Trip Summary

What: hiking the GR5 and nearby trails.
Where: French Alps, from Thonon-les-Bains to Modane.
When: August 6-22, 2022 (17 days).
Distance: about 198 miles.
Highlights: our first overseas walk after a three year Covid hiatus, mountain scenery, good food, great weather.

Resources

We downloaded GPX files for the GR5 and associated routes from the Waymarked Trails website.

The GR5 is one of many Grand Randonées in France. The FFRP is the primary source of information for all GRs.

There is a Cicerone Guidebook, but we have not seen it and don’t know how useful it is. We did not read or carry any other guidebooks. We find it sufficient to have a gpx track plus a folder of waymarks for food sources, refuges, and other features. Prior to the trip we used Google maps and CalTopo to map the route and waymarks.

As for all our trips, we used our two primary mapping tools: CalTopo.com and Google Earth to prepare gpx data, and Gaia GPS while hiking.

Why we went

Since 2002, we have taken one, or occasionally two, multi-week overseas backpacking trips each year. The Covid epidemic prevented that activity, but with the arrival of vaccines and the re-opening of European countries, we were able to start traveling again.

In 2017, we had thru-hiked the GTA in the western Italian Alps and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We had long avoided hiking in the adjacent French Alps as we believed the mountains there could be very crowded. However, we had also read reports that the GR5 was a fine route, so we decided to give it a try.

Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.

Amy’s Assessment

I did not enjoy the route as much as I expected, but it’s difficult to determine whether that was about my frame of mind or about the route. The bottom line is that it didn’t really come together in a way that was thrilling, as many walks have.

The scenery every day was good. Looking at our photos reminds me of how many beautiful places we visited.

The factors that were most relevant to ultimately deciding that it was not really fun for me:

  1. I was mentally tired. We averaged 4000 feet of gain per day for 16 days. At this pace, on this trail, I didn’t have time to enjoy my surroundings; I felt like I was always eating, procuring food, setting up or breaking down camp, or paying attention to my feet. There were a few times when I felt physically exhausted, but more importantly I felt like my mind was not on vacation. I have learned that miles per day is less important than feet of gain per mile, because the steepness of the gradient determines whether I look around and daydream while walking, or focus on my footing. 4000 feet of gain in 12 miles is less enjoyable than 4000 feet of gain in 16 miles.
  2. There were stretches where the trail crowds interfered with my enjoyment.
  3. We had a few minor health issues. Nothing substantial, but enough to disrupt the flow a little bit.
  4. The plethora of ski resorts, lifts, roads, and buildings was a bit disruptive.
  5. We were not there in the best month or the best year. August is the busiest holiday month in Europe, so crowds were at their peak. The Alps had been in a drought, so things were unusually dry.

We completed 50% of the miles we had planned and we were several days ahead of schedule, so in that sense the trip was going well. But all things considered, the effort versus the joy was not working or me, and I was not looking forward to the second half of the route.

James’ Assessment

As we discuss below, this walk was not anywhere near as satisfying as I had hoped. While there was nothing wrong with the route and we had no problems of any significance, the walking was not compelling. I had hoped for a repeat of the fabulous trip we had had on the GTA, but alas, this did not happen. When we decided to quit the GR5, I had concluded that whatever the next day might bring, it was likely going to be too similar to the previous one. I had also underestimated how the large numbers of other hikers would detract from the experience.  Overall, I hoped that there would be a much better walk to be found in other European mountains.

Notes for Potential Hikers

The Plan and the Actual Trip

Our original goal was to hike from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea. Our route was about 390 miles, primarily on the GR5 but also included some lengthy alternate trails.

Halfway through the walk near the town of Modane, we decided we were not very excited about completing our planned route. As Modane has good rail connections to the rest of Europe, it was a convenient place to consider alternatives. While the mountain hiking was pleasant and the scenery generally attractive, we had started to feel each day was too similar to the day before. We had already passed through the highest regions with the most dramatic scenery and the mountain landscape was no longer changing in any substantive way. The towns were filled with tourists, the refuges were extremely crowded and interactions with their staff was most perfunctory. There were so many lifts bringing masses of people up into the mountains that it was hard to get into the rhythm of peaceful walking. The portion of our route concurrent with the Tour de Mont Blanc had been more crowded than any trail hiking we have ever done; the best part of the day had become the calm hiking time from 6:30 AM until 9:00 AM before the ski lifts started disgorging tourists.

It is impossible to predict what scenery and experiences will create joy on a long walk but on our best previous hikes we have always felt invigorated with a sense of wonder and surprise. On this trip, we did not have that magic. We had had a similar situation on our trip to Slovakia 2019; we abandoned that hike and changed to a completely satisfying long walk on the French Coast. As we were not feeling enthralled with the GR5, we hoped that trying something different would be a good solution.

The option of returning home early did not make sense as Europe has so many established trails; we spent time on the internet exploring various hiking possibilities and decided the Italian Dolomites would be a good destination. We had never visited this region and it has a reputation as a fine range of mountains. Since our flight home departed from Milan, going to the Dolomites kept us within an easy train ride to that city.

