The Gorges du Verdon are a top tourist attraction in Provence and one of the most beautiful river valleys in Europe. This is the best way to visit the "Grand Canyon of France".
Click here to book a hotel in the Gorges du Verdon
The gorges date back to the Triassic Period (250-200 million years ago), when this part of France was under water, causing limestone and coral deposits to form, traces of which can still be seen today.
As the waters subsided over the millennia, the deposits fractured, resulting in distinctive, striated rock formations. A major glacial period remodelled the landscape, opening up deep gorges.
The river Verdon - which, as the name hints, is a surprisingly verdant bright green - runs between the two départements of the Var and the Alpes de Haute Provence, mingling their Mediterranean and Alpine ecosystems.
The most stunning part is the canyon between Castellane and Moustiers Sainte Marie, where the valley can plunge 700 metres / 2,300 feet deep, offering dizzying views downwards and breathtaking vistas across the valley.
The route on the south (Var) side of the river is called locally the rive gauche (left bank) or the route de la Corniche Sublime. Marked in green on the map.
This road is clearly demarcated, and has two lanes and reassuringly sturdy-looking wooden barriers, though you are more likely to meet large tourist buses on it. The landscape here is green and lush (in fact, the trees sometimes block the view!)
The route on the north (Alpes de Haute Provence) side of the river is called locally the rive droite (right bank) or the route des Gorges. It is dramatic and rugged with much less vegetation.
Instead, you pass through, across and, at times, under some towering rock formations. It has spectacular views at the beginning and end of the route, though in the middle the road loops away from the deepest part of the gorges. Marked in brown on the map.
The best way to see the Gorges du Verdon from the north side is to take a detour, the route des Crêtes, pictured. This loop is even steeper and narrower, with vertiginous drops (and often without barriers).
Part of it is one-way only. Locals assure us that accidents are rare on this road, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Marked in red on the map.
Generally speaking, it's recommended to set out very early in the morning in summer in order to avoid excessive heat and traffic.
Take the anti-clockwise route if driving on hairpin bends and narrow roads is something that concerns you, as you will be hugging the cliff for much of the route.
The Gorges du Verdon are a magnet for motorcyclists, quad bikers, cyclists and camper van tourists. There are plenty of campsites. Click here for a list (note: the French-language area of this website throws up many more results than the English-language one).
If you are staying in a hotel or gîte, you are likely to be based either in Moustiers Sainte Marie, one of the most beautiful villages of France, with prices and crowds to match, the lakeside resort of Les Salles sur Verdon or the more modest and down-to-earth small town of Castellane.
Our suggested route runs anti-clockwise round the Gorges du Verdon, starting in Castellane. You could cover it by car comfortably in a day, or even in half a day (especially if you are motorbiking), although this would be a terrible rush.
Or you could take it easy and make a weekend of it. We have listed some suggestions of interesting places to visit along the way.
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ROADBOOK FOR THE ROUTE ROUND THE GORGES DU VERDON
The pleasant small town of Castellane is dominated by a 184 metre / 603 feet high rock on which a chapel, Notre Dame du Roc, perches. Castellane was once located up there before it moved down to its current, more accessible position. But you can still walk up to the chapel if you have the time and inclination.
There's a small old town and, on the main square, place Marcel Sauvaire, an information centre, the Maison Nature Patrimoines, with displays about the gorges and information as well as temporary exhibitions. Castellane itself also has a Tourist Office on the rue Nationale.
Other than a good farmers' market with high-quality Italian and mountain produce on Wednesday mornings (look for honey, saucisson, nougat and cheeses) and a general market on Saturday mornings, there is not much more here to detain the visitor.
Castellane is very quiet outside the main tourist season and only a handful of its many restaurants remain open in winter. The best destination for gastronomic dining is the Auberge du Teillon in the neighbouring village of La Garde, five km / three miles away, though this too closes for four months in winter.
Out of Castellane, take the D952 to start the anti-clockwise circuit around the Gorges du Verdon along the north bank. The road, pictured, runs alongside the river, before climbing to Point Sublime, a celebrated viewing point on the route.
