photo of scarce swallowtail butterfly

Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

Why visit . . . .

  • spectacular scenery with great hiking routes
  • over 1400 species of plants
  • Mammals such as marmot, chamois, ibex, mouflon, deer, roe deer and wild boar.
  • Mountain birds, the rock ptarmigan and black grouse are among the most emblematic. Raptors such as the short-toed (snake) eagle, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and griffon vultures. Nutcrackers and wallcreepers number amongst the smaller birds.
  • 150 species of butterfly

About the Parc naturel regional du Queyras

Air France pilots call the Queyras ‘le trou bleu’ – the blue hole. While the rest of the Alps are frequently blanketed by cloud, Queyras boasts up to 300 days of sunshine a year – all thanks to the shelter it gets from the Écrins to the west.

But on June 18th, it was just grey, wet and miserable. So bad, that it seems I took only one photo! (the other photos here were taken in the French Alps, just not in Queyras)

Still, it was filled with sounds of yellowhammer, willow tit, coal tit, bullfinch, garden warbler and rock bunting. Grey rocks with white patches of snow towered above, green grass filled the valley bottom below, and conifers clothed the slopes in between.

Queyras is located in the Hautes-Alpes department of south-east France. It lies south-east of Grenoble, to the north of the Mercantour National Park, and to the south of the Vanoise National Park. Its eastern border coincides with the Italian border and it is possible to walk between the two countries in several places.

Covering some 65,000 hectares, Queyras consists of an ancient glacial valley with steep sides and a mountain stream. It is ringed by seven 3000m peaks. There are dense pine forests and higher up, hay-meadows on the beds of former lakes. Higher still there are extensive peatbogs and the park has some impressive cliff-faces. Not surprisingly, it is home to a great variety of flora and fauna – including chamois, marmots, hares and partridges. Many of the typical upland and forest birds of Central Europe can be found within the park

A Parc Naturel Regional is the equivalent of a British National Park. Basically, it is a region protected for its landscape value and its traditions and culture, with development and commercial exploitation – apart from tourism – being restricted. Any natural history interest is secondary, and hunting is usually permitted.

The main part of the Parc is a mountainous block with one road going right through it and a few other dead-end roads leading towards other corners. One of our books described it as a countryside of larch and spruce forest, where water from lakes pour out over waterfalls into mountain streams. From the road all we could see were steep slopes clothed in conifers under a ceiling of grey cloud, making the valley seem rather claustrophobic.

Saxifraga aizoides – one of many low-growing Alpine plants

It was a Sunday and the shops were closed, so we were unable to obtain a map showing the footpaths, or other information.  We hadn’t actually heard of the place until we noticed it on the road map and even now, with the internet, there doesn’t seem to be much information available, not in English anyway. 

We walked along the road, and turned a short way down each of several obvious paths – wary of wandering too far in an unknown direction. Nevertheless, we found a handful of usual woodland species jay, Bonelli’s warbler, crested and coal tits, a green woodpecker etc. A few butterflies flitted in sunny glades – a small fritillary, red admiral, scarce swallowtail and common blue. Flowers under the pines included box-leaved and common milkworts, pansy, and some legumes.

The most northerly point of the road through the Parc was the Col d’Izoard. Above the treeline the rocks were worn into weird shapes with scree slopes between. We could hear marmots calling across the valley. A souvenir kiosk marked the highest point. It began to rain a few minutes after we arrived there, but Jim had already gone looking for eagles. No luck with the raptors, but snow finch, fieldfare, black redstart, northern wheatear, whinchat, white wagtail and, at last, Alpine accentor, feeding in a patch of grass at the base of a cliff.

Beyond the pass the road descended quickly through open conifer forest with grass and alpine anemones on the floor. The rain continued and we didn’t hang around to look at the other flowers. Below the trees were alpine pastures grazed by Simmental and Swiss brown type cows.

Three grey-green finches fed by the side of the road and showed off pale rumps as they flew. They didn’t go far, and then came back to the roadside green crown, grey nape and neck, green on wings etc, all pointed to citril finch. They fed amongst the wildflowers, favouring the dandelion seedheads.


Best places for seeing plants and butterflies

Wandering around anywhere in the park seems to produce a good number of butterflies and alpine plants, but there do seem to be a few particular places worth a special mention.

The Ristolas Mont Viso National Nature Reserve is located at the South-East corner of the park. It extends over 2,295 hectares, from 1,800 m to 3,214 m above sea level so provides a huge elevation range and is wonderful for butterflies and alpine plants from mid-June to mid-August. You’ll find it at the end of the D947 road which connects Guillestre to Ristolas.