We left Modane and traveled to Milan on an afternoon train, and the following day took three trains to the tiny town of Villabassa/Niederdorf, just south of the border with Austria. From there we spent nineteen very enjoyable and satisfying days hiking two different routes in the Dolomites; trip reports coming soon.

GR5 Route Notes

The GR5 is one of the major French Grand Randonnées, or long distance trails. The GR routes are documented, popular, and crisscross the entire country. They are usually well waymarked with signs and traditional GR paint blazes. Towns and refuges are frequent enough that most hikers do not carry a tent or large amounts of food.

The GR5 starts at Belgian border and ends at the Mediterranean Sea. The most popular section is called the Alpes Côte d’Azur; which starts on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in the French town of Thonon-les-Bains and finishes at the seaside city of Nice. There are numerous variations and alternates to the official GR route.

Our planned route was about 65% on the GR5 and 35% on alternates. We selected the alternates primarily to keep us higher in the mountains than the GR5 is routed as it often descends into valleys to provide walkers with access to towns and their services. We had not wanted to complete our walk in large and busy Nice, so we planned to finish via the GR52 to Menton, a much smaller and more pleasant town.

At the Col de Coux, we made our first significant diversion and walked east for three and a half days following portions of the Via Alpina Red, the Tour de la Vallée du Trient, and other routes. We rejoined the GR5 above Chamonix. Near Tignes, our second major diversion began when we acquired the GR55 and walked it for three days before rejoining the GR5 near Modane. In both cases, trail conditions were similar to those on the GR5.

Trail Conditions

The GR5 and most of the associated trails were generally well marked and were maintained in quite good condition. The trails were well drained and rarely muddy, but were often quite rocky and paying attention to your footing was required. There was very little boulder scrambling and just a couple of short non-technical sections protected with cables or other climbing aids. No climbing gear is needed. Steep ascents and descents were common; altitude gain and loss averaged about 365 feet per mile. The high point on our route was around 9150 feet. There are numerous side trails and on occasion, it took careful map study to stay on the correct route. However, even if a wrong turn is made, getting truly lost is highly unlikely; the Alps are not a wilderness.

The section from Lacs du Cheserys to Les Houches, is concurrent with the Tour de Mont Blanc. This was by far the most crowded piece of trail walking we have ever experienced. At times we were passing, being passed by, or encountering other hikers at a rate of hundreds of people per hour. These high mountain trails provide magnificent views of the Mt. Blanc massif but there are numerous cable cars bringing thousands of day-hikers up from the Chamonix Valley floor, and we felt overwhelmed. The Tour de Mt. Blanc is one of the most popular multi-day walks in Europe and we encountered many groups on organized thru-hikes.

This did not suit us at all. While the mountain scenery was the most dramatic of the entire GR5, the large numbers of people detracted significantly from the experience. We would not recommend hiking in that region during the peak July-August season and we should have not planned our route to include a piece of the Tour.

Getting there

We flew to Geneva from where numerous and frequent trains and buses go to Thonon-les-Bains. From the route’s terminus on the Mediterranean in either Nice or Menton, there are good rail connections to the rest of Europe.

Food

The route passes through a number of towns that have grocery stores, patisseries, and/or cafes. Frequently, restaurant meals were only served  between noon and 2:00 or after 6 PM, and some stores are closed during the afternoons. Google maps usually has quite accurate information about opening hours. Many refuges are encountered along the route and at these we were almost always able to obtain at least some food at any time of the day. The evening dinner was usually by reservation only, but lunch was usually available around noon. The food was always at least good. At other times, drinks, pastries, sandwiches and occasionally omelets were available.

We usually carried breakfast and one or two additional meals in case we were not able to get food from outside sources.

Water

The French alpine region was in a drought during our trip. In most towns, the public fonts had been turned off. Two refuges had been closed due to lack of water. On prior trips we had paid for showers at refuges, but due to the water shortages those were not available. However, we were always able to find enough drinking water sources that it was never a serious concern.

We also spoke with a NOBO GR5 thru-hiker who told us the water situation was much worse further south in the route. All the fonts and springs were dry and she had to pay a lot of attention to obtaining water.

Camping

We saw more people in tents than on previous European hikes, but most hikers stay in the refuges or obtain lodging in towns. In France an overnight stay in a tent when you set up after 7:00 PM and depart early in the morning is considered bivouacking and is legal in most places away from buildings. Bivouacking is forbidden in some national parks, but in those places the refuges always provided a place to set up a tent.

Refuges have their own rules concerning nearby bivouacking, so ask the guardian what is acceptable. Many refuges had an area set aside for tents; sometimes this was free and other times there was a small fee.

We camped every night on this trip and never had a problem finding at least a decent site. We never saw a ranger of any kind during the entire walk, so if we violated any wild camping rules nobody was there to tell us. When refuge keepers asked us where we spent the night and we said we were wild camping, they never seemed to care. In the Parc National de la Vanoise we camped at the official Refuge d’Entre Duex Eaux campsite. On two nights we stayed in small quiet commercial campgrounds where there were showers and laundry facilities.

Weather

The weather was generally good during our entire walk, although Amy thought it was too hot on several occasions. We had only one day with any significant rain during walking hours.