Calanques National Park: What to See and Do (Hiking, Diving, and Nature)

Calanques National Park (in French: Parc National des Calanques) is a prominent natural area in France, located in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, within the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. This park was officially inaugurated on April 18, 2012, by a decree from the Prime Minister, marking a milestone as one of the first national parks in Europe located near urban areas. This "peri-urban" character makes it unique, offering an unprecedented natural escape almost at the city’s doorstep.

The park encompasses both terrestrial and maritime zones, extending across three emblematic cities: Marseille, Cassis, and La Ciotat. This design allows visitors to experience a wide range of ecosystems, from towering cliffs to crystal-clear waters, lush forests, and rich biodiversity both on land and sea.

With an area of 8,300 hectares on land and 43,500 hectares over the sea, Calanques National Park is a vast domain that protects and preserves the natural beauty of this area. It is an ideal place for nature lovers, offering activities such as hiking, diving, and simply contemplating landscapes where nature showcases its mighty diversity and beauty.

Information about Calanques National Park

Calanques National Park

History of the national park

The history of Calanques National Park spans eons, beginning more than 100 million years ago. During the Secondary Era, specifically in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, the sedimentary rocks that make up the Calanques massif were formed. This process originated from chemical transformations and the accumulation of skeletons and shells of marine microorganisms on the bottom of a tropical sea, creating sediment layers that reached several hundred meters in thickness.

Around 60 million years ago, the collision and overlap of the African and European tectonic plates caused these rocks to emerge. Over millions of years, erosion and climatic variations gradually shaped the massif’s landscape. During warm periods, a karst network developed through water erosion, creating caves, avens (vertical pits in the karst), and underground rivers. The glaciation periods in the Quaternary, which began approximately 1.8 million years ago, caused a notable drop in sea levels, descending up to 130 meters.

More than 20,000 years ago, during the coldest period of the Quaternary, the sea was located between 15 and 20 km from the current coasts of Marseille. The landscape of the Calanques, with Mount Puget rising up to 500 meters, was dominated by dense steppe vegetation, juniper, and Scots pine, and was home to a diverse fauna including horses, bison, and aurochs. Despite the proximity to the sea, it is surprising to imagine that seals, penguins, and other marine animals could have colonized this environment. The cave paintings found in the Cosquer cave, now submerged 40 meters below sea level near Cap Morgiou, are a fascinating testimony to this remote past and the early human presence in the Provence region.

Over time, the sea level rose, flooding the coasts and caves, and erosion continued sculpting the limestone cliffs and deep, narrow valleys of the coastline. This process has resulted in the impressive landscapes that characterize Calanques National Park today, with its distinctive beauty and unique configuration.

The Mission of the protected area of Calanques

Calanques National Park is managed under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment, playing a crucial role in transmitting values and conserving species. Its primary mission is to balance the protection of the natural environment with the reception of a wide range of visitors, while ensuring sustainable development and a positive influence on the territory.

Access regulations

Planning a visit to the Calanques is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. The park is open from October 1 to May 31, except in exceptional cases of closure. However, during the period from June 1 to September 30, access to the massif is subject to special regulations due to the high risk of forest fires. Before visiting, it is advisable to check the current conditions by consulting the Prefecture of Bouches-du-Rhône or calling 0811 20 13 13, or using the "Mes Calanques" app. This system uses a color code to indicate permissions for being in the massif: green for authorized circulation, yellow for restrictions, and red for prohibited access.

Regarding access roads to the Calanques, additional regulations should be noted. The roads of La Gardiole and Cap Croisette are closed to motorized traffic throughout the year. On the other hand, the roads of Morgiou, Sormiou, and Callelongue have specific restrictions. These roads are closed every weekend and public holiday from April 18 to May 26, and every day from June 1 to September 30. However, pedestrian access to these roads remains permitted under certain conditions.

Maritime Regulations

Regulation at sea is essential to protect the fragile balance of this natural environment. Both recreational navigation and passenger maritime transport are subject to strict regulations. For passenger transport, prior authorization from Calanques National Park is required.

