Field Guide: Jura Mountains, France

A sublime landscape of towering limestone mountains, rolling fields, sun-drenched vineyards and untouched forests, the Jura region of eastern France tends to fly under the radar, but makes a great adventure destination.

15th September 2023 | Words by Dave Hamilton

It’s increasingly rare to find a holiday destination that qualifies as a true ‘hidden gem’, especially in Western Europe. After all, what’s left to discover? But the tucked-away villages and sparkling streams of France’s Jura region seem to have somehow managed to stay off the radar. In fact, most tourist guidebooks tend to only give the area the briefest mention, often as an afterthought to the nearby Alps. But this beguiling landscape of mountains and valleys nestled near the French-Swiss Border - a mere mountain ridge away from Lake Geneva - feels very much off the beaten track. And it’s just waiting to be explored.

When to go

What time of year you choose to visit Jura depends on what you want to do when you get there. February is the perfect time to visit for snow sports such as snowboarding and Alpine or Nordic skiing. In contrast, the best times for walking, trekking and hiking are early to mid-spring or from late summer into autumn, when the heat has died down. Alternatively, with plenty of local food festivals going on, as well as shady forest walks and opportunities to take a dip in lakes and rivers, it’s easy to stay cool if you decide to head to Jura during the height of summer for a fun-packed family holiday

Towns of the Jura Valley

Towns of Jura Valley


With high-speed TGV trains running directly from Paris, many travellers begin their Jura adventures in the historic town of Dole. A place of contrast, you’ll find narrow streets lined with independent shops housed in tall, local stone buildings with wrought iron balconies, Victorian street lights and large wooden shutters. This is interspersed with wide modern avenues containing a mix of high-rise housing, supermarkets, car parks and beautifully grand period properties.

Both the River Doubs and the Canal des Tanneurs run through the town, so there is plenty of opportunity to take a boat out for the day or even hire a river yacht for an extended waterborne excursion.

Whilst in the town, be sure to visit the Collégiale Notre-Dame, an impressive Gothic-Renaissance church, built in the 16th Century, with an imposing 73m tall belltower. This grand building dominates the town and its interior is just as impressive as its exterior.



The regional wine capital of Jura, no trip to this region is complete without a wine-tasting session in Arbois. The local Vin de Paille, or ‘straw wine’ was traditionally made by drying the grapes on straw mats to concentrate the sugar levels. This process dates back thousands of years and produces a strong, sweet dessert wine. Another regional speciality is Vin Jaune, a dry sherry-like wine made from Savagnin grapes. To try some of these regional specialities, Visit the Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois, in the centre of town. You can simply buy wine here or go for one of the wine tasting packages, which include a selection of mini-dishes to pair with each glass

Aside from wine tasting, Arbois is also home to many museums including local hero, chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who lived and worked in the town.



Situated in the narrow Valley of the Furieuse, Salins-les-Bains is home to the Royal Saltworks, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was built in 1775 during the reign of Louis XVI. This architectural masterpiece was one of the first factories to be built with the same amount of care and attention as you would a cathedral. Created to sit at the heart of an ideal, utopian city that never materialised, today the saltworks is a sprawling museum showcasing the fascinating history of salt production.

Aside from wine tasting, Arbois is also home to many museums including local hero, chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who lived and worked in the town.

Where to go and what to do

Swim in Lac Narlay

At 40m deep, the spring-fed Lac Narlay is the deepest of the Jura lakes. Situated on a limestone plateau, at a heady altitude of 748m, the lake’s clear blue waters cover a vast area of 40 hectares (100 acres). Much of the perimeter is wooded or backs onto meadows, so it has a relaxed, natural feel to it.

The lake is a perfect wild swimming spot and despite the campsite and café on the western shoreline, is not overrun with tourists. Admittedly, the campsite does get busy but even during the height of summer you can find quiet coves and beaches to relax and take a dip away from the crowds. Boating is not permitted on the lake but with depths ranging from the perimeter shallows to the deeper centre, it’s a great place for both serious swimmers and young children.

