The remote and beautiful Pyrenean landscape, heritage and culture of western Ariege is amongst the best preserved in the whole of this mountain region. The new Parc Naturel Regional des Pyrenees Ariegeoises has been set up to ensure this unique area, covering 40% of the whole department (2,500km²), is both protected and promoted for residents and visitors alike to enjoy. The park includes the Spanish and Andorran borders with some of the range’s deep valleys and highest peaks such as Pica d’Estats (3,144m), Mont Valier (2,838m) and Montcalm (3,077m).
Local micro-climates varying between ocean, Mediterranean and mountain make for a variety of habitats rich in fauna and flora like the protected Pyrenean lily. The park is a place to look for buzzards, marmots and more and a sanctuary for protected native species such as bearded vultures, isards (mountain goats), capercaillie and a type of Pyrenean mountain newt known as a brook salamander. You could spot a desman (unique to the Pyrenees in France) if you’re lucky. This tiny, insect-eating aquatic ball of fur is sometimes known as the trumpet rat because of its trunk which is flexible as an elephant’s. There’s little chance though of seeing a Pyrenean brown bear as they were hunted to near extinction in the 1990s. Controversially, a few brown bears were re-introduced into the Pyrenees National Park, further west, in 1996. But visit the Alet and Gabet Valleys to learn the history of the oussailles and their performing bears who roamed Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries until WWI. Some even travelled as far as America.
You’ll find plenty of cultural and historical sites like the Tarascon Park of Pre-history and, though sparsely populated now, the park is still an area where approximately 43,000 people live and work. Inhabitants of the 142 villages and Pyrenean foothills are proud to carry on their agricultural and pastoral traditions and crafts. Visitors of all ages can enjoy a huge variety of leisure pursuits. (Remember the climate in the Pyrenees can be unpredictable and serious hikers should be well prepared). For more, contact the Ariege Tourist Office in Foix, tel: (00 33) 5 61 02 30 70.
Regarded as second only to the Cirque Gavarnie in Haute Pyrenees, this vast natural amphitheatre carved by melting glacial ice can be reached via the Ustou Valley along a mountain road. Park where you see yellow, red and white trail markers at the end of the Ustou Valley road and follow them past glorious mountain scenery to the cirque and its river. The easy walk takes about 1hr 30mins round trip making it an ideal family outing.
La Cascade d’Ars is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the entire Pyrenees cascading in 3 successive stages from a height of 246m. Sparkling and dancing between the pine-clad rocks the falls are at their liveliest in May and June after the mountain snows have melted. You can walk there from the spa of Aulus-les-Bains and the trail is easy to follow, marked with yellow, red and white signs.
The 4,248 hectare nature reserve of Orlu in eastern Ariege south of Ax-les-Thermes was created in 1947 and became a national hunting reserve in 1981. Today it is managed as a nature reserve covering parts of the Orlu Valley and surrounding peaks rising to 2,765m.
There is an abundance of walking trails and great opportunities to enjoy the Pyrenean fauna and flora. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 03 06 06 for opening times of Orlu’s mountain observatory and museum or contact Ax Tourist Office for more details.
Centred on the magnificent Mont Valier Peak (2,838m) to the west in the Couserans, the Mont Valier Nature Reserve extends for 9,037 hectares right to the Spanish border. Port d’Alua is an important route for autumn migrations and ornithologists can have a field day from August to October observing red and black kites, ospreys, and flocks of swallows and swifts amongst others. All year you can see isards, marmots, bearded and griffon vultures and many smaller birds like the rock thrush and alpine chough. This untamed terrain where glaciers have carved deep valleys and amphitheatres is best enjoyed by following the many walking trails. For motorists there is parking at Col de la Core and Cole de Pause west of Couflens.
Forest rangers from the Mount Valier Nature Reserve offer 8 hour guided walks during July and August.
Note, no dogs are allowed in either reserve so wildlife is undisturbed, including transhumance flocks. Centre Animalier de la Vallee Cathare at Roquefixade is a boarding kennels where walkers can leave their dogs.