What: thru-hike of the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP).
Where: The border between France and Spain, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
When: July 8 – August 11, 2010 (35 days).
Distance: about 480 miles.
Bonus Post-HRP: August 12 – August 20, (9 days); 115 miles of coastal hiking in France and Spain.
Highlights: fabulous and diverse scenery; five-star campsites; challenging route; good meals at refuges.
Why we went
We like to hike in regions we have never visited and had already walked extensively in the U.K. and northern France, but not in the Alps or the Pyrenees. A French friend familiar with both ranges highly recommended the Pyrenees as very beautiful, less crowded, and less regulated than the Alps. Our optimal hike is four to six weeks long. In unfamiliar places, we prefer routes that are defined and documented so we don’t have to spend too much time researching and planning. The HRP perfectly matched all of our criteria.
We followed the route described in the Pyrenean Haute Route, by Tom Joosten, published by Cicerone Press: 2004 edition.
Many thanks to the authors of these sites for sharing their information and wisdom about long hikes in the Pyrenees:
- Pyrenean High Route, written by a Spanish long distance hiker.
- Mountain Magic on the Pyrenean High Route, by David McClure.
- Roger Caffin’s description of the GR10 and GR11.
- Steve Cracknell’s excellent site Trekking the Pyrenees: GR10, GR11 or HRP; a short guide to the differences.
- Andy Howell’s Pyrenees Information.
This was a five-star trip and I put it on my Top Ten List. I thoroughly enjoyed every day of our 35 day thru-hike.
Diversity is important to me when taking a long walk, and the HRP has great scenic, habitat, and cultural diversity. The granitic high mountains were very handsome, reminiscent California’s Sierra Nevada; the lower altitude eastern and western stretches were also very scenic and worthwhile. We had five-star campsites nearly every night. I enjoyed eating the good food at the refuges. It is emotionally gratifying to walk from coast to coast and I felt a real sense of accomplishment. We saw enough people to make this a fun trip socially, but not so many that it felt crowded.
The HRP was one the best backpacking trips I have ever completed. The entire experience was highly rewarding, ranging from fabulous scenery to high quality walking. It wasn’t an easy hike given the large and frequent altitude changes to contend with. We worked hard to do this route. But just about every day there was something that offered significant rewards.
The vistas often matched those in the Sierra Nevada, which is my gold standard for mountain walking. High rocky peaks, big granite walls, lush valleys and deep forests all added to the pleasures of this trip. The route has great integrity and confronts the terrain head on. It was psychologically satisfying to walk from ocean to sea following a mountain crest.
I would highly recommend the HRP to anyone with the proper skills and experience who wants a beautiful and challenging backpacking trip.
Notes for Potential Hikers
We are including a lot more detailed information than in many of our trip reports. We hope this may encourage more people to walk this route, particularly American long-distance hikers who seem inordinately focused on the PCT, CDT, and AT ignoring some great long distance hiking in Europe.
The Pyrenees are located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea along the border between Spain and France. The range also encompasses the tiny land-locked country of Andorra. The high point is Aneto, 11,618 feet.
There are three established coast-to-coast routes in the Pyrenees: the GR10 in France, the GR11 in Spain, and the HRP along the border between the two countries. All three run from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The GR10 and GR11 are defined and waymarked trails, whereas the HRP is more of a concept and different authors have mapped different high routes from ocean to sea. The GR10 and GR11 tend to oscillate between the lower altitude villages and the higher passes in the mountains while the HRP stays as high as is practical most of the time.
The HRP is pieced together from various small tracks, existing trails, cow-paths and cross-country segments. It is not a formal trail and is not waymarked. When the HRP was concurrent with the GR10 or GR11, those trails’ way-marks were usually good.
The first guidebook to the HRP was published by Georges Véron and is currently available only in French. We followed the route described in Tom Joosten’s 2004 Cicerone Press Guide; this differs from Véron’s in many places. There are sections where the 2004 route was also significantly different from the 2009 edition of the same book. Finally, alternate routings are mapped on both the Spanish and French 1:50,000 topos. We followed Joosten’s 2004 primary route and never used his lower altitude alternates.
