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Five northern areas of the Pyrenees, to fill up on snow two hours from the ocean

If their peaks are not the highest, the areas of the Basque Country and Béarn have nothing to envy to those of other massifs. Easy to access, they offer varied and quality trails, suitable for the practice of Nordic activities. Especially since the snow cover is exceptional there this winter.

From the ocean, surfers have a breathtaking view of the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees. Moreover, they are envious: “Here, you surf in the early morning and you ski in the afternoon” they boast to whoever wants to hear them. It’s not false. Moreover, the most western Pyrenean mountains give the impression of diving into the ocean.

If the Rhune, the closest one, is rarely snow-covered because of a too maritime climate, it is enough to go into the depths of the verdant Basque valleys and to climb a little in altitude to find happiness. On the edge of the Spanish border but also straddling the two countries, the Nordic areas offer enchanting scenery with the allure of the far north: centuries-old pine forests, valleys, frozen waterfalls, glades … Iraty, Somport and Issarbe, the most remote areas. more natural, do not have any ski lifts.

As for La Pierre-Saint-Martin and Gourette, the two main alpine ski resorts in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, they have set up beautiful courses as well as fun activities for sled dogs, fatbikes or rifle shooting biathlon style which will also delight both beginners and experts.

Basque Country: the Nordic Area of ​​Iraty (1300 m)

The hamlet of 40 chalets of Iraty. Bruno Labe

Famous for its immense beech grove, the Iraty forest is the largest in Europe, 17,300 hectares spread over Spain and France, framed by the Okabe summit and the Orhy peak. Located in a very sparsely populated area, it has kept a wild and mysterious aspect, fueled by many Basque legends. When the area is very snowy, Iraty looks like the Far North: no village, no wifi, absolute calm, just this small hamlet of scattered chalets dedicated to seasonal rentals. An area that has nothing to envy the more mountainous resorts with 23 km of marked routes for the practice of snowshoeing (four circuits of 3.5 km to 8 km for the longest) and three cross-country ski loops totaling 26 km. Something to delight the most demanding.

The cross-country ski trail. The black “Uthurcharre” slope, a beautiful 15 km loop with a panorama of the peaks of Haute-Soule including the emblematic peak of Orhy which culminates at 2017 meters, one of the highest peaks in the Basque Country. If the 15 km scares you, an 11 km variant will save your strength.

Snowshoeing. Track n ° 2 “Iraitzabaleta”, a nice 5 km walk accessible to all. You will venture into an area renowned for wood pigeon hunting, recognizable by the hunting shelters placed at the passes and you will discover pretty viewpoints over the Haute-Soule. You are here in a wild animal reserve. With a little luck you will see deer or even deer or at least their tracks in the snow.

Prices. The price of a day pass is € 6.50 per day. Equipment rental on site at the Chalets d’Iraty. The space is only open on weekends and every day during school holidays.

More informations. Phone. : 05 59 28 51 29 or chalets-iraty.com

Barétous valley: the Nordic area of ​​Issarbe (1450 m)

Snowshoes in Issarbe. Bruno Labe

Issarbe means “under the stars”. This intimate Nordic resort lives up to its name. Its snow-capped peaks touch the sky. Issarbe is the most unknown resort in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and therefore the least frequented. It enjoys an exceptional panorama of the Pic d’Anie massif. Eight trails totaling 31 kilometers welcome both cross-country skiers and snowshoe hikers, offering pretty, fairly easy walks thanks to fairly uneven terrain.

The snowshoe trail. The 9 km long route first takes the green Issarbe track then joins the ridges. At the top, a 360 ° panoramic view of the resort of La Pierre-Saint-Martin on the Béarn side and on the other side of the Basque country. In good weather, you can see the city of Pau in the distance.

The cross-country ski trail. The 2.2 km long Bénou track is very easy but it follows a magical route which is that of the road which connects St Engr Grâce to La Pierre-Saint-Martin. Beautiful in summer, this road is closed in winter due to snow. You will have the feeling of being alone in the world, and it will certainly make you want to come back in the summer to admire the green valleys where herds of sheep graze.

Prices. € 5.50 entry for snowshoe walkers and € 6 for cross-country skiers.

More informations. Phone. : 05 59 36 00 26 and communedelanneenbaretous.jimdofree.com/

Equipment rental on 06 77 93 44 84. Take-away sale at the Grand Tétras restaurant on 05 59 36 00 26 or 07 80 46 53 52.

Barétous valley: the Nordic area of ​​Braca (1450 m)

Dog sled ride in La Pierre-Saint-Martin. Astrid Taupin

Between the small town of Arette, infamous for having been 80% destroyed in 1967 by an earthquake and the alpine ski resort of La Pierre-Saint-Martin, there is a pretty Nordic area with an enchanting backdrop of pine forests and glades. A multitude of activities are offered apart from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing with dog sledding, fatbiking and laser rifle shooting. The station, labeled Green Station since 2016, is committed to ecological actions with reforestation and improvement of links between public transport. A varied area with 13 cross-country ski trails totaling 12 km and 9 km of marked and groomed paths for snowshoes and hikers.

