Parc National du Mercantour

Last month my friend invited me for a two-day hiking trip (a “Randonnée“) through the Parc National du Mercantour, a national park along the France / Italy border in the Southern Alps. Naturally I didn’t hesitate at jumping at the chance, even though I had no idea what it would involve.

The Parc National du Mercantour is located in the very southeastern tip of France. It is possible to cross over into Italy when hiking through the park. It’s indicated by the blue blotch above Monaco.

He got back to me eventually and proposed the weekend of June 30 / July 1 for a self-supported hike (backpacking with food, clothes, sleeping bags, etc.). I had brought my backpack from the Atacama as well as water bottles, so I was all set. Perfect.

The park is only about 90 minutes away. It’s maybe 30 miles, but there’s no fast way to get there from Villefranche. It involves lots of small, windy roads that would make Mike O nervous.

A close-up shot of the park in relation to Nice / Villefranche / Italian border.

The plan would be as follows:

  1. Start at Lake Mesches, and head west and north
  2. Hike approximately 25 km to the Refuge de Nice, where we spend the night
  3. Begin Day 2 from Refuge de Nice, and make our way back to the starting point, passing through the Refuge de Valmasque for a break.

Here is what the map of the trip looked like. The green start indicator is Lake Mesches where we parked the car and started / ended our journey. The red stop indicator is the Refuge de Nice, where we slept Saturday night. That border you see running along the top of the map is the France / Italy border.

Saturday morning Thierry picked me up at 7am and we made our way to the park. I had my pack fairly well-loaded for only a two day trip, but I wanted to be on the safe side when it came to food. I wasn’t sure how challenging the terrain would be or what sort of provisions would be waiting for us at the Refuge de Nice.

When we got to Lake Mesches and got out of the car to start our randonnée, the first thing I noticed was how nice the weather was. In Nice and Villefranche, the summer is definitely settling in. It’s hot, it’s humid, and the dew point is uncomfortably high. Just walking around in shorts and a t-shit, you sweat like a pig. Here in the park, we found ourselves starting at 4,500 feet where the air is cool and dry. I was so happy to get off the seacoast.

Lake Mesches, 4,500 feet above sea level.

Like you would imagine, the park was beautiful. I shouldn’t have to explain that the Southern Alps are going to be beautiful. What was unique (to me) about them was how rocky they were, and that there was still snow on the ground at some elevations (depending where the shadows were cast). I had brought my Flite-195 trail shoes with me. They’re technically trail shoes, but they’re very thin-soled and I wish I had brought beefier shoes because rocks kept sticking the underside of my foot fairly uncomfortable.

An easy to trail to follow, but not to run on. Plenty of twisted ankles have met their fate here, I’m sure. This was at the beginning of the randonnée, and the trail here is easy compared to later miles.

The trails were fairly well-marked, although there were a few times when Thierry and I had to scour ahead for where the painted trail markers were.

Starting at 4,500 feet, we were still well within the confines of the treed forest. There was lots of pretty shade and typical overgrown greenness of late Spring. Thierry was fairly confident that we would see plenty of “chamois,” a wild goat-antelope species (according to wikipedia) that live at high altitude among the rocks in mountains.

Straight from the opening miles, I could tell that this little randonnée wasn’t going to be flat. Within 2 hours we had only gone 5 miles, but we had climbed to over 7,000 feet. We were straddling the tree line at this point, and by the time we got to our first stop of the day at the Refuge des Merveilles.

Every few hours worth of hiking there are these “refuges” where you can stop. They’re basically just a log cabin in the middle of the park. During the day you can stop for limited hot food options and drinks (being France, of course you can get wine — hot and cold). In the evenings, they have bunkbed dormatories (dortoirs) where you can stay for the night in additional a proper 3-course meal service. The meals aren’t exactly Michelin-grade, but at the end of 8 hours of hiking who can tell the difference?

The Refuge des Merveilles, approximately 9 kilometers from our start and at 7,000 ft.

Thierry and I stopped at the refuge for a quick snack from our backpacks, and to give our legs a little rest. It was a welcome break, both for the rest and for the view. The refuge is located along the beautiful Lake Long Superior.

After admiring the view (of both the lake and other hikers — I have to say that on the whole there were some fairly fit and attractive hikers coming through the park this weekend!), we set up to make a few more kilometers into the park before chowing down on whatever canned lunches we had packed for ourselves.

