The Chartreuse nature reserve, a well-preserved jewel of the French Prealps

[February 2022] – The Chartreuse mountain range and the Vercors plateau are at the heart of the French Prealps. Grenoble, the ‘capital of the French Alps’, lies nestled between these features and the Belledonne chain, the first of the Alps proper to its East. Hiking days and weekends exploring these two beautiful natural treasure troves have punctuated my 15 years of living in this city…

The Massif de la Chartreuse (labelled Exceptional Forest, Forêt d’Exception®) encloses ancient forests and villages in picturesque valleys, with attractive peaks (max altitude: 2082 m) and crests surrounding them (see photo by Thomas Capelli above): each has its own character and tourist attractions, linked to protected biodiversity niches that have also been identified with three Natura 2000 sites, representing various ecological habitats, from marshes to alpine prairies and rocky escarpments. Until the 19th century this was a secluded enclave of forests and meadows with big farms living as self-contained medieval style communities.
The massif owes its name to the fact that in the Middle Ages it was a hotspot for the birth and diffusion of religious Hermitages, in the context of the monastic reform movement launched in the French kingdom. The remarkable monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, founded by Bruno, a German christian later known as Saint Bruno le Chartreux, the founder of the order of the Chartreux (which then expanded worldwide with 206 monasteries), lies in fact within the ancient Grande Chartreuse forest (see photo by Silvana Olivo below), which belonged to the church for centuries. The impressive site is still inhabited by monks. The place has been celebrated in a 2006 film by Philip Gröning, Le Grand Silence, which portrays their lifestyle. It is still an agro-pastoral life, based on silent religious contemplation while producing their own food and the famous Chartreuse digestive bitter made with herbs (like all herb digestives you ‘either love it or hate it’… I find it very pleasant and it is locally used to flavour ice cream too – but beware – it is strong!). The place makes for a very inspiring visit not only for the perfectly preserved historical architecture and monks’ residential quarters (and the ancient paintings depicting important places of the religious movement), but also for the peaceful serenity the context emanates. (To plan a visit see here).

The Massif de la Chartreuse is in itself a regional park declared in 1995: the Parc Naturel Regional de la Chartreuse, covering 76700 hectares between the departments of Isere and Savoie, and one of the 58 regional parks of France. The three Natura 2000 areas include the Charmant Som, a peak offering stunning 360° views, whose slopes are ancient pasture fields still in use today (when you visit make sure to taste the locally made cheese and watch it being produced on the spot); the Herretang marshes, a moorland utilised by locals until recently, where some very rare species of insects and plants live; and the magnificent national nature reserve of Hauts de Chartreuse, declared within the regional park for the high value deriving from over 800 species of fauna and 700 of flora, including various endangered species (especially orchids, butterflies and birds – see Rare Species, coming up!), unique to these habitats of steep cliffs, pine forests, high grazing areas – and caves where bears thrived in ancient times (see photo by Jérémie Rossetto below: White-throated dipper). The inaccessible calcareous crest running along the eastern side of the Chartreuse mountain complex, overlooking the Gresivaudan valley on its outer side, is only reachable on foot. It took me two days to walk it, camping under the stars in the high flats of ancient pastures among the cows, from la Dent de Crolles – the most prominent peak resembling a molar tooth, which I had climbed on another occasion as it takes a full day in itself – to the Mont Grenier at its northern end; the views from up there over this region of France and embracing the Alps, including Mont Blanc, are entirely worth it.

Pine forests (spruce 40%, epicea 24%, followed by beech 20%) are the dominant feature of the Chartreuse, occupying two thirds of its territory. The Grande Chartreuse is in fact the biggest state forest in the Alps and for this reason, The Wild Charm Factory has designed its first sterling silver charm of The Wild Charm collection in the shape of a pinecone to celebrate this park (photo: Valeria De Dominicis).

The forestry sector is an important economic factor locally; alongside the tourism aspect, thanks to the 1300 km network of paths created to discover this magnificent area, choosing also amongst the many adventure sports available. It is important to adhere to the rules set by the nature guides and park administration in order to respect the sensitive areas where rare species live. After all, over 2000 species representing one third of the flora species of France live here, as well as all the species of ungulates found in the country…

Suggested experiences :

  • Brown trout fishing along the Guiers Mort: stretching from Saint Bruno bridge to Grand Logis bridge, 3,4 km long (200 m. difference in altitude) but count one day. Max 6 fishermen per day allowed.
  • Easy but fascinating path: Sentier Randocroquis, ‘hike and sketch’. It’s the first such mountain path designed so that you can discover the artist in you while you explore nature. Starting from 11 years old. 6 km long (300 m. difference in altitude) but count a whole day if you want to stop at every suggested spot and draw what you see!
  • Guided night exploration of the forest, meeting the nocturnal fauna, with an expert of the National Office of Forests, to be booked in advance. Minimum 8 people, all ages accepted, from 20 to 40 Euro (depending if you want to include a meal and aperitive at a local place).
  • Night snowshoe trail: same as above but adding snowshoe rental for night exploration in winter.
  • A collection of ‘ten easy adventures’ to try in winter in the Chartreuse.