Key information: French Pyrenees
- The Pyrenees are truly amazing, a surprisingly narrow rampart of wild mountains separating the plains of France and Spain. Gorgeous scenery: broken peaks, crags, cirques, lakes, gorges and canyons, meadows and deep-forested valleys.
- Some of Europe's best walking, and to suit all tastes, from the drama of the magnificent high routes to gentler explorations of the valleys and foothills, and the history-laden Sentier Cathare.
- This can be tough walking in high, remote mountains, with very unpredictable weather. Come prepared.
Walkopedia rating(Top 100)
- Walkopedia rating91
- Natural interest17
- Human interest5
- Negative points0
- Total rating91
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 3,298m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The Pyrenees are wonderful, but less known than they should be. Long may this last.
This great barrier between France and Spain, spanning the 400km between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, is almost shocking the first time you see its snowy peaks looming high above you on the plains of south-west France, with apparently no foothills in the traditional sense. While it is not like this when you get close up, and it has a rich and varied selection of foothills on both sides, the range is still remarkable for the steepness of the French side in particular, and the rapidity of its rise through forest and flowery pasture to crag, ice and high, rocky ridge-tops.
The variety of the Pyrenees' appearance is shaped by the weather it meets. The often wet air flows from the Bay of Biscay render the northern slopes vividly green until close to the Mediterranean, whereas the southern Spanish and eastern slopes are much drier.
You will find overwhelming beauty in its peaks, lakes and forests as well as geological wonders, an abundance of floral delights and animal life, and thrills and challenges galore both in its harshly beautiful uplands and its lusher foothills.
Features to relish include the struggling remains of the mighty glaciers that gouged out the famous cirques such as that at Gavarrnie, needle peaks and serrated ridges, deeply-hewn canyons and lovely alpine valleys. The Pyrenees were formed by the usual tectonic pressures, with a heart of granite and limestone flanks, pushed up to form the range?s highest peaks. Water and ice have eroded this softer rock to create the dramatic landscape we now know, including the famous cirques ? huge, sheer-sided scoops out of the mountainsides.
The range supports a rich variety of animals, include the izard (the local chamois), deer, some recently re-introduced brown bears and hordes of endearing silly marmots. Raptors and vultures head up an extravagant birdlife, especially at migration times.
The floral world here is gloriously mixed, with plants usually found further north and south mixing it with hardy alpines and a large number of Pyrenean endemics.
See also our Spanish Pyrenees page.
There are endless multi-day walks to be made, using the network of high refuges or camping. These can be made within the areas described below, or crossing the high cols between them.
There are three great long-distance trails in the Pyrenees, which can be walked in sections or indeed, for the tough and time-rich, their entire length.
- HRP or Pyrenean Haute Route: The great Pyrenean trail, this path winds among the ranges' highest peaks, crossing in and out of Spain. Superb high-level walking, albeit a long tough hike and an exhausting slog in places. You will need to carry a light tent (etc) for parts of this trail.
- GR10: while this 900km trail sticks to the (relative) mid-slopes, enabling more nights in more comfortable accommodation, this is a serious undertaking, and a ridiculously beautiful route. Most people choose chunks to walk, but we met several people tackling its entire length.
- GR11: the Spanish equivalent to GR10.
- One other multi-day walk that must be mentioned is the Gavarnie-Ordesa circuit. The consensus is that, if you had to identify a single best route, it would be ascending above the extraordinary Cirque de Gavarnie, crossing the high range through the famous Breche de Roland and descending into the tremendous limestone Ordesa Canyon, then climbing back up to the high peaks and trekking along the Haute Route for a bit or circuiting back to the Gavarnie area.
And finally there is the Sentier Cathare a very different and history-laden trail which winds through the foothills of the eastern French Pyrenees.
We describe below the great walking areas from the west to the east.
Roncesvalles / Camino de Santiago: many people cross the Pyrenees here, on this historic pilgrimage route. What will be lost in solitude will be balanced by romance and atmosphere, although whether sufficiently so comes down to your preferences.
Cirque de Lescun: This area south-west of Lescun in the Vallée d'Aspe deserves its own page, which we are working on. Further east in the Vallée is more fine walking, including the vertiginous Chemin de la Mature, a loggers path cut into spectacular cliffs. This walk also deserves its own page, which we are working on. Please help us with ideas and photos.
Pic du Midi d'Ossau: a huge (2,884m) stand-alone peak. The walk around it is one of the finest in the Pyrenees. It can be ascended in a tough day, revealing exceptional views. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on. Please help us with ideas and photos.
