What is a GR route?

Put simply, the GR routes are an immense network of long distance walking routes in France, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium. But there's a bit more to them than just that...

Grande Randonnée

Grande Randonnée (French), Grote Routepaden or Lange-afstand-wandelpaden (Dutch), Grande Rota (Portuguese) or Gran Recorrido (Spanish)

It doesn’t take the biggest European language genius to work out what these all mean: ‘Big Walk’. In England and Wales, we have the National Trails, Scotland has its Great Trails and the USA has the National Trail System.

In much of western Europe though there are the long GR routes which range from a few hundred kilometres to a few thousand kilometres. They range from shorter, flatter routes in the Paris area (GR1) to the epic and challenging GR20 in Corsica.

Waymarking

The GR routes are maintained by the local country’s official federation. One of the great things these federations do is to provide waymarking on the route, always using the classic red and white paint markings. Different regions have their own idiosyncrasies here, and while you might have very occasional markers on the GR7 in Andalucia, you may come across excessive, and seemingly unnecessary markers painted across a boulderfield on the GR5 in the French Alps.

Signing on the GR1 in SpainWaymarking on the GR11

France

France is really the home of the GR route, and the most classic of all lie in the Alps. The GR5, which stretches all the way from the North Sea to the Mediterranean (more about that later), traverses the entirety of the French Alps from Lake Geneva To Nice.

Here’s one you’ve probably not heard of: the GR54: Tour of the Oisans. The GR54 is regarded as one of the toughest treks in all of Europe - have a go at the 100 mile route which has 12,500m of ascent on rough, rocky terrain around the Ecrins massif.

The infamous Crete des Gittes on the GR5
The infamous Crete des Gittes on the GR5

Spain

Confusingly, the same GR number can be used in multiple countries. Such is the case with Spain’s GR1: the Sendero Historico. 1200km of stunning, historical walking takes you all the way across northern Spain. Friend of Cicerone, Rose Muylaert, recently shared her photos of her adventure with us.

The GR 7 is a monster at 3,300km! It stretches from Alsace in eastern France, over the Pyrenees (via the mountain principality of Andorra) and across all of Spain to Tarifa at the Straits of Gibraltar.

The lonely GR1
The lonely GR1

Pyrenees

Home of the GR10 and the GR11. Both routes make their way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea via 800-1000km, 45-55 day routes. Both routes stay just off to the side of the main Pyrenean ridgeline, with the GR10 sticking on the French side and the GR11 remaining on the Spanish side. Sandwiched between them is the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP), a non-GR route that stays almost on the crest of the ridge, one foot in France, the other foot in Spain.

Islands

Most of the Mediterranean islands have GR routes across or on them. Mallorca’s GR221 (The Drystone Route) traverses the Tramuntana mountains. In the Canaries, there’s the GR131. This is an island-hopping route that takes you across the wonderfully diverse landscapes of the different islands.

As mentioned previously, the GR20 in Corsica is the most famous of the bunch. 200km long, it’ll take you two weeks to cross the island. To give you an idea of the roughness of the mountainous terrain, one of the stages is just 6km long - but it will take you five and a half hours to do it!

High on the GR20
High on the GR20

Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands

The GR5 is THE route through The Netherlands and Belgium. The variety of landscapes and historical sites it passes through are quite fascinating. The route then meets the Vosges and Jura section of the GR5 in France, before tackling the Alps. Now that’s a route!

German bunker now a reservation for bats (vleermuisreservaat) near Hoek van Holland (Netherlands) on the GR5
German bunker now a reservation for bats (vleermuisreservaat) near Hoek van Holland (Netherlands) on the GR5

What about Italy?

Well, Italy doesn’t have GR routes. Instead, in the mountains there are the Alta Via trails, that are typically waymarked by the local sections of the Italian Alpine Club. Some of these can be very challenging, such as the Alta Via 2 in the Dolomites.

The ‘E’ routes

Many of the GR routes can be combined, then added onto another country’s non-GR trails to produce the European long distance paths, known as the ‘E’ routes. These mega-routes are really something else. You’d need to quit your job or take a couple of sabbaticals to complete any of them in one go!

The E4 has got to be the one to do: over 10,000km! If you averaged 30km a day, that’s 333 days of walking!

Summary

Walking one of the European GR routes should be on every long distance walker’s to-do list. The good waymarking, combined with European infrastructure and facilities (public transport access, accommodation and mountain huts, shops to pick up supplies) means you can have a great trek without having to carry a tent and weeks of food with you, like is necessary on something like the John Muir Trail in the US, or the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland.

My advice? Go do the GR5 across the French Alps.

Joe Williams

Joe Williams

Joe Williams is Cicerone's Business Development Manager. After many years climbing and running on the roads, he realised he wasn't actually any good at either of those things. He has since turned to mountain ultra running, which he's better at. Joe also enjoys playing the classical guitar, and has an unnatural aversion to swimming.

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