In the space of 200 years, the French forest has doubled in size to occupy 16.9 million hectares, or 31% of the national territory. A figure that places France at the foot of the podium of the most wooded countries in Europe behind Sweden, Finland and Spain but hides a great diversity of profiles between private forests (75% of the existing) and public forests managed by the ONF. Among them, 1300 forests are classified as state-owned and only fifteen are part of the "Exceptional Forest" network. Precious spaces, sentinels of the environment and natural playgrounds to rediscover in the four corners of France.
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Forest of Aigoual, between Gard and Lozère
The forest of Aigoual is 16,000 hectares of vegetation. NFB / Press photo
Between the Cévennes and the Causses, the 4th largest national forest in France is part of the Exceptional Forest network of the National Forestry Office (ONF). Overexploited by man in the nineteenth century (there were barely more than 2,000 hectares of forest left in 1850), it was replanted in 1860 to reach today more than 16,000 hectares of vegetation, composed of beech, fir, spruce, pine, larch and deciduous trees. Its summit, Mount Aigoual, at 1567 meters above sea level, hosts the last mountain meteorological observatory still in operation. Open to the public, it testifies to an extreme, foggy, windy and capricious climate that deserves the trip if only for the pleasure of looking for many birds (black woodpecker, finches, Tengmalm owl, eagle owl ...), bats and small mammals. To see on the massif: the arboretum L'Hort de Dieu and that of Puechagut, extended by an educational trail, pedestrian but accessible to people with reduced mobility, which leads to a belvedere overlooking the Causse du Larzac.
Forest of Haguenau, Alsace
The Gründel ponds, also called "green ponds". ZVARDON
Labeled Exceptional Forest since 2020, the undivided forest of Haguenau (half owned by the state, half by the municipality) extends over 13,400 hectares and can be explored on foot, by bike or on horseback along 200 km of marked trails. Among the most popular sites for families, that of the Gros Chêne refers to a remains of a tree struck in 1913 adjoining the chapel of Saint-Arbogast, named after the hermit who lived there before becoming the bishop of Strasbourg in the sixth century. In 1995, the German artist Gloria Friedmann installed her Monument of the Oak, a charred trunk on a bright red background denouncing the impact of man on the natural environment. Seven wooden stelae complete the installation. With about forty remarkable trees, including a Scots pine with a trunk more than one meter in diameter, the forest still houses an ornithological observatory (gray herons, birds of prey, coots ...), the Hundshof washhouse, a nineteenth-century heritage used until the early 1990s and the so-called Charbonniers area, where beech was once transformed into coal.
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Forest of Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne
Fontainebleau has several hundred climbing circuits. Adobe Stock
South of Paris, only 45 minutes by train, the forest of Fontainebleau is that of all superlatives. The first forest classified as an Exceptional Forest by the ONF ten years ago, it is also the largest forest massif on Île-de-France and the most visited in France. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Natura 2000 site that is home to 2,400 hectares of biological reserves out of the 22,000 hectares of the complex. Former hunting ground of the kings of France in residence at the castle of Fontainebleau, land of extractions of all kinds (wood, stones, sand ...), the estate is a "mosaic" forest in which we find a tremendous diversity of landscapes. "Paintings" that have always inspired artists, poets, writers and painters, including those of the Barbizon School.
Their artistic heritage is at the heart of the Nuits des Forêts 2023 programme. From June 9 to 11, about fifteen artists and enthusiasts will offer artistic installations, musical readings, concert, dance walk, night tour but also plant sculpture workshops, ornithological walk or citizen site of uprooting invasive plants. Another way to enjoy the 1,500 km of paths walked daily by walkers, horse riders, cyclists or climbers, Fontainebleau also has more than 200 climbing circuits.
