Tour du Parc du Pilat
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The Tour du Parc is a pleasant walk through the French country side, it passes through forest, farmland and scenic villages. It is situated South of Lyon, in the Parc du Pilat. It is circular and 180 kilometers long. It is relatively well marked and easy to follow. Along the Trail some (non-mountaineering) ascending and descending is involved.
In France, there are many long distance footpaths. Some lead through mountainous terrain or travel long distances like the GR10 that follows the Pyrenees from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean. There are also footpaths that are made for pleasure. The Tour du Parc du Pilat belongs to this category. It derives its name from the Parc Natural Régional du Pilat whose border it follows.
The Tour du Parc is about 180 kilometers long, it is circular, stays close to the civilised world and does not climb mountains (it is not completely flat, though). Not many people walk the Trail, so especially during the week it is a quiet place to be. It is a perfect trail if you want to be away for 2 weeks on a pleasant walk through the French countryside and like to visit some beautiful typical French villages.
Parc Natural Régional du Pilat
France has large areas of rural and natural land. There is pressure on this land for urbanisation, tourism and infrastructure projects. In just a few years time these projects can destroy a countryside that took centuries to develop. To preserve these rural and natural areas, France has created the concept of Regional Nature Parks, of which there are now about 40 in France and its dominions. In a Regional Nature Park the preservation of the natural and cultural aspects of the land is integrated in careful use and development. A Regional Nature Park is thus not the same as a Nature Reserve where the main goal is to preserve nature.
The Parc du Pilat was founded in 1974 and it covers an area of 70.000 hectare and it has about 50.000 inhabitants. The park is located south of Lyon and east of St-Étienne. It is named after the Pilat Plateau. The altitude of the park ranges from 150 to 1430 meters above sea level. Because of this difference in altitudes, the range of climates is considerable. It changes from an almost Mediterranean climate in the Rhône Valley to a sub-alpine climate in the higher areas.
Water is one of the major resources of the area and the park supplies water to all major cities and towns in the region. Already in Roman times, dams and canals were built to get the water to populated areas. Water also played a major role in the industrial development of the region by supplying water to the silk industry and power to machines for spinning and forging steel. This water was transported over long distances along small canals. Nowadays, there are initiatives to clean and restore these old canals, now for slowing down the runoff of rainwater.
The Rhône Valley is the sunniest area of the park; the valley is lined with vineyards and orchards. Some of the best wines of France are produced here, but more on this subject later. The Rhône Valley is a major route for rail and motor traffic to the south. But most of the tourists ignore the park or only stay for an overnight stop. Because of this, the park is usually not very busy and even during the holiday season, not crowded.
The center of the park is formed by the Perdix Ridge and the Oeillon Ridge; both rise above 1000 meters and dominate the park from afar. Pine forests and moors cover these higher areas. From some places and during clear weather, a good view can be had of the surrounding area and the Alps can be seen to the east. There are ski resorts in this area.
The western part of the park overlooks the industrial towns of St-Étienne and St-Chamond. St-Étienne is one of the cities in France where the industrial revolution started. It was also the starting point of the first railway line in France; it ran from St-Étienne to the River Loire to transport coal from the mines to Paris. The towns dominate the view for some time along the Trail. The forests in this area provided wood for the coalmines near St-Étienne. The tourist industry is not much developed in this part of the park and accommodation not widely available. A few campsites that are indicated on maps have ceased to exist. But cyclists have discovered the region and can be seen on many of the small roads and tracks, especially during weekends. Unfortunately, the tracks are also becoming popular for track bikes and quads that both spoil the peace and ruin the tracks.
The northern part of the park is the lowest part. Here you find dairy farms along with orchards. The Tour du Parc crosses some small river valleys that are a nice variation on the sometimes monotonous area.
Things to see or notice along the Tour du Parc
Because the headquarters of the park are situated in Pélussin, this picturesque town is taken as the starting point of the Tour du Parc. Pélussin is an old town and it has two centers. The oldest center is situated in the highest part of the town and is dominated by a castle that houses the park headquarters and the Tourist Information Office. Pélussin lies in the middle of an agricultural area and has a large cheese factory. Some people call it the apple capital of the world. This may be a bit ambitious, but it is true that a lot of apples are grown here. Leaving Pélussin, the Trail descends to the Rhône Valley, passing through meadows, orchards and vineyards. On the way, the Tour du Parc passes the old village of Malleval. Situated on a large rock towering between 2 small rivers, this historic village was once strategically placed and it is well worth a visit.
