Category: Trip Report

The GR20 Sud: Trip Report

In this post, we’ll share our experiences from the southern half of the GR20. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first half of this two-part series,…

In this post, we’ll share our experiences from the southern half of the GR20. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first half of this two-part series, in which we documented the good, the bad, and the ugly of our adventures hiking the infamous GR20 Nord. Read on to get an idea of what it’s like to trek the challenging and beautiful GR20 Sud.

 

Mountain views along stage 10 of the GR20

The southern half of the GR20 may have gentler landscapes than the north, but the views are just as beautiful!

 

Stage 10: Vizzavona to Bergeries d’E Capanelle

Total time: 4:30

After a rejuvenating rest day spent basking in the sun at the Cascades d’Anglais and being force-fed Corsican delicacies by the amazing owners of Casa Alta B&B, we were excited to get back on the trail. We made quick work of the steady, wooded climb out of Vizzavona, after which the trail hugged the hillside for much of the remainder of the stage. The hike wasn’t too taxing, although the final, sweaty climb up to the Bergeries d’E Capanelle wasn’t the most fun at the end of the day. 

When we got to E Capanelle, we were confused about where to camp. (By the way, the bergeries is also known as Gite U Fagone, just to further everyone’s confusion). We knew we could camp at the bergeries, but the guidebook also claimed you could camp for free next to the dilapidated PRNC refuge located up the hillside. After a very difficult conversation (in which my sorry French skills really proved the true extent of their horribleness), we pieced together that we couldn’t camp for free anywhere in the area so we better pay up and pitch our tent before all the spots got taken. Indeed, the small camping area was filling up quickly so we headed up the wooded slope to find a spot. 

Refuge de Capanelle

The PNRC Refuge de Capanelle.

 

Upon locating a good place to pitch, we were greeted by a large snake. After further inspection, we discovered that there was not one, but two very big, very gross snakes hanging out right next to where we intended to place our tent. Nervously jumping at every twig and root on the ground, we made our way to a different spot, leaving that one for the local residents. 

Snakes and confusion aside, Bergeries E Capanelle ended up being a nice place, although strange things continued to occur throughout our time there. To be fair, we witnessed one of the biggest full moons of our lives that evening, so that may have had something to do with it. One very odd aspect was the Refuge E Capanelle, adjacent to the Bergeries. We wanted to use the refuge’s cooking gas, so we decided to hike up there for dinner. Despite the fact that you can pay to sleep there, the place has a very creepy, abandoned feel to it. The tiny building was dark, dirty, and totally empty when we were there, although the gas tank was full enough for us to cook our pasta. Graffiti covered the walls of the kitchen and trash was strewn about the common room. Not wanting to hang out there too long, we hightailed it back down to our campsite as soon as we finished eating. 

Gite U Fagone laundry

Despite its quirks, we couldn’t deny that the Bergeries E Capanelle boasted a very impressive laundry line!

 

The second oddity occurred sometime during the night. We were woken by the sound of footsteps very close to our tent. We sat up, tensely listening as we heard what sounded like someone or something very big snapping twigs as they made their way through the forest and between the tents. After scanning the darkness, we finally deduced that it was cows. Cows had wandered into the campsite and were walking through the tightly packed tents and trees! Breathing a sigh of relief, we popped our ear plugs back in and were sound asleep in no time. 

 

Stage 11: Bergeries d’E Capanelle to Bocca di Verdi (high-level variant)

Total time: 7 hours

Still feeling bolstered by our rest day and the clear weather, we decided to take the high-level variant for Stage 11. This route takes hikers over the summit of Monte Renosu and along-you guessed it!- a rocky ridge before dropping down to Bocca di Verdi. The climb up to the top of Monte Renosu wasn’t particularly strenuous or technical, and we had the summit to ourselves to savor the excellent views in all directions. After we reached the top, the real challenge began.

Unlike the main route of the GR20, this variant was not well marked at all. Because it involved several tough sections of scrambling, it was especially hard to follow the trail and to know if you were headed in the right direction. After a long series of climbing up and down along the ridge and plenty of backtracking across rocky spires and boulders to rejoin the “trail”,  we finally found ourselves on a more recognizable path and began our descent towards Bocca di Verdi. 

Views from the top of Mount Renosu, stage 11 GR20

Peaceful views out to the Mediterranean in the morning light atop Mt. Renosu.

 

On previous stages, we’d heard that it was common to see pigs rooting around amongst the trees alongside the trail. We had yet to see any pigs, and we were beginning to think we wouldn’t see any on our entire hike (which might not be a travesty for some, but we happen to quite like pigs). But low and behold, as we neared Bocca di Verdi we spotted a large, gray pig walking alongside us near the trail. It trotted ahead of us the remainder of the way, as if it were guiding us to our campsite. How cute! We thought. I hope we see more pigs! We foolishly exclaimed. Well, this is a textbook example of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of scenario. 

Many hikers choose to continue for another two hours uphill to the Refuge de Prati instead of stopping at Bocca di Verdi, but after completing the challenging high-level variant, we were definitely ready to stop at Bocca di Verdi! Plus, this was a lovely place to camp. It was spacious, had great facilities, hot showers, a nice bar/restaurant, and wasn’t crowded at all. As we set up camp, we quickly noticed all the pigs that roamed the campground. Most were cute and timid, but one pig quickly made himself known as a total jerk. Campers repeatedly had to chase this swine-bully away from their food or their laundry, as he was determined to wreak havoc on anything in his path. 

We thought we did a good job securing all of our food and personal items before heading up to the terrace to enjoy a half-liter happy hour. However, as we sipped our wine, we looked down and saw everyone’s least favorite pig attempting to knock down our tent and get ahold of anything he could find. We sprinted down in an attempt to save our tent from total destruction, yelling and waving our arms at our pig nemesis. You’d think that two adults with raised voices and threatening gestures would scare him away, but that stubborn guy was not phased in the least. It look us charging at him repeatedly with our trekking poles to get the pig to saunter away. Once again, be careful what you wish for! 

With the pig crisis narrowly averted, we shared a good laugh with our fellow campers and passed the rest of the night blissfully uneventfully. 

Picnic tables outside the Relais San Petru di Verdi

The shady terrace at Bocca di Verdi is a lovely place to relax, given the hungry pigs don’t ruin your fun!

 

Stage 12: Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d’Uscioulu

Total time: 7:20

While we were glad to stop at Bocca di Verdi the previous day, it meant that today started with a stiff climb up to the Refuge de Prati. From there, the trail undulated for a long expanse along a ridgeline, with scrambling sections reminiscent of the northern half. Speaking of which, if anyone tells you that the southern half of the GR20 is easy, don’t believe them. Sure, all in all it is less demanding than the northern half, but there is certainly nothing easy about it and Stage 12 is proof of that. After the initial climb and slow, technical ridge traverse, hikers have to complete another long, steep climb and maddingly rocky descent before reaching Refuge d’Uscioulu. It’s a big day. 

Sunrise on the GR20

En route to Refuge d’Uscioulu.

 

When you finally do get to the refuge, however, you’re in for a treat. Refuge d’Uscioulu is a legendary stop on the GR20, known for its charismatic warden and beautiful setting. You’ll likely arrive to music playing, while the warden peddles all sorts of goodies from his tightly packed and shockingly well-stocked shop. 

We enjoyed a small feast of fresh oranges, cheese, and homemade fig jam before making the long trek downhill to find a campsite. Many of the camping pitches at Uscioulu are quite far from the refuge itself, meaning campers are in for a literal hike whenever they want to use the bathroom, fill up on water, or access any other facilities. Despite this fact, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening at this ambient place. If you’re looking for a quintessential GR20 experience, this is as good as it gets. 

