“When Wainwright devised his coast to coast walk in 1973, one can only ponder whether he was in any way inspired to do so by news reaching England of a similar coast to coast route through the mighty Spanish Pyrenees, known as the Gran Recorrido 11, or GR11.
Walking in the Pyrenees is a joy for anyone who seeks out a quieter alternative to the more developed areas of the Alps.
A combination of spectacular peaks, glistening tarns, deep valleys and expanses of wild beauty unseen by many visitors makes the Pyrenees an excellent choice for the adventurous walker.”
– Collett’s Mountain Holidays
The ‘GR11’ – Europe’s lesser known little gem.
A Spectacular Long Distance Walk In Europe
Well-known around the world for its great food, laid-back culture, and brilliant works of architecture, the country of Spain has long been a favourite of British holidaymakers. Just a short 2-hour flight from the UK means easy access to sunshine, beaches, seafood paella, flamenco dancing, street fiestas and free-flowing sangria! No wonder Spain, with its islands in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, remains the UK’s number one holiday destination. But what is lesser known about Europe’s second largest country are its wild high mountains and varied landscapes offering impressive views in every direction.
From the famous Camino de Santiago to the Picos de Europa National Park and the Vías Verdes, covering old disused railway lines across the country, Spain is full of amazing hiking opportunities. Lesser known, but none the less spectacular are three great long distance trails in the Pyrenees, a surprisingly narrow rampart of wild mountains separating the plains of France and Spain. The trails, namely, the GR10, the GR11 and the Pyrenean Haute Route – can be walked in sections or indeed, for the tough and time-rich, their entire length.
The GR paths are a network of extensive paths that criss-cross Europe, mostly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. In Spain, GR stands for ‘Gran Recorrido‘ and it is the GR11 that stretches the entire length of the Spanish Pyrenees, from Irun on the Atlantic Coast, through Andorra, and onto Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean Coast. The entire length covers a total of 840km and offers a variety of landscapes – from rolling green hills to high granite peaks, with thundering cascades and serene glacial lakes, to expansive canyons and sweeping vistas. Considered a serious challenge for experienced hikers, but less demanding than the higher-level Pyrenean Haute Route, the Gr11 is typically divided into 46 day-long sections, most of which start / finish where accommodation is available, either by way of a campsite, town, refuge or hostel.
Heading into the mountains on our mini-adventure in the Spanish Pyrenees!
What To Expect
The GR11 is a much more recent path than its counterpart the GR10, which lies on the French side of the Pyrenees. Yet despite it regularly passing through settlements providing you with more opportunities to resupply, it still offers a true ‘wilderness’ experience as the route winds its way through largely unspoilt, wild mountains, offering wonderful wild camp opportunities with the remoteness and solitude that long distance hikers so readily crave.
On the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, with a hotter and drier climate than the wetter regions in France, expect the weather to be much more favourable. You will notice a contrast in landscapes as the wetter weather generated from the Bay of Biscay renders the northern slopes vividly green until close to the Mediterranean, whereas the southern Spanish and eastern slopes are much drier.
Generally, the walking on the GR11 is quite straightforward as paths are well-trodden. However, the terrain underfoot varies hugely. You can be walking on simple tracks through to exposed and narrow, rocky paths in high mountainous terrain, where a slip would be very serious. Throughout the entire route there are regular paint flashes to support with navigation. However, some way-marking along the trail isn’t always clear, especially if markers have faded or people have added several cairns which cause confusion. (It would therefore be foolish to not carry a paper map and compass!) Some days required us to walk for over 11 hours and we never really came close to the times quoted in the guide-book, so be prepared for some very long and strenuous hiking days, particularly in the central section where high mountain passes are a daily occurrence.
The GR11 passes through the mountainous regions of Navarra, Aragon and Catalonia, the latter two regions comprising of steeper and higher mountains, as well as a hotter climate than Navarra. There are a number of high passes, many in the central section above 2,500 metres, and you have to be prepared for as much as 1,600m of ascent / descent in a single day. Some of the higher mountain passes are quite taxing, especially where some scrambling and descent on scree is necessary.