At St-Pierre-de-Boeuf, the Trail continues along the Rhône River for some kilometers, after which it climbs out of the Rhône Valley, rising about 200 meters. Doing so, you pass through well-known vineyards that produce Côte du Rhône wines. Reaching the edge of the valley, the Trail levels off and continues slowly uphill through a rural area, often passing through small villages. Industry is agriculturally orientated; there are small and large wine producers and you pass some big apple orchards. The apples grown here are used for the production of apple juice. Late in the season, you often find some apples still on the trees, perfect for a fresh bite.
The Trail continues uphill onto some forested hills, reaching an altitude of about 700 meters at Croix du Jean, one of the many crosses you will pass along the Trail. From here the Trail starts to descend. After passing the village of Eteize, the Trail crosses a hill and then leads down to the Lac du Ternay. This is a water reservoir, lined with large pine trees and it is a favourite place for the local population to have a picnic. From the Ternay Reservoir, it is relatively level to St-Marcel-lès-Annonay. However, from here, at 435 m, it is a steep climb to La Croix de Chirol at 915 m. On a hot day, be prepared to do some sweating, as there is hardly any shade on this section. There used to be forest in the higher regions, but some years ago fires devastated a large forest area. Replanting has started but it will take many years before these trees will provide any shade. From La Croix de Chirol there is a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.
After La Croix de Chirol, the Trail continues to the rural and tranquil village of Burdignes. Gradually going uphill through pine forest, the Trail reaches the highest point of the Tour du Parc at about 1300 meters, from where it descends to Le Tracol, a pass between the valleys of the Deôme River and the Ruisseau de St-Meyras. Leaving Le Tracol behind, the Trail continues through a chequered landscape of forest and meadows. The villages are surrounded by first farmland and later by forest, which is clearly visible on the map. Marlhes is the next village; interestingly enough there is a book about life in this little village during the 19th century: “The Peasants of Marlhes: Economic Development and Family Organization in Nineteenth-Century France”, by James R. Lehning. Le Rozet, on the way to Marlhes, is the birthplace of St-Marcellin, the founder of the Marist Brothers, a Catholic order dedicated to teaching the poor.
The Tour du Parc does not enter nearby St-Genest-Malifaux, but this country town, because of its accommodation and other facilities, can be of importance for you. It can be reached by taxi or bus from most of the villages along this section of the Tour du Parc. From Marlhes the Trail continues to the village of Jonzieux, which is famous for its silk ribbons and trimming. There is a museum where you can see how these trimmings and ribbons were manufactured. The village once counted many manufacturers of these products but only few have survived. The houses were ribbons and trimmings were produced, are easily recognised by their high windows. The families usually lived on the ground floor while the weaving machine was situated on the first floor in a room about 4 meters high. The windows for these rooms were of this height because much light was needed to be able to check the colours and the weaving.
The next village is St-Romain-les-Atheux, only a few kilometers away from Jonzieux. If you stayed in Jonzieux, you will most likely arrive here early during the day. Arriving at the village square near the church, my advice is to take the pleasure of visiting the bakery for a fresh pastry or cake. From St-Romain-les-Atheux, the Trail takes you to the Barrage de Cotatay, a dam with a large artificial lake. The last kilometer goes downhill and at the bottom of the dam you find a nice place for a picnic. From the dam the Trail continues along a valley side, staying almost level. Reaching the edge of the valley, the Trail continues uphill through meadows and fields, then forests.
The next village, Planfoy, is well known to mountaineers for its Via Ferrata. The Trail continues from Planfoy to another dam and then continues along a valley side until arriving at Rochetaillée. There are ruins of a large and fortified castle in the village. The castle, easy to defend because of the steep slopes on its side, was first mentioned in 1173. It played an important role in wars on religion.