Tents on the hillside at Refuge d'Uscoilu.

An idyllic evening at Refuge d’Uscoilu.

 

Stage 13: Refuge d’Uscioulu to Refuge de Matalza

Total time: 4:20

Many GR20 hikers opt to take a variant that allows them to combine stages 13 and 14, cutting out a stop at Matalza completely. Even though we were setting ourselves up for a series of very short days, we decided to move at a slower pace. Why would we want the GR20 to end any sooner than it had to? For us, this was the good life. Hiking in the rugged mountains by day, eating pasta and drinking wine by night, and crawling into our sleeping bags totally exhausted by 9:00pm- that was our idea of a perfect day. 

Sunrise on the GR20 stage 12

When you start your days with views like this, you may never want your trek to end!

 

Anyways, the hike from Uscioulu to Matalza offered a wealth of dramatically varied landscapes all in one relatively short stage. It began high in the mountains, where the trail followed a very rugged ridge. The views up here were beautiful, and it was especially cool to see the little village of Cozzano far below, nestled at the foot of the mountains. The trail eventually dropped down from the ridge into an expansive valley. From there it passed through forests and wide swaths of colorful ferns alongside a peaceful stream.  By the time we reached Matalza, the high mountain landscape seemed like a distant memory, as we were now deep in the valley in an area that felt distinctly agricultural. 

We were the first people to arrive at Refuge de Matalza, and once again we we whiled away a long afternoon with laundry and lounging. Matalza is a small refuge, but we found it to be quite lovely. The showers looked frighteningly rustic-pretty much just a hose hung inside a wooden shack-but they ended up being warm and surprisingly enjoyable. The friendly warden gave us each an “I [heart] Matalza” magnet, which was a surprising but kind gesture. Thoughtful, friendly touches like that were everywhere at Matalza, and we were glad we’d decided to spend an evening here. 

Showers at Refuge de Matalza.

The “luxurious” showers at Refuge de Matalza.

 

Since we were nearing the end of our trek, we decided to eat the last of the instant noodles that we’d been carrying as a backup meal. We were getting ever closer to civilization and assumed that the refuges would be increasingly better stocked with food as the days went on. Keep reading to find out just how wrong those assumptions were! Anyways, as we prepared for bed, we witnessed some of the most incredible stars we’d ever seen. Going slow and taking it all in definitely has its perks. 

 

Stage 14: Refuge de Matalza to Refuge d’Asinau

Total time: 4:50

Since we opted not to combine stages 13 and 14, we were in for another short day today. We woke to a very chilly morning, and we hobbled away from Matalza with stiff legs through the cold, damp riverbed. When we reached the high point for the day, we took a short detour to summit Mount Alcudina. Because it was an out-and-back to get to the summit, we dropped our heavy packs at the base. It was so freeing to scamper up the bouldery trail without any weight on our backs, and we made it to the top in less than twenty minutes. After our fun detour, it was time to strap the packs back on and begin the long and ridiculously steep descent to Refuge d’Asinau. 

Hikers pose next to a trail sign on Stage 14 of the GR20

We met a friendly canine friend on our way down from Mt. Alcudina.

 

I slipped and fell numerous times on the descent, and we arrived at the refuge dusty, bruised, and a little grumpy. Once we set up camp, we wandered down to the refuge to see what was for sale at the small shop. Being vegetarians, our options were pretty limited along the GR20, but we could almost always count on finding cheese, bread, pasta, and tomato sauce at every epicerie. However, the provisions at Asinau turned out to be extremely limited. We had eaten our backup meal the night before, and we were now facing a dinner and breakfast made up entirely of one demi baguette, a bag of dried apricots, and a handful of peanuts. Sure, we could have eaten the meals served at the refuge, but at 20 Euros for a mediocre plate of (possibly not vegetarian) pasta, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Trying not to panic and actively suppressing our raging hiker appetites, we began devising some sort of food strategy to get us to the next shop at Village de Bavella the following afternoon. 

Refuge d'Asinau

Tents and a resident horse at the Refuge d’Asinau.

 

We returned to the shop, ready to buy a very weird collection of items, when the warden produced a miraculous package of pasta (the sign claimed it was sold out) from the depths of the dusty shelves behind him. It wasn’t much, but it meant that we’d be eating a hot bowl of food for dinner instead of random handfuls of this and that. We were stoked. That night we feasted on bowls of plain spaghetti garnished with salted peanuts, and it was actually pretty delicious as far as backpacking food goes. Our breakfast the next morning was comprised of an odd assortment of things, but we were fueled and content. 

Our two takeaways from this experience? First, never eat your backup meal before you’re sure you won’t need a backup (duh). Second, give pasta and peanuts a try next time you’re out on the trail (or at home, we won’t judge). 

 

Stage 15: Refuge d’Asinau to Refuge d’ I Paliri

Total time: 6:45

We awoke this morning after a bit of a rough night. My sleeping pad had apparently developed a slow leak, and I ended up having to wake up and re-inflate it every few hours throughout the night. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where the leak was coming from, and the pad’s instructions to submerge it in water to locate the hole were entirely unhelpful in the current circumstances. Although we were sad that our GR20 adventure was nearing its end, I was also a little relieved that I would only have to sleep on my deflating pad for a few more nights. 

We again opted to take the high-level variant for this stage, excited for the incredible views it was known to offer. After our initial climb,  however, we found ourselves deep within a very thick cloud. We were lucky to see just a few feet in front of us, and the chances of seeing any real views seemed slim. But as we continued onwards, the clouds began to break to reveal some of the most incredible scenery of the entire trek. The peaks were so majestic shrouded in the pillowy wisps, and the light was filtered so beautifully through the clouds. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring. 

 

Clouds surround a peak on Stage 15 of the GR20

When the clouds finally parted, the views were completely magnificent.

 

On our way down, we faced the so-called “Chain of Doom.” Basically, there was a short section on the route that required hikers to hoist themselves up a very large rock face with the help of a chain. As had been the case with most things like this so far on the GR20, it wasn’t as bad as we expected. Getting up the rock slab was actually pretty easy, but the difficult part was the fact that the chain was covered in grease. That’s right, for some unknown reason, the chain that was supposed to serve as an aid was positively slathered in thick, slippery grease. Not only did it make holding on to the chain very challenging, but it also left us covered in sticky, rust-colored goop that was impossible to get off. 

Hiker scrambling on the GR20.

Conquering the so-called “Chain of Doom.”

 

After the chain debacle, we had another long, knee-grinding descent to reach Village de Bavella. Fortunately, our efforts were rewarded when we visited the very well-appointed shop there. After the meager rations of the past few days, we were excited to stock up on some real food. We enjoyed an indulgent lunch at Bavella before continuing onwards to Refuge d’I Paliri. Many hikers choose to stop at Village de Bavella at the end of Stage 15, but if you want to camp you need to head to Paliri, which is another two hours down the trail. We didn’t mind covering a little more ground today, and the final stretch to the refuge wasn’t too challenging. 

Even though it was blanketed in a thick layer of fog when we arrived, we could instantly tell that Refuge d’I Paliri was special. It is perched on a stony cliff that overlooks magnificent rock formations and a deep valley far below, with the sea visible on the distant horizon. Clouds and light rain moved in and out throughout the afternoon, but with every glimpse we stole when the clouds parted, we became more amazed by the surrounding beauty. 

View of Refuge d' I Paliri.

Refuge d’ I Paliri is one of the most beautiful along the GR20.

 

We enjoyed one final jug of wine and tried to savor every moment of our last night at camp. It was hard to believe our trek was already coming to an end, but on the other hand it felt like we’d been on the trail for ages. We were certainly sad to see our adventure wrap up, but we were also very excited to celebrate our accomplishment with a real bed and some modern comforts!

