Many people contact me about walking in the Pyrenees so I have put together a FAQ about the Senda Pirenaica (GR11) here. See also my FAQ on the French GR10. If you don’t find the answer to your question please feel free to add a comment.
Which walk? GR10, GR11 or HRP?
It is possible to cross the Pyrenees from north to south in a day, but hiking the whole length from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean takes at least six weeks. Walkers have three main possibilities
The Pyrenean Way, the French GR10, the northernmost route, from Hendaye to Banyuls. The most venerable of the three options, it has been refined over the decades and manned hostels are available for most of the trek.
- The Haute Route Pyrénéenne (HRP), in the middle and so higher up, also from Hendaye to Banyuls. Sticking as it does close to the ridge, the HRP reduces the amount of climbing and distance to a minimum but it is still the most difficult option. The waymarking is sparse, some of the sections are technically challenging, and snow is more of a problem. This is the route for the walker who wants to be alone. Although the landscape is more natural than the other two options, this does not mean that walkers will necessarily see more animals.
- The Senda Pirenaica, the Spanish GR11, to the south, from the Cabo Higuer to the Cap de Creus. Although on the southern side of the Pyrenees, I do not believe this makes it any dryer than the GR10, as some claim. The GR10 has only one pass at over 2500m; on the GR11 there are a ten. Snow can be a problem in the central sections right into the first week of July.
See the Pyrenean Way blog for a detailed comparison of the GR10 and GR11. At their furthest apart, a mere 30km separates the GR10, the HRP, and the GR11 so it is possible to skip between the three routes. In addition the foothills offer several other alternatives:
- the French GR78, from Carcassonne to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port,
- the Spanish GR15, the Senda Prepirenaica, from Pont de Suert to Fago,
- the Spanish GR1 the Sendero Historico, even lower, from Ampurias on the Mediterranean to Finisterre on the Atlantic.
For the challenge of walking across a continent, taking in an entire range of mountains. The Senda Pirenaica is a classic walk and – as long as the snow has melted – not technically difficult. Each new dawn brings new scenery, unlike the Pacific Coast Trail – or so I am told – where the stagehands may go on strike for days on end.
The countryside is varied. In the Basque country and Navarre the sumptuous rolling hills are parcelled up by hedges and punctuated by pretty stone-built villages.
But as the Senda forges eastwards and steps into Aragon the vertical scale stretches; torrents crash through dramatic gorges. Viewed from above, the Ordesa and Añisclo canyons in the Monte Perdido National Park seem exaggerated. The villages are replaced by lonely hostels.
Then in Catalonia the route weaves through a string of lakes in the Aigüestortes National Park before slipping briefly into shopping mode in Andorra, a whole country which can be crossed in four days. Afterwards the heat is turned up and splashes from the Mediterranean appear: fig trees, cork oaks, rosemary, cacti, vines.
In the central sections the Senda is steep, very occasionally vertiginous, but it is not rock climbing. There is nothing that will frighten an experienced walker once the snow has melted (see What is the best time of year). In the interests of balance, you may like to read German Tourist’s less enthusiastic account of her GR 11 trip.
The animal population includes the kind of fauna that George Monbiot (Feral) loves and the kind that he hates. In the ‘love’ category the Pyrenees are the home to wild boar, wolves, and bears. Any half-awake walker will spot tracks of wild boar or zones where they have grubbed up the soil in search of roots, but may not see the beasts themselves. On the other hand given the limited number of bears (30 in 2015) and wolves (probably about the same) hikers are unlikely to come face-to-face with them.
Meeting the locals
Of the 523 bear encounters since 1996, in 414 cases the bear simply went away peacefully. Only eleven cases of aggression are recorded, and in every instance it was a female accompanied by cubs and surprised at a short distance. The typical tactic was to charge to demonstrate her potential and then flee. Nobody has died as a result of a bear attack in the Pyrenees since the 19th century. In America walking sites suggest carrying a pepper spray but I don’t know anyone here who bothers.
They are certainly less exciting, but everybody will see marmottes and sarrios (also known as rebecos or isards).
In the last two years the chances of spotting an ibex have increased infinitely (from a starting point of zero) but with a population of only 100, mostly on the other side of the watershed, the probability is still not very high. At a distance, male ibex with their extravagant curved horns, can potentially be confused with mouflons but for the moment they have different distributions, the central Pyrenees and Ariège on the one hand and Catalonia on the other.
In the sky the most readily identifiable bird is the buitre (Griffon vulture) followed by the red kite. Golden eagles are present as are Lammergeier (bearded) vultures. These quebrantahuesos, as they are called in Spanish, can be seen regularly near a dedicated feeding site near Escuain on the GR15 (just south of Góriz).
