Bonne descente! shouted a man after me and my boyfriend to wish us a good trip down the river. We carried our kayak towards the freezing water in the Ardèche River through a grey and chilled September morning and set out on our second day of paddling in the Ardèche Gorges. I would soon find out exactly how freezing the river was: a few minutes later, in one of the day’s first rapids, I fell off the kayak and into the water.
We had started our kayak trip the previous day from the village of Vallon Pont d’Arc. We had paddled under Le Pont D’Arc, a natural stone bridge that is one of the main attractions in the Ardèche in France’s Rhône-Alpes. We had moved slowly down the river, my boyfriend a veteran of the Ardèche, myself here for the first time and perpetually stunned by the beauty of the gorge: steep walls of rock, riverbanks with white sand, and the rapids – some very gentle and some a little more challenging.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You like a bit of adventure on your vacation, and a two-day kayak trip in France sounds like a dream come true.
- You love the great outdoors and you love camping, but you don’t mind having lots of people there with you (the Ardèche can get busy in the high season).
- You are not afraid of a bit of white water and you are not afraid to get soaked in the rapids.
- Good for: Paddlers of all levels. Even first time kayakers are welcome, but you must be able to swim.
That night we had camped in one of the two bivouacs (camping areas) in the Gorges de l’Ardèche nature reserve. We had decided to start our second day early, before the sun had warmed up the deep gorge, and as we paddled down the river I was shivering in my bikini-and-lifejacket outfit. I blame the fact that I had not had coffee yet for losing my balance when navigating a relatively easy rapid, but if I’m completely honest, I did not do much navigating anyway. My boyfriend did most of the work, while I kept gazing at the scenery and only really paddled when he told me to.
After my sudden early morning swim we stopped at a sandy riverbank so I could warm up. Others paddled by, some with more skill than others. A group of school kids went by, screaming and laughing. An English couple stopped by and admitted that the rapids were scarier than they had thought. Even first-timer kayakers can descend the Ardèche, but some parts of the journey are a little challenging.
When the sun came up we paddled along, taking breaks to sunbathe on the riverbank. The day was hot, and soon I felt warm enough to go swimming voluntarily. I would like say that the end of our journey came too fast, but one good thing about reaching the village of Sauze was the steaming hot, sweet, life-saving café latte in the nearest restaurant.
Tips for Kayaking in the Ardèche Gorges
La descente de l’Ardèche is a kayak/canoe trip in the Gorges de l’Ardèche nature reserve in the Rhône-Alpes in France. The 30-km (just over 18.6 miles) trip starts from Vallon Pont D’Arc and ends in Sauze.
It takes most people two days to paddle the whole distance. You can do it in a day, but you need strong arms. It is more fun to do the trip over two days and spend the night camping in the nature reserve. You will be picked up at the end of the trip and driven back to your starting point.
You will go through approximately 20 rapids, depending on where you start your trip. The rapids are graded between 1 and 3, depending on water levels in the river. You don’t need much previous kayaking experience, but you must be able to swim. Fatalities have occurred. All kayak-hire companies provide life jackets.
Camping in the wild is forbidden, so you must sleep in one of the two bivouacs: Gaud or Gournier. Bivouac tickets should be bought in advance. The bivouacs have showers, toilets and drinking water.
Bring enough food for the duration of your kayak trip (which we didn’t do) as food is not sold in the bivouacs (which we didn’t know). The bivouacs have barbecue facilities (which don’t help if you didn’t bring anything to put on the barbecue). Bring a tent, sleeping bags and mats. You will get waterproof containers to pack your gear in. Bring warm clothes for the evening and pack high SPF sun protection and a hat for daytime.
Practicalities for Descending the Ardèche
- Several companies based in Vallon Pont d’Arc hire canoes and kayaks. Most companies hire two-person kayaks. Experienced canoers make the descent in a single-person canoe.
- The descent is usually available between April and October, depending on water levels. The peak tourist season in July/August can be extremely busy. If you hate crowds, May/June and September are good alternatives.
- Vallon Pont d’Arc has campsites and hotels, and many campsites are in pretty spots right by the river. Driving is the easiest way to get to Vallon Pont d’Arc, but there is a bus station with local and regional connections. Avignon, Valance and Montélimar are the closest train stations.