The Ecrins National Park
Protected Territory of High Mountain
The Ecrins National Park in a few figures
Ecrins National Park is the oldest of the 11 national parks currently in existence. It was created in 1973 on the initiative of mountaineers, naturalists and the French Alpine Club, based on the former La Bérarde National Park created some sixty years ago, from an environmental perspective: to protect the mountain from the development of pastures that induce erosion, deforestation and runoff.
Located in the departments of Isère and Hautes Alpes, the Ecrins National Park stretches between the Romanche valley to the north, Guisane and Durance valleys to the east and south, and Drac valley to the west.
The Barre des Ecrins dominates the massif from the top of its 4102 m altitude and more than 150 peaks exceed 3000 m.
Seven valleys make up the seven regions of the park. We can distinguish:
- north, the Oisans and the Briançonnais
- west, Valbonnais and Valgaudemar
- south, the Champsaur and the Embrunais
- east, Vallouise
The park covers nearly 160,000 hectares divided into 57,300 hectares of forest, 68,800 hectares of alpine pastures and 7,200 hectares of glaciers.
The 92,000 hectares “park core” is the area to be protected par excellence and is therefore subject to strong regulation for this purpose.
The membership area is the peripheral area of the park and 49 municipalities are part of it.
The missions of the Ecrins National Park
At the origin of its creation in 1973, the park was intended to preserve its natural heritage. But over time, the perimeter of protection has expanded to include landscape heritage and especially cultural heritage since 2006.
The main mission of protecting biodiversity is the proper management and conservation of heritage in the heart of the park, and the enhancement of activities compatible with respect for nature in the adhesion area.
Doing the right thing to safeguard this natural heritage requires a good knowledge and understanding of this territory. Also, scientific knowledge of heritage and the accompaniment of research are key issues.
Similarly, ensuring better functioning of the institutions, involving local actors in the park charter, contributing to regional, national and European policies on sustainable development and the protection of heritage are essential tasks to act in a sustainable way.
Finally, welcoming and informing the public is important to bring about a culture of nature. Educational, environmental awareness-raising and knowledge-sharing actions are being implemented in the Park Houses.
The Heritages of the Parc des Ecrins
The geological and climatic situation of the Ecrins National Park makes it an exceptional territory in terms of biological, landscape and cultural riches that it is essential to preserve in a sustainable way.
Straddling the Southern Alps and the Northern Alps, the park ranges from 710 m to 4102 m altitude, which explains the extreme diversity of flora and fauna: 2500 plant species and 2,200 animal species are recorded including 75 species of mammals, 235 birds, and 1000 butterflies.
Thus, you can cross the very Mediterranean Lizard Ocellé on the southern foothills of the Park, or have the chance to admire the Glacier Renoncule which grows up to 4000 m altitude on the moraines and screes. In a microscopic dimension, single-celled algae are able to develop on the surface of the snow causing a reddish coloration of snowfields, which testifies to its presence.
The BIODIV’ECRINS site is an atlas listing all the wildlife records observed by park officials since its inception. There are approximately 64,0000 observations divided into 7,534 species in the 49 municipalities of the national park. Each species sheet includes a map with the numbers and observation sites, the distribution by altitude and month of the year, as well as photos and additional information. The municipalities sheets list all the species observed on each municipality and the map of the municipality shows the observation sites.
Lakes and rivers are part of the landscape heritage but they are also an important water resource. These high-altitude ecosystems are extremely fragile and can host certain populations that need to be protected, such as the alpine newt. This native and rare batracian cannot compete with salmonids, which is why it is found in some small lakes that have never been enriched with fry. The glaciers, emblematic of this high mountain territory, occupy the central place of the park. The Girose glacier, adjacent to the Mont de Lans glacier, is the largest glacier in the Ecrins National Park covering more than 10% of its glacial surface. Our local challengers, the White Glacier and the Black Glacier, come in 2nd and 3rd positions respectively.
Beneath the high mountains of the Ecrins National Park, there are a whole series of landscapes shaped by man over time to gain ground on the mountain and allow him to settle in this territory, to live there, cultivate, and develop activities.