You can see in the picture of the Refuge that there aren’t any trees around anymore. We had reach the tree line, and from here it would be rocky and sunny. It would also mean a chance to make friends with the local chamois.

Looking back at Le Lac Long Superior, from above the tree line.

Within a half kilometer of leaving the refuge, we were greeted with a steep steep climb that took us all the way to 8,400 feet — the highest point of the day — at the baisse separating the two valleys we would be hiking through.

Mercantour Day 1 elevation profile.

It was here that we spotted our first chamois of the day. Now that we had finally left the trees and found ourselves among the rocks, chamois seemed to be everywhere. They’re not too big — probably the size of a domesticated goat — and they’re pretty skittish and like their distance. They can scale rocks just like other mountain goats, so that makes them fairly calm when they’re on a cliff because they seem to know there’s no way people can even hope to chase them without dying.

Hello, Monsieur Chamois!

Naturally, seeing this chamois made me hungry so before beginning out descent down to the valley that awaited us, Thierry and I sat down to enjoy some backpack lunches. He dined on some tomato sandwich invention, and I pried open a can of tuna and slathered it on some bread I had packed along with some slices of emmental (swiss) cheese. Thierry being Thierry (he likes to cook) he had brought along some homemade jelly candy made from pear, which was pretty damn fantastic. I’m a big fan of pears and a big fan of sugar on a hike, so they two made me a very happy man at 8,400 feet.

Getting ready to descend into the valley below.

After stuffing my face on tuna and sweets, we ventured down the other side of the baisse and began a 3-mile descent that took us down 2,700 feet. It was a pretty intense maze of switchbacks on gravel and rocky road, and it’s a bit of a miracle that neither one of us twisted an ankle or tripped. I think having fallen so many times on trails, I’m finally a little more cautious on shit like this.

It was around this point that I started to get low on water. This wasn’t the Atacama, so it wasn’t like I was going to melt within 5 minutes, but it did mean that I was started to get uncomfortably thirsty as I rationed what remained in my water bottles while looking for a place to stop to refill.

This being the middle of the Alps with no infrastructure, there wouldn’t be any place to stop for running water except at the refuges. And at this point I was midway between the Refuge des Merveilles where we had stopped earlier, and the Refuge de Nice –our final destination. This was a 2+ hour walk either way, and a bit too far to go without water.

Relief came at the bottom of the descent, where the sounds and sigh of a large river greeted Thierry and I. It was fresh and coming from the snow-topped Alps, so I was more than happy to take some water. It seems such a simple thing, having fresh, cold water — but it was the most amazing thing to have when you normally live in the city. It didn’t come out of a bottle and I didn’t turn a tap. This stuff is actually natural. Sometimes you forget that.

Valleys are great and all, but it means that you can only climb from there. Time to go back up!

After topping up on water it was time to start climbing again, making our way to the ultimate destination of the day — the Refuge de Nice. It means going uphill, and following the source of the river. It was definitely a challenging uphill, very rocky and leaving my hamstrings pretty fatigued by the time we reached the top. The only worthy  distraction was the general beauty of the varies cascades and waterfalls we hiked next to.

It was around here when we started to see a few more hikers coming the opposite direction. They weren’t exactly fit, though, and this prompted Thierry to remark, “OK, next time we take a harder route. There are too many fat people here.” Yikes, harsh! For having a language so indirect, the French certainly have no problems saying exactly what’s on their mind in English.

 

Looking back, from near the end of the first day. The large mountains in the back is where we came from. We descended down into the valley below, and then back up again. In the foreground you can see the stream of water the feeds the river in the valley below.
The Refuge de Nice sits high above the trails, and offers visitors a perfect point to rest and stay over night.

We made it to the Refuge de Nice shortly before 5pm, where we would spend the night. It was surprisingly well-equipped with a full bar and an efficient staff. Immediately we ordered a few cold beers to help us relax after the hike, which hit the spot. It was starting to cool off so Thierry and I asked to be shown to our bunkbeds where we could put our backpacks, and grab a hot shower. Showers cost 3 Euros and are limited to 3 minutes, probably because of long lines of stinky people and the fact that the hot water is heated using solar panels and there is only so much water they can heat up before it goes cold and people get mad.

