The Verdon Gorges rise up, sheer on both sides, the cold, emerald green water flowing down from the snowy peaks. Hidden on the edge of Provence, the deepest canyons of Europe are a mecca for rock climbers from afar. But they also offer unnumerable posibilities to be explored by other means…
Chapter 1. On the water.
Kayaking on the Verdon is dictated by the system of dams that have cut the path of the river and modelled the present landscape. They were built over the course of the last century, the first one to be completed being the reservoir at Castillane in 1948 and the last the one at Quinson in 1975. Of all of them, the largest and most impressive is the dam de Saint-Croix, that flooded the whole valley above, submerging the village of Salles-sur-Verdon and backing the water up until the higher gorges. The lake, also called Saint-Croix, is the second largest reservoir in France. You can watch a small video about its completion here.
Because of the dams, the Verdon isn’t navigable in one stretch but means that certain sections can be explored in longer sea kayaks, such as our own. Only the central part of the gorges between the reservoir at Castellane and the entrance into the lac de Saint Croix has enough current for white-water kayaking, especially beneath the couloir Samson where there are multiple technical passages such as the Styx (of greek mythology), or the Imbut (meaning the funnel). For this trip we would be exploring the quieter parts, notably the sections above the reservoirs of Gréoux and Quinson.
Having wanted to get onto the water since winter, Sandie and I set off with our gear as soon as some good weather was announced in early spring. The first part of the lower Gorges we would be paddling on is the reservoir known as the Lac de Montpezat, which is held in by the dam at Quinson and goes back up to the dam de Saint-Croix. To do this we had chosen a campsite between Saint-Laurent du Verdon and Montpezat. Starting in the early afternoon, we unfolded our kayaks and packed away the gear into water-tight bags. I was interested by the section immediately beneath the Saint-Croix dam called Gorges de Baudinard as I had read it was quite wild. Heading out onto the lake, we went north, surrounded by woods. A couple of villages were visible on the hills above. The water was a clear green, fulfilling its name of “Verdon”. We could see long algae coming up from the bottom, but it was hard to judge the depth, even with the clear water. From the lake we went upstream, into a first section of the gorge. The sides became rockier, the limestone eroded by the flow of the water. This gave way to another small lake before we came to the Gorges de Baudinard. As the walls started to rise up and enclose us, so the temperature dropped sharply. The cliffs cut off the wind and sounds from the outside, calming the water. The surface became much darker, and shimmered like green quicksilver. Slowing down our strokes, we glided into this new world of silence. The only sound was the drip of water over moss and lichens that covered rocks and trees alike. Small waterfalls fell off the overhangs above and cascaded past us into the surround water. This scenery continued for several hundred meters, the huge walls progressively closing in. As we neared a rusty sign hailing the end of the navigable section, the gorge was only a few metres wide. Just around the corner, the dam de Saint-Croix stood towering above us, holding in hundreds of millions of metric tonnes of water. Because the gorge is so narrow, a relatively small amount of concrete had to be used for its construction, making the water back up over 11 km all the way to the entrance of the Upper Gorges. Turning around, we retraced our paddle strokes out into the open and warmer temperatures. As evening approached we made it back to the campsite and our little cabin.
The next day we headed south, kayaking the lower part of the Lac de Montpezat. We started with a wide gorge of impressive limestone walls. The colours ranged from pale grey to reddish ochre, which was offset by the green of the surrounding forest. After a few kilometres it widened back out into a small lake with little beaches. Some of these can be accessed from the road and several families were enjoying a picnic by the water’s edge. Further down, and after another section of wild gorge we came across the Quinson dam barring our path. Although it is possible to hike around, this would entail a good 3-4 km hike up steep terrain before going down to Quinson and the river accessing the river. Although relatively light, we decided to not try with our craft, but it should be possible with a packraft or similar type vessel. It could even be possible to make a complete descent of the river in one direction, but would be quite a different kettle of fish…
For our third day on the water we folder up Phantôme and Peripecia and headed over to Esparron, the picture perfect village which sits next to the reservoir of the same name. This section of the Verdon is held in by the Gréoux dam and backs up all the way to the one at Quinson. Being a longer stretch we started early in the morning, and after setting up the kayaks were soon on the water. Leaving the open part of the lake behind, we advanced up the gorge, which remains roughly 50 m wide the whole way. The height of the limestone walls is variable, going from straight cliffs several hundred meters high, to rocky outcrops where it is possible to stop. Finding one of these little harbours we stopped for lunch. Although the sun was shinning, the water was still freezing, so we admired the green reflections perched on our rocky seats, feet dangling over the water.