Since May 1, 2020, only motor vessels duly authorized by the National Park can be used by professional rental companies to transport visitors within the park. To identify authorized vessels, there are different signals:

  • An orange sticker: This signal indicates that passenger boats are authorized to navigate the calanques. It is important to note that the absence of this signage may indicate an illegal service and could result in legal actions.
  • The Esprit Parc national flag and blue sticker: These signals certify the quality of service offered by authorized companies.
  • A green sticker: This signal identifies the companies authorized to rent motorboats within the park.

Additionally, speed restrictions apply, with a limit of 5 knots within a 300-meter strip from the shore. Restricted areas are marked by yellow buoys, and anchoring is prohibited in certain areas to protect the marine ecosystem.

How to get to Calanques National Park

To reach Calanques National Park from Marseille, there are several transport options:

  1. By train: You can arrive at the SNCF station Marseille Saint-Charles using services like Eurostar, Thalys, TGV Lyria, TGV, and regional TER trains.
  2. By coach: Marseille Saint-Charles bus station offers services from companies like Ouibus, Flixbus, Eurolines, and Lignes Express Régionales Sud-Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
  3. By car: You can arrive in your own vehicle using highways such as the A7, A51, A55, and A50.
  4. By plane: If you arrive by plane, there is a direct shuttle service offering daily transfers between the airport and Marseille Saint-Charles bus station.
  5. By boat: You can also arrive via the 24 marinas in the Marseille-Provence area, which offer temporary moorings and various services.

Public Transportation

Once in Marseille, you can leave your car and use public transportation, such as local buses, to reach Calanques National Park and avoid parking issues at the park entrance.

Destination Bus No. Time
Monte Rosa 19 (direction Madrague de Montredon to terminal) / 583 in the afternoon Approx. 5 minutes
Goudes and Callelongue 20 (direction Callelongue) Between a few seconds and a few minutes
Marseilleveyre Cove 20 (direction Callelongue to terminal) Approx. 45 minutes
Pastré and the top of Marseilleveyre 45 (direction Marseilleveyre to terminal) or 19 (direction Madrague de Montredon, Montredon Pastré stop) Approx. 5 minutes from Pastré park and about 1 hour from the top of Marseilleveyre
Sormiou Cove 23 (direction Beauvallon, La Cayolle stop) or 22 (direction Les Baumettes to terminal) Approx. 45 minutes
Morgiou Cove 22 (direction Les Baumettes to terminal) Approx. 1 hour
Sugiton Cove B1 (direction Campus de Luminy, Luminy – PN des Calanques stop) / 521 in the afternoon Approx. 45 minutes
Saint-Cyr Ridge 17 (direction Parc des Bruyères to terminal) / 18 (direction Le Bosquet to terminal) / 50 (direction Les Escourtines, La Barasse stop or to terminal) Less than 1 hour to reach the valleys
En-Vau Lookout M08 (direction Cassis, Carpiagne Gineste stop) Approx. 2 hours

By Maritime Transport

Throughout the year, you can take the Frioul-If Express from the Old Port to the Frioul archipelago. In summer, the RTM maritime shuttle takes you from the Vieux-Port and Pointe Rouge to the port of Les Goudes.

By Bicycle

You can reach all entrances to Calanques National Park by bicycle. Some routes have bike lanes, such as the route from Castellane square to the Luminy campus (with bike racks). You can also rent a bicycle from the self-service system of the city of Marseille to reach the southernmost point from the Pastré stations.

By Car

Driving to the Calanques is not recommended due to scarce parking and lack of surveillance. Take usual precautions: lock your car and do not leave valuables visible inside. Roads leading to the villages of Sormiou, Morgiou, and Callelongue are closed to motor vehicles when the weather improves and throughout the summer. The trails of La Gardiole and Cap Croisette are permanently closed.

Map with Main Access Routes

Map of Calanques National Park

Fauna of Calanques

The diversity of fauna in Calanques National Park is impressive, with 140 protected terrestrial animal and plant species, as well as 60 marine species. During a hike through the creeks, visitors have the chance to encounter various birds, insects, and other animals.

Ocellated lizard (Timon lepidus)

In the skies, you can spot more than 80 species of birds, including birds of prey such as the Bonelli’s eagle, peregrine falcons, and kestrels, gracefully soaring over the cliffs. Additionally, you might observe puffins and Mediterranean seabirds, adding a touch of color and life to the landscape.

