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Ariège is a walker’s paradise, laced with a hundreds of kilometres of waymarked paths for all abilities, from unpaved tracks through rolling countryside to blazed footpaths used by mountain inhabitants for centuries to high-altitude transpyrenean hiking trails that extend from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. A variant of the Way of Saint James skirts along the foothills to join up with the main trail at St Jean Pied de Port. Trails from France to Spain through the high mountains were used over the centuries by smugglers, Cathars fleeing persecution, downed WWII Allied pilots and refugees and now are named for them: the Chemin des Bonshommes, the Chemin de la Liberté.

Here are just a few of the places and routes you’ll want to explore:

The Orlu nature reserve

Located near Ax-les-Thermes, the reserve covers over 4000 hectars of high mountains between 930 and 2,765 m altitude. it is home to over a thousand isards, marmots and other mammals as well as eagles and other raptors.

The Mont Valier nature reserve

The emblematic peak is highest point (2838m)in the Couserans area of Ariège. The flanks are home to abundant wildlife and in summer sheep, cows and horses graze its slopes. The summit can be reached in six hours; a refuge at 2240m allows you to make the round trip in two days.

The étang de Lers

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This mountain lake is both a recreation area (fishing and paragliding, in summer, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing in winter) and a grazing area where cows and Mérens horses are left at liberty from June through September. Access via Massat or the Vicdessos valley.

The Port de Salau

Port de Salau

The road to Salau is one of the few that stops short of the Spanish border, at an abandoned tungsten mine. Between the village and the mine starts a track and then footpath that was once a major passageway into Spain for smugglers, and you’ll also see the vestiges of mining activity there. The lack of through traffic makes this valley exceptionally peaceful and unspoilt.


The Chemin des Bonshommes (GR 107)

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Between the 11th and 16th century this route was an important economic route between the department of Ariège and Spanish province of Berga. The last exiled Cathars naturally used this itinerary through mountain passes to flee prison, dispossession and death and seek refuge in Catalonia. By following this frontier route from Foix to Berga via Roquefixade, Montségur, Montaillou you’ll walk the same paths and discover the same landscapes. The full walk over 211 km takes 8 to 10 days.


The Chemin de la Liberté (Freedom Trail)

A fairly rigourous walk of 5 days in the footsteps of the resistance fighters, downed Allied pilots and refugees who attempted to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. You'll see the wreckage of a downed RAF Halifax and keep in mind that the people who fled over this route often did so in winter and with inadequate clothes and shoes.

The Cirque de Cagateille

A beautiful walk in a listed site that is often referred to as “Little Gavarnie”. In summer you will come across horses that have been left there to graze in freedom. Access via Seix then the Ustou valley.

The GR 10

The Ariège section of this transpyrenean walking trail, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is the wildest and most “up and down”. It passes through the Mont Valier reserve and by numerous lakes and is punctuated by many refuges and walking hostels (gîtes d’étapes).


The Way of Saint James of Compostella (chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle)

This variant of the Camino de Santiago runs along the foothills of the Pyrenees with an important section in Ariège. The well-marked route is dotted with hamlets and villages with their romanesque churches and medieval stone bridges. It can be done on foot, on horseback or by mountain bike.

Many thanks to these photographers

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