The hamlet of Salvaris is the next destination. It takes some effort to get there since it is situated about 200 meters higher than Rochetaillée. But the reward is great, as it houses a restaurant that is open most of the year. After a long descend, you reach another restaurant at Chirat. The restaurant has a very farm-like appearance and whenever I passed here, it was closed. Further downhill, you reach the outskirts of the town of St-Chamond, an industrial town with a history of gun and silk factories and coalmines. The Trail does not enter the town. Continuing along the Trail you soon reach an important monastery of the Maris Brothers, Notre Dame de l'Hermitage. St-Marcellin, the founder of the Maris Brothers, whose name we earlier encountered at Le Rozet, near Marlhes, is buried here.
La-Terasse-sur-Dorlay is a small village situated in a valley. Just outside the village there is “La Maison des Tresses et Lacets”, a small museum on the art of making ribbons and lace.
A former monastery of the Carthusian Order houses the village of St-Croix-en-Jarez. Built in the 13th century, it was the home of a community of monks. During the French Revolution, the monks were evicted and the monastery became a village. Fortunately, the buildings remain unchanged. From St-Croix-en-Jarez the Trail continues uphill, passing a small chapel near the Hamlet of Jurieux. Further uphill you reach the Roches de Marlin, the Rocks of Marlin. Interesting about these rocks is that they have man-made holes in them that line up with other rocks that have similar holes but are situated 2 kilometers away on another ridge. The purpose of these holes remains a mystery.
From Dizimieux the Trail descends into a secluded little valley. Soon the Trail enters another, less secluded valley and then leads into open farmland. It bypasses the village of Échalas. If you need provisions, there is a shop and a bar/restaurant in this village. At Croix Régis you may have, weather permitting, a good view of the surrounding area. From Croix Régis the Trail descends into the Rhône Valley again. From Semons the Trail continues steeply downhill. After passing underneath a busy road and a railway line you reach a small nature reserve: Île du Beurre, Butter Island. Beavers live here and in some strange way the island is named after this animal. The Trail passes some observation blinds and the information center of the reserve.
The Trail continues on the bank of the River Rhône. It comes close to the town of Condrieu, but does not enter it. Condrieu is well known for its wines and for Rigotte de Condrieu, a small goat cheese. It has the Rhône River at one side and high slopes with vineyards on the other side. From Condrieu you have to climb out of the Rhône Valley again. Once out of the valley, the Trail continues through farmland and arriving in Pélussin, you have completed the Trail.
Côte du Rhône
A large part of the Tour du Parc passes alongside or near the River Rhône and its valley. The Rhône Valley is one of the largest wine producing regions in France and home to the “Côte du Rhône”. The Côte du Rhône is the name of all wines produced in the Rhône Valley. The appellation to Côte du Rhône wines was introduced in 1966 and applies to the wines from 95 communities. The wines from these communities have to conform to rules that control the varieties of grapes used to produce the wine in given areas, the cultivation techniques, the maximum yield, and the wine making methods. Sixteen of the villages under the appellation can put their name to the Côte du Rhône appellation.
Côte du Rhône is produced in 2 distinct regions; the Northern Rhône, located south of Lyon, and the Southern Rhône, located south of Montelimar. The southern region produces more than 90% of all Côte du Rhône wines. The northern Côte du Rhône wines are produced on both sides of the River Rhône of which the western side covers a small but special portion. Here the grapes are grown on steep, terraced, south facing slopes. The Tour du Parc passes through this region, passing through 3 distinct and famous wine areas: the Côte Rotie, Condrieu, and Saint Joseph.
When to go
When to go depends on weather, available hours of daylight and the availability of accommodation. Considering the weather, it is best to plan your walk between April and the end of October. This is also the period with enough hours of daylight to walk a useful distance. The April-October period corresponds with the best availability of accommodation since some of the accommodations close during January and February. Most campsites are closed from the mid-October until the beginning of April.
Where to start and how to get there
My favourite place to start is the picturesque town of Pélussin. It is situated on the Trail; it is a small town, a good place to get information and has shops and accommodation. Pélussin also houses the headquarters of the Parc du Pilat. Getting to Pélussin by car is not a problem, getting there by public transport tends to be more time-consuming. But since the Trail is circular, it can be started at any point.
How much time does it take?
The Tour du Parc is about 180 kilometers long. How many days it will take to complete, depends on the kind of walk you have in mind. If walking is a sport for you, you can walk the Trail in about a week. However, if you find yourself doing the Tour du Parc during a very hot spell, this is not recommended. If you want to enjoy the French countryside, spend some time visiting the picturesque villages you pass through and add a resting day, you can easily spend two weeks. Going slowly has the disadvantage that there will not be a score of accommodations available at the end of the day, but on the other hand, you may have more time for reaching alternative accommodations.
