Key information: GR20
- Corsica's GR20 is a superb diagonal dissection of the island along its awe-inspiring granite spine.
- Enjoy outstanding scenery, which darts back and forth between ravishingly beautiful and harshly magnificent. Peerless views of sea and mountain, and regular geological and engineering marvels.
- Discover the intriguing maquis shrubland: aromatic herbs and brush on the lower slopes. Corsica offers a degree of wildness rarely found on the Mediterranean's tamed continental coastlines.
- This is a long, tough, difficult walk over 200-odd kilometres. It is reputed (with good cause) to be one of the most difficult long-distance treks in Europe, with some scrambles that will horrify those with a poor head for heights. Come prepared.
- Cicerone's GR20:Corsica, The High Level Route is the must-buy book for this walk.
- Walkopedia rating85
- Natural interest16
- Human interest5
- Negative points2
- Total rating85
- Length: 180km
- 15 days
- Maximum Altitude: Around 2,225m
- Level of Difficulty: Very Difficult
The GR20 is one of Europe's most exhilarating - and most celebrated (famously infamous) - footpaths, a tough trek in magnificent mountains with scrambles to horrify those of a nervous disposition. It runs from the island's northern coastline along the 180km length of its central mountain spine, over a series of Alpine peaks topped by 2,710m Monte Cinto.
Along the way are innumerable aretes, ridges, and relentless ascents/descents. The most demanding are assisted: some, the Cirque de Solitude in particular, can be heart-stopping and are genuinely dangerous, and during wet weather (of which there is plenty, with thunderstorms coming thick and fast in high summer and howling winter weather) should only be tackled by the very experienced. Thanks to a series of chains and ladders it is, at least in summer, accessible to anyone fit, without the need for special climbing skills or gear. This is of course one of its main attractions: that it offers levels of high mountain access that are rare for the (fit!) walker.
There is, then, some basis for the route's reputation as a monster, although there are alternatives to some of the toughest sections. But, with the refuges often splendidly sited, and abundant pools, plus the odd comfortable gite, there are opportunities to relax and enjoy the experience when the weather smiles.
Corsica, a part of France since the late 1750s and birthplace of its most famous son, Napoleon, still maintains its own special identity. The people still speak their ancient tongue; the island is French by administration, Italian and north African by emotion and location; the atmosphere is relatively unsullied by modernization. Corsica's rugged terrain, much of its higher reaches bare rock, is mistakable for something rather more alien. This is truly wild, unspoiled mountain country, rich with the scent of herbs and cooled by high forests and riddled with ancient footpaths. All of this wild "otherness" is communicated in the GR20, leading you through its most isolated, magnificent areas. Note: as at late 2016, the famous Cirque de Solitude is closed as a result of landslip. There is an alternative route. Check the current position.
On its central spine Corsica is often astonishingly beautiful, albeit harsh: outlandish towers and cliffs above ravishing lakes. Add in glimpses of far-off sea and the maquis heathland on the lower slopes, with its mingled heady aromas and varied and vivid graduations of colour - rosemary, thyme, fennel, lavender and myrtle; rock roses, strawberry trees, holm oaks, cork oaks and magnificent indigenous Corsica pine. The trek leaves the remoter mountain passes to plot near to the towns of Monte Cinto, Monte Rotondo and Monte d'Oro.
Fauna includes the mountain goat, the mouflon, wild boar, harmless but hissy snakes, huge kites and tiny finches, hoopoes, the 2.7m-wingspan bearded vulture, and noble, graceful eagles.
It is not just the scrambles that make this a tough undertaking. The weather is often foul - we mean really horrible - and the huts basic, cramped and crowded, especially when it is wet. Carry a tent, but, while camping is delightful in good weather, it can quickly get miserable in bad. All this can make the GR20 an exhilarating challenge, if you enjoy that sort of thing (it is a lot of peoples? best-ever walk), but quite a lot of days can take you way beyond what would be considered fun by rational people.
The whole route will take over two weeks of spectacular isolation and remarkable views. The northern section (GR20 Nord) can be done in a bit over a week, but is the toughest part. GR20 Sud is (relatively) gentler. GR20 can be walked north to south (most people) or south to north.See also Paul Hadaway's thoughts below.
