Vanoise national park, Rhône-Alpes
The first (1963) and largest of France’s mainland national parks, the Vanoise is in the French Alps, becoming the Gran Paradiso national park once it’s over the Italian border. Hundreds of trails crisscross the mountainsides where semi-tame marmots come up for a sniff of your picnic and where edelweiss pokes out among the bluey trumpets of gentiana acaulis on the slopes. Lynx, wolves, chamois and ibex descend once the ice has melted in the spring. Surrounded by prestigious ski-resorts, Courchevel and Val-d’Isère the park offers a grand spectacle of glaciers and mountain lakes, perfect for mountain biking and trekking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Stay Le Roc de la Pêche, a chalet-style wood-and-stone building with a hammam and spa; €62pp, €28-a-bed in a dorm
Pyrénées national park, Midi-Pyrénées
Imagine something the size of a pot of jam, covered in dark brown fur with webbed rear feet and a long nose. Unfortunately, the Pyrenean desman only come out at night to feed on river shellfish and insects, but there are other, easier to spot, rare animals in this national park. Pyrenean frogs, mink, even bears inhabit the landscape. Golden eagles and bearded vultures soar above the red and yellow Train d’Artouste, which travels a narrow-gauge, vertiginous 10 kilometres from La Sagette summit to Lake Artouste and provides amazing views of the massif and its valleys.
Stay La Grange aux Marmottes, which has a restaurant, serving local specialities such as pork and vegetable soup garbure; doubles from €72
Landes de Gascogne natural regional park, Aquitaine
Freshwater from the river Leyre merges with seawater from the Arcachon basin in this picturesque nature park south of Bordeaux. The mix has produced a marshland habitat hosting caropsis, tiny carrots only seen growing in the Landes department, and unusually large dragonflies dipping in and out of the water. Eels, otters and terrapins swim in the lagoons surrounded by giant oaks and alders. The park has a huge pine forest and eco-museum, as well as the 110-hectare Le Teich, France’s premier bird park, with more than 320 species spotted migrating back and forth from Africa including greylag geese, spoonbills, godwits and pintails.
Stay L’Airial guesthouse is a stone farmhouse set in its own large garden and is 10 minutes’ drive from the park; doubles from €75
Mercantour national park, Provence Alpes Côte-d’azur
Two of the highlights of the Mercantour are manmade: the bestiary-inspired frescoes of the local 15th-century chapels are only slightly less terrifying than the 36,000 prehistoric carvings in the park’s Vallée des Merveilles. Mercantour has a central, heavily protected core of 685 sq km where visitors are only allowed to walk and a bigger, peripheral area of 28 mountain villages, where it is possible to go biking and hang-gliding. Alpine rock formations and a Mediterranean climate have combined to produce impressive gorges as well as being home to wild boar, rock ptarmigans, nutcracker birds and the recently reintroduced bearded vulture, Europe’s largest bird of prey.
Stay Hotel Chamois d’Or, which also has a restaurant and spa; doubles from €90
Écrins national park, Rhône-Alpes and Provence Alpes Côte-d’azur
Écrins occupies the triangle of mountains, lakes and glaciers between Gap, Briançon and Grenoble. It is so enormous it contains more than 100 summits, 60 lakes and seven maisons du parc (information centres) and is the perfect space for gazing at a seemingly endless landscape. Eagles and vultures stare down at the scampering snow hares and ermines in the rocks below. In winter, Les Deux Alpes is one of Europe’s most swanky ski resorts and in the summer, it often joins the Alpe d’Huez as one of the Tour de France’s most gruelling climbs. Visitors can drive into the park and spend the day hiking with the park’s new app, Rando Ecrins, which has guides along 700km of marked trails.
