Hiking distance : 11 km ; Hiking time : 4:00 plus 1:30 to visit the Abîme
Mount Aigoual, the second highest peak in the Cévennes, is a wet place. Annual rainfall averages around 2 m per year (yes metres – not centimeters). In an a very wet year, the total annual accumulation could reach 4 m. The name Aigoual derives from the root word “aiga” meaning “water” in a number of romance languages and dialects. No surprise there.
Local geology is complex – granite bedrock, karst topographies and schist. Several rivers arise on and around the peak. One of them is called “Le Bonheur” (Happiness) ”.
The Bonheur meanders across a flat granite plateau and filters through various bogs. At a point near the town of Camprieu, the river flows off the granite bedrock into an area of karst limestone. Soon after, the river enters a sizable cave and about 100 metres into the cave, the river disappears underground. This disappearance point is known as “la Perte” – the loss. In the picture, we see the entrance to the cave, and in the distance a sun-lit area resulting from a partial roof collapse deep in the cave.
Around 500 m away, at the bottom of an imposing limestone cliff a river emerges at the base of a huge vertical diaclase*. Same river ? The answer is yes. This was proven by some of the earliest french cave divers in the late 19th century by traversing the underground river bed from end to end.
Where the river emerges from the cliff face it is now called the “Bramabiau”, meaning the “braying of bulls” named for the noise of the surging waterfalls.
So happiness became a raging bull… It seems like the river, entering a zone of karst with its numerous underground cavities ended up by finding or creating a way through to the base of the cliff where it emerges at an altitude around 70 metres lower. The section between the perte and the emergence of the river will eventually become a ravine as the cavities grow and surface structures collapse.
This hike starts from the small town of Camprieu and heads steadily downhill into the Aigoual forest, following ancient cobbled paths through a humid valley. Eventually the path emerges near an old stone farmstead – imposing but nevertheless abandoned. A few paces further along you reach the remote and also abandoned village of Saint Sauveur. The village consists of a substantial church, a set of fortified farm buildings and a cemetery. The whole impression is strange : why such a church and village in the middle of nowhere ? The answer, it seems is that the surrounding land was very fertile, and subsistence living from agriculture was feasible.
This village, about 4 km from Camprieu and in a difficult to reach spot, was the original centre of town, but was progressively abandoned in the late 19th to early 20th century in favour of Camprieu – easier to reach by road and location of a new church. The abandoned village was eventually purchased by the French forest management authority (the ONF) and is now at the centre of a fine arboretum. From Saint Sauveur, the trail runs uphill back towards Camprieu and very close to the diaclase and the raging bull. We decided to visit. Tickets are purchased near the highway and the guide takes you down to the base of the cliff, into the diaclase and through a labyrinth of galleries, mini-canyons, waterfalls and caverns created by raging waters. Of course – visits only available when the water is not raging and this means guided tours only – no free roaming. This site – the Abîme de Bramabiau – is open to visitors from spring to autumn but closed in winter (too much water and anyway no visitors).
After the guided tour (taking about 90 minutes) the route takes us back to Camprieu passing close to the Perte du Bonheur. We make a short detour to see where the river disappears underground. The site is almost as impressive as the Diaclase.
This hike, in summary, offers the special ingredients sought by many hikers : walking, history, nature and surprises…
Diaclase : A joint or a fault line in bedrock, usually understood to be geologically inactive.
When our club first put a hiking track online around 2012 we used a free blogging service hosted by the Montpellier based newspaper MidiLibre. The information consisted of a picture of a base map with the circuit superimposed in jpg format. No slippy maps, no altitude profiles, just still images and a few lines of text. Those days are gone and, incidentially so is the free blogging service once hosted by MidiLibre.
Things have changed enormously since then. The “Institut national de l’information géographique et forestière” or IGN for short has moved most of its services online. The WMTS service has become ubiquitous (in the many web and mobile apps for hikers) and the service is mostly free for non commercial use. Many websites now provide access to large databases of hiking routes (VisoRando and VisuGPX to name 2). These sites are open to the public for upload of route gpx’s descriptions and comments : social networks for hikers.
Before 2015, the Parc National des Cévennes published hiking foldouts in little booklets with a green folding cover. In our hiking club we purchased several. These collections of fold outs are now mostly obsolete – primarily because – no surprise – a hiking route is a perishable commodity. Yes these routes need maintenance and sombody has to pay for it. Sometimes the maintenance is taken on by the town councils, but now mostly this devolves to the next level of local government – the Communaute de Communes – or group of municipalities. Some of the routes in these old booklets are no longer maintained, some are still maintained and some are downright dangerous.
Do not try to hike this route : not open between Le Salson and Vimbouches in Feb. 2021 due to landslip.
An example : In March of 2021 I had the misfortune to find, at the bottom of the upper Gardon valley between La Salson and Vimbouches, that a good part of the uphill trail to Vimbouches, formerly a ledge along the ravine edge, had simply disappeared under a landslip. The trail was no longer and there were only 2 choices. Backtrack and hike 6 or 8 extra kilometers to reach the car, or crawl across an unstable landslip sloped at 30 degrees, above a 4 m drop into a ravine. At 4 pm on a short winter’s day, the first option meant hiking past nightfall. The second seemed like the best of 2 poor choices. So Let’s go. It took about 40 minutes to cross a 20 metre stretch of the landslip, feet dug in at the base, hip and shoulder on the wet vertical bank most of the way. Progress was slow since any abrupt movement caused the loose materiel to slide downward. In the end there was no sudden visit to the bottom of the ravine but there were several tense moments.
So printed information and booklets of fold outs go out of date. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Parc National des Cevennes has come on strong in the past 5 years by moving much data online and curating the data so that any hiking route visible on their online service is actually maintained, safe and usable on the ground.
Printed information, better in quality and consistent with the online version, is also still available. Recently in the Tourist Office of Meyruies in the Jonte river valley, I found the ones pictured below. Ten hikes in trifold format in each booklet and, best of all, the same data is accessible online including downloadable GPX files.
Below is an example of the trifolds for a hike near Meyrueis.
The Luech river starts at the foot of the “Signal du Ventalon” (a 1300 m summit in the Bougès range) and runs through a steeply banked upper valley past Vialas and on to Chamborigaud to eventually join the river Cèze. The upper reaches of the river are fairly wild and remote, formerly a land of subsistence agriculture and small scale mining. On this hot morning in August, we decide to walk the 5 or 6 kilometers starting from the Col de la Baraquette (alt 1000m) on the D35 ridge road (La Tavernole to Pont de Montvert). We started the drive in the industrial town of Alès. The road from Alès to the Tavernole intersection is in good shape and fairly interesting passing through old mining villages and near the Portes chateau. The D35, starting at la Tavernole, is an experience however. Too narrow for 2 good sized vehicles to cross, too winding to allow any speed and lots of “vistas” (otherwise known as steep cliffs much too close to the road’s edge). Continue reading “The Villaret Trail”
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