Although early in the season, there were already a considerable amount of boats on the water. Unlike the Montpezat basin, several companies have rentals available. Thankfully, combustion engines are prohibited, so all we had to contend with were small, open-topped electric craft that would buzz slowly past us. Arriving at Quinson we went all the way to the end to check out the dam from another perspective, before turning back and making our way through the winding gorge to Esparron.
Chapter 2. The road.
A few weeks later, with bad weather announced in the Alps, I escaped back to the south for another dose of the Verdon. This time it would be on two wheels. I was going with Henry, who organised the logistics, and after the drive down we found ourselves in a quaint little campsite next to Saint-Croix reservoir. We would be sleeping in a small caravan, retired from the road but perfect for our needs. We decided to make the most of the afternoon and set off to check out the roads and start training. After a first section though lavender fields (unfortunately still not in bloom) we dropped down towards Moustiers Saint Marie, before crossing the Verdon at the entrance of the Upper Gorges. We continued along the edge of the reservoir before turning left and looping round onto Aiguines. We did a short climb from there up to a viewpoint above the gorges, getting a taste of what we could expect for the next day. We then went back, through Aiguines before climbing up towards Moustiers and the final grind onto the plateau. The last few hundred meters uphill were steep and not much fun, meaning I was more than pleased to get back onto the flatter ending. We cooked some dinner on the gas stove before getting some sleep in our little home.
Next morning we decided to start directly from the edge of St Croix, so we parked not far from the bridge before setting off. Once again we were heading up towards Moustiers, but this time we turned off on the right, and started the climb into the gorges proper. Henry was out front, so we decided to set our own rhythms, meaning I soon lost sight of him. I was on my own to admire the unfolding scenery and pace myself for the morning. By going round in a clockwise direction you are always closest to the edge and it makes looking down into the depths easier. From up high, I could make out the green water snaking its way between the rocks at the foot of the huge precipices. The road is perfect for cycling, as it climbs gradually, and is interrupted with small descents that break up the effort. After a first ascent I raced through La Palud sur Verdon, which is on flatter ground before starting the second climb culminating at Le Point Sublime. From there it was downhill, right to the edge of the Verdon, which I crossed a bit further on. Shortly after the bridge I stopped for a snack at a bakery. Probably still digesting my quiche, I paid no attention to the right hand turn to Trigance and kept on going. Once I finally realised my mistake I decided to extend the loop rather than turn back. Turning right at Comps sur Artuby, I started to close the circuit. By gaining height on the next section, by the time I arrived at the point above La Mescla where the Artuby joins the Verdon, I had a bird’s eye view of the whole gorge. This forced me to stop multiple times, just to get a glimpse of some of the steepest and deepest sections of the canyon.
After crossing the Artuby I was on the south side of the Verdon. By this point I had been going for some time and the climbs were starting to tell. Luckily, after several steep turns the road flattened out and the view more than made up for the discomfort. But towards the last third the gradient started to increase again and I started to anticipate the last turn that would show me the descent. Finally reaching the previous day’s viewpoint I realised I had finally found it. Shifting gear one last time I started the descent. Meeting up with Henry in Aiguines, we sped down together the subsequent switchbacks before crossing the Verdon one last time. Making a detour to the edge, we ended with a quick swim. Although only a few weeks after my previous visit, the water was noticeably warmer and more than enough to wash off the grime and sweat.
Chapter 3. On the path.
