Pyrenees High Route
There are three trails that cross the Pyrenees from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Mediterranean in the east. The GR10 and GR11 are official, nationally recognised signposted trails. The GR10 traverses the north of the mountain range, staying within France, whereas the GR11 crosses the mountains on the Spanish side of the border.
The third trail is the Pyrenees High Route (PHR) or in French, Haute Route Pyrénéenne (HRP), that continually crosses between France and Spain, keeping to highest paths. The PHR starts in Hendaye and ends in Banyuls.
As there are no signposts that show the way there is no single route. This gives you the freedom to follow the most appropriate trail for the conditions that you find. If a particular mountain pass cannot be crossed as it is covered in deep snow then you can take a lower lever diversion that bypasses it.
At approximately 465 miles (750 kms) in length the PHR typically takes 6-8 weeks to cross and is one of the greatest trekking challenges in Europe. As the trail stays as high as possible and passes through remote areas that few other walkers go it can be demanding to navigate.
You will experience diverse terrains: green rolling hills in the west, snow-covered cols, emerald green high mountain lakes, glaciers, emerald-green lakes and dry vegetation as you approach the Mediterranean. You will need to be tough, independent and self-sufficient. This is a serious challenge that should not be underestimated.
When to Walk
Snow and ice does not clear from the high mountain passes and summits until late June. Snow returns at the end of September and early October. This gives a three month window when the PHR can be walked without the need for crampons, ice axe and heavy winter clothing. Note though that crampons and an ice axe are recommended even in the summer if you intend to cross glaciers.
In July and August the weather is most settled and you have the best chance of cloud free walking. In September there are fewer people but it is colder at night and the chances of snow increase toward the end of the month. However, in the high mountains be prepared for all weather conditions all the time. The sun is at its hottest in July and August. During these months it is best to start walking at day break each morning and stop early afternoon to avoid the worst of the sun. In September the days are shorter and expect to experience significant frost at night.
Travel to the Pyrenees
By train: there are regular high speed train services from Paris to Hendaye. The train station in Hendaye is a short walk from the start point beside the sea. At Banyuls on the Mediterranean side there is a train station that has services to Paris.
By aeroplane: there are airports in Biarritz, San Sebastián, Pau, Tarbes, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Perpignan and Girona. From these airports you can travel on by train or bus to start your walk.
With careful planning you can finish each day at walking at a mountain hut. However we strongly recommend you always carry a shelter and sleeping bag. Mountain huts that are staffed typically have shared dormitory rooms with bunk beds. Blankets are provided but you will be expected to bring your own sleeping bag liner or sheets. The standard of huts is usually good, sometimes very good. Meals are eaten in a dining room with communal tables, where you can share your stories with other mountaineers and climbers.
Most of the staffed huts can be reserved online. It is strongly recommended to reserve a bed and/or a meal especially in July and August.
For hut information see www.pyrenees-refuges.com.
Many people walking the PHR will prefer the freedom and isolation of wild camping. This is tolerated on both the French and Spanish side of the border if you pitch the tent after 7 pm and take it down before 8 am. Occasionally you will need a shower and to wash your clothes. This can be done at official campsites but to reach them you will need to leave the trail. Many of the mountain huts have a designated camping area nearby. This means you can sleep in your tent at night but eat dinner and breakfast in the hut.
Food and Water
In staffed mountain huts you can usually purchase a three course dinner and a simple breakfast. Some huts can also provide a packed lunch. However we strongly recommend you always carry cooking equipment, fuel and food for several days. Independent walkers may prefer to cook many of the meals themselves. Food supplies and fuel can be bought every week.
Water can be found at mountain huts or taken directly from streams and lakes. We strongly recommend you treat water using purification tablets or a filter before drinking it. Drinking plenty of water (two litres minimum) each day is very important at altitude.
Coast to coast the Pyrenees are approximately 265 miles (430 kms) in length. The mountains we see today are made up of complex layers of mostly granite and limestone rocks. 500 million years ago the area of the Pyrenees was a deep ocean.
400 million years ago the collision of the earth's tectonic plates caused the sedimentary layer on the seabed to rise creating the Hercynian mountains. These covered much of central Europe and eventually grew as tall as today's Himalayas.
The video below describes the geology of the Pyrenees with a focus on the Mont Perdu area with its fabulous cirques. The French version can be watched here.
