The woods around Fontainebleau have a reputation as one of the best places in the world to boulder. Thousands of sandstone boulders, with tens of thousands of boulder problems, scattered about a pretty forest that covers some 300 square kilometres. Fontainebleau also has a reputation as being a great place to take kids. That’s a reputation that my wife and I have found to be deserved on our trips over the last few years. It’s been a bit daunting and challenging at times taking a teething baby and then an energetic toddler on climbing trips in a foreign country, but it’s also been fun and taught us things about being parents.
Here are a few of the things we’ve learned about going bouldering in Fontainebleau with a toddler.
The bouldering at Fontainebleau can be really accessible. Some of the sectors are only minutes from a car park and others can be reached in a 10-15 minute walk. These walks are usually straightforward and easy. There’s a network of broad tracks through the forest and the landscape is mostly either flat or gently undulating, with only the occasional hill. These tracks will get you most of the way to the bouldering sectors and then it’s often a short walk through the trees to the actual climbing.
This means that you often see parents using a buggy. Valerie and I haven’t done this on our trips to Fontainebleau because a buggy would take up too much space in our car (in which a lot of the space is taken up with bouldering mats) and there are some parts of the woods that are so sandy or boulder-strewn that a buggy is impractical. If you do want to take a buggy, the maps in the Jingo Wobbly guidebook Fontainebleau Fun Bloc might be useful as they have symbols showing which area are and are not buggy-accessible.
As much as possible, we’ve tried to encourage our son Leo to walk. However, as every parent will know, there are times when any toddler just isn’t going to walk. On our last trip to Fontainebleau, we used an ErgoBaby (a soft structure carrier, suitable from about 9 months for back carries) or a cloth wrap to carry him. On our most recent trip, he was just a bit too big for the ErgoBaby, and we were out of practice with the wrap, so Valerie or I simply carried him in our arms or popped him on our shoulders.
Take a bucket and spade
The boulders at Fontainebleau are sandstone and that means lots of sand. This makes for better landings when bouldering and for clearings in the forest that are like inland beaches. These clearings are a great place to set up camp for the day. We would throw a picnic blanket down under some trees on the edge of one of these clearings and Leo would contentedly play in the sand with a bucket and spade, burying his toys.
You don’t have to take a picnic blanket to sit on (you could sit in the sand or on a rock), but it helps. However, even with a picnic blanket, you have to prepare for the sand getting into things and surprisingly amounts of sand being inadvertently brought back to wherever you are staying.
Just mucking about in the woods
The sand is just one of the many things that makes Fontainebleau a giant, wonderful, natural playground. Playing in the woods is great fun for a kid and Fontainebleau makes it even better by adding boulders that they can run between and scramble around on. There are even sometimes tunnels and caves to explore. With other kids playing about at the same time, there is usually a good, relaxed family atmosphere.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t the odd hazards in this forest and these can include hornets, snakes and wild boar. However, I’ve never seen any on my trips, probably because we’ve gone to the sort of areas of the forest where the activity of lots of people scares them away.
The one real issue we’ve had is trying to ensure that Leo does not get in the way of climbers. We have done our best to teach him that it’s dangerous for him to stand under someone who is bouldering and he understands this to an extent. However, as any parent knows, the problem is that toddlers get caught up in what they are doing and aren’t always attentive to what’s around them. As the ground in Fontainebleau is sometimes uneven and the terrain rocky in places, there is also the possibility of an excited toddler taking a nasty trip or fall. So Valerie or I have needed to follow Leo quite closely as he plays to make sure he’s safe.
Bouldering for toddlers
Part of keeping this close eye on Leo was attentively spotting him whenever he went climbing on the boulders. The huge number and variety of boulders make Fontainebleau is a bouldering playground for adults and it’s just as much a great place for kids to climb.
There are even specific bouldering circuits for children at Fontainebleau marked in white and with the letter “E” at the start of the circuit. The idea is that these boulder problems have been selected for beginners and for people with shorter reach. The guidebook Fontainebleau Climbs; the finest bouldering and circuits has a map of these children’s circuits (see page 197 of the 2012 edition) while the guidebook Fontainebleau Fun Bloc includes topo maps of 18 of these children’s circuits.
The children’s circuits are classified into three categories (see grimporama). E- is for children from 5-6 to 7-8 years. E is for children aged 8-9 to 11-12 years. E+ is for pre-teens.
Obviously, these age ranges don’t include toddlers and when I’ve looked at some of these circuits it seems clear that they haven’t been designed with a toddler in mind. They often look like shrunken versions of the adults’ circuits and could be quite challenging for a small child. There are some circuits and some problems that look easier than others and I guess Leo could have tried these out on our last trip. However, he was happy just climbing any interesting bit of rock. Leo particularly liked scrambling around on a rock at Roche aux Sabots that he thought looked like a pirate ship. That’s another great thing about Fontainebleau – that it’s easy for a kid to find a rock that they want to climb, that is the right size for them and is within their abilities. The children’s circuits are a great idea, but I think I might have to wait until Leo’s a bit older before he can really enjoy them.