Joostens’ route is based on the premise of using refuges for meals and lodging. Thus there are places where you will descend to a refuge in a valley only to immediately climb out on the other side although what looks to be a perfectly feasible ridge route would avoid the descent. In some places, if you don’t need to visit a refuge, you could possibly modify the route to make it shorter and/or reduce altitude loss and gain. Then again, you wouldn’t be following Joosten’s route.
We went west to east as the guidebook is written in that direction. There is no reason the route wouldn’t work as well in the other direction.
After completing the HRP we had some time left before we had to fly home, so we elected to do some more walking, mostly on the GR92. We headed south along the Spanish coast through Llanca, Roses, L’Escala and Estatit. The 92 then went inland through La Bisbal d’Emporda, Llagostera, and Caldes de Malavella. From there we went into tourist mode and visited Girona and Barcelona before returning to Madrid and our flight home.
Maps and GPX files
We purchased the 1:50,000 scale maps recommended in the Cicerone Guide from OmniMap.com. and spent hours marking the HRP on the maps and photocopying the relevant areas onto 11×17 paper. This was time consuming, but the original maps are far too large and heavy to carry in the field.
Navigation was relatively straightforward. We used Joosten’s guidebook, 1:50,000 French and Spanish topo maps, an altimeter, and a compass. We did not have a GPS on this trip. In conjunction with the maps, Joosten’s book is essential and adequate, but we found it frustrating at times. Frequently the instructions were phrased in a way that made it unclear which side of a landmark you should be on, such as “pass the lake on the left” which is intended to mean “pass with the lake on your left side” as opposed to “pass on the left side of the lake”. Ambiguous words like “few” or “soon” are used to describe a distance or elapsed time: “shortly the trail will branch” could mean in 1 minute or 15 minutes.
We were confused in a few locations by some changes on the ground that occurred between the time the guidebook was written and our 2010 hike, such as newly paved roads or ski-lift pylons that had been removed. Presumably the 2009 version of the guide is more up-to-date, and many hikers today will carry a smartphone with a GPS app, so navigation should not be challenging.
We also believe that having a good “mountain sense” will help you to stay on track. Fog heavy enough to reduce visibility to no more than a few yards is not uncommon in the Pyrenees and when that happens, navigation can become a significant challenge. A GPS would be a useful tool in these conditions. However, even with a GPS, fog makes it tough to pick out a good route over a rocky pass; the GPS ensures you are crossing the right pass but doesn’t help to pick a safe route through the rocks and cliffs.
Another problem with navigation is that free-lance cairn building appears to be a national sport in the Pyrenees. It is quite common to see innumerable cairns leading off in multiple directions, or just fields of cairns that don’t appear to form a thread leading anywhere.
Joosten’s route traverses a number of summits. In addition, we climbed two peaks, Petite Vignemale and Certascan, each of which was less than an hour off-route. We also traversed the five summits beyond Coll d’Eina on day 30. There are numerous opportunities to climb other summits. Many of the routes, while not technically difficult, usually require snow-climbing tools to ascend safely.
Hendaye, France is the western terminus of the HRP. We flew to Madrid and took trains to the Spanish border town of Irun and a tram into Hendaye. There are also rail connections to Paris and other French cities. Banyuls-sur-Mer, France is the eastern terminus. It is well served by public transportation. Both places are popular beach towns and have all the services you could want.
Potable water was frequently available, and we treated water on only a few occasions. There were only a couple of dry stretches, each no more than a half-day long.
Although most of food shops on the route are either “tiny” or “small”, they all had some basic provisions: virtually all shops had high quality locally produced cheese, sausage, and bread; nuts, dry fruit, cookies and crackers, chocolate, yoghurt, and canned tuna could usually be found.
We have not carried a stove since 1995. We never saw a selection of freeze-dried foods in any of the markets we used although there are a couple of outdoor stores in Gavarnie that may stock them.
Restaurants and Refuge food
We ate at nearly all the restaurants and staffed refuges we passed if food was available when we were there, but we generally did not modify our schedule in order to accommodate serving times. We were able to purchase food at refuges at any time of day except between about 5:00 and 7:00 PM, when the kitchen staff was preparing the evening meal.