Forest of Retz, between Aisne and Oise
The forest of Retz is also the first beech forest of France. NFB / Press photo
It is in a small corner of Hauts-de-France, a region that was Valois before being Picardy, that the forest of Retz is revealed. Famous since the sixteenth century when François I built the castle of Villers-Cotterêts to enjoy the hunting ground, the forest was also the playground of Alexandre Dumas senior, who describes it as follows in Le Pays Natal: "instead of being born in one of these stone quarries inhabited by an anthill of men ... God chose me, a nest in the greenery and moss under the high and cool shades of the most beautiful forest in France. The first beech forest in France, Retz stretches over 13,200 hectares and has 560 km of forest roads and wools, these straight and narrow roads traced in the forests, including the Laie des Pots and the "circuit de la salamander" which follows the old network of recovery and conveyance of water of the city. Imagined in the twelfth century it was used until 1937! Among its must-sees: a chestnut tree more than 200 years old, the legendary Clouise stone, a natural slide on which young girls looking for a husband slid or the observation tower of General Mangin (220 meters), erected on the occasion of the centenary of the First World War, the original tower used by the army having disappeared in 1924.
Forest of Sainte-Baume, in the Var département
At the time of the Romans, the forest of Sainte-Baume was considered sacred. NFB / Press photo
About thirty kilometers from Marseille but located on the only department of Var, where the rest of the massif overflows into the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Forest of Exception of Sainte-Baume, is singular in many ways. Its southern slope, the adret, displays a typically Mediterranean vegetation while its northern slope, the ubac, humid and carpeted with moss, is populated by alpine species. It is in this part, miraculously preserved from felling for centuries, that the old beech forest is located, which earned it the title of "relic forest". Already in Roman times, the place was considered sacred, inhabited by the goddesses Cybele or Artemis. Christian mythology also reports that Mary Magdalene, after evangelizing Provence, would have retired to a cave, now a high place of pilgrimage. So many legends that make the site a popular tourist destination in summer. To fully enjoy the company of centuries-old oaks, wildlife and the Huveaune springs (dried up during hot periods), forget the months of July and August to focus on spring or autumn.
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Forest of Tronçais, in the Allier department
The forest of Tronçais spreads over an area equivalent to that of the island of France. GIADA CONNESTARI
In the north-west of the Allier, practically in the heart of the country, the national forest of Tronçais spreads over nearly 11,000 hectares, roughly the area of Paris intramural. Labeled Exceptional Forest and considered one of the most beautiful oak forests in Europe, this spectacular cathedral of greenery was laid out by Colbert, more than three centuries ago, then by Joseph-Louis de Buffévent, master of Water and Forests, who imposed new methods of cutting and reforestation in 1832. Its action marks the beginning of modern forestry in Tronçais and still allows you to admire specimens planted at the time of Louis XIV or Louis-Philippe! These centuries-old patriarchs (Sentinelle, Jumeaux, Stebbing...) can be admired at the discretion of the "circuit of remarkable oaks" (pedestrian, 8 km) or the "return to the roots course". A 19 km bike route to discover five remarkable oaks staged in artistic installations financed by the Cognac house Martell... which uses the famous wood of Tronçais to make its barrels. We have come full circle. Between two legendary fountains, the site also offers cani-rando, mycological outings, initiations to fishing, water activities on the pond of Goule or Saint-Bonnet-Tronçais.
Forest of Val-Suzon, in Burgundy
The Val Suzon forest, rather small, nevertheless concentrates a great diversity of environments and species. NFB / Press photo
One of the most wooded regions of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté is home to nothing less than four Regional Natural Parks (Haut-Jura, Morvan, Ballon des Vosges, Doubs Horloger) to which must be added the National Forest Park. Created in 2019, it will be, from June 9 to 18, the scene of various walks, under the stars or to meet bats, piano evenings or puppet shows on the occasion of the Nuits des Forêts. A little further south, a few minutes from Dijon and the Burgundy wine route, is also hidden the forest of Val Suzon. Small Exceptional Forest of 2000 hectares, classified by the ONF since 2016, it organizes until June 18 a dedicated photo contest. Crossed by the winding Suzon, it concentrates a formidable diversity of environments (dry lawns, valleys, limestone cliffs, tufeux marshes) and species of trees (oaks, hornbeams, maples, beech, alisiers, cherry trees), flowers, birds, lichens. A sanctuary of biodiversity, to be crisscrossed along the "green lizard trail" (5 km) or the "golden button" (78 km!), which also houses the fountain of youth (sic) and the Châtelet d'Etaules, a former prehistoric site.
