Spanish Pyrenees: How to hike the GR11
Overseas travel may still be off the agenda for most, but that needn't stop us dreaming, or making plans for future trips. And here's one to get excited about:
With some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pyrenees, and enjoying a sunnier outlook on the Spanish side than its French sister route the GR10, the 850km GR11 is one of the great mountain treks of the world. Mike Coppock, who ran the fastest known time on the route in summer 2020, has written a guide for anyone keen to try it at more of a walking pace.
Between Refugio Goritz and Pineta is a high mountain wonderland. This is arguably one of the most stunning sections of the GR11, where the Ordesa Valley, a spectacular geological wonder of the Pyrenees, backs onto Gavarnie on the French side. It looks like the deep trench left by an ice cream scoop with soaring walls standing vertical above an idyllic valley floor. The day threatened bad weather from the off, but luckily it never materialised and the swirling mist, reminiscent of an atmospheric Scottish day out, added to the grandeur of the faces, cliffs and waterfalls cascading out from the depths of the Canadian-like limestone walls.
The area holds a real wilderness feel like nowhere else and it was easy to picture the few remaining apex predators of the Pyrenees, namely bears, freely roaming these isolated valleys, scree slopes and forests. The climb to Collado de Añisclo (2453m) was straightforward but spectacular, and from the lofty perch overlooking the Glacial Valley of Pineta the path dropped 1200m in only 2.5km. I was thankful to be going from West to East to avoid this section as a climb! It drops in spectacular fashion and I stopped regularly to admire the paradisiacal waterfalls that were falling free for hundreds of metres down the rocky faces carved out by glaciers over millennia in the Pintea Cirque. I would have been quite content to watch the sun break through the clouds and cast rainbows over the valley for hours, but the trail beckoned on…
I first discovered the Pyrenees in 2010 when I moved to Spain for a year. Little did I know back then that it would be the same mountain range that prolonged my stay in Spain for another 10 years and has kept me coming back for more ever since. The diversity of landscapes, wildlife and villages is constantly intriguing and there is always another valley, gorge or cliff top to explore. The Pyrenees are a little-known gem in terms of big European mountain ranges and a full crossing should be a must on every hiker's bucket list.
The big trails
As far as long distance trails go, the trilogy of routes through the Pyrenees undoubtedly represent some of the best walking in Europe, if not the world. The GR10 follows the Northern side through the forested valleys and passes of the French Pyrenees, the HPR weaves an intricate line across the high country between France and Spain and the GR11 takes the Southern side of the massif linking picturesque villages with wild high mountain terrain.
Why choose the GR11?
Being on the Southern side of the Pyrenees, the GR11 enjoys a drier and sunnier climate thanks to the rain shadow created by the prevailing northerly winds and as such the weather is generally better. In this case the rain in Spain really does stay mainly on the plain! The GR11 strikes the perfect balance between the GR10 and the HPR in that it covers more high passes above 2500m than its French counterpart and is generally extremely well signposted compared to the HPR. Because it has less elevation gain than the GR10, it stays higher and crosses through some of the most spectacular scenery on offer in the Pyrenees and enough flora and fauna to keep the amateur botanist or ecologist entertained for a lifetime.
- Between 830 and 850km
- Around 40,000m ascent
- 21 to 46 days hiking
What experience do you need?
The GR11 is a very long undertaking which demands good hill fitness and determination to complete the whole trek. You should have some multi-day trekking experience and be comfortable carrying a rucksack for extended periods. Despite being lower than the Alps and generally with stable weather, the Pyrenees are not to be underestimated and a good level of mountain knowledge is required as terrain can be complex, and the weather can change quickly. In poor conditions good navigation is a must and the red and white route markers can be quite far apart. Depending on the year there can also be snow cover on some of the higher passes with steep climbs and descents and so you should have some winter skills training and experience behind you. However, these sections are not very sustained, and the majority of the trail follows good paths and markers.
Maps, guides and post offices
There is no substitute for a paper map, but on such a long route this can be heavy and take up space in your backpack. For the Pyrenees I find that a 1:50000 map is not detailed enough and so you should go with 1:25000 and ideally one with individual stage sheets that can be recycled en route (or carried to the end!). There are various options available here:
- A combination of stage maps (Gr-11 - Senda Pirenaica - De Mar A Mar) for detailed navigation and the GPX/KML files downloaded onto an offline mapping app on your phone (MAPS.ME) for basic checks.
- Print the maps from a site like simonlikesmaps.com
- Go fully digital using an app or GPS navigation device.
If you have extensive experience of digital navigation, this is an option. I carried a power bank with me to keep my phone charged and mostly used the GPX files during my crossing, but my paper backups came in handy at times.
From my experience, I would not rely on the post offices for posting equipment or supplies and the only ones on the route that might be useful for this are in Espot, Andorra (and slightly off route in Benasque). Any other post offices would be a bus/taxi ride away from the trail and usually close by early afternoon in Spain.
