Administratively it lies within the département of Bouches-du-Rhône, the appropriately named "Mouths of the Rhône", and covers parts of the territory of the communes of Arles – the largest commune in Metropolitan France, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – the second largest – and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône. A further expanse of marshy plain, the Petite Camargue, just to the west of the Petit Rhône, is in the département of Gard.
Camargue was designated a Ramsar site as a "Wetland of International Importance" on 1 December 1986.
With an area of over 930 km2 (360 sq mi), the Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta. It is a vast plain comprising large brine lagoons or étangs, cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes. These are in turn surrounded by a large cultivated area.
Approximately a third of the Camargue is either lakes or marshland. The central area around the shoreline of the Étang de Vaccarès has been protected as a regional park since 1927, in recognition of its great importance as a haven for wild birds. In 2008, it was incorporated into the larger Parc naturel régional de Camargue.
The Camargue is home to more than 400 species of birds and has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International. Its brine ponds provide one of the few European habitats for the greater flamingo. The marshes are also a prime habitat for many species of insects, notably (and notoriously) some of the most ferocious mosquitos to be found anywhere in France. Camargue horses (Camarguais) roam the extensive marshlands, along with Camargue cattle (see below).
The native flora of the Camargue have adapted to the saline conditions. Sea lavender and glasswort flourish, along with tamarisks and reeds.
Officially established as a regional park and nature reserve in 1970, the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue covers 820 km². This territory is some of the most natural and most protected in all of Europe. A roadside museum provides background on flora, fauna, and the history of the area.
Humans have lived in the Camargue for millennia, greatly affecting it with drainage schemes, dykes, rice paddies and salt pans. Much of the outer Camargue has been drained for agricultural purposes.
The Camargue has an eponymous horse breed, the famous white Camarguais. Camargue horses are ridden by the gardians (cowboys), who rear the region's cattle for fighting bulls for export to Spain, as well as sheep. Many of these animals are raised in semi-feral conditions, allowed to roam through the Camargue within a manade, or free-running herd. They are periodically rounded up for culling, medical treatment, or other events.
Few towns of any size have developed in the Camargue. Its "capital" is Arles, located at the extreme north of the delta where the Rhône forks into its two principal branches. The only other towns of note are along the sea front or near it: Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, about 45 km to the southwest and the medieval fortress-town of Aigues-Mortes on the far western edge, in the Petite Camargue. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the destination of the annual Romani pilgrimage for the veneration of Saint Sarah.
The Camargue was exploited in the Middle Ages by Cistercian and Benedictine monks. In the 16th-17th centuries, big estates, known locally as mas, were founded by rich landlords from Arles. At the end of the 18th century, they had the Rhône diked to protect the town and their properties from flooding. In 1858, the building of the digue à la mer (dyke to the sea) achieved temporary protection of the delta from erosion, but it is a changing landform, always affected by waters and weather.
The north of the Camargue is agricultural land. The main crops are cereals, grapevine and rice. Near the seashore, prehistoric man started extracting salt, a practice that continues today. Salt was a source of wealth for the Cistercian "salt abbeys" of Ulmet, Franquevaux and Psalmody in the Middle Ages. Industrial salt collection started in the 19th century, and big chemical companies such as Péchiney and Solvay founded the 'mining' city of Salin-de-Giraud.
The boundaries of the Camargue are constantly revised by the Rhône as it transports huge quantities of mud downstream – as much as 20 million m³ annually. Some of the étangs are the remnants of old arms and legs of the river. The general trend is for the coastline to move outwards as new earth is deposited in the delta at the river's mouth. Aigues-Mortes, originally built as a port on the coast, is now some 5 km (3.1 mi) inland. The pace of change has been modified in recent years by man-made barriers, such as dams on the Rhône and sea dykes, but flooding remains a problem across the region.