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This is a special introduction to the mountains and prominences of France, provided to by Mark Trengove.


France is a large country by European standards.  It has an area of 549,619 square kilometres (212,209 square miles) and has a population of around 61.1 million (2002).

With the exception of the Massif Central in south central France and the Island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, the mountainous regions of France can be found on or near the eastern and southern borders of the country.  To the north and west of the Massif Central the land is mainly flat and low-lying, although the peninsula of Brittany jutting into the Atlantic Ocean presents a rugged granite coastline and an interior reaching an altitude in excess of 300m (1000 feet) in places.

Two main geological events have given rise to the upland areas of the country.  The first was the Hercynian Orogeny (= mountain-building), which occurred at the end of the Palaeozoic Era (c.300 to 248 million years ago).  This created the Hercynian Massif, which stretched across much of the land that was to become Europe.  The other event was the Alpine Orogeny, which occurred in the middle of the Tertiary Era (c.50 to 40 million years ago).  This was responsible for the uplift of the Alps, Pyrenees, and mountains of Corsica.  It also created the folding of the Jura and the faulting of the remains of the Hercynian Massifs (the Vosges and Massif Central), and a volcanic outbreak to the centre and east of the Massif Central.  Between these periods of orogeny, erosion wore down the rocks, depositing material in the seas and lakes which had formed between the mountain ranges.

Today there are the remains in France of four parts of the Hercynian Massif (Brittany, Vosges, Massif Central and the tract of high ground connecting the latter two).  In between these blocks of hard granite, sandstone and shale are sedimentary basins linked by lowland corridors.  To the south-east and south-west lie the much younger and higher folded mountain ranges of the Alps, Jura and Pyrenees.

The French Alps

The French Alps form the western flank of the great mountain arc of some 800 km (500 miles) that stretches around the northern perimeter of Italy.  The countries of Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein, Germany and Switzerland, as well as France, all share in this, the biggest and highest mountain chain in Western Europe.  The range contains many mountains over 3000m (9,800 ft) in Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France.  There are also a large number of peaks over 4000m (13,100 ft) in Switzerland, Italy and France.  The term ‘Alps’ was first applied to this range, but was later used for other mountain ranges in the world (the Australian Alps, for example).

The French portion of the range includes the highest summit in Western Europe – Mont Blanc at 4808m/15,774ft altitude.
Mont Blanc

The French Alps were pushed up against the Massif Central block to the west during the Alpine Orogeny.  They are folded and overthrust mountains, sharpened by frost and eroded by glaciation and running water.  There are two main types of rock structure.  The central core of the High Alps is composed of Palaeozoic crystalline rocks, with violently folded metamorphic rocks around the edges of the core area.

The French Alps can be divided into four geological sections, all running in parallel on a mainly north-south orientation:

• The High Alps.  This section is about 100km (60 miles) in width, and mainly follows the Franco-Italian border.  The High Alps are structurally very complex, especially in the south-east, with folding, overthrusting and nappe formations.  Crystalline massifs form the highest ranges.  These ranges are composed of a great variety of rocks, including granite, gneiss and schist.  The highest summits are found here, particularly in the Mont Blanc and Écrins Massifs.

• The Longitudinal Trench.  This is composed of the vale of Chamonix and the valley of the River Isère between Albertville and Grenoble.  It is only about 5km (3 miles) wide and is several thousand metres lower than the mountain ranges which flank it.  The trench is formed of soft shale, rapidly eroded by the fast-flowing rivers that drain the mountains around it.

• The Pre-Alps.   These ranges stretch from Lake Geneva to the River Durance.  They are composed of limestone and are generally half the altitude of the High Alps.  They are bisected by four main cluses (deep valleys with steep sides) which once held rivers but now contain large lakes such as Lake Annecy.

• The Alpine Foreland (The Dauphiné).  This area lies between the Rivers Isère and Rhone at the western foot of the Pre-Alps.  It is mainly covered in deposits of pebbles and clay washed down from the Ice Age glaciers.  There are moraines, rock basins and outwash material which have been terraced by the action of rivers.

The French Alps have been, and are still being, moulded by glacial action.  The High Alps were much affected by the Écrins ice cap in the last Ice Age.  The ice flowed south and then west down the valley of the Durance.  After the ice ages, vast amounts of meltwater flowed west and south off the melting ice caps for hundred of kilometres to the Mediterranean Sea.  As the weight of ice lifted off the mountains, they rose in altitude.  They are still rising to this day, although the rate has slowed to the extent that they are being eroded as fast as they rise.  Glaciers still exist today, but they are receding rapidly as global warming takes place.  The glaciers today are valley glaciers like the Mer du Glace below Mont Blanc, or cirque or niche glaciers.