Views of a sheer rock face from Refuge d'I Paliri

Views from the tent at Refuge d’I Paliri…Not a bad way to spend your last night on the trail!

 

Stage 16: Refuge d’I Paliri to Conca

Total time: 5 hours

We emerged from our tent on the final morning to discover that we were surrounded by a very damp, chilly fog. Neither of us was particularly eager to get on the trail at the crack of dawn, so instead we opted to hang out and sip coffee in the warmth of our sleeping bags for awhile before breaking down camp. A celebratory feeling was already hanging in the air as we finally set off into the morning mist. 

Tall trees surrounded by thick fog on stage 16 of the GR20

Stage 16 started off with a very misty morning.

 

The trail was nice and mellow for the majority of this stage. It was an easy downhill grade for the most part, and we slowly emerged from the clouds as we lost elevation. The GR20 remained stunningly beautiful to the end. The final few miles of the hike followed a balcony trail that provided gorgeous views out towards the Mediterranean. As we made our final descent into Conca, we enjoyed hearing the tolling of church bells growing increasingly louder as we approached. We finally stepped off the trail and followed a winding road down to the official finishing point in the center of the tiny town of Conca. 

Views over the mountains towards the sea on stage 16 of the GR20.

We enjoyed fabulous views of the mountains and the Mediterranean until the very end of your trek.

 

We were all smiles as we approached the finish. The GR20 had tested us both physically and mentally. It pushed us to our limits in terms of our capabilities and challenged us to overcome our fears. We emerged feeling stronger and more confident than ever before. Once you’ve completed something like the GR20, you truly feel like so much more is possible. There are so many treks we’re considering now that we would have never dreamed we could do previously, not to mention other challenges we want to tackle in other aspects of our lives. And the rewards of conquering the GR20 extend far beyond the tangible. I heard a simple expression a few years ago that has really stuck with me: Do hard things. It’s so important to push outside your comfort zone every once in awhile. That’s how we grow and that’s when we feel most alive. If you’re looking for your next Hard Thing, consider the GR20. It will be immensely challenging, it will be profoundly rewarding, it will be unforgettable, and it will change you in all the best ways. 

Trail in the foreground with a peak in the background on the GR20.

Your very own GR20 adventure awaits!

 

 

Want more GR20 resources? Check out all of our GR20 posts below:

Hikers take a selfie at the top of Mt. Renosu on the GR20

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The GR20 Nord: Trip Report

We were a little intimidated by the GR20 before we hiked it. Scratch that. To be honest, we were totally and completely scared.  While reading the guidebooks and blogs in…

We were a little intimidated by the GR20 before we hiked it. Scratch that. To be honest, we were totally and completely scared.  While reading the guidebooks and blogs in preparation for our trip, we were confronted by a seemingly endless stream of warnings about the difficulty, the dangers, the scrambling, the cold showers and rocky campsites, and the number of hikers who quit early. But what the books and websites fail to mention? How FUN the GR20 is! 

This was hands down the most enjoyable and interesting trek that either of us has ever completed. Many of the same things that make the GR20 infamous as the “toughest trek in Europe” also make it the best. The dynamic and rugged landscapes, the varied terrain, the remote destinations. Heck, even the extreme heat and afternoon thunderstorms that forced us to start hiking in the wee hours of the morning ended up rewarding us with some of the most enchanting sunrises of our lives. Sure, it definitely wasn’t rainbows and butterflies the entire time (like when I dropped my trekking pole into a gorge or when a hungry pig nearly trampled our tent or when our bodies felt shattered but we had another 2,000 feet of descent to go to reach the refuge), but it was so, so worth it. 

Read on as we share the good, the bad, and the ugly of our GR20 Nord experience.

If you want to skip ahead to the second half of our trek on the GR20 Sud, click here to go to the next post! 

Stage 1: Calenzana to Refuge Ortu Piobbu

Total time: 5:15

Going into the GR20, we thought we were going to be really roughing it for the next 16 days of our lives. We imagined long days that pushed us to our absolute limits both physically and mentally, and evenings spent eating meager rations in basic accommodations. While there was definitely some of that, on the whole our expectations were much more dramatic than necessary. However, not having the benefit of foresight actually turned out to be a good thing as it meant that we enjoyed a blowout, last-days-of-Rome style evening in Calenzana before we started our trek. 

A street in Calenzana, Corsica.

The lovely streets of Calenzana.

 

We opted to stay in an AirBnB in town that was conveniently located near the start of the GR20 and the well-appointed Spar Supermarket in town. The apartment was a little odd, but it had a kitchen, washing machine, and lovely balcony so we were quite content. We enjoyed cooking a meal with lots of fresh veggies (always hard to come by while backpacking), a bottle of wine, and way too much ice cream. I’m happy to report that these choices did not backfire on us the next morning and we felt strong and energized as we started hiking out of Calenzana. 

If you’ve read Paddy Dillon’s Ciccerone guide to the GR20, you’ll know that he makes the first stage of the GR20 sound absolutely hellish. He depicts a long, strenuous uphill slog in the blazing sun and even refers to this stage as your “baptism of fire.” In reality, the first stage is tough, but it’s really not that bad. There are some sections that require scrambling, but it’s a perfect way to build your confidence for what’s to come. Plus, if you start at daybreak like we did, you’ll actually be in the shade for most of the climb. It was so fun passing all of the elated hikers who were headed in the other direction and closing in on their final descent of the trek.

Early morning on Stage 1

 

When we reached the first bocca, we enjoyed a wonderful picnic lunch with views out to the sea. The remainder of the hike to the refuge was pretty straightforward and we made good time. Upon arriving at Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu, we were immediately struck by the scene. The campground sprawled out across a huge slope which eventually yielded to dramatic rock formations and the Mediterranean Sea far off in the distance.  We also noted that the refuge itself was nothing more than a burned out shell, having caught fire earlier in the season. It was nearly empty when we arrived a little before noon, but over the course of the afternoon and evening the entire area would be filled to capacity with tents, easily over a hundred of them. We whiled away the rest of the day simply soaking it all in- the scenery, our fellow hikers, the lively cooking area, and the magnificent sunset. 

Sunset at Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu

Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu is known for its spectacular sunsets.

 

Stage 2: Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carozzu

Total time: 7 hours.

In preparing for this trek, we knew that we wanted to establish a routine of getting on the trail early in the day. If there are a couple of things that can make hiking feel way harder and exponentially less fun, it’s being out in the heat of the day and stressfully racing against impending storms. We figured that we could minimize these fun-suckers by covering most of our ground in the first half of the day. Today was the real test though…could we actually get our butts out of our cozy sleeping bags when the 5:00AM alarm went off, efficiently pack up camp in the dark, and get on the trail at a time that could still be considered “early”? Seeing as we chose to carry our own tent and self-cater our meals, we couldn’t just roll out of bed and get going as quickly as our friends in hire tents or dorm beds.  All things considered, the morning went smoothly and it felt good to get a solid start to what was going to be a very big day. 

 

Stage 2 started with a fun climb that toed the line between hiking and scrambling most of the way, as we hoisted ourselves higher and higher along huge slabs and boulders. At the top of our initial ascent, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular views of the entire trek. Upon cresting Bocca Piccaia, we were faced with a seemingly endless expanse of rocky spires, rugged peaks, and spiny ridges. The landscape on the other side of the Bocca felt like an entirely different world than the one at our backs. 

Incredible views from Bocca Piccaia.