Peregrine falcon in Calanques

We must not forget the creatures inhabiting the waters, such as crabs, lobsters, and sea cicadas, as well as endangered species like the dusky grouper, brown meagre (also known as sea crow), dentex, and even the seahorse. Although rare, turtles and dolphins occasionally pass through the creeks, though their sightings have become more infrequent nowadays.

In the past, the park was home to monk seals, but unfortunately, this species is now extinct.

As for reptiles, the mighty ocellated lizard stands out, recognized as the largest lizard in Europe with its impressive 80 centimeters in length, and the small but fascinating nocturnal gecko on the Riou archipelago.

Being located next to the Mediterranean Sea, it shares some animal species with the Pyrenees National Park, although the distance between the two parks is more than 550 kilometers.

Flora of Calanques

The landscape is enriched with a substantial plant diversity, with more than 900 species recorded in the protected area of Calanques, among which 38 are under protection and 43 are considered notable.

Posidonia oceanica in Calanques National Park, France

Along the cliffs grows the hardy Lobel’s broom, a spiny shrub that withstands the winds thanks to its peculiar shape. Additionally, the Aleppo pine, rosemary, thyme, and Montpellier cistus are some of the species that adorn our calanques.

In the coastal waters, the park harbors more than 60 marine heritage species, from various fish like the white seabream, wrasses, and the salema, to the impressive yellow gorgonians. And if you are lucky, you might spot dolphins and fin whales in the distance, the second largest marine animal in the world after the blue whale.

What to See and Do in Calanques National Park

Calanque de Sormiou Beach

Calanque de Sormiou beach, with its 60 meters in length and composed of pebbles and sand, stands out as one of the few broad beaches within the Calanques environment. This feature makes it a point of attraction for a wide variety of visitors, from families to sports enthusiasts. Unlike the picturesque coves and small beaches known as "plagettes" by locals, Calanque de Sormiou offers a more spacious and versatile area.

Calanque de Sormiou

The crystal-clear waters of the calanques are often cooler than those of the city’s large sandy beaches, partly due to an underground freshwater spring that flows into the calanques. This coolness adds an extra appeal for those seeking relief from the summer heat.

At the far end of the beach, the UCPA center adds vitality to the area with a wide range of sports activities, from kayaking and hiking to climbing. Additionally, facing the beach, there is the small marina of Calanque de Sormiou, completing the charm of this picturesque coastal spot.

To access Calanque de Sormiou beach, you must first pass through the picturesque neighborhood of Baumettes, whose name in Provençal "baumettes" means "little caves". From there, you take a narrow and winding road on the hillside leading to the port of the same name. Once at the port, a trail descends to the cove, a journey that usually takes about 45 minutes on foot, but I assure you the wait is worth it for the magnificent panorama that awaits you.

In the distant crevices of the hills, you can see how the blue sea sparkles on the horizon. The white limestone of the massif intertwines with the green of the garrigue and pines, creating a true three-color palette that will take your breath away. The narrow road that winds downhill may seem almost hidden from view, so be careful with vehicles going the opposite direction, as there is limited space for overtaking.

After a long descent, you will finally arrive at the cove. If you have come by car, there is a paid parking lot available. This parking lot is a remnant of the private property that once belonged to Countess Marie de Buret, also known as Marie de Sormiou, a woman of letters who played a prominent role in the Félibrige movement in the late 19th century.

Marseilleveyre Massif

At the heart of the Calanques, the Marseilleveyre Massif is steeped in history and offers impressive natural diversity. Leaving Marseille via the Corniche, you can see the Plateau of the Dead Man and the peaks of Marseilleveyre and Béouveyre. This massif stretches over about ten kilometers, dominating the coastline from Cap Croisette to Calanque de Sugiton, marking the boundary between the city and the wild nature.

Marseilleveyre Massif

The term "veyre" in the names Marseilleveyre and Béouveyre comes from the Provençal verb "ver", reflecting the impressive panoramic view these peaks offer over the city, the surrounding landscape, the islands, and the sea.

The varied relief of the massif houses geological formations, such as the Plateau of the Dead Man and its karst surfaces, as well as arches and caves that attract hikers, trail runners, and climbers.

