Trail surfaces varied significantly and included everything from pavement to scree-fields. Most of the route is on unpaved roads, old military or mule tracks (mulattiera), constructed footpath, or shepherd paths.
Along border areas adjacent to France, old military roads predominate. These were built for use by mules or soldiers, and were not designed for motor vehicles. Although usually at a reasonable grade, the surface is frequently paved with rough cobbles and sometimes is quite tedious to walk on. These roads have not been maintained for decades and are often covered by local debris slides or have collapsed.
The mulattiera are traditional village-to-village paths and some date back to Roman times. Sometimes they are paved with rough cobbles forming a difficult walking surface. They usually go directly from point A to point B as quickly as possible and thus can be surprisingly steep. They can be very slippery when they are wet.
Trails vary in quality from wonderful shaded and soft stretches through Beech leaf litter to rough way-marked routes through boulder fields. The trails, like the mulattiera, are often steep and maintenance is usually not evident. Overall, walking the GTA requires constant attention to where you put your feet and cruising along on a nice even surface is extremely rare. To put this in perspective, when we backpack on maintained long distance trails in the mountains, we average about 18 miles per day. On this trip we worked just as hard but achieved an average pace of only 13 miles per day.
Trails were surprisingly dry and drained quickly after rainfall. There was almost no walking through boggy or muddy areas. We experienced no areas with brush-thrashing, almost no blow-downs, and little aggressive vegetation. There are no poison-oak/ivy equivalents on the route.
There is very little walking on paved roads. When there is, it is mostly within town limits and never along heavily trafficked roads. Drivers were less crazy than we expected, but often drove past walkers with little room to spare. Drivers, surprisingly, almost always stopped for pedestrians at marked crossing areas.
The GTA essentially goes across the grain on the very steep southern side of the Alps. On a typical day we would drop down to around 1000 meters where the winters are mild enough for year-round villages. Then we would climb back up to 2000-2500 meters to cross a pass; and then drop back down into the next valley. We would often cross two passes each day. We rarely walked on a moderate grade routed on a valley floor or ridgeline.
We encountered almost no mountain bikes except for one afternoon when we found ourselves in the middle or an organized trail race. The only motorcycles we encountered on trails were small bikes being used by local farmers and the riders were always considerate.
In general, trails are extremely well sign-posted in the Alps. At most intersections, there will be signs pointing to various destinations, often with specific trail names labeled as well. In Europe, signs specify the time between points, such as 1 hour 50 minutes to get to wherever, rather than distances between points. Of course these times depend on how fast you walk. If you know the name of your destination, you can depend on the signage for most, but not all, navigational purposes. We always checked our maps at intersections: sometimes there might be two or more ways posted to get from place to place. And, of course, not everything is marked or signs might be missing.
While on the GTA, we would often see “GTA” posted on a sign or marked in some other way. This was reassuring. Additionally, the route is also usually marked with frequent red and white randonnée blazes commonly seen on European trails.
Most passes were signposted with the pass name and elevation. Route markings within town usually disappeared so expect to do some wandering up and down convoluted alleys.
We used a combination of navigation aids. The first was the 1:75,000 maps printed in the guidebook. These were useful enough for general directions and labeled significant points along the route. The text was usually, but not always, helpful. While the text does call out important junctions, there are too many “in a short distance” type of statements.
The most important failure in the guide is when there are variants. The authors rarely explain the reasons for choosing one over the other, so we had to choose an option based on intuition, examining other maps, and sometimes just a whim. We often wished they had included a simple statement like “option A is better in threatening weather conditions” or “option B is easier”.
We carried paper maps we printed using CalTopo, but the scale of a map packet of reasonable weight for such a long trip rendered these maps marginally useful. We found it impractical to carry 1:25,000 scale maps for such a long trip.
We depended heavily on the downloaded GPS track we carried in our iPhone; we used Gaia GPS as our primary app. We charged the phone at refuges and shops.
