Hiking High in the Pyrinies
France has an extensive system of walking trails an astonishing 40,000 kilometers. Long-distance routes are identified as"Grandes Randonnies," each with its own assigned number. The red-and-white blazed GR-10 crosses the Pyrinies, staying exclusively in France. (There is also a GR-65, which crosses the GR-10 in St. Jeanne de Pied de Port. This is the old Santiago da Compostela Pilgrimage route, still used today.)
The system has spread across the border the GR-11 is the Spanish equivalent, running roughly parallel to the GR-10, on the Spanish side of the border. There is also the Haute Randonnie Pyriniean (HRP; the Pyrinies high route) which attempts to follow the ridges on the French-Spanish border wherever possible.
To muddle things even farther, the HRP sometimes is contiguous with the GR-10 or the GR-11 and (as if that isn't confusing enough) there is also a network of interconnecting, official alternate routes. So you've got lots of choices of which way to go. Blazing on the GR-10 is excellent; on the GR-11, it's whimsical. On the only occasionally yellow-blazed HRP, it's completely unpredictable.
The GR-10 is usually considered the easiest of the three routes because it is well-marked, and because it is set up so that each day's walk ends at a refuge or a village, where hikers can find room and board. But this requires descending to a village each night and then climbing back up into high mountains each morning. So if you choose the GR-10, be prepared for some steep and grueling ups and downs.
The GR-11 is less well established, less well-marked, and less well-maintained (on one memorable occasion, we couldn't find it at all). It also frequently follows long stretches of road. However, if you've been rained on once too often on the French side, it's worth drying your socks (and your spirits) in sunny Spain: The Pyrinies create a rain shadow, and the weather can be vastly different from one side of the range to the other.
The HRP is the most challenging of the three routes, requiring solid backcountry skills, especially route-finding. The way is often unmarked, and you'll sometimes find yourself going cross-country in foul weather and bad visibility. There are several stretches that require "wild camping" (i.e., no towns, no backcountry refuges, no four-course dinners, and no wine!) for several days in a row. Not to worry: These campsites are frequently in stunningly beautiful high country that might make you think of such American landmarks as the Goat Rocks Wilderness or the North Cascades. But remember, the Pyrinies are justly famed for the kind of storms that make you wonder if your tent poles will last the night. So be flexible, bring good maps, and be prepared to duck down out of the high country if storms make a ridgeline traverse too risky.
All three routes boast some of Europe's most spectacular scenery jagged, sky-piercing mountains, some covered with snow; glacier-carved features like broad, braided streambeds, huge moraines, and crystalline tarns. Although rarely rising above 10,000 feet, these tightly serrated mountains have been sculpted into shapes of rugged wildness and stark beauty. For a change of scenery, there's an occasional thousand-year-old church or two-thousand-year-old Roman ruin.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication