A Grand Traverse of the Pyrenees: From Atlantic to Mediterranean
A trail and a trek and a summer and a sea. What could these be?
Europe's Last Wilderness
The Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP), or Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne in French, is a an overland route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, crossing the highest peaks of the Pyrennes. The trek passes through three official countries: France, Spain and Andorra. The majority of the time is spent straddling the border of France and Spain.
There are two other routes through the Pryenees, the GR10 and the GR11. These routes are very well known and traveled. However, the HRP selects pieces of these two trails and historic shepherd and mountaineer routes to traverse the highest points of the mountain range from sea to sea. The majority of the HRP is completely unsigned, unmarked, and at best, barely visible as an actual track. This description follows East to West as per a now dated write-up by Ton Joosten titled, The Pyrenean Haute Route. Of course, the route may be undertaken in a West-East direction, but due to dealing with severe weather concerns, it is more manageable to approach East-West. Note that spelling variations of Pyrenees reflect your language of choice (French or Catalan).
To most American's, the idea of a mountain range that runs laterally, or East-West, is an anomaly. Obviously there are a few in the States, including our own Mogollon Rim, but in general, our large ranges here in North America run North-South. East-West ranges provide a unique ecological, cultural, and geomorphologic diversity. And I would argue that the Pyrenees, in particular, provide a magnificent example of these diversities. The HRP passes through five major lingual areas (France, Spain, Basque, Andorra/Catalonia) and through many more sub cultures that speak local dialects dating back to pre-Roman civilization (Aragonese, for example).
About 350 MYA, Iberia slammed into what is now France, forming the sharp granite and limestone ridges of the Pyrenees. This geologic event wasn't exactly an immediate event, but it was relatively quick by geo-history standards. The evidence of this continent collision is evident throughout the Pyrenees, and will make you stop with wonder and curiosity at the events that have unfolded in these mountains since that time. For example, the development of the Basque language predates both the Roman and Greek Civilizations. The closest language family link to this strange and ancient language is a dialect from Eastern Finland, and it's still debated by scholars. This is just one example of many cultures that have made their home in the Pyrenees over the course of human history.
It is amazing to witness the geo-political boundary that these mountains create between France Spain. Few countries on earth have a clear cut mountain range to define their borders. Charlemagne and Roland pursued the Moors through these mountains. Napoleon's army crossed through here to avoid detection. The French Resistance took refuge here during World War II. And of course there is the much more recent political unrest among both the Basques and the Catalans under their current status of French or Spanish, respectively.
If you are in good physical condition, this trek can be completed in under 32 days. But one must consider if they want to rush through this monumental journey full of stunning scenery and living history. I would recommend 35-40 days to take it all in.
While there are the occasional staffed mountain huts available along the route for bunkhouse-style lodging and a hot meal, these are not guaranteed to be open and can be quite expensive. Email me or use google for more details on lining up your itinerary to stay in these mountain gites. Gites provide a fun way to get to meet other hikers and share an unforgettable meal. These mountain lodges are often spread far apart in the highest parts of the Pyrenees, so even if you want to stay in a gite every night that you reach one, you will still need an adequate sleeping system for the 30-40% of nights that there is no alternative option than to tent it up! For this reason, it is imperative to make this an very light-weight backpacking trip. Aim for an ultra-lightweight three-season sleeping bag for this trip because it snows frequently in the high Pyrenees in the summer time.
Restock options are available often during the first and last weeks of the trek as you pass through more populated areas in the mountains. Once in the high parts, restocks are usually available every 3-4 days, but not always on-trail. Often you will have to leave a high mountain track to descend 1000+ feet to the valley floor to find a small village. That being said, these are restock experiences with a European mountain culture twist. Expect to find shepherds making fresh goats milk cheese willing to sell to you right on there on the farm road. And as you get closer to the Mediterranean, you are rewarded with world class wine.
Abundant and usually do not require a pump or macro filter. Save weight and space by using simple chlorine tablets or Aquamira. Beware that most streams below 10,000ft may have been contaminated by cattle, so treatment is imperative.
This is an incredible and challenging trek. Highly recommended for someone looking for a much less traveled alternative to the Alps, but with an epic finish at the Mediterranean Sea.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.