Les Gorges du Verdon, also called the "le Grand Canyon du Verdon" or Verdon Canyon, define the border between the Départements Var and Alpes de Haute Provence. The Verdon river carved a deep canyon into the limestone cliffs here for about 21 km (13 miles). It is much smaller than the Grand Canyon but it's Europe's deepest. This is a nature conservation area, the Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon. The walls of the gorge rise a spectacular 700 m (12,000 ft) from the Verdon river below with its green emerald color. The river lives up to its name (vert = green in French), the result of dissolved limestone and microscopic plants. Down at the base, the canyon is between 6 and 100m (20-300 ft) wide, at the top the distance between north and south rims range from 200 - 1,500 m (650 - 5,000 ft). Similar to the Grand Canyon, the gorge has its own micro-climate. It is much cooler at the bottom where sun seldom shines (in some places never). Whilst at higher elevations you find the typical Mediterranean garrigue, down at the bottom it is mostly Alpine flora, which is better adapted to the colder climate. Chamois are quite common and vultures, which were nearly extinct, have been reintroduced and now number about 60. They populate the gorge's cliffs near La Palud and Rougon.
The first person in modern times to explore le Grand Canyon du Verdon was the French lawyer and explorer Edouard Alfred Martel (1859-1938). He is the father of of modern speleology, the scientific study of caves and other karst formations. In 1905 it took him three days to walk what is today known as the Sentier Martel (Martel Path), a part of the Grand Randonée (long distance footpaths) GR4 long-distance path. It must have been quite a feat in those days. Even today the route, much improved and partially carved into the stone walls of the canyon, is quite challenging and will take you at least three days. One needs to be an experienced hiker and familiar with the terrain. If you want to hike the canyon consider a guided tour or hire your own guide. A shuttle bus service operates twice a day in each direction between the key access points of the Gorges hiking paths.
First a we give a short description of the drives along the top of the South and North Rims of le Grand Canyon du Verdon. These are long winding roads with many scenic viewpoints along the way but only limited parking space. There is lots of traffic during the summer season and on weekends when motorbikers use the two roads as racecourses. In any case, take your time and plan for two days to explore the area. Make sure you spend some time in the pottery village of Moustiers Sainte Marie and visit the Pre-Historic Museum in Quinson, the largest of its kind in Europe. Be careful during the winter time - snow and ice are frequent here.
South Rim Drive (Corniche Sublime)
The Corniche Sublime runs from Castellane to Moustiers Sainte Marie for 81 km (48 miles). From Castellane drive southwest on Route D952, a scenic drive between the cliffs. Pass Porte de St.Jean where the road turns north and you will see the impressive Cadiere de Brandis. At the Pont de Soleils turn left into Route D955, which leads you through the Vallée du Jabron to Combs sur Artuby. Make a stopover in this ancient fortified village built on top of a rock, full of character with its Provençal stone houses, the fortified Knights Templar chapel of St. André and the chapels of St. Jean and St. Didier.
Continue west on Route D71 which leads you to the southern rim of the gorges. There are a number of scenic viewpoints, we recommend especially the Balcons de la Mescla with extensive views over one of the gorge's sharp turns from a height of roughly 500 m (1,600 ft). Continue on Route D71 over the Pont de l'Artuby, which spans the Artuby river at a height of 180m (590ft) and is used for bungee jumping. The road continues with many turns and a couple of tunnels until you are on top of the Falaise des Cavaliers. This is the main stretch of the Corniche Sublime with breathtaking views of the gorge's northern rim. From some of the belvederes you can catch a glimpse to the gorge's bottom. You will reach the Col d'Bloire and after driving through a tunnel the road descends to the tiny village of Aiguines. Take Route D19 to the Lac de Sainte Croix below and turn right into the Route D957 which crosses the Verdun river at the lakeside. Continue for roughly 9km (6 miles) until you get back to Route D952 where you continue west to Moustiers Sainte Marie.