Hiking High in the Pyrenees

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Trail's end at Banyuls-dur-Mer
From sea to sea

Direction: Most people do the trek from west to east, starting at the Atlantic Ocean. (That's how the guidebooks are written, and it supposedly puts the weather at your back.) If you're going the whole way, figure between forty-five and fifty-five days, depending on how hard you want to work.

Gear: If you've got bad knees, bring hiking sticks, because we're talking STEEP ups and downs.

Stoves and fuel: French hikers prefer (by a ratio of about a zillion to one) the locally made Camping Gaz stoves, which use compressed gas canisters that are available virtually everywhere. Go native and do the same—you'll save all kinds of fuel-procurement frustration! If you must use a liquid fuel stove, be sure it's a multifuel that burns kerosene as well as gas. You can use petroleum-based dry-cleaning fluid and white spirits. Alcohol-based stove fuel will not work in stoves like the MSR whisperlight or XGK-II.

Trails: Trail quality varies from road walking to farm-roads, from cut and marked footpaths to cross-country (on the HRP). Some of the trails are extremely steep. You'll also find lingering snow in the high country. Ice axes and crampons are not usually necessary in the summer, but after a snowy winter or early in the season, you may wish you had them.

Lodging: Lodgings in a gite d'itape cost approximately $10 a person a night, and a four-course dinner can usually be had for less than $20 (although more expensive—and delicious—options are sometimes available). You can also cook your own food in the gites d'itapes. Warning: Provisioning in small towns with one-aisle grocery stores can be a bit of a challenge.

Seasonal info : Because of the high country, this is a July-August hike. But weather on the coasts will be sometimes uncomfortably warm: hot and humid in Basque country, hot and dry on the Mediterranean side. Wicking clothes, a sun hat, and sunglasses are mandatory. For the most part, you'll be up high, where your biggest problem is potentially violent storms—good rain gear and a wind-worthy tent are a must. It's worth looking for sheltered campsites. Don't camp at the passes: Flat though they are, they act as wind tunnels.

Guidebooks: English-language guidebooks are available. Check out the Pyrenean Trail GR-10 from the Grande Randonnie guides, and the Pyrenees High Level Route guide, both available from Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, where you'll also find a selection of guides covering yet more trails in the Pyrenees.

Maps: Four 1:100,000-scale maps (called serie verte, or green series) cover the Pyrenees: numbers 69 (Pau Bayonne), 70 (Pau Bagnhres de Luchon), 71 (St. Gaudens Andorre) and 72 (Biziers Perpignan); these are available from the Adventurous Traveler bookstore. This scale is perfectly adequate for the well-marked GR-10. These maps focus on the French side of the Pyrenees, but do overlap the Spanish border. In addition, there is a 1:25,000-scale series (serie bleu, or blue series), better for the HRP. You'll also find additional maps (both French and Spanish) in many of the larger towns, especially those that attract large numbers of tourists and outdoorspeople. Several of the larger towns even have outfitters. If you have time in Paris, pay a visit to Au Vieux Campeur, on the Rue des Ecoles; it's a French version of REI and it has an extensive selection of guidebooks and maps. Another source of information and maps is the Centre D'Information Sentiers et Randonnies, (Information Center for Trails and Treks) 64 Rue de Gergovie, 75014, Paris. Telephone (1) 45.45.31.02.

Language: Bad news on the language front: There are some parts of the world where "everyone speak English" just doesn't fly. This is one of them. A few well-practiced sentences from a phrase book will help immensely, as will a mastery of polite greetings. If you speak French, no matter how poorly, you're home free, even in northern Spain, where French is usually the second language.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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