 

Our second day on the GR20 was certainly one of superlatives. After enjoying one of the most magnificent vistas of the hike, we embarked on what would end up being one of the longest, most tiring ridge walks of the whole trek. For hours, we slowly made our way along the undulating ridge trail, scrambling up this boulder and down that gully at a maddeningly slow pace. Don’t get me wrong- it was super fun at the start, but even the most fun things lose their luster after awhile. When we finally reached the long, steep descent towards Refuge de Carozzu, we actually welcomed it. 

Midway through the beautiful descent to Refuge de Carozzu.

 

Upon stumbling wearily into Carozzu, we snagged the flattest campsite we could find. It wasn’t that late in the day yet, but already camping pitches were hard to come by. Our spot was tilted, a little cramped, and swarming with ants, but it was pretty, quiet, and well-located so we were content. We treated ourselves to some excellent goat cheese and mint omelettes for dinner and spent the evening chatting with our fellow hikers and admiring another spectacular sunset. 

Sunset at Refuge de Carozzu

Views from the terrace at Refuge de Carozzu.

While the evening was quite idyllic, we felt a sense of trepidation building throughout the campground. Hikers heading southbound (us included) would be facing the notorious Spasimata Slabs the next day. These sheer, steeply angled, vertigo-inducing rock faces had the reputation for being one of the sketchiest parts of the entire GR20. To make matters worse, storms were forecasted to move in early in the day tomorrow, and the slabs were slippery and treacherous when wet. If we wanted to get to the end of Stage 3 safely, we needed to get moving early and quickly in the morning. We turned in before it was fully dark that evening, hoping to get some sleep despite the nerves that were buzzing within each of us. 

 

Stage 3: Refuge de Carozzu to Ascu Stagnu

Total time: 4:45

Fueled by adrenaline and instant coffee, we were on the trail and ready to conquer the so-called “Slabs on Doom” by 6:00am. As we slowly followed the narrow beam of light cast by our headlamps along the boulder-strewn trail, the dark sky was repeatedly illuminated by large bolts of lightning in the distance. While not directly above us yet, we could see and hear the spectacular thunderstorms on the horizon. The sun started to rise just as we crossed the sketchy, wobbly suspension bridge that served as a fitting warm up for the slabs. We began climbing our way up and up across the massive rock slabs, sometimes with the aid of chains or holds, but more often without. Despite the fact that the whole situation was a little scary, we couldn’t help but be completely awed by how beautiful it was. We were in a massive gorge, surrounded by towering walls of rock, and the distant storms conspired to produce a gorgeous sunrise. Orange and pink clouds framed the top of the gorge and the indigo skies in the distance were turned gold by the continual bursts of lightning. 

Sunrise on the Spasimata Slabs

Indigo clouds above the Spasimata Slabs.

 

The slabs themselves? Truly not that bad (and actually pretty fun). As a self-confessed wimp when it comes to sketchy things involving heights, even I never felt uncomfortable or wigged out. To be fair, I believe the slabs are MUCH easier and less scary when you are heading uphill. We heard from several hikers who said they were significantly more vertigo-inducing and physically challenging on the descent. If this is something that worries you, it might be a good idea to hike the GR20 in the southbound direction. 

After reaching the end of the slabs, we were faced with a short section of scrambling and a steep descent to Ascu Stagnu. Our excitement grew as we neared the finish of the hike, as we knew the ski area would have plenty of delicious food options on offer. Just as our anticipation was building, so were those forecasted storm clouds. Luckily, we had just finished setting up our tent and taking the most amazing hot showers when the weather moved in. We napped in our tent while the storm raged outside, occasionally venturing out to triage the streams of water moving across the hard, rocky ground and threatening to flood our tent.

Ascu Stagnu is a real treat for weary GR20 walkers, and we spent the evening enjoying French fries, wine, and other hiker delicacies in the spacious, well-equipped refuge. 

PNRC Refuge at Haute Asco

The PNRC Refuge at Haute Asco.

 

Stage 4: Ascu Stagnu to Auberge U Vallone

Total time: 7:30 

Everyone will tell you that the first few days of the GR20 (especially when hiked north to south) are by far the toughest, and they are not lying. By our estimation, Stage 4 of the GR20 is the most challenging stage of the entire trek. This is the section that was rerouted after the Cirque de la Solitude was permanently closed. Now the trail takes hikers near the summit of Monte Cinto, the highest peak in Corsica, via an incredibly tough and steep ascent. From the top, you walk along a ridge (of course you do, it’s the GR20 after all) that mostly easy, save for a few sketchy places. The whole day is topped off with a long, steep, scramble-filled descent. 

Hiker on the GR20

The tough ascent on Stage 4 of the GR20.

 

All in all, we enjoyed this stage. The ascent, especially the final steep stretch, was rewarding and exhilarating and the high mountain views were unbeatable. Some badass superhumans opt to take the detour to summit Monte Cinto, but we were happy to sit that one out as this was already going to be one of our longest days on the trail. 

Disaster nearly struck on the way down, when I managed to lose hold of my trekking pole. We watched as it bounced its way down further and further before coming to rest on a rocky ledge a hundred feet below us. This is somewhat pathetic to admit, but I truly can’t imagine doing the GR20 (or any hike with long, steep ascents and descents) without my trusty trekking poles. I am way too clumsy to survive even 10 minutes without trekking poles in hand to stop my inevitable, frequent falls. Fortunately, Ian volunteered to take off his pack and scamper down the steep slope to retrieve my pole. If there’s ever been a way to get brownie points with your wife, this is it! 

When we finally reached Auberge U Vallone far down in the valley, the sun was high in the sky and it was HOT. We were ready to find a snack, some shade, and a cold rock pool to dip in. The Auberge was different than the PNRC Refuges we’d camped at up to this point, and we weren’t sure if we liked it. Although we scored a great spot to pitch our tent, there was a lot of trash around and we didn’t receive the friendliest welcome. 

Camping at Auberge U Vallone on the GR20.

Our great pitch at Auberge U Vallone.

 

However, as we spent more time there, we came to appreciate the hot showers and nice terrace, and the staff warmed up to us. Plus, there were some lovely rock pools just below the camping area in which we could relax and soak our tired feet. The first four days of the GR20 had been mighty tough, but we were both totally in love with this hike and couldn’t wait to get back on the trail. 

 

Stage 5: Auberge U Vallone to Hotel Castel di Vergio

Total time: 6:20

Our trusty guidebook promised that today would finally be a bit easier than the first four, and it really should have been if the circumstances had been different. We woke to cold, gusty winds, which would turn out to be an ominous preview of what lay ahead. Early into the day, we nearly faced catastrophe when our toilet paper supply ran dangerously low and our required pit stops occurred at a higher rate than usual. From there, things seemed to take a turn for the better, as we enjoyed a long, peaceful stretch of walking in the woods. But alas, the GR20 demons would rear their ugly heads at us again. 

GR20 Stage 5

A beautiful start to Stage 5 on the GR20, but those clouds signal trouble ahead!

 

As we reached the highpoint of the stage, the weather conditions completely deteriorated. Wind gusts of more than 50 mph threatened to knock us over and our bare hands and faces quickly went numb in the cold. It was one of those times where all you could do was put your head down, keep moving forward, and remind yourself that it would be over soon enough. Thick fog made it challenging to see the next trail marker, and obliterated any chance we had of enjoying what were supposedly wonderful views out towards the Golfe de Porto. 

Fortunately, the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori is located about halfway along the high ridge we needed to traverse, and it provided a much-needed respite from the cold and wind. After lifting our spirits the best way we know how (by eating a few chocolate sandwich cookies), we forced ourselves back out onto the trail and hoofed it towards the valley. Although the conditions in the valley were significantly better than on the ridge, it was still cold and windy. The remainder of this “short” day seemed to last forever before we finally reached Hotel Castel di Vergio. 

