PYRENEES HIGH ROUTE (HRP) HIKING GUIDE
The Pyrenees High Route (Haute Route Pyrénées, HRP) is a long distance hiking trail that follows the mountainous divide along the French-Spanish border. These grandiose mountains are home to some of the most dramatic scenery in all of Europe.
The 497 mile (800 km) long HRP trail follows the backbone of the mountain range all the way from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean Sea in the east. On average it takes about 45-50 days to complete. Since many hikers are unable to spare the time, expense, or effort necessary to thru-hike the entire trail, we suggest an alternative 5-6 day itinerary below that covers some of the most stunning sections of the trail.
Long distance trail incorporating some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Europe
Extensive network of huts
Wild camping (mostly) allowed
Relatively easy resupply
Roaming farm animals
Less wildlife than many North American wilderness areas
Regular thunderstorms in the warmest months (July/August)
Short hiking season (mid-June through Sept)
PYRENEES HIGH ROUTE (HRP)
LENGTH: 497 miles / 800 km
DURATION: 45 days
START: Hendaye, France
FINISH: Banyuls-sur-Mer, France
BEST TIME: July & August
The Pyrenees High Route - also known as the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP) - is an unmarked long distance trail traversing the upper reaches of the Pyrenees mountain range. The HRP is not an official trail and consequently there are several potential variations on the route. The most common is the one popularised by Ton Joosten's Cicerone Guidebook "The Pyrenean Haute Route".
Although a high mountain route, the HRP does not require any technical skills such as mountain climbing, rock climbing, or glacier travel. During the peak summer months, from late June to early September the entire route can be traversed without crampons or any specialist gear. Nonetheless, there are numerous mountain passes to cross, and so you should at least be comfortable with crossing snowfields, as well as terrain such as boulders and scree. And as always when travelling in the mountains, you should be prepared for any weather conditions.
In general, it is recommended to walk the HRP from west to east. This is the direction described in most guidebooks. Travelling west to east means that easier, flatter, terrain is encountered first. In addition, it means that many of the ascents over passes in the higher part of the mountain range can be completed in the morning before the sun rises over the eastern side of the ridge. Lastly, travelling west to east means there is a higher chance that wind and rain is blowing into your back, rather than your face. Of course, the choice of direction is somewhat arbitrary and down to personal preference.
SUGGESTED 5-6 DAY ITINERARY
LENGTH: 45 miles / 72 km
DURATION: 5-6 days
START: Etsaut, France
FINISH: Cauterets (Pont d’Espagne), France
BEST TIME: July & August
The following 5-6 day itinerary takes you along one of the most impressive sections of the HRP, as well as some beautiful sections of the GR10 and GR11. It takes in some of the most dramatic mountain scenery along the entire Pyrenees range. If you only have a week or so available, then this route — or some variation on it — is highly recommended.
You can plan to start your hike in the small French village of Etsaut. This village has some accommodation and food options, but they are few, so we suggest planning ahead. Etsaut can be accessed by bus from Bedous, which in turn can be accessed via a small branch train line from Pau. The city of Pau has a mainline train station servicing the major centres of southern France including Toulouse, Lourdes-Tarbes, and Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne, all of which have international airports. Train and bus timetables can be found on the French railways (SNCF) website. There are only a few bus connections to Etsaut each day, so plan ahead.
From Etsaut follow the GR10 (direction east) up to Refuge d’Ayous, where you can connect with the HRP. Continuing east, follow the HRP through Refuge de Pombie, Refuge d’Arremoulit, Refuge de Respomunso, and Refuge Wallon, spending as many days on this part of the trail as you see fit. From Refuge Wallon the HRP continues east over the Cauterets Pass to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube. Spend a night at, or camping near, Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube — this is a beautifully located refuge with dramatic views of Vignemale’s north face. If weather allows, consider the day hike to the top of Vignemale - it can be accessed from the top of the Cauterets Pass.
If you wish to end your hike here, then from Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube you can follow the GR10 down the valley to Pont d’Espagne. This section of the GR10 is popular with day hikers but is nonetheless beautiful. You are afforded impressive views while walking down the valley. From Pont d’Espagne, you can catch a bus or walk down the road to Cauterets. Cauterets (on the French side of the Pyrenees) provides an ideal place to conclude your hike as it has many comfortable accommodations as well as bus services heading for larger towns in France.
If you would prefer to conclude your hike on the Spanish side of the border - or if you wish to add a couple of days onto your hike - then consider the following alternative. Instead of heading down the valley from Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, you can instead head back over the Cauterets Pass and on to Torla. Once over the Cauterets Pass, follow the Camino de Cauterets to its intersection with the GR11. At the intersection, follow the GR11 south-east past Refuge de Ordiso, through Bujaruelo, and then on to Torla. This will add about a day and a half of walking onto your hike.
