One of the most remarkable natural sites in France is the Cirque de Navacelles. This impressive canyon on the southern edge of the Massif Central was carved out by the Vis River some 5,000 years ago. Surrounded by the limestone plateau of the Causses and the Cevennes in the North, it’s officially classified as a ‘Grand Site de France‘. You can easily spend a day at this curiosity of Mother Nature.
Belvédère de la Baume Auriol
Driving to the Cirque de Navacelles is an event on its own. Get ready for stunning panoramas on the way, even before you have reached the natural wonder. I started my visit at the Belvédère de la Baume Auriol. There is a restaurant there, called ‘L’Alchimie’, which is open from April to November and closed on Wednesdays. The Maison du Site wasn’t open, though. They are only open a couple of days during the summer months. However, it didn’t matter, as the view on the tiny hamlet of Navacelles was absolutely breathtaking. From this lookout, you can clearly see how the Vis River changed its course to take a shortcut. It created an oxbow lake in the 300-meter-deep canyon, now a dried-up meander. With its rock in the middle, locals also call it ‘The Oyster’.
Hameau de Navacelles
It’s possible to visit the area on a 4.5 hours hike of 12 kms, which shows you some of the highlights. As it was out of the high season, I decided to go by car and save the hike for another time. In summer (mid-July to end of August), it’s best to use the free shuttles that take you from the Belvédère de Blandas to the hamlet of Navacelles and back. As I zigzagged my way down, I didn’t dare to look around too much. Once down in the canyon, I could enjoy the landscape again. Navacelles itself is only a tiny hamlet, with 20 people living there year-round. I had a little stroll around and walked to the Vis. I hadn’t realised I could visit the waterfalls from here, though… Instead of going to the right, I took a left at the river to look at the beautiful bridge.
Moulins de la Foux
On to the next highlight: the Moulins de la Foux. When driving (or walking) to the other look out, the Belvédères de Blandas, I stopped at the small Moulins de la Foux parking lot. From here, it’s a little walk of 1.1 km to the 900-year-old (!) water mills. It’s quite an impressive site as well. The two mills were built like a bridge so horizontal waterwheels could tame the Vis running through. The Vis is a peculiar river. It originates in the Cevennes mountains, then disappears underground through the limestone and pops up again at the Moulins des Foux. The mills stopped working in 1907 and were abandoned until their renovation in 1997. It now hosts a permanent exhibition with informative signs (with some bits translated into English). What a paradisiacal spot in a lush green setting with fluttering butterflies everywhere!
Belvédères de Blandas
From the Moulins de la Foux it is a small drive to the Belvédères de Blandas. I thought I would quickly go to this lookout, marvel at the Cirque de Navacelles from the other side, take some pictures and go back home. Nope. I spent quite some time at these belvederes, starting at the informative Maison du Site. Here you’ll find information about the site, a movie, a souvenir shop, and a restaurant as well. And there’s not one lookout, but four! In a little walk of 2.5 kms, you can soak up nature in all its splendour. I started with the Belvédère du Panorama, bringing me to the highest point for a 360 degree view over the region. This is the only lookout that’s a bit out of the way, as you have to climb a modest 400 meters to the top (and then walk back those 400 meters).
Afterwards, I crossed the Belvédère de la Cascade, with a scale model of the Gorges de la Vis. However, as I was looking at the gorgeous landscape, I managed to miss the waterfalls again… The Belvédère de la Doline gives you an amazing view over the Gorges de la Vis, while the Belvédère des Chênes showed the Cirque de Navacelles from yet another angle. Here you will also find some robust looking picnic tables. And just as you think that I’d had enough of the impressive scenery, you’re wrong… Even on my way back home, I simply had to pull the car over several times to take more pictures. It took me all day to realise that, maybe, one day isn’t enough to visit this remarkable site.