- Lunch #1: Restaurant at Col d’Ibardin
- Dinner #1: Restaurant at Col de Lizuniaga
- Dinner #4: Restaurant Chalet Pedro
- Dinner #6: Restaurant in Lescun
- Lunch #8: Restaurant in Candanchu
- Dinner #9: Refuge d’Arremoulit (late afternoon omelette)
- Dinner #10: Refuge Wallon 3-course dinner
- Lunch #11: Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube
- Lunch #12: Restaurants in Gavarnie (two lunches in two hours!)
- Lunch #13: Restaurant in Heas
- Dinner #13: Refuge de Barroude 3-course dinner
- Lunch #15: Refugio Viados 3-course lunch; best refuge meal of the trip
- Lunch #16: Refugio de la Souda
- Lunch #17: Refuge du Portillon
- Breakfast #19: Refuge Hospital de Vielha
- Lunch #20: Restaurant in Salardu
- Dinner #20: Restaurant in Salardu
- Dinner #23: Refuge Certascan very good 3-course dinner
- Dinner #24: Refuge de Vall Ferrera, late afternoon sandwich & salad
- Lunch #25: Restaurant at ski resort in Andorra
- Dinner #26: Refugio Juclar 3-course dinner
- Snack #28: Restaurant Lac des Bouillouses (light sandwich & big ice cream)
- Lunch #30: Refuge d’Ulldeter
- Lunch #31: Refuge Mariailles
- Lunch #33: Restaurant in Las Illas
- Snack #34: Gite at Col de l’Ouillet
On long distance hikes, re-supplying food is a critical issue. We didn’t want to carry any more weight than necessary but we needed enough calories to stay happy, which on this walk was a lot. We shopped at ten stores en-route, which was every store listed in Joosten’s 2004 guide except Col d’Ibardin on the first day: Parzan (which was off-route), and Amelie-les-Baines (a Sunday and all food stores except the patisserie were closed). We didn’t walk more than ten minutes off route to shop or eat at refuges, and we never used vehicles to travel off-route. We re-supplied at the following locations:
- Day 0: Hendaye: before starting; several adequate grocery stores in town.
- Day 2: Arizkun: two small stores with limited, but sufficient selection.
- Day 3: Les Aldudes: a surprisingly useful quick mart in the gas station.
- Day 5: Col Bargargui (Irati); very small shop at the ski resort.
- Day 6: Lescun: a well-stocked medium sized market.
- Day 8: Candanchu: tiny Supermercado El Bozo
- Day 12: Gavarnie: small, but moderately well-stocked grocery
- Day 20: Salardu: barely adequate small market.
- Day 27: l’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre: barely adequate small market and deli.
- Day 29: Bolquere: excellent market and great deli.
- Day 34: Le Perthus: huge stores with everything you could ever want.
Some of these stores are seasonal and many are not open 7 days a week. This data is from 2010 and there may be more or fewer options now.
We spent a night in a commercial campground in Hendaye prior to the start of our walk, nights in hotels in Salardu and Banyuls-sur-Mer, two nights in unstaffed mountain refuges, and 31 nights wild camping. We stealth camped only once, tucked in behind a barn and hay bales on the edge of Lescun; our remaining camps were in the open. Other than at Lescun, we never felt a need to hide our campsites, and it appeared that many other people behaved the same way.
In theory, you are not supposed to camp in French National Parks. However, in Europe there is a difference between camping and bivouacking: a bivouack is setting up your tent late in the day, spending one night, and moving on in the morning and it is supposedly acceptable to the authorities. In any case, we never had any adverse encounters with park rangers in either Spain or France.
We had so many 5-star sites that we lost count. Nearly every campsite on our trip had a fantastic sense of space and great views. That said we did find two problems in finding campsites. First, there were a number of sections where we walked for 2 to 3 hours through rocky terrain with no obvious spots to pitch a tent. Second, many luscious looking meadows are covered with a grass with extremely sharp tips. These grass tips were so sharp that they easily passed through our spinnaker cloth ground sheet and we were concerned that they could puncture the coated floor of our tent and even possibly our NeoAir pads, so we never set up in these locations. That said, we were always able to find a good site sooner or later.
