French Pyrenees GR 10 trail: a walker’s guide
Cet article est également disponible en: French
Several readers of If you only walk long enough have asked me what equipment they need for walking the GR 10 across the Pyrenees, how long it takes, which are the most interesting sections, etc. So here are my answers.
This is not meant to be a definitive guide – it is very much my personal advice. I believe that Traveling Light is the Only Way to Fly. It also saves on the knees and shoulders. And I am prepared to pay the cost of staying in hostels rather than camping. It would be great to have other comments and suggestions.
For a quick overview of the route see the section on navigation below. The Wikiloc maps show both the route and the (saw tooth) profiles.
What is the attraction?
The GR 10 is a classic mountain walk, large scale. It crosses France from one side to the other, links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and takes a whole range of mountains, the Pyrenees, in its stride.
The western end is lusciously green, the middle austere and rocky, but as the Mediterranean approaches, dry garrigue and blue skies take over. The walk visits all the well-known sights of the range – the Lac de Gaube, the Lac d’Ôo, the Cirque de Gavarnie – and nestles up to some of its highest mountains. One of them, the Vignemale (3295m), an optional extra involving crossing a glacier, can be tackled in a single memorable additional day (see below).
And yet, despite the sometimes rugged terrain, there are hostels to be found most evenings; the GR 10 combines days in natural surroundings with nights under a solid roof.
Hendaye to Banyuls or Banyuls to Hendaye?
It’s not the same. Most people walk from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls on the Mediterranean, probably because the official French guide and Paul Lucia’s guide are written like that. As there are only a limited number of hostels, this means you keep bumping into walkers met along the way – conviviality assured. Walking in the other direction must be a completely different experience, with more interaction with nature than with other walkers
How long does it take to walk the GR 10?
Typically between 45 and 60 days of walking 6-8 hours a day. Plus rest days. Plus a few days more if you follow one or other of the variants.
What is the best time of year?
The pass at the Horquette d’Arre (2465m), (Day 17 on a 60-day schedule) is covered in snow until about 14 June, sometimes for a couple of weeks more. At the other end of the season, the weather deteriorates from the beginning of October. So the ideal dates are 12 June to 30 September. Unfortunately in July and August it is hot and hostels may fill up early in the day, particularly between 14 July and 15 August.
How many people walk the GR 10?
I estimate that from mid-June to mid-September, about 10 people leave Hendaye every day, with the intention of walking a significant part of the GR 10, though most of them will take several years to do it. Only one or two people leave Banyuls in the other direction. Some days I saw almost nobody; other days, particularly around popular centres I met 10-20 other walkers. Many parts of the GR 10 are also suitable for shorter walks.
Is it safe to walk alone?
As long as you are good at map reading and stay on the path, whatever happens, somebody will turn up. Sooner or later. Being in a group won’t stop you breaking your leg, or save you from being attacked by a bear.
Are the bears dangerous then?
Statistically speaking, no. You are more likely to be killed in a plane crash in the Pyrenees than by a bear. Nobody has been killed by a bear since the invention of the airplane, but the wreckage on the GR 10 on the slopes of Canigou is testimony to the unreliability of aircraft.
In fact, there are only 20 bears in the Pyrenees, so you are unlikely even to see one – which is why I have a picture of a marmotte here. You definately will see marmottes.
If you do see a bear it will probably ignore you. If you are still uneasy, extensive advice on bears is available on backpacker.com. Questions in the forum include such interesting topics as “Will backcountry sex attract a bear?”, “Do Tasers stop bears?” and, for the really paranoid, “Will my farts attract a bear?”.
Whatever you do, don’t wear a sheepskin coat. Several hundred sheep are killed by the bears each year (out of a population approaching half a million).
What are the other dangers?
Heat. Thirst. The Pyrenees are a long way south and, although mountains get colder as they get higher, walkers get hotter as they climb them. The air gets thinner as well so there is less protection from the sun’s rays. In some areas there are surprisingly few springs. Dehydrated water (water purifying tablets) is useful.
