Ask at Tourist Offices about local hiking trails or walk the Hautes Pyrenees part of the GR10 long distance trail (866km in total) which links the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean through the Pyrenean Mountains travelling roughly parallel to the Spanish border. In Hautes Pyrenees, it passes through many of the thermal spas and ski resorts. The way is marked with red and white signs and the route can be found in guide books of the French Hiking Federation and on regional maps. Unlike the High Pyrenean Route, which here passes through the Cirque de Gavarie, the GR10 does not include actual mountain top climbing, although there is plenty of ascending and descending. Dress sensibly and do check for settled weather conditions as the terrain can be dangerous in storms or fog.
The Compagnie des Guides de Haute Montagne des Pyrenees in Argelès-Gazost is a consortium of high mountain guides which will organise hiking excursions.
The 40 minute Breche de Roland walk around the Cirque Gavarnie includes crossing a glacier and should only be attempted by those with experience and who are properly equipped but there are many other less challenging routes.
The Neouvielle Nature Park is a wonderful place for a day long hike and there are themed walks by park wardens in summer. Walks around Cauterets include part of the GR10 route to Lac d’Ilheou and a 5hr hike from Pont d’Espagne along with hikes in the Marcadau, Gaube and Latour Valleys.
Comite Departmental de Randonnee Pedestre in Tarbes (00 33) 5 62 36 06 35 could give you more details.
There’s fine trout fishing in the high altitude lakes and boulder-strewn rivers of the Hautes Pyrenees particularly the upper River Ardour and the Gaves de Pau and Neste. Of the 2,500km of category 1 rivers and 250 mountain lakes, 980 hectares are rich in fario (brown) trout. You can fish in the National Park but will need a licence (carte de peche) wherever you fish and to observe the season and catch limits. Local tourist offices at places like Argeles-Gazost, Cauterets, Gavarnie-Gedre, Neste-Barousse and Val d’Azun, which are fishing areas, and tabacs are good sources of information. The departmental Fishing Federation at residence Bigerrions, boulevard Martinet in Tarbes produces a booklet on places to fish in the Haute Pyrenees. Alternatively, contact the Tourist Office there, tel: (00 33) 5 62 51 30 31.
No luck yourself? Buy fish and find out all you want to know about fishing for and keeping trout at le Parc du Lutin Pecheur in Lau Balagnas, 15km from Lourdes.
Haute Pyrenees is a prime area for watersports and the many mountain torrents like the Gave de Pau are ideal for canoeing and kayaking amidst spectacular scenery. These rushing mountain streams can be challenging but there are plenty of bases such as the one at St-Pe-de-Bigorre near Lourdes which have training courses run by the French Canoe Kayak Federation. ‘Wild Gaves’ 2 avenue des Pyrenees in Argeles-Gazost offers canoeing, kayaking, rafting and canyoning and there are opportunities to canoe on the calmer waters of the lakes, like Lac Vert close to Lourdes.
The anti-inflamatory and anti-biotic properties of France’s highest thermal baths at Bareges were used to great effect in the military hospital and spa built by order of Napoleon III in 1860. Years before, farmers had bathed their injured animals in the healing 42°C mountain waters but by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spa visits had become fashionable. Take a relaxing hot bath, sauna or Jacuzzi treatment in Bareges after a hard day skiing or climbing and you’ll know why.
Beautiful Argeles-Gazost is another spa town, close to the ski slopes, and Cauteret with its neo-classical architecture is also a ski resort and spa with waters beneficial to ear, nose and throat conditions. Take the waters at the Aquensis Centre in Bagneres-de-Bigorre overlooked by the famous Pic du Midi and perhaps have a flutter at the casino. Set in a valley below the Cirque de Gavarnie, the faded charm of Luz Saint-Sauveur relates to a time when Victor Hugo and Napoleon III were amongst its spa patrons. The baths of St-Lary Soulan in a landscaped park treat rheumatism and respiratory problems while the spa centre at Balnea on Lake Genos at Loudenvielle offers thermal wellbeing treatments in themed settings from around the world and luxury beauty treatments.
The Pyrenees are one of the few natural sanctuaries left in Europe for fauna and flora and Hautes Pyrenees is a fantastic place to see some of nature’s most rare and beautiful birds, fauna and flowers. In spring and summer, the valleys and hillsides are a riot of colour with wild daffodils and violets, saxifrage, iris, wild roses and many types of orchid. This floral banquet attracts unique butterflies like the Gavarnie Blue and Gavarnie Ringlet. Of the 400 species of flowers 160, like the Pyrenean ramonda and tiny purple crocus, are specific to these mountains. Some require such specialized conditions they only grow on certain slopes.
The isard, symbol of the Pyrenees National Park, actually belongs to the antelope family. Use binoculars to see them scaling the mountain slopes at an amazing pace. Sadly there’s little chance of seeing a Pyrenean brown bear as they were hunted to near extinction in the 1990s.(Controversially though a few brown bears were re-introduced into the Pyrenees National Park in 1996). Large numbers of small mammals, such as the shrew-like Pyrenean desman and playful marmots which winter underground and whistle to alert their group to danger, provide plentiful food for the many birds of prey. Red and black kites and short-toed, Bonelli’s and golden eagles patrol valleys and mountainsides. Scan the Hautes Pyrenean skies for a real treat - magnificent griffon, bearded and Egyptian vultures. Spot snow partridge and capercaillie amongst the snow.
