The Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne encompasses the whole of the western edge of the Massif Central, from Vichy in the north to Aurillac in the south. It consists of three groups of extinct volcanoes the Monts-Dômes, the Monts-Dore and the Monts du Cantal linked by the high plateaux of Artense and the Cézallier. It's big, wide-open country, sparsely populated and with largely treeless pasture grazed by the cows whose milk produces Cantal and St-Nectaire cheese.
The park organization, whose headquarters are at the Maison du Parc, Château de Montlosier, 20km southwest of Clermont-Ferrand just off the Mont-Dore road (MayOct MonFri 8.30am12.30pm & 15pm; tel 04.73.65.64.00), oversees various subsidiary maisons du parc, each a kind of museum devoted to different themes or activities: fauna and flora, shepherd life, peat bogs and so on.
The best way to understand the park, its landscapes and activities is to walk or bike around it. Four GR footpaths cross or make circuits within the park. The GR40 runs from north to south. The GR441 makes a circuit round the Monts-Dômes, called the Tour de la Chaîne des Puys. The GR400 encircles the Cantal mountains, and the GR30 the lakes of the Artense plateau and Cézallier, under the title of the Tour des Lacs d'Auvergne. There are also lots of shorter walks; ask at local tourist offices for more information, and for details of mountain bike rental.
The towns in the area are few and of secondary interest, although Orcival, Murat and Salers are unexpectedly attractive; St-Nectaire contains an exceptionally beautiful small church in the distinct Auvergne version of Romanesque; and St-Flour and Aurillac have an agreeable provincial insularity.
Pages in section ‘Parc des Volcans’: Clermont-Ferrand, Riom, Vichy, Monts-Dore, Monts du Cantal.