Bouldering (for us)
While one of us was with Leo as he climbed or played, the other would get a chance to climb. Taking turns looking after Leo so that the other one of us could boulder has worked fairly well. The big downside has been there has sometimes been no one spotting whoever was climbing. The only thing we could do when this happened was to be careful, not push it on problems with bad landings and try not to fall off.
It’s clearly much better to be part of a larger group so that whichever one of us is climbing is doing so with several people who are available for spotter duty. That’s worked well when we have had the opportunity to do it.
The different sectors
The characteristics of the climbing sectors in Fontainebleau vary quite a bit and below are my thoughts on how kid-friendly I have found different sectors. I’ve only been to a small fraction of the many sectors and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts how kid-friendly the sectors are that they have climbed at.
The Jingo Wobbly guidebook Fontainebleau Magique describes Buthiers Canard (AKA Massif Canard) as “virtually a drive-in bouldering area” and it’s an accurate description. You can literally park your car next to the boulders. It also has two cafes next it.
This convenience is the only real plus if you are visiting with a toddler. I just don’t think I would feel comfortable letting Leo run around here. The boulders are often large and are in a closely packed maze among trees and bushes on the slope of a hill. This means more options for a toddler to take a fall or to get lost. It also means fewer options for gentle, low level, toddler scrambling. I also don’t remember seeing anywhere you could make a sandcastle (unless it was out of bits of bark).
It may just be down the road from Buthiers Canard, but Buthiers Piscine (AKA Massif de I’l) feels a world away in terms of being child-friendly. The only thing it really shares with Buthiers Canard is a short walk in – about 2 to 5 minutes.
The oddest thing about Buthiers Piscine is that it is right next to a large holiday park. The area with the orange and blue circuits even overlooks the swimming pool. This might be a big bonus if you some of your children are older and want to do something other than bouldering.
The orange and blue circuits have a lovely little oasis of sand surrounded by boulders and with a few trees for shade. It’s not immediately obvious how you get to this without scrambling, but there is a way past the boulders if you follow the line of the fence that runs to the left of the swimming pool entrance. The boulders are tightly packed away from this little oasis; with the terrain becoming notably rougher the further you get from the path.
The most immediately accessible area for a toddler is the yellow circuit. It’s sandy, starts right off the path and has a variety of smaller boulders. However, the yellow circuit becomes gradually harder and the terrain a bit rockier and steeper as the yellow circuit heads off into the woods.
There’s also a red and a black circuit that runs by the road, but I didn’t try this area out and so I’m afraid that I can’t give any thoughts on what it’s like.
The red, black, orange and blue circuits essentially wrap around two sides of a small hill. On a plateau on the top of that hill is a children’s circuit made up of small boulders in a tight pack. It looks brilliant and I’m hoping to take Leo there at some point.
Canche aux Merciers
It’s an accessible venue, with the walk-in only being about 5 minutes and along well-maintained tracks. The boulders are spread among the trees and the sector is flat. There are two large sandy clearings on either side of the sector that would be good for playing in. One is near a children’s circuit graded E (for ages 8-12) and the other is near a children’s circuit graded E- (for 5-9 year olds). There are also plenty of boulders to just clamber about on. This feels like a good place for a kid to play in the woods (there were quite a few dens there when we visited).
The downsides are that it’s busy and that there aren’t any really sandy areas among the boulders. If you want to build a sandcastle, then you have to move a bit away from the action.
Cul de Chien
One of the main impressions I have from my short visit to Cul de Chien was of lots and lots of sand. If you’re toddler likes the beach, then this is the sector to go for.
The walk-in is about 15 minutes and most of this is on good tracks. It’s only in the last bit that it becomes sandy, but that’s enough to mean that this is probably somewhere not to take a buggy.
Even more than Canche aux Merciers, this is a sector that lives in the woods and is a great place to make dens and have sword fights with sticks. It’s also probably a good place to come if you want shade on a hot sunny day. Unfortunately, this means that it is rubbish for sandcastle building.
Mont Aigu is close to Fontainebleau. While this might make it more convenient in some ways, the bouldering itself is unfortunately not close to the car park. The walk-in is probably about 15 minutes, but is along flat tracks.
The climbing starts right next to the track and this area around the start of the circuits is probably the most toddler-friendly. The circuits then move gradually more up-hill and into the woods.
