Fontainebleau, France is a town only 55km south-east of Paris. It has a lovely Château, heaps of forest…oh and it’s also home to the biggest bouldering mecca in the world! Fontainebleau (we’ll be calling it ‘Font’ from here, though the French apparently call it ‘Bleau’) is surrounded by an incredible 300 sq. km of forest scattered generously with countless sandstone boulders ranging from small child-friendly scramblers to giant 15m high-balls. They say no one person can climb every problem in Font in a single lifetime…that’s the sort of scale we’re talking about. But hopefully this Fontainebleau bouldering guide will help you begin.
So what do you need to know about getting there, staying there and climbing there? Well, read on as I break it down.
When to Visit
Obviously you can visit anytime but when’s best if you want to maximise the amount of time you have for crushing and sending? With Font, it’s all about guessing when it’s going to be dry and not too hot. Obviously both metrics vary throughout the year and from one year to another so let’s look at some averages.
According to weatherspark.com, the so called ‘dry’ period in Font with the least chance of rain runs from about late June to late September. And there’s also a little dip in rainfall from late February to Early March.
Great, but exactly how hot is it going to be. I don’t know about you but I prefer to not climb and create more body heat when I already feel like I’m on the surface of the sun.
In late June, temperatures average from about 72°F/22°C rising to 78°F/26°C (or even as high as 90°F/32°C!) in early August. These may not sound like hot temperatures but in reality it may feel a lot hotter if there’s little wind or cloud cover. But it usually cools back down again by early September.
So it really depends on what kind of climber/person you are, if you don’t mind climbing in hotter temperatures then you could go anytime within that dry period of late June to late September. If, on the other hand, you prefer cooler temperatures then you’ll probably want to go either in that dry dip from late Feb to early March or that cooler dry period in September.
A Note on Climbing if it Rains
In short, if the rock is still wet or damp, don’t do it. It can damage the boulders as they become more fragile when wet and if other climbers see you they’ll probably give you a telling off! What you can do is try your luck and go to areas that are more likely to dry quicker as they have less tree cover such as 95.2.
Or alternatively, if it doesn’t look like the rain’s going to stop anytime soon and you’re dying to get some climbing done, you can head to the local climbing wall Karma. They’re open 7 days a week and having bouldering as well as rope climbing.
A Note on Busyness
Font is popular not just for climbers but for other outdoors-y types as well including hikers, mountain bikers and horse-riders. The forest is big enough for this not to be an issue as you can just go to lesser known/less popular bouldering areas (there are plenty!). But this may have an impact on availability of accommodation.
French schools tend to break for summer around early July and Bastille Day, a national holiday, takes place on the 14th of July. So early to mid July will likely be quite busy times so book your accommodation early.
How to Get There
Access to a car or bicycle is a must to get around in Fontainebleau as there is no public transport around the forests!
Flying to Paris, France
There are plenty of low cost options for flying into Paris though watch out for those oversize baggage charges if you plan on bringing your crash pads! You may wish to rent some crash pads/boulder mats when you get there instead.
UK to France Options
- Eurostar Train (Foot Passengers) from London to Paris
- Takes just over 2.5 hours. You can then rent a car or continue on by train from Paris to Fontainebleau Avon station (another 45 mins) – though renting a car is highly recommended for getting to the bouldering areas.
- Eurotunnel Train (With a Car) from Folkestone to Calais
- Make your way to Folkestone in Kent, a port where you can drive your car onto the eurotunnel train which will take you to Calais, France. The journey is very quick, around 35 minutes and you generally just stay in your cars. And no unfortunately you can’t see any sea life!
- Being quicker than the ferry, you do pay more for this convenience.
Price – they vary massively for the eurotunnel depending on the time of year starting from £44 for a single journey with a car. Like flights, it’s best to get them earlier if possible, especially when going at peak holiday times.
- Ferry (Foot Passenger or Car) from Dover to Calais
- Drive to Dover, Kent and follow the signs for the port. Both DFDS Seaways (15 crossings per day) and P&O Ferries (23 crossings per day) make this journey. The crossing itself takes about 1 hr 30 mins.
Paris to Fontainebleau
There’s a train that runs from Gare de Lyon, a major rail station in Paris, to Gare de Fontainebleau Avon. The journey takes just over an hour and costs around €11.
PARISCityVISION runs tours to Fontainebleau and Vaux-le-Vicomte castles from Paris, departing from their agency located at 2 rue des Pyramides 75001 Paris. Best to call and double check they’re running on the day though just in case.