As for the kind of fauna that Monbiot hates – sheep – the sound of their tinkling bells is one of the joys of summer walking. In the Pyrenees sheep rearing is a major occupation but not so intensive that the landscape has suffered the effects of overgrazing.
Walking the dog
As far as I can make out, there are no restrictions on taking a dog on the GR11 as long as it is on a lead and has its passport and vaccination certificates. For a more detailed discussion see walking with a dog in the Pyrenees.
Ticks and Lyme disease
Forget bears and wild boar; the walker’s greatest enemy in the Pyrenees is only 2mm across. I know three people who have had serious problems after a tick bite. More…
Walkers without crampons and an ice axe are more-or-less limited to July to September for the central sections.
The walking season
The first high pass walking from the west is Cuello del Infierno (2722m) between Respomuso and Baños de Panticosa on about Day 13 (see GR11 map). The first walking from the east is Noucreus (2800m) on about Day 8.
Snow stays on these passes until at least 14 June and for up to three weeks later. At the other end of the season, snow starts again mid-October. So the earliest date for through-hikers starting from the Hondarribia is 1 June, or 7 June starting from the Cap de Creus.
Beware of late winters: in 2013 I was slogging through the snow on crampons on 11 July (in the Aigüestortes National Park, half-way along). For up-to-date information on weather conditions many of the refuges now have webcams. The one at Respomuso points to the Cuello del Infierno
- For reliable mountain forecasts (in Spanish) see aemet.es.
On the hoof
Relativity was invented for the Pyrenees: time and space don’t have the same values as on the plain. Distance becomes time. Nobody talks in terms of how far they have walked, but how long it has taken.
In the central Pyrenees, the Senda soars roughly 1000m every day to join the vultures and then dives down again in search of a nest for the night. Like climbing Scafell Pike in England from sea level, every day. The distance covered is trivial – perhaps 15km, but still it takes 6-8 hours. Once in the mountains, count one hour for 300m of climbing and one hour for 500m of descent, irrespective of the distance.
In many areas of Northern Europe the rain may arrive at any time of day and the Pyrenees are also affected by rainy fronts which wash over them from west to east in about three days. But here in summer (June-September) the weather follows a marked diurnal pattern. At dawn the grass will be soaking and hills covered in cloud but as the morning progresses the sun will make an appearance and evaporate the humidity. By 15:00 the clouds will start to gather again and the thunderstorm will start from 16:00 onwards. Sometimes only two hours will separate a clear sky and the storm. So start walking at dawn.
East, west, home’s best
Whilst there is a distinct difference walking the Pyrenean Way (GR10) one way or the other – go west to east if you want to be sociable – on the Senda the same number of people walk in each direction.
As the wind mostly blows from the west, walking west to east will give you the rain and wind on your back rather than in your face. On the other hand you will occasionally be blinded by the sun in the morning.
River deep, mountain high
The GR11 goes in for ‘mountain high’ much more than the Pyrenean Way. The central portion – 540km from Isaba to Mollo – only dips below 1000m once (at La Guingueta d’Àneu, 950m). By way of comparison, the Pyrenean Way regularly wipes its boots on grass in the foothills.
The highest villages in the Spanish Pyrenees are around 1500–1600m above sea level, the highest trees around 2300m, but above 2500m exposed rock dominates.
List of passes above 2500m
From West to East
- Cuello del Infierno 2722m 259km (after Respomuso)
- Puerto de Brazato 2570m 272km (after Baños de Panticosa)
- Puerto de Chistau o de Estós 2575 382km (after Viadós)
- Collado de Vallibierna 2732m 415km (after Coronas)
- Pòrt de Caldes 2570 446km (after Restanca)
- Pòrt de Ratera 2590m 454km (after Colomers)
- Portella de Baiau 2754m 544km (after Baiau)
- Coll de l’Illa 2546m 593km (after Illa)
- Portella de Engorgs 2696m 600km (after Illa)
- Coll de Noucreus 2800m 683km (after Núria)
Before setting out
The Senda Pirenaica can be tough going on a daily basis. Once the batteries have run down, typically after three or four days, they never fully recharge even on days off. Some years I spent months in preparation; sometimes, when I had knee problems, I hardly did any at all. Either way I suffered. If training is to be done, it should involve as much climbing as possible and a full set of kit.
Apart from planning overnight stops, the most important preparation is reducing the contents of the rucksack. I weigh in with 7.1kg on my back, including the rucksack itself, 1.5 litres of water, and 500gm food for the day. That said, I have recently discovered another system of measurement thanks to Jean-Christophe Rufin’s Immortelle Randonnée. Instead of kilograms, count your rucksack in fear: That fleece corresponds to fear of cold: 574fg. That first aid kit: accident (246fg). That mp3 player: boredom (45fg).