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COMMUNITY COMMENTS AND PHOTOS
Name: Paul Hadaway
Posted on: 04/02/2009
GR20 – the hard way by Paul Hadaway
These are personal notes on the GR20 – Paddy Dillon writes THE guide book, and there is no point in trying to replicate it; the other web links provide faster itineraries than the base 15 stages/15 days in Paddy Dillion's book. All my stage number references are Paddy Dillon's stage numbers. No-one would plan to follow my itinerary out of choice but despite set backs I did it in 13 days, starting from the north, breaking after stage 3 and restarting the same day from the south. I started with a companion who blew out after 3 days then walked with 4 Dutch guys who very generously let me join their team – and I didn't even have to wear an orange shirt.
Read the guide books carefully; my experience is no worse than the books & blogs describe; it just all happened at once.
Walking the GR20 was one of the best 2 weeks I have spent. It's tough and it's dangerous – I saw 3 memorials to walkers who had died en route – but you're only ever 2/3 hours walk downhill to civilisation. It's a truly excellent brush with harsh untamed nature; the scenery and surroundings are dramatic, beautiful and threatening.
Preparation – I spent the week before walking on a sun bed at the Belles Rives Hotel on Cap d'Antibes – not ideal, but I was recovering from a shoulder operation that had gone wrong. Again not ideal, but I didn't break it on purpose and I had been planning the GR20 for a long time. I was going, come what may and the doctor had cleared me to carry a rucksack.
I am usually fit; football/pilates/walking/riding-several-times-a-week fit, but the shoulder had restricted most forms of exercise although I had run 5 miles 2/3 times a week for 2 months before setting off. This was barely enough.
Kit – travel light. All the books/blogs say travel light. Travel light. My pack was about 13kg plus water. I carried a Nemo Gogo single skin breathable fabric one man tent – less than 2lb. Given my experience, you can easily be forced to stop between huts because of the weather, you really should carry some form of bivvy bag/tent. However, camping one night, the condensation passing through the breathable fabric froze rendering it non-breathable. I woke up soaked. The balance of weight and performance is a difficult one – there's probably no right answer.
One mistake was taking cotton T shirts – all my other kit was the correct technical stuff – I don't know why I took these but as a result I spent 10 days wet and unable to dry out. Man made, proper wicking under garments next time for me.
Timing – the general consensus seems to be to walk in June or September. I would disagree – I walked in September; the weather was dreadful (but that can happen any time of the year in Corsica) and the route was very busy. The guardians in the huts all said August was best – very hot but deserted. When over-crowded with wet walkers, the huts are unpleasant and the atmosphere can become a little aggressive.
Weather – I started stage 1 from Calenzana in mid- Sept at 6am. It was 26˚C. By 7am it was 30˚C. The stage is exactly as advertised – 1300m of ascent. I couldn't have walked another step by the time I reached Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu (1520m).
Stage 3 was started in cold drizzle; this dried up and the weather temporarily brightened but, as we crossed Col de Stagni, it was like diving into a cold washing machine. It was impossible to tell whether it was rain, wind driven fog or what. It was just a very cold wet gale blowing in every direction at once making standing up difficult, walking a major challenge and scrambling over angled granite slabs between perilous and insane. (Paddy Dillon, having made much of the Spasimata slabs lower down, forgot to mention these.) Although, as we dropped over onto the final descent to Haut Asco, we were back in the lee of the storm, the damage had been done as far as my companion was concerned.
Stage 4/day 4 – its not recommended to walk stage 4 – the notorious Cirque de la Solitude stage – in wet weather. I woke to snow this morning. (My second kit error by the way was no gloves– clinging to cold wet rock numbed the fingers to the bone). Clearly stage 4 wasn't going to be walked today and 15 people staying at the Haut Asco hotel commandeered a mini-bus to take us to the southern end of the GR20 to re-start from the lower end during the grim weather that appeared to be with us for a few days.
Stage 15/day 4 - The sign at Conca (the southern start/finish point) “Conca Arrivee Vous voici au terme de votre odyssee… Bravo” was a bit demoralizing and for my companion the final straw – he headed for the beach. After much debate as to whether to stay in Conca for the night or to walk, we started stage 15 at 2.30pm. Thunder, lightening and a lot more rain and six hours walking brought us to Refuge de Paliri after dark, soaked again. It was full; I slept on the kitchen floor.
Itineraries – most people allow 15/16 days and intend to double up on stages as and when they feel it will work for them. The rationale is “ a double stage day is a day on the beach”. My flight home was booked from Figari and I had planned to visit a beach near there. I was now walking in the wrong direction for my flight home and the beach.
There are some stages that naturally seem to double up. Criteria are, are they flat? Do they end at a hotel with a hot shower? (There are 3 hotel stops on the route). I doubled stages 10 & 11 and 6 & 7.