Thankfully, the conservation work carried out in protected areas like the National Park and Neouvielle Nature Park means indigenous wildlife is increasing for everyone to enjoy. Don’t forget your camera!
Horse riding is a popular way of exploring the Pyrenean foothills and makes a great adventure holiday. Places like Bagneres-de-Bigorre, Argeles-Gazost, Cauteret, Gavarnie-Gedre, Louron Valley, Val d’Azun and more, all offer riding. Many stables cater for beginners and also give lessons.
Lakes such as Estaing and Payolle have riding facilities around their shores and equestrian centres near Lourdes include Ecuries de Pheline in Ossun, tel: (00 33) 6 07 61 44 70, Centre Equestre des Granges, Julos, tel: (00 33) 6 85 20 42 94 and Etrier de Bigorre at Benac, tel: (00 33) 5 62 45 40 60. La Ferme Equestre du Bourdalat at Ouzons in the Vallees des Gaves offers lessons and a variety of rides from 1hr to a day’s duration. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 97 16 58.
The Alps may have the glamour, but the 12 smaller friendly resorts of the Hautes Pyrenees offer great opportunities for experienced skiers as well as children and beginners amongst beautiful mountains known for their hiking and cross country skiing trails. The department has 439 ski runs and 340km of ski and cross-country trails - the most in the French Pyrenees.
Some resorts like picturesque Argeles-Gazost, Bareges surrounded by forests , and Cauterets are also thermal spas, and family-friendly Gavarnie-Gedre and Piau-Engaly both in the Pyrenees National Park also make great centres for summer leisure pursuits. Piau-Engaly is the highest resort rising to 2,600m and is said to offer a money back guarantee if the snow isn’t suitable on its 65km of pistes ranging from black to green and blue. Bareges La Mongie domain is the Pyrenees’ largest ski area rising from 1,400 to 2,500m with an off piste route which crosses the beautiful Neouvielle Nature Park. The fantastic 1,000m off piste descent from the Pic du Midi observatory at Tourmalet is a not to be missed highlight for the suitably accomplished skier. Find good apres-ski at places like Cauterets and Saint Lary-Soulan. Other destinations include Campan-Payolle, the Luron Valley, Val d’Azun, Luz St-Sauveur and Neste-Barousse. For detailed information on types of run and facilities at each resort, contact local Tourist Offices.
Hautes Pyrenees holds many underground wonders where you can still find traces of our ancestors. The Gargas Caves at Aventignan near the border with Haute Garonne were used by Stone Age hunters 27,000 years ago. They not only left pictures of animals they hunted but also their signatures in over 200 tantalizing hand prints - some with missing fingers. Open all year but visits are limited so pre-book, tel: (00 33) 5 62 39 72 39. Betharram Caves at St-Pe-de-Bigorre spread over 5 floors in a wonderland of fabulously shaped formations, stalactites and stalagmites which you can visit by barge or tourist train. Daily visits March – October, tel: (00 33) 5 62 41 80 04.
Visits are limited to the fragile Chasm of Esparros, carved in limestone by water to a depth of 110m over thousands of years. Secret documents were hidden here during WWII. A sound and light show accompanies the tour. Nearby Lebastide Caves are known for the huge red and black painting of a horse and a visit to the Medous Caves on route des Cols at Aste between Tourmalet and Aspin includes a 200m underground boat ride on the River Adour past solid waterfalls, draperies and strange architectural shapes cast in calcite. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 91 78 46 for opening times and remember to wear warm clothing underground whatever the weather above.
The mountains of Hautes Pyrenees afford great climbing opportunities amidst wonderful scenery and places like Troubat cliffs have become the venue for climbing competitions ranging from basic to highly technical level 8. There’s also good climbing in the Ossau Valley from Laruns. You can find reasonably priced climbing courses in Hautes Pyrenees and artificial climbing walls such as the large one at Tarbes (to level 7b) are increasingly popular. You’ll also now find them in smaller villages like Luz St-Sauveur. Lourdes and the climbing centre at St-Lary Soulan both have indoor walls. Frozen waterfalls at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Cirque de Gavarnie become an ice climbing centre in winter.
Climbing guides are available from most of the ski resorts including Argeles-Gazost, Bagneres-de-Bigorre, Bareges, Cauteret and more, and also Lourdes. Tourist Offices have details and the Climbing Federation Francaise de Montagne et d’Escalade in Tarbes, tel: (00 33) 5 62 44 11 87 is a helpful contact.
Cycling is a passion, not just a pastime, in France and the steep mountain roads of the Hautes Pyrenees make great training grounds amidst breathtaking scenery. Peaks like Col de Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin, and Vallees des Gaves are some of the most gruelling stages for the Tour de France on which to test your stamina and skills if you’re based at the resort of Campan Payolle. But be prepared that even a leisurely ride in such mountainous terrain can develop into hard going under the summer sun. The 450km of routes from Argeles-Gazost offer a range of rides including a marked flat track to Lourdes for those who prefer admiring mountains from a distance. Bikes can be hired at places like Bareges spa.