In 2017 the route changed on the section to Candanchú (West to East) and the new stage avoids a short French section and goes via Refugio Lizara through a spectacular S-shaped valley cutting right through the mountain range. Despite adding half a day to the original route, it is well worth it, and there are also two free huts in close proximity to the paid hut: one on the GR11 and one 10 minutes below on the road.
How long will it take?
Done in stages, a route of this length can take anywhere between 21 days for speed hikers and 46 days for those who enjoy spending more time exploring the quaint villages and surrounding areas. The standard itineraries available allow for around 4-8 hours of walking a day and so there is plenty of scope to double or triple some stages. For those who have less time, it's possible to walk a shortened route giving you just the edited highlights of everything the trail has to offer.
Two and three week itineraries
With limited time, the most spectacular sections of the GR11 can be done in two or three weeks. A route that takes in the highest peaks and wildest valleys of the route could start from Candanchú/Canifranc and finish up in Espot 14 days later. This would pass through the rugged mountains around Baños de Panticosa, the glacial wonder of Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, the snow-capped Posets Maladeta Natural Park and the lake studded Aigüestortes National Park. A further extension through the Alt Pirineu Natural Park would get you as far as Andorra in around three weeks.
When to go
During May and early June there is generally extensive snow cover on the highest passes which would slow progress considerably and demand a good level of competence on snowy ground. However, depending on the year, by the end of June the snowline has usually risen enough.
Throughout the season from early June to the end of September there can be strong thunderstorms in the afternoons and so you should plan your days based on arriving as early as possible to your destination for the night. During my crossing from mid-June to early July I got lucky and only experienced three big thunderstorms, but they can be more frequent in the height of summer so be prepared for the occasional soaking…
The question of West to East or East to West is an important consideration. I chose the former on the basis that the rising morning sun is less intense to have glaring in your face than the afternoon sun and a great deal cooler, plus it seems to be the favoured direction for most. Saying this, the Mediterranean climate is much hotter than the North West of Spain and the final seven stages can be characterised by extreme heat (30 degrees +) in the middle of summer.
Not avoiding a Pre-Pyrenean Thunderstorm: Crossing Collada del Jou (1830m)
The predawn air had the usual characteristic smell of another great day on the trail as the sun danced over the highest peaks. I was on an easy section of trail in the Pre-Pyrenees heading towards Tavascan, focusing on my rhythm and listening to music, oblivious to the maelstrom moving down from the head of the valley.
It's funny how a seemingly innocuous low pass can change so dramatically within ten minutes. A crack of thunder signalled the incoming thunderstorm, closer than I would have liked, and triggered an immediate increase in pace. The storm was driving down the valley as I pushed the final 250m to pass the coll before it hit. Seconds after I crested the pass, hailstones the size of chickpeas hammered down and lightning cracked with electric static below, above and on a level with me. Unsure what to do and seeing the cows legging it I decided to take my chances and do the same. Running like a pack of bedraggled dogs, we descended rapidly downwards amid blasts of lightning and heavy rain.
Fortunately, once back in the valley I found a well-placed recycling bin shelter to weather the rest of the storm. On reaching the picture postcard village where I was stopping for the day, the sun was out and it was just another beautiful evening in the Pyrenees, completely unrepresentative of the raging tempest and overload of adrenaline of the previous few hours.
The beginning and end of the route are very well serviced with regular flights to San Sebastian (closest), Pamplona and Biarritz in the West and Perpignan, Barcelona and Girona (closest) in the East with good rail and bus connections to the start of the trail. Travel to the central Pyrenees is a little more complicated and you should allow at least a day to get there from any major airport. Regular buses go to Andorra, Espot and Canifranc from Barcelona and it is possible to take a train to Pobla de Segur and then bus services to Espot. Booking in advance is highly recommended on these routes and there may only be several buses a week, so preplanning is important to avoid an expensive taxi ride out of the mountains to catch a flight!
Where to stay
There are myriad options for accommodation on this trail and the stages all start and finish in a town or mountain hut. It is quite possible to do the GR11 without a tent and stay in huts and hotels or hostels every day. I didn't take a tent with me but for the first few and last few days, which are out of the big mountains, it is easier to book some hotels or hostels.
Huts are usually around the 30-40 Euro mark per night with dinner and breakfast and hotels around 50 euros a night. I did my crossing immediately after the lockdown in Spain and so had the luxury of lonely trails and booking huts and hotels on the final descent, but in a normal year, reservations are essential, sometimes weeks in advance, for busy weekends.
Camping is cheaper, and apart from staying in a campsite, it gives you the flexibility to camp up high and enjoy a stunning Pyrenean sunset and sunrise from the comfort of your sleeping bag! Bivvying is also possible in the high mountains but it is worth noting in Spain there are strict laws against sleeping out and natural and national parks all have different rules regarding times and heights that are permitted, so I would check beforehand. As a general rule of thumb, camp or bivvy well away and out of sight of mountain huts (unless it is permitted) and try to avoid the valleys and car parks or close to villages. Bivvying is generally accepted in the high mountains between dusk and dawn.
