The Cirque de Gavarnie is one of France’s natural wonders, on the border with Spain in the French Pyrenees. You can walk up to the many waterfalls at the top, where you’ll truly feel on top of the world.
This natural bowl was formed in the mountains by successive ice glaciers as they moved and eroded down through the valleys. Waterfalls shoot down from the top of the bowl, leading down the meandering river valley to the sleepy alpine town of Gavarnie.
You can find provisions in Gavarnie itself, where there are lots of small supermarkets and tourist shops. The hike is suitable for people of any ages. Horses are available to carry the old and young up to the hotel and restaurant, Hôtel du Cirque, at the top. They have a few rooms if you really want to stay away from it all for a night, on a grand adventure. The walk to the hotel from the village takes about 90 minutes, depending on your health, and is reasonably gentle. You must pay for parking (for a few euros – take loose change) and it can get very crowded in the summer. Most people can get to the hotel without too much trouble. You can buy food and drinks (and use the toilet) at the restaurant.
The terrain starts off very green with a proper path. Follow the river along the path (most people walk up on the left hand side) which gets gradually narrower and steeper the closer you get to the hotel.
Most people finish their walk at the hotel, which is accessible for all ages. You may want to go on to the waterfalls though, which look closer than they are. There are no easily accessible paths after this point, although you can see the way others have climbed over the streams and rocks ahead of you. It’s well worth continuing and if you take your time, little kids will love scampering over the terrain. Most people veer far left to reach the waterfall quicker but the easier terrain is to walk along the river, although it takes longer.
If you make it this far (about three hours from the car parks) you’ll feel on top of the world. There are lots of waterfalls that run down the side of the glacial bowl, but the largest is the most impressive. Also, because its harder to get to, there will be fewer people – the final slope can be tough on the legs. It’s lovely to dunk yourself in the run-off from the waterfall so take a towel and strip down to your swimsuit in the summer (paddling is just as fun). This is the best place to have a picnic. When you’re ready, head back to the hotel for a drink to celebrate before the much quicker, downhill descent.
If you think you might want to go all the way to the waterfalls, make sure you leave enough time to do it all. You’re in the Pyrenees and the weather can turn reasonably quickly, so take a rain coat. And don’t forget to take enough food and drink to survive the heat, especially a lot of water. It’s a wonderful experience with the right provisions. It can take a while to drive through the mountain roads to get to Gavernie but there should be enough time to fit in a visit to nearby Lourdes or watch (or take part in) the extreme bungee jumping at nearby Napoleon Bridge.