The Pyrenees form the border between France and Spain, rising to over 3000m. The varied and spectacular mountain chain, which stretches over 400km from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, offers an incredible variety of walking. Here, Brian Johnson highlights seven shorter treks in the Pyrenees that showcase the variety and beauty of this region.
A comparison is often made between the heavily glaciated mountain chains of the Pyrenees and the Alps. The major peaks in the Pyrenees rise to over 3000m compared with over 4000m in the Alps, resulting in the highest peaks and, more particularly, the highest passes being much more accessible to the walker and backpacker in the Pyrenees. The rolling hills of the Basque Country give way to the rough alpine mountains of the central Pyrenees, which consist predominantly of granite massifs with rocky peaks dotted with lakes, tarns, cascading streams and spectacular waterfalls, and limestone mountains with deep canyons, vertical cliffs and the associated karst terrain. As the Mediterranean gets nearer, gentler high mountains eventually give way to dry rugged hills.
Except for a few honeypot areas, the Pyrenees aren’t over-run with tourists and walkers to the same extent as the Alps and you can still find solitude, especially if you avoid the period from mid-July to late-August. As in the Alps, there is now a good network of manned refuges in the Pyrenees providing overnight accommodation and meals. In the Pyrenees, these are used mainly by trekkers and walkers rather than by climbers. Personally, I prefer the freedom of wild camping, which here is second to none, to using the mountain refuges. The lower altitudes, less crowded mountains and absence of restrictive laws means that the Pyrenees are far more accommodating to the wild camper than the Alps.
One big attraction of the Pyrenees to the British walker is the predominantly warm, sunny climate.
The prevailing north-westerly winds produce a climate that varies greatly across the Pyrenees; the Pays Basque is the wettest region in France, while French Catalonia is the driest. The northern valleys of the Pyrenees are often filled with cloud while it is sunny above 2000m and to the south of the watershed. It is quoted that there are ‘on average’ 300 days of sunshine in the Pyrenees; this may be correct ‘on average’ but there will be a huge amount of local variation. Thunderstorms are frequent in summer in the Pyrenees, but they tend to be slow to develop and are more likely to arrive in the evening, or even overnight, rather than in the afternoon.
For those with 30–60 days to spare, the trek from Atlantic to Mediterranean along the spine of the Pyrenees is a fantastic expedition. The GR10 from Hendaye to Banyuls-sur-Mer through the French Pyrenees in 55 stages, and the GR11 from Irún to Cap de Creus through the Spanish Pyrenees in 47 stages, are described in the Cicerone guides by Brian Johnson, while the Pyrenean Haute Route, in 44 stages, is described in the Cicerone guide by Tom Martens. Day hiking and two or three-day treks are covered by the encyclopaedic Cicerone guide by Kev Reynolds, Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees.
However, most trekkers are booking walks that would fill a one or two-week holiday and this guide is designed to cater for their needs. The seven featured routes are circular so that a minimum of time is wasted with transport.
With the exception of the Carros de Foc, which is a promoted tour, the routes have been devised to take you through the most spectacular parts of the Pyrenees.
The routes have been planned to make it possible to stay in accommodation each night, with meals and bed provided, either in manned mountain refuges or in Pyrenean villages and towns. Having said that, the Pyrenees is still a magnificent area for those who prefer wild camping to using huts and hotels and the author wild camped throughout his time researching the guide.
Most of the walking will be on good, well-waymarked footpaths, but these are alpine mountains with boulderfields to cross and sections where hands will be needed when crossing high passes. The treks are designed to be walked when they are free of snow and only those who are competent in walking/climbing in snow and ice conditions would want to walk them before the winter snow has melted. Routes 2–6 in the High Pyrenees are likely to be passable only to the ‘average’ walker from June or July (depending on the severity of the winter snow) until early October, with a greater window for the routes 1 and 7 at the Atlantic and Mediterranean ends of the Pyrenees. Most of the routes are designed so that they can be done as one long trek or split into two shorter treks.
Although you may think you are walking through the French and Spanish Pyrenees, many locals won’t think of themselves as either French or Spanish. In the (Spanish) Basque Country (including the north of Navarre) the main language is Euskera (Basque), which is also widely spoken in the French part of the Basque Country. In Andorra and (Spanish) Catalonia the main language is Catalán, but in the French part of Catalonia it will normally be French. It is less likely that you will encounter Aragonés and Aranés, but you will see the legacy of these languages in the confusion of place names. This varied historical background has resulted in many cultural and gastronomic differences across the Pyrenees. You don’t need to worry too much about the different languages as English is now spoken much more widely than it was in the 20th century, especially by younger people.
The Pyrenees, a Mecca for the bird-watcher, forms a big barrier to migrating birds which, in the spring and autumn, are funnelled along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines and through the lower passes. The casual birdwatcher will be most impressed with the large number of birds of prey. The massive Griffon vulture, with a wing-span of about 2.5 metres, will frequently be seen soaring on the high ridges, while the smaller Egyptian vulture, which is distinctively coloured with a white body and black and white wings, is also likely to be seen. You may also see Europe’s largest and rarest vulture, the lammergeier, which has a wingspan of up to 2.8 metres. The lammergeier feeds mainly on bone marrow, which it gets at by dropping bones from a great height to smash them on the rocks below. Golden, booted, short-toed and Bonelli’s eagles may be seen.
Arguably, the most beautiful bird you will see is the red kite with its deeply forked tail.
You can also expect to see black kites, buzzards and honey buzzards as well as smaller birds of prey such as the kestrel, peregrine falcon, sparrowhawk and rarer birds such as the goshawk and even a migrating osprey.
