Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Le Soliat (No 53) & Creux du Van (No 57)

Creux du Van  - a breath-taking, gigantic gorge gouged into the Jura landscape in the Val-de-Travers southwest of Neuchâtel - is probably the best-known, and most visited landmark in the entire length of the Jura. Lesser-well-known is its adjacent named peak - Le Soliat - which at 1465 metres comes in at number 53 on our list of highest named Jura peaks. Creux du Van isn't really a peak, but is named as such in quite a number of references, so we've added its highest point (1457 metres) to our list - coming-in at number 57. We'd hiked up here - to the top of the Jura's "Grand Canyon" - before (on a tough, post-winter, snowy ramble-scramble) in April 2009, but this was our first hike here since we'd started the Jura Mountain Rambling project. The last time it was just Lis and I, but this time we were accompanied by fellow hikers Denis, Gill and Kathy, who were visiting from Canada.

Our starting point this time around was Champ-du-Moulin - a small hamlet on the Areuse River - about an hour's drive north of St George. There are a number of possible starting points, with the village of Noirague probably being the most popular. Other options include Ferme Robert and the Le Soliat farmhouse restaurants, but all three of these miss-out on the beautiful hike up the Areuse River through the spectacular Gorges de l'Areuse.

We arrived at Champ-du-Moulin at about 10am and, after checking-out the very informative visitors' centre and surrounds, we set-off on our hike at about 10:15. It was a cloudy morning, which meant good conditions for hiking, but not-so-good for getting great views or photographs. But we were feeling optimistic, and the day was young.

"La Morelle" - the Maison de la Nature Neuchâtelois 
Centre d'Information at Champ-du-Moulin.

The restaurant and auberge at Champ-du-Moulin (617m).

Creux du Van information panel at Champ-du-Moulin.

Lots of walk trail options (red lines) in this neck of the woods.

Lots of interpretation panels too - at Champ-du-Moulin.

After checking-out all of the (extremely useful) information boards around the centre, we started making our way up the trail on the north side of the Areuse. We'd hardly walked a hundred metres before we came across another interpretation panel - this one telling us all about the famous writer, philosopher, musician, botanist, explorer and walker Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was a figure around these parts in the 1760s. He actually stayed at Champ-du-Moulin from 4-11 of September 1764 - coincidentally, exactly 250 years before we were tromping around in his footsteps. His book "Reveries of the Solitary Walker" is considered to be one of the most informative guides of the nature and landscapes of this part of the Jura, and a great source of inspiration and motivation for many hikers and tourists who have visited the Jura in the centuries since.

The Jean-Jacques Rousseau information panel at Champ-du-Moulin.

Fully informed, and filled with historical facts and figures, we now sought the simplicity and tranquility of the trail - which was duly delivered by the magnificent riverside track that wound its way up the valley alongside the bubbling river. The Areuse can get quite wild during the spring melt, but now, mid-autumn it was far more tranquil, gently tumbling over the occasional small waterfall or set of rapids. We walked past a gentleman casting his fishing line into the middle of the stream, but didn't stay long enough to see if he caught anything.

The Areuse River near Les Moyats.

The river sits deep in the Areuse Valley, flanked by the steep Côtes des Raisses and Combe Revers hillside on one side (the northern side) and the Côtes du Champ-du-Moulin on the other (south). Hundreds of metres above the latter we could see the rocky white cliffs of Rochers des Miroirs, and mused about the altitude we were going to have to gain to reach our destination for the day. Around Les Moyats, the walls of the canyon began to close-in on the trail, and we soon entered the Gorges de l'Areuse. This is a truly spectacular part of the trail, with the path cut into the bottom of the cliff-face, and an ancient stone bridge taking the trail from the north to the south side of the river.

Looking back along the trail as it enters the Gorges de l'Areuse.

Just as we were approaching the bridge, we met a big hiking party coming down the trail, so we stopped to let them pass, and then stayed awhile to take a few photos of the spectacular scenery. The river cascaded down the waterfalls at the top the gorge, and bubbled and gurgled its way down under the bridge below us, and then off down the valley towards Lac Neuchâtel. It was a far cry from the torrent and noise and spray that we'd encountered the last time we'd hiked through the gorge - as the spring snow-melt filled the narrow channel with glacial-green and white wild-water.

