It’s not often that you get an opportunity to hike in a national park just outside a major city. So when I found out about Calanques National Park, within an easy reach of central Marseille, I just had to check it out!
Beautiful as Marseille is, France’s second largest city is still…well…a city. While there is plenty to see and do, I wanted to explore some of the natural beauty Provence is famed for. Calanques National Park provided a great opportunity to escape the bustle of Marseille without straying too far. It also happens to be France’s newest national park, established in 2012!
Day Trip to Calanques National Park
I got up early and joined a throng commuters on the city’s metro system. Armed with a map I got from the tourist info centre the previous day and a large supply of cereal bars from a local supermarket, I felt I was sufficiently prepared.
I got off at Castellane and waited for a bus heading to Luminy, one of the access points for the national park. It also happens to be the location of a large university campus so I spent the next 45 minutes of rush hour traffic with students heading to their morning lectures. Eventually, we reached the last stop and I followed a couple who looked like hikers since I figured they would probably lead me to the entrance to the park. I wasn’t wrong and I soon walked past the sign welcoming visitors to Calanques National Park.
The plan was to hit a few trails and see where I ended up. I did a bit of research online but there wasn’t a lot of information on routes so I figured I would just follow the path! It was a cool October morning but the sun was already peeking through the trees. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate means that even winters here are mild and this was promising to be a very warm day!
I followed the unpaved path through the woods alongside other hikers and joggers out for their morning run. The path was easy to follow with coloured markers painted on trees signifying different trails. Plaques explained more about the geology, flora and fauna of the area (in French). I soon came out to a fork in the road by one of the plaques. Taking a short detour to the right brought me out to a clearing with a great view of the valley lined by huge cliffs.
I continued on, greeting fellow hikers with a friendly “bonjour”, and soon came out to another fork in the road. I took a right and followed the path all the way to a lookout point which afforded stunning views of the area, including the calanques themselves.
Calanques National Park isn’t actually named after an area. Calanques are natural inlets and bays which are flanked by high limestone cliffs and are a highlight of this beautiful part of the Mediterranean coast. These have been formed over millions of years by water flooding steep-sided valleys and collapsing caves, creating these beautiful narrow inlets. Almost 85% of the national park is a marine area!
Calanque de Morgiou is one of the biggest calanques in the national park and was a breathtaking sight, especially with a sailing boat dwarfed by the cliffs around it. There is a small village and a marina at the end. It’s famous as King Louis XIII fished for tuna here in 1622, sporting a gilded silver trident! The calanque is also home to the Cosquer Cave, which contains prehistoric paintings – it’s the only known painted cave in the world with an underwater entrance! Scuba divers among you: unfortunately the cave is closed to the public!
Calanque de Sugiton was a lot smaller but no less beautiful. It’s one of the easier calanques to access and a path snaked down towards the sea among the cliffs. A small island just off the shore is known as Le Torpilleur (The Torpedo) because of its distinctive shape. In warmer weather, the calanque is popular with tourists going for a swim at the beach and cliff jumping off the rocks. With the sun getting higher, I could definitely do with a swim!
The lookout was very windy so after admiring the views, I headed back to the fork in the road. I decided to follow the trail that snaked along the high cliff walls instead of going down to the beach. I set off along the path, stopping often to appreciate the scenery – towering limestone cliffs on one side and impossibly blue sea on the other.
The path rounded Calanque de Sugiton and I got close to The Torpedo and the yachts moored nearby. I saw a couple of tourist boats too – a popular way to see the Calanques National Park throughout the year. Due to the high risk of fires in the summer, access is strictly regulated from 1st June to 30th September and is dependent on weather conditions! I visited only a few days after the restrictions were lifted so I was definitely lucky!
The path, wide and easy to follow until now, has become a lot narrower and I had to avoid fallen trees and even rockfalls! In places, I had to be careful not to fall down the cliff and into the sea! The trail twisted and turned before coming pretty close to the water, its surface shimmering in the sun. I really couldn’t have picked a better day for my hike!
The cliffs above me seemed even more imposing than before as I reached what looked like the end of the trail. The path (if you could still call it that), rose upwards sharply over rocks and through shrubs and bushes. I decided to keep going for as long as possible and climbed up above a small rocky beach.
Just as I was about to turn around and head back, I spotted something embedded in the cliff itself – metal handles and chains! I definitely wasn’t dressed for scrambling mountains but I wasn’t going to come all this way and turn back! After securing my camera and valuables in my bag, I carefully pulled myself up the rock face using the chains and footholds carved out of the rock.
It wasn’t particularly tough but one wrong step could mean a very nasty fall to the rocks below – and seeing as I was the only person attempting this part of the trail, I am not sure anyone would come to save me in a hurry!
I continued up the trail and made my way to the top of a large rock. The view from here was just incredible and I just absorbed the scenery for a while. I finished the last of my water and another cereal bar and took stock of my surroundings.
The trail seemed to continue below, twisting and disappearing around the cliff. As I wasn’t even sure where it led, I decided to not head any further. I was on track to doing an 11km hike and I still had more of Marseille to explore. So, I took a few selfies and started heading back to Luminy.
Navigating the chains and metal ladders on the way down was much more difficult and I almost lost my bag, managing to grab it just as it was about to tumble to the rocks below. After my heart rate returned to normal, I made quick progress and reached the entrance to the park in just over an hour.
I have never heard of Calanques National Park before my visit but it turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Europe, if not the whole world! I am already planning to return to find out just where my trail would have taken me.
Hiking the Travel Lexx way:
Length: 11 kilometres. This includes the detour to the lookout point and scrambling up the cliff using chains and metal handles. However, it’s easy to tailor this to your ability and available time – this was just one of the many hikes available.
Time: The entire hike took about 3.5 hours. I timed my return trip from the top of the rock where I took my selfie back to Luminy and I covered 4.82km in 1:11:39.
Difficulty: Easy to Tough. It’s largely flat to the lookout point so suitable for all (even kids) but the further you venture, the tougher it gets. Hiking shoes are recommended as is a map as some parts of the trail are not clearly signposted.
- Make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you – apart from Morgiou, there is nowhere to buy food!
- Try and get to the park early. It can get VERY hot here (especially in the summer) so hitting the trails in the morning will make life easier.
- If visiting in the summer (between 1st June – 30th September), always check this site for the latest real-time access conditions. Anything other than orange and you might not be able to access the park on foot. If in doubt, it might be best to book a boat trip from Marseille as these run all year round.
- One of the best way to explore Calanques National Park is by hiring a kayak and discovering the hard-to-reach beaches and lagoons, making stops to dive into the clear turquoise waters. Hiking is also spectacular and there are a number of trails for all abilities
- Bring swimming gear – there are a few beaches and cliffs from which you can jump in!
- Calanques National Park is very popular with locals so timing your visit for a weekday will help avoid the crowds.
What: The stunning Calanques National Park, within easy reach of Marseille, is France’s newest, established in 2012. The calanques – natural inlets and bays flanked by imposing limestone cliffs – are unique geological formations and offer stunning views.
Where: Calanques National Park is easily accessible from Marseille, France’s second largest city.
Getting there: Take the metro to Castellane and get the No. 21 bus all the way to Luminy (allow 45 mins in rush hour). The trail starts a few hundred metres from the bus stop. Bus No. 24 goes to Luminy from Ste. Marguerite Dromel station. Once on the trail, you can head down to the beach at Calanque de Sugiton or head to a lookout point with stunning views of Calanque de Morgiou.