Supplies are readily available in towns and villages along the route, so there is little need to carry more than 3 or 4 days’ worth of food rations. Water is also easy to access along the trail, even in summer by way of streams and natural springs.
Magnificent high mountain scenery in the central Pyrenees.
When To Go
The main walking season in the Spanish Pyrenees is between late May and the beginning of October, however this is not a hard and fast rule, as there can be snowfall well into June, and again in late September, which can cover many of the red and white painted markers. On the other hand, there may be some perfect windows of opportunity for hiking in the autumn, particularly as the temperatures will be cooler.
There will be unavoidable snow patches throughout June and probably well into July, and these should not be underestimated. Those looking to hike the higher sections of the GR11 during this period should carry both an ice axe and crampons, and have experience of using these. The presence of snow can turn a benign scree slope into a steep icy slope, which without the use of an ice axe and crampons could be potentially very serious should a slip occur. An example of this is on the slopes leading up to the Cuello Tebarrai (2,782m) from Refugio de Respomuso, which can hold snow until early August. Following a winter and spring of heavy snowfall, avalanche hazards can exist into June, particularly on hot, sunny days. Hut guardians can often be a great source of information regarding the conditions of the GR11 in the vicinity of their hut.
Snow lingers before the pass. Heading up to the highest point on the GR11 route – the Cuello de Tebarrai (Piedrafita) at 2,765 metres.
How Long Will It Take?
This depends to an extent, on your fitness, need for rest days and whether you wish to summit some of the spectacular peaks along the way, but 45-60 days is normally a good guide, however the entire trail has been completed in as little as 24 days!
Having a tight work schedule, we only completed the central section of the GR11, some 192km, which took us 13 days. We opted to start in Canfranc located on the western half of the route, then tackled the high mountain passes walking west to east. This took us through one of Spain’s most popular national parks – the Parque National de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous for its 3,000m deep glacial valleys that are capped by Monte Perdido standing at 3,348m high. We also hiked through the Posets and Maladeta Natural Park, which has the highest concentration of peaks over 3,000m in the Pyrenees.
Where To Stay
We wild camped along the GR11, or if reaching a village before nightfall, we stayed at a campsite with proper facilities. However if you prefer not to carry a tent, then wardened huts or ‘Refugios’ will play an integral part of your journey, and will no doubt be a welcome sight after a long day of hiking. These should be booked in advance, either online or by telephone, and notified as soon as possible if you plan to cancel your booking.
The facilities available do vary from hut to hut, but do remember that these are often located high in the mountains, where supplies are brought in via helicopter or by mule, so prices are inflated, and there may be limited availability of particular items.
Some refuges have showers and all have toilet facilities. Refuges also provide breakfast and evening meals (including packed lunches) and often operate a restaurant/ bar service during the day.
Most definitely a contender for #wildcampoftheyear!
Wild camp wonder! Our tent under a starry sky whilst developing our night landscape photography skills.
We completed our thru-hike between Friday August 11th and Wednesday August 23rd, 2017. Our daily trip reports with accompanying photographs are included below:
Day 4 – Monday 14th August 2017 – Wild Camp at the southern shore of Embalse de Respomuso to Rio Caldares (after Refuge Bachimaña down the granite valley, crossing the stream, before Panticosa)– ‘El Scorchio!’
Day 5 – Tuesday 15th August 2017 – Wild Camp near to Rio Caldares (after Refuge Bachimaña down the granite valley, crossing the stream, before Panticosa) to Refugio Bujaruelo Camping – ‘Bouldering on…’
Day 7 –
Day 8 –
Day 9 –
Day 10 –
Day 11 –
Day 12 –
Day 13 –
You can export a GPX/KML file from this by clicking on the ‘GR11 – Pyrenees Section’ link below.