Much of Haute-Loire is hilly or mountainous rising to over 800m. The north is known as ‘Haut Allier’ and southern part ‘Le Velay.’ South Haute-Loire borders Ardeche and the Cevennes Mountains.
The Vivarais Mountains in the extreme south east of Haute-Loire form part of the north eastern tip of the Cevennes of the Massif Central. These volcanic peaks include Monts Maygel (1436m) and Mezenc (1753m), the highest peak in Haute-Loire. The conical slopes of Gerbier de Jonc (1551m), just into the Ardeche, are the source of the mighty River Loire. The terrain of hills, forests and high pastures blossoming with daffodils, violets and butterflies makes great walking and riding country in summer.
Look for marmots in the mountains where Auvergne’s cold winters bring snow and the possibility of cross-country skiing. Snowshoe equipment can be rented at the Chambon-sur-Lignon tourist office, tel: (00 33) 4 71 59 71 56. Les Estables is the highest village in the Massif Central at 1344m. This small Alpine skiing centre has a lift and 9 pistes with 78km of cross-country skiing in the domain. Conditions can be uncertain but views from the summit of snow-clad Mezenc on a bright sunny day are always fantastic, extending beyond the Massif Central to the Pyrenees and Jura Mountains of the Alps.
Created in 1986, the Parc Naturel Regional du Livradois-Forez is one of the largest regional parks in France. It covers an area of 320,000 hectares to the east of the Massive Central spanning the departments of Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dome. Le Puy-en-Velay is one of its gateway towns. Landscapes vary from the exposed Alpine moorland of Mont Forez in the north east to the high forested plateau of central Livradois, and Foret de la Comte and wooded valleys in the west and south west. Between oak and pine covered hills nestle the fields and river valleys of the Dore and Allier. Forests are home to red squirrel and deer, a place to gather mushrooms in autumn. The meadows and heaths are carpeted with wild flowers in spring and summer including wild orchids. Walking and horse riding are great ways to explore the park.
Following the Livradois-Forez ‘route des métiers’ or Artisans Route is an excellent way of exploring parts of the park where people continue to live and work following old traditions (includes 3 castles, 16 museums, 11 craft workshops and 11 farm producers including cheese-makers). The visitor centre in St-Gervais-sous-Meymont, Puy de Dome has maps of the route.
France’s longest river, the mighty Loire, travels 1,000km from the slopes of Gerbier de Jonc in the Cevennes to the Atlantic giving its name to 6 departments along the way. Haute-Loire is the first. The young Loire spills into southern Haute-Loire, 16km from its source, between the Massif du Megal and the mountains of Velay in a series of gorges and valleys. See amazing organ-pipe rock formations like Orgues des Cessoux and Orgues de Chapteuil, green valley pastures and forests. On its impetuous journey north, the Loire picks up its first tributary the Lignon-du-Velay, passes ruined fortresses and its first chateau at Lavoute-Polignac. The river creates wild water for rafters, venues for trout fishermen and a peaceful wilderness for hikers to follow the GR3 Loire Valley Trail.
East of the Loire, the River Allier crosses into the south west of the department from Lozere, carving thickly wooded gorges where the granite Magride meets the volcanic mountains of Velay. Like the Loire, the river and its banks are a playground for climbers, hikers, watersports enthusiasts and fishermen. As the river moves north, the Allier Valley widens into the Langeac and Brioude basins. Water flows more calmly with just a few small rapids, riverside beaches are popular with summer swimmers and walking need not involve much climbing. You can spot otters and beavers and a fantastic array of birds including short-toed eagles, harriers and golden orioles. The bird centre in Lavoute-Chilhac organises bird-watching trips. The sheltered Allier Valley is also a great habitat for butterflies and its varied flora includes orchids and prickly pear cacti which grow wild near Chilhac and Chazieux.
The very heart of the Allier Gorges is best viewed from a canoe or in the comfort of a railway carriage. Certainly no road could hope to travel this most direct route designed and built in 1870 for the SNCF line from Paris to Nimes. From May to September, the track is also used by the Allier Gorges Tourist Train. The 70km trip from Langeac to Langogne in Lozere takes under 2 hours. There’s a guided commentary on the awe-inspiring landscape, the work needed to build 15 tunnels and 16 viaducts plus history of ancient castles and abbeys passed en route. One of France’s most scenic rides, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Time and again the track clings to one cliff with panoramas of granite and pines sweeping down vertically on the other, then briefly tunnels through volcanic rock to cross amazing viaducts seemingly suspended in mid air above breathtaking views to the river below. For information and bookings, tel: (00 33) 4 71 77 70 17 www.trainstouristiques-ter.com and click on map.