In France, just south of Paris, is the town of Fontainebleau. And at its heart lies the namesake 12th century chateau, an opulent 1,500-room home built by French royalty. Its proximity both to Paris and to the surrounding forests rich in deer and wild boar made it a popular hunting ground and vacation home. In the 17th century, Louis XIV greatly expanded the size of the forest by large-scale plantings of oaks, beeches and pines. It was enlarged again in 1983 and today covers more than 50,000 acres (an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan).
In 1832, a 44-year old veteran of the Napoleonic Army by the name of Claude-François Denecourt decided to walk into the Forest of Fontainebleau in hopes of comforting his mind to cope with depression. He discovered an immense pleasure by wandering amongst the forest’s rocky outcroppings and root-studded earth. From that moment on he devoted himself entirely to developing and promoting the forest as a destination for the general public. They became known as “excursionists” and were the world’s first hikers and nature tourists. Today he is recognized and appreciated as a clever entrepreneur — he wrote and published his own travel guides and maps and sold them, as well as refreshments, at stands inside the forest…and he assigned names inspired by history, mythology and art to 600 trees, 700 rock formations and assorted lookouts. He is credited as having been the first to use blazes to mark his trails, called sentiers bleus, or “blue pathways,” because they were—and still are—marked by blue lines painted on trees and rocks. But above all, Denecourt should be celebrated as the pioneer—if not the inventor—of nature tourism. It was 1861 when — 11 years before the United States declared Yellowstone the first national park — a portion of Fontainebleau became the world’s first nature preserve. At the time it contained 18 marked hiking trails covering 120 miles. Today the area has been expanded to cover 200 miles and attracts millions of visitors each year — hikers, bicyclists, picnickers, riders on horseback, rock climbers and wanderers eager to escape the city. [Source: Smithsonian Magazine]