We see landscapes built of stone walls, terraces and irrigation canals, witnesses of agricultural activity. Hillside agricultural areas are used as pastures and hay meadows, the plains are most often used for crops. Habitats are mainly located in valleys, hillsides and plains, but there are also isolated habitats used by shepherds. Forests are very present and also have an important role for the economy, along with wood production, but they also contribute to the prevention of natural hazards. The alpine pastures criss-crossed by herds occupy various environments such as meadows, lawns or melzins, between 1200 and 2800 m altitude depending on the season. Water contributes to the division of the territory and appears to us in different forms: torrents, ponds, high-altitude lakes, waterfalls, glaciers. It contributes to ecological diversity and is an essential resource for economy and leisure activities.
Infrastructures are necessary for the local economy but they greatly alters the landscapes: roads, railways, power lines or ski lifts become landmarks in the landscape. The same is true for sites of industrial activities or production, electricity or logging.
The mountain discovery facilities form a network that contributes to the enhancement of all landscapes. Trails, car parks and shelters are the main elements.
Of rural and mountain experience, different cultural and sociological fields relating to practices and uses arouse interest in the Ecrins National Park. Their mountain roots are their uniqueness.
High mountain: the history of mountaineering is studied using an approach that takes into account hunting and gathering practices, routes and exchanges between valleys.
Water landscapes: we are interested in fishing practices and the history of the nursery, the frequentation of lakes, gorges and torrents, the history of hydraulic installations and the use of water in the mountains from catchments to distribution.
Alpine pastures: the focus is on the evolution and practices of pastoralism as it shapes the landscape between valleys and highland meadows. A collection of experiences and uses in pastoral areas completes this study.
Agricultural landscapes: priority is given to terraces, hay meadows and mountain bocages. The history of crop types and changes in both agricultural landscape types and practices is its foundation.
Built heritage: the focus is on the history of isolated-site dwellings and the activities of an agropastoral society (occupations, techniques and construction methods, traffic and links with nearby villages and towns and with the mountain area in general). The buildings that are remarkable or representative of a unique use of space and its resources complete this aspect of the built heritage. Pastoral huts are widely distributed throughout the territory.
To preserve this exceptional natural heritage, at the origin of the creation of the National Park, it is necessary to know it well and therefore to study and monitor it. The various inventory, monitoring or study programs undertaken in the territory all pursue this objective. Some focus on emblematic botanical species such as the blue thistle, the Dauphiné potentilla or the Venus hoof, others study natural environments and high-altitude wildlife, or even participate in monitoring the evolution of landscapes.
The Sentinel Lakes Network
THE “LACS SENTINELLES” NETWORK was created in 2009, following a European study program conducted by the National Water and Aquatic Environments Office, with the aim of preserving mountain lakes. Its purpose is to study the effects of climate change on these lakes. To do this, its mission is to better understand how these lakes work and to identify the threats hanging over them; the aim being to define an action plan for the management of these environments, in order to better preserve them.
Humans also influence this ecosystem more or less directly because high-altitude lakes do not host fish and the coldest ones are free of aquatic vegetation. Nursing is practiced in some lakes but with the enrichment of a single species per lake. Lakes collect waste such as huts discharges or herd droppings. They are even subjected to distant air pollution.
Coordinated by Asters, Haute-Savoie Conservatory of Natural Spaces, the “Sentinel Lakes” network brings together three types of partners. Managers of protected areas and aquatic environments (Ecrins-Vanoise-Mercantour National Parks, Natura 2000 sites, national nature reserves and regional natural parks) are the field actors who provide surveillance.
Scientists and academics analyze collected data and help to understand how these systems work and what is at stake. Users of high-altitude lakes (fishing associations, hydroelectric plant operators, walkers, etc.) provide historical knowledge of the sites and associated practices and share their expectations of the future of lakes.
In the Ecrins National Park, the lakes concerned are the lakes of Plan Vianney, Muzelle, Petrarel and The Pisses.
