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Hiking the GR10 Trail in the French Pyrenees
Wildflower meadows covered in butterflies, sheep-filled mountain pastures and sharply-rising mountain peaks are your constant companions along the GR10, more prosaically known as ‘Le Sentier des Pyrénées’, the Pyrenean Way.
Uncompromisingly beautiful it may be, but this coast-to-coast hiking trail from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea is no walk in the park. A Grand Randonée – big walk – this iconic route is aptly named. Expect steep climbs and knee-punishing descents over some of the Pyrenees most dramatic cols. In return you’ll enjoy some of France’s most spectacular mountain vistas and a glimpse into rural Pyrenean culture on a walk that rivals the Tour de Mont Blanc for its beauty, but without the hiking crowds.
Tackle the whole thing, and it’ll take you around 50 or so days, with six to eight hours walking per day. However, our GR10 hiking vacations pick and choose some of the trail’s most glorious routes; condensing the essence of the GR10 into a 10-day or so itinerary. Be warned, though – the flavour of the GR10 is irresistible; get a taste for its highlights and you’ll be cooking up plans to walk more.
The GR10 route
The GR10 is arguably the easiest of the three long-distance hiking paths that traverse the spine of the Pyrenees. Running parallel to the French-Spanish border, but en France, the 866km-long GR10 winds its way along gaves (Pyrenean streams) and through the valleys and cols of the Haute-Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Bay of Biscay to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean Sea.
Most commonly walked from west to east (although the reverse is certainly possible), the rolling Basque hills offer a gentle introduction before the trail ascends into the heart of the Haute-Pyrenees. Just outside the village of Etsaut, the path follows the dramatic Chemin de la Mâture. This path, for want of a better word, was hewn out of the sheer cliff face in the 18th century to transport tree trunks to be used as masts for French warships. From here, the trail wanders through the shadow of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, its sharpened-pencil shape an iconic symbol of the French Pyrenees, before passing over the glacier-lined Petit Vignemale and into the Cirque du Gavarnie on its way to the beautiful Néouvielle National Nature Reserve. As you draw closer to the Mediterranean, the Arriège Mountains provide a glorious backdrop for the final days of walking, while the Massif du Canigou watches over you as you head out of the Pyrenees down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The GR10’s cousin, the GR11, runs a parallel route through Spain, while a third option, the dramatic –and somewhat daunting – Pyrenean Haute Route, takes the most hardened of hikers on a challenging peak to peak journey that criss-crosses the border. The ‘ease’ of the GR10 (and that’s a relative term – this is still a demanding trail) comes from its accessibility. There’s no need to camp along the way; a roof over a proper bed awaits you at the end of each daily section of trail, and many of the guesthouses and huts can be reached by road – meaning it’s possible to dip in and out.
Highlights of the GR10
Cirque de GavarnieVictor Hugo dubbed this immense glacial amphitheatre the ‘Colosseum of Nature’. A highlight of not just the GR10 but the whole of the French Pyrenees, this mountain bowl with its dramatic waterfall is simply breathtaking. On an offshoot of the GR10 (you can re-join the main path nearby in Luz-St-Sauveur,) trails into the Cirque take you to spectacular viewpoints at the Espuguettes Hut, or from the Bellevue Plateau.
BarègesThis pretty, traditional Pyrenean village halfway up the Col du Tourmalet is a popular base for walking some of the GR10’s prettiest sections. From here you can enjoy a particularly beautiful balcony walk along the eastern banks of the Gave du Gavarnie, or an ascent through ancient pine forest into Aygues-Cluses valley. Barèges’ thermal spa offers a welcome soak for walk-weary toes.
Néouvielle National Nature Reserve
Néouvielle National Nature Reserve spreads out before you from the 2,509m top of the rocky Col de Madamète. Walks take you past the turquoise Lacs de Madamète, high up in the pastures of the Aygues-Cluses valley; and the Lac d’Aumer, reflecting the reserve’s eponymous peak. Wildlife in this area is abundant; keep your eyes peeled for the ubiquitous marmotte, alongside Egyptian vultures, griffon vultures and golden eagles.
Esquierry PassWildflowers carpet the Esquierry Pass, dotting the mountain with colour and making the long climb up to 2,131m from the Aube Valley worth every step. Botanists of the past labelled the Esquierry Pass the ‘garden of the Pyrenees’ and among others you can expect to see irises, lilies, orchids, cowslips, mountain lungwort, gentians and insect-eating butterwort blooming in the rock-strewn pastures.
Lac d’OôAccessed from tiny Les Granges d’Astau, in a particularly verdant and lush section of the GR10, this manmade lake, encircled by walls of rock rising steeply from its turquoise waters, is magnificent. Water levels vary, but at its fullest you’ll catch mirror-like reflections of the towering Espingo (2,856m) and Portillon (3,050m) peaks and one of the Pyrenees’ highest waterfalls. Refreshments are available at the nearby refuge.
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The GR10 – Practicalities
How to hike the GR10 trailStrap on walking boots, shoulder your backpack and set off along these well marked paths. Self guided journeys along sections of the GR10 can be managed on your own, but if you would prefer to have your accommodation and transfers organised, and to not haul everything with you each day, then a walking vacation specialist will offer a supported, yet still independent option.
Most enjoyable, perhaps, is a small group tour. Let your walking guide worry about the route, temper steep ascents with friendly conversation and leave your luggage to be transferred by van between guesthouses and refuges each night. Occasionally you may stay in a mountain hut inaccessible by road and on those nights you’ll have to pack your toothbrush in your daypack. A small price to pay for a night of remote mountain peace.
Where will I stay?While you’ll enjoy some hardcore hiking, there’s no need to go the whole hog and camp on a GR10 vacation. You can expect to stay in a mixture of basic mountain huts with dorms and shared facilities, as well as friendly and traditional village guesthouses with en-suite rooms.
You won’t go hungry on your GR10 vacation either; guesthouses and village restaurants serve up hearty mountain fare packed with cheese, potatoes and meat to satisfy even the hungriest hikers’ stomachs. Start with a traditional garbure soup, before tucking into a melt-in-the-mouth Pyrenean lamb stew followed by a tasty Tarte aux Myrtilles – made from the tiny, delicious bilberries found all over the region.
How fit do I need to be?
You don’t need to be superhuman, and most small group vacations will welcome a range of walking enthusiasts on their trips and keep the pace relatively gentle. However, you do need to be confident in your ability to spend six to eight hours walking around 14km per day, for several days on the trot. Ascents and descents here are serious – you can expect to climb between 500-1,200m each day – and while the paths are well maintained, some sections are rough underfoot, or covered in loose scree that may require some scrambling.
Getting some practice in with regular long walks at home – ideally in hilly terrain – will take you a long way, and well-worn walking boots are much less likely to give you blisters on day one.
When is the best time to hike the GR10 trail?Snow lingers late into the year in the highest parts of the Haute-Pyrenees, so July to October offer the best conditions for GR10 hikes. However, your waterproofs are still going to need to share space with your sun cream. Even in mid-summer you can expect some rain, although this usually falls as afternoon and nighttime thunderstorms.
This is the time of year most small group tours will depart, however self-guided adventures offer more flexibility on dates and in a low snow year you may get away with hiking as early as June.
More about French Pyrenees
The French Pyrenees run for almost 500km from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean, with the highest peaks in the middle.
Far less developed than their better known Alpine cousins over on the other side of the country, these mountains are exceptional territory for activity vacations.
During World War II the Pyrenees loomed up as an ominous barrier for downed airmen and others hoping to escape France for neutral Spain.