In the red rocks of the Esterel mountains, beside the blue sea of the Mediterranean, is the hermit's cave used by Saint Honoratus.
Map: IGN 3544 ET (Fréjus, St Raphël)
Time: 4 hrs 30 min
Total Ascent: 700 m
Avoid during Summer, especially weekends, due to popularity and parking.
The first half of this hike is on paved roads (closed to traffic); the upper part on trails. Trail marking for the upper part is poor to nonexistent, so a map is necessary. With a map, if you do go wrong, the many alternate trails will work as well as the planned route.
Printed Guide. We used a variant of 'Walk 10' in the Cicero Guide Walking In Provence by Janette Norton. Our main variant was to do a counter-clockwise loop at the top rather than the clockwise loop from the book.
The D1098 road winds along the coast on the sea side of the railway line. When the road makes a right bend (just past the Pointe du Cap Roux) and crosses over the railway line to the inland side, the starting point is at the barriered road immediately at the right. Look for a parking place on either side of the main road. Our photo here, taken from the barred forestry road, is looking southwest where the main D1098 road turns left immediately after crossing to the inland side of the railway line.
Start to Col du St-Pilon
About 25 minutes up the road you pass a spring in a nook at the righthand side of the road. The input flow of fresh water isn't available, and it seems to be a favorite place for dogs to cool off, so probably not great for drinking.
The saddle of the Rocher de St-Barthélemy (157 m) is about 35 minutes from the start. It's apparently possible to climb up to the top of the Rocher de St-Barthélemy (203 m), but it didn't seem obvious (or safe) to us. So, with a short water break and a look around at the great view, we headed on up the road.
At just under an hour we arrived at the Plateau d'Anthéor (144 m), just past a barrier across the road.
Immediately past the barrier a small track angles up the hill to the right (northwest). That's your trail. However, we walked another minute along the paved road and found a slightly larger trail angled back up the hill (northeast), marked with a faint green spot. Going up this trail (which is joined by the other) takes you towards the Col du St-Pilon.
15 minutes up the hillside the trail zigs sharply left (southwest) and arrives at a trail junction with a small cairn (238 m). Here you zag sharp right (north-northeast).
The Col du St-Pilon (283 m) is a trail junction with a large cairn, 10 minutes past the previous junction, 1hr30 from the start. Here's where you can go wrong with the navigation, so be alert.
Le Pilon Loop
For a counter-clockwise loop, we went east-southeast (level), branching left (up) a couple of minutes along the trail. In this direction the trail goes around the right (southeast) side of the very vertical red-rock peak of Le Pilon.
30 minutes from the Col du St-Pilon, the trail zigs sharply left (northwest) and arrives at a trail junction at the base of Le Pilon (358 m). The trail northeast is clearly marked "Pic du Cap Roux".
15 minutes up this trail (2h15 from the start) brings you to a junction (431 m) where a side trail can take you up to the Pic du Cap Roux and the observation point (453 m). Aiming mainly for the grotto on this outing, we skipped the side trip. (The "Pic" du Cap Roux is the highest point, but it's more of a rounded top than a peak.)
20 minutes past the junction to the "Pic" (2h35) the trail starts down, first to the northeast, then switch-backing to the west, crossing a couple of large scree slopes along the way. From 431 m at the junction, the trail drops to 185 m.
20 minutes down the hill (2h55, 185 m) a trail branches up the hill to the left (southeast). Unmarked, this is the up-and-back trail to the grotto and chapel of La Sainte-Baume.
La Sainte-Baume Grotto
It's only 15 minutes from the junction (185 m) up to the stone wall-gateway of the grotto (276 m), but rather steep.
The grotto area is protected by a vertical stone peak and a narrow stone wall. The approach is along a narrow trail along the top of a cliff-steep mountain side. It's not actually dangerous, but has a railing for the mental security of those of us uncomfortable with heights.
Proof of the easy accessibility is the couple returning from the grotto area we met along the trail. He: in an expensive looking suit and tie, with fasionable Italian street shoes; Her: in white pants and lovely leopard-pattern high-heel shoes. They had presumably come up from the nearby road, but still a hiking feat along the stony trail. Just think what heights they could climb in good hiking gear.
Through the doorway in the stone wall there's a small flat area, with a magnificent view. To the southwest across the plains we could clearly see the Roquebrune Rocks (Rocher de Roquebrune), and even the village of Roquebrune-sur-Argens.
From the platform area a flight of stone steps goes down to a clearing in the woods below, and the entrance to the grotto where Saint Honoratus once lived is hermit's life. The iron door seemed to be locked so we had to peer in through the bars.
We returned up the stone steps, along the narrow trail, and back down to the trail junction (185 m), pausing frequently for the great view. Up and back took about 45 minutes, bringing us to 3h30 from the start.
Pilon Loup, Return
From the trail junction below the grotto it's only a couple of minutes to the Source de la Sainte Baume, a fountain with cold running water and a shady rest area. Just past the fountain area a trail goes north to the paved road (that comes in through the Esterel from the northwest), just a few meters away. This is the lowest point of the hike: 169 m.
Ignoring that, we continued along the trail to the west, looping around to the south and climbing to our loop completion at the Col du St Pilon with the large cairn (3h50, 283 m).
We stayed at the Col for about 20 minutes, partly to help a group of hikers with navigation from this point. Their version of the IGN map was different than ours, and there are several trail possibilities here.
Again we went east-southeast (level) from the Col. But this time we branched right, down the hill, on a trail that curves to the south, going down to the Rocher de St-Barthélemy.
From the Col du St Pilon back down to our starting point took about 35 minutes, for a total hike of 4h45.