The highest, and most prominent mountains in the French Alps are Mont Blanc itself (4808m/4695m, 15774ft/15403ft) and Barre des Écrins (4102m/2045m, 13458ft/6709ft).

Image:  Mont Blanc, east side.  © QT Luong /

The French Jura  Cret de la Neige

The Jura range straddles the border between France and Switzerland.  It begins in eastern France on the northern bank of the River Rhone and then extends northwards along the northern bank of that river and Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to the Swiss frontier north of Geneva.  From that point it continues as the boundary line between France and Switzerland in a long arc curving to the north-east.  The range eventually passes wholly into Switzerland, ending on the southern bank of the Rhine near Basel.  The range is some 320 km (200 miles) in length, and between 32 km and 56 km (20 to 35 miles) in width.

The limestone of which the Jura is formed was laid down in shallow seas of the Jurassic period (205 to 145 million years ago).  It is rock rich in fossils.  Indeed the range gave its name to this period in the Mesozoic Era.  The range consists of a series of parallel folds in the strata forming a high plateau.  The folded ridges are cut by transverse fractures which in places form steep gorges (cluses).  The effects of glaciation can also be seen, particularly on the more steeply scarped southern flanks of the range.  The glaciers have long gone from the range, however, and there is now no permanent snow.

The range was originally mainly forested, even to its lower slopes.  Today the upper slopes remain forested (apart from the highest summits which are open grassland) but the action of man has stripped the middle and lower slopes of their forest cover to leave pasture.

The general altitude of the Jura is between 910m and 1520m (c.3000ft to 5000ft).  The range reaches its highest point near the south-western end of the range in France at Le Crêt de la Neige, which has an altitude of 1718m and prominence of 1268m (5636ft/4160ft).  The highest and most prominent summit of the Bernese Jura in Switzerland is Chasseral at an altitude of 1606m and prominence of 666m (5269ft/2185ft).

Image:  View south along the main ridge of the Jura to le Crêt de la Neige

The French Pyrenees

The Pyrenees, which straddle the Franco-Spanish border and take in the tiny Gran Vignemaleindependent state of Andorra, stretch from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the east to the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Ocean in the west.  The chain extends in a relatively straight line from east to west to a total distance of 435 km (270 miles).  It reaches a maximum width of c.130 km (80 miles).  Its total area is 55,374 square km (21,380 square miles).  Two thirds of this area lies within Spain.

The range was thrust up in the Tertiary Period (66.4 to 1.6 million years ago).  It consists of three parallel lines - a ‘sandwich’ of softer rocks, with a very tough granite centre in between.  The high uplands consist of exposed crystalline rocks, while folded limestone composes the lower slopes.  These features give rise to flat-topped massifs and folded linear ridges.  The range was extensively glaciated in earlier times, giving rise to impressive glacial valleys and cirques, particularly on the French side.  The glaciers have now nearly gone, but permanent snow can often be found above c.1800m (6000 ft) on north-facing slopes.

The French side of the range presents much steeper inclines than the southern Spanish side, with spectacular torrents called gaves fed by the generous rainfall.  The southern slopes provide a drier steppe-like climate.

The range reaches its highest point on the Pico de Aneto at 3404m altitude and 2812m of prominence (11168ft/9226ft).  This mountain lies wholly within Spain.  The highest summit in the French Pyrenees is Pic de Gran Vignemale (3298m/1025m, 10821ft/3363ft) on the Franco-Spanish border. 

Image:  Pic de Gran Vignemale (right) – the highest summit in the French Pyrenees

The Massif Central

The Massif Central is the only mountainous region of mainland France which lies wholly within the country.  It covers one sixth of its surface area of France.  On the northern side it is bounded by the Paris Basin, on the eastern and southern sides by the Rhone Valley and delta, and by the Aquitane Basin in the west.  It is roughly circular in shape, with an area of around 93,000 square km (36,000 square miles) and an average height of 715m (2300ft).  It is the most geologically diverse area of France and also has the most varied climate.

The massif is made up of four main areas:
Puy de Sancy

•    Limousin.  This region lies on the north-western side.  This is soft more undulating country of green pastureland, ranging in altitude between 300m (1000ft) and 1000m (3300ft).  It is composed of crystalline rocks. 

•    The Auvergne.  This is the central area containing the majority of the highest summits in the massif.  To the east lie the mountain ranges of Forez, Livardois and Velay.  To the east are the remains of extinct volcanoes – the Monts Dômes, Monts Dore and the Monts du Cantal.  The fertile soil and high rainfall makes the area a region of lush pasture and forest.  There are also many crater lakes. 