Historically, the massif was home to flocks of sheep and goats, whose breeding provided vital resources. Additionally, the area housed ancient industrial sites linked to soda and lead production, with tunnels and chimneys still visible in the area.

Military remains are abundant in the massif and the Calanques, reflecting its strategic importance over the centuries. From fortifications built during the reigns of Louis XIV and Napoleon to batteries and bunkers used during World War II, the landscape is dotted with ruins that tell the military history of the region.

Frioul Islands

Off the coast of Marseille lies the Frioul archipelago, composed of four islands: Pomègues, Ratonneau, Tiboulen, and If. The arid climate of these islands has fostered the development of rare and even endemic flora, while a diverse fauna, including seabirds like the yellow-legged gull, also finds its home in these lands, known as "gabian" by locals.

Frioul Islands, France

Since 1971, these islands have been owned by the city of Marseille. The village of Port-Frioul has developed on them, along with a port that has 700 berths for boats. Additionally, numerous businesses, such as restaurants and boutiques, have been established, attracting visitors and residents alike. The fish farm on Pomègues island is dedicated to breeding sea bass and bream, adding an economic dimension to life on these picturesque islands.

Le Château d’If

In 1516, during a visit to Marseille, King Francis I conceived the idea of building a fortress on the island of If. This fortress quickly became a prison due to its isolation, making it extremely difficult for prisoners to escape. One of the most notorious inmates held there was José Custodio Faria, who became famous thanks to Alexandre Dumas and his novel "The Count of Monte Cristo".

Le Château d’If

Le Château d’If is filled with small stories, including the legendary escape of Edmond Dantès, who is said to have dug a hole in the wall. Over time, the fortress was used by the insurgents of 1848 and the Communards of 1871, before losing its function as a prison and opening to the public in 1890.

Sugiton Trail

The Sugiton Trail is a natural path that can be walked in about two and a half hours, approximately 1 hour to go down and a little more to come back up.

Sugiton Trail

For the first half-hour, the trail is shared until you reach the Col de Sugiton esplanade. From here, you will have two options to access the calanque.

  • The first option is an easy, winding path to the left, used by fire trucks, although it is a bit longer.
  • The second option, marked by three red dots, is slightly to the right and is steeper and rockier. Once you see the sea after a bend, look for the trail marked by the three red dots on your right. This is the path to the calanque.

The Calanque de Sugiton is popular with hikers and climbers alike. The pebble beaches can be crowded early, so it’s best to start early if you want to enjoy them. Additionally, Sugiton offers impressive climbing routes that attract enthusiasts from all over.

To reach Calanque de Sugiton, you can leave your car in the parking lot in front of the Luminy university campus or take the B1 bus from Avenue du Prado towards Luminy and get off at the Luminy PN des Calanques stop.

Calanque de Port-Miou

The Calanque de Port-Miou is the closest to Cassis, offering easy access by foot or car. Just a 30-minute walk from the town center along the GR58-51 trail, or by car, parking at the Presqu’île parking lot (paid in summer, 10 euros per day). This calanque is perfect for family outings, with its easy access and beautiful views.

Calanque de Port-Miou

From the tip of the peninsula, you’ll enjoy an impressive view of Cap Canaille and its ochre cliffs, as well as the wild mouth of the calanque. It’s a view that combines the blue tones of the sea, the white of the limestone, and the green of the pine forest.

If you want to explore further, its neighbor, Port Pin, is just 2 km away and a 25-minute walk along the coast, making it easy to move from one calanque to another. Additionally, if you’re willing to put in a bit more effort, you can reach the spectacular Calanque d’En-Vau in about an hour’s walk covering 3.6 km.

Port-Miou has been a natural refuge for boats since ancient times and became a loading port near Cassis in the 19th century. A quarry was established at that time to extract stone used in the manufacture of caustic soda. Today, the calanque hosts a marina with about 550 boats, a yacht club, and a harbor master’s office. The main building, known as "le château," now houses the harbor master’s office, the Calanques National Park, and several ecological associations.

It is important to note that access to Port-Miou is regulated due to its location within Calanques National Park and may be closed during the summer months due to the risk of fire.

