Venturing out to Saint-Etienne, a small city about 45 minutes south of Lyon, you’ll notice that the beret quotient skyrockets – every third guy seems to be about 65 years old and wearing one. The city is quiet, its horizon dominated by two slag heaps in an enduring reminder of its has-been mining town status. It’s also at the threshold of the hilly Parc du Pilat, where a friend and I did some rando-ing last week.
From the SNCF station, a quick ride on the #04 bus to the Claudinon stop brought us to the head of the GR42 trail, which is impressively well-blazed and climbs immediately up into the park above the city.
Just five kilometers later we arrived at the village of Rochetaillée, a place notable for its château ruins. The ruins are open to the public, so we climbed up on the organized pile of old rocks and looked at the surrounding countryside from its tower.
Then, hoping to get sandwiches for a lunch break later, we accosted an elderly man who looked at us like we were unicorns to ask him if there was a boulangerie anywhere in town. Yes, there was one. Literally one (1).
The baker who emerged from the back room of the boulangerie covered in flour was astonished to see us. He had no sandwiches, alas, because he hadn’t planned on so many people (us) wanting them! We bought pastries instead, which we ate right away as we walked down the road out of town, diverging from the GR42 to enter the GOUFFRE D’ENFER (Maw of HELL, dun dun duuuun).
We weren’t really sure what we were looking for; we’d only come across brief descriptions of the area in a half-assed Google search the day before. The road meandered downhill and finally skirted a river, where we left it to take a trail into the woods, past a narrow but gushing white waterfall.
Very tame woods they were. The trails were wide-packed dirt, turning into concrete bridges in some places and wrapping around outcrops bound by metal railings. Little waterfalls tumbled here and there over the mossy rock. Everything was slick with ice but the sun kept the shivers away, until we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the shadow of the Barrage du Gouffre d’Enfer, an imposing dam that looked like something from Game of Thrones.
We climbed a winding set of snowy staircases built into the rocks next to the dam and were soon standing on the walkway on top, staring at the frozen river below us on the other side. The river banks looked like freshly cracked crème brulée and dark holes bubbled here and there on the water’s surface.
Shamelessly using Google Maps for navigation, we continued back into the trees along the ridge high above the river, past smaller frozen waterfalls and one overly optimistic sunning lizard in the dead grass, up to the village of Planfoy. There we followed the road back toward Saint-Etienne, a bit of guess-work that ultimately led us down a snowy well-marked farm trail that descended to the city. Given that hitch-hiking had briefly been discussed, the ease of closing our loop was a happy surprise.
We ended up close to where we’d stepped off the bus, having walked for about four hours. The hike had a few relatively steep climbs but wasn’t strenuous overall. We also didn’t spend too much time being lost, which left room for full appreciation of the ruins, the waterfall(s), and The Wall.