Although it’s a pretty weird place, the hotel, gite, and campground provide a level of luxury that is rare on the GR20. We enjoyed hot showers, which were an absolute godsend after being in such frigid conditions all day. The campground had a large grassy field, a big treat after camping on hard-packed dirt for so many nights in a row. And the shop! Oh my goodness the shop! The small store at the gite was the best-stocked we’d seen so far, boasting rare and valuable items like fresh fruit and still-warm bread. 

The well stocked shop at Hotel Castel di Vergio

Hike all the miles, eat all the snacks.

 

We capped off the evening by splitting a bottle of wine in the cozy confines of our tent. It had been a very difficult “easy day.” The GR20 was beginning to reveal one of its most basic truths: you can’t expect anything to be easy on this trek, but with enough stellar views, camaraderie, and red wine, it will all be worth it. 

 

Stage 6: Hotel Castel di Vergio to Refuge de Manganu

Total time: 5:15

Day six began with a leisurely change of pace. We slept in to an indulgent 5:30am alarm, and then we each enjoyed our own cup of coffee. Let me explain this last part. You see, in order to keep our pack weight down, we had only brought one cup for two people and had been sharing up until this point, but the well-stocked cooking area at the gite had extra cups, thus no sharing today! Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that are the most luxurious. (Side note: If you want to really strengthen your marriage in an unorthodox manner, spend two weeks sharing one cup, one bowl, and one stick of deodorant!) 

The trail immediately headed downhill from Castel di Vergio, and our cold stiff knees screamed at us in protest. After we got going, however, the day was absolutely lovely. The trail was much mellower, and we ambled along at an easy pace enjoying the sunshine and the views. We were making good time, so we stopped along the glorious Lac de Ninu to enjoy a snack break. 

Lac de Nino

Lac du Ninu makes a lovely lunch stop.

 

We arrived early to Refuge de Manganu, meaning we could spend the afternoon eating a lunch of local cheese on the terrace and a long dip in the nearby rock pool. The mood at Manganu was festive. Hikers basked on the large, rocky outcropping in front of the refuge, sipping beers, stretching out stiff muscles, and swapping stories. Everyone seemed energized after making it past the initial challenges of the trek. 

Trekkers sitting on rocks at Refuge de Manganu.

Kicking back at Refuge de Manganu.

 

As the days wore on, we got to know our cohort of fellow hikers a bit better. The cool thing about the GR20 is that nearly everyone is stopping at the same place at the end of each day, so you get to know people quite well after a few days of seeing them on the trail and hanging out at camp. We whiled away the evening chatting with so many incredible people from all over the world, including Russia, Switzerland, Belgium, and more. Perhaps one of the best parts about completing a thru-hike like the GR20 is the way that the shared experience brings together people from all walks of life to bond over their love of moving in the mountains. 

 

Stage 7: Refuge de Manganu to Refuge Petra de Piana

Total time: 5:15

Another big day and another ominous weather forecast meant that, yet again, we started hiking in the dark in an attempt to beat the afternoon storms. Just like on Stage 3, the cloudy skies produced a stunningly beautiful sunrise. Today was pretty characteristic of most stages of the GR20: a long, tough ascent to a bocca with ridiculously awesome views, followed by an undulating ridge walk requiring some awkward scrambling to reach the next bocca, and capped off by a steep descent to the next refuge that took longer than expected. Check, check, and check. 

Looking down on Lac du Melo from above.

Lovely Lac du Melo en route to Petra de Piana.

 

Refuge Petra de Piana is known for being perpetually stuck inside a cloud. It’s foggy, windy, and chilly there more often than not. Many campers choose to double up and complete the next day’s stage, just to avoid spending the night high up in these harsh conditions. When we arrived, it was cold and misty, but the wind was mercifully mild and we were worried about the impending weather that was moving in. We pitched our tent, restocked our pasta supply from the tiny shop, and settled in for the evening. Petra Piana ended up being a lovely place to stay. The little A-frame refuge had the coziest kitchen where hikers gathered at picnic tables to share food and hang out in the warmth. Between reading books we borrowed from the communal shelf and hanging out in the refuge, we had no problem passing the afternoon and evening in a comfortable, relaxing, and low-key manner. 

Hire tents at Refuge de Petra Piana

Refuge de Petra Piana up in the clouds.

 

Stage 8: Refuge Petra de Piana to Refuge de l’Onda

Total time: 4:50

Today started out with a technicolor sunrise and a cozy breakfast in the refuge. It was another stage that the guidebook promised would be easy, so we approached it with cautious optimism. As it turns out, it was nothing but relaxing and mellow the whole way. We engaged in some “forest bathing” as we meandered through the tall pines towards the Bergeries de Tolla, where we’d been told we absolutely must stop for some excellent food and drink. Upon arriving at the bergeries, we found the offerings to be less than inspiring, and ended up the proud new owners of a very large and very mediocre loaf of bread. However, the friendly proprietor brought us fresh figs from his nearby tree and we decided it was worth the stop after all. 

Mountain views on Stage 8 of the GR20

You’ll pass through beautiful mountains and forested valleys on Stage 8 of your trek.

 

We arrived at the bergeries de l’Onda before noon, as the hike was much faster than we expected. Without much in the way of entertainment, the day stretched out before us. We envisioned the minutes slowly ticking by as we twiddled our thumbs under the heat of the afternoon sun. It’s pretty remarkable how you can pass the time at camp, though, and somehow we had no problem staying busy. Between taking cold showers, exploring the nearby rock pools, doing laundry, setting up camp, repairing gear, and plenty of people watching, it was time for happy hour before we knew it. 

We headed up to the refuge to indulge in what had become a nightly tradition of splitting a half-liter of wine before dinner. Typically, this wine (a great value by GR20 standards) is served in some sort of jug or carafe. This time, however, the bergeries owner grabbed an empty, used plastic water bottle and proceeded to fill it with wine. He then presented it to us with two tiny plastic cups. While it wasn’t our classiest or most eco-friendly happy hour of the trek, it was certainly one of the most memorable! We ended the night as we did almost every night of our trip; we ate pasta for dinner and were asleep by 9:00pm. 

 

Stage 9: Bergeries de l’Onda to Vizzavona

Total time: 7 hours

We awoke this morning with visions of Vizzavona dancing in our heads. Reaching Vizzavona meant many exciting things for us; it would mark the halfway point of our trek and it would also mean we’d be treated to a rest day and a couple of nights in a B&B.  We happily roughed it throughout the GR20, but we decided to splurge on a real bed and a rest day at the midpoint of our hike. We had the gift of time, so we figured we’d take an extra day to relax and enjoy a different side of Corsica. It was a freaking awesome idea, if we do say so ourselves, and highly recommended for anyone who has an extra day to spare on their trip. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First we had to get to Vizzavona and believe me when I tell you that it wasn’t a cakewalk. The day started off well enough, with a short, unremarkable climb followed by a fun descent over huge rock slabs. Then the fun descent turned totally un-fun, and stayed that way for hours and hours of picking our way down slippery, rocky trails that seemed determined to slow our progress at every turn. We’ve always been the type to prefer hiking uphill over down, but today was especially rough. 

Rocky descent with red and white trail markers.

It’s all downhill to Vizzavona from here!

 

Fortunately, we found the most idyllic spot in the shade, next to a perfectly clear pool, in which to enjoy a lunch of stinky cheese, crusty bread, and canistrellis, which are kind of like Corsican biscotti. Up to that point in the day, we’d been cursing the hike and getting pretty demoralized, but stopping in that perfect little oasis made it impossible to stay in a bad mood. The GR20 is just too beautiful to stay mad at for long. 

