The Mercantour National Park, tucked away in the southeast corner of France, is one of the country’s hidden gems.
Covering 685 square kilometers and comprising some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the country, this region is often overlooked by travellers heading for high-elevation hikes in the Alps or the beautiful beaches of the Côte d’Azur. The Mercantour is southern France’s best-kept secret, and it harbors a whole host of natural and cultural treasures.
The Mercantour is just an hour’s drive from Nice, but stepping into this natural paradise feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the Côte d’Azur. The park covers eight pristine valleys, nestled in a narrow strip of mountains stretching from Barcelonnette in the north all the way to Sospel in the south, close to the Italian border. It’s an incredible destination for outdoor activities, from hiking and backpacking to rafting, cycling, rock climbing and fishing. What’s more, it’s also a haven for wildlife, boasting rich biodiversity and many rare species of animals and plants.
However, the Mercantour is also a place where the past casts a long shadow. Human occupation of this marvelous landscape dates back to the Neolithic period, and our long-departed ancestors left their mark, etched into the rocks and cliffs. Deep in the heart of the Mercantour National Park, the Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders) is home to some of the most impressive Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in the country.
Visit this under-appreciated corner of France and marvel at the historic and natural treasures in the Mercantour National Park!
Historic Treasures and Natural Marvels: The Valley of Wonders
Deep in the heart of the Mercantour, close to the Italian frontier, the Valley of Wonders boasts one of the largest collections of outdoor petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Europe. Over 40,000 individual petroglyphs have been documented in the valley, with the largest concentration to be found on the slopes of the sacred peak of Mount Bego. This incredibly rich collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age art provides us with a window onto the distant past of this beautiful region, and an insight into Europe’s earliest history.
The Valley of Wonders was once regarded as a dark place of ill omen, at least according to one medieval traveller. He described the area as “an infernal place with figures of the devil and thousands of demons scratched on the rocks”, referring to the vast array of petroglyphs and carvings. To make matters worse, this region is the site of many dramatic thunderstorms in the summer months, adding to the aura of mystique that surrounds the valley. However, since the 19th century, archeologists and historians have flocked to the Mercantour, in an attempt to make sense of these remarkable carvings and images.
Many of the images depict local animals, including horned beasts that appear to be deer or bulls. Indeed, some archaeologists believe that the people who inhabited this region during the Bronze Age held the bull as a sacred animal, and developed a religious cult centered on the sacred site of Mount Bego. Other petroglyphs depict the stars, the sun and spiral forms, which represent the movement of the earth and heavens, and others still depict tools such as scythes, daggers and axes, providing an insight into day-to-day life in the valley during the Bronze Age. Although there is still much to learn about these images and the society that produced them, their historical value cannot be underestimated, and they are one of the most breathtaking attractions in the Mercantour National Park.
In addition to these cultural treasures, the Valley of Wonders is also known as an important and fragile natural habitat. Across the Mercantour, you will find ibex and chamois deer, and may even catch a glimpse of gray wolves, migrants from across the Italian border. The park is also known for its population of golden eagles, spotted woodpeckers, blackcocks and ptarmigans. In particular, the Valley of Wonders is home to a thriving population of marmots, known by their distinctive whistle. Come in spring to see these lively creatures scamper across the rocks when the wildflowers are in bloom – expect to see unique species of lilies, orchids and other alpine wildflowers, including the rare, multi-flowering saxifrage.
Hiking In The Valley of Wonders
By far the best way to experience this marvelous landscape is on foot, and there are several different options that will take you in to the heart of the valley and the dazzling array of petroglyphs. You can start from either the western end of the range, in the Gordolasque Valley, or from the east, in Casterino in the Minière Valley. If you’re travelling by public transport, it’s possible to access the valley by taking a train from Nice to La Brigue and then a bus to Casterino in the summer.
If you’re coming from Castarino, we’d recommend following this route through the valley for a wonderful day out punctuated by tranquil mountain lakes and grazing ibex. The hike begins on a steep road that eventually flattens out to provide a wonderful panorama of the Fontanalba Valley. Mount Bego, the towering holy mountain, dominates the views as you pass by the charming Lake of the Frogs (also an excellent place for marmot spotting!). The path continues through beautiful larch forest past another peaceful lake, and enters the heart of the valley, where you can expect some of the finest scenery in the Mercantour. This is the best place to see the famous rock carvings and engravings that litter the valley, passing along the so-called Scared Road.
Alternatively, if arriving from the west, you can take the more challenging hike from the Gordolasque Valley over the Pas de l’Arpette (at an elevation of 2511m). This route is a little more strenuous, but offers incredible views before descending into the valley itself. Look out for chamois on this route, which is usually much quieter than the path from Casterino.