Belvédère du Viso, where a broad track goes through extensive meadows. On the track itself mud-puddling can be excellent with many Blues and Skippers easy to observe and to photograph. Mud-puddling? That means soft damp often clay soil where butterflies can congregate as they drink in the minerals they need for survival and reproduction, like the green-veined whites in the photo below..

Also near Ristolas, the Lac Egorgéou is a group of lakes at 2,400-2,500m famous for scarce plants and uncommon alpine butterflies as well as the high mountain scenery

Col d’Agniel: on the border with Italy, one of the highest road in the Alps (2,744 m) and with good access to high mountain butterflies and flowers. At 2,744 m, it is the third highest paved road pass of the Alps, after Stelvio Pass and Col de l’Iseran, and popular with cyclist (sometimes part of the Tour de France route).

Abriès is a village and ski resort (so good for accommodation) in the north-east corner of the park, good for plants and butterflies in meadows in the valley and a dry south-facing slope just above.

There is an especially fascinating creature here – the Lanza Salamander which lives only in this part of the Alps. It holds the record for longevity among amphibians: more than 20 years. They need this long life as the females carry their embryos for up to 4 years of gestation – not a true pregnancy, as there is no placenta, but the eggs 2-4 of them, develop inside the female. I haven’t seen any, but the best time to look for them is said to be at night during the spring mating season.


So there you have it

I enjoyed my time in the park, despite the grey weather. There were plenty of wildflowers and birds to keep me occupied, as well as a good few marmots. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t see many butterflies as trying to identify them all would be just too time-consuming.

What I’d look for next time – better weather, so the butterflies will be flying! But, remember that those 300 hot clear summer days also mean clear cold summer nights, even at elevations lower than other areas of the Alps.


Resources

The official website is in French, but can be automatically translated. Website: Parc Naturel Regionel de Queyras

For an idea of the scenery: Video of a journey through the park

For information about places to eat, stay, and visit: Queyras tourism website

The absence of glaciers makes the Queyras ideal hill-walking country as it has several high mountain summits accessible to the ordinary walker and scrambler. Another Queyras tourism website

For a challenging organised hike: For a challenging hike

For those are unfamiliar with travel in France: France travel information


How to get there

Public transport – nearest airport is at Nice on the south coast, and a train will get you half the way to the park. Coming from any other direction isn’t much better, so really, you need a car.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information. The comments are from the publisher’s ‘blurb’

The stunning natural beauty of the Alps makes this range of mountains one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. This book helps visitors to gain a deeper appreciation of that beauty, by providing a guide to the geology and flowers of the Alps.

Written in straightforward language for those with little or no prior knowledge and illustrated by stunning photographs, maps and diagrams, this book reveals how different rocks were created and shaped into the present-day mountains by glaciers and other agents. The detailed guide to 344 stunning Alpine flowers and plants can be used for on-the-spot identification and is complemented by chapters describing just how these flowers survive in their harsh mountain environment. Finally, what better way to make use of your new-found understanding than to explore the Alps with the 23 suggested walks, which are located in some of the best geological and botanical spots of the Alps.

book cover - alpine flora

The vegetation of the French Alps has been studied for several decades and is often presented in technical publications or floras that feature only a small number of images. Walkers and botanist are often helpless in the correct identification of plants in situ. This is the one of the most comprehensive field guides with 1175 colour photos, covering most of the species in the Alps. The author has endeavored to describe each plant succinctly, using only botanical characteristics visible on the ground for a rapid effective and scientifically serious determination.

It is written in French, but that isn’t a problem for the keen botanist

Graceful flight, delicate colours, a fascinating development cycle: butterflies captivate because of their great diversity and can be easily observed in the mountains. Aimed at both expert and beginner enthusiasts, this guide helps Alpine mountain walkers to easily identify these fragile insects which are so threatened today. Each species entry groups together the main characteristics, the distribution area and the periods of the different stages of development (laying, caterpillars, chrysalis, butterfly). Photographs illustrate morphological details or different phases of the life cycle.

Language: French, with vernacular names in English, French, German, and Italian – but don’t let that put you off.

– Descriptions, illustrations and distribution maps to identify butterflies and know where and when to observe them

– For each species, the scientific name and the vernacular name in 4 languages (French, English, German, Italian)

– A guide covering all the Alps: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland.

Buying through these links earns me a small commission which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.


Picture for pinterest

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2 thoughts on “Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

  1. Beautiful post! I’ve been to France so many times and never knew about this park. Love the resources you shared as well, and very cool about the “trou bleu” fact! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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