Of course I still have to actually walk the thing, but I figured I’d share some more information about the trail that I’ll be hiking this summer: the GR11.
The Grande Randonnée 11
The GR11, or Transpirenaica, runs across the full length of the Pyrenees and stays on the Spanish side of the border, except for a few days where it crosses Andorra. There are other routes that cross the Pyrenees: the GR10 that runs a bit more north through France, and the Haute Route du Pyrenees (HRP) that hops back and forth across the border in order to stay as high as possible.
The GR11 can be walked in either direction. It starts/ends at Cabo Higuer on the Cantabrian coast in the west and ends/starts at Cap de Creus in the east.
Walking from west to east, you cross the regions of the Basque country, Navarra, Aragon, and Catalonia. Not only will the landscape change from rolling green hills to high mountains to the hot & dry Mediterranean hills, but languages and culture will change too along the way.
Difficulty & terrain
Honestly, this is the area that I’m going to have to find out the hard way. I crossed the Eastern Pyrenees once from north to south on a bicycle. Last year, I walked for five days in the Aran valley and Ariège in the higher mountains, and spend a week vacationing on the border between the Basque country and Navarra. So while I’ve seen three different sides of the mountain range, I wouldn’t say I’m very familiar. And with having little experience in the mountains in general, it makes it a bit hard to anticipate what to expect in terms of difficulty.
In general, the GR11 is known for having quite a lot of elevation change (around 46.000m across its entire length. That’s more than five Everests!) but it doesn’t require any serious climbing or mountaineering. Unless there are snowfields, which I hope to avoid by starting somewhat late in mid July.
There are some higher passes that require some scrambling, and boulder fields are quite common. Last year I quite enjoyed hopping through them! Aside from being mentally and physically tiring (you have to watch every step) and possible navigation difficulties in fog or rain, I’m not too worried about those.
What I am worried about are some of the exposed ridges and steep sections with scree. I’m not the most sure-footed person I know and not very comfortable with heights so these parts give me clammy hands even thinking about…but like I said: I’ll have to find out the hard way.
Navigation and route finding
While having little experience in the mountains I am very good with maps and compass and have a good sense of direction. And, most helpful, the trail is marked using the white & red blazes. And of course there are modern marvels such as digital maps and gpx tracks. While getting lost and off trail is definitely still a possibility and care should be taken to not let this happen, I feel OK in this area.
There’s an excellent guidebook for the trail published by Cicerone that has maps (too small for proper navigation) and route descriptions. The guide also lists water points, resupply possibilities and accommodation. It conveniently breaks up the trail in stages that end at an accommodation option each day so you could do the trail without a tent if you wish.
There’s a plethora of navigation apps available. Of course there’s the obligatory advice that you should have a backup in case of failure (phones and batteries are fragile) but let’s face it: so much more convenient than carrying paper maps.
For apps, I have used maps.me for our cycling tours for years and I really love it. It uses OpenStreetMaps and I’ve found the quality really good across several countries and it’s easy to use.
But…for this trip I’m bringing a Garmin inReach mini 2 which comes with its own app. This app also has maps and I found the map layers there to be more detailed and useful for navigation in the mountains. Uglier and more cluttered too, but there’s a lot to say for having more finetuned topo lines and other topographic cues, something which was a bit lacking in maps.me.
I’ll probably use both: Garmin Explore for route finding and maps.me for the more ‘human information’ along the trail. Water springs, fountains, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds etc. Together with the guidebook they should allow me to plan each day well enough.
GPX tracks for the GR11
I’ve downloaded a set of .gpx tracks from here and as far as I’ve compared them to the guidebook, they are accurate.
Along with my phone and inReach I’ll also be wearing my sports watch (Suunto 9 peak) which also allows me to follow a .gpx track on the watch face so I don’t have to bust out my phone on every intersection.
Between these 3 digital options and of course the real waymarking on the trail I feel confident enough not to bring paper maps too. Bit of a shame because I really love using them, but all maps of the trail combined also take up a lot of weight and space.
Climate & Weather
I’m leaving mid-July. By then the snow should be gone on even the highest passes so there’s no need for ice axe and crampons.
Expected temperatures can range anywhere from around freezing (at altitude at night) to over 35 degrees in the valleys and closer to the Mediterranean coast. The Pyerenees do have a reputation for summery thunderstorms in the afternoons. Keep this in mind when planning days: high passes are best crossed in the morning. And bring proper rain gear, of course.
Food & Water
You’ll pas a town every 2-3 days where it is possible to stock up on food. And you frequently pass manned refuges and they usually serve lunch & dinner too, although with COVID-19 restrictions still in place it might be the case that they don’t serve dinner to people who haven’t booked a bed.
On top of my head, the longest food carry is 4 or 5 days, and that can be supplemented with lunches in the refuges.
Water is frequently available from streams, especially at higher altitude. There’s lots of cattle in the mountains, so treating water before drinking it is wise. There are several ways to do this. My purification method is a Steripen, which uses uv-light to sterilize the water. It is not a filter! Worked great last year.
Accomodation: Camping or Mountain Huts?
I’m bringing my tent (more about that in a separate gear post that I’ll put up in the next few weeks), but you could do the route without one if you plan your days carefully and use the mountain huts. I love camping though! And I like the freedom of being able to stop whenever I want for the day.
I’ll be wildcamping most of the time, but will use official campgrounds whenever available. I will plan some rest days for hotels in town. I do plan to spend a few nights in the refuges as well, and it’s really nice to have them as an backup for when the weather is bad or I feel lonely.
Another option are the unmanned mountain huts (emergency shelters). Some of them are nothing more than a stone hut with packed dirt for a floor, others are quite luxurious with a fireplace (bring your own wood) and raised platform beds. They’re also a nice option for bad weather! You can find a lot of these refuges on this map.
Wildlife & Other Animals
Yes, there are bears in the Pyrenees. And from what I’ve been told, you are extremely unlikely to see them. The same goes for wolves. Their numbers are on the rise after having been (nearly) extinct, and that’s wonderful news for the ecosystem.
There are other animals I’m more worried about: dogs! Shepherds use a native French breed called Patou to protect their flock. These dogs are majestic and beautiful, and terrifying. They’ve been raised with the flock since they were puppies so they consider themselves part of the flock. Their one and only duty is to protect it against wolves, bears, and other threats such as lonesome hikers. I can’t blame them, but they will chase you away when you are too close and they are not gentle about it. Don’t confuse them with working dogs that herd the flock (such as border collies). The working dogs should be under command of the shepherd. The patou are not. I hope I don’t run into them too often, and that when I do I can give them a wide berth and walk around the flock and observe these majestic animals from a safe distance.
That’s it for now! Like I said, this is just information I’ve gathered from guidebooks, other blogs, and youtube series. I’ll find out whether it was all true soon enough, and keep you posted.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from previous adventures it’s that things you fret about beforehand tend to not be such a big deal. Sometimes things you didn’t even think about beforehand will be a huge pain in the ass. I’m sure this time will be no different.
Questions? Let me know in the comments!