Balaitous: a very remote, pristine, but rough wilderness around a tough, rocky peak or the border ridge.
Gourette: a lower but thoroughly challenging massif standing out to the north of the high range. The central valley contains some exquisite walking, and there are some fine ridge walks as well.
HIGH PYRENEES AND THE NATIONAL PARKS
Vallee d'Estaing: the mountains surrounding this particularly lovely valley beg to be explored. Think lakes, high cols and high refuge to use as bases.
Vallée de Marcadau: an exceptionally beautiful area of varied walking south-west of the pleasing town of Cauterets. You can spend several very varied days here based on Refuge Wallon.
Vignemale and Vallée de Gaube - the biggest mountain in the entire French side of the range (at 3,298m), with fine walking in the surrounding French and Spanish slopes - in particular in the vallée de Gaube to the north - and an ascent of the mountain itself. Think granite, high lakes and crazed ridges.
Vallée de Lutour: another lovely valley above Cauterets, this time to its south-east. Immaculate and classically Pyrenean scenery. A gorgeous valley surrounded by high broken ridges and peaks.
Gavarnie Area: superb walking as in the environs of three dramatic but very different glacial cirques. See also the Cirque de Troumouse and the Cirque d'Estaubé. And an ascent to the dramatic Breche de Roland is unmissable. Consider extending this to make a great multi-day walk such as the Garvanie/Ordesa Circuit.
Néouvielle NP: the GR10 passes by this ludicrously rough and granite massif which nestles some particularly lovely lakes.
EAST CENTRAL PYRENEES
Bagneres de Luchon area: south of this spa town is some of the best walking in the Pyrenees: the cirque d'Espingo and The Vallée de la Pique and Vallée du Lis.
The Carlit Massif: east of Andorra: a lovely and popular area: its granite base and glacial origins make for rough terrain, visual drama and lakes. We will be creating a separate page for the Carlit - all input welcome.
Ariege Valley: The area around this great gash into the (French) eastern Pyrenees is home to a mass of great walking, as well as the upper reaches of the Sentier Cathar. Major peaks, lakes, wonderful scenery but relatively empty. Rich in animal life and riotously floral. This area deserves its own page, which we plan to work on. Please help us with ideas and photos.
For the historians among you, the Sentier Cathare winds, through lovely and varied foothill country, between some of the great Cathare sites; the Sentier des Bonshommes, then crosses the high Ari?ge Pyrenees into Spain along paths used by the Cathars to escape their persecutors.
The Capcir: a slightly strange high plateau with mountains around, including the magnificent Carlit Massif. Bare and less enthralling than the high range, it is nonetheless beautiful and rich in animal life and flowers. There is a 4 day Tour de Capcir. This area deserves its own page, which we plan to work on. Please help us with ideas and photos.
Canigou: the last great eastern bastion of the range, the 2,785m Canigou massif more than merely dominates its surroundings: it has a special place in the Catalan imagination. It makes for fine and varied walking, its lower slopes forested but its peaks all rock, scree and cliff. Unsurprisingly, you get huge views (Andorra to the Med) from its peaks on a good day.Sitting between the Tech and T?t valleys, Canigou can be climbed from many directions, but all require a night in a refuge. The routes are many and varied, so plan carefully. There are many day walks you can do on the massif.
See our Eastern Pyrenees page for more on the varied and fascinating walking at the eastern end of the range, within striking-distance of the coast. Including the Pilo de Belmaig ridge.
Expect rain at any time on the western and central slopes of the French side, although you will be unlucky not to get gorgeous clear days for the majority of a summer expedition. Snow lies late, with the high range only really clear by mid July. July and August are the best months for tackling the high range, with clear(er) passes and better (less unpredictable) weather. September can the best month of all, with clear day and fewer people, although it gets colder at night and the chances of snow increase toward the back end of the month. Be ready for any weather at any time, though, in the high mountains.
Parts of the range really heave with tourists in high summer (Gavarnie especially), and many day walks are busy at that time. So, come prepared to tolerate or to look for remoter walking. May and June (if you are happy not to have access to the highest paths) and September are accordingly the best times to come.
There are many expedition organizers who will arrange a wide variety of trips throughout the Pyrenees. See our Practical Information section for further details.
Accommodation varies from hotels and inns to gites and camping in the valleys. Once on the high ground, the array of fine refuges are the main option - although they get busy, so book well ahead if coming in the popular months. Camping is very restricted in the high country, so check out the current requirements at the planning stage. See our Practical Information section for more information.
Mention must be made of one particular guidebook, Cicerone's - Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees which you should not approach this area without. See our practical information section for more books.