Monte Puget

Monte Puget, located in the Calanques massif, rises to 563 meters in altitude, making it the fourth highest peak in the area. From its summit, hikers are greeted with an unparalleled panoramic view that stretches from the city of Marseille to the vast blue of the sea, the Frioul Islands, and the Riou archipelago, as well as the imposing Cap Canaille in Cassis and the Garlaban massif near Aubagne.

This mountain, visible from everywhere, dominates the Luminy real estate and university complex that stretches at its feet. The origin of its name, Provençal for "podium," is fitting, as its shape resembles a podium rising above the land. Its main rock is a white cretaceous limestone of Urgonian age, easily distinguishable by its stratified layers.

Although it shares its name with the sculptor Pierre Puget, known as "the Michelangelo of France," there is no real connection between this prominent geographical feature and the Marseille artist.

Monte Puget

The Calanque de Marseilleveyre, just a step away from the hustle and bustle of Marseille, transports us to an impressive mineral landscape where the city seems so close yet so far away at the same time. This is the second cove when following the coast from the Old Port. From the port of Callelongue, it only takes 45 minutes on foot following the marked GR 98 trail to enter this paradisiacal corner, a true balcony over the sea.

Despite being larger than some of its neighboring coves, the pebble and sand beach of Marseilleveyre remains very popular due to its proximity to the city and its easy access. In this wild cove on the outskirts of France’s second-largest city, there are about ten cabins without water or electricity, which are real gems. This contrast between rustic living and the comforts of urban life is part of Marseilleveyre’s charm. Bathed in sunlight and often caressed by the Mistral wind, the cove can be filled with tourists or completely deserted, offering a unique experience with each visit.

From the cove, you can enjoy an impressive view of the Riou archipelago and Cap Canaille in the distance. The return to civilization is simple via the Grand Malvallon, completing an unforgettable experience in the Calanque de Marseilleveyre.

Calanque de Callelongue

The Calanque de Callelongue, in the 8th district of Marseille, is a stunning natural space that opens at the end of a winding road through a landscape of white limestone, bathed in the intense southern light and dominated by the vast sea. This place, whose name means "long cove" in Provençal, offers a sense of freedom and a unique atmosphere that changes with the seasons.

Despite not having a sandy beach, the cove is a popular spot to enjoy the clear water and surrounding rocks. Boats skillfully dock among the rocks, while children and bathers enjoy the sea. The area also attracts pétanque players and hikers who venture along the GR98 trail, a coastal path offering impressive views and an unforgettable experience, though it requires proper footwear due to the rugged terrain.

At the top of the cove is the old semaphore, now restored and converted into a viewpoint that allows for a comprehensive view of the Calanques. There is also a legendary restaurant, La Grotte, known for its pizzas and fresh fish.

Avenue des Pébrons is Callelongue’s only crossroad, bordered by sheds and Mediterranean vegetation that offers a colorful display. Beyond, the landscape becomes wilder, with towering rocky walls and the chirping of cicadas. Here, visitors can climb to the Pas de la Demi-Lune for a panoramic view of the port of Marseille and the surrounding islands.

Another option is to follow the Sentier du Président, a magnificent hiking trail that connects Callelongue with the port of Madrague de Montredon in about 2 hours, offering a varied experience and stunning views along the way.

Calanque de Podestat

The Calanque de Podestat, the fourth calanque in the Marseilleveyre massif from Marseille, is a small corner accessible after about 2 hours of hiking along roughly 3 km from Callelongue. It is the last one before reaching the Col de Sormiou and is surrounded by the smaller calanques of Queyrons and Escu.

This calanque offers a relatively flat hiking route along the sea, but it is advisable to wear proper hiking boots as some parts of the path can be steep.

It is in a protected and monitored environment, with sandy bottoms surrounded by rocky edges to the east and west, and a significant cave to the southwest. The pebble beach marks the end of the calanque, although the absence of Posidonia meadows suggests that this ecosystem was present in the past but likely disappeared due to nearby pollution from the Cortiou outfall, which has been discharging Marseille’s wastewater since 1896.

The Calanque de Podestat is dominated by the Têtes de Malvallon and the ‘Plateau of the Dead Man,’ adding a sense of natural grandeur to this tranquil seaside spot.