The cross-country ski trail. That of the Beeches (3 km). Although it is blue, considered easy, it is quite rugged with climbs and descents and a few sharp turns that spice up the ride. It will delight fans of downhill skiing with its rugged landscape and the sensations it provides.

Snowshoeing. Soum de Soudet, this 4.5 km long groomed track plunges into the forest and climbs gently, which allows you to warm up. Half an hour later, it leads to a huge plateau discovering a breathtaking panorama over the Soule valley. You can see the Atlantic Ocean in very clear weather.

Prices. The package is € 8 per day, also a 4-hour package at € 5.50. Snowshoe and cross-country ski rental on site.

More informations. La Maison de la Pierre: 05 59 66 20 09 or n-py.com

Ossau Valley, Gourette (1500 m)

The brave will go around Lake Bézou, which adds an hour to the ride. Gourette Epsa

One morning in November 1903, a certain Henri Sallenave, originally from Pau, fixed at his feet the two long ash boards he had just received from the Manufacture in Saint-Etienne. It soars on the snowpack of the Plateau du Bézou where only a few roofs of shepherds’ huts and the mine workshops emerge. Skiing was born and will revolutionize the economy of the Pyrenees mountains. In the 1930s, Gourette became the first resort in the massif and the favorite vacation spot for wealthy Bordelais. A stone’s throw from the Col d’Aubisque, it is also a must-see for cyclists in summer. If Gourette is renowned for the quality of its alpine ski slopes, it is less so for its Nordic area. This winter, the resort has reinvented itself to welcome tourists by opening its area to snowshoes and ski touring.

The snowshoe trail. Newly inaugurated, this route runs along the Esclops trail to reach the Bézou plateau. A good hour and a half of walking while climbing in the fir trees with approximately 300 m of elevation gain. It is also a “geocaching” course (this activity which consists in using a GPS to find treasures) with the Terra Aventura application to download before leaving which spices up the ride. The climb will be more fun for children because they will have to find clues to (perhaps) gain the treasure at the top! The brave will go around Lake Bézou, which adds an hour to the walk, before going down either by the same route or by the green track of La Balade or the blue of Rhododendrons.

The cross-country ski trail. No cross-country skiing in Gourette but a fully marked and secure ski touring route that can be taken alone without being accompanied by a guide. It follows the same route as the snowshoe route above.

Prices. Free.

More informations. Tourist office on 05 59 05 12 17 and gourette.com. Consult the Covid-19 tab, very well done with the map of secure slopes for the season. Equipment rental in the resort.

Aspe Valley: the Nordic area of ​​Somport (1600 m)

Skating at Somport. Bruno Labe

In the heart of the Pyrenees park, this Franco-Spanish resort is the kingdom of cross-country skiers and walkers, but also of pilgrims who connect Santiago de Compostela to the summer season. In the past, the Somport pass was one of the most frequented passages for soldiers and merchants in the direction of the province of Aragon. Since 2003, a tunnel has made it possible to connect the two countries easily. The Somport area is the Nordic area of ​​the Western Pyrenees which offers the greatest variety of cross-country ski trails for all levels, from white for beginners to black for the more keen with an area totaling 34 km including 27 km on the French side – the Spanish side being closed this winter. Walkers will have plenty to do with 17 km of marked snowshoe trails including 4.5 of groomed trails.

The cross-country ski trail. The blue track of the Lake (2200 m long) has the advantage of offering a varied landscape with a first part in the forest and then a plateau on the ridges from which you take the time to admire the panorama. An hour and a half of quiet ascent, no more than 100 meters of elevation gain and a return downhill.

The snowshoe trail. The R3, the route of the isards. This walk is for walkers who have already snowshoeed because it is marked but not groomed, which means that after a snowfall, you have to make your mark. On the 9 km that this walk represents, it must be admitted, it is exhausting. But the effort is worth the effort because the route is largely in the forest and little frequented. Three quarters of the way, it joins a picnic area a stone’s throw from the blue cross-country ski run which allows cross-country skiers and walkers to eat at the tables provided.

Prices. € 5 for the ski pass for snowshoe trails and € 9.50 for cross-country skiers. Equipment rental on site.

More informations. Phone: 05.59.36.00.21. lesomport.com


Practical notebook

HOW TO GET TO THE MOUNTAINS IN BÉARN, BASQUE COUNTRY?

By train

Pau is the main TGV station which gives access to Haut Béarn. Allow two hours from Bordeaux or four and a half hours from Paris.

By plane

Pau airport is the closest with daily flights from Paris-Orly, Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Lyon.

By car

Access is via the A64.

  • For Iraty and Issarbe, exit n ° 4, Urt, Bidache, St Palais, Remember to take a pair of chains in the trunk.
  • For La Pierre-Saint-Martin and Le Somport, exit n ° 7 (Salies de Béarn, Mauléon, Oloron-Sainte-Marie).
  • For Gourette, exit E7 Zaragoza / Pau-Ouest, Lescar.

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