Calais to Fontainebleau
I’ve personally found a car to be the best mode of transport for getting from Calais to Fontainebleau. Getting around Font to the climbing areas is very difficult without a car so you’d probably need to rent a set of wheels there anyway.
When choosing what route to take, whatever you do – do not go directly through Paris. It’s a major headache! Instead, use the motorways and more minor roads that go around Paris, it may add a few more minutes on but you’ll gain way more by reducing your stress levels.
And try to have a few people in your car, there are toll roads along the way and they can add up if you don’t have friends to split them with..
Where to Stay
There’s lots of different options when it comes to accommodation out there and it really all depends on your budget and how comfortable you want to be.
Wild Camping (Free!)
This is where you just sort of camp in a spot that isn’t a certified campsite.
Is wild camping legal in France?
Technically no, but if you’re smart and respectful about it, you’ll be left alone or not seen. The main thing is finding the right spot. Aim for wooded areas that aren’t too close or in view of busy areas or tourist spots. And for goodness sake do NOT start a fire no matter how small. That is illegal, very noticeable and likely to get you into trouble with the law. Nobody wants a forest fire.
Because of all the trees, this would be a great opportunity for a spot of hammock camping, if you don’t have one yet, check out our article on the best camping hammocks [here].
VanLife / Sleeping in your Car (Free!)
Depends how comfy your car is but it is a great low cost option. Just chuck a mattress (or your crash pads in true dirtbag climber style) in the back with your sleeping bags. The question of where, like with wild camping you have to be smart about where you decide to bed down. The parking lots of bouldering areas can be a good place (watch out for doggers) or you can drive around and find a slightly tucked away lay-by or fire break. Just make doubly sure you’re not parking where people will need to get in and out e.g. emergency services, someone’s garage.
There are a few campsites dotted around including:
- Camping île de Boulancourt – large campsite with a variety of offerings from wooden cabins to spaces for caravans/campervans and for tents. Facilities include crash pad and bicycle hire, washing machines and wifi.
- Camping les Près – beautiful large campsite set over 17 acres by the medieval village of Grez sur Loing and the Loing river. Facilities include crash pad rental, canoeing with space for tents, caravans and motorhomes. You’re further away from climbing here so will need a car but you do get a more picturesque setting.
- Camping La Musardière – popular campsite in walking distance to Trois Pignons and the climbing there so a decent option if you don’t have a car. Can get quite busy and noisy depending on the time of year. Has a pool though be sure to wear extra tight swimwear!
There’s a hostel in La Chapelle-la-Reine (http://www.fontaineblhostel.com/home.php ) that does shared and private rooms. They have a common area with tables/sofas and a shared kitchen. If you’d rather not risk wild camping they also have the option to camp in their garden. There’s parking available across the street and is in the town so it’s close to a cafe and patisserie. A supermarket is also a short drive away. Prices vary by time of year and room type.
Airbnb ($ - $$$)
For those who’ve been living under a rock for the last few years (always a real possibility with climbers), Airbnb is a great option for finding private homes (or rooms) that are being rented out to holidaymakers. It’s super easy to find available options depending on your budget, dates and desired location.
Each property comes with plenty of pictures and reviews. You can usually find some splendidly quirky there e.g. tower house with a pool, a room with a hot tub right beside the bed – just some of the treasures I saw when I had a quick look!
Prices vary from as little as $10 a night for a small room to over $1000 a night for a luxury villa!
Gîte ($ - $$)
Another great option is to rent out a gîte (rural furnished vacation house in France). Can be a great option if you have a large group as it can often work out cheaper than the other options. Some gîte options include:
Hotel ($$ - $$$)
As for hotels, you could give the Formula 1 hotel in Moret-sur-Loing a try – quite popular with climbers. It is part of the Accor hotels group and is actually rather budget friendly though generally less character-ful than the gîtes or options on airbnb. Rooms start at $35 a night.
If you’re after something altogether more luxurious be it the rooms or the service, there are a bevy of fine hotels in the area such as the current #1 rated hotel in Fontainebleau on Tripadvisor, Château de Bourron with rooms starting at $160.
Bouldering in Fontainebleau
Littered throughout the 42,000 acres of forest are sandstone boulders of every size and shape, erosive remnants from the Oligocene age. Many of these boulders have been cleaned and become bouldering problems. These problems are organised into circuits which are color-coded by difficulty.
Font Grading System and Circuits
Climbing circuits in Font are marked by painted dots or arrows of colour and a number. The colour indicates what grade range the climb is in (as per this table) and the number is to help you find the climb in guide books and keep track of where you are in the circuit.
