This beautifully rugged national park is only an hour's drive from Nice, yet it's another world. If the beautiful mountain streams and lakes set in the valleys of 3000m-high mountains don't make you feel apart from civilization, a hike through the Vallée des Merveilles with 100,000 bronze-age rock engravings might do it.
The park is the home of chamois, Ibex (bouquetin), mountain goat (mouflon), as well as marmots, white hares and cattle. The symbolic flower of the Parc du Mercantour was (until 1990) the Saxifrage de multifeuil (saxifraga floridenta).
We camped out one night on a flat grassy spot between the rocks just above Lac Nègre. Just before sunset I saw a group of chamois coming down the valley above us, towards the lake below. Later, wondering why they hadn't appeared at the lake, I looked over the boulders to a grassy field just below our camp site. There, where the river flowed in several little streams through the field, the herd of about 20 chamois were installed.
We watched in fascination for nearly an hour: while the adults stood in small groups like humans at a party, the "children" cavorted, dashing around and having mock battles with each other. Suddenly, a long-haired, ancient buck, looking like he came straight out of a Disney film, trumpeted a couple of times. The "children" stopped their playing immediately and joined the rest of the group as they filed out between the rocks and went over the hill and out of sight.
Hiking through these alpine mountains you will run across an occasional small dairy herd, with two or three bells donging to mark where they are browsing on a tree-covered slope. They're not always hard to see, either: a few times we've had to hike through their midsts as the herd grazed across the trail. The small dairy farms or cattle barns dotted throughout the hills and mountains are called vacheries.
Vallée des Merveilles
In the Vallée des Merveilles, at the base of Mt. Bégo in the Parc du Mercantour, are more than 100,000 rock engraving, many of them prehistoric.
- Parc National du Mercantour, 06000 Nice
- 23 rue d'Italie
- tel: (33) 493 16 78 88; fax: (33) 493 88 79 05
- Parc National du Mercantour, 06420 Roubion
- rte de Vignols
- tel: (33) 493 02 09 33
- Parc National du Mercantour, 06420 St. Sauveur-sur-Tinée
- tel: (33) 493 02 01 63
- Parc National du Mercantour, 06430 Tende
- av Martyrs de la Résistance
- tel: (33) 493 04 67 00
- Parc National du Mercantour, 06470 Valberg
- Centre Accueil Valberg; 1 rue Saint Jean
- tel: (33) 493 02 58 23
• GPS: 44.194021, 7.069702
IGN (1/25,000) #3640 OT "Haut Cians, Valberg"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #9 "Mercantour"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #1 "Alpes de Provence"
The GR52A (Grande Randonnée) traverses the entire park, from Colmars in the west, across to Sospel, and up the Vallée de la Roya to the Col de Tende. The park is a magnificent place for hiking, with many trails and refuges for overnight stays. Check out some of the guidebooks on the Hiking page.