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Backpacker Magazine – November 2012

The High Life: Haute Route Pyrenees, France

Go high and wild in Europe's other Alps.

by: Michael Lanza

Pic Du Midi D'Ossau (Photo by Manin Richard/
Pic Du Midi D'Ossau (Photo by Manin Richard/

Discover the rustic side of Euro trekking. On this five-day, 59-mile traverse from Estaut to Gavarnie, you’ll stay in small, traditional mountain huts, or refuges (read: good, substantial meals, bunkrooms with mattresses and blankets, but no showers or other luxe services). You’ll see fewer trekkers than in the Alps proper, and not even always a well-constructed trail. The best route—combining the Haute Route Pyrenees with parts of the 500-plus-mile GR 10—lies mostly within Pyrenees National Park. The route ranges from bucolic valleys to rocky terrain at elevations above 6,000 feet, speckled with wildflowers, lakes, and views of jagged limestone peaks. Be prepared for difficult weather and a track that sometimes disappears (bring expert navigation skills or a guide). “Compared to other European mountains, the Pyrenees remain pristine, with the last remaining wild bears in France and more than 2,500 species of wildflowers,” says guide Rob Mason, who crafted this Estaut-Gavarnie route. 

Hike west to east to have morning shade on long climbs and the afternoon sun at your back. Plan on tackling 10 to 15 miles per day, typically gaining more than 3,000 feet of elevation (with one day of more than 6,000 feet). Expect pulse-quickening exposure in spots, such as day one’s traverse of the Chemin de la Mature on a trail carved from the face of a cliff, or day four’s 8,740-foot Col de la Fache, a pass reached by scrambling over boulders. Watch for wild isards, or Pyrenean chamois, a breed of goat antelope. Top hut: Refuge d’Ayous, on night one, for its view of pristine lakes below the twin-peaked Pic du Midi d’Ossau

Season August or September for less snow

Map/guide IGN Carte de Randonnees No. 3 Bearn and No. 24 Gavarnie-Ordessa ($20 each;; The Pyrenean Haute Route, by Ton Joosten ($25;

Get there From Lourdes or Pau, take a bus or taxi to Estaut. 

Cost/info Guided: 745 euros/person ( DIY: About 44-55 euros/night for room and board;

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