A Journey Through the French GR Hiking Trail Network

Originally posted on & updated on 23rd February, 2024

For more than seventy years, the white and red painted marks that symbolise the long-distance hiking routes, known as “GR”, have been a symbol of unity for all long-distance adventure enthusiasts.

GR stand for Grande Randonnée, which translates to “Great Hike” in English. They are a network of long-distance hiking trails, similar to the National Trails in the US or the Long Distance Paths in the UK.

Many hikers embark on trails for a few weeks each year to enjoy the fresh air and natural surroundings. They explore the country’s forests and countryside, traverse mountain ranges, or follow the curves of its coastlines.

The “Chemins de Grande Randonnée” (GRs) offer unique opportunities for intrepid hikers seeking to explore France’s diverse landscapes. These long-distance hiking trails, literally translating to “Great Hiking Paths,” traverse mountains, valleys, and coastlines, immersing in the country’s natural beauty and cultural richness.

A Legacy of Exploration

The GR network boasts a rich history, with the first trails established in the late 19th century. Since then, the network has expanded to encompass over 200 distinct paths, spanning 75,000 kilometres. Each GR trail is meticulously marked with distinctive (and iconic) red and white stripes, ensuring easy navigation for hikers of all experience levels.

A Spectrum of Challenges

GRs cater to a diverse range of hikers. Family-friendly routes meander through gentle terrain, offering accessible escapes into nature. For seasoned adventurers, challenging multi-day treks traverse rugged mountain ranges, demanding physical resilience and strategic planning.

GR20: Iconic Adventures

Among the most renowned GRs is the legendary GR20, traversing the mountainous spine of Corsica. This challenging route, aptly described as “gruelling” by experienced hikers, tests physical and mental fortitude with demanding ascents, exposed ridge walks, and breath-taking vistas. However, the sense of accomplishment upon reaching the finish line and the camaraderie forged amongst fellow trekkers make it an unforgettable journey.

Memories for Life!

I completed the GR20 one summer in the 1990s; it was a unique and humbling experience for the whole group. Once you start, there’s no turning back, so pay attention to the difficulty ratings and prepare properly; you could end up walking in the snow on a ridge, sitting in a neve at sunset, running for your life from wild boards or climbing down the Devil’s Circus with a large and heavy backpack.

Beyond the GR20

While the GR20 holds a prestigious position on the Island of Beauty, it represents merely a single facet of the broader French GR network. Other popular trails include:

GR5: Legendary Alpine Trails

This legendary path traverses the entire length of the French Alps, offering diverse challenges and stunning panoramic views. Any hiker who sets off on the GR5 will enjoy this green network on a route generous with preserved cultures and remarkable natural spaces.

The Vanoise region offers the opportunity to explore the glaciers by mixing the GR5 and GR55 trails. Hiking in Vanoise means breathing in the fresh air of the peaks, gazing at the glaciers and enjoying the beauty of the untouched mountain landscapes. Moreover, you can discover charming villages that blend beautifully with the mountains. It is important to remember that the GR5 trail is a medium to high-altitude mountain route, so it is crucial to equip yourself and conduct thorough research before you commit.

GR10: Winding through the Pyrenees

The GR10 exposes hikers to dramatic mountain scenery, charming villages, and rich historical sites.

The distance between Hendaye and Banyuls is approximately 1,100 km and can be completed in a month and a half, or even a month for those who are physically fit and enjoy sports. As the route involves altitudes exceeding 2,000 meters, it is best to undertake the journey on sunny days. The GR10 trail is a mid-mountain route that passes through valleys, peaks, and passes, and should not be taken lightly. Good experience in the mountain environment, good physical condition and knowledge of means of orientation will be necessary to complete this incredible crossing between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in Occitanie.

GR65: Mystic Chemin de Saint-Jacques

This iconic pilgrimage route, also known as the Camino de Santiago, offers various paths across France, leading towards the famed destination in Spain. We’ve previously written an article about this world-famous pilgrimage trail.

The GR65 trail, also known as the Way of Saint James, stretches from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southern France. It is called by many other names, including Via Podiensis, Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and Pilgrims’ Trail.

With more than 5,000 km of marked trails, the “Saint-Jacques” is a legendary route. The main routes are open to hikers, sometimes mystical pilgrims, sometimes athletes, but always nature lovers. Four major routes exist, and on December 2, 1998, UNESCO included these Routes on the World Heritage list in the form of a selection of 71 monuments and 7 sections of trail testifying to the spiritual and material aspects of the pilgrimage.

Embark on a journey that retraces the path of the first pilgrims across the vast expanse of the Aubrac plateau, through the picturesque Célé valley and to the foothills of the Pyrenean mountains. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to explore some of France’s most stunning villages and visit numerous ancient churches, abbeys, and monasteries.

GR34: Hugging the Brittany Coastline

This scenic Celtic trail provides constant maritime views, delicious seafood experiences, and quaint fishing villages.

The Breton customs officers’ path in its Finisterian part was elected “favourite GR of the French 2018” with nearly 24% of the 55,000 votes cast.

The paths, gradually abandoned in the first half of the 20th century, were originally used by customs officers to patrol the coast. These guardhouses were located at key observation points along the Brittany coast.

The GR34 trail is a 2000-kilometre pathway that follows the coast of Brittany exclusively. It starts from the rocky islet and bay of Mont-Saint-Michel in Manche and ends in Saint-Nazaire, Loire-Atlantique. If you choose to follow this route, you will be able to discover the varied and striking maritime landscapes of Brittany.

Planning Your GR Adventure

Embarking on a GR adventure necessitates meticulous planning. Difficulty levels vary significantly, so choosing a trail that aligns with your experience and fitness level is crucial. Accommodation options like gites, refuges, and camping require research and booking, especially during peak seasons. Logistical considerations like transportation and luggage transfers need to be addressed beforehand. Finally, investing in proper hiking gear suited to the chosen terrain and weather conditions ensures a safe and enjoyable experience.

More Than a Physical Challenge

Hiking a GR trail transcends the realm of physical exertion. It is an immersive cultural experience, connecting you with France’s diverse landscapes, historical sites, and local communities. Imagine enjoying an espresso after a challenging climb (probably an Aeropress for non-compromising coffee connoisseurs), sharing stories around a campfire with fellow adventurers, or gazing at a star-studded sky from a remote mountain peak. These moments foster memories that endure long after the final steps are taken.

So, lace up your boots, pack your backpack, and embark on your French GR adventure. Whether you choose the iconic GR20 or a lesser-known path, the “Chemins de Grande Randonnée” awaits, ready to offer unparalleled challenges, breath-taking scenery, and an unforgettable exploration of France’s natural and cultural treasures.

If you’re planning a hiking trip in France, many resources are available online and in guidebooks to help you choose the right trail, but first, decide on the region and difficulty level. Finally, carefully consider your insurance options, respect the environment, pay attention to the local climate, be kind to the local volunteers, and keep the trails clean. Merci.

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