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Where Royals Once Hunted in France, a Green Forest Welcomes Everyone

In popular imagination, France’s Fontainebleau is inextricably linked to its grand Château. But when I visit, I typically skip it entirely. Yes, the 1,500-room Château de Fontainebleau that was inhabited by French kings and emperors for eight centuries may seem the most arresting attraction in this region 37 miles south of Paris. Instead, it’s the surrounding forest that entices me to return again and again.

The 50,000-acre Forest of Fontainebleau was once prized by the royals for its exceptional hunting grounds. Now it is France’s second largest national forest and part of the Fontainebleau & Gâtinais UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, drawing 15 million visitors annually for bouldering, trail running, forest bathing and other activities, thanks to a topography that combines forested, wet and dry environments, and three massifs — Fontainebleau, Les Trois Pignons and la Commanderie.

“We have traces of mankind and engravings dating back tens of thousands of years,” said Sophie David, an archaeologist and Forêt d’Exception project manager with the National Forestry Office, or O.N.F. “That history is exceptional, but so is the 12,000 species of plant and animal life that make it among the richest sources of biodiversity in Europe.”

My introduction to the forest was 17 years ago, with my then-boyfriend and now husband, Cédric, an avid climber. I have spent the years ever since working to better understand the legendary place the French simply call Bleau.

My first visit was to Les Trois Pignons, on the forest’s western edge and among the most compelling sites for first-timers. I expected towering old-growth trees, mossy and lichen-covered woodlands, and a palpable air of mystery. I hadn’t anticipated the extraordinary geological diversity that awaited me.

From the Roche aux Sabots parking area, Cédric and I walked about 20 minutes on footpaths covered in sand, leaves and pine needles to reach Les Sables du Cul du Chien (literally, the sands of the dog’s ass), an immense waterless beach with fine sand more fitting of the Mediterranean. Surrounded by Scots pine and birch trees, the expanse was dotted with sandstone boulders of various shapes, sizes and levels of difficulty for climbing and hiking. The most iconic, as Cédric pointed out, was the Bilboquet. Resembling a cup-and-ball toy and isolated in the middle of the sandy clearing, the rock looked as if it had sprouted by magic. Wonder-struck visitors were snapping photos and picnicking around it, as they are most other days we visit.

This area’s setting, like the rest of the forest, results from a distinctive geological history. More than 30 million years ago, a sea covered the swath of earth now occupied by the forest. When the waters receded, they left behind the sand dunes and sandstone rock formations, which — unsurprisingly — set off a big business in sandstone quarrying, beginning in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, the material was used to build the Château’s iconic horseshoe staircase and was also transported along the Seine to be laid as cobblestones in Paris.

“That sandstone is a big part of what makes this forest such a mystical place,” said Lucien Martinez, an elite climber and the acting editor in chief of Grimper, a French rock-climbing publication.

Cormac O’Keeffe, 50, an Australian who has lived and worked in education in France since 2004, was similarly enchanted by the forest’s picturesque trees and thousands of species of mushrooms.

“I’d never seen such a gradient of greenness,” he said. “The sometimes-dense forest canopies of Fontainebleau give dark, rich-green groves and soft light.”

Beginning in the 1830s, the forest’s sylvan landscapes and animal-shaped boulders started attracting artists who settled in the nearby village of Barbizon, among them painters such as Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau. In painting the outdoors, they broke with French Royal Academy tradition wherein nature was meant to serve as the backdrop, but not the subject of any work. Their artistry would later be known as the Barbizon school of painting.

Simultaneously, Claude-François Denecourt, a veteran of the Napoleonic army said to have miraculously healed a depressive state by sauntering through the forest, took it upon himself to promote Fontainebleau to the general public — not as a wild, menacing place, but one of adventure and recreation.

In 1842, he laid out the world’s first signposted trails called les sentiers bleus, so named for the blue markings he painted on trees and boulders. Guidebooks, fountains, grottos and even guided tours followed and earned him great attention. Those with means discovered Denecourt’s forest, but it was with the arrival of the rail service to the nearby town of Avon in 1849 that his concept of nature tourism became truly accessible. Even today, the proximity to Paris — within an hour by train — remains one of the forest’s greatest assets.

A fight to protect the forest from overdevelopment, however, kicked off just as soon as Denecourt sought to open it up to tourism. Rousseau and other artists and intellectuals led a campaign to preserve the forest as they knew it. It worked: Napoleon III issued a decree in 1861 that turned Fontainebleau into the world’s first nature reserve — 11 years before Yellowstone in the American West was designated a national park.

The decree protected more than approximately 3,954 acres from cultivation, among them some 2,471 acres dedicated specifically to the work of artists. Today, those protected areas represent about 10 percent of the more than 372 miles, now maintained by the O.N.F. and the nonprofit Association of the Friends of the Forest of Fontainebleau, that welcome forest bathers, hikers, rock climbers, cyclists, trail runners, mountain bikers, horseback riders and urbanites in need of fresh air.

For boulderers, who engage in a form of rocking climbing that involve short and intense climbs on boulders without the use of ropes or harnesses, Fontainebleau is nothing short of a pilgrimage destination. In the 19th and 20th centuries, local mountaineers trained on the forest boulders and other areas to prepare for mountain excursions, and the practice gradually evolved into modern bouldering.

Now, according to the O.N.F., the majority of the area’s annual 15 million visitors come to boulder.

Unfortunately, signs of the forest’s popularity are visible everywhere in its most heavily visited parts.

Eroding trails, litter and unauthorized camping are now common issues. So is excess climbing chalk left behind on boulders, which can change the rock face over time. Several boulders have been barred in recent years because of soil and sandstone erosion and fragile vegetation.

On one of our last visits, parking lots were choked with vans and camping cars day and night. Groups of picnickers and climbers played loud music and used portable camping stoves, while others improperly disposed of their own waste. With that comes the ongoing risk of forest fires, 9 out of 10 of the dozens that break out annually, firefighters say, are the result of human negligence.

The solution isn’t as simple as adding more forest rangers. France’s public forest management differs from what is common in the United States, tasked only for monitoring the environment and welcoming the public. What is needed is a further awareness among visitors that they have an impact, regardless of what activity draws them to the forest.

“Families who picnic, remove their trash and stick to official paths certainly have a different impact than, say, the mountain bikers who skid all over or the climbers with chalk and crash pads,” said Ms. David of the O.N.F. “But it’s also the sheer number of visitors to the same areas. We know that 75 percent of visitors stay within 500 meters of the parking lots, which means repeated strain.”

She also anticipates a surge in interest during the Paris 2024 Olympic & Paralympic Games, given that rock climbing is an official discipline and the sport has become more mainstream. To prepare for additional visitors, the O.N.F. has updated its communication materials, with translations in English on its website and signs on forest parking lots, advising on good park stewardship.

“What we see now are a lot of city-dwellers who have completely lost their connection to nature, but come to the forest as they would to a climbing gym,” Ms. David said. “They crank up the speakers and want to climb at all hours. They come for the challenge of their sport and forget that they are guests in this natural space.”

More protections to the forest may come someday soon. The French Ministry of Culture has supported a bid to add the Fontainebleau Forest to the UNESCO World Heritage List as an extension of the Château de Fontainebleau and its parks. The forest was added to the World Heritage Tentative List in 2020, an important step that could lead to the French government supplying additional funds.

“The issue of overtourism isn’t only important for us all today,” Ms. David said. “If we don’t do anything, what future does the forest have for generations to come?”

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