Walking and hiking in the Ariège Pyrenees
Snow-capped peaks, lush green valleys, forests dappled with sunlight, a region where it is easy to leave people behind and enjoy nature... a walker's paradise in a sunny climate.
Enjoy the quiet Ariège sections of major routes, the HRP which follows the line of the peaks (for hikers with climbing experience), the GR10 which follows a less severe line along the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and whose day stages conveniently end at gîtes d'etapes and refuges, and the GR7 which touches the medieval splendours of Mirepoix before crossing into Andorra.
Explore some of the local peaks (such as the Tour du Massif des Trois Seigneurs) or the varied geography of a valley (the Tour du Biros) with a circular walk over a few days, spending the evenings in small hotels or gites d'etapes. Mountain guide Stéphane Amiel leads several walks for people of varying levels of fitness, from a visit to the hamlet of shepherds' huts above Massat to the top of Mont Valier
Walk along part of the medieval pilgrim route to St Jacques de Compostella and stay in the traditional halts like St Lizier. Follow the Sentier Cathare and visit the 11th and 12th century strongholds of the Cathares at Foix and Montségur which resisted a crusade. The Chemin de la Liberté commemorates one of the secret escape routes into Spain used by resisters, refugees and stranded allied airmen during the Second World War.
Or just take in one of the many day walks such as that to the spectacular Ars waterfall, starting from above Aulus-les-bains. In July and August rangers from the Office National des Forêts offer 8 hour guided walks in the Mont Valier nature reserve.
All the major routes and many minor ones have been waymarked but as the markings are not renewed every year, a map is essential -- the Institut Géographique National 1:25000 series is recommended and widely available. Good guide books are available in French but few have been translated.
The mountains are laced with footpaths used by inhabitants for centuries. Sixteen circuits in the canton of Massat have been cleared and waymarked; you can obtain a brochure with a detailed map and description of each walk from the tourist office.
Families will find that many routes are quite suitable for young children. An excellent guide in French is "Les Sentiers d'Emilie en Ariège: 50 promenades très faciles" by Janice Valls-Russell. The walks are not strenuous but have enough variation in terrain and natural features like waterfalls and outcroppings to interest both adults and children. Particularly recommended is the Cirque de Cagateille, which has been called a "little Gavarnie."
Hiring a donkey or two allows families with small children to enjoy longer walks than they might otherwise manage. In the Couserans both Panoram'âne and Balad'âne not only have donkeys to hire by the day but also offer multi-day trips walking from gîte to gîte or tent camping.
As in all mountainous areas it pays to take simple precautions when hiking, no matter how good the weather when you start. As well as a good map carry a whistle, compass, survival sack and enough extra food and water.
About dogs: it is not a good idea to bring a dog with you into the higher elevations in the summer as they may disturb the sheep, cows and horses that graze in the high mountain pastures (the "estives") and risk being attacked by the herd dogs that guard them. At the Orlu and Mont Valier natural reserves they are forbidden altogether.