Condition of the Trail
Most of the Trail is on unpaved roads through forests or farmland. Some stretches are on paved roads and only short stretches are on tracks. There are some downhill sections with many loose stones. This makes proper hiking boots essential (European class B when carrying a light pack, or class B/C to C when carrying a heavy backpack). Consider taking a hiking pole (or two) for walking comfort.
In general the climate in this area of France is favourable for walking. You are likely to need more protection from the sun than from rain or cold, so bring a hat and sunscreen. Against the rain, bring a raincoat. If possible, get a good and strong raincoat with breathable lining that can stand the wear and tear of carrying a backpack and hiking. It will protect you against the elements, keep you from feeling miserable in bad weather and thus will make your hike more enjoyable and safer. In case of bad weather, some parts of the Trail are sheltered by forest, but other parts are more exposed. If you plan your hike in the beginning or towards the end of the summer season be prepared for cold weather, rain, fog, and even some snow. Do not forget you are passing through areas with cross country skiing facilities and that some parts of the Trail are at a higher altitude. It can get cold there.
Winters in this region are usually mild, so planning your walk between October and April is possible though not recommended. If there is indeed a mild winter, the main handicap will be the short day length. If there is a severe winter with snow and storms, the Trail will turn into a completely different category. The risk of getting lost and hurt increases and some of the stretches are exposed and kilometers away from civilisation or proper shelter. Walking in winter is therefore not recommended and should only be done with proper preparation, clothing, equipment, and the knowledge how to use it.
Dogs and other domestic animals
Along the Trail you will encounter dogs. Most nicely attached to leash or behind a fence and guarding master, house and livestock. You can ignore these. Then there are dogs (and I am not talking Chihuahua size), not on a leash or behind a fence and that are also guarding master, house and livestock, then it becomes time to be careful. But be on your guard when you encounter a dog, especially when there is more than one, just wandering around and no master to be seen.
But let this not scare you to much; I have walked in the Pilat region many times and dogs have behaved like they should, guarding their master, house and livestock with a lot of noise (and sometimes hurting my ego) and not with their teeth. Another comforting thought is, that a dog with the reputation of attacking hikers is usually tied up or dead.
Taking your dog on a Trail can be pleasant and many accommodations welcome you to bring your dog (or charge you for it). But I have no experience with walking with a dog when there are many guard dogs around, some of them not on a leash or behind a fence. So before taking your dog along, consider if this poses a risk for you and your dog.
Animals like sheep, pigs and cattle are usually behind a (electric) fence. But changes are that you will meet some adventurous animals that escaped from the meadows they should be grazing in. Most of these animals are more afraid of you, than the other way around and I usually stand to one side to give them room to pass. When they are blocking my way, I walk through the group of animals, but when I don't trust them, I make a detour.
There are different kinds of accommodation along the Trail and you have to use almost all to be able to complete it. A complete list of accommodations on or near the Trail including an indication of the prices, is given in the Trail and Accommodation Planner. Specialised accommodations for hikers like the Gîtes d’Étapes are rare. In the eastern part of the Trail the accommodations are close together and you are flexible in the distances you walk each day. In the western part, the accommodations are scarcer, so you may be forced to walk longer stretches. Detours to accommodations near the Trail are described in the Trail description and are indicated on the map. Be prepared to use a taxi/bus or to hitchhike to accommodations when there are none near the Trail. It is wise to book your accommodation at least one day ahead, especially during weekends. At accommodations, do not expect people to speak English; few do. This can make a reservation by phone difficult. If necessary, let the owner or personnel of the accommodation you are staying in, make the next reservation for you.
• Hotels: Most of the Trail can be covered by staying in hotels, some of which are situated in picturesque villages like Malleval or St-Jean-de-Croix. There is a wide variation in standards, some are comfortable and some are (very) basic. Most provide simple accommodation for the local needs so do not expect a swimming pool or sauna. Often the hotels are family-operated, have a weekly closing day and are closed when the family goes on holiday. Usually they take their holidays in the beginning of the year, but because they do not depend on tourism alone, they may also take their holiday in the peak of the tourist season. The weekly closing day is often flexibly applied and is in general for the restaurant and not for the hotel rooms. In the list of accommodations, the closing days are mentioned so you can adapt your trip around them.
