France’s Occitanie region is stuffed with visual and architectural delights. But the region highlights a select number of these gems with the label “Grands Sites.” During our winter holiday in Cauterets we had the chance to explore one of the more majestic ones on that list: Pont d’Espagne.
Located at about 1,493 meters up, the Pont d’Espagne was once upon a time a trading route between France and Spain. Located in the Pyrénées National Park in the Hautes Pyrénées Departement, the valley now is pastoral wonderland in the summer that leads to Lake Gaube. But in the winter, it’s another world where people hike, snowshoe, and cross-country ski.
Our trip drive from Cauterets began with some uncertainty about the conditions. After some heavy snowfall in early February, we were arriving in the Pyréneées amid what felt like tropical conditions. Though there was still snow at higher altitudes like the Cauterets’ Le Lys ski station, in the city itself and the surrounding valley the snow had all but disappeared.
But when asking around about whether we’d need snowshoes to hike the Pont d’Espagne, we got a mix of respones from “no” to “it might be a good idea” to “there’s no snow there” to “there’s still a lot of snow there.” Okay. We had good winter boots, so we decided to risk it and skip the snowshoes.
The drive from Cauterets is about 8km along a winding road. On the way up, we gained another 500m in altitude. So the conditions at the Pont d’Espagne were nothing like those in Cauterets below. Getting a touch nervous and debating whether we’d made a huge mistake on the showshoes, we nevertheless barrelled on to the parking lot, where you take a ticket to enter and pay a small fee on your way out.
A Snowy Hike
The terrain along the Pont d’Espagne was both more interesting and offered more choices than we expected. One can take a little gondala from the parking lot that carries you just a short distance further up to the ski area. We started walking straight up, and fortunately, we found lots of snow that was hardpacked and so very walkable without snowshoes.
From the parking lot, the views turns spectacular almost instantly. The Pyrénées may not be as high as the Alps, but they have their own majesty in both summer and winter. And on a sunny day with still plenty of snow on the ground, we seemed to have found just the right mix for a great winter hike.
One helpful thing to know about the “Pont d’Espagne” is that there is a bridge with that name, but it also refers to the valley itself. Looking at a tourist map, I wasn’t sure initially if the walk was just to this first little bridge or further in. Not long after we set out, we arrived at the physical Pont d’Espagne where water rushing underneath offered a dreamlike landscape. Not a bad start.
From there, another couple of minutes brings you to the Hôtellerie du Pont d’Espagne. The hotel offers some basic rooms and a restaurant that already seemed pretty tempting though we had just eaten breakfast. Would we be horrible human beings if we just stopped here and baked in the sun for awhile? Yes, absolutely. Plus, more wonders beckoned. Onward.
Another short climb from behind the hotel took us to the top of the gondola, and then the Refuge du Clot. There is a network of such refuges that stretch across the Pyrénées and it’s definitely on our to-do list to spend a week hiking from refuge to refuge during the summer.
Next to Clot is a litle ski school…
And then a little sledding area where people had carried their sleds from the parking lot…
We were content to just walk. There was a mix of people on snowshoes and cross-country skis. Fortunatley, we were comfortable and relaxed in our boots.
It doesn’t take long to understand why Pont d’Espagne is so highly regarded. Each turn as we moved south toward the Spanish border through the valley brought another astonishing view of the surrounding mountains.
Eventually, the condition began to feel a bit more challenging. There was one particularly steep climb that was icy and a struggle to finish. The one consistent bit of advice we had gottten in advance was that without showshoes, it would be tough to go much further than the Pont du Paradis.
About an hour in, we approached Paradis, and decided to head back down for lunch, pausing for one last glimpse around.
In a bit of luck, we arrived back at the Hôtellerie for a wonderful lunch of local faire. We sat outside on the terrace which was packed. The sun was bright and warm. The waitress was a self-styled comedian who couldn’t resist cracking jokes each time she passed by our table. The food was delicious.
And for additional entertainment, we had this picturesque view of the waterfall while we ate. As a last look at the Pont d’Espagne, it was a near-perfect way to end the trip.