Hiking in the French Riviera | Pic et Dent de l’Ours, Esterel
The French Riviera might be better known for its turquoise sea coves, overpriced shops and glitzy yachts, but hiking in the Massif de l’Esterel is such a treat that it would be criminal not to share the wild side of the region. A friend of mine recommended a trail called Pic et Dent de l’Ours in the Massif de l’Esterel and in late August, I packed a day bag, my camera and set off. Little did I know that I would end up breaking the law before the end of the hike.
Getting to Massif de l’Esterel
Driving down the wiggly coastal road, I whizzed past the posh village of Mandelieu-la-Napoule, past the quaint harbor at Théoule-sur-Mer, past the crazy Palais Bulles of French couturier Pierre Cardin, up and down cliff-hugging stretches until I took the final pinhead turnoff. I parked outside Le Trayas train station in blazing heat. Gosh, was I happy I brought sunscreen and a large-brimmed hat. It was looking to be a hot sunny hike.
By the trailhead, I passed two men who I greeted them with a chirpy Bonjour and then wondered if something was off. They were staring at me getting on the trail and the staring was intense. Was it my skirt? My bag? My hat? I couldn’t put a finger on it and moved on, wondering if perhaps locals had had too much of tourists this summer.
A little further up a dry rocky road, I walked by a metal barrier. Smart, I thought, probably a way to block off-road cycling and prevent soil erosion.
It was so quiet. Who knew how busy the trail normally was, right? As it were, I was all by myself and looked above my shoulders a few times to make sure that neither of the two men were following me — which they weren’t.
Trialing Visorando App
From the trailhead, I hit the Start button on this hike as featured on the Visorando app and hoped that my phone battery would hold. Why hadn’t I downloaded the offline map? Visorando was very user-friendly and I mostly referred to the app at trail junctions.
The red dirt trail quickly rose above Le Trayas train station and then turned 180 degrees to hug the slope through maquis (a low and bushy chaparral-type vegetation), facing a built-up area with a few villas. Down below, the color of the sea coves was mesmerizing.
So clear and so turquoise. I had packed my swim gear to take a dip after the hike and frankly from the trail, the Mediterranean looked mightily inviting. Even more reason to pack this hike in minimal time and enjoy a swim.
Aleppo Pine Forest
The sun was beating down on me and with low clouds and humidity thrown in, it was slightly stifling. I entered the Aleppo pine forest, which was a relief as the heat was nigh intolerable. Immediately, the tree shade really cooled me down. I was still not fully recovered from a nasty cold and stopped a few times to catch my breath.
The going was steep but in normal times, it would not have been an issue. Suddenly, I felt breathless and hiking alone didn’t sound so great. To cheer myself up, I sent a video of the trail to my family, trying to guess aloud which of the summits around me was the Pic de l’Ours and of course, I got it all wrong.
Walking cautiously, I also kept an eye out for smoke (it was wildfire season) and snakes, as they would have been the most likely wildlife encounter. Unlike me, these animals were smart and stayed in.
After a last push, the trail met a wide fire road and levelled up. It was time to catch my breath and look back on the signs, clearly showing directions down the mountain to the train station.
The fire road led to a pass where vistas embraced the sea and the coast on one side, the Esterel mountain range on the other. Fortunately, no smoke in sight. From there, I also caught a glimpse of a massive red and white comms antenna topping a summit in front of me — Pic de l’Ours, ahoy!
Pic de l’Ours
From Col Notre-Dame, the trail split into two roads — the short steep route or the scenic gradual route. Under such sweltering heat, I was very tempted to take it easy but Visorando had a lot more faith in my abilities than me and nudged me to the short route. Fine, fine. Off I went on a narrow dirt trail, zigzagging up the final ascent to the antenna. My, it was so hot!
I’ll be honest, reaching the antenna was anticlimactic. Fenced off like an army depot, the antenna stuck out like a major sore thumb on an otherwise perfectly scenic hill. The good news is, the vistas on the Cannes bay and the Esterel range were splendid and the vegetation lovely. For some reason, a heavy weight lifted in my mind and I was really grateful to be up on that mountain.