• Chambres d’Hôtes: In France a Bed and Breakfast is called a Chambre d’hôte when it has one room and Chambres d’hôtes when there are more rooms. In this guide, the term Chambres d’hôtes is used. They provide the most comfortable accommodations along the Trail and some are beautifully situated. Besides the breakfast, other meals are usually not provided but some Chambres d’Hôtes provide a dinner service, Table d’Hôte. Some have kitchen facilities.
• Campsites: Campsites are situated in the eastern part of the Park and it is not possible to hike the whole Trail using official campsites. However, if you ask permission, camping might be allowed in a field near a farm or house, but I have no personal experience with this. In this way camping is the most flexible way of hiking the Trail. Official campsites are usually open from April until October but some sites are open or let you stay all year.
• Gîtes d’Etapes: There are not many youth hostels in France but a Gîte d’Etape is a good alternative when hiking. It offers a dormitory-like accommodation (mixed). Usually there are cooking facilities and some even provide meals. Not all provide sheets and blankets so better bring your sleeping bag. They are affordable but may be basic. The key for the Gîte often has to be collected elsewhere in the village. There are about 9 Gîtes d’Étapes on or near the Trail.
• Cost of accommodations: Walking the Tour du Parc is free if you do not count the wear and tear on your equipment. When walking alone and using camp sites, camping wild or using Gîte d’Étapes you should be able to manage on a limited budget. Staying at a camp site will cost about 5 Euros per night and staying in a Gîte d’Etape about 10 - 15 Euros per person. When preparing your own meals, the provisions will set you back another 10 Euro. It is difficult to cover the whole of the Tour du Parc using official campsites and Gîtes d’Etapes. So on some days you will have to use alternative (and more expensive) accommodation. When staying in a Chambres d’hôtes or a hotel, expect to pay between 30-50 Euros for your accommodation, including breakfast.
When travelling together, the difference in price per person between a Gîte d’Etape and a Chambres d’hôtes/Hotel lessens since a Gîte d’Etape charges per person and a Chambres d’hôtes/Hotel per room (you pay an additional 5-10 Euro for the extra breakfast).
Lunch or dinner at a simple hotel, chambres d’hôtes or restaurant will cost from 15 to 20 Euros for a simple menu (starters, main course, plate of cheese, desert), excluding drinks.
Other facilities along the Trail
On the Trail, shops and banks are unevenly distributed. These facilities are however available near the Trail and can be reached by detour or by public transport. The distribution of there facilities will not be much of a problem when you walk long distances each day, since this way you will certainly pass through more than one village. Travelling in a more leisurely manner, you will have to carry more provisions on some stretches. For an uncomplicated journey, plan what you take along for supplies and cash and do not forget to incorporate the weekends in this planning.
Within the Parc du Pilat there are several bus lines available but few buses. The bus lines mainly cater for children going to school and many lines cease to run during school holidays and weekends. The timetables of the bus lines are given in the appendix section. They correspond to the timetables as provided by the various bus companies on Internet. If catching a plane or train depends on you travelling on a certain bus on a certain time, check locally or by telephone with the bus company. Taxis are widely available and the telephone numbers of taxi companies are given in the Trail and Accommodation Planner.
The maps in this book, together with the Trail description, should be sufficient to keep you from straying from the Trail. It is useful, however, to have a wider view of the area, for instance if you want to leave the Trail and return to your starting point. For this the “Carte du Parc, randonnées et découvertes”, a 1:50.000 map published by the Parc Natural Régional du Pilat is perfect. It covers the whole of the Parc du Pilat and the Tour du Parc and indicates points of interest and other walking Trails. It can be ordered on the web site of the Park: www.parc-naturel-pilat.fr. On this web site, which has an English version, other publications about the park are available; all in French.
The Institut Geographic National (www.ign.fr) produces two maps (ET 2933 and ET 2934) at scale 1:25.000. Together these cover almost the entire area of the Tour du Parc. Only minor sections in the north and east are missing. Because of their size these maps are not very practical to use while walking. The maps can be ordered on the internet site, which has an English version.
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