Many people camped right next to refuges so they could eat dinner there before retiring to their tents. We prefer more solitude, and we’re very picky about finding a flat site on level ground, so we rarely camped near refuges.
We were not interested in sleeping in refuges, but we enjoyed the meals, and eating at refuges lightened our pack weight considerably. The meals were surprisingly good and plentiful, and, on occasion, excellent. Prices seemed quite reasonable given that the refuges usually don’t have road access. A good mid-day omelet with bread cost 4 to 7 Euros. A three-course dinner with soup or salad, an entrée with meat and rice or potatoes, and dessert cost about 15 Euros per person. Wine cost 3 or 4 Euros per half liter and we often bought some to carry out.
Some people find that the scene at the refuges disrupts the sense of being in the wilderness, but for us, the refuges seemed as appropriate to the route as the shepherds and their animals. Other people like the refuges because of the social scene; a Tasmanian couple we met mailed their camping gear home after a week and spent the rest of the trip in refuges, primarily because they enjoyed interacting with the people they met.
Spending the night in refuges is not to everyone’s taste. Sleeping quarters are cramped and communal and thus noisy and have no privacy.
Not including transport to and from Hendaye and Banyuls, we spent ~$200 USD for maps, ~$150 for 3 nights of paid accommodation, and ~$28 per person per day for food and beverages, based on an exchange rate of about $1.29 USD to the Euro.
About the Trail
The HRP does not have as good a walking surface as the John Muir Trail or the National Trails in the UK. There is essentially no trail maintenance in the Pyrenees and erosion is common. Much of the route is not on designed trails as we think of them, but on use paths that have developed informally over the centuries. These paths are often steep and frequently covered with loose rocks of all sizes. There are not many long trail sections where you can walk in a day-dreaming or cruising mode; you have to watch where you place your feet. There are many places where trails fork without any signs, and a lot of these small trails are not on the map.
At lower elevations, much of the hiking was on farm tracks and country lanes: all offered easy walking.
There was essentially no bushwhacking required anywhere on the HRP.
There are a couple of short hard class-2 or easy class-3 rock scrambles. None of these will be problematic to anyone with basic rock climbing skills.
There are also many snowfields, and for several of them Joosten recommends crampons and an ice ax. We had neither and each of us used a single trekking pole for stability on the snow.
Whether one can safely cross the snowfields depends on several factors. The amount of snow depends on the preceding winter’s snowfall, and how much of it has melted off. Obviously, all other things being equal, the later in the season you go, the less snow you will find. The second factor is when in the day you cross the snow and what the very recent weather has been like; when the snow is icy due to cloudy weather and/or morning conditions, it is more problematic than soft snow on a warm sunny afternoon. And the third factor is the condition of the steps previous climbers have made. There are snowfields, such as Col Inferior de Literole, where if you slip into an uncontrolled slide, you will likely be injured.
We were fortunate that on the steepest passes the snow had been sun-softened and the steps were adequate. However, if the slopes had been icy and/or without steps, we could not have crossed them safely. Thus, in our opinion, each person should decide for themselves what they are comfortable doing and whether or not to add the weight of an ax and/or crampons (instep crampons should be sufficient) to their pack. You can always take alternate routes around these obstacles, but then you miss some of the most glorious country as well as the satisfaction of completing the route on its own terms.
The HRP never gets higher than about 10,000 feet. The route starts at sea level and only reaches higher elevations after a few days of walking. Thus it could be a fine alpine trip for people susceptible to altitude sickness.
Up and Down
With a very few exceptions, the HRP is not technically difficult in a mountaineering sense. However, it is physically quite demanding. The route is constantly gaining and loosening altitude. Joosten, in his 2004 guidebook, understates that altitude gain as he only accounts for the deltas between major high and low points and does not include the minor and not so minor ups and downs that can add so much to a day’s climb. We did not turn on the “accumulated gain” feature of our altimeter, but guess our actual gain was at least 10-20% higher than the published 42,350 meters (139,000 feet).