The car park here can get very busy in summer (there's also a small snack bar) But a short walk will reward you with majestic views over the river 700 metres / 2,300 feet below and the Couloir Samson (Samson's Corridor).
This signals the beginning of the gorges proper and owes its name to a segment of the rock formation which - supposedly - looks like an Atlas-like figure holding up the cliff.
Perched high above Point Sublime, the tiny, intimate village of Rougon (altitude 963 metres / 3,160 feet) is worth a quick visit if the traffic is not too heavy.
Note, though, that the road to it is narrow with few places to pass and parking is inevitably limited at the top).
This little community has its own Town Hall, post office, village shop and tourist information point as well as a crêperie and restaurant.
Rougon offers even more stunning views, and many of the best hikes through the Gorges of Verdon pass through, or start here. It is also a great vantage-point for birdwatching.
The Griffon Vulture, or wild vulture (Gyps fulvus) had disappeared from Provence for over a century when a programme was begun in 1999 to reintroduce the species. Twelve vultures were released then and now around 100 thrive in the rocks around Rougon.
There is a viewing point in the village and the best time to spot them is in the late morning, when the cliff where they nest warms up in the sun. In summer it's possible to take a two-hour tour with an ornithologist.
Back on the D952, you will find the D23, or route des Crêtes, winding off to the left around 800 metres / half a mile before you arrive at La Palud sur Verdon (by the way, "route des Crêtes" is a generic term meaning "road across the crests": there are other routes of the same name elsewhere in France, for example between Cassis and La Ciotat).
It leads up to a pass 1,285 metres / 4,200 feet above sea level and 715 metres / 2,346 feet above the level of the river bed with 14 belvederes along the way where you can pull over to admire one of the amazing vistas, pictured. Allow at least an hour to drive it.
The descent takes you through two tunnels and along hairpin bends with a deep drop to your left (and no barriers). The section from the top is one-way for around 15 km / 9 miles as far as the Chalet de la Maline and is closed, by law, in winter between 1 November and 15 April.
At this point is a building which was - when we visited in September 2013 - being converted into a Centre Regional de Montagne (Regional Mountain Centre).
Next to it is a small mountain refuge, the Chalet de la Maline itself, pictured, which was renovated in 2013. It now offers 43 beds in shared dorms of 4-6 beds, dining and activities rooms and parking for cars, motorbikes and bicycles.
The route des Crêtes rejoins the main route des Gorges at La Palud sur Verdon 23 km / 14 miles later. Note that you cannot complete the route des Crêtes starting from La Palud, since the one-way strip is in the opposite direction.
The village of La Palud has been invaded by campsites and other tourist facilities, but retains vestiges of its agricultural past: watch out for the restanques, the dry stone walled terraces typical of Provence. It has a farmers' market on Sunday mornings.
To the west, a restored 18th century château houses the Maison des Gorges du Verdon, consisting of a museum, bookshop and information centre.
From here the road snakes down through towering rock formations towards Moustiers Sainte Marie, which is certainly worth a detour if you have time.
If you want to complete the circuit round the Gorges du Verdon along the south bank of the river, turn left along the D957 about 2 km / 1.2 miles before arriving in Moustiers. This road skirts the Lac de Sainte Croix (Sainte Croix Lake), pictured, through which the Verdon river runs.
The largest reservoir in France, this huge, 10 km / 6 mile long 2,200 hectare / 5,436 acre expanse of bright turquoise water is an artificial lake created by a dam in 1974 to improve Provence's water supply. A bus, the "Estelline", shuttles to the Lac de Sainte Croix from Moustiers, in summer only.
You might make a detour to visit the lakeside town of Les Salles sur Verdon, built to replace the original village which was forcibly razed and flooded in 1974 to make way for the lake.
It caused much anger among local families, many of whom felt poorly compensated for losing homes where they had lived for centuries.
The new version of Les Salles is a strange, rather soulless affair with an enormous, out-of-proportion church and a large number of tourist bars that are pleasant spots in summer but must be ghostly in winter.
The Tourist Office for Les Salles sur Verdon has a maquette of the former village and some information on this poignant story. You can find out more about Les Salles de Verdon on this community website.