SEE ALSO OUR SPANISH PYRENEES PAGE
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist.
Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Walking in the Pyrenees – Cicerone: the essential book to Pyrenean walking, with an excellent selection of routes. Doesn’t cover the eastern Pyrenees.
Trekking in the Pyrenees – Trailblazer
Pyrenean Haute Route – Cicerone
The GR10 Trail – Cicerone
Walking in France – Lonely Planet: as one section of a country-focus book, its Pyrenean coverage is limited, but it does have some excellent walks, not all in the Cicerone
The Rough Guide to the Pyrenees – Rough Guides: a really good guide to the area, with much excellent focus on walking, and thoughtful coverage of cultural and historical aspects.
Birds of Europe – Lars Jonssan
There are chapters on the Pyrenees in Trekking Atlas of the World – Ed. Jack Jackson; Classic Treks – Ed. Bill Birkett; Trek! The Best Trekking in the World – Claes Grundsten; Top Treks of the World – Ed. Steve Razzetti; and Walking the World’s Natural Wonders – ed. Jon Sparks.
Maps can be bought locally, fairly easily. They are not always entirely reliable or up-to-date, so handle with some care.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
For the high ground July to late September, when the refuges are open but the snow mostly gone.
For the lower hills not requiring refuge accommodation, May to mid-October.
Avoid high summer (July-August) if you can as it is the busiest time and the refuges get very full.
Lots of it, and very varied. The northern slopes get a lot of moisture, translating into fairly frequent rain, and snow until late in the year (we met snowfalls on 10 June), in the western and central areas. The Mediterranean end and the Spanish side are much drier, but even so come prepared for rain and cold at any time in the higher areas. The central areas are known for suddenish and rough thunderstorms in Summer: get away from exposed areas if they appear.
Many airports (including Toulouse, Pau, Lourdes, Perpignan, Barcelona and Girona). Most people then hire cars if heading for the high hills, although some areas (eg the valleys of the eastern Pyrenees) are accessible by public transport.
Those on organised expeditions are likely to be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Altitude: Likely to affect you a bit: expect to puff and perhaps a mild headache if going high.
- Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. Beware thunder storms in Summer. Some of the steep rock can get very slippery when wet. Come prepared.
- Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
- Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
- Harmful animals, including snakes, bears and boars, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
- This is often remote country: food and other supplies will not be readily available and help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do many of these walks independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.
Many people form or join guided expeditions. Given the remoteness of the country and sometimes tough walking, many will prefer to do it this way, and travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages.
Expedition organisers include:
- Mountain Bug – www.mountainbug.com do a huge range of Pyrenean Walks, from weeks-long HPR yomps to easier day walks to tailored expeditions. We have used them and were pleased.
- Hike Pyrenees – www.hikepyrenees.co.uk do several expeditions, of different natures and levels of effort, including an excellent selection in the Ordesa area.
- Pyrenees Walking - www.pyrenees-walking.co.uk have a wide selection of fabulous Pyrenean walks of varying difficulty. A big eastern Pyrenean selection as well as the high range.
- Alternative Travel Group – www.atg-oxford.com – do Pyrenees walks.
- Inntravel – www.inntravel.com
- Exodus – www.exodus.co.uk
- High Places – www.highplaces.co.uk – do an expedition in the Ariège area of the eastern Pyrenees. We have used them elsewhere and loved them.
- Macs Adventure – http://www.macsadventure.com/
- Headwater – www.headwater.com – do a fine looking Hautes-Pyrenees Walk
- An excellent guide who we used in the high Pyrenees is Daniel Beattie – www.danielpyrenees.com – Ex-foreign legion and a serious climber to boot.
Accommodation in the valleys varies from hotels and inns to gîtes and camping. The guidebooks have a selection of possible accommodation.
Once on the high ground, the array of fine refuges (from comfortable to pretty basic, but usually providing food) are the main option – although they are open for a limited period (usually July to end of September, but check carefully when planning) and get busy, so book well ahead if coming in the popular months. Camping is very restricted in the high country, so check out the current requirements at the planning stage.
See what the commentary on Tripadvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.
A good range of hotels can be found on the unimaginatively but effectively named Hotels.com.
Expedition organisers will usually organize accommodation, some from their own houses or hotels.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- www.wikipedia.org – As usual, a good starting place.
- Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
- National Geographic has some info on the Pyrenees National Park
- The redoubtable Dick Everard walked the Haute Route in summer 2013. See his blog at email@example.com to see what it was like tackling this great trail.
Other things to do in the area
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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