How much time?
Joosten 2004 suggests 42 days for the HRP and in his 2009 edition suggests 45 days; this is partially based on the locations of refuges and towns with lodging as his book is organized into daily stages between these amenities. Although we followed his route, we ignored his stages and completed our walk in 35 days. James was satisfied with the trip length while Amy would have preferred more time. Other HRP thru-hikers we met were taking 45 to 55 days
We have seen published distances for the HRP that range from 800 to over 1000 kilometers. Distances actually walked are difficult to estimate. As on many European trails, Joosten and the trail markers all list hours between points, not kilometers. How many hours you take obviously depends on how fast you walk and how many times you stop.
The scenic quality of the route is consistently excellent and the walking interesting and rewarding. The grass was green and the flowers blooming. The mountains were very attractive and in places stunning. We were pleased by how much we enjoyed the vast majority of the route. Even at the lower elevation beginning and end, the HRP is well worth walking. Only at Col d’Perthus does the route descend to a truly over-developed place.
While nothing on the route could be considered remote by North American wilderness standards, the overall ambience is traveling in mountains that appear to have only been lightly touched by the humans who have lived in and used the area for thousands of years. There are almost no téléphériques lacing the mountains like in the Alps. There are not many paved roads crossing the mountains and you can walk many days without encountering one. Almost all the inhabited places are in the lower valleys, so the higher sections of the HRP have are no buildings other than the refuges and an occasional herder’s cottage.
This was our eighth hike of three to five weeks in Europe. We have our gear dialed in for what suits us in the trade-offs between weight, comfort, convenience, and happiness. Our base pack weight was 13.5 pounds (6.1 kg) each, which was quite light compared to the other backpackers we saw in the Pyrenees.
We had only one day with enough rain during daylight hours to use raincoats. We had rain during the night a half dozen times, including a few walloping nighttime thunderstorms, but we generally enjoy any rain that occurs after we have our tent set up. Strong winds were fairly common, but rarely problematic. There was dense fog in France for at least half the trip, but it was nearly always below us. We walked in significant fog for 3 or 4 days, and it hampered navigation once or twice. Temperatures were over 80º F on perhaps a dozen days, but only the first day was blazing hot. We had ice form overnight on two nights.
We consider ourselves quite fortunate with the weather and others should not count on being so lucky. For example, we dined with two HRP’ers toward the end of the trip who reported that their first five days, in Basque country, were entirely in dense fog and they never had views. We also met a couple who had started in Hendaye before us, but after five days of extreme heat, changed plans and rented a car and drove to the higher mountains, then spent a month taking day and overnight hikes. The first day of our trip was the last day of their five day heat wave.
We never had significant bug problems while hiking, although biting flies were a very occasional annoyance. We had a couple of campsites where the evening bugs were annoying enough that we ate dinner inside the tent.
Amy spoke enough Spanish and French to take care of logistics, but not enough to have meaningful conversations. And, no surprise, neither of us understood Basque or Catalan, two other languages commonly spoken in the region. We didn’t have any problems taking care of logistical matters with Amy’s language skills, but it was frustrating to be unable to just converse with the non-English speaking hikers and locals we met.
Many people spoke at least a bit of English, particularly at the refuges. Young people frequently spoke English, while older folks less so.
There are lots of cows, sheep and horses throughout the Pyrenees, and most of these animals wear bells. The clinking and clanking add to the ambience for some people, but keep in mind that the racket does not cease at sundown, so you might want to carry earplugs.
We met at least two parties every day of the trip and on some days, we passed several dozen hiking groups. On the three-hour descent from Puig Carlit we passed literally hundreds of day-hikers. Most of the time, people were clustered near trailheads and refuges, so we often had quite long stretches without seeing other hikers. We only met four parties walking the HRP coast to coast.
We saw 120 species of birds on the trip, including seven life species. Highlights included Lammergeier, an enormous vulture that had previously eluded us on three continents. Unsurprisingly, water birds were scare, but the diversity of land birds, from raptors to songbirds was quite good. Choughs are absolutely cool mountain birds.