by Richard Bangs
Pyrenean High Level Route, france and spain
“Fromage,” the sign says, pointing to a shepherd’s crudely built stone hut. My companion vanishes into the shelter’s dark confines and emerges soon afterward with a large hunk of smelly goat cheese. We will still be eating it a week later.
This is the first day of a walk from Lescun to Gavarnie, France, along 70 miles of the magnificent Pyrenean High Level Route, which runs in total for some 500 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Ocean. The section we are on is mountain hiking at its most glorious, a roller coaster of a walk beneath soaring pale limestone pinnacles, past great north faces, and beneath massive cliff-walled cirques. We will walk on narrow winding paths, often on the crest of the mountains. To the north wooded valleys fall away into misty France, to the south dry, dusty ravines run down into the shimmering heat of arid Spain. With a choice of routes on either side of the border, we simply nip into the Spanish sunshine whenever it rains in France. At times the cloud actually hangs precisely on the border, a great wall of gray separating one country from the other.
Along the route are a string of alpine huts providing bunkbeds, meals, and a chance to meet other hikers. I, however, prefer the lonelier camping alternatives found throughout the range. Some of the peaks along the way, such as 9,865-foot Grande Fache, can be hiked if you have a little extra energy, but others require climbing skills and equipment. Diversions also can be made to some of the deep canyons on the Spanish side, in particular the amazing Ordesa Canyon, south of Gavarnie, with its massive 3,300-foot-high castellated tiers of multihued yellow-, purple-, and red-banded lime-stone.
Duration: Spend a week…or a summer
Coast to Coast, Scotland
The finest walking in Britain is in the Scottish Highlands, and the best way to see it is by hiking coast to coast from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Rolling mountains, moody coastlines, brooding rivers and lochs, great forests, rugged glens, and wild islands-you’ll witness it all in a single day. The Scottish tradition is to plan your own adventure from the map, so there is no “official” trail. Instead there are many choices, lower and higher altitude. I’ve walked seven different routes myself. I prefer camping out, though hostels, bed and breakfasts, and hotels can be linked. There’s a feel of the North in the Highlands, a touch of the wild arctic, a sense of space and freedom. There’s history, too, from the ancient brochs (round stone forts) of the Picts, to the elaborate castles of more recent centuries.
Duration: Ten days to two weeks, depending on the chosen route.
The largest unspoiled wilderness in Western Europe lies north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lappland. A 250-mile-long footpath runs north/south through the heart of this land of snow-clad mountains, huge lakes, powerful rivers, thundering waterfalls, and dense forests of birch and pine. Kungsleden, the King’s Way, traverses four national parks and a nature reserve larger than Luxembourg. Bridges span the deeper rivers, while rowboats and ferries take you across the lakes. The trail is fairly dry, but even so, hiking boots will instantly mark you as a foreigner, since Swedes walk in knee-high green rubber boots-albeit ones designed for mountain use. Lodges along Kungsleden allow you to hike without camping equipment, but spectacular tent sites make this a backpacker’s paradise. Duration: Take a month for the entire hike or bite off a week-long portion.
Tour De La Vanoise, France
France is laced with long-distance paths called Sentiers de Grand Randonnße-GR for short. This tour, made up of sections of the GR5 and GR55, runs for 50 or so miles through the beautiful Vanoise Alps, a spectacular region that contains 107 summits above 9,840 feet. As well as passing the stunning snowy peaks, the trail visits tumbling glaciers, deep gorges, elegant forests, and ancient villages. The classic itinerary stays high and wild. It’s well marked, but also at times steep and rough-a real mountain hike. There are small lodges, called refuges, along the way. Much of the route is in the Vanoise National Park, where camping isn’t permitted though discreet overnight bivouacs well away from the path are usually accepted.
Duration: About a week.
High Level Route, Corsica
Corsica is a large Mediterranean island belonging to France but lying 50 miles off the coast of Italy. A chain of rugged, rocky mountains rising to 8,875 feet runs down the spine of the island, and the 150-mile High Level Route (GR20) traverses these from Conca in the south to Calenzana in the north. It’s a tough hike with many steep climbs and one section of exposed scrambling protected by fixed ropes. There are refuges along the route, and camping is allowed as long as environmental restrictions are heeded. The granite scenery is dramatic, with rock turrets and spires soaring above chasm-like wooded valleys. Despite the warm Mediterranean climate, the mountains are snow-covered half the year. Summer, however, can be very hot; you’ll be grateful for remnant snow patches.
Duration: Two to three weeks.
Chris Townsend has written a dozen books on backpacking including Long Distance Walks in the Pyrenees, Classic Hill Walks (of Great Britain), and The Backpacker’s Handbook, which earned the Outdoor Writer’s Guild Award for Excellence.