The Best of the GR11?
Instantly finding ourselves immersed in majestic mountain scenery, we were feeling wonderfully justified in our decision to begin our hike from Canfranc. Only having the time to cover just the central section of the 840km GR11 route, we wanted to experience the best of what the trail could offer us within our limited time frame.
On any thru-hike adventure, the first morning is always a thrill, waking up in an unfamiliar place to a new dawn and new scenery. We were just a few kilometres into our journey and it was already proving a joy – La Senda Pirenaica was presenting us with spectacular peaks and expanses of wild beauty with every passing footstep. (Our immense pack weights and all-pervading hiker hunger were yet to overshadow the wonders of our new surroundings!)
It sounds rather cliché, but as long-distance hikers, high mountain wilderness is what we live for – and standing right now in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, we were both mightily impressed and couldn’t wait to see more…
What a joy to be alone in the great outdoors again! The tremendous early morning view we were treated to after hiking uphill from our wild camp location by the river Canal Roya in the valley below.
It felt good to be back on the trail and we were eager to see more of this wild and wonderful frontier running between France and Spain.
Saturday 12th August 2017 – Day 2 – Wild Camp (Canfranc + 5km, near to Rio d’a Canal Roya) to Sallent de Gallego Municipal Campground – ‘Meeting the Mountains!’
Start time: 08:46. End time: 19:00. Distance: 23.2km. Ascent: 1,476m / Descent: 1,649m.
Although technically embarking on Day 2, today was our first ‘proper’ day of hiking with sufficient light to appreciate the tremendous scenery we found ourselves almost instantaneously immersed in. Just a few hours away from bustling Barcelona, yet seemingly a million miles away from civilisation – it felt wonderful to be on our own again in the ‘wilderness’.
Our wild camp location had proved to be a winner on all accounts as we’d enjoyed a sound night’s sleep and were then afforded wonderful mountain views when we unzipped the tent around 8am (sleeping in a little later than we’d intended). But unlike some of our more sluggish morning starts, we couldn’t wait to break camp and get moving!
Our wild camp spot close to the Rio d’a Canal Roya. As we arrived when it was almost dark, we hadn’t realised that we’d be waking up to such a wonderful view.
As well as making our miles to reach Sallent de Gallego where we’d intended on camping that evening, our real mission today was to get there before the shops closed as we needed to purchase gas from one of only a handful of places on the trail that stock ‘Coleman‘ style screw top canisters. If we didn’t manage to get one, we’d be eating cold food rations for the foreseeable future, which was not a prospect we wished to entertain!
The GR11 has 2 route options to Sallent de Gallego from Candanchu. As we started in Canfranc, we took the northern route via the Rio d’a Canal Roya and the Ibones de Anayet mountain lakes, which is an outstandingly beautiful area deserving of much more time than we could allow.
Our first gentle rock hop across a stream trickling downhill towards the river.
After setting off along the well trodden trail, gradually making our way uphill away from the river – we couldn’t help but keep stopping to turn and look back down the valley at the incredibly scenic mountain vista. The vivid blue sky and already blazing sun just made it all the more striking.
Taking a moment to enjoy the captivating scene.
But we weren’t the only ones to be enjoying such a magnificent morning. In hot pursuit, a large herd of chestnut coloured Pyrenean cows were making the long trek southeast up the valley, just like us, to the Plano d’a Rinconada. We felt like we were completely intruding on their territory, but they weren’t interested in us or what culinary delights we had stowed in our backpacks. Instead, they were focussed on reaching the flat, grassy corrie in the distance, where several other cows were already happily grazing, their large cowbells echoing repeatedly across the plain.
Pyrenean cows were following us up the valley eager to graze on the Plano d’a Rinconada.
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” – John Muir
In the moment… Another brief rest stop to soak up the scene.
And the scene was an incredible panorama of the surrounding peaks of the Plano d’a Rinconada!
