The 4 Best Limestone Climbing Areas in France

Limestone Rock Climbing in France

France offers a staggering amount of rock climbing with excellent weather, lots of sunshine, perfect stone, and a wide variety of routes of all grades. France with all its bolted routes is a sports climber’s paradise. Most of the best climbing areas in France are composed of limestone, a type of sedimentary rock that was originally deposited on the bottom of ancient oceans and seas as reefs.

French limestone is renowned as some of the best in the world for rock climbing. Once you have climbed at amazing French crags and cliffs like those at the Verdon Gorge and Ceuse, you will lose respect for most American limestone areas like Shelf Road and Rifle Mountain Park.

Here are the four best limestone climbing areas in France. These are the places that you will want to climb at first before exploring the many other limestone areas, including Le Saussois, Orpierre, Sisteron, Sainte Victoire, and Cimai. 

 

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VERDON GORGE

Ian Spencer-Green climbing "Wide is Love" at the Verdon Gorge in southern France. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The Gorges du Verdon simply called the Verdon, is one of the world’s mythical climbing areas. The Verdon was, until Ceuse was developed to the north, the best climbing area in Europe. It’s a wild canyon, called the Grand Canyon of France, that offers everything—amazing scenery; equally amazing limestone that seems made for climbing; hundreds of five-star routes from one pitch to 14 pitches; and pure free climbing up to clean walls.

The Verdon Gorge is not the playground of the elite climber, who prefers Ceuse and Siurana in Spain, but instead is usually filled with climbers from around the world who come to discover the beauty of movement on perfect vertical limestone. Part of the beauty of Verdon’s climbing is all the moderate routes up exposed faces. Most of the routes are adequately protected with bolts and most belay and rappel stations are fixed so all you need to climb is the bare minimum—a rack of quickdraws and single rope. Most of the routes are vertical or a bit slabby so good footwork is necessary for success, along with finger strength.

Most of the Verdon routes ascend only the top half of the cliff since the upper layer of limestone is more pocketed and harder than the lower section. The defining characteristic of Verdon routes are all of the solution pockets or gouttes d’eau on the cliffs; on some routes, almost every hold seems perfect in its own way. Most of the climbing is on the south-facing cliffs on the north side of the gorge since they are easily accessed from the 14-mile (26-kilometer) Route des Cretes road on the canyon’s north rim.

Location: The Verdon Gorge is located in southeastern France, about two hours north of Marseille and Nice on the Mediterranean coast and three hours south of Grenoble. The closest airport is at Nice to the southeast.

 

 

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CEUSE

A Danish climber pulls pockets up Mirage (5.13a/7c+), another classic at Secteur Cascade. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

 The Falaise de Ceuse, a two-mile-long limestone cliff that rims the southern edge of Montagne de Ceuse in the Haute-Alpes region of southeastern France, offers perhaps the best pure rock climbing in the world. The 200- to 500-foot-high limestone cliff, reached by an hour-long uphill hike has a perfect stone, a huge variety of routes and grades, and stunning views.

It’s the limestone at Ceuse that makes it such a stellar area. The 140-million-year-old Jurassic limestone is streaked and colored by a rich palette of gray, blue, and gold and peppered with rough edges and finger-friendly pockets. Most of the routes, especially the hard ones, are athletic with long moves up overhanging walls and vertical faces with sustained technical moves and bouldery sequences.

Despite all the spray in climbing magazines about the atmospheric routes like Chris Sharma’s famed line Realization with its 5.15a grade, Ceuse offers numerous routes in the 5.10 and 5.11 categories. Ceuse is a sports climbing area with every route protected by beefy bolts and double-bolt lowering anchors. It also has a reputation for bold runouts between bolts, especially on the older routes established by the late French climber Patrick Edlinger.

Location: Ceuse is in southeastern France in the Haute-Alpes region. The cliff is 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Gap and 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Sisteron. Grenoble is 65 miles (105 kilometers) to the north while Marseille is 120 miles (200 kilometers) to the south.

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LES CALANQUES

The great Belgium climber Jean Bourgeois face climbing on limestone wall at Calanque Sormiou on the Mediterranean coast in France. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Les Calanques is a limestone mountain massif that stretches along the famed Mediterranean coast of southern France between Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and Cassis. This wild coastal region of rugged mountains and wave-washed rocky beaches is one of France’s best and largest climbing areas.  The 12-mile stretch of coast is creased by several dramatic calanques (a French word for “rocky inlet”) or deep valleys drowned by the sea. Les Calanques offers to offer a thousand climbing routes on numerous crags. The area has over 25 separate climbing locales, which include six main areas.

The limestone here is rough and compact with diverse features, including cracks, slabs, caves, dihedrals, arêtes, and pinnacles. Much of the bolted sports climbing is on clean open faces. Les Calanques offers lots of extreme routes up overhanging walls and caves but also lots of moderate-grade sports routes on short faces as well as long multi-pitch routes up big walls like the Grande Candelle.

Climbing at Les Calanques is magical with its enchanting mix of rock, sky, and sea. It’s a place, like all great climbing venues, that sticks with you, a place of basic earth elements—gleaming white limestone ridges and ramparts; waves lapping across rock benches; the air rich with the scent of pine and rosemary; and the dancing sea below your feet reflecting the glitter of sunlight.

Location: Les Calanques is located in southern France on the Mediterranean coast east of Marseille and its international airport.

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BUOUX

Eric Horst rock climbing at Buoux in the Provence region of France. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

 The famed climbing area of Buoux (pronounce boox) with its mile-long cliff Falaise de l’Aiguebrun, is an imposing cliff in a narrow canyon in the Montagne de Luberon, a long humped range in the middle of southern France’s Provence region. During the 1980s, Buoux was the “Laboratory,” the place where hard sports climbing developed when all the world’s best climbers congregated here and pushed difficulty standards.  While Buoux has fallen from the limelight, it is still one of Europe’s premier climbing areas.

The canyon’s towering gray and tan cliffs, rising as much as 600 feet high, offer hundreds of five-star routes, many in the popular 5.10 and 5.11 grades (6a to 7a+ French grades). The limestone climbing here is absorbing and interesting, with lots of pockets (trou in French) that range from shallow one-finger dishes to full-hand mailbox jugs and huecos. The two-finger pocket is the classic Buoux handhold.

Location: Buoux is in the Provence region in southern France. The cliff and nearby village of Buoux are in the Luberon Mountains about 4 miles (8 kilometers) south of the old Roman town of Apt, east of Avignon.