Experience the Pyrenees: Amazing Things to Do for the Outdoors Enthusiast
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Planning a holiday to the French Pyrenees and trying to work out what sights and activities to take in? We have put together this handy list of top things to do in the Pyrenees to showcase some of the region’s key attractions. From enjoying the natural beauty of a hike in the mountains to the surge of adrenaline of bungee jumping off a historic bridge, there is something for everyone here.
We are lucky to call the Hautes Pyrenees home so the information in the article below is based on our own experiences of what is available in this great part of France. We love getting out and about in the mountains whenever we can and discovering new places to go and things to do.
Hike to the base of France’s highest waterfall at Gavarnie
The village of Gavarnie is set amongst one of the most stunning backdrops in France. The Cirque du Gavarnie sits proudly behind the village as nature’s natural rock amphitheatre and is a real sight to behold. It is a UNESCO world heritage sight and one of the main attractions to see for people visiting the Pyrenees. At an altitude extending to over 3000m in elevation, the Cirque is also the location of the highest waterfall in mainland France – the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie.
Whilst many people will visit the Gavarnie village and enjoy a sedate stroll by the ice-blue waters of the Gavarnie river to marvel at the waterfall from a distance; we think the best way to experience it for yourself is by hiking to its very base. From here you will hear the roar of the water and feel the rush of power it creates as it hits the ground below. Then of course there is that amazing view you get when you turn back around and look towards the village of Gavarnie from where you have hiked. A definite 10/10 experience.
We chose to walk to the base of the waterfall via a longer route that took us high up on the side of the valley before dropping back down and joining the main path. The views as we climbed were spectacular and we highly recommend considering some of the alternative routes available. Be warned that the section from the auberge to the waterfall is much more technical and the last bit is very steep on loose rocks. We recommend good hiking boots and poles and some hiking experience before undertaking the last section.
Take in a birds-eye view and paraglide over the valley
We often say there are no bad views here in the Pyrenees, with impressive mountains, rivers, and quaint French villages at every turn. But perhaps one of the best vistas is that offered to you from the air. The lift offered along the mountain ridges provides the perfect conditions for paragliding. As such you will find a few paragliding schools offering tandem flights in various valleys throughout the Pyrenees. If the thrill of running off the side of a mountain and then soaring gracefully above the valley is something you are interested in then you can certainly consider this activity on your next holiday.
The village of Aucun in the Hautes Pyrenees also plays host to the annual Fete du Ciel which runs over two days in September. It is quite a spectacle to see so many paragliders take to the air from their launching spot on the Col du Couraduque. The event will again be run in 2023 from 9 – 10 September.
This one is still on our to-do list. From our house, we often see the paragliders in the distance as they climb on the thermals and air currents in the mountains. Hopefully, we will have some time during 2023 to experience the thrill and see our region from a birds eye view.
Hire a bike and take on one of the climbs of the Tour de France
The Pyrenees Mountains were the first to feature in the Tour de France in 1910. Back then the roads were made of dirt and the bike wheels were constructed from wood and only had two gears. Can you imagine the effort required to get to the top? If you are a keen cyclist then hiring a bike and riding a Tour de France climb in the Pyrenees is an experience not to miss. From June through to the end of September, the region turns into a cycling mecca and many people take to two wheels to test themselves against the mountain roads.
Thankfully bike technology has come a long way since 1910 and you can readily hire lightweight carbon fibre road bikes which will make the challenge more achievable. If you want to experience the mountains but aren’t sure you have the fitness then you can even consider hiring an e-bike for that little bit of extra assistance. Indeed one of the hardest decisions to make will be which climb to take on. For some help in choosing you can check our list of rides to ride in the Pyrenees.
Cycling is what originally brought us to the Pyrenees and we still love the cycling that is available on our doorsteps. We have been lucky to experience many of the iconic Tour de France climbs and still tick off new ones each year. We have introduced our friends to the region and look forward to hosting them once again in 2023. Our site is focused on cycling in France and has lots of information about the Pyrenees.
Explore the medieval Cathar castles
Ever marvelled at old castles and wondered about their history? Well, why not go that step further and take in some of the Cathar castles in the Ariege Pyrenees? Base yourself in the beautiful town of Foix and you will be within walking distance of the Foix castle which dominates the town with its three impressive towers. This castle has been perfectly modified into a museum. With the help of actors dressed in medieval costumes, a tour of the castle is a real immersive experience transporting you straight back to the middle ages. If you are visiting as part of a group you can even choose the Escape experience whereby you have one hour to piece together clues to find the hidden treasure.
Located just a short drive from Foix is one of the most famous Cathar Castles, the Chateau du Montsegur. Indeed the original castle was razed to the ground during the siege of 1244. Its history leaves for grim reading with 205 Cathar followers choosing to be burnt to death rather than renounce their religion. The Castle has since been rebuilt and you can take a 30-minute hike to visit this site for yourself. Located at the top of the Pog du Montsegur, the castle has quite a commanding view.