Crossing the Areuse River on the "Saut-de-Brot" bridge in the Gorges de l'Areuse.

The same scene in April 2009.

Having crossed the bridge, we followed the trail up through the gorge on the south side of the grotto. The track is literally carved-into the rock-face, with a safety rail along its entire route to prevent folks from falling into the stream. Probably not a bad idea here, as the rocks and steps can be quite slippery.

Heading up the trail out of the Gorge de l'Areuse.

The last section of the trail through the gorge - 
up a series of steps to a viewing platform.

The Areuse River entering the Gorge de l'Areuse.

We stopped again at the viewing platform at the top of the gorge to have another long look down its length, and to take a few more photos, then headed on our way.

The view down from the viewing platform.

Quite a difference: Watching the Areuse torrent in April 2009.

The trail gradually inched away from the river to where it intersected with a forest road at a place called Saut de Brot (651m) - about three-quarters of a kilometre south of the Brot-Dessous village. Like all Swiss trails (although in fact, due to its popularity, probably one of the best in the entire country), the track to Creux du Van was brilliantly sign-posted. It would have been nigh impossible to ever get lost up here. At Saut de Brot we took a hard turn left towards Ferme Robert - our next destination - which was about another hour further along the track.

Trail sign above the Gorge de l'Areuse at Saut de Brot.

It's impossible to get lost up here - just follow the direction of the yellow signs 
and the diamond-shaped trail markers (on trees, rocks, etc.)

The track now entered the (mostly fir and beech) forest, and began zig-zagging its way via a series of switchbacks up towards Creux Dessous and beyond - to a section of the mountainside called Les Cirnées. It was a well-trodden and maintained trail, and an absolute pleasure to hike. One of the sections was maintained with a series of steps -which made the steady ascent quite a breeze. We were all in great spirits.

On the trail through the forest below Creux Dessous.

Stepping-out near Creux Dessous.

Three or four times the trail intersected with the sealed road that leads up to Ferme Robert from Champ-du-Moulin and Noirague, and from time to time we could hear a car grinding its way up the hill filled with day-trippers heading to the Ferme for a sleepy Sunday luncheon at the restaurant. Whenever we encountered a change in the trail's direction, an intersection, or a prominent road leading somewhere else, there was always another cluster of bright yellow road-signs there to guide us.

Heading in the direction "Creux du Van".

Another distinctive road sign at a "cross-road" on the track up to Ferme Robert.

Right on time, at about 11:45 (an hour and a half after we'd set-out), we arrived at Ferme Robert - and got our first good glimpses of the huge cliff-face of the Creux du Van. The hike was getting exciting. We stopped just long enough to wander around outside the farmhouse-restaurant (called a métairie in the Jura), to have a drink and snack-bar, and take a few photos; and then we hit the trail again. We were all eager to get to the top of the mountain.

A glimpse of the Creux du Van cliff-face beyond the Ferme Robert hostel.

Signpost at Ferme Robert: We came from Gorges de l'Areuse; we're heading for 
Creux du Van; and we'll be coming back this way via Les Oeillons.

The restaurant at Ferme Robert.

Ferme Robert, which dates back to 1750, is famous (or infamous) for being the location of where the last wild bear was shot dead in Switzerland - by a woodman named David Robert, way back in 1757. Today, there's a beautiful hand-carved wooden bear out the front of the spruce-shingle-roofed restaurant, so it was fitting to get a photo taken alongside him - as a reminder of his once-living, wild cousin who used to roam the forests around here until that fateful day.

Rambling with the bear at Ferme Robert.

The centre of the universe - trail sign at Ferme Robert (972m).

A glimpse of the cliffs of Creux du Van from Ferme Robert.

Checking out the information panels at Ferme Robert.

Nature reserve sign at Ferme Robert. 