Rocher des Potets
This is one of my favourite sectors at Fontainebleau and a good one for kids. It’s a bit of a Goldilocks area. It’s not too busy, but there are still other families about. It’s a good mix of sandy clearings and woods. There are harder circuits and there are easier circuits. It’s a fairly compact area, but it manages to not be too small. The boulders come in a variety of shapes and sizes that give plenty of opportunities for scrambling, running about and playing hide and seek.
Rocher des Potets is about a 10-15 minutes walk from the car park and can be a little bit challenging to find the first time (and, for me, the second time too, because I took a wrong turn).
Rocher aux Sabots
This very busy area is about a 5 minute walk from one of the main car parks in Les Trois Pignons. The first thing you get to at you approach Rocher aux Sabots is the children’s circuit (graded E). There is a brilliant cave and tunnel by the first problem on this circuit that kept Leo entertained for ages and is well worth seeking out.
Rocher aux Sabots is a mix of relatively flat areas and up-and-down and rocky areas. The large numbers of boulderers make it fairly easy for a toddler to wander under someone climbing. If you are looking for a place to set up camp, then head just up hill of the Jet Set area as this has a nice area of sand slightly away from the actual climbing.
All that climbing, running about and digging in the sand is pretty tiring. Organising naps was a fairly big part of our first trip to Fontainebleau when Leo was a baby and on our second trip, when he was about he was 21 months old. Working out how to take a toddler to a bouldering venue for most of the day and find an opportunity for him to have his afternoon nap is challenging. Valerie curling up with Leo on the picnic blanket so that he can have his nap worked on the one day we that did it, but I think that was only successful because there weren’t many people about. A better alternative was to put Leo in the ErgoBaby and walk gently around with him until he fell asleep. This meant that someone had to wear Leo until he awoke from his nap, but we approached this like a long turn of taking care of Leo and followed it up with a long turn climbing.
I have seen other parents bring small tents so that their children can use them for a nap and others put them down for a rest in a buggy.
By the third trip we no longer had to think about all this because we had dropped the afternoon nap from Leo’s routine. However, we went from having to plan naptime to keeping a close eye on Leo so that we could call it quits for the day and head back to the hotel once it looked likely that he was getting too tired.
Going to the toilet
I’ve never seen any toilets in the car parks and forests of Fontainebleau. An unpleasant consequence of this lack of plumbing is that you often don’t have to go far from where people are climbing to find the tell-tale bits of white tissue that denote an impromptu toilet. Valerie and I have tried to not contribute to this by being as responsible as we can with Leo’s pee and poo.
It was straightforward to do this when he was using nappies. Using the picnic blanket or bouldering mat as a changing station meant that we avoided sand getting in places it shouldn’t and kept Leo comfortable. We put waste nappies in plastic bags and carried them until we reached the nearest bin or got back to the hotel.
Leo stopped using nappies a while ago and on our last trip we took an OXO Tot 2-in-1 Go Potty. This is essentially a collapsible potty that catches pee and poo in disposable plastic bags with absorbent pads in the bottom. Once the business is done, you simply remove the bag from the potty and tie it up. The bags can then be carried out until you get to a bin. It’s a brilliant product (there are other, similar ones out there) and has worked well on lots of days out.
The choice is essentially between a campsite, a self-catering holiday cottage or a hotel. So far, we’ve gone for a hotel as its much less effort. Unfortunately, you lose the flexibility of being able to prepare your own meals (which can be a necessity with a fussy toddler) at a hotel. However, it is nice not having to sort out breakfast and to have the choice of eating dinner in a restaurant where you are staying. If you do go for a hotel, I’d recommend looking for one that has fridges in the rooms as a fridge makes storing snacks and the components of packed lunches so much easier.
The Hotel de l’Ecu de France is a good, friendly, quiet, traditional, family-run hotel in Malesherbes. There is a choice of a bistro or a more formal restaurant for evening meals or you can grab a pizza from one of the takeaways in the town. It’s worth knowing that the Hotel de l’Ecu de France has a couple of dogs, fish and a parrot. Leo was fascinated by them, but also got scared if the dogs got too close.
One of the things I liked about the Novotel Ury was that it felt more like staying in the forest. It sits in its own grounds on the edge of the woods and feels a bit more away from it all. As a chain hotel, it has a good range of amenities including a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, table tennis table, pool table and pinball. The rooms are quiet and well equipped. The only real disadvantage is that there are no restaurants in walking distance and so we defaulted to eating in the hotel restaurant most nights.
We’ve now been 3 times as a family to Fontainebleau and I’m already looking forward to a fourth trip next year. The bouldering could keep me and Valerie interested for decades and I’m sure Leo would love to keep going back for years to come. I’ve learned more about bouldering and parenting from going there. There’s always more to learn, so I’d love to hear from anyone with tips and suggestions for taking toddlers to Font.