We finally tore ourselves away from our cansitrelli-filled paradise and continued our relentless march down to Vizzavona. Upon arriving, we stopped in at the campground’s well-stocked shop and immediately indulged in some cold beers and fresh fruit. Feeling refreshed, we walked further on to the beautiful Casa Alta B&B, our luxurious home for the next two nights. Here, we were greeted by the friendly host who stretched our high school French to its outer limits as he walked us through the amenities of the place. We proceeded to take some of the best showers of our lives and were asleep before 10:00pm.    

Keep reading to learn about the second half of our GR20 adventure! 

View of a room at Casa Alta Hotel in Vizzavona.

Lovely views from a room at the Casa Alta B&B in Vizzavona.

 

Keep reading to learn about the second half of our GR20 adventure! 

 

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Haute Route Trip Report

After an exhilarating week in Iceland, where we explored Reykjavik and hiked the Laugavegur trail, we set off for our second country of many on our extended travel adventure. While…

After an exhilarating week in Iceland, where we explored Reykjavik and hiked the Laugavegur trail, we set off for our second country of many on our extended travel adventure. While visiting new places is obviously one of our favorite things in life, there is something incredibly wonderful about returning to a well-loved and familiar spot. For us, it was all happy memories and good vibes as we made our way towards the Chamonix Valley in France, where we’d spend a couple days before hiking the Haute Route. This was our first “repeat” travel destination together, and we made an effort to revisit special experiences while also creating opportunities for new ones. Instead of staying in Chamonix this time, we spent a few nights in nearby Les Houches. We enjoyed the low key atmosphere of this smaller town as opposed to the hustle and bustle of Chamonix. Our days in Les Houches were largely spent fueling up for the Haute Route with fresh pastries and 3 euro wine, stocking up on various hiking items, and making several trips to multiple post offices in order to figure out how to ship some items to Zermatt (and thereby lighten our packs for this challenging trek). Finally, we dropped our parcel off with a “here goes nothing!” kind of mentality, packed up our backpacks, and got ready to hit the trail.

Breakfast of champions at our Airbnb in Les Houches.

 

Ever since hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2017, we knew we wanted to get back to these mountains. If asked, neither of us would be able to choose which one of the five treks we’d planned for the summer that we were most excited about, but the Haute Route was definitely a strong contender for both of us. I’d imagine this is how parents feel when asked to choose their favorite child; of course they don’t actually have a favorite, but there is always one they sort of like better… Anyways, suffice it to say we were pretty darn excited. Words (at least my novice words) can’t begin to capture the feeling of taking in the panorama of snowy peaks on a high mountain pass, crossing a narrow section of trail with hundreds of feet of open air below you, or simply taking your boots off after eight hours of trekking, but I’m going to give it a shot anyways. In the following trip report, I’ve attempted to sum up this most incredible adventure to my best ability, but trust me when I say there aren’t enough superlatives in the world to do it justice.

Day One: Chamonix to Le Peuty

Since we stayed in Les Houches, we needed to hop on the train to get to the Chamonix Station and the official start of the Haute Route. After a lovely train ride accompanied by chocolate croissants, we were ready to hit the trail. Despite the cool morning air, the sun was already warm as we wound our way out of town. If you plan on starting the Haute Route in Chamonix, be warned that the beginning of the trail is a bit hard to follow. The route takes you along busy roads, through a golf course, and past many confusing trail junctions. Keep your map handy! After passing through a festive market in the town of Argentiere, we began to climb up our first col. We felt strong and the conversation flowed as we worked our way up the many switchbacks to Col de Balme. At the top, we tucked out of the wind, pulled out the gallon bag full of peanuts that we call “lunch,” and savored the views. Our fresh legs handled the descent like champs (shocking foreshadowing: they wouldn’t feel as great ten days from now), and we made it to camp early enough to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. After setting up our tent at the Le Peuty camping area, we strolled over to the nearby town of Trient. We enjoyed a nutritious dinner of ramen and cookies in the company of some other campers (most were TMB hikers) and got to bed early in anticipation of a big day tomorrow.

Nice views from the tent at Le Peuty.

 

Day Two: Le Peuty to Champex

We got an early start on Day Two, as we were excited to tackle the infamous Fenêtre d’Arpette. Literally translating to “window to Arpette,” this stage involves a long, steep climb (with some scrambling) up to a keyhole-like pass that looks down into the Val d’Arpette. The ascent to the pass was nothing short of spectacular. As we gained height, the Glacier du Trient came more clearly into view, until we felt like we were right next to it. Studying the blues and grays, the cracks and contours, and the overall dynamic nature of the glacier was an unforgettable experience. It was bittersweet, as the glacier is receding rapidly due to a changing climate. It was a privilege to get to experience the glacier before it’s gone and a sobering reminder of the impacts of our human choices, both collectively and as individuals. That’s the beauty of travel and trekking; you never know when you’ll be struck with a moment that changes your perspective and increases empathy. Anyways, after mostly-fun scramble over large boulders to reach the pass, we began our descent down. I don’t have as many sentimental or poetic things to say about the descent. Basically, it started with falling on our butts on loose scree, then transitioned to falling on our butts on steep snow crossings, then to slowing picking our way through large boulders, and finally to a long, rocky descent towards Champex. With enough snacks and some well-timed jokes, we managed to keep our spirits high. Upon reaching Champex, we set up camp and then feasted on bananas, baguettes, and local cheese by the lake. It was a long and challenging day, but so beautiful and rewarding. Afterwards, we felt strong, happy, and ready to take on the rest of the Haute Route.

Getting up close and personal to the magnificent Trient Glacier.

 

Day Three: Champex to Champsec (Le Chable)

When you think of camping, you probably picture a solitary tent peacefully nestled in a remote, wilderness setting. Most of the camping we’ve been doing on this trip is not like that at all. Picture instead a large campground with the tents close enough to hear the Frenchmen next you sawing them off in vivid clarity, and perhaps some noise from trucks barreling down a nearby road. Experience has taught us a few things about how to enjoy these types of campgrounds, and arguably the most important wisdom we’ve gained is that earplugs are truly a game-changer. Which is how we found ourselves sleeping ever-so-soundly through our alarm on the morning of Day Three. We are not sponsored by any earplug manufacturers, but we can tell you firsthand that those things really do work! Fortunately, the walk to Le Chable, our destination for the day, was relatively quick and easy. We passed so many quaint villages! We had planned on restocking on food at the grocery store in Le Chable, but it was a Sunday and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open grocery store on a Sunday in this part of the world. We ended up deciding to combine a fun day-trip detour to see the uber posh ski area of Verbier with a visit to its grocery store (which was miraculously open on Sundays). After a shockingly expensive bus ride and a trip to the very well-appointed CoOp store, we struggled to define “worth it” for this particular context. After heading back down to the valley, we made our way to the little town on Champsec, where our campground was located. Although it was a funky place, it was well-appointed and the friendly host welcomed us with fresh local apricots and strawberry wine. After reading the cloud patterns (okay, actually after checking the weather.com app) we tightened our rain fly and prepared for a soggy night.

Passing through the lovely town of Sembrancher on our way to Le Chable.

