Sourcing spots to camp sensibly in Fontainebleau is important, but the information isn't always clear. In this article, Alfie Jamieson shares his experience of campervanning in the forest...
Organising a recent trip to Fontainebleau in a motorhome, I had two things in mind: climb as much as physically possible and do it whilst staying within our tight budget. Climbing a lot in Fontainebleau was easy (as I'm sure everyone who has been knows!) but we did find it difficult to plan certainties for our campervan experience. There was little accessible information to be found and the majority of it was pessimistic that our chosen form of transport and accommodation could be done 'on the cheap' or without the use of a campsite.
We decided to go into Font fully prepared for a slightly more expensive part of our trip (we are travelling throughout Europe) but found that there were ways to make full use of our amenities on wheels and not pay for a campsite every night. Hopefully, the information below will help climbers visiting Fontainebleau to have the best time bouldering and do it on the cheap in a campervan.
As far as climbing goes, it's hard to know where to start with Fontainebleau, especially as most of what I'll say has been said before. Put simply; it's world class. However, in my opinion, where you climb in Font (and the possibilities are endless!) will depend on what you are looking for. After our most recent experience, my brother and I definitely did some things we wouldn't do a second time round and we'd like to share this experience so others can make a decision based on good information.
Of the main areas, my partners in climb and I spent most of our time in 'Les Trois Pignons' and its many sub-zones. The area of the forest is huge and has something for everyone; from families who want to access the sub area 'Rocher aux Sabots' from the car park in Noisy Sur Ecole with the benefit of a very easy walk in (suitable for prams) to experienced climbers looking to session a boulder problem in the 7s and even 8s in sub area '95.2'. With the compromise of a slightly longer/harder walk in there are many lone boulders which avoid the crowds, but there are also numerous problems right in the middle of the more established areas. Similarly 'Apremont' has much to offer. For young families there is an infant circuit right next to the car park that backs onto Barbizon, a typically French village with loads of places to eat and drink. Just a slightly longer, sometimes uphill walk away, there is the sub area of 'Chaos', which is more suitable for the serious climber.
Our very brief visit to Franchard was great, with a good mix of hard problems and also enough slightly easier ones for warming-up. In general, if you are a beginner, stick to the areas above because, on the whole, it is more suited to experienced climbers who will have a lifetime of problems to solve in most of the areas, which are big but compact as well.
Despite its warranted fame, Cuvier was a disappointment for us. It does offer a copious amount of quality problems with the added bonus of the easiest walk in a 'crag' can have. However, if you don't like crowds or queuing to climb a problem, Cuvier is probably not what you are looking for. We went on a Monday morning and it felt more like an indoor session than the Fontainebleau experience we were seeking and had had up until then….our doormat for our climbing shoes was taken! That is not to say it is not great for groups and families. We could see how going to try a problem with a few more people could have been great and outside the summer season it definitely won't be as busy, but if there are only a few of you and you prefer less people, Cuvier in the summer is not for you. Likewise, Elephant is famed for its ease of access and family friendly climbing (and picnic-ing). Nevertheless, it does get very crowded and most of the boulders are not shaded, which makes Elephant a less suitable area for a good climber who desires rock offering even a modicum of friction…the top-outs get hot in the summer!
With regards to the lesser-known areas, Gorge aux Chats is my favourite part of Fontainebleau, on all of my trips I have returned here. The small but compact area offers many a quality problem from beginner through to expert level. However, it is not the most family-friendly walk in compared with other areas in Fontainebleau and is most appropriate for groups of friends or individuals.
Upon arriving in Fontainebleau we were aware that staying in the wrong place/car-park with a campervan could lead to either being moved on or worse - fined. With this in mind we decided to check into a campsite in order to scope places to stay overnight before rushing into anything. We returned to La Musardière, a campsite we were all familiar with from previous visits and highly recommend; it's very near to Milly La Foret (a very nice market town in the heart of the forest), it backs onto both Les Trois Pignons and Gorge Aux Chats (both walking distance) for climbing and has all the amenities anyone would need at a campsite (even a bar and pizza restaurant, which provides fresh bread in the morning).
