France Backpacking Trips

Hike locals-only trails in Europe's other Alps. This 500-mile track combines rugged hiking by day with luxe living by night
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Hike locals-only trails in Europe's other Alps. This 500-mile track combines rugged hiking by day with luxe living by night

Pyrenees Traverse, France | Cape Wrath Trail, Scotland | Zillertal Alps, Austria | Tongariro Northern Circuit and Heaphy Track, New Zealand | Cordillera Apolobamba, Bolivia | Overland Track, Australia | Sarek National Park, Sweden | Rolwaling and Khumbu Valleys, Nepal | Polar Route, Greenland | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Europeans who want the quintessential Euro trek–without the crowds–head to France's Pyrenees and the GR 10. Like the best Alps trails, the 500-mile track combines rugged hiking by day with luxe living by night; unlike others, it's so far off the radar of most trekkers that it retains the feel of a peasant path.

The GR 10 traverses the north slope of the Pyrenees, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The route knits together pristine alpine terrain with postage-stamp villages where you can't buy so much as an overpriced T-shirt–in fact, there's often just one place to stay and eat. Most nights you'll sleep–and dine–in a dorm-style gite d'etape, or trailside hut; for foodies, the rustic Basque soup and fresh trout dinners alone are worth the trip. Just don't choose the GR 10 for a pampered "walking vacation"; you'll often hoof more than 10 miles and climb 3,000 feet a day.

The best weeklong section is the 82 miles from Ste.-Engrâce, straddling the Basque provinces of Soule and Bearn, east to Cauterets. It includes signature alpine scenes like the pyramidal 8,215-foot Pic d'Anie above the Pas d'Azuns and a night in Lescun, a village perched at the foot of sharp-edged peaks and widely considered the prettiest town in the Pyrenees.

Life-list moment: Combine beauty, history, and a glass of vin rouge on day 4, from Etsaut to Gabas. First you'll follow an 18th-century footpath chiseled by convicts directly into sheer cliffs. Called the Chemin de la Mature (the way of the masts), it was used to transport trees for ship builders in the French Navy. End the day at Refuge de Gabas, where the hostess is known as one of the route's best chefs. Near Gabas, in Parc National des Pyrenees, climbers can bag 9,462-foot Pic du Midi D'Ossau.

Bonus: The GR 10's relatively low elevation (the highest point is 8,087 feet) means sea-level hikers don't need extra time for acclimatization.