Torla is a beautiful little village that has some accommodations, food, and bus access to other towns and cities on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Torla also provides access to the dramatic Ordessa Valley, which is a side / day trip you may wish to consider.
COMPARISON WITH GR10 & GR11
It is also worth noting that the Pyrenees are home to two other long distance trails: the French GR10 and Spanish GR11. Both of these trails also follow the Pyrenees mountains for their entire length. However, the GR10 and GR11 each remain exclusively on one side of the French-Spanish border, travel at a lower elevation, and are well marked. Whereas the HRP trail constantly hops back and forth across the border, follows the highest part of the mountain range, and is not officially marked.
These features of the respective trails mean that the GR10 and GR11 are generally more suited to hikers who wish to have nightly access to facilities (e.g. accommodation and food) found in the villages at the foothills of the mountains. On the other hand, since the HRP remains on the top of the mountain range, it is more suited to those hikers seeking a wilderness experience (e.g. camping or staying at mountain huts). The HRP also provides more dramatic mountain scenery due to it's higher elevation.
CAMPSITES / HUTS
Travelling in the European mountains usually entails access to both serviced and unserviced huts. Hiking in the Pyrenees is no exception. In theory, it would be possible to plan carefully and walk the entire 800km HRP without carrying a tent. However, we would not recommend it. Our preference is to carry a tent. With a tent you have greater flexibility, more solitude, and you also have a shelter in case of emergency.
You should generally carry cash with you, since it may be the only way to pay for accommodation and/or supplies at the huts.
Wild camping is allowed throughout the Pyrenees, so long as you only stay for one night and steer clear of villages, buildings, and access roads. Generally, you will find established campsites around each hut or refuge on the French side of the border as well as around some of the huts on the Spanish side. You may see signs asking you to only set up camp from 7pm in the evening and to leave early in the morning, but I wouldn’t worry too much about these as long as you are only staying one night.
There is an extensive network of huts in the Pyrenees mountains. These range from free unserviced huts to fully-serviced and staffed huts serving three course meals. Unstaffed huts do not require a reservation and there is usually space available on arrival.
Staffed huts vary in terms of the services they provide. Some staffed huts simply have a guardian there to monitor the hut and manage reservations, but do not provide any food or supplies. On the other hand, some staffed huts provide a full service including the sale of hot meals and basic supplies. Note that the more popular staffed huts require booking in advance and may be full in the peak summer season. Refer to the recommended guidebooks below for more details.
WHEN TO GO
The main hiking season is from late June through September. Although require traction devices (e.g. crampons) to traverse some of the higher mountain passes in late June and/or early September. From mid-July through August you should generally be able to complete the entire HRP without traction devices.
In the central part of the mountain range daytime temperatures generally range between 70-80°F (21-27°C) with nighttime temperatures between 25-35°F (1-7°C). Of course, temperatures can vary greatly depending on local altitude and weather. Closer to the coast the temperatures are generally warmer, whilst in the higher central part of the mountain range the temperatures are colder.
In the warmest months, afternoon thunderstorms can be a daily occurrence. If you are travelling in late July or August then you should plan to be off the higher mountain passes - and ideally in camp - by 4pm, since this is the time thunderstorms generally begin.
Of course, as with any high altitude mountain range, fog, wind, rain and snow are all real possibilities at any time of year, so plan and prepare accordingly.
MAPS / GUIDEBOOKS
The best guidebook currently available (as at 10/3/2018) is Ton Joosten’s Pyrenean Haute Route, published by Cicerone Press. This book has detailed information on each section of the trail, as well as useful information to help with planning. Trail sections are described in a manner that can allow a hiker to travel hut to hut, if you so wish (we prefer the flexibility offered by wild camping). Each trail section is accompanied by the expected travel time as well as a difficulty grade, however, no mileage is included.
Rando Editions publish a set of 25 topographic maps at 1:50,000 scale covering the entire HRP. These can be purchased online from Omnimap (in the US) or Stanford’s (in the UK), but be wary that it is unlikely all 25 maps will be in stock so you need to plan ahead. Moreover, each map will set you back about US$20 excluding postage (as at 10/3/18) so unless you only require one or two of the maps, the cost may become prohibitive.
An alternative, and much cheaper option, is to download and print map sections from an online topographic mapping website such as Caltopo.
ANIMALS (...AND THE NOT SO "WILDLIFE")
For those travelling from outside Europe, it is worth noting that even the upper reaches of the European mountains are well accustomed to farming. When heading up a scree slope towards a mountain pass, or setting up camp near a mountain lake for the night, it is not uncommon to encounter sheep, cattle or horses.
These roaming animals will be sharing the mountains with you for the duration of your hike, and may come as a surprise to some - particularly for hikers from North America, where wilderness areas are generally found to be home to slightly more wild forms of animals such as bison, moose, elk and bears.