The Sentier Martel: Trial by Trail

The Main Show

Threading the Grand Canyon du Verdon is one of France's greatest hiking routes: the Sentier Martel, named in honor of the spelunker-explorer Edouard Martel (1859–1938), who first penetrated the Gorges in 1896 with a canvas canoe, an assistant, and two local trout fishermen. Despite repeated attempts, he didn't manage to negotiate the full canyon's length until 1905.

It was in the 1930s that the Touring Club blasted fire escape–style ladders and catwalks along the precarious rock walls, and drilled two tunnels through solid stone. They added occasional rope railings and steps, buttressed the trail with rock supports, and one of France's most famous hikes was born.

Martel Musts

It’s best to depart from the Châlet de la Maline (the Refuge des Malines), striking out on the long descent and then working your way back up gradually to the Couloir du Samson and the Point Sublime (D952). Park your car past the Refuge and canteen, 8 km (5 miles) from La Palud-sur-Verdon, and walk 300 yards to the starting point of your descent, just left of the Refuge des Malines. Follow the white and red markings along the way (an X indicates the wrong path; an arrow indicates a change in direction).

You’ll encounter all types of terrain—pebbles, stone, muddy soil—and sliding down rocks on your buttocks is not out of the question, especially when the alternative is tumbling down, down, and down. Forget about setting a world record and stop to enjoy lunch along the way to take your eyes off your feet and appreciate the magnificence of the surroundings. Once you exit the tunnels and cross a small bridge, you’ll reach the Parking du Couloir Samson but even this is not the final destination. Cross the pavement and continue left to finish the final ascent to Point Sublime. Markings here are not as visible but paths are solid soil and you will eventually make it to the top, a rugged terrain where the less daring stop to simply take photos. Have the €3 ready for a nice cold beverage at the only canteen.

Words of Warning

As the Verdon is regulated by two dams, you'll often be confronted with not-so-comforting signs showing a human stick figure running for his life before a tidal wave. This is to warn you to stick to the trail and not linger on the beachlike riverbed when the water is low, as it could rise suddenly at any moment. Remember a flashlight with good batteries; you won't be able to grope your way through the tunnels without it. And be prepared for wet feet—ankle-deep puddles are unavoidable. Dial 112 if you have an emergency.

Where to Park?

A taxi pickup at Point Sublime needs to be arranged the previous night for the 14-km (9-mile) return ride, based on a rough estimate of your own abilities; or leave a car at the final destination and ask a taxi (in advance) to carry you to your takeoff point. The best taxis are Taxi Verdun (06–68–18–13–13) and Taxi de l'Etoile (06–07–37–33–78). Navettes run daily only in July and August and on weekends April–June and September.

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