Best Fontainebleau Guidebooks
Quite a few guide books have been written about this extraordinary climbing region and below we’ve listed some of the most popular along with commentary. When you consider the fact that there are more than 10,000 climbs in Font of different grades, circuit vs non-circuit etc – it all couldn’t fit into one book, especially when you include topos (mapping), descriptions and photos! Therefore, authors tend to try and slice the pie in different ways i.e. take different aspects to solely focus on.
As a result, different guide books will be more suitable for some climbers and less so for others. Are any of these you?
“It’s my first time in Font and I climb below 7A”:
- Fontainebleau Climbs by Francoise Montchausse, Jacky Godoffe, and Jo Montchaussé – for those visiting Font for the first time, circuits are a great way of getting to know the area, getting lots of problems done and it’s lots of fun. Fontainebleau: Montchausse just so happens to be the guidebook for circuits. It covers an amazing 40 areas containing more than 100 circuits with almost 3000!
“I climb below 7A but don’t want to do circuits”:
- Fontainebleau 5 + 6 by Bart van Raaij – non-circuit classic climbs are listed here in the intermediate 5th and 6th grades.
- Top Secret and Fun Bloc by Jingo Wobbly – as with all Jingo Wobbly guidebooks, there are both positives and negatives. On the one hand, the topos he creates are some of the best and it’s quite easy to understand where climbs are and he painstakingly photographs and shows you the routes on boulders. On the other hand, that leaves little space for descriptions of how best to do climbs resulting in an overly complicated symbol system that certainly takes some getting used to. He could stand to lose some symbols but overall they are worth getting. His other guidebook Magique though I would not recommend just purely down to the amount of filler and ads!
“I’m an advanced climber and want to focus on harder stuff (above 7A)”:
- Font a Bloc by Jacky Godoffe – highly recommended for those climbing 6c and above. What we like about this guidebook is that it doesn’t cover every single climb or area but instead only includes a carefully chosen selection of climbs – like fine wines! It’s also very well photographed and organised making the climbs fairly easy to find in the maize of boulders that make up Font.
- Fontainebleau 7 + 8 by Bart van Raaij – only contains harder climbs (6c+ onwards) so if you have a mixed group or fancy some easier days, best get another guidebook to supplement this one. If you aren’t familiar with the area, it can be hard to find your way to the climbs as this guide lacks photo-topo’s.
- Essential Fontainebleau by John Watson & Colin Lambton – really handy and affordable guide that cherry picks the best circuit and non-circuit climbs in 40 areas. Not really for the advanced climber spending weeks in the forest but enough for those passing through or visiting for a long weekend. Easy to find your way around and also offers advice on making the most of your time in Font.
A Note on Ego
If you’ve been climbing for a few years and think of yourself as a pretty decent climber and that you’re going to crush every problem you come across in Font you need to stop right there. Font is where egos go to die. The grades you climb at the gym just aren’t going to translate into the grades you climb over there. Just be prepared for that now because many a climber has had a terrible trip to Font due to their own high expectations for themselves. Let your expectations go now and you’re going to have a much better time, promise.
Leave No Trace
As bouldering has gained in popularity over the last few decades, so has Font. And unfortunately as a result there’s been a noticeable increase in litter and left-behind toilet paper (sometimes under actual climbs!).
You can help turn this tide by just remembering to take with you anything you bring into the forest. Even better, take someone else’s litter with you. Try to have bowel movements before you come out :p. If it can’t be avoided then walk far away from the boulders and trails and bring a trowel to dig a hole. Do your business in the hole and put your toilet paper in there too. Cover the hole up. Done. (Wash your hands, nobody wants to climb on a route with human excrement on the holds) ;).
What to do on Rest Days
If you’re lucky enough to be in Fontainebleau for more than a few days or a week then it’s recommended you take rest days. It’ll do your poor muscles and skin a world of good so you can recover enough to really throw yourself at the rock on other days. (And nobody likes blood all over a route :p)
Going to the château is an absolute must for a rest day – a UNESCO world heritage site and residence of previous French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III. Originally a medieval castle, the château was ideally situated for kings to enjoy the game hunting in the surrounding forests.
Steeped in history with opulent gardens and even more opulent rooms – a fantastic day out.
And of course there are numerous other activities you can enjoy in the forests around Fontainebleau including walking, mountain biking and horse riding. Paris, with all it’s cultural heritage, is only a brief drive or train journey away. Versailles is also very easy to reach as well as Disneyland Paris if the kids are with you or you just fancy it. 😉
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