 

Day Four: Champsec to Cabane du Mont Fort

We awoke on Day Four to a very wet and rainy morning. We were so focused on keeping everything as dry as possible while packing up camp that it wasn’t until we were nearly finished with our coffee that we took a good look up at the surrounding mountains. Peaks that had been clear and rocky the previous day were now totally blanketed with a fresh layer of pillowy, white snow. All that rain we’d gotten down in the valley transpired to make for a heck of a July snowstorm at the higher elevations! Better yet, it was those very same high elevations that we were set to hike across for the next three days. Feeling mildly daunted but still optimistic, we caught the bus to Le Chable, where we phoned the Cabane du Mont Fort hut. The warden assured us that it would still be possible to hike up to the hut, but traversing the trail beyond that point would be “very difficult.” We were already booked to spend the night at Mont Fort, so we decided to continue the hike as planned and figure out our next move once we got there. This was one of our favorite days of hiking along the Haute Route. The trail wound up and up through picturesque meadows, misty, enchanting pine forests, and finally to the high alpine world. Best of all, the day involved nearly five hours of uphill walking and absolutely no long descents to speak of! Our knees were so happy. Upon arriving at the insanely cozy Cabane du Mont Fort, we were met with the wonderful surprise of receiving a private room. We spent the afternoon deliberating (first over coffee, then over beers) about tomorrow’s hike. We had originally planned to continue past the typical stopping point at Cabane de Prafleuri and wild camp near Refuge de La Barma. With the weather and trail conditions as they were, a very long day on sketchy, snowy trails followed by a night in our tent at high elevation sounded irresponsible at best. Even though we knew that the safest, best choice was to detour from the trail, the decision was still somewhat agonizing. Our sense of adventure beckoned us to take on the challenge, while a little voice in our heads warned that we’d be “cheating” if we didn’t do the whole thing. Ultimately, however, our sensible sides won out and we made a plan to detour around the unsafe sections. We have enough hiking experience to know that it’s always better to give mother nature the respect she deserves, rather than put ourselves in a situation that isn’t safe and certainly isn’t fun. After some great conversation with some cool hikers we met at the hut, we finally tucked into our first real beds in few days.

Cabane du Mont Fort is a classic mountain hut, well worth a visit!

 

Day Five: Mont Fort to Arolla

The section of trail between Cabane du Mont Fort and Pas de Chèvres stays at high elevations and is frequently impassable due to snow, rockfalls, or adverse weather conditions. Unfortunately, there are no lower-elevation trail options for connecting these two points, so it’s kind of a whole thing if you need to avoid these sections. If you can’t get as far as Prafleuri, your best bet is to go back to Le Chable and then use transit to get to Arolla (the next town the Haute Route passes through). This is what we ended up doing. It was a long day of riding gondolas, trains, and buses, but it was relatively easy to navigate and fun to see some different parts of the region. When we finally arrived at the campground in Arolla, we were delighted to learn that there were showers available (it had been a few days since we’d had one). The showers promised four minutes of hot water for 1 Euro, but as we waited in the shower line, word spread amongst campers that the hot water in the men’s room wasn’t working. Rather than risk squandering a euro on a disappointing four minutes or tepid showering, Ian decided instead to just take a fully cold shower. His report: “It was good…Kind of. It was kind of good.” What a champ.

Beautiful wildflowers on the trail near Arolla.

 

Day Six: Arolla to Pas de Chèvres

Although we weren’t able to cross the Pas de Chèvres (the pass leading into the valley towards Arolla), we decided we could still cover as much of the trail as possible from the other direction. On Day Six, we enjoyed the ultimate luxury of leaving our tent set up (we would camp another night at Arolla before continuing along our hike) and our heavy bags behind as we set off for our day on the trail. The hike up to the pass felt effortless without a 25-pound pack on! Pas de Chèvres is infamous for its series of long ladders and catwalks that traverse the steep rock wall up to the pass. In reality, the ladders are the easy part. They are sturdily secured to the mountain and quite easy to navigate. If you get a little antsy around heights (like I sometimes do), just take your time, maintain three points of contact, and they really aren’t so bad. The scramble through the boulderfield on the approach to the pass is another story, though. It is steep, difficult, and there have been several close calls recently with falling rocks. We didn’t have to cross this section since we approached the pass from the other direction, but we got a good look and can confirm that it is challenging. Definitely use caution when completing this part of the trail. Since we had the freedom of light loads and lots of time, we diverted from the Haute Route to check out some other trails in the surrounding area before descending back towards Arolla. After picking up some fresh apricots and dinner items at the shop in town, we made our way back to camp. We spent the evening enjoying some beers and some people watching, but decided to skip the cold showers this time.

Emily conquering the ladders at Pas des Chevres- thankfully without a heavy pack!

 

Day Seven: Arolla to Les Haudères

Day Seven promised to be a short, easy day of walking so we allowed ourselves a nice slow morning. After a lazy breakfast and an hour of drying out the tent in the sun, we made our way towards Les Haudères . We were excited to get there since this is where we’d scheduled our rest day and had splurged on an Airbnb for the occasion. The trail was a little less straightforward than we’d expected, as it undulated through dense forest and crossed narrow, exposed sections. However, it wasn’t too demanding, and we reached Lac Bleu before lunchtime. While this lake is a bit overrun by visitors, the vivid color is stunning(as implied by the name). Upon our arrival in Les Haudères , Emily’s high school French was put to the test when we needed to phone our Airbnb hosts to figure out how to get to our place. It’s one thing to fumble through speaking a foreign language in person (at least you can pantomime), but it’s a whole new world of challenge to do it over the phone without any context clues! Somehow, after some really pathetic French communication, we found ourselves getting into the car of a nice elderly man who claimed to be our host. This sounds like it could be the beginning of a cheesy horror movie, but fortunately it all worked out. The hosts and our flat were both downright lovely. For days, we’d been wanting to try a rosti, a regional dish that is essentially a giant hash brown pancake, and Ian cooked one up for dinner. It was a delicious start to our days off in Les Haudères.

The aptly-named Lac Bleu.

 

Day Eight: Les Haudères Rest Day

Today consisted of all of our favorite rest day pastimes: sink laundry, eating pastries, sitting at sunny cafes, strolling through quaint streets, and lots of, well, rest. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the town of Les Haudères , practicing our French, and soaking up the local culture. We went to bed ready and excited to get back on the trail for the second half of our Haute Route adventure.

Soaking up the village charm in Les Hauderes.

 

Day Nine: Les Haudères to Cabane de Moiry

We rose early on Day Nine and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast before beginning the steady climb through pretty alpine meadows towards Col du Tsaté. We enjoyed winding our way up through the lovely town of La Sage, and we didn’t see any other hikers on the trail until we were over the pass. It was pretty awesome to have the top to ourselves and we soaked in the breathtakingly rugged mountain views for a good while. It was one of our biggest days in terms of elevation gain (over 6,000 feet), but we both felt great after our rest day and made it to the hut before the forecasted afternoon rain moved in. Cabane de Moiry is a fantastic mountain hut that is perched impossibly high on a mountain ledge and jaw-droppingly close to the Moiry Glacier. The final ascent to the hut is quite steep and definitely presents a final challenge before reaching the beautifully renovated Cabane de Moiry. Upon reaching the hut, we shared an excellent blueberry tart and complimentary afternoon coffee in the all-glass dining room while studying the glacier for hours. This was our second and final stay in a mountain hut of our entire trip, so we decided to make the most of it! We still opted to self-cater on our camp stove outside instead of paying for the exorbitantly expensive dinner though, and we were rewarded with having the entire terrace to ourselves for most of the sunset hours. We were even lucky enough to see some Ibex poking around below the hut. We stayed up later than usual, enjoying good conversations with fellow hikers and playing board games well into the evening. We’ve noticed that the Haute Route definitely attracts a more experienced set of hikers, and it was cool to hear about people’s various treks and adventures. If you’re considering a stay at Cabane de Moiry, we highly recommend it! It’s an unforgettable experience.

Enjoying a wonderful stay at Cabane de Moiry!