The Creux du Van Nature Reserve, which covers some 15.5 square kilometres, is the largest in the Canton of Neuchâtel. It's also the oldest nature reserve in Switzerland, having been established in 1870 by a founding member of the Club Jurassien, Louis William, who purchased the land at the foot of the Creux du Van to turn it into a nature reserve. It was further extended by another land purchase by the club in 1876, and again in 1972 - when it was placed under formal protection and encompassed all of the land from the Gorges de l'Areuse down in the valley, to hilltops around the Montagne de Boudry on the southeastern ridgeline. Key wildlife since recorded here include lynx, ibex, chamois, badgers, deer, wild boars and the beautiful and rare capercaillie. (The lynx were reintroduced here in 1975-75, when a breeding pair from the Slovak Capathians were set free in the forest. Ibex - the only ones in the Jura - were reintroduced in 1965 and are still doing very well.)

From Ferme Robert, we followed the trail southwest deeper into the hollow of the great Creux. Off (and up) to our right, the huge cliffs of the northern spur of the formation - the Dos d'Ane - loomed over the valley. Although we were in the shade of the valley, and the forest, we could occasionally see the the white limestone cliffs lit-up by the bright mid-day sun. The spectacle would subsequently fade away under a shroud of cloud, or disappear behind the canopy of fir trees. As a reminder of this being as much a working forest as a nature reserve, we passed a couple of piles of recently-cut logs on the side of the road. Fortunately the local foresters seem to have alpine silviculture down to a fine art - balancing the rate of timber extraction with the rate of regrowth. The forests are certified sustainable by both FSC and PEFC, and always appear to be in good shape. They certainly look as though they are well managed.

Lumber-jack and jills on the trail below Dos d'Ane.

An intriguing forest feature - a tree-on-a-rock - near Fontaine Froide.

About half an hour after we'd left Ferme Robert, we arrived at our next way-point - Fontaine Froide (1126m). This is a legendary location - with its constantly 4 degree, pure mountain water considered to be the very purest to complement absinthe - the spirit of the fairies - from this part of the Jura. The constant temperature is thought to be the result of constantly-frozen, permafrost sub-soil that persists underground from the last glacial period.

Fontaine Froide is often used as the kick-off point of what is called "the Absinthe Trail" - the trail of the Green Fairy - which stretches from here, under the shadow of the Creux du Van, westward to the French Jura town of Pontarlier. (We'll have to make that trip some other day and write it up in another Jura Mountain Rambling blog.) While at the fountain, a couple of hardy-looking local hikers pulled-in, whipped-out a hip flask, and promptly added some of the pure, cold water to a couple of shot-glasses of absinthe - a tradition of the Fontaine called "Clouding your Blue". Its cloudy appearance looked inviting, but maybe not the ideal trail refresher to drink as one is about to scale the walls of Creux du Van.

The pure waters of Fontaine Froide bubbling into a wooden trough 
in the heart of the Creux du Van forest.

The green absinthe fairies have very considerately left a few small spirit glasses 
in this hollowed-out log at Fontaine Froide.

Trail sign at Fontaine Froid.

After soaking-up the mystic atmosphere of the absinthe source, we turned east along the Chemin de la Fontaine Froide and started the long steady climb up the southern "wall" of the Creux du Van. The narrow, steep, stony (and slippery when wet) trail - the Sentier du Single - zig-zagged its way up a series of switchbacks, and we quickly gained about 300 metres in altitude - from 1126 metres (at Fontaine Froide) to about 1426 metres on the top-edge of the rim - in less than 500 metres horizontal.

Heading-up the switchbacks southeast of Fontaine Froid.

The last time we were here, the slope was covered with residual snow and, being without either snow-shoes or ski-poles, it proved to be quite hard going. Fortunately, it was a much easier hike to the top on this occasion, but I'd still recommend ski poles if you have them. They've certainly saved our aching knees on many a hike.

Heading-up the south side of Creux du Van in April 2009.

We crested the rim about 300 metres east of the southeast extension of the high, exposed cliffs of the creux - about midway between Grand Vy (to the east) and Le Soliat (to the west). We stopped to regroup, and then turned westwards - towards the cliffs. Grand Vy is another alpine farmhouse and métairie, providing food and lodging for alpine travellers. It appeared to be a popular destination on the day that we were there, as we passed many day-trippers heading in "La Grand Vy" direction. Vy comes from the Latin word via - meaning way, as in the route or way to somewhere. For some reason or another, the trail didn't look quite as "grand" as the name implied.

