Hiking in France: 6 scenic Grandes Randonnées to walk
- Credit: Archant
There are several long-distance hikes in France known as Grandes Randonnées or GR routes. Here is a selection of some of the most beautiful treks to do in France
Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)
Where: Haute-Savoie, Italy and Switzerland
A jaw-dropping visual feast and heart-stirring adventure, the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the world’s iconic long-distance treks. Circling the Mont Blanc massif, the highest point in Europe, it takes hikers on an epic journey over at least eight major mountain passes and into seven major valleys in France, Italy and Switzerland. TMB, as it is affectionately known, is so popular that there are a few variations of it depending on hikers’ timescales, fitness levels and comfort requirements.
“This is the classic Alps trek and it is truly spectacular,” says Hilary Sharp, whose company Trekking in the Alps has offered guided walking holidays in the region for almost 30 years. “Just to see this mountain range is wonderful, but to hike around it is the stuff of dreams, with the views of glaciated peaks, Alpine meadows and charming villages. The huts are a big part of the trek and each one is different. The food is always excellent and at the end of a day hiking, you’re always ready for it, believe me.” Most people start in Les Houches, near Chamonix, and walk anti-clockwise for six to eight hours a day, staying in mountain huts (refuges) and taking about 10 days to complete the route – though hardcore runners have done it in as little as 20 hours!
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The so-called toughest trek in Europe is for hardcore hikers, involving as it does lots of rock scrambling and 12.5km of ascent and descent – more than you’d face on Everest. It’s known in Corsican as Fra li Monti, meaning ‘through the Corsican mountains’ as the trail follows the mountainous relief from the north-west to the south-east of the island.
In spite (or perhaps because) of this, the trail along the island’s mountainous spine between Conca and Calenzana, is very popular and is best avoided in high summer but you should equally be careful in the winter as parts of the footpath can get snow. It’s a good idea to start at the southern end where the going is easier. Highlights include navigating the rocky slabs in the Spasimata gorge.
Chemin de Stevenson (GR70)
Days: 12-14 days
When the writer Robert Louis Stevenson hiked more than 200km across the Cévennes mountains in 1878 with only a stubborn donkey called Modestine for company, he had no real sense of purpose. “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go,” he wrote in his subsequent bestseller Travels with a donkey in the Cévennes. “I travel for travel’s sake.”
Today, some 6,000 hikers a year retrace Stevenson’s footsteps, travelling on foot, horseback, donkey or bike, solo or in groups. They start as he did in the small Haute-Loire town of Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille or its bigger neighbour Puy-en-Velay and finish some 12 days later in the Cévenol village of St-Jean-du-Gard or the larger town of Alès just outside the national park. It’s a trail that begins among dormant volcanoes, meanders through wild forests and pastures and climbs the barren massif of Mont Lozère with its heather, springs and granite boulders before wandering across the rolling hills and valleys of the Cévennes. “This is deep, rural France,” says Minna Harshbarger, a destination specialist at Macs Adventure. “It’s a down-to-earth place with lots of character and many family-run hotels along the route where you really get taken in by the local families. It’s a very different experience from the Tour du Mont Blanc and from the glitz and glamour of the nearby coast.” Minna recommends doing the walk in late spring when the rolling hillsides are in full bloom and the heat is less intense than in the height of summer.
Sentier des douaniers (GR34)
The famous pink granite seascape of northern Brittany is no more than a blip on the thousands of kilometres of path that runs along the coast of Brittany. Created by the customs service in 1791 during the French Revolution to prevent smuggling, the coastal path fell into disuse for over a century before being restored by and for hiking enthusiasts in the late 1960s. The grande randonnée trail runs from Vitré in Ille-et-Vilaine to end some 1,800km later at Tour-du-Parc in Morbihan
It’s an awe-inspiring trail that takes you through some truly breathtaking scenery including picture-postcard landscapes of rocky outcrops, wild marshes, little creeks, sandy dunes and, of course, views of the sea. Famous sites include Mont St-Michel Bay, the Emerald Coast and the Pink Granite Coast, the ‘Abers’ of Finistère, the Crozon peninsula, the Cornouaille coast and the Pointe du Raz, Southern Finistère and the Gulf of Morbihan. You can choose to do any section though many people recommend the stretch along the Pink Granite coast in Côtes d’Armor.
Tour du Cotentin (GR223)
Jutting out of the Normandy coastline like a lobster claw is the Cotentin Peninsula where you will apparently find the most beautiful kilometre in France. General Eisenhower, who was stationed here after D-Day, described the panorama as one of the most beautiful in the world, no doubt struck by the view across the turquoise waters towards the island bird sanctuary of Tombelaine and, beyond, the iconic pyramid of Le Mont St-Michel with its needle-like abbey spire. Such a vista must have lifted the hearts of the many pilgrims walking this path over the centuries.
Whatever its exact whereabouts, the ‘beautiful kilometre’ is just one of 430 on the Tour du Cotentin. The GR223 as it’s otherwise known follows Manche’s sentier du littoral (coast path), also known as the sentier des douaniers (path of the customs officers). Those walking the full route start in either Isigny-sur-Mer or Carentan and finish 18 days later with a dramatic walk across the Bay of Mont St-Michel (something best done with an experienced guide because of the treacherous sands and currents). On the way walkers can see where American troops came ashore at Utah and spot birds in the marais (wetlands) of the Bessin regional park. They can wander the historic harbours of Barfleur and Cherbourg, admire the wind-beaten headland of Cap de la Hague, scale some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs at the Nez de Jobourg and watch people foraging for shellfish on the sweeping sands. A good time to go, according to the Manche tourist board, is in the last half of August when the Hague heather is in full bloom or in spring or autumn to enjoy the many migratory birds.
Pyrenean Way (GR10)
A truly epic trek, the GR10 crosses France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It begins at Hendaye on the Atlantic coast and crosses the Pyrénées at a low level before bringing hikers across arid scrubland to the Mediterranean resort of Banyuls. It crosses mountains passes and ridges, plunges into and back out of deep valleys, sometimes taking hikers on remote mountains paths but also through charming villages and lower ridges.
The best time for hiking on the GR 10 is late spring/early summer and late summer/early fall. Some of the ski resorts on the route open their lifts for summer walkers, providing opportunities for hikers to avoid some ascents and descents. In winter, most of the GR 10 is impassable due to snow. The full walk is some 900km and takes seven weeks, but if you only have seven days, travel writer Paul Bloomfield recommends the 140km stretch between Lescun and the awe-inspiring Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacial amphitheatre dubbed Nature’s Colosseum by Victor Hugo.