France is famous for its landscapes and the French place a high value on protecting the natural environment and getting out and enjoying the great outdoors.

A wealth of parcs naturels regionaux and nature reserves have been established by France since the 1960s.

They were established to protect France's precious wild places and provide a vital refuge for all kinds of rare plants, birds and animals. Some areas are untouched wildernesses while others are close to large towns. Hike to a mountain refuge, snorkel in the Mediterranean, canoe down a wild river, or trek on horseback through an ancient forest, all in France's parcs nationaux.

How much does it cost to visit the national parks in France?

There is no admission fee for any of France's national parks, but you'll often find that it's more expensive to stay in and around the parks than other places. If you want to avoid the crowds, visit in the spring or autumn when the parks are less crowded.

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Young Adult Woman Hiking on Mountain Trail at Sunrise with Alps in Background, Col du Mont Cenis, Val Cenis Vanoise, France
Hiking in Vanoise National Park © Glasshouse Images / Getty Images

Explore the Alps in Parc National de la Vanoise

The framework for the French national park system was set when the oldest of the three national parks was established in 1963. The goal was to protect the delicate Alpine environment surrounding the Tarentaise and Maurienne Valleys, an area of more than a hundred 3000m-high mountains and sits alongside some of France's most popular ski areas. One of the largest protected mountain landscapes in Europe can be found in Vanoise.

Winter sports are very popular in this area. It is a great place to enjoy the snow shoeing. It is equally popular for hiking and mountain biking when the snow is gone. There is an excellent selection of hikes that can be downloaded as gps files. If you want to spy on the largest colony of bouquetins in France, you need to bring binoculars. They are notoriously difficult to find on the upper slopes of the mountains.

A skier speeds down a snowy slope in the Hautes Alpes of Ecrins National Park in France
Hit the slopes in the Hautes Alpes of Écrins National Park © Westend61 / Getty Images

Follow shepherds’ trails in Parc National des Écrins

The second- largest national park in France is southwest of Vanoise, bordered by the mountain towns of Bourg d'Oisans, Brianon and Gap. This is a park for people who love mountains. The second highest summit in France is the Barre des crins. The glaciers carved out the valleys and there are still more than 40 ice sheets to be seen.

The most popular park for hikers is crins. It is as close to wilderness as the French Alps can get. Humans are not allowed to visit several nature reserves. Many of the trails in the park have been trodden by shepherds for centuries.

If you book a high-altitude refuge, you will get a hot meal and a place to sleep. The Glacier Blanc, Dormillouse, and the summit of Barre des crins are some of the classic French hikes.

An adult chamois stands on a rocky cliff in the Alpes Maritimes of Mercantour National Park
A chamois sighting in Mercantour National Park © Alamy Stock Photo

Spot wild eagles, wolves and ibex in Parc National du Mercantour

Provence conjures images of France, with sleepy hilltop villages, fields of lavender and fishing villages. Many visitors are surprised to see how wild and rugged Haute-Provence is.

Much of this mountainous part of Provence is contained within the borders of the Parc National du Mercantour, which contains spiky peaks, steep valleys, remote mountain villages and a few glaciers.

The character of Mercantour varies according to the season. It's a great place to hike in the summer because of the Provenal sunlight it gets from May to September. Although some of the hairpin turns are pretty hair-raising, most of the park can be accessed by road. The Train des Pignes is a train that goes from Nice to the mountain spa town of Digne-les-Bains on a pine cone train.

Mercantour is a great place to see wildlife. There are many animals that can be seen here with luck. Mercantour is a park where wild grey wolves have been allowed to reestablish themselves, angering local farmers and shepherds. You can see them at the Alpha wildlife park, but they are not likely to be seen in the wild.

Over 36,000 ancient stone carvings are engraved into the rocks in the Vallée des Merveilles, the oldest of which is more than 1800 years old.

Landscape of a beach with people laying out in the sand and swimming in the sea with rocky cliffs in the background
Smaller beaches are much less crowded in Calanques National Park, though they are not as easy to get to © Alamy Stock Photo

Seek out secret beaches in Parc National des Calanques

While the sun-seeking hordes flock to the beaches of the Cte d'Azur in summer, locals and savvy visitors head to the much craggier, more accessible beaches of the Calanques. The Calanques are comprised of a network of steep-sided canyons which have been carved out over countless millennia by weather, geology and time. The Calanques have been off the radar for a long time, but since 2012 they have been protected.

Many of the Calanques are difficult to get to. Getting to the more remote ones requires a steep, sweaty trek along narrow trails where it is easy to turn an ankle in the summer. Calanque d'En Vau is the most famous cove and is featured on many postcards. Calanque de Morgiou is one of the few places you can drive to and it is located along a roller coaster of a road.

Go canoeing and caving in Parc National des Cévennes

The hills of the Cévennes are forested and less visited than other parks in France. The Gorges du Tarn have narrow roads that are nose-to-tail with traffic during the summer months.

Heavily wooded with old-growth oak, beech and sweet chestnut, the Cévennes mountain range is an important bank of flora and fauna.

There are a lot of guide services around the villages of Sainte-Enimie and La Malne that offer guided trips. You could just hit the trails if you don't get wet. Traveling with a Donkey in the Cévennes was written by Robert Louis Stephenson. The long distance is called the GR70. His route crosses the park. The Mont Aigoual Observatory offers panoramic views over the national park and is a must visit if you are visiting.

The woods and canyons of the Cévennes give way to a strange landscape called the causses. The limestone plateaus of Barren are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites is one of France's most extensive cave systems and can be seen underground.

Hike the peaks in Parc National des Pyrénées

There are more mountains in southwestern France than in the Alps. The French Pyrenees feel more like a traditional corner of France, where mountain agriculture and rural life are the same as they have been for centuries. In an age-old ceremony known as transhumance, shepherds move their flocks up and down from the mountain pastures.

This is a great place to see traditional mountain life. One of the only places in France where wild brown bears still roam is in the Pyrenees, where you can immerse yourself in local life.

There are six valleys in the national park. The long-haul GR10 is one of the trails that goes over the border into Spain. Cirque de Gavarnie is one of the most amazing natural amphitheaters, where ancient glaciers have carved out huge, breathtaking bowls from the mountains. One of the most popular routes is the hike to Lac de Gaube.

A person snorkels with the Iles d'Hyeres in the background
Snorkeling in Port-Cros National Park © Alamy Stock Photo

Go snorkeling in Parc National de Port-Cros

The les d'hyres are a small archipelago of islands that are located off the south coast. Affectionately known to locals as the les d'Or, this is the only national park in France that covers both land and sea.

The islands are a great place to explore by bike or foot. They have a lot of small beaches and coves that are great for snorkeling. There is no place to pick up supplies beyond the islands. There are regular ferries that cross from the harbor.

Parc National de Forêts

Less wild, much more accessible, and nowhere near any mountains or sea are what this newcomer marks as a departure for the French national park system. It spans a large area of Burgundy and Champagne, with a lot of little villages and towns dotted around its borders, along with a large amount of woods, including crown jewels like the Fort de Chantilly and Fret d.

Many trails have been established around the park, allowing visitors to explore on foot, by bike or on horseback, which is a fitting way to get around, considering that the area used to be a hunting ground for French nobles. The cigognes noires are black storks who migrate from Africa to nest at the top of old oaks. The Venus orchid slipper is an example of a rare moss that thrives here.

Local craftsmen, food producers and winemakers have been an important part of France since the Middle Ages, and their skills are still highly valued. You can go on a guided hunt for black truffles, but you will need local knowledge and a trained hound to find them.

The article was first published in June of 2021.