Trail sign on the top of the Creux du Van ridgeline just west of Grand Vy.

After the "slog" up the side of the gorge, it was a nice relief to stroll along the grassy alpine meadow towards the cliffs. It was probably the easiest part of the entire trail, and we were soon approaching the edge of the abyss where the highland world stops ... and drops vertically down into the floor of the creux.

From April 2009: the last section of trail between where the track reaches the top of the 
Creux du Van ridgeline and first major cliffs of the gorge.

Drawn like moths to a flame, we immediately made a bee-line for the rim of the crater and found ourselves a clear patch of ground to sit-down for our picnic lunch. It was now about 12:45. The skies above were filled with puffy cumulus clouds that built-up from the southern side of the Jura, and dissipated as they rose above Le Soliat. It was beautiful to watch, but meant that it was impossible to get a photo of the entire, horseshoe-shaped arc of cliffs with every feature in bright sunshine. Never to mind, it just meant that we'll have to hike back up there again on another sunny day.

First views of the Creux du Van from the southeast (looking northwest). The unique geological formation was formed when the folded, 200 million-year-old Jura limestone beds of the fractured Soliat anticline were eroded away, first before the Quaternary glacial period, and subsequently by the grinding of an in situ glacier during that last ice age.

The breath-taking panorama of the magnificent one-kilometre-wide and 
400 metre deep Creux du Van crescent. 
It's the biggest (and most spectacular) gorge in the entire Jura.

We took our time over lunch. It was such a beautiful day, and such a magnificent location, that we were in no hurry to go anywhere. Every time there was a gap in the clouds, I leapt to my feet and waited for the ring of limestone cliffs - which reach heights between 200 and 300 metres - to light-up and fill us with wonder. Unfortunately, it never happened, although we were still filled with wonder. What an amazing place, and what a spectacular rock formation. No wonder that the Creux du Van is on the front cover of just about every Jura tourist brochure, and that there were so many people hiking up here today on such a lovely day.

Not surprisingly, the cliffs are also a popular destination for rock-climbers, and one can make-out a thin walk trail that skirted around the top of the scree slopes at the foot of the vertical cliff-faces - providing access to the base of the cliffs.

Picnic lunch spot at the top of the cliffs of Creux du Van.

Looking back at our lunchtime picnic spot.

Another view of the beautiful limestone cliffs where we had our picnic lunch.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from our vantage point and began walking clockwise around the edge of the rim. There was an impressive dry stone wall along much of the trail there - but it appeared to mainly be there to prevent the local farmer's cows from straying over the edge of the cliffs. Apparently the two-kilometre-long stone wall was built as a gesture of friendship (it's called "the Wall of Friendship") by a charitable group of foreigners. For the humans up there, it was  case of be responsible for yourself, and don't get too close to the edge (not that there were any signs saying as much). We followed the trail to where there was a gap in the stone wall - through which we passed, before heading south up a short slope to the summit of Le Soliat. Along the way we passed an ancient, weather-beaten boundary stone - that marks the border between the cantons of Neuchâtel (on the eastern side) and Vaud (on the west). One could see the two shields of the two cantons on opposite sides of the stone, but the years of weathering had rendered them virtually indistinguishable.

The well-weathered old canton boundary marker near Le Soliat.

Within minutes, we were standing under the wooden cross that marks the summit of Le Soliat (1465m). The cross had been put up there by members of the Club Jurassien in 2003. To my mind it was one of the nicest crosses we've seen on all of the "crossed" peaks - subtle, simple, and not too ostentatious. In contrast, the summit also boasted one of the best - in terms of its complexity, amount of information and artistic standards - panorama tables that we'd come across anywhere in the Jura. A small plaque informed us that it had been erected in 2001 by members of the Soliat section of the Club Jurassien. We spent some time there pouring over its details and trying to pick up distant landmarks - most of which were unfortunately obscured by cloud. On a clear day, one can see Lac Neuchâtel, the peaks and valleys of the Jura and Franche-Comté and the highest peaks of the Bernese and Savoy Alps - including such noteworthy peaks as Jungfrau (4178m), Aletchhorn (4195), Weisshorn (4505), Dent Blanche (4357), Matterhorn (4478) and Mont Blanc (4810).