See the report by Céline Aubert and Dominique Semet on France3 Alpes, “THE LACS D’ALTITUDE, CES “SENTINELLES” DE L’ENVIRONNEMENT“, made during the network’s meetings at the Bourg d’Oisans in 2015 and illustrated by several excerpts from the film “Sentinel Lakes”.
The "Sentinel Refuges"
The shelters are the witnesses and actors of the environmental changes but also of the social and cultural transformations of the mountain. They are at the convergence of the flow of sports tourists very concerned about the discovery of nature and many already offer an educational approach to the mountain. And their remote location makes them privileged sites to observe the high mountains.
It is in this context of interactions that the “SENTINEL REFUGES” PROGRAM carried out by the Ecrins National Park and the Laboratory of Excellence Innovation – Mountain Territories (LabEx ITEM) of the University of Grenoble-Alpes was born in 2016. This program aims to design an experimental observation device for change in the high mountains based on the mountain refuge as a place of measurement, observation, work and exchange between natural and social sciences, taking into account both geophysical, climatic and biological processes and tourism and sports practices.
Among the park’s 11 partner refuges, the Pelvoux and Le Kern are located in Vallouise area.
The main areas of research are on the social sciences side: traffic flows, changes in sports practices and tourism professions, and on the natural sciences side: meteorology, climatology, biodiversity, geomorphology, risks and safety. They are implemented in the park’s partner refuges, in the form of surveys and collection of quantitative and qualitative data, in situ observations, photo-reports or collaborative workshops involving mountain professionals, practitioners and shelters users.
Itinerant trips based on this program are supervised by a mountain guide to participate in the ongoing research. This scientific ecotourism method proposes to make observations of flora and geological movements, and to collect this data in specific applications.
Glaciers are emblematic elements of the high mountain landscape, whose evolution is important for the water resource of the valleys and can be visible on a scale of only a few years. Since the early 2000s, the Ecrins National Park has set up glacier monitoring programs, with the support of the Institute of Environmental Geosciences (formerly Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics Laboratory) of Grenoble and INRAE Lyon-Grenoble Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (formerly Irstea).
Since 1980, park officials have been measuring several glaciers and long-term data have contributed to studies of global climate change. Photographic series made from the same location and according to the same framing allow to follow the evolution of landscapes that sometimes proves spectacular, like the Glacier Blanc in recent years. Rocky glaciers such as the Black Glacier and the Laurichard Glacier are monitored by annual topographical surveys that measure the evolution of the glacier front.
Since 2004, the 460 hectares of the Blanc Glacier have been the subject of special attention. The White Glacier is the longest glacier in the Ecrins massif with nearly 5500 m along. It originates at an altitude of 4015 m at the top of the Dome of the Ecrins, on the north slope of the Barre des Ecrins, and stretches to about 2450 m.
The glacial retreat, which has accelerated over the past 35 years with a loss of 760 m long, is calculated each year with 2 sets of measurements, in late winter and late summer. In mid-May, the accumulation of ice made during the winter season is calculated. At the end of September, ice melt is estimated at the glacier front. Thus, the result of accumulation minus melting gives the mass balance of the glacier which reflects its health balance.
Since the 1971 inventory of the entire French Alps, the average surface area of glaciers has reportedly decreased by 26%. In the Ecrins massif, the glacial retreat is 37%: this is 3 times more than in the Mont Blanc massif. But this is due to lower peaks in the Ecrins and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, which brings a certain climatic mildness.
The lauvitel's complete reserve
LAUVITEL INTEGRALE RESERVE is a space in which human presence is extremely limited, and therefore suffers very little external disturbance. Created in 1995, it aims to monitor the natural dynamics of ecosystems not subject to human action, and is located in Oisans in a 700 ha area adjoining Lake Lauvitel. Only researchers can access it for scientific reasons. This open-air laboratory focuses on three main areas: flora and fauna, the study of environments, and the monitoring of physical measurements at lake level. To identify living species, the Ecrins National Park relies on its agents but also on a vast network of experts including researchers, naturalists, ranger-monitors but also mountain guides. Since the beginning of the inventory in 2013, 38 specialists and a dozen park agents have been mobilized.
