An intro to... The GR5 Trail from the Hook of Holland to Nice

What do you need to know about the GR5 trail? Here's a quick overview of this epic long-distance route from the Hook of Holland to Nice.

Every summer, thousands of walkers embark on this trek, either in full or in part. Well-graded paths and tracks, the judicious use of strategic cols between the high peaks, and the availability of refuge and gîte accommodation ensure that the route is simply a long walk, and one that can be completed by averagely fit, experienced hill-walkers.

The GR5 can be completed by averagely fit, experienced walkers
The GR5 can be completed by averagely fit, experienced walkers

Where is it and how far is it?

"The GR5" usually refers to the stretch of the route that runs from Lake Geneva to Nice, through the French Alps. Indeed the guidebook to the GR5 Trail covers this 660km trek, with variants that can take it up to 740km. However, the trail actually begins at the Hook of Holland and continues through Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg and the French Vosges and Jura. The Northern part of the route is broken into 49 stages and totals around 900km. The 687km section through the Vosges and Jura will take five to six weeks and the French Alps section a further four weeks.

Every summer, thousands of walkers embark on this trek, either in full or in part. Well-graded paths and tracks, the judicious use of strategic cols between the high peaks, and the availability of refuge and gîte accommodation ensure that the route is simply a long walk, and one that can be completed by averagely fit, experienced hill-walkers.

A rustic signpost on the GR5 trail
A rustic signpost on the GR5 trail

Why should you walk it?

This trek is most suitable for fit and moderately experienced trekkers but those who take on this challenge will be generously rewarded. Not only is the GR5 trail a true classic of near-epic proportions, it samples several other great treks along the way, the Tours of Mont Blanc, the Vanoise and the Queyras among them. And in between it explores wild and lonely terrain where few other walkers are to be seen. Given the freedom to spend a month or so trekking in the Alps, this would be a route to satisfy any experienced hillwalker. But, with numerous variants also waymarked, walking from A to B could take on a fresh dimension and lead to a series of energetic summer holidays, until each stretch has been walked, leaving very few corners of the French Alps untrod.

Gorgeous Alpine flowers along the route
Gorgeous Alpine flowers along the route

When should you go?

The ’season’ for walking the GR5 is generally understood to run from mid-June to mid-September as this is when most facilities will be open, the days are longer and there is less chance of snow on the lower ground of the trail. A typical Alpine summer will be blessed with plenty of warm, sunny days, tempered by cool breezes on high cols, with views of dazzling snow-capped peaks rising above colourful, flowery slopes. Sounds lovely!

Where should you stay?

Lodgings along the GR5 vary in every possible way. Some places boast a range of splendid hotels, while others may have only a single basic refuge. Anyone wanting to walk the whole of the GR5 using a specific type of accommodation will find it impossible.

In some places there are no hotels, while in other places there are no refuges, so overnights will be varied. Accommodation tariffs are often visible while checking into lodgings, or are pinned behind the door of each room. Usually, you can pay for a bed or a room without taking meals. If you want to pay for dinner, bed and breakfast all together, ask for demi pension.

Carrying tents along the GR5 has never really appealed to the French, so campsites are rare, expensive, and pitched more at the car-camper. Where sites exist, they are mentioned. Some refuges and gîtes may allow an overnight pitch. ‘Camping’ may also be expressly forbidden in many areas.

Best bit:

Lesley Williams remembers climbing up to the Col d'Anterne where the entire Mont Blanc massif stretches out in front of you. C'est magnifique! But there are many more tremendous moments along the GR5 trail - you'll enjoy finding your own.

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