Finally clean, we casually waited around until dinner was served at 7pm. With a couple hours to kill we grabbed a whiskey and played French Scrabble. However, it was decided that Thierry could play his words (only) in French and mine in English. This was a little difficult for me, because the letters favored French words. However, I used this to my advantage by fully cheating. I just made up words in order to win, and Thierry knew no difference. Hey, what can I say — I just “had” to get that “Y” on the triple-letter tile.

7pm rolled around and all 50+ people who were staying overnight at the refuge made their way into the tiny dining hall. Bench-tables sat between 8 and 12 people, and filled the room to make it pretty cramped and loud. We were sat with a German couple and a French couple from Aix-en-Provence, who were pretty cool. The French couple were loud and fun, and of course the Germans were quiet and …German. Dinner started with a soup and was followed by fettuccine with a beef stewy-sort-of-bourguignon thing.

It was good, but when the male part of the French couple jokingly asked if they had Parmesan (of course not; it’s the middle of the Alps) I remembered that I had actually packed some in my backpack. It was something I learned from the Atacama Crossing. Parmesan is super light, packs a lot of calories per gram, and has salt necessary to replenish electrolytes. It also makes even unpalatable things super tasty. I darted up to my room upstairs and came down with a bag of Parmesan, much to the delight of the table. All of a sudden the table became much more gregarious; it’s amazing how a simple act like sharing some cheese can transform an evening. Soon enough we were ordering bottles of wine to share, and I was being introduced to génépi, a French liqueur similar to absinthe.

Sensing the it would be wise and prudent to get to sleep soon, we all called it a night after the génépi right around 10pm.

The next morning we woke up early and made our way on the trail back to the car. We’d be going east and then south, to complete the loop back to Lake Mesches. The first two miles of this day would be very very difficult. There were a few portions where I though, “Oh shit, there’s no way I could talk Mike O into doing something like this.” The opening 2.2 miles took over two hours because they were straight up rocks.

Climbing the first 2.5 miles was the hardest. But from there it was all downhill!

It was very technical, and to be honest we lost the trail several times because 1.) nothing looks like a trail (it just looks like rocks and boulders everywhere) and 2.) we were so busy crawling on our hands and feet that we couldn’t always look much further than a few feet ahead because we were scrambling on all fours.

Yes, we had to climb over that.

Thankfully, once we made it past the first 2.2 miles we were greeted by nothing but easy downhills for the rest of the day.  We were still high enough that there were plenty of chamois around us. There was also still snow from the winter, sticking around despite warm temperatures in early July.

We made our descent toward the Refuge de Valmasque, and after the morning’s climb I was more than ready for a sandwich and a rest for the legs. Nothing climbing had really tired me out and since we had started so early on the morning of the second day, there was plenty of time to rest at the refuge midday.

Chamois family!

Snow still on the mountain in July.

The Refuge was the perfect place to grab a coke, make a sandwich, and have a cafe overlooking the lake. It was a little cool, so we headed inside for our cafe / tea after lunch, and only after exhausting every possible reason to stay there longer (maybe we also want an omelet? A tart?) did we finally hit the trail again.

To be honest the rest of the trail was fairly easy and not as pretty as the first half. The descent was gradual and not difficult. It had its moments — a few waterfalls, the occasional marmot sighting — but mostly it just felt like a big walk back to the car in the middle of some green stuff. More and more hikers appeared as we went through some small areas with restaurants and even a bus stop, and by that time I could sense I wanted to get out of the park.

The park is great when the only other life you see has fur all over it and horns growing from their head. But when they have fanny packs and neon hats, it’s time to get out of dodge. We power-walked our way back to the car, and before we knew it we had finished. Just like that, we had done a little 40+ kilometer excursion through the Southern Alps and it was over.

It was great fun, and I’d love to do it again. With friends coming over in July and August, it is something I may try and organize since it’s a fairly sport crowd that is coming to see me.

So that was my first excursion to a French National Park, and I’m hoping that it won’t be my last. In two days I go back to the US to do the Silver Rush 50-Mile trail race in Leadville, Colorado. This means that when I get back to France, there won’t be a whole lot of time left before I leave France for good. It’s a little bit of a sad thought, so to lift your spirits here are pictures of pretty things in the park.

Marmot!