Given the diversity of insects’ lifestyles and habitat, there are different ways to spot them: direct observation, semi-buried traps for soil insects, and night-time light traps. Sound recorders are also used.
In addition to the monitoring of species, new species have been identified for the first time in the world (2 wasps, 1 fungi, 1 lichen), others for the first time in France, others have been reviewed after 50 years of disappearance. The canopy was invested for the first time in 2020: the opportunity to discover new treasures…
A total of 2628 animal and plant species, fungi, mosses and lichens have been observed to date, including 1,069 insect species. The latter group, which is overwhelmingly on the reserve and elsewhere, is currently only 50% known to the reality it occupies in the biodiversity of the site, according to experts.
The study of environments concerns the evolution of the valley in general, as its history through the study of lake sediments, or the history of its forest through the study of small charcoals that reflect the population of trees and shrubs from which they originate. This forest has become the ideal reference model for a forest that has become untouched since it has not been exploited for 100 years. Small and large trees, young and old ones, rub shoulders and the dead wood that remains on site promotes extreme biodiversity. The evolution of the lawns is carried out on 3 different zones of altitude, analyzed several years apart, in which we focus on plant diversity as well as on the surface and volume occupied by each species. Unexpected variations in plant species suggest that two factors have disturbed grasslands: chamois come to eat and damage some lawns, and avalanches prevent the anticipated installation of certain plant species.
The last area of study concerns physical measurements related to the lake. A topographical survey of the bottom of the lake was carried out with some 700 measuring points. Scientists now have an accurate map of the lake, reaching a depth of 65 m. Near-real-time temperature and lake level surveys are carried out by sensors. The huge variation in summer/winter levels of up to 30 m, and up to 1 m per day in June, is due to melting snow and to a lesser extent by rainfall. The lake is also studied as a natural dam probably formed by a landslide. A weather station was set up in 2002 to complete the studies.
The heart of the park is classified in the European Natura 2000 network for the protection and conservation of a dozen birds. The birds concerned are the ROCK PTARMIGAN (priority issues in terms of demography and protection of nesting areas), the ROYAL EAGLE, the European Owl, the Tengmalm owl, the red-billed chough, the wood grouse, the bearded vulture, the bartavelle partridge, the BLACK TETRAS, the griffon vulture, the circaete Jean-le-Blanc and the black woodpecker. Large counting operations, in which the public can participate, are organized in August for the vultures and in October for the bearded vulture. About 40 pairs of golden eagles are currently counted.
The avian fauna of the meadows is also the subject of monitoring, in particular the CORNCRAKE and the whinchat.
Colonies of BOUQUETINS have been reintroduced. Counts are carried out each year and a GPS tracking program is underway to track individuals equipped with a transmitter collar. A follow-up program by some schools is in place.
CHAMOIS serves as an indicator to prevent the risk of disease transmission between wildlife and domestic herds. Monitoring takes into account the number of individuals, the reproductive rate of the population and its health status.
The VARIABLE HARE, another emblematic species of the high mountain, is also under surveillance. a demographic study is carried out from droppings harvested from snow in winter by genetic analysis.
Several species of bats are among the animals of interest for the territory: the BARBASTELLE, the large and the small murine, the large and the lesser horseshoe bat, the Schreibers minioptera, the scalloped-eared murine, the Bechstein murine. Some of their lodgings are under-video surveillance and some hunting grounds are subject to acoustic monitoring; these techniques have the big advantage of not creating any nuisance.
But you have to be able to compare the park’s wildlife data with other unprotected areas. For this reason, the park collaborates on numerous networks such as the Mountain Galliform Observatory, the Observatory of The Great Fauna and its Habitats or the Large Carnivore Network of the National Hunting and Wildlife Office for the monitoring of the two large predators the WOLF and the lynx.
The Ecrins National Park offers a varied landscape ranging from the meadows to the high mountains, through the pastures and forests. This climatic context favours the development of a wide range of plant species. In addition to the floral inventories carried out through various research and conservation programs of the park, some species are of particular interest.
