Category Archives: European Trails

Crossing the French and Spanish Pyrenees

The Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southwestern France offer an unparalleled summer mountain hiking experience. Virtually every day features jaw-dropping views (along with muscle-straining climbs.)  And the towns and villages of the Pyrenees are picturesque rest-stops with food that well rewards the effort. (Don’t forget to try Basque chicken and cassoulet, the latter a hearty bean dish suitable for a hiker’s appetite.)

For their entire length, the Pyrenees follow the border between France and Spain, running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Although lower in elevation than the Alps, the Pyrenees are extremely steep and dramatically serrated. As a result hiking trails in the Pyrenees are both challenging and scenic.

Three major trails traverse the French and Spanish Pyrenees: The Grand Randonnee 10 (GR-10), the Grand Randonnee 11 (GR-11) and the Haute Route Pyrennean (HRP). There’s a lot of scenery compressed into these approximately 50-day hikes. (Figure around 600 miles of up-and-down-and-around-the-mountain hiking, although no one seems to know exactly.)

Hiking Routes in the Pyrenees Mountains

A campsite in the Haute Pyrenees
  • The GR-10 (Grande Randonnee 10) is the most popular route across the Pyrenees. It runs on the French side of the border. Of the three main trans-Pyrenees routes, the GR-10 is the best-blazed and the easiest to follow. However, while easiest logistically, it is physically difficult because the trail on the French side of the Pyrenees gets much more rain than the Spanish side, so the weather is more challenging. Also, the GR-10 is more demanding than the two others because of the long and steep descents and ascents into and out of the many precipitous north-south running valleys on the French side of the mountains. However, the GR-10 does offer the possibility of sleeping in a town or a refuge every night, reducing or eliminating the need to carry camping gear.
  • The GR-11 (Grande Randonnee 11) follows the French system of blazing and numbering, but it runs through the Spanish Pyrenees, on the south side of the border. The route is not thoroughly blazed, and can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it is extremely beautiful. Although very few people hike the entire GR-11 from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the trail can be crowded with day-hikers and weekenders, especially in the popular Spanish national parks.
  • HRP (Haute Route Pyrenean) is the High Adventure Route, which stays in the highest, most remote country as much as possible. It is usually blazed in yellow, although it sometimes follows the red-and-white blazed GR-10 or the GR-11. It goes through the middle of Andorra, the tiny country that occupies a small part of the Franc-Spanish border. When hiking in the remote central part of the Pyrenees on the HRP, hikers must carry all their camping gear, because towns and refuges are too far apart. Route finding is the major challenge, as the blazing is sporadic.

In all three cases, trail quality varies. The routes include paved roads, farm-roads, footpaths, and cross-country travel (mostly on the HRP). The Pyrenees are precipitous, and many of the trails are very steep, which reduces the number of miles it is possible to hike in a day.

Seasonal Information for Hiking in the Pyrenees

Crossing a snowfield in August

cause of the high elevations, thru-hiking the trail is a July-August venture. Part of the trails near both coasts have a longer hiking season – June to September, and indeed, may be more pleasant in late spring and early fall because they won’t be as hot. In the Basque country near the Atlantic Ocean, weather can be hot and humid. Near the Mediterranean, the climate is hot and dry. In between, in the higher mountains, the weather is extremely variable, with potentially violent electrical storms. At the higher elevations, there may be patches of snow, but ice axes and crampons are not usually necessary in summer.

Most thru-hikers hike from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, although the trail can certainly be hiked in both directions. A complete traverse takes about 50 days.

 

GR-5 Across Europe from Rotterdam to Nice

The windmills of Holland, the WW II battlefields of Belgium, the vineyards of France, and the highest peaks of western Europe: These are just a few of the attractions of the GR-5, which runs from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.  “GR,” or “Grande Randonee” means “Great Hike” in French, an apt description for a trail that traverses Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, with short detours into Switzerland and Italy. 

The Low Countries: Hiking the GR-5 in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg 

The Dutch section of the trail is, in a word, flat. Much of the route is through settled suburbs and farmland, with pleasant, easy hiking across beaches and parkland, making this a better choice for walkers more interested in culture and towns than in wilderness. Although many urban Dutch people are fluent in English, rural residents are less likely to speak English, and a phrasebook comes in handy.

GR 5 in Belgium

Belgium is divided into Flanders, which is the Dutch (or Flemish) speaking side, and Wallonie, the French-speaking side. Many Belgians speak English as a second language. The terrain in Flanders is hillier than in the Netherlands, and has a more rural feel. The route passes a number of World War I and II battlefields, including some bunkers. Every village has a war memorial listing the names of the dead. History buffs should explore some of the local museums. The route becomes even more rural in Wallonie, where the hills get bigger, and more of the trail winds through forests and fields.

Luxembourg is a compressed country with an astonishing variety of landscapes, from World War II battlefields, medieval castles, sunny vineyards, and bucolic farms. There is a section of limestone cliffs and ravines that have earned the name Little Switzerland. Tails are well-maintained and marked. In the trailside towns, hikers will find interesting side trips to museums and monuments, and a cuisine that combines French style with German heft.

Hiking the GR-5 in France, Switzerland, and Italy

In France, walkers follow the GR-5 through Lorraine, Alsace, the High Alps, and the Maritime Alps. It occasionally darts into Switzerland and Italy.

In Lorraine, the GR-5 alternates between forests and heavily settled areas with a gritty working class feel. This was, after all, the heavily industrialized region of France coveted by Hitler, and the trail actually passes the fortifications of the historic Maginot Line. Residents are friendly to Americans, especially the elderly, who are happy to share family stories of World War II.

The GR 5 in the French Vosges Mountains

Next door, Alsace is more attractive to tourists with its riverside vineyards, pretty villages, and the Vosges Mountains. This region has a long history of merged France-Germanic culture; a side visit to Strasbourg is a must, as is a much more sobering visit to the Stuthof Nazi concentration camp, which is right along the trail.

After traversing the Vosges, the trail follows the the Swiss-French border near Lake Geneva. Hikers cross the lake by ferry and ascend into Switzerland for a few days. The trail then returns to France and skirts Mt. Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe. In the high Alps, hikers enjoy generally mild weather (although it can snow, even in summer) and a system of high country refuges that provides lodging and family-style meals. Walking south along the Italian border into the drier, starker Maritime Alps, hikers see scenery that combines Alpine drama with Mediterranean vegetation. Best of all, the crowds are thinner here than in the High Alps to the North.

The GR-5 can be hiked in its entirety in three to four months, depending on your hiking speed and your interest in exploring the small towns along the route. Or it can be broken into shorter journeys. It is well-blazed for its entire length, and described and mapped in a series of topoguides, some of which are available in English.