Calanque de Morgiou

The Calanque de Morgiou, narrow, deep, and somewhat secret, is accessible on foot in about 1 hour from the Luminy massif or by car via a vertiginous pass. However, it is important to check the access conditions before setting out, especially in summer, due to strict regulations.

A small pebble beach allows easy access to the cool and clear waters of the calanque, although finding a spot to lay your towel can be challenging due to the location’s popularity. Hikers often have to walk a bit further to find a comfortable rock from which to swim. The waters of the calanques are colder than elsewhere due to underground springs and the mistral wind, guaranteeing a refreshing dip.

The GR98-51 trail passes through the calanque and allows you to reach the Calanque de Sugiton to the east in about 45 minutes. This trail, although beautiful, can be slippery due to frequent use by hikers and requires proper footwear.

As you walk, it is common to hear clicks and voices of climbers tackling climbing routes on the ledges and outcrops above your head. From the opposite shore, the trail climbs towards the Col du Renard to the west, heading towards Cap Morgiou, joining the sentier des crêtes. From here, an easy walk leads to the Anse de la Triperie, with impressive rounded and vertical walls. At the tip of the cape, you can enjoy a magnificent panorama over the chain of calanques, Devenson, and, in the distance, the red cliffs of Cap Canaille in Cassis.

Calanque de la Mounine

The Calanque de la Mounine, located between the Semaphore port and the Marseilleveyre cove, is a narrow and shallow small cove that hosts a rich variety of flora and fauna. Its numerous cavities offer natural shelters for various marine species, such as scorpionfish, seabream, starfish, and sea urchins.
As you leave the cove, the depth increases and continues until reaching the islet of La Mounine. From this islet, the Plateau des Chèvres begins at about 10 meters deep, connecting the coast with the islands of Jarre and Jarron, situated off the coast.

Calanque de Samena

The Calanque de Samena, located at the entrance of Calanques National Park, has a history dating back to the 16th century when Spanish fishermen from Catalonia settled in the area. They decided to name the cove after their patron, Ménas. In the past, like other coves on the southern tip of Marseille’s coastline, it hosted factories and lime kilns.
Today, the Calanque is accessed via a winding 3.5-kilometer road. Although it is a small area and a dead end, it has accommodations, a restaurant, and guest rooms, offering a quiet and peaceful environment for visitors.

The main attraction of the Calanque de Samena is its small unmonitored beach and the rocky coastline surrounding Mont-Rose, attracting swimmers and shore fishermen. However, on windy days such as when the mistral blows, caution is advised, and swimming should be avoided due to dangerous sea conditions.

Best Time to Visit Calanques

The ideal time to visit the Calanques on foot is during winter. In this season, there are fewer visitors than in summer, the weather is mild, and the coastline of Calanques National Park remains accessible. Unlike summer, when the heat can be stifling and access is restricted or even closed due to the fire hazard.

Towns Near Calanques National Park

Marseille

Marseille is a vibrant port city on the southern coast of France, known for its cultural diversity, historic port, and lively nightlife.

Cassis

Cassis is a charming coastal village near Marseille, famous for its stunning white cliffs, picturesque streets, and scenic harbor.

La Ciotat

La Ciotat is a picturesque coastal town on the French Riviera, known for its sandy beaches, historic port, and charming old town.

Les Goudes

Les Goudes is a small fishing village at the southern tip of Marseille, known for its natural beauty, picturesque coves, and excellent hiking and climbing opportunities.

Luminy

Luminy is a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Marseille, famous for its university and as a starting point for exploring Calanques National Park.

Morgiou

Morgiou is a charming cove located in Calanques National Park, known for its crystal-clear waters, stunning scenery, and hiking and climbing opportunities.

Sormiou

Sormiou is a spectacular cove in Calanques National Park, famous for its turquoise waters, impressive cliffs, and sea caves.

Callelongue

Callelongue is a small port in Calanques National Park, known for being the starting point for many hiking and boating excursions to nearby coves.

Pointe Rouge

Pointe Rouge is a popular beach in Marseille, known for its golden sand, calm waters, and lively atmosphere during the summer.

Pastré

Pastré is a residential area near Marseille, known for its public park, Parc Pastré, which offers walking trails, picnic areas, and panoramic sea views.