“It’s hard to go wrong in the gorge,” says my American friend Kim Howe, who with her Norwegian husband lives in a village about a half-hour from Moustiers, the western “gate” to the gorge. “But it’s best to have a map. And to check the weather first.” She also suggests avoiding the peak season of July and August. “Summer can be irritating, at least on the most popular hikes, and one often gets stuck between RVs when driving.”
Good advice, which my partner in crime and I did not heed. We visited Kim, and the gorge, in the heat of July. Yet even in peak season, we found it relatively easy to find respite from the crowds. Yes, you must visit Moustiers and brave the throngs, and at least window-shop the stores selling local pottery known as “faience,” and hike up to the chapel of Notre Dame de Beauvoir, perched on a craggy hill above town, and quaff a mug of honey-infused beer upon your return. And you should drive at least some of the serpentine Route des Cretes, which hugs the canyon’s north rim, and the Corniche Sublime (Route D71), which mirrors the south edge, 80 miles in all.
We did, and yes, the hairpin turns can be slightly nauseating, but enduring the rim roads is key, because they lead to the best smaller towns, trailheads and views. La Palud-sur-Verdon is the hipper, hippier town (compared with touristy Moustiers or workaday Castellane, 10 miles north and east of the easternmost end of the gorge). Legend has it that in the 1960s, a group of people from a nearby village decided to drive to India, Kim tells us. “Their van made it as far as La Palud before breaking down, so that’s where they stayed.”
People continue to stay, and for good reason: Many consider this gorge the nation’s top climbing destination.
“For me it’s the best limestone in France and has a lot of routes in a wild and beautiful place,” says Fred Devoluet, a rock-climbing instructor for a company called Verdon Escalade. “It’s like our little French Yosemite.”
In La Palud, you’ll find the usual smattering of outdoorsy types recharging in one of the handful of restaurants after a hard day on the trail (or of rafting, or clinging to some stone face). If you listen closely, you may overhear horror stories of twisted ankles and narrow escapes. About a decade ago, Worst-Case-Scenario Guy was nearly stranded in this very gorge when he foolishly veered off the trail in search of a way up the rim. WCS: He could have frozen to death. Or spent an uncomfortable night in the wild.
If you’re into climbing or rafting, it’s better to go with a professional guide unless you have the requisite experience and equipment. But most hikes can be self-guided. Assuming that you’re at the appropriate level of fitness, just pick an itinerary with a length and fear factor commensurate with your legs and stomach. Kim told me that there are about 20 popular hikes to choose from, “all glorious.” Her favorite is called the Sentier Martel, which involves tunnels (so bring a flashlight) and ladders set into the rock (not for the faint of heart).
After several hours of adventurous trekking, have a self-congratulatory beer on the terrace of the hiking hostel and restaurant Chalet de la Maline, Kim advised. To stay off the most trodden trails, hire a guide or make friends with a local.