It would be difficult to get dangerously lost. Almost all of the trails were easy to follow and if you took a wrong turn, you would sooner or later end up someplace where you could re-orient. The only time we had a problem was descending in a heavy fog into an area with a multitude of cow paths that cut across our intended route. The way-marking was intermittent at best and the cow tracks just confused everything. Even there, if not for iPhone gps, we would have wasted time wandering around searching for a usable route, but it would not have been dangerous.
Timing and Walking Direction
In a typical year, essentially all the snow on the GTA has melted by early July, and this marks the start of the best hiking season for southbound hikers. You could start a bit earlier on a northbound trip, but since the mountains rise so quickly, you might only gain a window of a week or two.
The other factor for selecting a start date is when the refuges open. Since they are a primary source of food, if not shelter, this is critical. Higher altitude refuges do not open any earlier than the beginning of July and some not until the middle of July. Most close sometime in September. Lower altitude accommodations have longer seasons. The Rother book lists the opening and closing dates for accommodations, but if hiking early or late in the season it would be worth confirming that those dates are still accurate.
We saw no major advantage to walking either northbound or southbound. The trail marking seemed to be equally good in both directions. We went southbound because to us it made sense to finish the walk at the sea instead of yet another alpine pass and there are many more transportation options at Ventimiglia that at Alpe Cruina.
We camped every night except one: in Alagna we got a room so we could shower, do laundry, and generally reorganize. This is not the norm for other European hikers. While on the GTA, we saw fewer than five other groups using tents. People stay in the refuges, which, to us, must be an acquired taste, given how closely packed everyone is in the communal sleeping rooms.
We never had an issue with camping. Unlike in Switzerland and Germany where camping is strictly limited, in Italy nobody cared where we set up our tent. When we asked, people said to camp wherever we liked. The refuge guardians directed us to the best tent sites adjacent to their buildings. We camped in fields, next to rivers, in old buildings, on church porches, in parks and picnic areas.
Most of the time, finding decent to superb campsites never took too long. Occasionally, the terrain made finding a perfect flat and level place a bit time consuming, but we never had a less than adequate site. Many sites were fabulous, providing stellar views and very comfortable places to stay.
Food and Resupply
Unlike most long-distance thru-hikes in North America, in Europe you do not need to carry large amounts of food. If you stay in refuges, dinner and breakfast are provided and packed lunches can be purchased.
The downside is that the meal schedules are rigidly fixed. Breakfast is coffee and dry toast and starts at 7. Lunch is served from 12 to 2. Dinner starts at 7 or 7:30. In between, obtaining a meal is unpredictable. In most refuges, the staff was happy to provide us with some simple foods, like omelets, a salad or hot sandwiches. But we couldn’t get pasta or a main course except during the standard mealtime. The smaller the refuge, the more flexible and accommodating the staff were in terms of serving food outside the normal meal times. Beer, wine, and other beverages were always available.
Prices varied quite a bit from place to place, but were usually surprisingly reasonable, especially considering that many refuges are resupplied by helicopter. A flavorful and hearty evening meal of three to five courses cost about 18 Euro. The food was almost always decent and often very good.
Shopping in the small villages was also hit or miss. Many, but not all, villages had an alimentari (grocery store). They were always closed between about noon and 4. Selections varied, but we ate a lot of cheese, salami, and crostini. Village restaurants often had quite tasty food, but rarely sold much except beverages and ice cream during non-meal hours.
Finding water was not an issue. Every town and refuge has a font and much of the high altitude surface water is safe to drink. We rarely thought it necessary to treat the water and had no problems develop.
Shower access can usually be purchased at a refuge.
Doing laundry was a problem. Laundromats are not to be found along the GTA. We washed bits of clothing in streams and public fonts. In Alagna, our hotel had a washing machine and in Susa, the only large town on the route, we found a dry-cleaner who wet washed our clothes for a few Euros. Most of the time, our clothes were a lot dirtier than we liked.