonderful to explore by canoes, which can be rented in the slightly touristy (at least by the region's standards) but pleasant town of Florac, which is full of small hotels and makes a good base. While paddling down the Tarn River, dwarfed on each side by limestone cliffs, watch for bizarre rock formations caused by centuries of erosion. At night you can sleep by a campfire on a sandy beach and eat rabbit terrine (while guarding against wild boars). One site not to miss in the Cevennes is the Grotte des Demoiselles, a vast cave complex revealing a mysterious world that locals once believed was home to fairies. Inside, the high ceilings, massive pillars and a light mist give you the impression of being in a giant cathedral.
When to go ? The Cevennes is most popular during summer, though some find it too hot for hiking. Spring and autumn are great.
How to get there ? Fly to Nimes or take a high-speed TGV train from Paris to the nearby cities of Montpellier, Nimes or Ales, from where you can rent a car.You may take a slow-speed train "Le Cevenol" from Paris (Gare de Lyon) via Clermont-Ferrand or Nimes via Ales, Chamborigaud, Genolhac, Villefort and La Bastide St Laurent les Bains.
Where to stay ? Best places to stay in the Cevennes are gites ruraux or small properties rented out by locals that are usually part of their house or barn and are equipped with a kitchen. There are also many Guesthouses and Bed and Breakfast.
More info ? The tourist office in Florac (phone 0033 466 45 01 14) is open only between April and September.
Old romantic Hotel with a beautiful park along the Allier River. L'Etoile Guest-House is located in La Bastide-Puylaurent between Lozere, Ardeche and Cevennes. Hiking trails GR7, GR70 Stevenson, GR72, GR700 Regordane (St Gilles), Cevenol, Roujanel, Margeride, GR470 Allier river trail, Ardechoise, Gevaudan and many hiking loops around. A mountain retreat in the South of France. The right place to relax.