Cold. Wet. There are glaciers not far away but they don’t cool the atmosphere much. The main worry is thunderstorms. The temperature can drop 15 degrees Celsius in as many minutes. Thunderstorms can occur at any time, but it always seems to me that they roll in round about 16h00.
Gravity. Not so much the danger of falling off a cliff, but the danger of carrying too much and wearing yourself out to the point where you become too weak – and fall off a cliff. See the equipment list below.
Dogs which think they are sheep. Pyrenean patous are dogs which have been brought up with sheep to the extent that they identify with them. They think they are sheep. They see their job as attacking anything else, other dogs and walkers in particular. Avoid coming between them and their flock.
The French IGN publishes maps of the whole of the Pyrenees at 1:25,000 which are useful for short sections, but the GR 10 is 400km long as the griffon vulture flies (and 850km long as the rambler walks), so it would take a map 16m long to cover the whole walk. In any case sketch maps are included in the Paul Lucia’s guide, and detailed 1:50,000 maps in the FFRP version.
However, the best, though not the cheapest solution is a GPS with onboard maps. I have a GPS eTrex Summit HC (229 euros). Although you can just buy the two GPS maps needed for the Pyrenees (258 euros), you might as well buy the whole of France as it only costs 21 euros more.
Whether you buy the maps or not, you can always view and download the tracks from Wikiloc
Trail distance: 209.18 kilometres
Elevation min: 2 metres, max: 1,926 metres
Accum. height uphill: 12,286 metres, downhill: 11,654 metres
Trail distance: 218.74 kilometres
Elevation min: 587 metres, max: 2,709 metres
Accum. height uphill: 15,595 metres, downhill: 15,251 metres
Trail distance: 236.81 kilometres
Elevation min: 534 metres, max: 2,374 metres
Accum. height uphill: 16,726 metres, downhill: 17,055 metres
Trail distance: 185.8 kilometres
Elevation min: 3 metres, max: 2,480 metres
Accum. height uphill: 9,873 metres, downhill: 12,145 metres
Hostels and huts on the GR 10
You can always carry your home on your back – and save money – but have you seen how fast snails move? A tent (and all that goes with it) is not essential equipment for the GR 10 and adds greatly to weight. With good planning you can always have a roof over your head, though some of them may be a little precarious.
When I walked the GR 10, I tried to arrange my overnight stops at intervals of 6-8 hours walking apart – any longer turns enjoyment into endurance.
Think hours. Forget distances, they are meaningless in the mountains. Count 300m climbing or 500m descent per hour and even then you will be doing well.
The FFRP guide gives reasonable timings for a fit walker who is used to carrying a full rucksack.
Huts and shelters (cayolars, cabanes, orrys)
According to Pyrénées – cabanes et refuges, a wonderfully useful site, there are 775 huts and shelters in the Pyrenees, many of them on or near to the GR 10. The site gives details (in French). The huts are free, but some are locked or occupied by a shepherd, others semi-derelict. Nothing can be taken for granted, even the existence of a roof, so arrive early. I do know of a few which are as comfortable as some refuges gardés, but they are exceptional.
Hostels (refuges gardés)
Pyrénées – cabanes et refuges lists 63 though some that I have stayed in are missing. Evening meal, bed in a (mixed) dormitory, breakfast, and a picnic lunch will come to about 42 euros. This may seem expensive for basic accommodation, but the costs of running a refuge are high, given the transport difficulties. Blankets are always provided but a sheet sleeping bag is essential. Most provide sandals. Booking one or two days in advance is fine, though if you are really stuck they will find you a space on the floor. Many have no mains electricity so hot water may not be available (or may be possible for a small fee). You will need to carry cash for payment.
See also le Guide gites d’étape et refuges.