For the final episode of the trilogy, I was back with Sandie for a closer look at the Upper Gorges. This time it would be up and personal, as we would be hiking right next to the river, deep inside the canyon. Starting in the now familiar Aiguines, we put on our packs and set off, leaving the village behind and quickly entering the woods. We followed the white and red markings of the GR99 that was to lead us for the first section of our itinerary. We started to gain height, and followed the ridge that rises on the southern side of the gorge. It culminates as the rocky summit called Le Grand Margès. Having left quite late, we only hiked for a few hours before the peaks in front became a beautiful orange tinge. One of the reasons we had chosen to come back south was the stormy weather forecasted, and although we had got away from the rain, we hadn’t escaped the cold. Watching the sun go down we felt the temperature drop as well, and there was a frigid, stinging wind that froze our fingers. We set up our tent and were extremely pleased to get inside our sleeping bags. We settled down to a long, chilly night…
Up early the next morning we set forth from our shelter. Our steps crunched in the frost and the ground was rock hard. The sun wasn’t up to the job, but thankfully we still had to hike uphill a bit, which got our blood circulating and warmed us up. Getting to the top we had a 360 degree view of our surroundings. Saint Croix was behind us, the Verdon Gorge fell away to our left, and far off in the distance, sparkling silver in the morning sun, was the sea. On our right hand side a series of signposts us we were at the limit with an army training ground, trespassing forbidden! Multiple explosions off in the distance confirmed that we probably should stick to the path. Following it along the ridge we weaved in and out of the thickets of box shrubs and a few solitary trees. After a while we turned left and began our descent, first through a beech forest which gave way to pine and finally evergreen oak. In the beech forest the leaves covered the path in huge drifts like red snow. Leaving this behind, we crossed the road and took a wider path before continuing to loose height. We then crossed the road again and took a small path down to the water’s edge. The section is part of the Sentier Imbut, which follows the Verdon downstream, past some of the tightest passages. As the track drops though steep precipices, it finds a way to weave itself between the cliffs. Although a few steps have been cut and handrails installed here and there is practicable with no extra gear. We arrived at the bottom and crossed the river over a steel arch, allowing us to join the Sentier Blanc-Martel, which is named after Alfred Martel and Isidore Blanc. Martel is considered the founder of modern speleology. He explored many caves and underground formations over the course of his lifetime. A prolific writer, he chronicled his exploits around the world, as well as advancing the study of speleology as a distinct scientific discipline. To this purpose he founded the Societé de Spéléologie, which dedicates itself to underground science and discovery.
But his name is associated to this particular path for his explorations above ground. In 1896 Martel, accompanied by Isidore Blanc, a schoolteacher from Rougon and local guide for the trip, together with several other companions made the first complete descent of the Verdon canyon. Over several days they descended the river’s course, alternating travel on boats with paths along the edge which they had to cut each step of the way.
Going in the opposite direction we started up the northern side of the gorge, following the markings. The path is quite popular in summer, but in the cold winter months is completely devoid of human presence. During the whole day we only met two people, a park warden and a worker who were doing repairs. Like Martel and Blanc a hundred years ago, we had the place to ourselves. Continuing on, we passed several of the more remarkable landmarks, including the Mescla (the Mix) where the Verdon and the Artuby join together, and the stairs of the Breche Imbert. This steep stairway allowed us to cross over the rocky outcrop and keep going up the valley, where after a couple of hours we set up our camp.
For the final stretch, we set off again surrounded by beautiful oak trees, covered in moss. We came across a first tunnel on our left hand side that disappeared into the mountain. We later found out that it is possible to continue through, like the next two tunnels we were to come across. The tunnels were built as part of an unfinished hydraulic project. It’s objective was to channel water from the Verdon through the rock for the length of the gorge to power an electric generator at the end.
The path goes around the first tunnel due to its lengths and irregular floor. As we didn’t know this, we continued on the outside until the second tunnel, though which the path passes. After a short walk in the dark we were greeted by sunlight before re-entering a third, longer shaft. Putting our lamps on we went through, stopping to look out through the window cut halfway. The opening gives out onto one of the tightest parts of the canyon. As we exited at the other end, we craned our necks back and admired the steep walls that curved out of view above us. From there we continued to the end of the path at the dead-end road from where the gorge can be accessed. Crossing the asphalt we took the short track up to the Point Sublime, where we ended our little trek.
After waiting around in the much welcomed sun (in winter the sun doesn’t hit the bottom of the canyon until late) we managed to hitch-hike back down to the edge of the Saint-Croix reservoir. It was unbelievably calm and there were hardly any cars on the road. So few in fact, that not a single one came past until we had almost walked all the way up to Aiguines.
Visiting the Verdon out of season definitely seems the way to go. It is quite a difference from the summer tumult! I think it is definitely worth putting up with the cold, in the early spring or autumn to visit and enjoy the calm landscape. And if you really don’t mind the chill, the water is just as beautiful!