After a good stay in the campsite we decided that the parking at the west side of Les Trois Pignons was quite enough to stay overnight, it does not have any height restriction barriers (like many of the car parks in Fontainebeau) but most importantly to us, it seemed as though we would not be putting anyone else out by doing so. After reading some people's blogs on wild camper's use of the forest as a toilet we were adamant that we did not want anyone else to feel uncomfortable with our presence or feel that we were affecting the environment in a negative way. We planned to 'leave no trace' and after discussing options we decided that we could do this at the car park on the west side of Les Trois Pignons. There were also a few other camper vans who did the same thing and so it seemed like a good plan.
Despite the fact that the few nights that we did stay in Les Trois Pignons were the most pleasant of our trip (who wouldn't enjoy wine and food after climbing in the peace and tranquillity of the forest!) we were, eventually, confronted by a ranger one morning. He appreciated that we had been completely respectful and was very kind, stating that next time we were in for a 90 Euro fine…fair enough. We had been aware that we were slightly on the 'edge of the law' and had probably been a bit lucky to get away with it for as long as we did. Although there is no height restriction barrier for the car park on the west side of Les Trois Pignons, he let us know that we had still broken the car parking rules in Fontainebleau.
However, I have since been lucky enough to find out that vans within the height restriction can stay overnight and that it is motorhomes and tents that the forestry commission in Fontainebleau try to avoid. So if you do fit under the 2.20 barriers, I would highly recommend the car park at the west side of Les Trois Pignons, it's a safe and tranquil place to stay. Unfortunately for us, it was back to square one, we were going to have to try a bit harder to find a way of campervanning (or 'motor-homing'!) in Font.
After experimenting with Elephant's roadside parking, (which was not suitable - the area is used as a social getaway for groups of friends and the constant traffic will keep you up at night), we discovered Noisy Sur Ecole's free campervanning facilities, designed to prevent people parking in the Fontainebleau car-parks! It's got all the essential needs; a parking slot for waste water, a septic tank empty point, drinking water, lots of bins and although it may not be as pleasant as staying in the forest, it features big parking spots to stay in overnight…great! There is absolutely no obligation to stay overnight once you have used the facilities either, so if you are a climber looking to beat the mid-day heat by staying in one of the Fontainebleau car parks but just need some camper maintenance, look no further. This facility is on the road heading towards Les Trois Pignons just outside of Milly La Foret and despite it getting very full in the summer is perfect for the travelling climber.
After talking to a few people within the facility, we also found out that if it does become too full to park overnight or if you just want to beat the crowds, it's possible to park motorhomes overnight in the car park next to the tourist office in Barbizon. It does not provide campervan facilities but is a very safe and comfortable overnight stay. There are also three other free places to stay: Bois le Roi, which is situated in the north of the forest and just south of Melun; the hippodrome car park in Fontainebleau itself and Bourron Marlotte, which is on the south side of Fontainebleau. All of these car parks are situated next to the forestry houses and so are very safe.
By the end of our time we felt that taking a campervan/motorhome to Fontainebleau was easy. The free facilities exist and provide everything you need to keep your stay cheap and make the most of your amenities on wheels. It is illegal to stay over in the official car parks of Fontainebleau in a vehicle exceeding the 2.20 barriers but it is not in the tourist office car park in Barbizon, Bois le Roi, hippodrome and Bourron Marlotte. With the facilities outside of Milly La Foret you won't need a campsite unless you fancy some home comforts like a washing machine.
Watch a video of one of Black Diamond's 'Chasin' the Rubbish' events, designed to educate climbers on how to behave in the forest and protect the local environment. The following guidelines should be adhered to:
- NO fires
- Take rubbish and toilet paper out with you
- Clean your shoes of sand before stepping onto problems
- Brush away tick marks
- Stay on trails