Given the pleasant climate of the Pyrenees, it is possible to travel with a light backpack. Lightweight waterproofs are more than sufficient (I used my jacket twice) and most people wear trail shoes or light boots as opposed to heavy duty mountain boots due to the heat, but bear in mind that you will need to be able to fit crampons safely to whichever footwear you choose. I took a lightweight ski touring axe and crampons which was more than sufficient, but I have heard of some people using trainer crampons to good effect. This is only recommended for those who are extremely confident on snowy terrain. The conditions underfoot are rough, and your footwear will take a beating so I would start with a new pair of shoes. My shoes only just survived the full route with zero tread and big holes by the end, but they were lightweight running shoes.
Multifuel stoves are difficult to top up in Spain and you cannot fill 1 litre bottles in petrol stations, so gas is the best option here and it is easy to find. Think light and cool for the rest of your kit for sun protection, but always carry a warm layer, hat and gloves just in case.
Water and Supplies
There are plenty of points to resupply on the GR11 and it is also possible to eat filling, wholesome meals in mountain huts on the way. There are some sections that do not pass a shop for several days, so it is important to plan ahead for these. Arrival in towns and villages should be timed to coincide with opening hours and many small shops close for siesta between 2 and 4pm and are usually open until 8pm after that. Sunday can be difficult in the smallest villages with some shops closing. However, it is usually possible to get a takeaway sandwich or meals from bars, which generally stay open. Some people decide not to take a stove and eat sandwiches and snacking food, which is a good option to cut down on weight, with breakfast, lunch and dinner also available to buy from manned huts as you go.
Water is plentiful in the high mountains but can be scarce on occasion especially during the first and last week approaching the coasts, therefore it is highly recommended to carry at least 1.5 litres at all times. Farming is a mainstay of the local economy and all the valleys will have populations of sheep, goats and cows up to surprising altitudes and so some people may prefer to treat their water. I've been drinking the mountain water in the Pyrenees for ten years, and with some common sense when selecting water sources, I haven't once had a bad stomach. It is best to avoid the water in flat arable valleys and take it from side streams and fonts of which there are enough.
Vegan and Vegetarian Considerations
Spain is undoubtedly a meat-eating country but there are enough options for vegans and vegetarians. Most restaurants have vegetarian options, although olives often come stuffed with sardines and salad frequently has tuna in it. For the vegetarians there is usually a good selection of cheese and snacks in the small shops and at some campsites. However, it is worth noting that in Spain most pastries, like croissants, are made with pig fat not butter, which may limit your choice in bakeries. Some mountain huts may offer vegetarian options with breakfast and lunch being the easiest, but the status quo is usually meat based especially for dinners. As a vegan who is prone to being hangry, food was a concern for me before starting the trip. For this reason, I planned to avoid mountain huts and take full advantage of time in the valleys. Some supermarkets are better than others but generally they all have bread, tomatoes, dried fruit and nuts, Oreos, crisps and dark chocolate and a selection of pasta, noodles and the basic necessities.
Here are the towns and villages where I could resupply. It is also worth checking in campsites for small shops and bars.
- Hondarribia/Irún (all services)
- Bera (all services)
- Elizondo (all services)
- Burguete (hotels and restaurants)
- Ochagavía (small supermarkets, a bakery and hotels)
- Isaba (small shop, hotels, bars)
- Candanchú (small shop is closed in summer, El Aguila bar was open with vegan/veggie burgers. Canfranc down the valley has a supermarket)
- Sallent de Gallego (all services)
- Parzán (all services, garage with good vegan supplies)
- Benasque (all services but slightly off route)
- Espot (all services)
- Tavascán (small supermarket with basics, hotels)
- Àreu (small shop, bars, hotels)
- Arinsal (small supermarket, bars, hotels)
- Encamp (all services)
- Puigcerdá (all services)
- Planoles (small shop)
- Setcases (Small shop with good selection)
- Molló (Small shop with basics)
- Albanyà (Bar with limited supplies)
- Maçanet de Cabrenys (small shop, hotels)
- La Jonquera (all services)
- Llançà (all services)
- El Port de la Selva (all services)
- Cap de Creus (Bars)
GPX Files and detailed route information:
I can't recommend the Pyrenees enough as a trekking destination, but the real joy comes from exploring its dramatic hidden corners and abundance of high mountain wildlife yourself. This is an experience that I'm sure will have you planning your next trip before you even get home!
About Mike Coppock
Mike Coppock is a teacher and long-distance runner based in Barcelona, Spain. As well as racing he enjoys taking on multi day adventures in the mountains. The most recent of these was a self-supported fastest known time on the GR11 in 16 days 9 hours. A full account can be found on his blog at www.mikecoppock.com.