Out of Les Salles take the D71, then the D19 through Aiguines, an attractive hillside village with sweeping views over the lake, colourful houses, a 17th century church and chateau and a reputation for artefacts turned from local box wood and its boules made of box tree roots.
The route de la Corniche Sublime then takes you along the south side of the Gorges du Verdon along densely wooded slopes. Watch out for the goats!
You pass the cliff known as the Falaise des Cavaliers, which is the starting point for a popular hiking path, the Sentier de l'Imbut and the Tunnel du Fayet, then cross the Pont de l'Artuby (182 metres / 597 feet), a favoured spot for bungee jumping.
The star place to eat and stay in Trigance is the mediaeval Château de Trigance, which has been converted into a luxury hotel with a gastronomic restaurant. When you decide to move on, the route will take you back to Castellane, thus completing the circuit.
SPORTING ACTIVITIES IN THE GORGES DU VERDON
For centuries this brooding, extremely mountainous terrain seemed forbidding and inaccessible. Hiking paths were explored for the first time in 1905 by Edouard-Alfred Martel, a pioneer surveyor and speleologist (cave explorer), and Isidore Blanc, a school-teacher in the village of Rougon.
Together they mapped out a 15 km / 9.3 mile trail later known as the Sentier Blanc-Martel, which runs, partly through tunnels, between Rougon and the Chalet de la Maline. A memorial to Blanc at Point Sublime, near the village where he taught, marks his achievement.
A selection of fiches randonnées, cards outlining other short day hikes is on sale at a small charge at the Moustiers and Castellane tourist offices.
Some (though not all) of these are available in English. Click here for an online list of thematic walks and hikes (in French).
Three Grandes Randonnées (France's long-distance footpaths) pass through the Gorges du Verdon. The most popular of these is the GR4, the relevant part of which will take you all the way along the Gorges from Moustiers Sainte Marie via Rougon to Castellane. Topoguide for the GR4.
The GR99 runs along the south-east shore of the Lac de Sainte Croix and past Les Salles sur Verdon and Aiguines along the south (Var) side of the Gorges. The GR49 grazes the eastern end of the Gorges between Rougon and Trigance.
If hiking, stay on the marked paths. When near the river bed, bear in mind that the water level can rise very suddenly, even when it's not raining. And, as always when hiking in Provence, be very wary of forest fires and do not smoke or light a barbecue.
Wear sturdy boots, a hat and sun-screen and take plenty of water, energy bars, a torch and a whistle (the conventional distress signal is two short blasts to call for help), plus, of course, a good map.
Find a large-scale IGN map of the Gorges du Verdon between Moustiers Sainte Marie and the Lac de Sainte Croix or of the Gorges du Verdon around Castellane.
A very wide range of other sports are on offer in the Gorges du Verdon, including canyoning, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking, rock-climbing, bungee-jumping, paragliding, horse-riding and fishing.
Bikes can be hired in Castellane and Moustiers and excursions on horseback are available (enquire at the respective tourist offices).
If you are in Les Salles sur Verdon, it is possible to rent a pedalo boat on which you can go up the river into the gorges as far as the first waterfall. Pictured above: boats entering the Gorges du Verdon from the Lac de Sainte Croix.
HOW TO VISIT THE GORGES DU VERDON BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT
It's not easy to visit the Gorges du Verdon if you don't have your own wheels. But it is possible.
From Marseille or Aix en Provence bus stations, bus no. 27 will take you to Moustiers Sainte Marie and from there along the north side of the gorges (the route des Gorges) via La Palud and Rougon to Castellane.
However this is a very restricted service, even in summer and especially in winter.
From Nice, bus no. 31A brings you to Castellane (though not via the gorges).
This site gives the itineraries and timetables of buses to Castellane from Marseille, Aix and Nice.
Alternatively you could come by rail on the Train de Pignes from Nice to Saint André les Alpes, which is a very lovely journey in its own right. Saint André is 25 km / 15.5 miles from Castellas, and you can find the train timetable here. Once in Castellane you can visit the gorges (during the summer only) in a small group by minibus.