The Gorges de l'Ardèche is a 30-km long canyon formed of a series of gorges on the Ardèche river in the South of France.
Located SW of Montélimar and NW of Orange, it's a beautiful site for touring and observing, for prehistoric caves and for canoeing, swimming and other water sports.
The Gorges de l'Ardèche run southeast from the town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to the little town of St-Martin-d'Ardèche. A good, and nicely twisty, road runs the 36 km between the two villages, along the northeast side of the river. The road is very popular with automobilists, motorcyclists and cyclists, and has a dozen well-maintained vantage points (belvédères) along the way, at key points to observe the canyon.
The river through the gorges is accessible by canoe, and there are many stony "beaches" along the river where canoers stop for picnicking, swimming and sunbathing. There are many, many canoe rental and canoe tour companies available, centered around the top end of the Gorges between Pont-d'Arc and Vallon-Pont-d'Arc and the bottom end of the Gorges around St-Martin-d'Ardèche.
Birds and Rare Birds
Most of the canyon area is a nature reserve, the Réserve Naturelle Gorges de l'Ardèche. Among its flora and fauna, the cliffs are home to some rare bird species, including the Bonelli's Eagle (Aquila fasciata) of which there are only two pair in the south of the Ardèche department and only 30 pair in France.
[In April, 2013, the remains of a female Bonelli's eagle was found in the Gorges, dead from shotgun pellets.]
Other birds that nest in the Gorges de l'Ardèche are the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and the very numerous Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris).
A series of 13 lookout points (belvédères) are located beside the road along the length of the Gorges. Each lookout point has space for parking cars, a paved pedestrian area and iron fence in a location with a (usually) good view of a portion of the canyon and the Ardèche river.
The lookout points are arranged for easy access. Most of them are directly beside the road. The one place where there's a short walk down away from the road, sloping walkways are provided, in addition to the stairs.
Almost none of the lookout points have information panels about the Gorges, but they do have some cute nature panels in the form of low, stone posts with the name and pictorial outline of local fauna and flora. For more information while you're visiting the Ardèche Gorges, stop by the Maison de la Réserve.
Maison de la Réserve
The Maison de la Réserve is the center for the Natural Reserve of the Gorges de l'Ardèche. The entry road to the Maison is located about 20 km south of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc and about 16 km north of St-Martin-d'Ardèche. From the main D920 road it's a short drive down the access road to a large (free) parking area at the Maison de la Réserve.
The Maison de la Réserve hosts a small geological and nature museum, a themed gift shop, toilets, and (free) access to the adjacent lookout (belvédère) view of the Gorges and the river.
The museum part of the Maison de la Réserve is very nicely presented, informative, educational, and aimed at getting the attention of kids. In addition to the strictly informative part, a series and interactive panels present multiple-choice tests (French and English) on what you've learned about the Gorges.
In the area between the "house" and the lookout site are park benches and picnic tables beneath the shade of the Green Oaks.
Grotte de la Madeleine
The Madeleine Cave is located adjacent to the Maison. Tickets for guided visits are available in the Maison de la Réserve center. The Grotte de la Madeleine is open from mid-March to mid-November. An adult entry costs 8.50 euros (2013). The grotto temperature is 15° C year-round.
The Geological History of the Ardèche Gorges, of course, goes back to the dawn of time, so to speak. It's worth mentioning because it's responsible for the myriad caves, grottos, caverns, and rocky pits in the cliffs and surrounding hills.
Human History of the Ardèche Gorges can be dated to at least 36,000 ago: the date of the cave paintings in the Chauvet Grotto. This is the era of the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic, and relates to what is considered the first modern humans in Europe.
Only slightly more recent human history is attested to by about 800 dolmens in the lower Ardèche. The dolmens in Europe were erected from about 5,000 BC.
Recent History of the Ardèche Gorges begins in the 12th century. With no roads between the top end and the bottom end of the canyon, the remoteness was used by the Templars to build a hospital (maladrerie) for victims of the plague returning from the Crusades.
The 12th-century Maladrerie today is a ruins sitting on an oxbow of the Ardèche, called the Cirque de la Madeleine. It's visible from the lookout points (belvédères) Balcon Maladrerie, Balcon Templiers-South and Balcon Templiers-East. [We have some more details about this; drop us an email if you're interested.]
Modern History of the Ardèche Gorges begins about 1960, when the first road was built along the northeast side of the canyon, between the hamlet of Chames (near Pont-d'Arc) and the hamlet of Sauze (near St Martin-d'Ardèche). Before then, the canyon was accessed only by flat-bottom barques (bèches) used by woodsmen to gather the material for making charcoal in kilns along the top of the canyon.
Ardèche Gorges Grottos
Three grottos at or near the Ardèche Gorges are open for visits: Madeleine Cave and St-Marcel Grotto are located along the canyon-top road between Vallon-Pont'd'Arc and St-Martin-d'Ardèche; Orgnac Aven is located about 15 km southwest of the Gorges. In addition, an exhibition site for the famous Chauvet Grotto, prehistoric cave paintings is located in the town center of Vallon-Pont'd'Arc.
Bivouacking is overnight-only camping, where your tent goes up in the evening and comes down again in the morning, and your campsite is gone during the day.
Camping is not allowed in the bottom of the Ardèche Gorges. If you're doing a two-day river descent, bivouacking is allowed, but only at the bivouac sites of Gaud and Gournier, and only with a reservation-permission paper (titre d'accès). If you're going on an organized tour descent, the organizers should have this permission.
The Gorges de l'Ardèche is a French Natural Reserve. Unrestricted camping (camping savage) is not allowed, campfires are not allowed, and drinking alcohol is not allowed.