Trekking the Pyrenees: GR10, GR11 or HRP (Pyrenean Haute Route), a short guide to the differences

Map of GR 10 (red), GR11 (blue) and HRP (yellow) in the Pyrenees, as I walked them. As the crow flies the distance from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean is around 420km. For walkers it is about twice that.
Map of GR 10 (red), GR11 (blue) and HRP (yellow) in the Pyrenees, as I walked them. As the crow flies the distance from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean is around 420km. For walkers it is about twice that.

I’ve now walked the length of the Pyrenees three times on different routes. 2700km, Atlantic to Mediterranean: 164 days hiking. I’ve been asked which route I liked best. Is it the Pyrenean Way (GR 10) [guide and forum] in France, the Senda Pirenaica (GR 11) [guide and forum] in Spain and Andorra, or this year’s trek, the Pyrenean Haute Route [Cicerone guide]  (Haute Route Pyrénéenne, HRP, in French; Alta Ruta Pirenaica in Spanish) which flits across the border every second day?

GPS tracks of the three Pyrenean treks

Markers on the French-Spanish border. No 153 is near St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, six day’s walking from the Atlantic; no 565 is near Panissars, two day’s walking from the Mediterranean. There are 602 in all, plus a few subsidiary ones.
Markers on the French-Spanish border. No 153 is near St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, six day’s walking from the Atlantic; no 565 is near Panissars, two day’s walking from the Mediterranean. There are 602 in all, plus a few subsidiary ones.

The problem with making a comparison is that my memory is selective. As time goes on it erases the bad bits leaving a nostalgic glow. Was the GR 10, which I walked first, really that sublime? I’ll try to be objective. I want to start by eliminating the shared features.

Gave d’Ossoue with Vignemale just visible in the background, on GR10 and Pyrenean Haute Route. Photo © Dermot Dolan. See more at http://dermotdolan.blogspot.fr/
Gave d’Ossoue with Vignemale just visible in the background, on GR10 and Pyrenean Haute Route. Photo © Dermot Dolan. See more at http://dermotdolan.blogspot.fr/

GR 10, GR 11 and HRP: what they have in common

  • Weather. There is little difference between the weather on either side of the central ridge. The Spanish Pyrenees are not dryer just because they are in Spain! After all, the average distance separating the northernmost and southernmost routes is only 15km (the maximum is 30km). What you get depends more on the direction of the wind. One day the foehn may shroud Spain in cloud, leaving France gloriously sunny. The next day the inverse.
Misty morning in the Basque country.
Misty morning in the Basque country.
  • On the other hand there is a significant difference between the west (humid), the higher middle (colder) and the east (dryer and hotter). From mid-June to mid-September, the main trekking months, the days tend to start out cool and damp at dawn with the temperature rising steeply until about 16h00 when the rain often starts, sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning.
    [Spanish Pyrenees weather forecast]  [French Pyrenees weather forecast]
  • Another factor which might be thought to have an effect on the weather is slope direction. On average there are more soulanes (south-facing slopes) on the southern side of the mountains. But the Pyrenees are so convoluted that the effect is only important locally, near the high passes. At the beginning of the walking season the south- and east-facing slopes will be the first to shed their snow.
Some of the runners encountered on the HRP just below the col des Mulets, near Vignemale.
Some of the runners encountered on the HRP just below the col des Mulets, near Vignemale.
  • Walkers. I expected to see fewer walkers on the HRP because it is more challenging but, taking into account all the people on day-hikes, the difference wasn’t huge. Even on the HRP, even on difficult days, I met local walkers who considered the area their playground.
Curious calves at 2000m above sea level near Alòs d’Isil on the Pyrenean Haute Route
Curious calves at 2000m above sea level near Alòs d’Isil on the Pyrenean Haute Route
  • My biggest surprise was the number of cows, horses and sheep grazing on all three routes. I saw farm animals at some time absolutely every day, even on the HRP. Despite peaks reaching 3000m, much of the Pyrenees is somebody’s farmyard. The Pyrenees are not as wild as I thought before I started walking them.
  • How long are the walks? There’s not much in it. But you might as well ask how long is a piece of string. The numerous guidebooks all have different figures for the length of the treks. In any case, the HRP is not a trajectory, more a concept and everybody I met was hiking a different route. The GR 10 and GR 11 also have variants. Let’s say that all the routes work out at between 850km and 960km with the HRP being the shortest. But in the mountains it isn’t length which matters. The average walker will only progress a seemingly pathetic 16–20km a day. It’s the climbing that counts.
The outside toilet (pictured) at the Maupas hostel has no door giving occupants a vertiginous view to contemplate.
The outside toilet (pictured) at the Maupas hostel has no door giving occupants a vertiginous view to contemplate.
  • No need for a tent on the GR 10, GR 11 or HRP. This may come as a surprise to those who have read Pyrenees guide books and blogs, but there is no need to carry a tent on any of the Pyrenees crossings. I camped only once, between Gabas and Gourette on the GR 10 and I could have stayed in a hut. And this doesn’t mean long days racing to get find roof before nightfall. I almost always arrived at my destination before 16h00. See Pyrenees Refuges et Cabanes for free huts available to walkers. I never had a problem with free huts being full, unlike staffed hostels.
    Of course, camping reduces costs and brings with it that special experience of being alone at night in the mountains, but I like to walk ultra-light.
Mont Rouch on the Pyrenean Haute Route, a free hut with beds for 9.
Mont Rouch on the Pyrenean Haute Route, a free hut with beds for 9.

