Geography & Geology

Get away from the crowds in the wild and unexplored corners of The Pyrenees. The network of seldom trodden paths and extensive walking opportunities with hidden lakes, cirques and high peaks make The Pyrenees an almost magical mountain range.

The Pyrenees form a natural border between France and Spain, dividing the fertile hillsides of Southern France from the dry baked landscape of Northern Spain.

Weather patterns differ greatly across the mountains. They extend for 270 miles (450km) from the Bay of Biscay in the west and the Mediterranean in the east, forming a high ridge of wild peaks often higher than 3,000m in the Hautes Pyrenees. The highest point is the Pico de Aneto standing at 3,404m (11,168ft).

The French Pyrenees comprise six administrative areas, called departments. These are: Pyrenees Orientales, Aude, Ariege, Haute-Garonne, Haute Pyrenees and Pyrenees Atlantique

The small, independent Principality of Andorra is nestled within the eastern portion of the mountain range.

Geology

The Pyrenees are a young mountain belt and buried igneous rocks are still warm, so water circulating deep in the granite is heated naturally.

Although part of the mountain chain of the Alps, the Pyrenees contain much older rocks dating back to 500 million years within the Hercynian Orogeny. This is when a huge mountain range covered much of central Europe.

Erosion occurred during the next 200Ma, when the rocks were covered by a shallow sea and younger sedimentary rocks formed a top layer. When, around 220Ma ago the African and European continental plates collided, the change of direction of plate movement resulted in the closure of the ocean between the Iberian peninsula and what is now the south of France and subsequently the uplift of the Pyrenees.

Mountain building is thought to have initially commenced in the Eocene period (30-40 Ma) but most of the uplift and deformation having occurred during the Oligocene (20-30 Ma).

The Pyrenees and Alps were formed contemporaneously, the former as a product of the collision of the Iberian peninsula with Europe, the latter of the Italian peninsula. A consequence of being such a young mountain range, the Central Pyrenees count numerous thermal springs used locally for their healing properties.

Barege is the highest and one of the oldest spa villages. Bagneres de Luchon is one of the most elegant spa towns in The Pyrenees. Other hot springs on the French side are found at Les Escaldes, Aix-Les-Thermes, Eaux-Chaudes.

Natural resources are not abundant today other than the thermal resource, mineral ores were present once, lignite can still be found and the Ariege area provides one of the largest supply of talc.

The current Pyrenean landscape is the product of glacial and fluvial activity occurring throughout the Quaternary period (2.58 Ma to the present day). Products of glaciations are the U-shaped troughs, the waterfalls, sharp knife-edge arêtes, and majestic towering cirques such as the famous Cirque de Gavarnie.

Today only a few small glaciers remain as they are retreating every year, the largest being the Vignemale in the French Pyrenees, a bowl-shaped mass of ice sitting above its moraine and a long U-valley that was once filled with ice.

Haute Pyrenees (High Pyrenees)

The term in the general sense indicates the section of the Pyrenees with the highest peaks, however Hautes-Pyrenees is a French Department, that is a French administrative area in the Midi-Pyrenees region.

The highest peaks include: Vignemale, the Pic du Midi de Bigorre and Monte Perondo as well as the Neouvielle an Arbizon ranges. A natural gateway from France to Spain, the Breche de Roland spans the imposing Cirque de Gavarnie (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the 1,000 metre high walls of the Spanish Ordesa Canyon.

Much of the landscape, habitat and wildlife is protected in the French Parc National des Pyrenees and the Spanish Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. These are the two largest national parks in the Pyrenees and they provide incredible and variable scenery, birds of prey, lynx and brown bears.

The area remains surprisingly untouched in its wilderness, despite being crisscrossed by roads open all year and easily accessible walks.