Immediately before us were four other Jura peaks that are on our list - La Chaille (number 61 - 1450 metres), Crêt aux Moines (64 - 1445), Crêt Teni (73 - 1422) and Montagne de Boudry (88 - 1387), but we'd already decided to leave them for another day, on another hike, on snow-shoes, in winter.

The name "Le Soliat" is derived from solarium, and refers to a place that gets plenty of sunshine. Too bad it wasn't living up to its name on this occasion.

The cross and panorama table at the summit of Le Soliat.

The hiking team checking-out the panorama table.

The wooden cross at Le Soliat (1465 metres).

With our main peak-of-the-day duly ticked-off, we headed back down to the edge of Creux du Van, and continued on our walk around the western perimeter of the gigantic gorge. We were headed northwest now, following the track in the direction of Noirague and Les Oeuillons. Once again, there could be no reason why anyone would never know where they were on this trail, or where they were heading. The signage was incredibly efficient and informative.

Passing the trail sign for Le Soliat - down on the edge of the Creux du Van cliffs.

Same sign, same place - but in April 2009.

As the trail began to swing north along the western wall of the creux, we stopped at the highest point of the Creux du Van (1457 metres) - to ensure it got recorded in the Rambling blog. As mentioned earlier, the Creux du Van (a bit like the Creux du Croue near Le Noirmont) gets a mention on some registers as a recognized Jura peak, but not on others. Whatever. We think it warrants the recognition, and a place in our "Jura peaks" log-book.

This giant cirque of cliffs gets its name "Creux" from an old Celtic word that means a deep valley, hollow depression, or concave-shaped landmark - a hole or pit. The word "Van" is also of Celtic origins, and Gaulish - vanno - which refers to a rocky valley, rocky slopes, or steep rocky cliffs/edges. At one time it was called Le Cul du Van ("the bottom of the rock edge") but this was later changed to its current name.

We soaked-up the incredible views from the end of the gorge, took a few photos, and then continued on around the rim. Somewhere hidden in the forest far below us was the Fontaine Froide and, no doubt, hundreds of little green absinthe fairies.

The view (looking northeast) from about half-way around the Creux du Van.

Looking down the northern side of Creux du Van at the middle-distant cliffs of Dos d'Ane.

Making the most a a rare patch of sunlight.

Denis in his element.

Our next destination was an amazing rocky ledge that juts out over the cliff-top on the west side of the "wall", and which features on just about every tourist brochure I've ever seen for Creux du Van. We stood out there too, and gazed down the precipice, and took lots of photos of the huge rocky amphitheatre, while we once again, soaked-up the incredible atmosphere. It really is an awesome place. But talk about "into the void". One wouldn't want to make false step up here.

Looking south along the "back wall" of the Creux du Van.

More or less the same view in April 2009.

Standing atop the most-photographed-rock of the Creux du Van.

 One of the many gorgeous views from the top of Creux du Van.

Sadly, a little further around the cliffs there is a memorial to someone who did take a false step up here - a 23-year-old Swiss soldier named Jean Pilloud - who fell to his death from the top of the cliffs in July 1940. A simple, and well-weather plaque stated:

"Here fell a servant of his Fatherland on July 7, 1940 in his 23rd year, 
the sapper Jean Pilloud of Châtel-St-Denis Frieburg R.I.P. His afflicted family"

It was a sobering reminder to take utmost care on this kind of trail. We were certainly watching where we were putting our feet, as by a number of accounts, Jean Pilloud hasn't been the only person to have lost their lives over the Creux's precipitous cliffs.

The memorial plaque to Jean Pilloud.

We stopped again soon after, and took a group shot of the five of us - to record such a grand occasion. It's not often that you get to hike in such a beautiful place, on such a beautiful day, with such a lovely bunch of people. Day hikes don't get much better than this.

The hiking party - Rich, Lis, Denis, Gill and Kathy.

