The GR11 (or La Senda Pirenaica in Spanish) is the toughest hike I’ve done so far, but also the most rewarding. As you make your way from the Atlantic Ocean towards the Mediterranean the scenery changes from green rolling hills to icy mountains to sunblasted villages and exotic trees. Should you do the GR11? Well, if you’re slightly massochistic (it’s a hard hike) and can spare 50 days, it’s definitely worth considering. Continue reading for more practical information.
Looking for a slightly easier hike? Take a look at the Berliner Höhenweg!
Why hike the GR11?
For me the GR11 is about everything you’ll ever want out of a hike. In my opinion, it is a strong contender for the ‘best 500km+ hike in Europe’ prize. Below are some of the reasons why I think this is a great hike.
- Variety. Even landscapes get boring after a while. With the GR11, high mountains are interchanged with ancient villages, ice and snow with lush green pastures, dry hillsides with flowing streams.
- The people are amazing! The locals are proud of their land (and so they should be!) and to them it is a huge compliment if you go through the effort of exploring it by foot. Many times I was given food by complete strangers, even if we spoke completely different languages.
- Wild camping allows you to plan your own hike and not depend on huts and lodges. You’ll find many many many amazing places to pitch!
- The food. The Spanish kitchen ranks among the best in the world (some say it’s better than Italian, I agree). At the Refugio the Bachimaña I got fed a three course meal with duck and unlimited red wine.
- You will swim in mountain lakes and rivers!
- The weather is generally much better in the Spanish Pyrenees than in other mountain ranges in Europe. The Basque country can be an exception though, at times it feels like Schotland.
- Escape the crowd! The GR11 is a fairly new trail, which means it’s not as crowded as some of the other major hikes in Europe. Of course, there are some very popular stretches but the majority of the hike offers a certain degree of solitude.
- The wildlife. Ever seen a Lammergeier? If you did, you’ll remember. This rare vulture has a wingspan up to 2.8 meters and is extremely rare. I saw four of them during my hike!
The GR11 is about 820 kilometer long and takes the average hiker some 45 days to complete. Add to that some rest days (you’ll need those) and the time it takes to get to travel to and from the trail and the whole endeavor takes about 50 days in totall. Hikers must carry food for 3-4 days at a time and a full camping set-up.
Nature of the hike
The GR11 is brutal and not well suited for beginners! Some mountain experience is recommended, as well as excellent fitness. There is some 46.000 meter of ascent and descent involved, making it hard to cover long distances. Although I don’t have official statistics, during my hike I came across many hikers that didn’t make it to the end. Exhaustion, mental fatigue and injury are the main reason people quit. I myself was limping badly at the end of the hike.
The route itself is at times quite rugged, with many passes above 2700 meters. Those who complete the full GR11 will make their way up and down steep snowfields and long stretches of boulderfields. There’s also some exposed scrambling. Another challenge are the river crossings. Without rain, they’re easy to complete. With rain, however, they become death traps.
Another aspect of the GR11 are the many kilometers you’ll spend hiking along jeep tracks and dirt roads. At times, this can be mentally draining. I remember one soul crushing descent from Collata las Coronetas (2159m) down to the village of Parzan where I spent some 12 kilometers on a dirt road in full sun. If you want to make it through the entire hike, you’ll have to put up with these sections as well so it is best to be mentally prepared!
Huts and camping on the GR11
There are many huts where hikers can shelter from incoming storms or just relax without having to pitch their tent. In general, the huts along the GR11 are among the nicest I’ve encountered. They’re cheaper than in the Alps, the food is amazing and many offer free hot showers.
Having said that, camping is still the way to go on the GR11. Often time, huts are booked full well in advance and there’s still some stretches of the GR11 without any manned accommodation. Further more, wildcamping will allow you to plan your own hike and there are many amazing spots available.
Weather on the GR11
The weather on the GR11 varies greatly. The Basque country can either be really warm and humid or rainy and foggy. The high Pyrenees are usually quite dry in the summer months with the exception of frequent and terrific thunderstorms, most of which occur in the evening and night. A large thunderstorm can render some rivers uncrosseable for 24 hours, so beware. When nearing the Mediterranean, rain becomes quite rare and temperatures can rise well above 30 degrees Celsius.
The temperatures greatly vary. At lower altitude it can be well over 30 degrees Celcius while up in the mountains the temperature can be below 5 degrees even in the middle of the day. Nightly frost is common when camping high up so make sure your sleeping gear is up to the task.
Routefinding on the GR11
Routefinding on the GR11 used to be difficult. When I hiked the trail in 2016 however, I found that many sections featured new and improved waymarking, making navigation fairly easy. I managed to hike the GR11 with only a guidebook and was fine.
On top of the new and improved waymarking, I also found some newly constructed mountain huts. This is a clear sign that the GR11 is becoming more and more accessible; it is a trail coming of age. Will it ever be possible to hike the GR11 without a tent? Who knows!
When to go?
The best time to start is the beginning of July. In August, nights get shorter and some rivers might dry up, leaving you to search for water. In high snow years, some passes are hard to cross. Particularly the Cuello the Tebarrai (2765m) is a tough battle, especially for those inexperienced with snow conditions. An early June start is therefore not recommended.
