Walking the Ariege Pyrenees

The department of Ariège is still a hidden gem - the 'other' south of France, a rural department with just six main towns, many small villages and hamlets and some of the most amazing scenery in France. The whole area is exceptional for wild flowers, butterflies, birdwatching ... and of course for walking.

There are around 5000 kilometres of marked paths at all levels, from gentle rambles around the hamlets and valleys of the foothills, to longer walks that will take you up to high summer grazing pastures, lakes and into the high mountains, or something in between. 

Although some of the highest walks need a head for heights and some mountain walking/scrambling experience, many of the peaks, lakes and high pastures can be easily reached by anyone with a moderate degree of fitness – and because the area is less well known than the central Pyrenees and the Alps you often won’t meet another soul. If your idea of walking is rather more along the lines of a Sunday afternoon stroll, there are plenty of local walks within your capability that are equally rewarding. Wherever you choose to walk, expect stunning panoramas of the mountain chain.

The Ariège is a small but incredibly varied department, much - but not all - of which is covered by the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises, where you'll be based. It’s made up of a number of different territories, or pays, all with particular characteristics and all different from one another.

The Séronais

Your holiday base here in the Ariège will be L'Atelier d'Artiste, a huge, light and airy country house gîte for one or two couples, created from a former barn at one end of our long stone-built farmhouse and surrounded by lush organic gardens and woodland. The house is almost at the end of a forest track close to the village of Rimont, which has around 570 inhabitants, divided between the village centre, some nearby hamlets, and more isolated farms and houses like our own. We sit at an altitude of 501 metres.

Rimont, in turn, is the westernmost outpost of the territory known as the Séronais, which is made up of 16 villages between Foix and St Girons; the terrain ranges from rolling green foothills to the mid-mountain environment of the Massif de l’Arize, the range of hills rising to around 1600 metres that you can see to the south of your garden. The Séronais was once the dividing line between the old counties of Languedoc to the east and Gascony to the west: the border itself was the lane at the end of the track that you'll drive up to get here.

Rimont, Ariège
The village of Rimont

The Séronais is beautiful. It's exceptionally green: Gascon and Limousin cattle graze the fields, along with sheep and goats, and the higher hillsides are covered with forests of oak, chestnut and beech. There is no industry or large agriculture; traditional, self-sustaining small farms and market gardens predominate, most of them run organically, and much of the land is deemed ecologically important and is protected from development or chemical use. 

You could easily spend two weeks just walking here: there are 14 'official' footpaths, all of which fit the French Foothills criteria, plus many more ambles and rambles from hamlet to hamlet. Walking in the north of the Séronais, along well maintained tracks that cross the dry chalky-rocky hilltops, will give you great views across the high peaks just a few kilometres away; here, the wild flowers and butterflies are exceptional too. On hotter days, take the more shaded woodland paths that climb the Massif de l'Arize to the south. Wherever you walk, you won't be more than 20 minutes or so by car from home.

The Couserans

To the west of Rimont is the town of St Girons, third largest in the Ariège with around 7000 inhabitants and a 15 minute drive away. St Girons is the capital of the large territory of the Couserans with its 18 valleys, perhaps the most emblematic part of the Ariège. Mont Valier is here, of course, as are lots of the most beautiful walks, many atmospheric and authentic mountain villages and a surprising amount of lovely Romanesque architecture. It's here that you'll find some of the most remote, stunning and unspoilt landscape that the Pyrenees have to offer.

It goes without saying that the walking here is exceptional, and while some of it might be what we call 'airy and scary', plenty of it is accessible to French Foothillers! You'll take tracks that have been used for centuries to link remote farms and hamlets, and discover hidden valleys, ancient shepherds' barns and shelters, waterfalls, mountain lakes and high pastures. 

Walking near the Col d'Agnes in the Couserans

In spring and early summer, you'll discover a wealth of alpine flora; later on you'll almost certainly find yourself rambling through bilberry bushes. Raptors of all kinds will soar above you, from the ubiquitous buzzards and red and black kites, to griffon vultures and even the rare lammergeier (bearded vulture); you might spot chamois, isard or ibex on the mountain crags, and marmots on high-level rocky grassland. Butterfly fans may see Apollo and Camberwell Beauty, amongst many other species.

Wherever you walk, the scenery and views will take your breath away - so much so that you'll want to spend as much time standing and staring as you do putting one foot in front of the other.

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are travelling for"

Louis L'Amour, Ride the Dark Trail

Around Foix and the Barguillère valley

To the east of Rimont is Foix (30 minutes), the departmental capital and second largest town with around 10000 inhabitants. Situated on the Ariège river, it's best known for the amazing château that dominates the town, but there's some interesting and very varied walking in the area around the town too.

A few kilometres to the east of Foix, you can walk up on the limestone ridge of the Plantaurel Massif, where the circuit up to the Cathar château of Roquefixade is one of everyone's favourites - particularly in spring when the wild flowers are in full bloom, including huge areas covered in bright blue gentian. To the west of the town, and just 25 minutes or so from your base in Rimont, is the great green bowl of the Barguillère valley, with many marked walks that will take you from hamlet to hamlet, deep into woodland to discover lost watermills, or up to the rounded peaks and summer grazing pastures of the Massif de l'Arize where you'll be rewarded with 360 degree views.

Walking the Roquefixade circuit in September

Around the Arize valley and west to the Petites Pyrénées

To the north of Rimont, the land drops slowly in altitude towards the valleys of the Arize and the Lèze. This is gentle farming country, less dramatic than the Couserans but with some charming spots such as Le Mas d’Azil (15 minutes away, with its caves, dolmen and river) and the artists’ village of Carla Bayle. Farther to the west lies the lovely but virtually unknown area of the Petites Pyrénées, a well-kept secret as far as most visitors are concerned!

Looking south from the Dolmen de Brillaud near Le Mas d'Azil

Walking in any of these areas will give you a taste of a rather different Ariège. There are a number of memorable walks up here, but we particularly recommend the long (15 km) but easy walk around the Natura 2000 reserve from Le Mas d'Azil, which will take you on a circuit which crosses the rare pelouse sèche (literally: dry grassland - a form of garrigue) type habitat, rich in orchids as well as other flowers and butterflies, as it makes its way around three dolmen. 

Haute Ariège

This is the area to the south of Foix, towards along the upper valley of the river Ariège. It's a mountainous area with a very different feel to the Couserans: for the most part it consists of steep, high sided valleys instead of wide open spaces. The valley has always been the main passageway in and out of the Ariège; a fast road (or what passes for one here!) runs along it into Andorra, the Pyrénées-Orientales and Spain, as does the department's only railway line. There are just two towns, Tarascon sur Ariège and Ax les Thermes.

Up on the Plateau de Beille, where an almost flat walk will take you to the summer pastures with stunning views into Andorra

Haute Ariège isn't a main player in our French Foothills portfolio, largely because of its increased distance (an hour to an hour and a half) from your base in Rimont, but partly also because much of the walking there can be a bit more challenging due to the particular geography of the area. Having said that, there are four especially lovely walks that we recommend as being well worth the extra travelling time.