Walking in Mercantour National Park

While relatively under-visited by walkers compared to most other parts of the French Alps, Mercantour National Park, situated in the Alpes Maritimes and Alpes de Haute Provence departments, and running along the Franco-Italian border, is effortlessly the equal of better-known destinations in beauty, ambience and activities. Indeed, first-time visitors here (and many find themselves drawn back over and again) are often taken aback simply by the sheer diversity of landscapes the park flaunts: glacial lakes, larch forests, waterfalls, Alpine pastures carpeted with bluebells, pansies, orchids and rhododendrons in the spring. And through this scenery roam chamois, marmots, ibex, red and roe deer, and even a growing population of Italian wolves that has emigrated over the border.
Among seven valleys shadowed by challenging peaks and featuring over 100 lakes there are 600km of marked trails for walkers to explore. Mercantour National Park is also known for mountain biking, canyoning, snowshoeing and ski touring, as well as a via ferrata. At its heart is the famous Vallée des Merveilles (the aptly named Valley of Marvels), home to thousands of open-air Bronze Age petroglyphs.
It’s easy to slip into a lower gear here, and the change in pace is especially noticeable when arriving from the rumpus of the French Riviera, with Nice just an hour or so south. Walkers can conveniently spend a week of glorious isolation up in the mountains then a few days soaking up the vibe on the Med.
Anita Fournier from our travel specialist Itinerance Trekking:
“A lot of people choose to spend a few nights nearby after their tour, either on the French Riviera to enjoy the sea or in the mountains, which are much less touristic and fresher during the summer time! Nice is just a 90-minute drive from here and can be reached easily by bus or train too.”

What does walking in Mercantour National Park entail?

You can visit Mercantour National Park all year round, with snowshoeing and ski touring popular here during the winter. For walking, the best time to visit is spring, around May, or autumn, from September onwards, when the scenery is just majestic. The mild, sunny climate means the Mercantour is also not too hot for summertime walking.
Mercantour National Park walking holidays are typically around a week long, and self-guided, tailormade trips, though there are some guided small group tours available too, led by experienced mountain leaders. Typically, you will walk point to point, staying in a wide mix of accommodations from ecolodges to yurts, gîtes, locally run hotels and mountain inns. Centre-based trips are also possible if you prefer to stay in one place and walk out each day.
Some providers offer trikes that allow people with limited mobility to get onto more gentle trails, and there is no need to hire a car to get around, with Nice a short bus ride away and trails either on the doorstep or a short transfer away provided by your hosts. Daily walks range from three to seven hours, with ascents of up to 800m. Anyone that walks regularly at home, with a decent level of fitness, should be fine here.
“A truly special experience in a little corner of the Mercantour where time seems to have stood still. We went with the flow of life at the pace of an ambling donkey. Every detail of the trip was well thought out, and the route guidance booklet (which we carried with us all the time) was spot on. The range of different landscapes we walked through surprised and delighted us. The effectiveness of the route marking was also great. The holiday providers team was hugely welcoming and they treated us as part of the family (and such delicious food), and their outlook was inspirational. Congratulations to them on a superb set up...Don't hesitate if you like life in the slow lane and want a real get-away!” – Carolyne Mason on a Mercantour walking holiday

Family walking holidays in Mercantour National Park

Mercantour National Park is an increasingly popular destination for family holidays, and one of the main reasons why kids love it here so much comes with four legs and floppy ears. If you were wondering how your luggage gets from place to place it’s often not by car, but by donkey. These affectionate creatures, well looked after and full of personality, are a hit with children of all ages. They carry your kit and are fantastic motivators to get kids over that next rise.
On tailormade family holidays, organisers consult with you on a daily basis to select suitable routes depending on your abilities, your children’s stamina and the weather conditions. There is a huge range of trails to choose from which opens Mercantour National Park up to all ages, with the minimum age often just five.
Anita Fournier from our travel specialist Itinerance Trekking: “Our donkey tours are suitable for families with children over five years old. Each day you’ll be walking for between four and five or so hours. The longest day is 15km, and most others around 7km. Gradients aren’t too steep, you can expect to go up around 450m every day.”

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Snowshoeing holidays in Mercantour National Park

The French Alps are of course world-renowned as a skiing destination, but even the lesser-known resorts and pistes get crowded during peak season. Snowshoeing holidays in Mercantour National Park are a great way to immerse yourself in a pristine wintery wilderness where the only noise is likely to be your breathing, and bumping into other people is a rarity.
Circular walks are based in Saint Martin Vésubie in the Vésubie Valley, with a minimum age of 14, making this a unique family holiday for parents with active teens. The shoes are provided but you’ll need to bring your own walking poles. Mercantour snowshoeing trips are fully guided, and you’ll spend a lot of time following animal tracks, perhaps even identifying those of wolves out hunting in the powder.
“The walking is fantastic and the donkey became a firm companion. We hardly met anyone on the trails. So different to walking in England...We loved it (even when it rained).” – Lucy Chadwick on a Mercantour family walking holiday
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Itinerance Trekking] [Chamois, walking with donkeys & girl with donkey: Itinerance Trekking] [Snowshoeing: AD 04]
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