The South of France is home to some spectacular natural sites. Since I am living in this region for already over ten years, and I like hiking a lot, I thought it might be helpful to share my favourite hikes, in random order. I’ll start with the Hérault department because that’s where I live and did most of the explorations. As always, I am curious to hear about your favourites. So, please feel free to drop me a line, and you might find your favourite in an updated version of this list.
1. Chemin des Légendes et le Sentier des Mille Marches
One legendary walk in the Hérault department is the Chemin des Légendes et le Sentier des mille Marches. It brings you to the ‘Saut de Vésoles’ along a steep climb of 1,000 steps (‘mille marches’) and past numerous waterfalls and impressive canyons. According to a legend, the devil himself created this gorge around the Bureau stream. More likely, the erosion of the gentle Bureau stream formed this rocky passageway. Although different signs and websites give different lengths and times, it took us 4 hours for 12 kilometres. The height difference is somewhere between 600 and 700 metres. The ascent, known as the 1,000 steps trail, along the Saut de Vésoles is the most difficult. The descent on the way back to Langlade is less painful. Another, much easier walk, is the 6.5 kilometres hike around the nearby lake of the Lac de Vésoles.
2. Circuit les Fenestrettes
Hidden in the hinterland of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, you will find one of the most impressive hikes in the Hérault department. In 10 kilometres, the Circuit des Fenestrettes will take you from the bottom of the Verdus Stream to the imposing cliffs of the Cirque de l’Infernet. This highly rewarding circular trail will give you breathtaking views over the valley called ‘Val de Gellone’. To make the steep foothills of the Massif Central more accessible, monks of the Abbey of Gellone in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert created several tracks. Realising that these routes have been used since the Middle Ages make this hike even more memorable.
3. Cirque de Mourèze
The Cirque de Mourèze valley lies between the Orb and Hérault rivers, and the landscape is breathtaking. Dolomite rock columns spread out like some sort of natural labyrinth, with fanciful rocks ranging from 170 to 530 meters high. You can let your imagination run wild with the strange rock formations, a fun game to play with children. Try to spot the ‘Sphinx’ or ‘Camel’ while the ‘Great Manitou’ takes you right back to the Wild West. The first part of the 7.5 kilometres trail you really walk between the rock sculptures in the Cirque. Then there is a little climbing to do and once on the ‘crête’, or the mountain ridge, of Mont Liausson, the path is easily accessible again. On this natural barrier between the valleys of Salagou and Mourèze, you will enjoy the incredible views. On the one side, you look out over the Cirque de Mourèze. And on the other side, you have a spectacular view over the Lac du Salagou.
4. Pic Saint-Loup
It is very much possible that you have seen the characteristic mountain Pic Saint-Loup from afar. The Pic Saint-Loup has two faces. The southern side is the gentle one, located in the middle of a landscape of garrigue and oak forests. The other side is rough with a steep slope, giving the summit its recognisable triangular form. From the village of Cazevieille, you will find a hiking trail all the way up to the summit. The hike is 6 kilometres long and takes about 2.5 hours in total. The extraordinary natural surroundings are not only a joy for your eyes. The scent of aromatic plants like thyme, rosemary and laurel are a feast for your nose. With a difference in altitude of only 364 metres, the trail is not very steep. You only have to climb quite steeply for the last bit before reaching the summit at 658 metres above sea level. When you finally reach the top of Pic Saint-Loup, the amazing view of the Languedoc region will reward you handsomely.
5. Gorges d’Héric
The beautiful Gorges d’Héric in the heart of the ‘Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc’ are always well worth a visit. Not only for a dip in the river Orb and the naturally formed rock pools, but these impressive gorges are perfect for making great walks. Too warm during summer though, when I only can think of getting into the river as quickly as possible. So, I prefer hiking during the other seasons, not least because you will find it less crowded in the off-season. There is an easy track- very accessible for kids and buggies- that will lead you in one and a half hours all the way up to the hamlet of Héric. There, you can have a pause in a tiny café, run by a lovely lady. Don’t expect too much of it; it’s just nice to sit there and rest for a bit before you head back. Downwards will go twice as quickly, following the same path. To round off the day, you will find plenty of wonderful places to spread your picnic blanket.
6. Gorges de Colombières
Get ready for spectacular vistas when doing the hike at the Gorges de Colombières. These gorges might be less known than nearby big brother the Gorges d’Héric, but its varied landscapes are equally beautiful. The challenging 13 kilometres trail will bring you through the mountainous Haut Languedoc, with its impressive rocks, rushing waters and chestnut forests. Besides hiking, Les Gorges de Colombières offer a great diversity in activities. Nature lovers as well as hikers, climbers and swimmers will all find something of their liking. This wilderness has every reason to be nicknamed ‘a part of Corsica lost in the Languedoc’.
7. Ravin des Arcs
Another awesome natural site is tucked away in the inland area between Montpellier and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Near the villages of Notre-Dame-de-Londres and Saint-Martin-de-Londres, you can hike to the Ravin des Arcs. Here, erosion shaped an impressive arc in a 10 kilometre canyon of the Lamalou riverbed. The well-indicated start of the hike is near the villages of Notre-Dame-de-Londres and Saint-Martin-de-Londres. It takes about 1.5 hours to walk 4 kilometres. When the water of the Lamalou runs through the riverbed, you cannot do the hike and have to return the way you came. Otherwise, you can continue the rather sporty path through the rocky riverbed and a short but steep climb.
8. Mont Caroux
Most of the time, when I drive home to my village near Béziers, I can see the impressive Mont Caroux in the distance. Its recognisable shape is visible as far away as the Mediterranean coast. And now I can finally say that I have climbed Mont Caroux.The hike’s starting point is in the tiny village of Douch, where several hikes start. My family and I followed the yellow signs to the summit of the Caroux, called ‘PR Circuit Sommet du Caroux’ and takes about three hours for 8 kilometres. Mont Caroux is locally known as ‘la Femme Allongée’, meaning the reclining woman. Gazing over the magnificent landscape from the summit, it is easy to understand how this magic place inspired many mysterious legends.
9. Boucle de Mountbringues
This is a hike I particularly like to do in autumn, as nothing beats a walk in an autumnal forest. Chestnut trees surround the little village of Brenas in the Haut-Languedoc. By walking the Boucle de Montbringues hike of 5.5 kilometres in about two hours, you will see plenty of them. The cultivation of chestnuts developed in the 16th century and covered the flanks of the Haut-Languedoc between 300 and 800 meters. Keep in mind that the chestnut trees belong to a private owner, though. Therefore, you aren’t allowed to bring any chestnuts home. It won’t matter though, as the most beautiful fall foliage will surround you, together with breathtaking panoramas over the region.
10. 8 capitelles of Saint-Chinian
The charming village of Saint-Chinian lies in a well-known wine region within Languedoc. But there is so much more than wine to this lovely village! When I visited the very informative tourism office, I found out about many, many interesting walks. One of my favourites is the easy 1-hour hike ‘Parfums de Garrigue’, which leads you to discover eight capitelles in a fun way. Each capitelle has a different shape and its own name. Some carry the name of the family that owned the capitelle, like ‘La Capitelle Seguin’, while others use the capitelle’s function, like ‘Lo Claus’ (meaning ‘l’enclos’ in French, as in a grazing enclosure for sheep). If you’re up to it, you can make the hike longer. Leaving from Saint-Chinian itself, the ‘Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth’ hike takes about 3 hours and is a 9 kilometres long loop around the capitelles starting from the Maison des Vins.