Name: Pyrénées National Park
Date Established: 1967
Size: 176 square miles (457 square kilometers)
Did You Know?
• Border Park Stretching along the mountainous border with Spain, Pyrénées National Park includes six distinct alpine valleys and elevations that soar from a low of 3,478 feet (1,060 meters) to 10,820 feet (3,298 meters) at the summit of Vignemale. Mont Perdu (10,990 feet/3,350 meters) anchors an enormous massif, which is marked by three major cirques on the French (northern) side.
• Pyrenean Desman The park's most intriguing inhabitant is a close relative of the mole called the Pyrenean desman. This patchwork creature has a mole-like body, trunk-like nose, and webbed feet. It lives in these mountains, and almost nowhere else, feeding on insect larvae and small shellfish along the banks of crystal streams.
• Little Train One Pyrénées attraction not to be missed is the unique “tiny” railway. This precipitous narrow-gauge journey, the start of which is reached by cable car, runs along what’s billed as Europe’s highest track. The Petit Train d'Artouste was originally built to provide worker access during construction of massive hydroelectric dams during the 1920s. Today the train fills with tourists each summer and travels an unforgettable six-mile (ten-kilometer) stretch from the peak of La Sagette to Artouste Lake—all at a dizzying altitude of 6,562 feet (2,000 meters).
• Pastoral Partners While the park’s central area is largely uninhabited, an ancient, pastoral way of mountain life endures in a “partnership zone” where some 40,000 people live in 86 villages. Here shepherds and their charges frequent upland pastures and mountain hamlets perch comfortably between dizzying heights and farm fields. Such communities were once widespread in Europe’s mountain regions but are now found in relatively few places—the Pyrénées quite notable among them.
• High Life The mountainous slopes are forested with yews and firs up to 5,905 feet (1,800 meters). From that altitude to perhaps 7,874 feet (2,400 meters) mugho pine stands predominate, sprinkled with color from purple Pyrenean irises and rhododendrons. Above these heights the rocky peaks are largely bare and usually snowcapped.
• Plants and Animals Park wildlife includes golden eagles, griffon vultures, bears, and the Pyrenean chamois. There are about 2,500 plant species; 200 are endemic.
How to Get There
The famed pilgrimage site of Lourdes is only about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Pyrénées National Park, and the town is a stop on France’s TGV high speed railway. From Lourdes buses and private transportation are available to villages near the park itself.
When to Visit
Pyrénées National Park is a place for all seasons. Summer is the height of tourist activity and a peak time for all sorts of outdoor activities—including the Tour de France. Fall brings harvest, spectacular foliage, and festivals. Winter encourages all types of adventurous snow-related pursuits. Spring, of course, is filled with flowers.
How to Visit
The mountain wall of Pyrénées National Park makes up the French/Spanish border and a scenic road trip through one of the alpine passes (when open) is a worthwhile journey in its own right. But everything is a bit different on the other side of the range, from the language to the climate, and some exploring on the Spanish side of the mountains is a worthwhile addition to any itinerary.