Over time rainfall and wind caused the Hercynian mountain range to erode completely. Eventually, 100-250 million years ago, the ocean reclaimed the land and the once gigantic mountains were now submerged below a shallow sea. New layers of sedimentary rock were then created on top.
Tectonic plate movements over the period 20-75 million years ago caused the mountains to rise once again forming the Pyrenees mountains we see today.
The African plate pushed the Iberian crust (the land we know as Spain and Portugal today) north colliding with the larger European crust. Under huge pressure and heat layers of rock were squeezed together, old layers pushed under and over younger layers. These bands are visible today across the mountain range.
As with the Hercynian mountains, the Pyrenees have been subject to erosion. Rain finds weakness in the rock, causing caves to form as the water drains through it. When the water eventually hits a hard layer of rock it is pushed out creating deep sided valleys as it cuts a path to the ocean.
An ice age around 200,000 years ago caused snow and ice to accumulate on the mountains. Gravity created the movement of ice, cutting away rock from the summits and widening valleys. As the temperatures warmed once again the melting snow and ice caused further erosion and resulted in the wide steep sided valleys and impressive cirques that can be seen today.
Wildlife of the Pyrenees describes the most common wildlife, flora and fauna of the Pyrenees. These include:
Brown Bear: not loved by the local farmers, there are thought to be around 50
brown bear in the Pyrenees
Pyrenean Chamois: a goat-antelope animal with backward curving horns and a reddish brown summer coat
Red Deer: seen in huge numbers across the foothills and mountains of the Pyrenees
Egyptian Vulture: white plumage and black trailing wing edges with a wingspan of almost 2 metres
Marmot: large rodents, they feed off plants and flowers, seen in pastures and at higher elevation
Asp Viper: the only venomous snake in the Pyrenees, it has a distinctive black zig-zag pattern on its back
Rock Lizard can be seen sunbathing on warm days, this small reptile has a body length of around 6 cms
Pyrenees High Route Maps
Rando Editions is a series of recreational maps at a scale of 1:50,000 - 1 cm on the map is equivalent to 50,000 cms or 500 metres on the ground. They show walking trails and the locations of campsites, mountain refuges and gîtes d’etape.
Contour lines are at 20 metre intervals enhanced by shading and graphic relief, plus colouring for woodlands. Waymarked (signposted) local and long-distance trails, including the course of the GR10 and the Pyrenees High Route, are indicated. Difficult sections and traverses across ice are also shown.
Pays Basque West Rando Editions 1
The western most section of the French Pyrenees between the Atlantic coast and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port - Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry
Covers the missing section between Pays Basque West Editions 1 and Pays Basque East Editions 2
Pays Basque East Rando Editions 2
From the peaks of Iguzuki and Iparla, across St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Larrau, to Pic d’Anie
Béarn - Aspe - Ossau - Pyrenees NP Rando Editions 3
From Tardets-Sorholus to the Pyrenees National Park west including the Ossau and Balaïtous massifs
Gavarnie-Ordesa Rando Editions 12
Gavarnie, Ordessa, Balaitous, Vignemale, Mont Perdu and the Parc National d' Ordesa
Luchon Rando Editions 5
The Luchon region around St.Gaudens, the Louron Valley and Bagnères-de-Luchon
Couserans-Val d'Aran Rando Editions 6
The Couserans region of the French Pyrenees, from St-Girons to Pic de Maubermé and Pica d’Estats
Haute-Ariége Rando Editions 7
The Haute-Ariége region of the French Pyrenees, from Foix to Pica d'Estats and the Col de Puymorens
Cerdagne-Capcir Rando Editions 8
The Cerdagne-Capcir region of the French Pyrenees, from Ax-les Thermes to Font Romeu and Bourg-Madame
Canigou-Garrotxa Rando Editions 10
Canigou Massif and the surrounding region of the French Pyrenees
Collioure-Cadaqués Rando Editions 11
The easternmost part of the French Pyrenees including Perpignan and the Mediterranean coast
From the Hendaye coast to the lush green Basque hills
A walk through the Spanish Basque hills along well defined tracks
From Zamukegi to Urkulu summit via the Roncevaux pass
Explore the wild Iraty forest ending at the summit of Xaxpigana