The seven main mountain ranges of France are beautiful and varied, running from the mighty Alps in the east and to the south-east to the granite landscape of the Morvan in Burgundy.
All offer both winter and summer playgrounds. You can hike, swim, and fish in the summer, and ski and enjoy a host of exciting sports in the winter. There are opportunities for sight-seeing and photography. At Mont-Blanc, there is a scenic tramway that travels to the Bellevue plateau through pastures and forests.
Winter sports in France go beyond skiing and snowboarding. You can go paragliding in Alpe d'Huez, bobsledding at La Plagne, or go ice driving in Val Thorens, all in the French Alps.
The French Alps
The French Alps lie in the east side of the country and border Switzerland and Italy. The highest peak is Mont Blanc. At 15,774 feet (4,808 meters) it is also the highest mountain in western Europe. Mont Blanc was first climbed in August 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. It's popular with mountain climbers today who select one of two routes from Chamonix.
Below Mont Blanc in the Chamonix valley, you’ll find some of the best winter sports in the world. But it’s also one of the most beautiful parts of France for summer activities such as hiking through the high pastures, climbing the mountains, and cycling a la Tour de France.
The Alps are one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world. It took hundreds of millions of years for the Alps to form as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, pushing rocks and debris up into the rugged high mountain peaks you see today.
Covering around 750 miles (1,200 km) they range across eight countries from Austria and Slovenia in the east; Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, and France to the west; and Italy and Monaco to the south.
The Massif Central and the Auvergne Mountains
The volcanic Massif Central is geologically the oldest part of the country. It covers a huge area of central France, about 15 percent of the country. A massif is a section of the earth's crust that is marked by faults. When the crust moves, the massif will retain its structure and be moved as a whole. The term also refers to a group of mountains formed by a massif.
There are four main volcanic massifs: the Chaîne des Puys, the Monts Dore, the Monts du Cantal, and the Volcanic Velay, all of them different and spectacular in their own way. The highest peak is the Puy de Sancy at 6,184 feet (1,885 meters), one of the youngest volcanoes in the Chaîne des Puys. There are around 450 extinct volcanoes in the Massif.
The Auvergne Volcanoes National Park, established in 1977, is Europe's largest and oldest regional park. It runs from south of Clermont Ferrand almost to Aurillac in the west and just short of St-Flour in the east. If you want to learn more about the region and volcanoes, visit Vulcania, an educational amusement park nearby.
The Auvergne is still relatively undiscovered by tourists. But It’s quite glorious, with its rolling mountains, great rivers and valleys, and forests. It’s a place for hiking, cross-country skiing, bird watching, fishing, and cycling. There is one main ski resort, Super Besse in the south, which connects to the resort of Mont-Dore and is frequented by cross-country skiers.
Several of France’s great rivers rise in the Auvergne: the Loire, which is France's longest river, the Allier, the Cher, and the Sioule.
The Pyrenees (les Pyrénées), stretch from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coasts in the south of France, marking the border between France and Spain, with the tiny country of Andorra nestled in the mountains.
The mountain range is 270 miles (430 km) long with its widest point at 80 miles (129 km). The highest point is Aneto Peak at 11,169 feet (3,404 meters) in the Maladeta (translating to accursed) central Pyrenees massif, and there are many other peaks over 9,842 feet (3,000 meters).
The two ends of the range have very different cultural characteristics. In the west, the area is Basque-speaking and on the eastern Mediterranean end, it's Catalan-speaking. The Languedoc-Roussillon region in the southwest corner is best known as Cathar country, the area where the Cathar heretics lived and hid and were finally destroyed by the French crusaders in the thirteenth century. If you're in the area, don't miss Montsegur and the castle where the heretics made their last, heroic stand.
Located in the foothills of the Aspe Valley, on the French-Spanish border, is the Parc National des Pyrénées, a hiker's paradise. There are numerous short trails through the Pyrenees, with one main hiking trail, the GR 10, running from coast to coast.
The Jura Mountain range extends over 225 miles (360 km) in both France and Switzerland, stretching from the Rhône River to the Rhine. Much of the western sector is in France. The highest peaks are in the south around Geneva, with the Crêt de la Neige in Ain at 5,636 feet (1,718 meters) and Le Reculet at 5,633 feet (1,717 meters) in France.
The range is formed from fossil-bearing limestone. It was called Jura Limestone by the explorer, naturalist, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt and from this came the name Jurassic period, referring to rocks formed at the same time, 200 to 145 million years ago. Because of the limestone soil, the area is ideal for vineyards, and wine-tasting in the Jura area is popular with visitors.
The Jura covers most of Franche-Comté and further south into some of the Rhône-Alpes, ending in the Savoie. To the north, the Jura extends into southern Alsace. A large part is conserved by the Jura Mountains Regional Natural Park.
The gentle rounded Vosges mountains are divided into the High Vosges (where the rounded summits are called ballons, or balloons), the Middle Vosges and the Low Vosges. The mountains lie in the east of France, near the border with Germany in Lorraine. They run along the west side of the Rhine valley from Belfort to Saverne.
To the north, the red sandstone outcroppings were quarried for building materials through the centuries, producing the attractive cathedrals, castles, and churches of the region. Glacial lakes fill the area and forests cover the slopes while the Hautes Chaumes are rich pasturelands.
There are great hiking trails including the Grand Randonnees (the great trek) or the GR5, GR7, and GR53 as well as bike routes. During the winter, there are 36 different skiing areas offering cross-country routes and some downhill runs.
The island of Corsica, around 100 miles (170 km) from the French mainland, is mainly mountainous with the ranges making up two-thirds of the island. Corsica was called both the "Island of Beauty" and the "Mountain in the Sea" by the Greeks.
The highest peak is Monte Cintu at 8,891 feet (2,710 meters). Twenty other mountains stand at over 6,561 feet (3,000 meters). Corsica boasts the highest mountains and the most rivers of any Mediterranean island. The mountains effectively cut the island in half with no road between the two main towns of Bastia in the north and Ajaccio in the south.
The Parc Naturel Régional de la Corse encompasses the main mountain massifs and is a spectacular place. There are great guided hikes offered by the Office National des Forêts, while the ancient trails, bridle paths, and well-known routes like the GR 20, attract more serious hikers.
Morvan Massif in Burgundy
The Morvan is the smallest of France’s mountain ranges, though usually counted in any list of France’s main mountains.
It’s a high massif in Burgundy, just west of the Côte d’Or region, known for its wines and wine tourism. The granite and basalt range is really the north-west extension of the Massif Central.
The Parc Naturel Regional du Morvan protects its core. The Park includes small communities and 10 towns with around 35,000 inhabitants. The highest peaks run from 1,312 feet (400 meters) to the Haut-Folin at 2,956 feet (901 meters). Here you’ll find 24 miles (40 km) of cross-country skiing routes.