GR 10, GR 11 and HRP: the differences

  • Height. To my mind, the biggest difference between the three treks is their elevation, best illustrated by the number of passes over 2500m
    • GR 10 – 2
    • GR 11 – 12
    • HRP – 23 plus 8km along the frontier ridge N of Núria
  • Walking season. The heights are snowed up until early summer, so the walking season for thru-hikers without crampons is determined by the first high passes. Dates given below are a guide to what you might expect in an average year but check with nearest hostels for an update (Respomuso has a webcam).
    • GR10 –
      Hourquette d’Arre (2465m, Day 17 from W). Nearest hostel: Gourette
      Col de Coma d’Anyell (2470m, Day 9 from E). Nearest hostel: Bésines
      earliest date without crampons 14 June
Climbing near the Col de Tebarray on the GR11, 25 June 2013 with Hike Pyrenees
Climbing near the Col de Tebarray on the GR11, 25 June 2013 with Hike Pyrenees
  • GR11 –
    Collado de Tebarray (2766m, Day 14 from W). Nearest hostel: Respomuso
    earliest date without crampons 21 June
    Coll de Nou Creus (2800m, Day 9 from E). Nearest hostel: Ulldeter
    earliest date without crampons 21 June
Walking up to the Collada de la Facha on the HRP, 16 July 2016
Walking up to the Collada de la Facha on the HRP, 16 July 2016
  • HRP –
    Collado de la Facha (2664m, Day 14 from W). Nearest hostel: Respomuso
    or Col de Cambalès (2710m, Day 14 from W). Nearest hostel: Respomuso
    earliest date without crampons 28 June
    In 2016 the approach to the Collado de la Facha was still covered in snow on 16 July and I used crampons, though others passing later in the day did without.
    Coll de Nou Creus (2800m, Day 9 from E). Nearest hostel: Ulldeter
    earliest date without crampons 21 June though crampons could be useful between the Soula and Renclusa hostels all summer.
  • Ascent. The GR10 involves about 48,000m of ascent; the GR10 and HRP around 42,000m.
  • Freedom. This is what I liked about the HRP. I didn’t feel constrained to a single path with red and white waymarks to tick off. The HRP (in all its variants) has no specific waymarks although it often coincides with other routes making navigation easier.
The Pyrenean Haute Route crosses soul-destroying fields of boulders, like this one on the W side of the Col Peyreget, near Pombie
The Pyrenean Haute Route crosses soul-destroying fields of boulders, like this one on the W side of the Col Peyreget, near Pombie
  • Difficulty. To my mind the GR10 is the easiest of the three paths, despite the amount of climbing and the length, largely because it has existed longer and the creases have been ironed out. The only technical challenge where hands are needed is the Pas de l’Osque. There is a cable to help but it is badly positioned.
    On the GR11 many of the higher passages are bestrewn with irregular boulders requiring care. I had to use crampons many times in 2013 after a severe winter, though looking back this may have been better than boulder-hopping.
    The HRP is the most technical route, with lots of boulder-hopping and several awkward or vertiginous passages. From W–E: Crète de Zazpigain, Passage de Orteig, Hourquette de Héas, the climb up to Puerto de Añes Cruces, Col de Litérole, Collada de Mulleres, Col du Picot and the Cheminée de Canigou. But one pass stands out from the rest. Descending the Collada de Mulleres (Coll de Molières) is rock climbing and I wouldn’t have done it without the help of a professional guide. (The bad reputation of the Gourgs Blancs glacier is unfounded: it no longer exists, though the subsequent descent from the pass and the boulders before the Portillon hostel are very trying.)
Estany de Romedo de Dalt near the Certascan hostel on the GR11
Estany de Romedo de Dalt near the Certascan hostel on the GR11
  • Terrain. All three routes are similar at both ends; but in the middle the HRP and GR 11, being higher, are more frequently above the tree-line and more rugged. The HRP visits more (stupendously beautiful) lakes than its rivals.
The Arrémoulit hostel on the HRP. If you don’t book you may have to sleep in the tent. At 2257m it could be cold.
The Arrémoulit hostel on the HRP. If you don’t book you may have to sleep in the tent. At 2257m it could be cold.
  • Accommodation. The GR11 often spends the night at a hotel in a village whilst the other two hikes favour isolated hostels. I stayed in six unmanned huts on the GR10, seven on the GR 11 and eight on the HRP.
Isards (sarrios or rebecos in Spanish) near Ulldeter on the GR11 and HRP
Isards (sarrios or rebecos in Spanish) near Ulldeter on the GR11 and HRP
  • Flora and fauna. Whichever path is chosen, you will see marmottes, isards and vultures. No bears. Above 2500m the landscape is predominantly bare rock, so for animals, flowers, and birds the GR10 is probably best.

So which route did I like best? The Pyrenean Way (GR10) is still in first place. What do you think? See comments below.

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