Bed and breakfast (gîtes d’étape)
A step up from a refuge gardé, a gîte d’étape will cost 5 to 15 euros more. You will still need a sheet sleeping bag but are more likely to find rooms with 2-4 beds available. Booking is essential. Pay in cash, or French euro cheques.
There are hotels, and sometimes no cheaper alternatives, in the few (small) towns along the route.
Sections of the GR 10 without organised accommodation
There are a few sections where trekkers need to sleep in a hut, or walk a very long way in one day. These are the only sections where a sleeping bag is necessary.
The main problem is in the Ariège. The official slogan for the département used to be “Terre courage” and I interpret this to apply to the GR 10. Useful information can be found on the site of the FFRP Ariège. See also their list of services proposed by the gîtes and hostels on the GR10 in the Ariège (Acrobat).
The walking times given below are taken from the FFRP guide.
Gabas to Gourette (8h50)
There are huts at Cézy clearly visible from the GR 10. At a push it should be possible to do the whole leg in one day, thus obliviating the need for a sleeping bag until you reach Eylie d’en Haut in the Ariège (about Day 33 on a 60-day schedule).
Bagnères de Luchon to Fos (about 10h00)
There is a new gîte d’étape at Artigue which means that this section can now be split over two days.
Apart from that there are two huts at the Cabanes de Peyrehitte (one is reserved for the shepherd). There is a water trough a little further along the GR 10.
Eylie d’en Haut to Esbints (3 days, 2 nights – 19h40)
This used to be a particularly difficult section from the point of view of accommodation, with two consecutive nights in huts, but there is a new gîte at the Pla de la Lau. Unfortunately the stage is still a little too far to be done in two days, one after the other.
- Day 1: Eylie to Gîte Auberge Maison du Valier (Pla de la Lau) 9h35
- Day 2: Gîte Auberge Maison du Valier (Pla de la Lau) to Esbints 10h05 (no thank you!)
So the followings huts (listed west-east) may be useful
- The Cabane de l’Arech
- Cabane de Besset
- Cabane du Trapech du Milieu
- Cabane du Pla de la Lau has now become the Gîte Auberge Maison du Valier. Great news!
- Cabane d’Aouen. This is in two parts, one of which is reserved for the shepherd in summer, so there are only two places.
- Esbints. Not only the gîte at the end of the struggles, but also a great place to stay.
- After Esbints there is another new gîte d’étape in St Lizier d’Ustou.
Goulier to Rulhe (4 days, 3 nights)
The most difficult section of the GR 10 accommodation-wise.
- Day 1: Goulier to Siguer 4h05
- Day 2: Siguer to Cabane du Courtal Marti 5h30
- Day 3: Cabane du Courtal Marti to Cabane d’Artaran 5h40
- Day 4: Caban d’Artaran to Refuge du Rulhe 5h45
- Siguer. There are now two possibilities here. Ask at the mairie (town hall) for the keys to the room near the salle des fêtes. Or, there is the more interesting possibility of Le Petit gîte du Siguer. Not only will Fabrice Scheffer let you stay overnight for free, but he will also feed you – it’s up to you to decide how much you wish to pay! He can also provide food at the Cabanes du Courtal Marti and Clarens.
There is a new small café/general store in the village.
- Cabane du Besset d’en Haut at Col de Sasc – there is a concrete hut a little way down the slope but there is no door or window. To be avoided.
- Cabane du Courtal Marti. A much better alternative to the Cabane du Besset d’en Haut is this former shepherd’s hut only an hour further on.
- Cabane de Clarens. In bad condition but there is still a roof.
- Cabane d’Artaran.
- The ski resort on thePlateau de Beille is 30mins walking from the Cabane d’Artaran. Angaka can provide tents and food if booked in advance. For more information ring 05 61 01 75 60. I haven’t tried this, but they are well organised: I have been dog sledding with them.
There is also a restaurant at the ski resort, open at lunchtime.