One species that is thriving is the alpine chough, which you will see in large flocks. This member of the crow family is all black except for a yellow bill and red legs. Rarer small birds to look out for are the wallcreeper, crossbill, crested tit, red-backed shrike, bullfinch and alpine accentor.
You are much less likely to see some of the rare mammals that used to frequent the Pyrenees. Brown bears have been reintroduced into the Ariège and are now spread over 9000km², but you are unlikely to see them. The Pyrenean Ibex was re-introduced in 2014 and there were about 100 in 2018. It is possible, but unlikely, that you will see wild boar and the reintroduced mouflon. You should have frequent sightings of the chamois (isard/izard), which was hunted to near extinction but has now made a remarkable recovery and its number has increased to over 25,000. Other mammals you will see include marmot, several species of deer, fox and the red squirrel. The most notable of these are the marmots, which are large ground squirrels that live in burrows. You will certainly know when they are present when you hear their alarm signals, a loud whistle, which sends them scurrying back into their burrows.
You are likely to see many reptiles and amphibians, including the several species of snake, lizard, toad, frog and the dramatic fire salamander.
The Pyrenean flora is very diverse with at least 160 species of flower endemic to the Pyrenees as well as many species, such as edelweiss, which will be familiar to those visiting the Alps. Wildflower meadows, which are home to a wide range of butterflies, are particularly spectacular in the wetter north-facing valleys of the French Pyrenees.
Route 1: Tour of the Basque Country
This route takes you over the steep rolling hills in the Basque Country (in both France and Spain) at the western end of the Pyrenees. The terrain has similarities with the Welsh mountains and Scottish Highlands, except there are better paths, more sheep and horses, natural woodland rather than conifer plantation, warmer rain, hotter sun and cheaper wine (or whisky)!
Accommodation is mainly in Basque villages, with steep climbs leading to long walks along easy grassy ridges. This is the only route in the guide that traverses the highest mountains in the region and the views of the green Basque countryside are magnificent. You will have frequent sightings of Griffon vultures and other birds of prey such as red kite when walking these ridges.
Apart from the quality of the route, this trek has been selected because it can be walked in May and June when the High Pyrenees are likely to impassable because of snow.
Route 2: Pic du Midi d’Ossau and the limestone peaks of the western Pyrenees
The dramatic Pic du Midi d’Ossau, in the French Parc National des Pyrénées, is probably the most photographed mountain in the Pyrenees and features as the cover photo on many guidebooks to the Pyrenees.
This route takes in the magnificent limestone scenery at the western end of the High Pyrenees by combining the popular Tour du Pic du Midi d’Ossau, in France, with the best sections of the quieter La Senda de Camille on the Spanish side of the border. A descent of the intriguing Chemin de la Mâture is included.
Route 3: Tour de Vignemale and La Alta Ruta de Los Perdidos
This is a magnificent trek through impressive alpine terrain of French Parc National des Pyrénées and Spanish Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, combining the Tour de Vignemale with the Tour de Monte Perdido and taking in six of the honeypots of the Pyrenees: Cauterets, Vignemale, Gavarnie, Pineta, Ordesa and the Picos del Infierno. This is cirque country with deep canyons headed by near-vertical rock walls, including the renowned Cirque de Gavarnie and the Ordesa Gorge.
It is also the most demanding trek in the guide with easy scrambling over steep passes, which would be challenging in bad weather or before the winter snow has melted. This is a trek for the experienced mountain walker and it is unlikely that the route would be feasible for the ordinary walker before mid-July.
Route 4: Réserve Naturelle de Néouvielle
The shortest trek in the guide uses the GR10 and its variations as you walk through the popular granite massif of the Reserve Naturelle de Néouvielle and the surrounding mountains in the French Parc National des Pyrénées. There are a multitude of lakes and tarns in an area of rough slopes and towering granite peaks. There is the opportunity to climb several peaks, including Pic du Midi de Bigorre and Pic de Bastan.
Route 5: Carros de Foc
The Carros de Foc is an understandably popular trek in the magnificent Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, in the Spanish part of western Catalonia. This is another granite massif dotted with hundreds of lakes and tarns in an area of rough boulderfields and high granite peaks. The route started as a challenge race visiting the nine refuges in the area in 24 hours but has become well-walked hut-to-hut route. There is a great deal of flexibility in planning, with most walkers taking 5–7 days for the trek.
Route 6: Tour des Montagnes d’Ax and the Tour des Pérics
The Ariège is a relatively unknown area at the eastern end of the High Pyrenees. This tour combines the magnificent alpine mountains of the Tour des Montagnes d’Ax on either flank of the Vallée de l’Ariège with the contrasting Tour des Pérics, which passes a multitude of lakes and tarns in the gentler granite mountains of the northern flank of the high plateau of the Cerdagne in the French Catalonia.
Route 7: The icons of Catalonia: Puigmal and Canigou
The final trek in the guide covers both the Spanish and French parts of Catalonia at the eastern end of the Pyrenees and includes ascents of the two most climbed peaks in the Pyrenees: Puigmal and Canigou. Despite rising to almost 3000m, the mountain ridges are gentler than those of the High Pyrenees, more reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, although the valleys still have an alpine feel. Much of the time is spent on spectacular high-level traverses of steep mountain slopes. This trek is likely to be free of significant snow by May or early June and the author would suggest it is a good route for June or September.
When I first visited the Pyrenees 40 years ago it was possible to find a sense of remoteness and real solitude almost anywhere. The Pyrenees are now getting better known but it is still possible to get away from it all. Personally, it’s the freedom of wild camping that attracts me to the Pyrenees and as a naturist I find the freedom of the wilderness combined with the predominantly sunny climate particularly attractive.