Cascade d’Ars (or the Ars Waterfall) was certainly one of the few waterfalls we had to physically work for in while in France. So was the effort worth it?
Well, this waterfall was both impressive and memorable mostly because of its unique shape where it plunged in a classic drop before fanning out and then converging once again as it cascaded its way towards the neighboring spa town of Aulus-Les-Baines. It was said to drop 246m in the three successive stages. Even though the height figure sounded generous, its figure might be more true than what we initially thought given that we kept looking up at it. As a testament to its size, we were able to see parts of it while driving the D32 towards the town of Aulus-Les-Baines (though we don’t have a very good photo of this vantage point).
Aulus-Les-Baines resided in the Haut Couserans ranges within the department of Ariège in the Midi-Pyrénées region. Unlike Gavarnie and the Bridge of Spain, this part of the Pyrenees felt much quieter.
Despite the fact that we could see it from far away from the road, this waterfall kind of teased us in that once we got to town, we couldn’t be able to see it again until we got close enough to it on the trail. And speaking of trail, it was relentlessly uphill trail for the entire hike.
Along most of the path, we noticed a handful of signs with colored bears on them (I’m not sure what l’ars means, but could it have to do with bears? More on bears later on this page). These markers were keyed to a sign at a trailhead indicating how far along the trail we had gone. I suspected that the bears might have been spaced roughly 0.5km or so apart.
We only managed to notice the green, blue, yellow, and black bear. We somehow missed the rest. The black bear was at the inconspicuous lookout for the falls, which was how we were able to tell we were at the best spot to view the Cascade d’Ars. However, up until that point, it was difficult to get a clean look at the waterfall given that trees were generally in the way.
In any case, as the trail climbed for the first 40 minutes or so, it gradually flattened out somewhat passing by a pair of trail junctions. We stayed the course and proceeded to the waterfall so we can’t say more about where those other trails went.
Fortunately, most of this section of trail was in the shade thanks to the trees. However, when the trail crossed the bridge traversing the stream responsible for the waterfall (about an hour into the hike), that was when the trail climbed relentlessly once again. This time, the switchbacks were even steeper and the trail was narrower! Needless to say, we got a pretty good workout from this hike and we could understand why there was a calorie counter on that same map sign at the trailhead with the colored bears keyed to it.
All things considered, it took Julie and I about 90 minutes (pretty much as the signage here predicted) to get up to the official view of Cascade d’Ars. I did continue to ascend up the trail for a few more minutes to get closer to the waterfall, but the views generally got worse the further I went. I ultimately turned back when I got to an informal spur trail that took me besides the stream where I could feel the mist from the wide part of the waterfall. Looking downhill from here, I was able to see the town of Aulus-Les-Baines looking quite tiny, which indicated just how far we walked to get here!
Given the network of trails here, I’m sure there were many possibilities to extend the hike and maybe even go above this waterfall or up to some mountain pass (or col). Nonetheless, we were pretty satisfied with the waterfall itself, and we enjoyed the all-downhill walk to get back to the car (which we managed to do in an hour thanks to gravity helping us).
To get to the trailhead for the falls, you first have to get to the town of Aulus-Les-Baines. We happened to drive here from the St-Savin or Lourdes area, which was about a solid 2.5 hours drive via a combination of the autoroute A64 and several local roads along the D117, D3, and D32 leading to Aulus-Les-Baines. Once in town, there were signs leading us across a bridge then uphill to the first hairpin bend of the D8F. That was where there were limited pullout spaces on both sides of the road around the hairpin.
Something worth mentioning was that as we drove around the Ariege area, we couldn’t help but notice graffiti on the roads saying “NON OURS” practically everywhere we went. If my interpretation of the meaning of l’ars is correct, then perhaps all this is in reference to a push by the O.U.R.S. (which stands for Ordonnance Uniformisée de Randonnées de Santé [Uniform Ordinance of healthy hiking?], which also seemed to be the authority in charge of the upkeep of trails like the one we did for Cascade d’Ars) to reintroduce bears back into the Pyrenees. The native Pyrenean bear was originally hunted to extinction. We could be wrong, but we speculated that all OURS-related graffiti were from locals protesting this move as it probably threatens livestock.
For additional context, Aulus-Les-Baines was 133km (2 hours drive) south of Toulouse, 142km (2.5-3 hours drive) southwest of the historical walled city of Carcassonne, 456km (over 5 hours drive) west of Marseille, and 590km (over 6 hours drive) southwest of Lyon.
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