With careful planning it is possible to stay in a free hut, a staffed hostel, or a cheap hotel every night so a tent is not necessary. On the other hand, wild camping can be a marvellous experience and will certainly save money.
Huts, hostels, and hotels on the GR11
For those without tents, free unstaffed huts are a welcome alternative on the more isolated stretches of the Senda.
In huts, drinking water is usually available (though not at Talaixà for the present) but no other home comforts. No mattresses, no chairs, no firewood – unless it is abundant in the immediate vicinity – and nothing else made of wood because it would get burnt. One exception to this is the Baiau hut where there are tartan mattresses and wooden furnishings. The hut is very small: body heat takes the place of a fire.
As for hotels, in some areas they are unavoidable but even four-star establishments don’t look down at walkers.
But the best accommodation on the GR11 is in staffed hostels (refugios, refugis in Catalan). Here walkers are at home. All these hostels provide food, heating, mattresses, blankets, and above all information. Many are far from roads and are supplied by helicopter at the beginning of the season, supplemented by fresh produce which arrives on the back of a mule. Helicoptering costs about 1€/kilo, which accounts for the higher prices and is also the reason walkers must take all their rubbish down with them.
For those who don’t know what to expect, here is my list of dos and don’ts.
- Tell the manager about any dietary requirements when booking and again on arrival. Unfortunate vegetarians are likely to eat rather a lot of omelettes. Everybody else will eat a set menu. Surprisingly, the evening meal in Spanish hostels is usually earlier than in France: 19:00 or 19:30.
- Take off your boots in the lobby and leave them there. Most hostels provide slippers (often Crocs). In some hostels with little space, rucksacks must stay in the lobby as well.
- If you wish to leave before breakfast is served next day, arrange this on arrival.
- Bring a sheet sleeping bag.
- Expect to pay for hot water if there is any.
- Expect to pay in cash. Many hostels are off-grid and can’t take credit cards or cheques from another country, even in euros.
- Don’t expect to be able to use the dormitory before 16:00 and don’t disturb anybody taking a siesta.
- Don’t make any noise after 22:00. Most walkers will be trying to sleep for an early start. Dormitories are mixed and in some you will find perhaps seven mattresses side-by-side with no space between them; ear plugs are essential.
- Don’t expect to be able to communicate with your nearest and dearest. Mobile phones only work in some towns and larger villages. Normally hostels will let you use their private phone for booking the next hostel along the route, but not for anything else apart from a real emergency. However, an increasing proportion of hostels have Internet access to deal with bookings (but where they are off-grid it will be satellite and may not be shared).
- Don’t expect to be able to recharge batteries though it is sometimes possible.
Bed and breakfast is sometimes available in a casa rural. This is a recommended option for discovering how local people really live. Note that overnight camping is prohibited in National Parks except in the Ordesa Monte Perdido National Park where it is permitted at the Góriz refuge and near the village of Escuain.
Book the day before. It is generally considered to be a bad idea to reserve more than two days in advance. The danger is pushing yourself too much or walking in bad weather just to get there on time. On the other hand, hostels and small hotels have limited flexibility and really need to know how many people are likely to turn up so booking is advisable.
Excellent listing with map of hostels and huts in the Pyrenees.
Refuges in the Spanish Pyrenees charge 40-50€ per night for a bed, evening meal, breakfast, and picnic. Hotels are roughly 10€ more. Campsites cost roughly 8€ per person per night.
The Senda is indicated by red-and-white waymarks (trail blazes). Walkers can expect a waymark at least every 200m or so unless the route is obvious. In difficult areas there may be waymarks every 20m! Nevertheless a 1:50,000 or larger scale map or a GPS is essential. A GPS track of my GR11 route (corrected when I occasionally got lost) is available on Wikiloc . Note that I took a shortcut from Requesens to Vilamaniscle via Espolla.
Mobile phones do not work in large areas of the Pyrenees and although I have heard of several people with satellite phones nobody seems to manage to get them to work properly. Lone walkers may be reassured to learn that, as long as they stay on the path, they will normally meet at least one or two other walkers in the course of the day. More useful, in terms of a safety net, are the encounters in huts and refuges with people coming in the other direction. Unfortunately trail books are unknown.
Start walking at dawn (before 6:00) as much as possible. Apart from giving time to get lost and found again before dark (21:00) it should ensure your arrival before the thunderstorm (from 16:00 onwards).