The Pyrenees: A world-class hiking destination

The Pyrenees are a mountain chain that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, and which acts as a natural border between Spain and France. But of course, for mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts, it’s a lot more. 

Where to find the Pyrenees. Photo credit: mapsofworld.com

For Spaniards, it is basically our go-to mountain range for accessing the best mountaineering experiences – whether on foot, bicycle or skis. But it’s also a not so well kept secret for many Northern Europeans – especially Dutch – who drive or fly down Summer after Summer. 

For me – well, I just fell in love with them back in 1992, during a family vacation in the town of Hecho, in Aragón. 

Frankly, I have been lucky enough to hike or backpack in many countries, and I will proudly try to convince any hiker anywhere in the world to make it to the Pyrenees at least once in order to sample one or more of its glorious multi-day hiking trails

Here’s why.

The Basics

There are three major long distance hikes that will take you from one sea to another, and a plethora of shorter ones to pick from (I’ll write about them some other time – promised!).

The three main trails. GR-11 in blue; HRP in yellow; GR-10 in red. Photo credit: lasenda.com

Basically, the GR-10 goes on the French side, the GR-11 on the Spanish side, and the HRP/ARP (High route) criss-crosses the border, always looking for high – albeit accessible – mountain passes. 

Depending on the route taken, and the alternates you choose, walking from sea to sea will require 850-960 km, that is, 528-600 miles.  

Not long enough for you? Here’s two suggestions:

  • Yo-yo your Pyrenean hike. GR11 in one direction and Gr10 back. Two trails, three countries (there is Andorra, too!).
  • Start on the Mediterranean coast, hike to the Atlantic and then join the Camino del Norte all the way to Compostela. That’s an additional 820 km or 510 miles. Frankly, you could do much worse in terms of long distance hiking!

Which one to go for?

The three are well worth walking. This great website summarizes the main differences.

I have hiked large sections of the three, and would find it hard to pick a favourite. Generally speaking, avoid quite a few sections of the High Route if you’re not comfortable hiking off trail, or in steep terrain. But this is not hard – alternates are always ready to hand. 

Another tip: 

Design your own Trans-Pyrenean hike by combining sections of the three! Very often, it’s just a 2-3 hour hike to connect one trail to another.  

Whatever trail, or combination of trails, you go for, here are some of the features that make hiking here so special

1.- Stunning geographical diversity

It’s hard to pack in so much variety in so little space. Humid, Atlantic forests and drier Mediterranean ones. Granite, limestone and karst massifs. Rolling hills closer to the sea, and jagged peaks in the central sections. 

The Pyrenees are also, in some ways, much better preserved than many regions in the Alps. You won’t find any highways in its valleys, and very few cable cars giving access to its highest peaks. 

No Switzerland, that is.

Around Port du Venasque. Hiking back to Spain. 2006

2.-  Cultural diversity

Culturally, you will encounter as many as four languages widely spoken: French, Spanish, Catalan and Basque. Many people will speak basic English, but greeting them with a Bonjour! or Hola! will go a long way. 

The food is phenomenal, too. 

Oh and, if you follow the GR11 or the HRP you’ll be able to visit a small, unique country where almost everyone is trilingual, taxes are low and shopping is world-class…Andorra!

Tough climb from Ariege to Andorra. HRP, 2006
Ski mountaineering in Andorra in pandemic times. 2021.

3.- Opportunities for peakbagging

This is one thing that makes hiking in the Pyrenees really stand out. Unlike in the Alps, the highest Pyrenean peaks are not glaciated (or have only residual glaciers or snowfields), so glacier travel gear is not required to climb them. 

Some relatively easy peaks to climb, involving little more than some scrambling, and accessible from the main trail, are Gran Faxa, Posets, Monte Perdido (dangerous with snow) and Montarto in Spain, and Petit Vignemale, Crabère and Canigou in France. 

Spring climb to Posets. 2003.

 

4.- Do it your own way

Do you want to experience the full “European package”, complete with a nice dinner and a bed to sleep on every night? No problem – the GR 10 and 11 will guarantee just that, and introduce you to many delightful mountain villages: Ochagavia, Bielsa, Tavascán (Spain), Lescun and Gavarnie (France) to name a few.

Lescun, France. Perhaps my favourite mountain village on the French side.

On the other hand, would you rather carry your own sleep system, and camp on the trail? Generally you’ll be able to do that, too. Although pitching a tent is prohibited in some national parks (notably Aiguestortes in Spain), in most areas camping (called bivouaking) is allowed from sunset to early morning, at a certain altitude and distance from a road or trailhead. 

Check this great hiker’s Instagram handle for an example of the latter approach.

Yep – it can be done. Somewhere in the Catalan Pyrenees, 2006

 

Camping tip:

Most mountain huts will have adjacent areas where pitching your tent is allowed. This will give you access to valuable information, a restaurant and bar and, most important….a toilet!

 

In conclusion…

I hope this short write up managed to spark your interest. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section.

Yours truly, 20 years younger. In Oulettes de Gaube, Vignemale peak presiding

 

Some reading – just to get started

On the GR11:

https://travesiapirenaica.com/en/gr11/gr11.php

 

A great blog written by a seasoned US-based hiker who writes about the HRP:

https://www.walkingwithwired.com/france-2017

 

Very informative website on the GR-10

http://www.gr10.fr/

 

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