•    Aveyron.  This area lies to the south-west.  The waters of the rivers Lot, Aveyron and Tarn flow westwards through this region from the Aubrac mountains.  It is an area of deep gorges and valleys with dry plateaux above.

•    Lozère.   This is the region in the east of the Grands Causses of the Cévennes.  It is a vast dry isolated upland composed of granites, gneiss, limestone and schists.

The massif was raised up again in the same period as the formation of the Pyrenees and the Alps (the Alpine orogeny) by a counter-movement that crushed the sedimentary rocks of the area up against the hard granitic blocks, causing faulting and rifting.  This gave the massif an east-west incline, with the highest areas lying to the east nearer the Rhone Valley.  Volcanic activity continued beyond the Tertiary Period until as recently as 8000 years ago.  Glaciation further shaped the area, covering most of the region in an icecap which must have resembled Iceland today.  The volcanoes were remodelled by the glaciers into a landscape of ridges, deep valleys and planezes.  There is now, however, no permanent snow.

The highest and most prominent summit in the massif is Puy de Sancy in the Auvergne, which has an altitude of 1885m (6184ft) and prominence of 1578m (5177ft).  The second most prominent summit in the Massif Central is Mont Mezenc in the Ardèche (south-east area) which is 1753m in elevation and c.793m in prominence.

Image:  Le Puy de Sancy – highest summit in The Massif Central

The Vosges

The Vosges range stretch along the west bank of the River Rhine in a NNE direction from north of Basel in Switzerland to nr. Mainz in Germany for a distance of 250km (150 miles).  Most of the range, including all the summits of 915m (3000ft) and over, is situated in France.  The range forms the west flank of the Rhine rift valley, while the Black Forest in Germany, of similar latitude and geological formation, forms the east flank.Hohneck

The range is divided into four sections, which are from south to north:

•    The Grandes Vosges, some 100km (62miles) in length, extending from Belfort in the south to the valley of the Bruche.  The rounded summits of this area are called ballons.  Their average altitude is around 1100m (3600ft).

•    The Central Vosges, extending from the Bruche to Saverne for 50km (31 miles).  The summits here tend to be narrower and more pointed.  Their average altitude is around 900m (3000ft).

•    The Lower Vosges, extending from Saverne in France to the source of the Lauter for 48km (30 miles).  The average altitude of the plateau is around 500m (1600ft).

•    The Hardt, wholly in Germany.

In their southern sections the Vosges are mainly of granite formed in the Carboniferous Period (354 to 290 million years ago) laid down on a bed of gneiss dating from the Pre-Cambrian Period (2800 to 545 million years ago).  There are also some porphyritic masses.  Further north the plateau is mainly of red sandstone.  These rock formations were lifted up around 50 million years ago during the Eocene Period as part of the same mountain forming period that created the European Alps.  During the Quaternary Period (2 million years ago) the western side of the range developed an ice plain, while on the eastern side, which is much steeper, small glaciers carved out the typical glacial features which can be seen today in the Grandes Vosges.  

The lower slopes are now deforested, but higher up there is extensive forest on all but the highest summits, which are open grassland.  The western side of the range receives most of the rain/snowfall and has a much lower mean temperature.  Vines grow on the eastern flanks of the range up as high as 400m (1300ft).  There is no permanent snow on the range.

The range reaches its highest point on Le Grand Ballon de Guebwiller at the southern end of the range, which is 1424m (4672ft) in altitude and 1072m (3517ft) in prominence.  The second highest summit is Le Hohneck (1362m/4468ft in altitude).  Although this summit is over 25km (16 miles) along the ridge from Le Grand Ballon, it is only 186m/610ft in prominence.

Image:  Le Hohneck – second highest summit in the Vosges

Mountains of Corsica

The island of Corsica lies some 180km (112 miles) south of the main French coast in the western half of the Mediterranean Sea.  It is the third largest island in the western Mediterranean.  It has the loftiest mountains and more rivers than any other Mediterranean island.  The rugged coastline extends for over 950km (600 miles).  Twenty-one of its mountains are over 2000m (6500ft).  The average altitude of the island is 560m (1800ft).  The mountains run in a general south-east to north-west direction, cutting the island in two.

There are four main massifs:
Monte Cinto

•    Cinto:  This range lies on the north-western side of the island.  The mountains are very rough and broken.  They are formed of granitic rocks – mainly volcanic rhyolites.  The range has the highest summits on the island.

•    Retondo:  This range lies in the north central region of the island.  This area is also composed of granitic rocks and is very uneven.  There are several glacial lakes.  It reaches its highest point at Monte Retondo (2625m/8612ft).

