Everyone has his or her favorite trails. “For me, one of the most beautiful places is the Couloir Samson, which offers a wonderful view of the entrance of the canyon,” says Sandra Garcia, manager of an outfitter called Aqua Viva Est. Here, she says, you can understand the canyon, a “real Goliath of nature,” and its “work of years.”
But as Kim says, you can’t go wrong in the gorge. Steep trails lead from the sometimes roasting trailheads at the canyon’s rim down through wooded, mossy enclaves and eventually to the cool riverbed.
Both Kim and Sandra recommended canyoning and its “soft version,” called aqua trekking. Both involve a wet suit, a helmet and a guide. Aqua trekking is easier: You walk, swim, jump and slide as you make your way around rocky obstacles and down the river. Canyoning is more hard-core. You rappel down cliffs, sometimes through chilly waterfalls, and follow secret canyons.
It was canyoners and aqua-trekkers that Mary Ann and I saw as we hiked the Imbut Trail (one of the better, medium-rigorous hikes off the Corniche Sublime). We knew that the hike would be about 3.5 to 5 miles, with a 1,300-foot drop. And, of course, we’d experience the torture of mountain climbing in reverse. Explore a canyon and your day ends with a tiring ascent, rather than beginning with it.
Before we descend, WCS Guy spots a sign warning that the canyon is prone to flash floods.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to be on the canyon floor and see that wall of water coming at you and — ”
“Actually, no,” Mary Ann cuts me off with a smile. “Let’s just hike.”
Down we happily go, on a path that’s mostly limestone, worn smooth like molars. In places, steps are cut directly into the rock. We walk through stands of oak, pine, beech and boxwood descending steeply to the riverbed. Here, the Passerelle de l’Estellier footbridge spans the water and connects to a trail that climbs the opposite cliff.
Not far is a rocky beach where hikers eat their lunches and sunbathe. I finally feel the full scope of the canyon: certainly not as grand as my Grand Canyon back home but plenty impressive.
We watch some aqua-trekkers regroup after a break and slip one at a time into the swirling, milky-aqua water. They bob like apples, float downstream. Paralleling them on land, we follow. We pass under looming shelves of beige stone to a dramatic spot of rock formations in the river called Styx. Here, the canyoners leap 15 or 20 feet into smooth potholes polished by the force of the river. WCS Guy tries not to imagine broken bones. Or their bodies floating in the water and popping up in Moustiers.
We hear that the trail ahead promises wonders. We’re told of even bigger boulders and formations. We know those who have seen the Imbut, a rock funnel where the Verdon disappears underground and reappears at a magical beach called Baou Beni, where the canyon is so narrow that the cliff sides nearly touch.
But, remember, we’re stuck. The three-foot path cloven into the rock has narrowed now to two feet. The swirling water below gets us in the gut. We grip the cable, unable to go farther. In the Gorges du Verdon, even Worst-Case-Scenario Guy knows his limits. We turn back, losing sight of the bobbing bodies. Retracing our path, we climb out of the canyon.
We’ve survived — not only to have a beer on a hotel terrace barely attached to the precipice, but to tell the tale.