The seven main mountain ranges of France range from the Alps to the Pyrenees, from the Massif Central in the centre of France to nearby Morvan in Burgundy.
While winter sports were once the main reason for visiting a mountain range, today all of them offer great summer activities. You can hike, mountain bike, go bird watching or just take in the views that are vastly different in summer. The annual transhumance when herds of livestock are taken up to the high pastures and plateaus heralds the beginning of summer for many people. It’s another of the rituals that France still practices so well.
The map above comes courtesy of FreeWorldMaps.net. It doesn’t show Corsica or the Morvan specifically though it does mark Burgundy.
The Alps, in the east of the country, border both Switzerland and Italy. The largest and best known of the main mountain ranges of France, the Alps are formidable. The Alps cover around 750 miles (1,200 kms) and range across 8 countries between Nice and Vienna: France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
The Alps in the north have the high mountains, including Mont Blanc. At 4,808 metres (15,774 ft), Mont Blanc is the highest in Europe. Of all the mountain ranges of France, this is the most popular for mountaineers.
The high northern Alps are known for winter sports and have hosted three Winter Olympics Games, in Chamonix, Grenoble and Albertville. Ski resorts like Les Trois Vallées, Tignes, Val d’Isère, La Plagne and Les Arcs have become some of the best in the world.
The southern Alps with their 300 days of sunshine a year, contain the national parks of Écrins, founded in 1973 in the lovely Isère department, Vanoise National Park (1963) and Mercantour National Park (1979). All offer spectacular summer activities and their rivers provide adventurous kayaking and canoeing.
Major towns/cities include Grenoble, Chamonix, Annecy, Chambéry, Évian-les-Bains and Albertville.
Main rivers include the Rhône, Durance, Ubaye, Var
Regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes; PACA
Older than the Alps, the Pyrenees in the south of France stretch from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Mediterranean coast in the east along 430 kms (270 miles). The range marks the border between France and Spain and contains the tiny country of Andorra.
With many peaks over 9,842 ft (3,000 metres) in the main Pyrenees, the highest is Aneto Peak at 11,169 ft (3,404 metres).
There’s good skiing in the Pyrenees, with resorts like the delightful Luz Saint-Sauveur in the Parc National des Pyrénées offering downhill and ski touring along with small, excellent spas. I had a great time ski touring this winter, though I was very bad at it. Read about my pathetic attempts and take heart, all amateur skiers.
Major towns/cities include: Biarritz, Bayonne, St Jean de Luz, Pau, Lourdes, Tarbes
Main rivers: Ariège, Gers, Tarn, Garonne, Lot, and Dordogne
Regions: Nouvelle Aquitaine; Occitanie
The volcanic Massif Central covers around 15% of the whole of France. Located in central France, it’s geologically the oldest part of the country. It’s the third most important of the main mountain ranges of France but because it is so large and is relatively low, it can be forgotten.
The Massif Central is made up of 4 main volcanic massifs: the Chaîne des Puys, the Monts Dore, the Monts du Cantal, and the Volcanic Velay.
There are around 450 extinct volcanoes in the region, a glorious mix of rugged rocky mountains, many with circular summits.
The highest peak in the region is the Puy de Sancy at 1,885 metres (6,184 ft).
Part of the Massif is in the Auvergne, a wonderful remote region where I have my 400-year old house.
Major towns/cities include: Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, and Saint-Étienne. Not forgetting Le Puy-en-Velay, the capital of the Haute-Loire just 35 kms from my house.
Main Rivers: Loire, Allier, Dordogne, Cher and Sioule, all of which rise in the region, and the Garonne, Lot, and Tarn.
Regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie
The Jura mountain range stretches from the Rhône River to the Rhine, north of the Alps. It covers over 360 km (225 miles) in France and Switzerland.
The highest peaks are around Geneva, including the highest, the Crêt de la Neige in Ain at 5,636 feet (1,718 metres), and Le Reculet at 5,633 feet (1,717 metres).
Roughly 1,600 sq km (600 sq mi) of the mountain range in France is protected by the Jura Mountains Regional Natural Park.
The range is great for sports, and includes the Jura ridgeway, a 310 km (190 mile) hiking route. The region is also known for its wines, particularly the vin jaune. You should try this wine, though it is an acquired taste which some love and others avoid.
Main towns/cities include: Dole, Lons-le-Saunier, Salins-les-Bains
Main rivers: Doubs, Ain
Regions: Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Rhône-Alpes, Grand-Est
The Vosges Massif in eastern France are near Germany and from 1871 to 1918 they marked the border between the two countries.
The low range is divided into the Northern or High Vosges, where its rounded summits are called ballons, the Middle, and the Southern sandstone plateau of the Lower Vosges.
The highest peak is the Grand Ballon at 1,424 metres (4,672 ft).
60% of the Vosges is covered with forest where glacial lakes simmer in the summer sun and freeze in winter. The Hautes Chaumes are covered with rich pastureland. With its gentle slopes, it’s ideal for hiking and biking. The Grand Randonnées GR5, GR7 and GR53 are spectacular walking routes through the area. Winter offers 36 skiing areas, mainly for cross-country routes but also taking in some downhill runs.
There are 2 Regional Nature parks: the Ballon des Vosges and the Northern Vosges Regional Nature Park.
Red sandstone was quarried in the north, providing the stones for the cathedrals, churches and castles that dot the region.
Major towns/cities: Épinal, Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, Gérardmer and Remiremont
Main rivers: Saar, Meurthe, Vologne, Doller
Regions: Grand Est, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
The smallest of the main mountain ranges of France, the Morvan in Burgundy is a lovely granite and basalt range. West of the Côte d’Or region which is famous for its wines, it is in essence the north-west extension of the Massif Central.
The Morvan became a protected area when the Parc Naturel Regional du Morvan was created in 1970. The Park covers a total area of 173,000 hectares, (430,000 acres), and its highest peak is Haut-Folin at 901 metres (2,956 ft). It has some beautiful walks from a half-day gentle hike to a major route over the entire area. The GR13 goes from Vézelay to Mont Beuvray.
The soil is relatively poor here so there are few farms, though cattle grazes in the pastures. In place of agriculture, the main industry in the 19th century was producing firewood and charcoal to send to Paris.
The main town of the Park is Château-Chinon on the D978 between Nevers and Autun. Its most famous resident was the politician, François Mitterrand, who started his career as mayor of Château-Chinon and became President of France from 1981 to 1995.
Major city: Château-Chinon
Main rivers: Yonne rises in the Morvan hills, Chalaux, Cure
Corsica is a beautiful island, around 170 kms (100 miles) off the French coast. It is the fourth larget Mediterranean island after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus.
Its mountains make up two-thirds of the island, with the highest peak being Monte Cintu at 2,710 metres (8,891 ft). Running through the centre of the island, twenty more mountains are over 3,000 metres (6,561 ft) high.
The Parc Naturel Régional de Corse covers over 3,500 sq kms (1,400 sq miles) and being mainly in the interior takes in the mountains.
Walking is one of the great recreational sports here, with guided walks organized by the Office National des Forêts. The GR20 is one of Europe’s foremost hiking trails.
Main towns/cities: Ajaccio, Bastia
More on France’s Geography
The New Regions of France
The Longest Rivers of France
The Auvergne Region Travel Guide
Visit Isère’s National Parks and Mountains
Isère is a year-round destination
Guide to Provence