Stay Alpe Lune chalet, from €57pppn
Le Perche natural regional park, Normandy
Two hours’ drive from Paris, the vast woodlands, wetlands and meadows of Le Perche are perfect for a day’s rambling. It also has some of the most beautiful oak forests in France and an array of flint-and-sand-coloured pigeon lofts, windmills, abbeys and manor houses built after the hundred years war. The 15th-century Courboyer Manor is open to the public (admission €2) and set in large grounds with cycle paths to explore. The shell of La Ferté-Vidame and Nogent-le-Rotrou chateaux look like they are straight out of fairytales. Rare black storks, herons and cranes balance in the park’s many lakes but Le Perche is best known for its horses, with more than 30 riding schools and stables offering jumping and pony treks through the 194,000-hectare park.
Stay Country Garden B&B is a former granary in a hamlet in the park, muffins with jam served for afternoon tea; rooms from €99, +33 2 33 83 56 14
Calanques national park, Provence Alpes Côte-d’azur
The Calanques, south-east of Marseille, only became a national park in 2012 and just a sixth of its total surface is on land, the majority being a protected marine area. The clifftop walks towards the calanques (coves) of Sormiou and Morgiou are exhilarating as long as you haven’t drunk too much pastis. Many of the calanques are only accessible by boat. Alternating limestone and sandstone give a strange cragginess to the coast which houses leaf-toed geckos, ocellated lizards and 13 species of bat. Out to sea, bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles and fin whales can be seen in the waters off Cassis.
Stay Villa d’Orient is a few metres from the sea in the Calanque de Saména; rooms from €75). Alternatively, there is a solar-powered, internet-free youth hostel at La Fontasse, an hour’s walk from Cassis; +33 4 42 01 02 72 (dorm beds €15 a night)
Armorique natural regional park, Brittany
In the summer Brittany’s only regional natural park is a bustle of day-trippers, crabbers and seaweed gatherers. Moors, marshes, granite tors and three tiny islands are included in the park, where rocky outcrops, mudflats and reed beds provide excellent birdwatching. The islands are part of a Unesco biosphere reserve but can be reached by ferry in the intriguingly-named Baie du Stiff. The Crozon peninsula, looking like a dragon’s head thrusting into the sea, is perfect for a windy walk and has a spectacular megalithic site of standing stones at its end, the 87 menhirs of the Lagatjar alignment. Carnivorous sundew plants capture insects in the Armorican swamps and the dark forests, caves and low-lying fog add to the mystery of the place.
Stay Hotel Vauban in Camaret-sur-mer; doubles from €45
Auvergne des volcans natural regional park, Auvergne
A dramatic landscape of craters and conical peaks covered in what looks like green baize, the Auvergne des volcans natural regional park is a photographer’s paradise. A train chugs up to the top of the Puy-de-Dôme, the highest of 80 extinct volcanoes in the park but it’s a great hike too, if you are reasonably fit. Europe’s largest regional park is based around a 30km-long chain of volcanoes. It has four separate nature reserves, streams, pools, glaciers, the steep-sided Massif du Sancy and Cantal Massif. Apollo butterflies and rare damselflies join over 1,000 different animal species in the park; and for more thrills, there is Vulcania, a volcano-inspired theme park, which has vertical-drop rides as well as practical science demonstrations.
Stay Le Chastel Montaigu, a restored 12th-century Templar castle; doubles from €145 (minimum two-night stay)
Cévennes national park, Languedoc-Roussillon
A hundred years before it was declared a national park, Robert Louis Stevenson passed through this often-forbidding landscape on his donkey, Modestine. His route is now known as the Stevenson Trail (officially the Grande Randonnée 70), though mountain bikes have replaced donkeys as the most popular form of transport. With chestnut forests, fields of boulders and rugged paths, the park has an unpredictable, almost chaotic feel, a sense heightened by large numbers of sheep and cattle. The Cévennes was the centre of the Camisard revolts at the start of the 18th century where a lot of blood was spilled – Stevenson felt the emotion in the landscape as he tried to make sense of the Protestant uprising. Head to Florac for the park information centre.
Stay Mas de la Barque where guests can hire bikes or spend the afternoon in a sauna; a cottage for 6-8 people costs from €399 a week
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