Up there, I really wondered where the name Pic de l’Ours (meaning Bear Summit) came from. Was the part of the range home to bears eons ago? Was it the shape of the summit?
Still no living soul around, which I thought was typical of summer crowds. On such a hot summer day, it was only to be expected that people would hit the beach rather than some dry backcountry trails. It was, to paraphrase Bjork, oh so quiet.
Right behind the antenna, a narrow trail marked by yellow stripes led away from the sea, down the mountain through some magnificent landscapes. I had to check the Visorando app several times to find the right trail but once I was on it, it was a real treat and I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
Around a bend, a pine towered like a lonely sentinel over the mountain, marking the edge of a ravine. Next to it, a stone with a yellow stripe, sign I was hiking the yellow trail. This part of the trail was breathtaking.
Further down, I spotted the much-awaited Dent de l’Ours, a red volcanic plug jutting out of a low pine forest. So far, it was a footnote in an ancient landscape and I couldn’t wait to get to it.
With good visibility, I might have seen the Baie de Saint-Tropez and Sainte-Victoire in the background, but fine particles in the air blurred the overall picture. Following the rocky trail, I reached my favorite part of the hike.
Dent de l’Ours
I was thrilled to reach this geological wonder and wanted to explore the cave but judging by Visorando, I was only 1/4 into the hike. I hustled up and promptly left the Dent de l’Ours behind.
Navigation Plan A Fail
That’s when my phone beeped loudly. “Low battery”. Wait, so soon? My screen was showing 19% — no way I could keep using the app. That would teach me to rely on a phone for navigation. I had no paper map and no knowledge of the local terrain. I took a few screenshots of the map on Visorando, hoping they would help me find my way but the battery percentage dropped dramatically. 16%. 11%. I had to turn off the phone in case I needed it for an emergency — if even I had any reception where I was.
Navigation Plan B
Fortunately, I had one thing for me — I had hiked extensively in Occitanie and knew the French trail signage system by colored stripes quite well. I looked at Pic de l’Ours and its comms antenna. The latter was impossible to miss, which meant that it was the perfect landmark for my navigation plan B.
From the Dent de l’Ours, I needed to:
- Follow the yellow stripes. That was really rule number one. I knew that so far, the trail had been a mix of yellow and blue markings but as a general rule, colored stripes indicated loops. I’d been on yellow stripes since Pic de l’Ours. By pushing forward, I hoped they would take me closer to the trailhead.
- Stay level with a slight elevation loss, but not go down so fast as to find myself trapped in a backcountry canyon. Important rule number two.
- Stay hydrated. Ration water immediately. Very important rule number three. I had 0.5l of water left, I had to make it last.
Now, in terms of navigation, the plan was to:
- Circumnavigate Pic de l’Ours by keeping it on my left.
- Find the sea. The sea was good. Right now I couldn’t see it, I was too low and facing the wrong direction. The sea would mean I was headed in the right direction.
- Keep on open terrain as much as possible, to navigate by sight whenever possible.
- Last but not least, find the fire road / trail junction near Col Notre-Dame. That would be my ticket out of digital navigation fail jail.
Fire Roads & Forest Rangers
Trails vs Fire Roads
I followed the yellow markings at every trail junction, using visual landmarks and checking regularly that the comms antenna was still firmly stuck on top of Pic de l’Ours. It was slow going, but little by little, I saw other angles of the comms antenna. That was really how I measured my progress.
The trail was perhaps the most pleasant of all the hike underfoot. It was wide, well maintained, sparsely lined by pine trees and overlooking gorgeous vistas.
Col des Lentisques
After a while, I reached Col des Lentisques and trail junctions. I stopped to ponder. Some trails were going down rather steeply and the direction looked about right but I would be under tree cover. A fire road went down the mountain in the wrong direction. I needed a clear line of sight.
