Small by comparison to the 63 National Parks in the U.S., France has only eight in the country. Still, the landscapes and terrains are quite varied, from the snow-covered Alps, to blue water coves surrounded by petrified stone cliffs near Marseilles, to an island park on the Mediterranean Sea, to a densely populated forest.
Here’s a detailed list of the parks and the range of activities they offer.
Calanques National Park
A recent addition to the national park system of France is Calanques National Park which is 201 square miles and extends from just outside of the city of Marseilles to the lovely port village of Cassis in southern France. It’s the only national park in Europe that encompasses land, sea, and urban areas.
The visually stunning calanques, or coves, have azure waters contrasted by tall, limestone cliffs. There are dozens of hiking trails in the park. One of the most popular is the Cassis Calanques trail which starts at Port Milou, winding through the spectacular calanques and ending at Port Pin, where you can relax at the delightful beach and take a swim in the warm Mediterranean. If you have the stamina, you can continue hiking up a steep incline to the lookout point of Calanque d’En Vau, one of the most breathtaking sites in the park. The entire hike takes 2.5 to 3 hours to complete.
Pro Tip: There are small boat cruises that tour the calanques, leaving from the Cassis harbor.
Forêts National Park
The newest national park of France, however, is Parc National de Forêts, which opened in 2019. Located in northeastern France, the park covers an area of 220 square miles. The park is a thick forest of trees dating as far back as the French Revolution. The park has a population of animals and birds such as wild boar deer, black storks, and wild cats.
There are over 1,200 miles of hiking trails and 435 miles of rivers for water activities such as canoeing and kayaking. There are also a number of food stands with local produce throughout the park.
Also in the park is the Auberive Abbey, an ancient Cistercian abbey on the edge of the River Aube, founded in 1135 by St. Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux. Besides the 18th-century convent buildings and the Cistercian chancel in the church, the abbey is now a cultural and arts center with contemporary art exhibitions. The 16-acre grounds have pear trees, apple orchards, and a rose garden.
Pro Tip: Parc National des Forêts is the closest national park to Paris, approximately 3 hours by car.
Écrins National Park
On the opposite spectrum of the Calanques National Park is Écrins National Park, which has high mountains measuring up to 13,500 feet in the Alps area in southeastern France, near the city of Grenoble.
The park is an alpine wonderland of glacier fields and valleys, crisp mountain air, woodlands and forests, pastures, and pristine lakes. It’s rich with an extensive list of fauna and flora, and hares, marmots, foxes, chamois, and golden eagles are spotted frequently.
Skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, and ice climbing are some of the winter activities available in the gorgeous snow-covered mountains. In summer, you can mountain bike your way through the small village towns, hike the many trails, rock climb, and if you are adventurous, you can paraglide. If you are up to the challenge, hike the GR54/Tour des Ecrins, a circular, 112-mile trek, one of the most arduous in Europe, and takes 7 to 12 days to complete.
Cévennes National Park
Located in the lesser-traveled area of Cevennes near the Ardeche and Aveyron regions in mid-France, Cévennes National Park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The vast park covers over 360 miles and extends over 55 counties. The wild terrain has rivers, streams, and torrents, and a big variation of flora and fauna. There are quaint country roads lined with pine, beech, chestnut tree, and oak groves.
There’s also historical and cultural sites such as Cévennes Valley Museum and Cévennes Museum, dedicated to local arts and crafts, and the La Roque Silk Factory.
A must-do is to sample the regional food products such as a special raw goat’s milk cheese, honey, and Bajana, an authentic chestnut soup.
Pyrénées National Park
Partly located on the border of Spain, the Pyrénées National Park, the most visited in France, is highlighted by the almost 10,000-foot-high Pyrénées mountains, large tracts of forest, high altitude, placid lakes, mountain torrents, and waterfalls. There’s also the prodigious amount of over 45,000 flora and fauna species along with an animal population of animals and birds such as the almost extinct Pyrenean bears, genettes, lynxes, bearded vultures, peregrine falcons, and golden eagles.
Fishing in the lakes and streams and hiking through the mountains are just two of the outstanding activities.
Other attractions include the UNESCO Heritage site Cirque de Gavarnie, a valley formed by glacial erosion near the border of Spain with the Gavarnie Falls, a 1,400-foot-long waterfall, and Pont d’Espagne, an ancient stone bridge that connects France to Spain.
The best way to approach the myriad of available attractions and activities is to visit the various park visitor offices in Saint-Lary, Luz-Saint-Sauveur, Gavarnie, Cauterets, and Arrens-Marsous.
Mercantour National Park
Mercantour National Park is spread across two provinces, Alpes-Maritimes and the Alpes de Haute Provence and 265 square miles, in the south of France, less than an hour away from Nice, on the French Riviera. The park also borders Italy.
The park is filled with thousands of plant species, including 40 native to the park, and the Lac d’Allos, the biggest high mountain lake in Europe.
Sospel is a medieval village nestled in the park at an altitude of 1,150 feet and has an ancient toll bridge from the 13th century, one of the last still standing in Europe.
Other worthwhile attractions in the park include Lake Allos, the largest mountain lake in Europe; the Valley of Wonders, which has an astounding 40,000 cave etchings; and Saorge, a village on the edge of Italy, with medieval architectural treasures.
Outdoor activities in the park include white water rafting and tubing, hiking, chamois (a goat/antelope species) watching, and donkey trekking.
Port-Cros National Park
The only national park in France located on an island, Port-Cros National Park, established in 1963, is on the Mediterranean Sea near Toulouse, in southwestern France. Smaller than the other vast parks, the protected island is set on 6.5 square miles of land and 11 square miles of coastline.
The island’s history goes back to Roman times, and the remains include 30 shipwrecks, 20 forts, aqueducts, and farm ruins.
Walking and hiking on three trails is the main activity on the island, and there’s also snorkeling in the underwater Palud trail, plus glass-bottom boat excursions.
Pro Tip: There are regularly scheduled daily ferries that leave from Saint-Pierre Marina in Hyères.
Vanoise National Park
Vanoise National Park is situated in the Savoie region, in a valley of the French Alps. The incredible mountain range has approximately 100 peaks that are close to 10,000 feet high.
The park is a haven for avid bird watchers with more than 100 species in the protected areas, including Eurasian eagle owls, golden eagles, black woodpeckers, black grouses, wallcreepers, and bearded vultures.
Chamois and alpine ibexes (a species of wild goats) are common, and other animals spotted in the park are Eurasian lynx, marmots, mountain hares, ermine, and badgers.
In summer, walking, hiking, cycling, paragliding, horseback riding, and cycling are popular activities, and in winter, there’s skiing, ice skating, and tobogganing.
Bordering the park are quaint, tiny towns such as Champagny-le-Haut, Friburge, Bramans, and Seez, and the world class ski resorts, Val d’Isere,Tignes, and Les Trois Vallees.