We lived in the Ariege region for our first 6 months in France and had the opportunity to visit Foix numerous times. It’s a beautiful town and we always love visiting it and wandering around the small cobbled streets through the centre. Like many French towns and villages, there is a weekly market with plenty of fresh local produce to purchase. One of our favourite pastimes is to find one of the many nice cafés and grab a coffee and watch the world go by.
See the night sky like never before with an overnight stay at Pic du Midi
There are few places that offer a better view of the night sky than the observatory at the Pic du Midi in the Hautes Pyrenees. At an altitude of 2877m above sea level, it is ideally located at the heights of the mountain range and offers a view devoid of light pollution. But did you know you can organize to spend the night for an evening of star gazing like no other?
This experience includes the return cable car trip from La Mongie resort all the way to the observatory itself. The schedule is set out so you will arrive just before sunset to see the close out of the day. Then you are served a dinner based on the traditional local cuisine. After this, a guided tour at the observatory awaits, where you will be amazed at the clarity of the night sky that is afforded you thanks to the 400 mm Smith-Cassegrain telescope. In the morning you can wake early to enjoy the sunrise.
Then, after breakfast, you will be taken on a guided tour of the domes which is available only exclusively to the overnight guests at Pic du Midi. It truly is a unique experience offering up some of the best views not only of the Pyrenees but also of the solar system.
Top Tip – If this overnight stay at Pic du Midi is something you wish to experience then be sure to book ahead. Due to the limited number of rooms available, you will often need to book months in advance of your stay to ensure you don’t miss out.
If you have no luck with a booking don’t despair – the view from Pic du Midi during the day has to be one of the best on offer in all of the Pyrenees and is accessible year-round. You can find more information about this experience directly at the Pic du Midi website.
Experience the thrill of a 70m bungee jump from Pont Napoleon
Visiting the Pyrenees and looking for a hit of adrenalin? Then perhaps taking the plunge of bungee jumping off a bridge is for you. Located just a short distance south of the small town of Luz Saint Saveur is Pont Napoleon. The historic bridge was built in 1863 and spans across the magnificent Gave du Gavarnie River. It’s from here that every Wednesday in July and August as well as select weekends throughout the year you can book in for this bungee experience. The jump itself is 70m and no doubt that the feeling of free falling through the air will take your breath away.
Even if you do not want to jump off this bridge it is worth a visit. We often stop when we are cycling in the area and watch the bungee jumping or just soak in the views of the river below. We also enjoy taking the walking track that takes you down to the base of the bridge. It does not take very long and it is great to see the bridge from the bottom looking back up.
Enjoy a day of rock climbing in the Vicdessos Valley
If you enjoy sports climbing or bouldering then be sure to check out some of the crags on offer in the Ariege. Located just a short drive from the beautiful town of Tarascon sur Ariege in the Vicdessos Valley, you will find over 200 routes to explore. The granite cliffs nestled close to the small village of Auzat provide the perfect playground to test yourself on. With routes graded from 3 all the way to 8a, there is something here for all levels of experience. There are information boards at the car park entrance which have more detail about the area and climbs on offer.
If you’d rather mix in some hiking with your climbing then why not try out the Via Ferrata course instead? The views here are phenomenal as you make your way up the rocky face leading toward the magnificent Mont Calm. This is an experience available year-round to people of all ages and regardless of their climbing experience. You can discover more about the Via Ferrata in Vicdessos here.
Explore the caves of Niaux and be transported back to the Paleolithic times
In a small valley west of Tarascon sur Ariege, you will find the Niaux cave. Indeed, as you travel along the valley road if you look up you can see its big gaping entrance perched high up on the side of the mountain. What sets this cave apart from the numerous others in the area is the historic cave drawings which have been perfectly preserved inside. This artwork has been dated back to the Paleolithic era some 14000 years ago. It’s almost hard to fathom that kind of history.
Today you are able to go on guided tours through the cave and learn about the history which lies inside. The 1hr 40 min tour is led by torchlight and culminates in getting to an area of the cave referred to as the salon noir. This is where there are over 100 cave drawings to look at most of which depict animals. In order to assist in preserving the drawings group sizes to the caves are limited as is time spent in the cave itself. The guided tours are run three times a day, year-round, but due to the visitor entry restrictions we definitely advise you to prebook your visit.
The Ariege Tourist information site has more information about the Niaux caves. From there you can also check out the guided tour schedule and book your spot directly.
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If you are planning on visiting the Pyrenees here are some of our other articles which we think you may find useful in planning out your holiday.
- How to get to the Pyrenees – a comprehensive guide on transport options to get you to the Pyrenees
- Day trips from Lourdes – we list out some of the top options for day trips to explore whilst staying in Lourdes