This is the last possibility before the refuge de Rulhe, as the Cabane de Beille d’en Haut is private, though I was told by a waiter at the ski resort that part of it was available for walkers. Further along, the Cabane de Poussiergues may be useable but don’t bet on it.
This gîte is closed for 2010. It is possible to sleep in the Chambres d’hôtes du Nabre or on the municipal campsite. The campsite has several tents with duvets available for walkers. Ring 05 61 02 85 40
As a result of walking the GR10, having lugged anything from 12-18kg on my back, I revised my ideas of “necessary” items. On a recent 4-day walk round – and up to the top of – the Posets (the second highest summit in the Pyrenees, 3375m), I carried the following (plus crampons and piolet, not necessary for the GR10). I don’t see any reason to carry any more on a longer walk.
My GR 10 kit list
|GR 10 FASHION
|boots||2160||with high sides which are great for my ankles – but far too heavy|
|trousers||304||lightweight trousers with detachable legs (Columbia)|
|tee-shirt||160||synthetic so that it dries quickly – not cotton|
|rucksack||953||37 litres Forclaz ultralight from Decatalon|
|4 GR10 guides||640||contain maps at 1:50000|
|food for the day||500|
|first aid kit||246|
|shorts||217||top half of lightweight trousers|
|GPS||173||with integrated maps|
|sheet sleeping bag||101||silk|
|travel towel||97||microfibre (Boots)|
|Swiss army knife||86|
|head torch with batteries||78|
|1 pair socks||70|
|water purifying tablets||13|
|cigarette lighter||12||for lighting fires in emergency|
Things I don’t think necessary include:
- sandals (provided at most refuges – otherwise walk around in socks)
- deodorant – positively dangerous it as it stops you sweating naturally
- a razor, even if you have better-looking legs than I do.
Other kit lists
- http://www.pyreneeshike.com/kitlist.html (34.2lb, 15.5kg)
- Mountain bug (no weights given)
- Mountain is good (21kg plus water)
My best bits
Hourquette d’Ossoue, the Vignemale, and Gavarnie
To my mind the best section of the GR 10 is the detour which goes from Cauterets to Luz-St-Sauveur via the Hourquette d’Ossoue (2734m) instead of directly to Cauterets. Most people miss it out, which is a shame. It starts with a 3km-long waterfall up to the Pont d’Espagne. Then there is the Lac de Gaube, one of the defining sights of the Pyrenees (get there before 9am and have it all to yourself). Followed by the long, long Gaube valley, with the dark north face of the Vignemale at the end, and the pass at the Hourquette d’Ossoue. A short diversion takes you to the top of the Petit Vignemale (3032m) which overlooks one of the larger glaciers in the Pyrenees.
An overnight stop in the Bayssellence refuge will give you time next day to saunter down to Gavarnie, sign into the hostel, and visit the Cirque. Victor Hugo variously called it nature’s coliseum, a hippodrome, a Parthenon, a cathedral, a Kremlin, boas rolled one above the other, the mouth of a volcano, a storm trap and, beginning to let his imagination run away just a little, a Tower of Babel turned over and imprinted in the earth like a seal.
Better still leave leave the visit to the Cirque until dawn the next day and only walk as far as Gèdre that day. After that you have a rollicking roller-coaster path down to Luz-St-Sauveur to rejoin the main route.
If you take the above variant, there is the opportunity to climb the Vignemale (3298m), crossing the Glacier d’Ossoue. You will need crampons and a guide, but both can be arranged at the Bureau des Guides in Cauterets.
You can walk round the Catalans’ favourite mountain, but the official GR10 between the refuge de Mariailles and the Chalet des Cortalets, is a long detour. Much more interesting – and quicker – is the variant which goes to the top of the mountain (at least on a fine day). There is a bit of hands-on stuff just below the summit – but don’t let the name “La cheminée” – the chimney – put you off. It is perfectly possible with a rucksack. And once you have hauled yourself up to the cross, there is an incredible view of the Mediterranean.