Created in 1989, the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park covers the three former regions of north-eastern France: Alsace, Franche-Comté and Lorraine. The ‘Ballons’ of the name refers to the rounded peaks of its mountains, which are much older – and therefore more eroded – than the Alps.
Criss-crossed by beautiful winding roads and secluded paths, this magnificent protected territory offers high altitude pastures, mountain ridges, wooded slopes, lakes, rivers and vineyards dotted with picturesque villages and towns.
The Grand Ballon d’Alsace, also known as the Ballon Guebwiller, is the highest peak of the park (1424 m). Home to an air traffic control radar station that looks like it belongs in a Bond movie, paths surrounding the summit give wonderful panoramic views over the region.
Also nearby stands the craggy Diables Bleu monument, erected by the Club Alpin Français in tribute to the battalions of infantry who fought in the First World War.
Skirting this summit, the road over the pass to the north of the Grand Ballon is occasionally used in the Tour de France. It is the only hors categorie (beyond categorisation) climb in northern France.
Another peak, the Hartmannswillerkopf (also known as the Vieil Armand), is a pyramidal rocky spur overlooking the Rhine valley. On it stands a national monument commemorating both the French and German troops killed in the battle to control the peak during the First World War. Fighting raged throughout 1915, leaving 30,000 dead – the majority of them French.
The cemetery surrounding the monument, overlooked by the wooded slopes of the summit, makes for a peaceful walk.
Secluded routes among the peaks abound with views like this from the roadside of the Chimin de Schnargult.
The Ballons des Vosges boasts abundant fauna and flora. The keen-eyed might spot peregrine falcons, deer and chamois. There are even lynx within the wilder parts and, back since 2011, grey wolves. There is even a chance you might spot the endangered Great Alsace hamster!
Among the wild plants look out for cranberries, mountain pansies, fringed pinks, sundews and medicinal plants like arnica.
These little roads also lead to picturesque hillside towns like Rimbachzell.
From here, even smaller roads take you higher up by car.
Or if you choose, you can continue your journey through peaceful woodland on foot.
One of the treasures of the Ballons des Vosges lies on the plateau of the Franche-Comté to the south-east of the park. It's known as the Mille Étangs or 'Thousand Ponds'. There are in fact about 850 ponds, many of them linked by paths.
These ponds were created more than 12,000 years ago when glaciers gouged the landscape to create basins in the soil. When the glaciers vanished humans continued the work, with monks and farmers in the 11th century extracting peat to create ponds.
The region is also famous for its vineyards and the charming towns that have prospered from centuries of winemaking.
This, for example, is the town of Kaysersberg. Set on the old Roman route between Alsace and Lorraine, it has paved streets and half-timbered buildings.
The Church of Ste Croix still has its Romanesque portal facing onto the market square.
A short way out of Keysersberg the vineyards line either side of the road. These slopes, like so many in the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park, enjoy the climate the Vosges mountains provide. Their shelter creates a drier climate that allows the fruit to ripen on the vine for longer. The result is the characterful Alsatian white wines, which can be sampled in many tasting centres as well as restaurants and cafés.
We’ll raise a glass to that!