Legend has it that a village once stood on the site of the lake. One day a witch disguised as an old woman came looking for a place to stay. She was turned away by everyone except a blind man who lived on the edge of the village. Grateful for the blind man’s help but angry with the other villagers, the witch cast a spell, making it rain so relentlessly the village was submerged and only the blind man’s house remained. It is said that on Christmas Day you can hear a cockerel calling from the bottom of the lake.

Hike at Cascades du Hérisson

Hike at Cascades du Hérisson

A little southwest of the Lac des Mortes, within the glacier-cut Hérisson valley, you’ll find the magnificent Cascades du Hérisson, a chain of seven waterfalls on the Hérisson river. The largest two of these are the 65m l’Eventail and le Grand Saut, both spectacular cascades which, thanks to being fed by the nearby lakes, flow year-round, even in periods of low rainfall. It’s worth spending at least 3 or 4 hours in the area, aiming to visit as many of the waterfalls as you can. You will climb at least 250m in taking in all the waterfalls and walk around 8 to 10km, depending on your route.

There is a free car park on the D39 road, called ‘Parking du Belvédère de l'Éventail’. There’s also a pay and display car park, the Maison des Cascades, off the D326, close to the Relais de l'éventail Camping du Hérisson. You’ll find refreshments, including pizza and wine, at one of the restaurants in and around Ilay. La Trattoria des Cascades comes recommended for pizza and ice-cream after your hike, or for something a little more sophisticated, try L’Eolienne.

Hiking and Nordic Skiing at Chapelle-des-Bois

With characteristic wide red roofs, lush green meadows and rolling hills covered in dense conifer woodland, Chapelle des-Bois, close to the Swiss border, is Jura’s best kept secret. At 1,000m up, the air temperature remains cool even during the height of Jura’s hot summers. Combined with the many mountain trails, this makes it a paradise for walkers. Despite its forbidding name, Lac des Mortes (‘Lake of the Dead’) and its twin lake, Lac de Bellefontaine, on the border of the Doubs and Jura regions, make for stunningly beautiful places to walk.

During the winter you can hire skis and explore one of the many Nordic or cross-country ski routes in the hills above the village. Once down from the hills, be sure to visit the restaurant, Les Paturages for a delicious hot wine, a speciality of the region. The Fromagerie biologique de Chapelle-des-Bois, offers a range of delicious regional cheeses which are not to be missed. Be sure to try some Comté, the signature cheese of the Jura mountains.

Clip and Climb: Via Ferrata du Lac de Vouglans

The Via Ferrata at Lac de Vouglans is a clip and climb high ropes course, much like the GoApe courses we have here in Britain. However, this is where the comparison ends. With vertigo-inducing mountainside walkways and breath-taking views over the lake, there is enough to thrill even an experienced climber. You can either bring your own equipment or hire it at the site. Experienced climbers can do the course unsupervised or you can take advantage of the trained instructors who will take you around the course. The course is much, much cheaper than similar courses elsewhere and opens from the end of June until November.

Geological Wonders: Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne

Geological Wonders: Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne

The area south of Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne is a geological wonderland of caves and waterfalls. It’s also the source of the River Lison, which tumbles out of limestone caves. There is ample (and free) parking off the D477, following signs to the Source-de-Lison. From here it is a short but invigorating walk to see the waterfalls and caves. A 60m diameter sinkhole, fed by waterfalls, Les Cruex Billard is a must see after periods of high rainfall. It is found a short walk up from the cavernous source of the river. In typical French fashion there are signs everywhere telling walkers to keep off the rocks and walkways. Yet despite the signs, tourists climb to the viewing balcony to see Les Cruex Billard, albeit in the knowledge that they do so at their own risk.