From the plateau, it was difficult to see a way up the craggy peaks that now dominated the skyline. But once on the path, we found it to be well-cairned, with gradual switchbacks leading to the top of the pass that meant it wasn’t too taxing.
Slowly but surely making our way across the the Plano d’a Rinconada (1,865m) in preparation for the 400 metre or so ascent to Ibones d’Anayet – the stunning cluster of water bodies around the Pico de Anayet.
Looking back across the vivid green Plano d’a Rinconada.
‘Selfie’ as we made our way to the top of the pass.
From the Ibones de Anayet mountain lakes, the peaks of Canal Roya, Mala Cara, Peña Blanca and Punta Gralleras dominate the skyline. Yet it is the magnificent 2,884 metre high Pic du Midi d’Ossau, just across the border in France, that stands out and immediately catches your attention.
A fabulous view of Ibons d’ Anayet (the first lake) was our reward on reaching the top! Could the day get any better?!
Unlike the first part of the morning where we found ourselves alone on the trail but for the cows, it was a different story on reaching the top of the pass. We expected to see a few other like-minded souls enjoying the serene scene, but what we hadn’t anticipated was that every accessible piece of shoreline would be teeming with people picnicking and sunbathing!
We quickly discovered that the Anayet series of lakes are not just for the exclusivity of GR11 hikers, but are massively popular with day walkers coming up from the Anayet Ski Complex, as well as tourists taking day trips out of Formigal. And quite rightly so; the whole area was stunningly beautiful, and made all the more captivating with the surrounding jagged peaks mirrored in the cool, clear waters. We both agreed it would have been a splendid place to stay the night and wild camp had we not needed to push on to Sallent de Gallego to get gas.
Ibons d’Anayet – flat and calm making for a perfect reflection of the surrounding peaks.
Moving around the lakes in an effort to capture the beautiful scene minus sunbathers!
After finding our own semi-secluded spot around one of the lakes, we took off our trail shoes, dipped our feet in the clear water, then ate our lunch whilst stretching out on a grassy knoll. We weren’t the only ones making the most of the sunshine – we saw a couple of people skinny dipping – but with the water temperature just above freezing, they weren’t in too long!
Leaving the lakes and heading east, continuing along the GR11.
After leaving the lakes behind, we found it to be both a steep and scrambly descent in places. We had to pay attention and watch our footing because of loose stones, and there were also a lot of other hikers coming uphill from the opposite direction who we had to give way for.
A beautiful stream flowing down the valley caught our attention – there are several places that would be perfect for sitting down, taking off your shoes and reviving the feet. Alas, we didn’t have time to do this as it was still a long walk to Sallent de Gallego and we needed to make sure we arrived well before the mountain equipment store closed.
The trail leads downhill into the valley – however there are several other walking routes that veer off into the mountains if you prefer to stay high, including ‘The Pyrenean Haute Route’ (or HRP, for Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne), which traverses the highest walkable route across the Pyrenees Mountains.
To stay on the GR11, continue following the familiar red and white paint flashes that are regularly placed. As the trail is so well trodden in this area, you should not have any difficulty with navigation and staying on the right track.
Heading downhill on a rocky section of trail.
Despite the weather conditions being hot and dry, the mountain scenery dominating the trail is remarkably green and lush.
After what seemed like a long descent in the blazing sun, we were hoping that we could take respite and use the facilities of the Ski Complex. However it was all shut up and fenced off for the summer! We were really surprised that there wasn’t a café or drinks kiosk open as it would have done a roaring trade taking advantage of all the day trippers passing by who were hiking up to the lakes.
Down at the main entrance, we stopped for quick drink of water, hoping that some kind soul in the car park would offer us a lift to Sallent de Gallego as we now faced a taxing road walk in the mid-afternoon heat! But we had no such luck! (Clearly we need to work on our ‘hitch hiker’ skills!)
The GR11 trail passes through Anayet Ski Complex, which is closed in summer. We feel they are missing a trick here! With the amount of day hikers passing through in need of a cold drink or an ice-cream, in our opinion a café would not only be viable, but very profitable!