But now it was time for us to be heading back, so we started to make our way back down the mountain towards Les Oeuillons. Once again we encountered a stone boundary marker between the Vaud and Neuchâtel cantons (this one in better condition, with 1830 engraved on its western side, and the shields of the cantons still very recognizable).

Canton boundary marker near the top of Creux du Van.
Just afterwards, off to our left (to the west) we passed a steady stream of day-trippers walking to and fro between the cliffs of the Creux du Van and the "Le Soliat" farmhouse - which was doing a roaring trade as a summer restaurant. The free-flowing food and drink, and the fact that you can drive all the way up here in your car, helped to explain the great number of people we saw on the day ... and, for some, their inappropriate attire for hiking around the mountain-tops.

Le Soliat farmhouse/restaurant.

At a point on the trail called Pertuis de Bise (at the western end of Dos d'Ane, and northern end of the Creux du Van cliffs) we entered the "Sentier de 14 Contours" - which zig-zagged its way (apparently past 14 hairpin bends) down through the Bois des Oeuillons - from the top of the rim (1360m), to the Les Oeuillons homestead (1014m) far below. It was a lovely trail down through the leafy, green, shady forest and we clipped down the mountainside at a good pace.

Heading down the switchbacks towards Les Oeuillons.

Mostly we were hidden in the forest, but on a couple of occasions the trail broke out into the open - which afforded us great views out over Noirague ("Black Water") and the valleys and Jura ridges that filled the horizon in the northern distance. It sure is a lovely landscape.

The view north towards Noirague ... and Les Ponts-de-Martel far beyond.

Taking-in the same view in April 2009.

Trekking down the Sentier des Contours.

In no time at all we were standing under the trail sign at Les Oeuillons (1014m) - from where we turned right towards Ferme Robert (instead of heading straight-on - which would have taken us through to Noirague). The signpost reminded us that this section of the trail was on the Chemin des Crêtes de la Jura - the Jura Crest Trail - one of the world's classic walk-trails. It's always a buzz to be on this famous trans-jurassien route.

Signpost at Les Oeuillons (1014m).

Once again we plunged back into the forest, but this time walked almost entirely along a well-worn country road. Occasionally we diverged onto the deeper forest on the walk trail, but just kept following the yellow signs ... and soon found ourselves back at Ferme Robert, meaning that we'd completed a clockwise loop around the entire Creux du Van.

From here it was all downhill as we retraced our foot-steps from our hike up the mountain earlier in the day. It wasn't long before we could hear the sounds of the rushing, tumbling waters of the Areuse River, and were soon back in the Gorges de l'Areuse. Once again, we slowed our pace and stopped frequently to soak-up the mood of the gorge, and watch the river tumbling over the rocks and rapids in the valley below. It really is a magic place, and well worth the extra effort of starting the hike from Champ-du-Moulin.

Back at the Gorge de l'Areuse.

Lis heading across the bridge at Gorge de l'Areuse.

Heading back to Champ-du-Moulin through the "romantic ravine" 
of the Gorge de l'Areuse.

The last kilometre or two just skipped-by after we left the gorge, and we were soon back in the car-park at "La Morelle". It was about 17:15 - approximately seven hours from when we'd set out earlier in the day. It had been a memorable hike, and all the better for having done it with such great company as Den and Gill and Kathy. And, the best part, is that we'll be back this way again soon to hike to those other three peaks. Yee-haa!

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Le Soliat (No 53) 1465m
  • Creux du Van (No 57) 1457m
  • Absinthe, which is made from wormwood, was first invented in the Val-de-Travers, in the Jura, in 1797. It rose to immense popularity until it was suddenly banned, in 1905, following a tragedy in which an intoxicated Swiss labourer killed his wife and children. Not surprisingly, the elixir didn't completely disappear from the face of the Earth, but instead went "underground" - until the century-old ban was finally lifted again - in March 2005.
  • A community gathering is held at Ferme Robert on the last Sunday of August every year in remembrance of the death of the Jura's last bear (in 1757). Its paws are still at the ferme - nailed to a plaque. A nearby rock has the date engraved into it .

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