The GR11 is a glorious 820km traverse of the Pyrenees on a well-waymarked trail through Spain and Andorra. And if it’s solitude among spectacular scenery you’re after, Brian Johnson believes it’s second to none
“The principle charm of the Pyrenees consists in the unrivalled scenery” Charles Packe (1826–1896)
It is difficult to argue with Charles Packe. The Pyrenees have jagged peaks, impressive snowfields, deep canyons, valleys carved out by huge glaciers, high passes, big rock walls, alpine meadows, dramatic waterfalls, cascading streams, lakes and sparkling tarns. However, if that is all you are looking for you will probably join the hordes heading for the Alps.
No, the principle charm of the Pyrenees is the wilderness. When I first visited the Pyrenees about 40 years ago you could find solitude almost anywhere. Although the most spectacular locations are now tourist hot-spots, you can still find remote corners where the land is seemingly untouched and the wild camping is second to none.
The Pyrenees form a mountain chain about 400km long, with hills rising steeply from the Atlantic and dropping down to the Mediterranean. The mountains form a geographical divide, with very different landforms, vegetation and climate in France to the north and in Spain to the south.
A serious expedition
Although a waymarked trail, several stages of the GR11 are at the maximum difficulty that the ‘average walker’ would contemplate with a heavy pack. There is considerable boulderfield to cross and you will need to use your hands on some steep alpine passes. It is a serious mountaineering expedition until the winter snow has cleared from the high passes.
While you may think you are passing through Spain, many of the locals think very differently. In the west you are in the Basque Country, a once proud independent nation, which has its own language and culture. Here you will discover steep, rolling hills rising to 2000m. Leaving the Basque Country behind, you enter Aragón and the alpine mountains of the High Pyrenees, with peaks soaring over 3000m. At the half-way mark, still in the High Pyrenees, you enter Catalonia, another proud independent nation with its own language and culture. After spending a few days in Andorra, a small independent country, you return to Catalonia. The mountains become gentler, while still rising to almost 3000m, before dropping to steep dry hills on the approach to the Mediterranean.
Those who have discovered the Pyrenees realise that this mountain chain is every bit as good as the Alps when it comes to scenery, but with fewer people, fewer cars, fewer ski resorts, more unspoilt villages, more charm and a greater feeling of freedom.
The predominant rock types are limestone and granite. Limestone mountains are famed for their vertical white cliffs and deep canyons, while granite mountains are best known for their lakes, tarns, cascading streams and waterfalls.
The Pyrenees are renowned for their wildflower meadows, along with the butterflies they support. There are 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. The Pyrenees are a Mecca for birdwatchers, who will particularly appreciate the birds of prey, including the massive Griffon vulture, which you will see most days. You can also expect to see Egyptian vulture, red kite, black kite, buzzard, honey buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk, goshawk, peregrine falcon, golden, booted, short-toed and Bonelli’s eagles and possibly the rare lammergeier or even a migrating osprey. Alpine chough are common and you should look out for the rare 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; you may get a glimpse of a wild boar but the Pyrenean Ibex is extinct and brown bears have been re-introduced only to the Ariège in France. You can, however, expect to have frequent sightings of the chamois, which has recovered well after being hunted near to extinction. Other mammals that you can expect to see include the marmot, several species of deer, fox, red squirrel, wild goats and the re-introduced mouflon. You are likely to see many reptiles and amphibians, including several species of snake, lizard, toad, frog and the dramatic fire salamander.
The prevailing wind in the Pyrenees is from the north-west, which accounts for the mists and gentle rain common in the Basque Country and the cloud that often fills the north-facing valleys of the High Pyrenees. However, on the GR11, south of the watershed, you can expect predominantly warm sunny days. It is a peculiarity of the Pyrenees that the weather is often better above 2000m than in the valleys and it is not unusual to find the peaks and south-facing valleys sunny all day while cloud persists in those facing the north. In these high mountains you can expect some terrific thunder storms but, unusually, these storms normally arrive in the evening or overnight, rather than in the afternoon.
When to go
Winter snow varies considerably from year to year. It is unlikely that the passes in the High Pyrenees will be free of snow until July and the best walking in the High Pyrenees is from July to September. Only weekends and the six weeks from mid-July are popular with French and Spanish walkers. Unless you are experienced, you could find snow conditions restrict your high-level walking in June. You can expect everywhere except the honeypots to be virtually deserted by September. The cooler months of May, June and October would be good for walking in the lower mountains of the Basque Country and eastern Catalonia and you could expect to have the mountains to yourself. A good time for a naturist walking holiday?!
There is the usual wide range of accommodation in the valleys as well as a good network of mountain refuges that offer food and basic lodgings and it is possible to walk the GR11 without camping. However, one of the delights of the Pyrenees is that wild camping is still possible and widely practised.
The GR11 passes through two national parks and six natural parks:
- Parque Natural de Valles Occidentales
- Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido
- Parque Natural de Posets-Maladeta
- Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici
- Parc Natural Alt Pirineu
- Parc Natural Valls de Comapedrosa
- Parc Natural Val del Madriu
- Parc Natural Cap de Creus
The Basque Country, with its steep rolling hills rising to 2000m and resembling those of Wales or Scotland, provide a gentle introduction to the GR11, with rough pasture, moor and natural woodland and long, airy ridges.
There follows a rapid transition to the alpine mountains as you pass through the steep limestone peaks of the Parque Natural de Valles Occidentales (western valleys) of Aragón. This dramatic limestone karst terrain provides a relatively gentle introduction before the traverse of the spectacular Picos de l’Infierno, which includes the most difficult pass on the GR11, a daunting climb until the winter snow has melted.
You then enter the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest limestone massif in Western Europe. It is the deep valleys, particularly the Ordesa Canyon, with thundering cascades and waterfalls edged by towering limestone cliffs, which attract the tourists. Other highlights include the Anisclo Canyon and the Circo de Pineta.
You soon reach the Parque Natural de Posets-Maladeta, which is a granite massif containing half the 3000m summits in the Pyrenees, including Aneto (3404m), its highest mountain. Highly glaciated granite mountains provide some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world, with thousands of sparkling small lakes nestling in a landscape dominated by bare rock.
You are only half way as you enter Catalonia and pass through Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, another magical granite massif. The next few days provide a gentle interlude in the foothills before you return to alpine terrain and the Parc Natural Alt Pirineu, the largest natural park in Catalonia.
The Parc Natural Alt Pirineu Alt Pirineu continues into Andorra as the Parc Natural Valls de Comapedrosa. As you leave Andorra you pass through the Parc Natural Val del Madriu, the final alpine section, with more fine granite scenery, and arrive at the high plateau of the Cerdagne.
Surprisingly, the highest point of the GR11 is still ahead as you reach 2780m on the border ridge between France and Spain in terrain that may remind you of the Scottish Highlands. The next few days is through steep wooded limestone hills, with a few delightful swimming holes in cascading streams before the final approach to the Mediterranean through hot, dry hills. Once you reach the Mediterranean, the final day is a complete contrast as you follow the GR11 through the Parc Natural Cap de Creus; a rocky dry region, with almost no trees. This last stage allows you to explore some delightful isolated beaches on the peninsula, which sticks out into the sparkling Mediterranean.