We found it was a long road walk from the Anayet Ski Complex to Sallent de Gallego passing through the ski resort town of Formigal, where there seems to be a section of the GR11 missing. However, despite this busy road section being quite unnerving as you have to walk on the narrow hard shoulder as there is no pavement, we took advantage of there being a petrol station and convenience store by the roadside and bought ice-cold drinks, then sat on the grass outside for a break.
After the Ski Complex, the GR11 seems to disappear for a while and there is a daunting section of road walking to Formigal.
A little way past the garage on the opposite side of the road, red and white flashes then seemed to materialise again from nowhere as the GR11 reappears with a sign leading down an old track towards Sallent, which thankfully helps cut out the last section of road.
Leaving the road and following an old track into Sallent de Gallego, an upmarket tourist town nestled in the mountains.
As we reached the edge of town, we took a short cut. There are a series of steps that lead downhill towards the town centre next to a restaurant. It was bustling with people dining ‘al fresco’ and enjoying a cerveza, which looked very appealing after a hot hiking day! But our mission was to get gas, so all thoughts of stopping for a beer were quickly shelved (for now!).
Following the GR11 into Sallent de Gallego. The stylish ski town has an abundance of hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés and supermarkets – basically everything we look for! It was a shame we didn’t have time for a rest day in such a charming place.
With no time to waste, we headed straight for the Gorgol Free Mountain Equipment Store where we bought ‘Coleman’ style gas with a screw top lid. As far as we could tell, this is the only shop on the GR11 trail to sell this type of canister (the section we were walking), so we bought the largest canister in stock (500g) and hoped it would last the fortnight! We also walked into the town’s main square and filled up our water bottles from the water point (natural spring water straight off the mountains), saving us some time with filtering.
Our final errand was visiting the ‘Supermercado’ where we stocked up with 3 days of rations. It was our usual hiker food choices – wraps, cobs, cheese, chorizo, pasta, nuts, crisps, biscuits and eggs! Yes for this trip, eggs were to be a regular treat as we had brought along 2 X 6 plastic egg cartons for carrying them in a sturdy manner in our top lids. (Eggs are perfect for hot breakfasts either fried or scrambled and are one of our favourite staples on the trail when they are easy to get hold of!)
The Gorgol Mountain Equipment Store that stocks our preferred gas option.
Replenishing water supplies from the natural spring ‘water point’ in the centre of town. This saved us some time as it meant we did not have to filter water from the river.
Walking through Sallent de Gallego in search of a supermarket.
Not only did Sallent provide us with the re-supplies we needed, but we also took advantage of the free camping at the Municipal Campground (not well-known) at the northeast end of town. Neither advertised or signposted – it is the town’s best kept secret for GR11 hikers!
The campsite is basic – a simple grassy patch for tents and a small gravel car park for campervans – but the bonus is the toilet/shower block facility. It was only our 2nd day on the trail and we were already able to shower!!! Albeit in cold water – although for some strange reason Wayne said there was piping hot water in the men’s! (Maybe the women’s hot tap was switched off to hurry us up somewhat! I know I would have been in there half an hour washing my hair!)
From the campsite we could look upon the mountains surrounding the town, follow the trail with the eye, and see where we’d be heading the following day. All in all – the campsite was a great little find!
When we arrived early evening, there were a couple of campervans in the car park as well as 2 tents, but all was quiet and everyone kept themselves to themselves. (Us, mostly exhausted from the 20+ kilometres walk in the heat!)
For dinner we put our newly acquired gas to good use boiling up a cup-a-soup and cheese filled tortellini pasta, which we ate with gusto after last night’s meagre dry rations! We even made use of the toilet block to wash the pots properly before ‘hiker midnight’ loomed!
Well, so far, so good! The trail is proving a real delight. Just 2 days in and we both agree, we seem to have picked the best part of the GR11 to hike! And we’ve not even reached what are considered the ‘exceptional’ parts yet!… It makes for a very exciting hike to come!