Pyrenees

Key information: Pyrenees

  • The Pyrenees are truly amazing, a surprisingly narrow rampart of wild mountains separating the plains of France and Spain.
  • Some of Europes best walking, and to suit all tastes, from the drama of the magnificent high routes (including circuiting from the Cirque de Gavarnie to the Orodesa Canyon and back) to gentler explorations of the valleys and foothills, and the history-laden Sentier Cathar.
  • This can be tough walking in high, remote mountains. Come prepared.

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating89
  • Beauty36
  • Natural interest16
  • Human interest4
  • Charisma33
  • Negative points0
  • Total rating89

Vital Statistics

  • Length: Variable
  • Level of Difficulty: Variable
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WALK SUMMARY

 

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 nothing in between - 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 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 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 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 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.

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. 

NOTE: We are making a major expedition to the Pyrenees shortly, and this page will be developed much further.  Your patience please!  In the meantime, all ideas, suggestions and photos are welcome!

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. This walk deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.
  • GR10: while this trail sticks to the mid-slopes, enabling more nights in more comfortable accommodation, this is a serious, and ridiculously beautiful walk. This walk deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.
  • GR11: the Spanish equivalent to GR10. This walk deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

One other multi-day walk that must be mentioned is the Gavarine-Ordesa circuit. The consensus is that, if you had to identify a single best route, it would be ascending above the amazing Cirque de Gavarnie, crossing the high range through the famous Breche de Roland and descending into the deep, remarkable 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.

We describe below the great walking areas from the west to the east. 

WESTERN PYRENEES

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 along 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.

Gourette - a lower but thoroughly challenging massif standing out to the north of the high range.

CENTRAL/HIGH PYRENEES

Vallee de Estaing - the mountains surrounding this particularly lovely valley. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

 

Vallée de Marcadau - an exceptional beautiful area of relatively gentler walking around the pleasing town of Cauterets. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Vignemale - the biggest mountain in the entire range, with fine walking on the surrounding lower slopes. Think granite and high Lakes. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Vallée de Lutour - another lovely valley above Cauterets, this time to its south-east. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

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.

Neouvielle NP - GR10 passes through Aygues Cluses Valley. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

The Ordesa Canyon Area, a network of rightly famous canyons.

Ordesa Itself

-          Faja de las Flores - a famously giddy ledge in the huge cliffs of the Ordesa Canyon.

-          Pico Anayet / Vertice de Anayet: good trekking hills above Ordesa Canyon. Monte Perdido (3335m). Above Ordesa.

-          Pineta Canyon - Adjoining Ordesa to the east (also part of World Heritage Area)

-          A?isclo Canyon -  Adjoining Ordesa (Also part of World Heritage Area). Classic limestone canyon. 

Panticosa Area 

-            Pico de Baclas (2760m) - near Banas de Panticosa.

-            Garmo Negro (2066m) - big peak, big views across the neighbouring mountains. And a fine if rough scramble along the ridge to Argulas (at 3046m). 

This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Valle de Tena: Spanish side.  Can follow GR11 - to Refugio Respomuso, nestled among some of the range's highest peaks.

Ibones de Arriel 

Tebberai (2916m) above Panticosa.

Circo de Piedvafita above Panticosa.

Near Ordesa.  Can combine walks.

Posets Massif: wonderful. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Maladeta Massif: particularly beautiful. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

EASTERN PYRENEES

Aruge Valley - The area around this great gash into the 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 are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

The Capcer in the eastern Pyrenees: described as the "Lake District" of the Pyrenees; while it has the biggest mountain in the east, it is gentler country than the high range. But very beautiful and rich in animal life and flowers. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Canigou - lovely scenery on the Spanish side of the eastern Pyrenees. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

Aiguestortes - a lovely area of winding lakes and mountains on the Spanish side of the range. This area deserves its own page, which we are working on.  Please help us with ideas and photos.

For the historians among you, the Sentier Cathar winds, through lovely and varied foothill country, between some of the great Cathar sites, then crosses the high Ariege Pyrenees into Spain.

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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 the summer.  Snow lies late, with the high range only really clear by mid July. 

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.

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.

Mention must be made of one particular guidebook, Cicerone's Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees which you should not approach this area without.

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.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Books and Maps

Suggest books and maps

Books on this walk

Walking in the Pyrenees– Cicerone: the essential book to Pyrenean walking, with an excellent selection of routes.

Walking in France – Lonely Planet: as on section of a country-focus book, its Pyrenean coverage is limited, but it does have some excellent walks, not all in the Cicerone

Other books

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.

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

Maps can be bought locally, fairly easily. They are not always entirely reliable or up-to-date, so handle with some care.

Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk. A good online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks). Also try www.mapsworldwide.com and www.trektools.com.

Find the books and maps listed above, and many more:

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.

Weather

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. The central areas are known for suddenish and rough thunderstorms in summer.

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides.

Getting there/transport/permits/fees

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Those on organised expeditions are likely to be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.

Route(s)

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See Walk Summary above.

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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  • Altitude: Likely to affect you a bit: expect to puff and perhaps a mild headache.
  • Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. 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, 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?

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Independent

You can do many of these walks independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.

Guided/supported

Many people form or join organised/supported 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:

Accommodation

Accommodation varies from hotels and inns to gîtes and camping in the valleys.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 September, but check arefully 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.

If you’re on a budget, Hostelbookersusually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation; or perhaps try for some bargain luxury on Lastminute.com.

Expedition organisers will usually organize accommodation, some from their own houses or hotels.

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Other information and tips


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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.

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Other things to do in the area

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Other walks


Other activities

Endless!

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.

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.

OTHER ACCOUNTS
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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