Canyoning descents in the Verdon Grand Canyon
The Gorges du Verdon in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is a huge draw for canyoning enthusiasts wanting to escape the crowds of the Côte d’Azur and enjoy the spectacular scenery and meandering turquoise waters of this vast wilderness.
You’d need a decade to fully explore all the possibilities for adventure in the Gorges du Verdon, and canyoning enthusiasts are spoilt for choice with descents for all abilities. Jump, slide, swim and abseil your way from one crystal clear emerald pool to the next.
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Verdon Grand Canyon Aqua Trekking
Canyoning through the Verdon Grand Canyon is a great way to discover one of the most spectacular parts of the Gorges du Verdon. This is a full day’s adventure and the backdrop of awe-inspiring scenery and feeling of isolation gives this trip the sense of a real expedition. The descent doesn’t require ropes, so is described as a rando aquatique, or whitewater trek.
The canyoning descent begins with a hike down 400 m of vertical drop on the Imbut Trail. Once at the river, you’ll alternate between swimming the rapids, trekking, and jumping. All the jumps are optional, and there are jumps of up to 12 m for the most daring in your group. The full descent takes 6 hours including the hike down, 3 hours in the water, a pause for lunch, and the killer 400 m climb back out of the canyon.
To enjoy the descent, you need a good level of fitness and a head for heights. The long day and isolation means it’s only suitable for kids over 14. Bring old trainers, swimmers, a picnic and plenty of drinking water. For this canyon, it’s best to go with a qualified guide. Ride the Verdon run trips throughout the summer and limit the group size to 8. Meet at Falaise des Cavaliers, RD 71, 83630 Aiguines.
The Artuby is a formidable canyon with breathtaking scenery located on the left bank of the Verdon River, about an hour’s drive from La Palud. Park near the impressive bridge that spans the Gorges de l’Artuby and follow the sound of whitewater. On the weekends you can bungee jump from the bridge.
The high and imposing canyon walls are positively cathedral-like. You can descend the Artuby when dry (zero flow) or with a decent flow, each condition providing a completely different experience. When the water’s flowing, you swim through frigid water that can be brown in colour. The combination of the cold brown water and sheer scale of the canyon can make it a bit daunting if it’s your first time canyoning.
When it’s at zero flow, you spend a lot more time hiking and down-climbing than swimming and jumping. The end of the descent is fed from additional sources and has more water, and the water regains its sparkling turquoise colour.
The Artuby is a long canyon, so save some energy for the scramble back up. Bring some energy bars and plenty of water, and get informed about the weather as a storm to the north-east can quickly flood the canyon.
Couloir Samson Canyoning
This is a fun and easy canyon accessible to everyone including kids from 7 years old. The narrowness and height of the canyon give the Couloir Samson a grandiose atmosphere that can make you feel very small. The descent is described as a randonnée aquatique, or whitewater trek, rather than a canyoning descent as it doesn’t involve any rope work.
It’s one of the shorter descents as well and can easily be completed in 2 to 2.5 hours. Be aware though that although it is an easy canyon, there are some fast flowing sections that could be hazardous. For daredevils, there are some optional jumps up to 8 m, and to spice things up, you could rig up a zipline just before the Baume aux Pigeons cave.
This descent is very popular with canyoning companies and from the 15 July to the 15 August there’s a new group coming through almost every 20 minutes. The ideal flow of 1.5 m3 per second is controlled by the dam upstream. On Tuesdays and Fridays, dam-released flow means the river is reserved for rafting and kayaking.
To access the Couloir Samson from Castellane, take La Route des Pré-Gorges (d953), and after the village of La Palud and before the tunnel, park in the Martel trail car park. Go down the steps and turn right onto the trail towards the river. Get changed on the little beach before the trail enters a tunnel. The end of the descent is marked by boulders (and sunbathers) on river right. Hike back to the car park on the Martel Trail.
Baudan Baou Canyoning
When the Baudan Baou was first descended commercially the canyon was run in its entirety. It involved a lot of walking and mostly just a trickle of frigid water. Then a canny canyoner, found a short cut that enabled just the best of the Baou to be included in the descent.
The canyon is nearly always dry with a few overhanging rocks and slippery slabs that require up to a 17 m abseil. Despite its mostly easygoing nature, the Baou is always very cold and susceptible to flash flooding, so you need to pay attention to the weather conditions. There are some optional jumps for gravity seekers.
Haut Jabron Canyoning
The Haut Jabron is a short descent by Gorges du Verdon standards, but being a tributary of the Verdon, if you did follow the canyon to the end, it would eventually spit you out in the main river. It’s a beautiful canyon with some curvaceous limestone formations. There’s always some flow in the Jabron even in the height of summer.
Thrill-seekers will love the natural water slides and rock jumps. However, you’ll need a volunteer to abseil down and check any landing pools for obstructions, as it’s not uncommon for tree branches to get dangerously lodged. They’ll need a 15 m rope. When there’s less flow in the canyon, the water takes on that notorious emerald green colour and positively sparkles in places.
As the descent only takes three quarters of an hour, there’s a tradition that says you should run it a second time. And, because this time you know it, you can really go for those jumps.
When to go
As formidable as it is spectacular, the Gorges du Verdon stretches for 40 km and the precipitous canyon walls reach 300 m skyward from the river. Canyoning season typically runs from May to September, with mid-July to mid-August being peak time for the holiday crowd. There are those fantastic days when everything is doable, and days when the canyons are either dry or swollen with whitewater. It’s best to go with a qualified guide, but if you do decide to go it alone, it’s a good idea to check in with local guides on the current conditions, or try to recce the start or end of a canyon to make an assessment about water levels and whether the route is doable.
In May, the Artuby canyon may be running too high, whilst the Haut Jabron canyon may either be very challenging or running perfectly. In July and August, the Haut Jabron becomes a very accessible and easy canyon with a consistent flow, making it an ideal descent for mixed-ability groups. Each canyon has it’s own unique characteristics as it may be fed from sources many miles away.
Where to go
There are more than 15 canyons in and around the Gorges du Verdon. Some, like the Artuby canyon flank the Verdon gorge itself. Others like the Baudan Baou canyon take a bit more effort to get to. The Couloir Samson is a display of nature at its most sublime and is labelled a “rando-aquatique” as it doesn’t involve any rope work.
Logistics for some canyons are more straightforward than for others. The Baudan Baou requires two vehicles, but during the summer holiday season you can usually hitchhike back to the start with one of the many guides who regularly make the trip. Artuby, Samson and Haut Jabron each have a hiking trail that brings you back to the start.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t attempt a canyon unless you have the proper equipment, especially a canyoning wetsuit. In fact, from an equipment, logistics and safety point of view, you’re much better off organising a guide.
Most of the canyons around the Gorges du Verdon can be accessed from Castellane, La Palud-sur-Verdon, or from the left bank of the Verdon river in the Var. As a crow flies, the whole canyoning area is pretty localised and travelling between the different sites provides great views of the Verdon scenery.
Castellane is located just under 2 hours driving time from Nice on the Route Napoléon. La Palud is a lovely village and has become a base-camp for adventure seekers whether climbers, walkers or river runners. The village is situated about half way between Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie which is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France.