•    Renoso:  This range lies in the south central region of the island.  It is also mainly composed of granite, but is a less dramatic landscape.  Monte Renoso is the highest point of the range at 2357m/7733ft.

•    Incudine-Bavella: This range lies in the southern part of the island.  It is also mainly granite, but with limestone as well.  The landscape varies from undulating to jagged peaks like the Aiguilles de Bavella.  The highest summit is the Incudine at 2136m/7008ft.  

There are also mountains of lesser altitude on the north-eastern side of the island and on the Cap Corse Peninsula in the far north.

The mountains of Corsica are geologically part of the mainland Alpine system.  Their granite backbone was laid down some 250 million years ago.  These rocks were raised in the Alpine period of orogeny some 50 million years ago.  On the eastern side of the island a mass of sedimentary rocks was pushed up against the granite, becoming a folded metamorphosed bed of hard resistant schists.  As on the mainland, glaciers carved the ranges into sharp crests and ridges, and deep valleys.  Extensive rainfall changed the glacial valleys into V-shaped form.

There is now no permanent snow, or glaciers – although snow can lie on the highest summits into May despite their southern latitude.  

Above the areas of cultivation and deciduous and pine forest, the mid level of the mountains is covered in maquis – harsh resilient bushes like broom, gorse and myrtle.   The highest areas have an Alpine climate and vegetation.

The highest mountain on the island is Monte Cinto.  This has an altitude of 2706m/8878ft and equal prominence.   

Image:  Monte Cinto Range, courtesy of

Hiking in the mountains of France

In France there is a general freedom to roam on all open paths and tracks, and across the high slopes of the mountains.  In practice there is little need to go ‘off path’ because a complex network of good paths serves valleys and mountains.  The main routes are called Grandes Randonées and given numbers (e.g. GR5).  

Most of the mountainous areas of France are provided with mountain refuges.  Some of these are owned by French mountaineering clubs (e.g. Club Alpin Français), while others are in private hands.  Some are open throughout the year, while others only in the warmer months.  Many have a resident warden.  Many will be able to provide food and drink to their guests.  Telephone numbers of the refuges will be available at local tourist offices.  Many refuges in popular areas are booked out many weeks in advance.


France is a country excellently mapped.  The best maps are produced by the Institut de Géographique National (IGN) (website at  There are maps for the whole country at both 1:100,000 and 1:25,000 scales.  For the greater ranges (Alps, Pyrenees and Corsica) the 1:25,000 scale maps have been employed to produce these lists, while 1:100,000 scale has been mainly used for the lower ranges (Vosges, Jura and Massif Central).

The lists give both coordinates (longitude/latitude) and French grid references, which are centred on Paris as referencing point.

Guide books

An excellent selection of hiking and climbing guides in English on the French mountain ranges (and elsewhere in the world) are produced by Cicerone Press, a UK publisher.  Their website is at

The Lists

The lists, which will be added in forthcoming months to this section of, aim eventually to cover all the mountain summits on the French mainland and Corsica that are both 150m of prominence and 910m (3000 ft) in altitude.  These summits have been nicknamed ‘les Bardots’, seeing that the habit of naming mountain lists after glamorous female film stars has caught on on the other side of La Manche (the English Channel)!

Why 910m/3000 ft?  Selecting this altitude to determine the mountainous areas of France works well.  It removes the areas of the country that are certainly hilly but could not be classified as mountainous – in particular the large arc of high ground that connects the Vosges with the Massif Central.

You will note that the lists actually go down to 140m of prominence.  The mountains between 140m and 149m form the ‘Sub-Bardots’.  They are included because altitudes given on maps are likely to be accurate to +/- 10m, which means that some of these summits may really be Bardots (and, conversely some Bardots may be Sub-Bardots).  

Hiking/climbing the mountains on these lists vary in difficulty from easy strolls to difficult multi-day ascents in which the full panoply of mountaineering skills will be needed.  There are, for example, nine summits in the lists of 4000m (13100 ft) or over in altitude.  All these have extensive permanent snow cover, as do many of the lower summits.  Climbing all the Bardots will therefore represent a very considerable undertaking.  

The lists do, however, present some enticing objectives for mountain walkers who do not wish to become full alpinists.  There are many summits on the lists of significant prominence that merely involve putting one foot in front of the other.

Aravis, Bargy and Lake Annecy List

Chablais and Faucigny List

Jura (French) List
Massif de Beaufortain List

Massif des Bauges List

Massif des Ecrins list

Mont Blanc Massif List

Mont Salève & Annecy/Bourget Pre-Alps List

Monts du Morvan List

Vosges List

Mark Trengove
Wales, UK
November 2004

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