I decided to follow a well-established fire road to my left and cross fingers that it would lead me to Col Notre-Dame. Wide, the road offered no tree cover at all and was going up the mountain, which meant I was taking a longer route.
Slowly, I drank water out of my water bottle mouthful by mouthful, keeping an eye on the water levels.
Only 0.25l left. I doubled my pace.
Breaking the Law
That’s when the cavalry arrived, or rather a bottle green car with a garde forestier (forest ranger) at the wheel. I stopped on the roadside as I saw him slow down to a halt. He pulled down the window and I greeted him cheerfully. Bonjour, first human of the hike!
“Bonjour Madame,” he replied sternly. “Do you speak French?”
Oh boy, was I in trouble? Well, it turned out that the mountain range was closed off to visitors because of extreme fire risks and today was most definitely not a good day to hike. I was literally trespassing. The neighboring mountain range had been suffering devastating wildfires for weeks and why didn’t I watch the news or check the mountain website for trail closures?
“On a typical summer day,” he added, “You would see dozens of cars and hundreds of hikers on this trail.”
It was like somebody switched on the light in a cave. Now I understood why the hike had been oh so quiet. Everybody else was clued up about the mountain closure. That explained why the two men at the trailhead had stared at me. Couldn’t they have said something?
Mostly. What was I to do?
The Fine Line Between the Law and Real Life
“Tell you what,” the ranger went on, “I should fine you Euro 135 for trespassing, but I won’t if you promise to get off this mountain immediately.”
“That’s exactly what I was trying to do,” I said, explaining where my car was parked and how my phone had died (with the navigation app) leaving me somewhat navigation-blind.
“Fine. Keep to the fire road past the next junction, walk around the big boulder. You will see a small trail behind a bush. It will take you to the village from where you can make your way back to the train station and to your car.”
Last Stretch of the Hike
I thanked him profusely for his help, apologized a thousand times and waved him goodbye as he resumed his patrol of the mountain.
I felt like a proper fool but at least, I was now a properly informed fool. Time was of the essence. Now in a real hurry to get down the mountain, I walked even faster and headed towards the big boulder. Suddenly, lo and behold, I stumbled upon the junction for the narrow trail I had walked coming up. The sign reading “Gare de Trayas”.
I’d made it!
Quickly, I got off the fire road and power-walked the rest of the trail to the car, hoping that I would not find a couple of gardes forestiers waiting by the car to question my motives.
The car was still there, very much alone, and when I turned to look at the trailhead, I noticed a small-ish sign I had ignored on the way in.
In small script, it read:
Forest are prohibited due to several risks of fire
Traffic (motorized or not) pedestrian, bicycle and horserider are prohibited.
As a Conclusion
The hike was quoted for 8.8 km/5.4 miles but at the end of the day, I covered 11.55 km/7.2 miles.
I downed the last sip of water when I spotted the car and was grateful that I had left another full bottle of water in the trunk. It was warm as broth and I drank it all.
Needless to say, I didn’t get my swim in the clear turquoise blue sea of the coves below La Trayas train station. I was way late for lunch and sped back to Cannes, thanking my lucky stars that all had ended so well.
How to Check Fire Risks & Forest Closures on Massif de l’Esterel
Before you start your hike, check the following websites for trail access updates
Last but not least, here is a local legend on Massif de l’Esterel.
Esterel Historical Lore: Gaspard de Bresse
Fun fact: The Esterel massif used to be regarded as wilderness and in the 1800s, had a bad reputation because so many stagecoaches were ambushed and attacked.
Incidentally, it was the favourite hunting ground of the famous Gaspard de Besse gang, Gaspard de Bresse being the Provencal Robin Hood. An experienced mountaineer who knew local ranges like the back of his hand, he robbed travellers on the road to Italy, handed out the loot to poor people, and then went off to hide in the Esterel forest.
Betrayed by one of his own, Gaspard de Bresse was sentenced to death and executed in 1781, much to the chagrin of the local population. People say that his treasure is still buried somewhere in the Massif de l’Esterel.