We ended stage 10 with the detour to the Hotel Monte d'Oro which I would highly recommend.
This was of course walking north so stage 7, which has massive rocky ascents was followed by the much more benign stage 6 ending at a hotel.
Surprisingly the bogey stage 4 was completed by 1pm and could easily be doubled with stage 3 travelling north following the “old” GR20 and missing out Haut Asco which would be all downhill in this direction to Refuge de Carrozzu.
Also stage 9 walking north from Vizzavona to Refuge de l'Onda which begins with 1200m of ascent (slightly reduced if starting from Hotel Monte d'Oro) was completed by 1pm and could be doubled with the easy-ish stage 8 – the high level alternative of this involves less ascent than the low level route. We finished stage 9 completely soaked and cold in fog – had it been warm and sunny, adding stage 8 would have been comfortable.
So, despite our restart, we completed the walk in 13 days finishing at the Haut Asco Hotel and it is easy to see how another 2 days could be taken off this. Pete Lockey's 9 days (see web links) looks difficult in this perspective, the Foreign Legion's standard 7 day work out is hard to imagine and the sub-40 hour record…well….
Way finding – after much detail maps/gps/guide book debate I took nothing but the guide book. Its all that is required. We lost the route twice – once on the ridge approaching Refuge d'Usciolu in (yet more) fog and rain and wind. We lost the red and white markers and dropped of the ridge on the wrong side – neither a map nor a gps would have saved us. The second time was approaching the Hotel Monte d'Oro on a standard GR20 variant – either a gps or a map would have saved us this time – or just being slightly less tired after a double stage might have done it.
So how tough is it? - its all weather dependent – the route varies from challenging to impassable depending on the elements. Stages 1-4 are reportedly the hardest but stage 4 on our last day was done in warm sunshine and was really not bad – its not that exposed and if you're not scared of heights it's a no more than a fun scramble. Stages 3, 15, 13 and 9 were very grim slogs that had I been any less fit or determined could have been terminal.
So be fit, travel light and have the right kit – good luck.
Name: Dick Everard
Posted on: 24/01/2011
Paul Hadaway doesn't recommend September but I walked the whole of the GR20 in 2002 starting on 15th September from North to South. We never had any problems with accommodation although the hut at the Refuge de Manganu was a little crowded, after some bad weather which had stopped those who were staying there the previous evening from moving on - although we managed to get there albeit the weather wasn't pleasant. That, however, was our only bad day and we had blue sky and light cloud for most of the two weeks. Regarding difficulty, I wouldn't say that it was particularly difficult provided your are fit and don't mind heights. I was only 54 years old at the time but one of my colleagues was 66 and he wasn't the oldest person on the walk as we met a 75 year old Frenchman with a broken wrist(he had fallen out of his bunk bed). OK, we were fit and lucky with the weather. It was certainly more difficult but only just than the GR5 which I walked this year (St Gingolph to Monaco) with the same colleague now aged 74! You just need to be fit and get plenty of training carrying a heavy rucksack but 10 or 11kgs is enough not 13kgs. Although we carried a tent for the whole of the GR20, it was never used as there was always space in the Refuges, Gites or hotels. It took us 16 days walking i.e we twice walked two of Paddy Dillon's stages in one day. We carried some dried meals for emergencies but we only ever had to cook our own food once otherwise we managed to get a cooked meal every evening and even had scrambled eggs for breakfast at one Refuge.
Posted on: 01/01/2017
I wonder whether you have read about the accident at the Cirque de la Solitude on the GR20 in Corsica this year. I only came across it by accident when looking something up on the internet. It is difficult to get a full picture of what happened but it seems that possibly 7 people were killed following a rock fall/landslide following very heavy rain. The path is presently closed at this point but the only English Report was by Paddy Dillon of Cicerone in the Outdoor Magic forum and that on Corsica.forhikers. Most of the reports are dated just after the accident happened when they only knew of three dead and I don’t think it was until several weeks later that the full picture emerged. Most of the newspaper reports are in French so unless your French is good, they are difficult to understand and the Google translation isn’t much help. I thought it might be sensible to highlight the dangers of walking in mountains in Walkopedia as I am sure most of us get complacent – I know that you do include warnings. It takes something like this to remind everyone that they need to be careful not that I would want to put anyone off walking the GR20 or any other high level route. On a practical matter, I don’t know how one discovers when and if the stage through the Cirque de la Solitude will be re-opened – maybe on Corsica.forhikers: this is the latest info from there: http://corsica.forhikers.com/forum/p/25089 .
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