This is the case of rare species such as the blue thistle or QUEEN OF THE ALPS, which is studied in the Deslioures Directed Biological Reserve, in the Fournel valley. This site is currently the largest group of blue thistles in Europe. The DAUPHINE CINQUEFOIL also benefits from a follow-up due to its rarity.
Southern species characteristic of the Southern Alps are also being studied, including lawn and grass plants such as thuriferous juniper, NARD or evergreen sedge or species of high-altitude forests such as MELEZE and cembran pine.
The “Vertical Ecology” research program, developed by the Alpine Ecology Laboratory, studies the distribution and evolutionary history of species characteristic of alpine environments: high mountain cushion plants, such as musk saxifrage and MOSS CAMPION, clinging to steep walls in the high mountains.
Another program aims to study changes in climatic conditions through biological monitoring of peat bog mosses: sphagnum mosses.
Living organisms in the water are also studied: freshwater phytoplankton and the surprising Chlamydomonas nivalis, a microscopic algae found in glaciers.
Discovering the Parc des Ecrins
The Park Houses
There are seven Park Houses, one per region, as well as other seasonal information points. VALLOUISE PARK HOUSE is open all year round; the reception chalet at Pré de Mme Carle is open in July and August.
Park discovery programs are offered to the public on the basis of themed tours, activities and conferences. There are also permanent and temporary exhibitions and projection rooms, specific discovery materials made by agents, and a bookstore specialized in nature and the mountains containing books published by the park. The Park Houses are therefore privileged places in which the staff and the guard-monitors present also help in the preparation of the hikes.
Supervised discovery outings
The Ecrins National Park has set up a hundred outings supervised by guides or accompanying partners of the park, with the aim of safely discovering the natural, cultural and landscaped heritage, and local know-how. The programs vary according to the seasons and the regions of the park.
Various themes are at the heart of these walks: fauna, flora, geology, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, cultural heritage, security. In the spring, wildlife discovery trips are offered, such as meeting the yellow-bellied, small toad, rare and protected ringer near Embrun, or observing migratory birds over the Durance. In summer, a botanical outing is organized around the collection of wild plants that will be used to prepare a meal shared in the evening in cottage in Oisans. In Vallouise, fossils of marine animals can be discovered on the heights of the White At an altitude of some 2300 m.
A range of sports outings are also offered: hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing or skiing, day or night, sometimes coupled with dinners to enjoy the local cuisine, or outings on rock walls (climbing, via ferrata, mountaineering).
Regulation in the heart of ecrins National Park
In order to preserve the character of the park, this territory is subject to a special regulation that more or less strongly supervises certain activities in order to ensure their compatibility with the preservation of natural, cultural and landscape heritage. Be sure to learn about the regulations before you go for a walk.
Blue-white-red flags painted on rocks materialize the boundaries of the heart of the park.
No dog, even kept on a leash or carried on you, for the tranquility of wild animals and herds.
No harvesting of plants, no collection of fossils and minerals.
No hunting: all animals are protected.
No waste deposit in the wild.
No fire to avoid fire hazard and not to damage soils.
Don't feed wild animals: they must keep their wild behaviour towards humans and so does their good health!
No noise, no disturbance for the peace of all.
No camping to avoid pollution and preserve the sites.
Bivouac (tent or a summary camp for a single night, from sunset to the next morning) is permitted between 7pm and 9am at least one hour's walk from park boundaries or road access. If the camp is set up less than an hour's walk, it must be done near popular hiking trails (the Chaumette Meadow, on the edge of Lake Muzelle in Venosc and at the Pré des Selles on the shores of Lake Lauvitel in Bourg d'Oisans).
No vehicle outside the authorized lanes.
No mountain bikes for trail conservation.
The use of drones is prohibited.
The Esprit Park brand
Born in 2015, the Esprit National Park brand values the men and women who, within the national parks, share their passion for their territory, their know-how and nature. It certifies that the products and services offered are part of an ecological process that preserves biodiversity and heritage.
Photo credits: Clot Saint Joseph / Ecrins National Park