Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

Rustrel, France

Ochre Quarry in Colorado Provençal

One of the largest ochre quarries in the world, hidden in a limestone landscape. 

The south of France is well known for the Mediterranean Riviera, colorful streets, and delicious food, but it isn’t typically associated with the American Southwest — that is, until you reach the “Colorado Provençal,” where visitors will feel like they’re smack in the middle of Colorado, despite being just minutes away from Medieval villages and 12th century abbeys.

The region of Provence in southeastern France is covered seemingly endlessly in white limestone rock. Driving through, you’d assume no other type of rock could be found for hundreds of miles, which is what makes this unexpected ochre quarry so unusual — 75 acres of brilliantly colored, vertical rock, and then it’s back to limestone for miles.

How did this oddity come to be? It began millions of years ago, when over time, rushing water broke down the original limestone into iron-rich clay sands. These clay sands eventually formed into hoodoos — tall vertical spires — and had the hues of “ochre” — shades of orange, brown, and red — have been used throughout human history for burials, mummification, cave paintings, ancient Egyptian lip gloss, aboriginal Australian healing agents, and countless others. Ochre was also mixed with natural oil to create paint, which is a characteristic of many houses in Provence.

Needless to say, the demand for ochre was very high, and considering the Colorado Provençal was one of the largest ochre quarries in the world, with over 20 different pigments, the area was used for extracting purposes from the late 1600s to 1992, when the last “ocrier” retired.

Nowadays, the ochre-filled park has become a tourist attraction with three different trails where you can see the beautifully sculpted rock formations, a site that has managed to remain naturally beautiful despite being subject to human activity for three centuries.