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Forest of Huelgoat, Brittany
With its stone blocks, the forest of Huelgoat is very mysterious. GUILLAUDEAU Donatienne - CRT Bretagne
It is in inland Brittany, or Argoat, in the region of the Monts d'Arrée, land of Celtic myths and legends that the mysterious forest of Huelgoat is discovered. With its 1170 hectares, it is the largest wooded area in Finistère. It is also one of the most fascinating, blocks of stones expelled from the bowels of the earth and dense vegetation intermingling to form a powerful and striking landscape of chaos. If Gargantua is often blamed for the ambient disorder, unhappy to have been received with a simple buckwheat porridge, science agrees on the rise to the surface and solidification of molten liquid masses. What does it matter after all because in this particular forest, populated almost equally by deciduous trees (oak, beech, birch, poplar, chestnut ...) and coniferous trees (douglas, spruces, firs, pines ...), the figure of Merlin the Enchanter, suspected of having hidden a treasure here, is never far away and one shudders with pleasure along the Silver River, near the Fairy Pond, of the Abyss or the Household of the Virgin. Do not miss either the camp of Artus, remains of an ancient fortified city of the second century BC.
Forests of Reunion Island
Reunion is 45% forested. NFB / Press photo
A small piece of France lost in the Pacific Ocean, Reunion Island is 45% covered by forests, for a total of 120,000 hectares, making it a lush territory of exploration much more than a transat destination. Incredible and fragile reserve of biodiversity, the island shelters on its land a thousand species of plants, thirty species of birds, hundreds of insects and endemic subjects such as the tamarind of the Highs, the cryptomeria of Japan, the coral wood or the wood of loquats. The papangue, a raptor and the tuit-tuit, passerine, both in danger of extinction, complete the list alongside the green gecko of Manapany. Among the largest massifs of the island, let us mention the coloraie du Volcan which includes the forest of Grand-Brûlé and that of Mare Longue, rare natural tropical forest installed on a lava flow; the forest of Hauts-sous-le-Vent and that of Bélouve for its tamarinaie and its path to admire the waterfall of the Trou de Fer. Forest of colored woods near the village of Les Makes, the forest of Bon Accueil is also a must, as is, in another style, the forest of L'Étang-Salé, kingdom of casuarina trees, walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
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Forest of Mimizan, in the Landes
The pine forest of the Mimizan forest. Adobe Stock
On one side the ocean and the sand, on the other the green of the maritime pines. Between the two, walkers and bathers. Welcome to Mimizan, in the Landes, between Bayonne and Bordeaux, on this Silver Coast cherished by surfers which also has prestigious forest massifs, including the Exceptional Forest of the Arcachon Bay, hard hit last summer by fires, and the national forest of Mimizan. Behind the dune, a first forest, protection left in free evolution, makes barrier to protect the pine forest from the onslaught of weather and the advance of the sand. Typical of the Landes landscapes, the technique has been in place since 1900 and can be perfectly understood from the Maillouèyre trail, in the heart of the biological reserve. The latter reveals all its secrets and those of its many inhabitants in a very complete and well-done NFB atlas to download here. Going further into the forest then cross, depending on the season, heather, broom, gorse, mosses and lichens, spruce, douglas, oaks, chestnuts but also debarked pines, flanked by hanging pots. Don't panic! Here you are in a demonstration area of gemmage, a technique already used in Gallo-Roman times which consists of notching the trunk to harvest the resin. Proof that collaboration between humans and forests is not new...