Despite being a tourist hotspot, with cafes, restaurants and places to stay in the village, the region feels unspoilt and maintains much of its natural charm.

Jura Valley

Spectacular views: Belvédère du Pailly

On the D1005, between Mijoux and Gex, you’ll find The Belvédère du Pailly car park, a perfect spot to make a quick stop off for magnificent views over Lake Geneva and the Alps. At a height of more than 1,200m, from this vantage point you’ll gaze over Lake Geneva as the Alps rise majestically above the clouds. On a clear day you can see as far as Mont Blanc.

Although more of a stopping-off point than a destination in itself, you can take a cable car up from Mijoux to the Vue sur Le Mont-Blanc, which is both a viewing platform and a skiing destination. Outside of ski season there are some great walks in the area and with a vantage point of over 1,500m, you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular views.

Cascade de Beaume

A little south of sleepy Solignac-sur-Loire village, which has a beautiful historic church called Église Saint-Vincent, you’ll find the Cascade de Beaume. Tumbling over moss-covered boulders, the spray from this waterfall is much appreciated on a warm summer’s day. It’s a little walk down to the falls from the car park at the top but easily achieved in 20 minutes or so.

Getting there

In terms of both distance and time, driving from London to the Jura Valley is comparable with driving from England’s capital to the Scottish Highlands. There are two main ways to get to France. Firstly, you can take one of the many daily ferries, or secondly put your car on Le Shuttle and head under the channel to the continent. Being positioned quite centrally, Jura is within easy reach of most major European cities; it’s around 4 hours from Paris, 5-6 hours from Stuttgart and a little over 3 hours from nearby Zurich.

Public transport in Jura

Dole acts as an important transport hub for those exploring the Jura region. To get to Dole from Paris takes only a little over 2 hours on the TGV high-speed train. From Dole there are a reasonable number of stops to smaller stations such as Arbois, Mouchard and Lons le Saunier. There are irregular buses which run from Bellegarde-sur-Valserine through Champfromier to Lelex, where you can catch a gondola up into the mountains. However the service is frustratingly infrequent, so it is no surprise that many people choose to hire a car when visiting the region.


Situated at the heart of Moirans en Montagne, the Lacuzon Hotel acts as a perfect gateway to the Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park. Prices are comparable, if not slightly lower than a budget hotel in the UK without ever feeling like a low-cost option.

For bed and breakfast accommodation on a low budget, it’s hard to beat Gite Evidence in Varennes-sur-le-Doubs. In the summer there is an outdoor swimming pool, shared garden and terrace. Inside you’ll find a comfortable visitors lounge.

One of the best places to stay in Arbois is the Logis Hotel des Messageries. It’s a charming, ivy clad hotel right in the heart of the old town. It offers a sumptuous buffet breakfast and clean spacious rooms, all at an affordable price.


Food is a serious business in France and no less so in the Jura Valley. Even the smallest of villages can be home to high class eating establishments, bars offering hearty local food and hotels with excellent menus.

For example, tucked away a little south of Gorge de La Saine, you’ll find the small La Table du Bugnon, a small chalet restaurant attached to Domaine du Bugnon. A favourite haunt of locals, this tiny eating establishment serves good quality dishes at very affordable prices.

For high-class dining head to Le Bois Gourmand, in Champagnole. This Michelin-starred restaurant on the outskirts of the town has a great selection of wines and an unusually good selection of vintage Armagnac dating right back to the end of the Second World War. Down in the town, on Avenue de la Republique, you’ll find a whole host of restaurants with everything from street food and pizza to traditional French cuisine and even an excellent Indian restaurant

For cuisine unique to the Jura region, head to Arbois where you’ll find the cosy Le Grand Taureau. The restaurant serves local wines and local dishes like Poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken) and of course dishes containing the famed and delicious local Comté cheese.

Jura Field

Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes forBBC Wildlife, Countryfile, andWalk magazines.

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