Regional Natural Park of the High-Jura
Straddling the regions of Franche-Comté and Rhône-Alpes deep in the Jura Mountains, the Regional Natural Park of the High-Jura extends over some 180,000 ha, across 115 municipalities.
The stunning array of landscapes it harbours can be explained by the fact that human activities there have successfully adapted over time to its natural geological and meteorological constraints.
Geological history at a glance
To understand how the Jura mountain range formed, we need to go back some 200 million years to the turn of the Secondary period. Back then, a vast sea covered the present-day Jura and Alps, where layers of sediments gradually built up (marl, salt and limestone).
Around the same time the dinosaurs went extinct, 65 million years ago, Earth’s European and African plates collided during the Tertiary period – pushing up the Alps and the Pyrenees. As they emerged, the Alps drove the sedimentary layers westwards, folding them into a meandering land mass measuring some 300 km long. And so the Jura mountains were born. To the east, the Folded Jura was formed from the thicker layers rippling while, to the west, the flat-lying Plateau Jura resulted from the overthrusting of the thinner layers.
During the Quaternary period, roughly two million years ago now, the Jura valleys were covered, every 100,000 years or thereabouts, with glaciers which smoothed and scoured the rocks. Hills became rounder, valleys became deeper, combes were hollowed out and transverse valleys (cluses) and steephead valleys were etched out in the landscape. As their parting gesture, the glacial alluvial deposits sealed the flat combe and valley bottoms, giving rise to a patchwork of lakes and peat bogs.
A unique geographic setting
Carving across the Park’s mountainous territory are the Bienne valley, home to the industrial towns of Saint-Claude and Morez, the Valserine valley, which stretches as far as Bellegarde, the Doubs valley, which sustains the lake at the Remoray natural reserve, and the Orbe valley, which continues on into Switzerland.
Across the High-Jura (Haute Chaîne du Jura), which is listed as a Natural Reserve, the Park’s territory peaks at 1,720 m at the Crêt de la Neige summit. Spreading out like a balcony overlooking the pays de Gex and Geneva, the Jura Mountains offer up a breathtaking panorama of the Alps mountain range.
Seven gateway towns are located on the Park’s periphery: the spa town of Divonne-les-Bains, the historic town of Gex, Ferney-Voltaire, developed by the famous philosopher, Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, the first town to get electricity back in 1871, the conurbation of Oyonnax, the French capital of plastic manufacturing, Pontarlier, a border town at the foot of Château de Joux, and Champagnole in the Jura, which sits on the River Ain.
The Park is a haven of remarkable fauna and flora
The terracing of vegetation here is quite extraordinary, from the alluvial forests of alders and willows in the lower Bienne valley, to the sites of mountain pines on the Crêt de la Neige.
Flowing through the valleys are a host of nourishing rivers, renowned for their trout, such as the Bienne, Orbe and Saine in the Jura, the “Wild River” listed Valserine and the Semine in the Ain, and the Doubs in the département which has been named after it. Mountain lakes nestling within peat bogs grace the valley bottoms, including Lac de l’Abbaye, Lac des Rousses and Lac d’Etival,
Spruce forests are predominant. Cultivated according to the selection system, they provide timber for construction, carpentry and cabinetwork. They are also a shelter for roe deer, badgers and pine martens, as well as lynxes, although these are very difficult to spot. Amongst the high peaks, ring ouzels and black woodpeckers thrive alongside the woodland grouse and Tengmalm’s owl.
Its combe landscapes, which feature a smart blend of grazing land and spruce forests, are ideal for all sorts of outings – unaccompanied and guided alike.
An adventure playground full of possibilities
In the winter, the High-Jura is considered a paradise for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Downhill skiers can indulge to their heart’s content on the slopes of the Rousses, Métabief and Monts Jura resorts.
The Grandes Traversées du Jura (G.T.J) routes criss-crossing the whole of the range can be enjoyed all year round. The Ligne des Hirondelles and its engineering structures, a scenic railway that runs right the way across the Jura, beckons lovers of beautiful scenery on an enriching journey.
Developments have been laid out to enhance visitors’ experiences of unusual natural environments like the Prénovel peat bogs, Lac de l’Abbaye in Grandvaux, the Doubs spring, the Borne au Lion boundary stone or the Orvaz and Fauconnière Rocks.
The High-Jura is abuzz with sounds too. The bells of grazing livestock, birdsong, the gurgling streams and the hustle and bustle of village life … all make up the region’s soundtrack. The sites with the most remarkable acoustics, known as "acoustic sites", host musical numbers and events every summer.
Traditions and good food
More than anything else, the High-Jura is a thriving local community.
The herds of Montbéliarde cows provide milk to make all kinds of cheese, such as comté, morbier, bleu de Gex and Mont d’Or, as well as local cheeses protected by the AOC quality label (French equivalent of the Europe-wide PDO), which you can buy at many local cheese dairies (known as fruitières) along the High-Jura Cheese Route (Route des Fromages du Haut-Jura).
Craftpeople are busy upholding various traditional trades, including woodturning, natural horn products, luxury goods, gemstone cutting, watch & clock-making, and the manufacture of pipes, toys or such fashion accessories as glasses or clothing buttons. Innovation is something they actively practise on a daily basis.
Come and admire their handiwork in the many museums, the studios of the craftsfolk themselves – who welcome the public all the way along the Skills & Crafts Route (route des savoir-faire) – and the Maison du Parc naturel régional du Haut-Jura in Lajoux. (www.tourisme.parc-haut-jura.fr)