In order to protect the fragile ecosystems that thrive in the valley, and to preserve the petroglyphs, all hikers must stay on the path at all times. To see more of the carvings up close, you’ll need to hire a registered guide, who can take you to see some of the most impressive petroglyphs and images. I’d thoroughly recommend this, as the tour offers a wonderful way to learn more about the carvings and the history of the valley itself. For more information on how to join a tour, visit the tourist information stall in Tende, or book ahead on the website.
Places to Stay and Eat Near the Valley of Wonders
Although camping is forbidden within the Valley of Wonders itself, there’s no shortage of places to stay at either end of this beautiful natural gorge. At the eastern end, the Neige et Merveilles gîte offers a wide range of accommodation, including double rooms and dorm rooms, and is well equipped for hikers. On the west side, you’ll find the friendly, family-run Relais de Merveilles nestled in the Gordolasque Valley. This wonderful local institution offers double rooms and dorms and serves up some truly wonderful food, the perfect fuel for hungry hikers! Expect succulent trout, fresh from the stream, newly foraged mushrooms and delicious pasta dishes.
One of the best places to stay to explore the Valley of Wonders and the rest of the Mercantour National Park is the small, friendly village of Tende. This frontier town was part of Italy until 1947, and it has a distinctly Italian character. It’s the highest point of the Vallée de la Roya, and a good base if you want to explore the Valley of Wonders and its surroundings. You’ll find an excellent, helpful tourist information booth, where you can book a tour of the petroglyphs, and real archaeology buffs shouldn’t miss the wonderful Musée des Merveilles, which contains a rich collection of displays relating to the Bronze Age carvings.
Tende also has several hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, and a popular municipal campsite on the outskirts of town that provides ample space for travellers with tents or campervans. The nearby village of La Brigue also has a good range of guesthouses and restaurants.
Other Places to See In the Mercantour
The Mercantour National Park is packed with other natural and cultural wonders, so once you’ve had your fill of ancient petroglyphs you’ll find plenty of other places to explore. At the top of the list is the Gorges de Daluis, an impressive, narrow gorge on the Upper Var River. Known for its red shale walls, which glow a deep crimson under the summer sun, this beautiful part of the Mercantour is often dubbed the ‘Colorado of Nice’ for its remarkable red rock formations.
In addition to operating as one of the gateways to the Valley of Wonders, the Gordolasque Valley is also home to the distinctive mountain villages that make the Mercantour so special. These tiny hamlets, dotted across the mountainside, are incredibly picturesque, featuring cobbled alleys and red stone roofs, and sustain the local mountain culture and cuisine of the Mercantour. Don’t miss the stunning views from Belvédère, or the lovingly restored houses of Rimplas.
The beautiful village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie is another excellent base for exploring the Mercantour. Standing at an elevation of over 1000m, this lovely village overlooks the Vésubie Valley, otherwise known as the ‘Switzerland of Nice’. Best known as a site of pilgrimage, many visitors flock here to pay their respects at the Sanctuary of the Madone de Fenestre, apparently the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Saint-Martin-Vesubie is also a wonderful base for some great Mercantour hikes, including this enjoyable route to La Lac Negre, a magnificent lake surrounded by tall ochre cliffs.
Wherever you choose to visit, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for hiking, cycling, rock climbing, wild swimming, fishing, rafting and kayaking, making the Mercantour one of the best places to visit for families. It’s also a wonderful place to introduce your kids to local conservation efforts, especially at the Alpha Animal Park, where visitors can learn about the reintroduction of wolves to the area, and other efforts to create sustainable farming across the Mercantour.
Best time to visit
The best time of year to visit the Mercantour and the Valley of Wonders is in June or July, when the fantastic wildflowers put on a remarkable display of colors, shapes and textures. In particular, look out for rare, wild orchids and lilies. Otherwise, the autumn months are also particularly beautiful, as the larch forests cast a golden hue over the valley, creating some spectacular photo opportunities. August is a very popular month for hiking in France, but the Mercantour region is well known for summer thunderstorms, so it’s likely that you’ll get a drenching in the course of your hike! Outside the main hiking season, the valley remains inaccessible between October and May as a result of snow.
The Mercantour marked its 40th anniversary last year, and more and more people are gradually coming to appreciate the incredible beauty, fascinating biodiversity, and unique culture of this stunning corner of France. Put the Valley of Wonders on your travel bucket list and start planning your next adventure in the Mercantour National Park!