Brian Johnson has written an excellent guidebook for the GR11, with a good route description. It has a detailed and reliable water report, notes good places to (wild)camp and has solid information on where to stock up on supplies. It is a must buy for those considering the GR11.
Getting to the GR11
The GR11 starts in Irún, a town on the border with France (actually it starts at Cabo de Higuer before making its way through the industrial outskirts of Hondarribia and Irún). You can reach Irún directly by train from Paris or Bilbao.
The GR11 ends at Cap de Creus. Hikers who finish there usually take a taxi or hitchhike to Cadaqúes, where they can take a direct bus to Barcelona.
Sections of the GR11
Perhaps you don’t have time to hike the entire GR11 but you still want to have some taste of the Spanish Pyrenees. Or perhaps you’re wondering which part of the hike is the most worthwile. For you I have divided the trail into four sections, each lasting between ten to fourteen days of hiking. Of course, you could cut these sections short by leaving the trail at one of the many villages the GR11 comes across.
The Basque country and Navarra
This section takes about ten days of hiking and sees you cross the green, rolling hills of the Basque country. Slowly the hills become more rugged untill you enter the Pyrenees. The final two days are proper mountain hikes, with steep ascents and descents. The route, however, poses no technical difficulty. Be aware that thick and persistent fog can make navigation difficult as well as making some stages hard, boring slogs. In Navarra thunderstorms can drive you of the heights by mid-afternoon.
Despite not being an all-out mountain section, this section is still quite tough. Days are long and there is significant ascent and descent. The main attractions of this section are the ancient villages with excellent food, the many green, rolling ridges offering views into both France and Spain and Aguas Tuertas, a hidden valley featuring a prehistoric burial site and a small river winding its way across the valley bottom.
This section starts in the easy to reach Irún and ends in Candanchú. From Candanchú it is a short hike down the valley to the Canfranc Estación trainstation. From Canfranc Estación there are buses into France and trains into the Spanish mainland.
The High Pyrenees
To: la Guingueta d’Àneu
This section is the absolute highlight of the GR11 and takes some 14 days of hiking to complete. As to be expected, hiking at altitude can be very challenging. I recommend that only experienced hikers take on this section as it features steep snowfields, long boulderfields, awkward and exposed scrambling and river crossings. Do not plan this hike in early summer as snowcover can make many passes and rivers impossible to cross without significant mountaineering skills and equipment.
Highlights of this section include the (snowcovered) ascent to the Cuello de Tebarrai (2765m), the medieval bridge (complete with swimming hole) next to the campground at San Nicolás de Bujaruelo, the entire stretch from Refugio de Góriz above the Ordesa canyon to Refugio de Pineto and the thousand lakes of national park Aigüestortes above Espot.
You can reach this section from Canfranc Estación and hiking up the valley to connect with the GR11. Alternatively, you can take the train to Sabiñánigo and hitchhike to Sallent de Gállego. This will allow you to skip the rather uninteresting dayhike from Candanchú to Sallent de Gállego, which features a particularly long and dangerous roadhike. From la Guingueta d’Àneu you can take the bus to Barcelona and Lleida.
The Eastern Pyrenees
From: la Guingueta d’Àneu
In this section the nature of the terrain starts to change. The climate changes from high Alpine to Mediterranean; the treeline goes up and there’s no snow left on the high passes. Although there are no technical difficulties with this section, the hiking remains tough. It takes some ten days of hiking to complete this section, but those who are thru-hiking will likely be a bit faster.
This section starts out at a lower altitude, staying well South of the highest mountains. Hiking is often done on ancient paths between Medieval villages, a nice change of pace from the high mountains of last weeks. The section ends with the crossing of Andorra and the scenic descend to Puigcerdà.
Highlights of this section include the medieval villages between la Guingueta d’Àneu and Àreu, the very welcoming Refuge in Estaon, the incredibly scenic crossing in and out of Andorra and the descent towards Puigcerdà.
You can reach this section by taking the bus from Lleida or Barcelona to la Guingueta d’Àneu. Puigcerdà is an international trainstation with links to Toulouse and Barcelona.
To: Cap de Creus
The final section of the GR11 takes some ten days of hiking but thru-hikers will probably be a bit faster at this point. The section crosses the last of the Pyrenees before slowly dropping down to the sea. The final stages consist mostly of dirt roads. When altitude is lost, heat can become a problem. Temperatures well over 30 degrees Celsius are the norm in summer. Furthermore, some of the stages can be quite long.
Highlights of this section include the ridgehike after climbing up from Puigcerdà, the final stretch of high mountains right after Núria, the pictoresque village of Beget (with swimming hole beneath the Medieval bridge), the densely forrested stretch between Beget and Albanyà and finally reaching the sea at Llançà.
You can easily reach this section by taking the train from Barcelona or Toulouse to Puigcerdà. By contrast, Cap the Creus has no connections with public transport. Most hikers hitchhike (or share a taxi) to Cadaqués, which has a bus service to Barcelona.