 

Day Ten: Cabane de Moiry to Zinal

Cabane de Moiry really does have a spectacular location high on the mountainside, but those views come with a cost. While the hike up to the hut on the previous day was tiring but manageable, the steep hike down from it the next morning definitely felt a lot tougher. Maybe it was our cold legs or maybe it’s because there wasn’t a homemade blueberry tart waiting at the end this time, but whatever it was it made Emily very cranky. As the trail started to veer upwards again, so did our moods, and we enjoyed the lovely long traverse of the green hillside on a stunning balcony trail. The hike over Col de Sorebois was relatively easy (as far as Haute Route passes go at least), and we found ourselves making our way down towards Zinal in no time. We stopped for lunch at the gondola station where we found some very comfy lawn chairs to kick back in for awhile. After consuming way too many peanuts, we began the seemingly endless (yet thankfully mellow) switchbacks to get down to the valley floor. When we arrived at our campground, the adjacent restaurant was positively swarming with day-trippers eating ice cream and drinking beer. Despite the crowds and the strangeness of the place (think petting zoo meets mini-golf course meets campground), we happily settled in and enjoyed a lovely evening watching the sunset over the beautiful surrounding mountains.

Breathtaking views from the Col de Sorebois.

 

Day Eleven: Zinal to Gruben

Today’s destination, the tiny hamlet of Gruben, was slated to be our first wild camping of the trip. Since we wouldn’t be able to pitch our tent until after dark, we figured there was no point in rushing to leave our campsite and get on the trail early. It was nice to sleep in and take our time, but by the time we started the long ascent towards the Forcletta Pass it was very, very hot. Although we were spared the worst of the heat wave that was currently plaguing much of the rest of the continent (temps were reaching over 100 degrees in Paris!), the sun was still beating mercilessly down on us as we trudged uphill. After a difficult start, we found our rhythm, and enjoyed some beautiful scenery at the top of the pass (which we had to ourselves once again). In reading about today’s hike and the linguistic regions of Switzerland, we learned that we’d be crossing into the German-speaking side of Switzerland once we got across the pass. In fact, many people refer to this divide as the “rosti line,” as the potato dish is more commonly eaten in the German parts of the country. As we climbed our way up to the pass, we imagined a rosti stand at the top, serving up hot, salty rostis to all of the weary hikers who reached it. Alas, all we found at the top were a couple of cairns, some baby marmots, and some pretty incredible views. Oh well, maybe that’s better anyways. After a long and tiring descent, we finally reached Gruben in the early evening. The idea of another hour of hiking with our heavy packs in search of a suitable camping spot was totally daunting. We decided to take our shoes off and kick back for awhile in the shade of the town’s church before making any big moves. Feeling restored, we began by scouting along the river for a good campsite. We found a few spots that would work if they had to, but nothing great. Then we headed uphill along the trail, where we found a spot we were happy with. It was still too early to pitch our tent, so we hiked back down to Gruben and ordered some large beers at the hotel. This seems to be the thing to do; campers hang out at the hotel, drink a beer, wash up in the bathroom, and then head up the trail as inconspicuously as possible. It’s hard to tell if the hotel loves it or hates it, but at least they tolerated us and served us cold beers. At the hotel, we saw another group of hikers with the same plans as us. When they started putting their boots on after dinner, it became obvious to us that they must be wild camping. Who puts their stinky boots back on after a long day of hiking and a relaxing dinner unless they absolutely have to? Anyhow, after cooking our ramen on a bench in front of the church (we felt like total weirdos, but one local gentleman was very amused and bid us a hearty “Bon Appetit”) we made our way up the hillside. We set up camp quickly as the last of the light receded behind the high peaks and were asleep in no time.

Alpine lakes and glaciers made for a beautiful hike to Gruben.

 

Day Twelve: Gruben to Täsch

Wanting to be as discreet as possible, we woke up very early and packed up camp as the sun came up. We hiked up the trail for a bit before finding a pretty spot to have breakfast and make some coffee. It was nice to have a head start on the trail and enjoy the cool, fresh early morning air. I know I’ve said something along the lines of “amazing views” in nearly every post of this trip report, but believe me when I say that today’s views were really, really good. The trail climbed through a peaceful meadow, crossed the majestic Augustabord Pass, and wound its way through a large boulder field before rounding a shoulder to reveal the final valley of the hike. The snowy peaks, huge glaciers, and the deep, narrow green valley so far below came together to truly take our breath away. We were feeling good and savoring every moment until about halfway through the looooong descent into St. Niklaus. We had the option to take a gondola from Jungen to St. Niklaus to cut out a lot of the downhill slog, but we knew we needed to get several miles further along the valley to the town of Täsch (in order to camp and to be well-positioned to rejoin the Europaweg trail tomorrow), so we decided to use our “cheat” transportation to take a train from St. Niklaus to Täsch and cut out a couple hours of road walking in the valley instead. By the time we made it down to St. Niklaus, we were pretty wrecked. We were dehydrated (it was another very hot day), and each of us had a cacophony of aches and pains from so much steep downhill with a big pack. We finally stumbled into the campground in Täsch feeling totally spent. However, after some lukewarm beers, a loaf of bread, and copious amounts of hummus and bananas, we started to feel like ourselves again. Even though we were exhausted, it was more than a little sad and totally hard to believe that tomorrow was our final day on the Haute Route.

Peeking into the Mattertal Valley from Jungen…and realizing we still had a long downhill hike to get there!

 

Day Thirteen: Täsch to Zermatt

We awoke in Täsch feeling better than expected. We packed up camp and began an uphill hike through the trees towards the Europaweg trail. Originally, we thought we would need to do the entire valley trail in order to avoid staying at the Europa Hut, but after a little research we realized we could still hike the second half of the Europaweg Trail, the infamous high-level traverse at the finish of the Walker’s Haute Route. We were so glad we chose this option! For the first hour or so we hiked on switchbacks through dense forest until suddenly the Matterhorn revealed itself through the trees. Wow! What a stunning mountain! From there, the views only got better. Once we joined the Europaweg, we were spoiled with wide open views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks, and then down towards Zermatt, tucked in at the edge of the valley. The hiking was pretty easy, which was very appreciated on our tired bodies and allowed us to really take our time and savor the scenery. When we finally made our way into Zermatt, it was a bit of a shock to the system. There were more people and shops just in the town center than we’d seen on the rest of the hike combined! Also, for claiming to be a “car-free” town, there are a heck of a lot of electric taxis whizzing through the crowded pedestrian streets, making the whole atmosphere a bit chaotic. We struggled to find someplace casual enough to permit two very dirty backpackers to grab a celebratory finish beer, and eventually ended up on the patio of a surprisingly upscale Italian restaurant. We continued to struggle by accidentally ordering some sort of fancy syrup beer, which was not exactly the refreshing beverage we’d hoped for, but made for a funny experience nonetheless. After some showers and strolling around the town, we settled into the Zermatt campground with a bottle of wine and a picnic and reflected on our trip. The Haute Route was a unique and beautiful hike. We loved the variability of the landscape, as well as the many options for routes and variants along the way. It was a rewarding and unforgettable challenge, one that left us feeling like stronger, more experienced hikers and even more in love with these mountains than before.

All smiles heading into Zermatt!

Keep Reading

Be sure to read our entire series on the Haute Route to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for your trip!

 

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Laugavegur Trip Report

The Laugavegur Trail was our first of the five treks we’ll complete as part of our “trip of a lifetime” adventure. By booking our flights to Geneva (where we’ll start…

The Laugavegur Trail was our first of the five treks we’ll complete as part of our “trip of a lifetime” adventure. By booking our flights to Geneva (where we’ll start the Haute Route) through Iceland Air, we were able to get a free week-long stopover in Iceland on the way. We’d seen pictures of the otherworldly landscapes and colorful vistas, and couldn’t pass up a chance to experience Iceland’s wilderness firsthand. Due to its proximity to Reykjavik, relatively short distance, and exceptional beauty, we thought  hiking the Laugavegur Trial would be a perfect way to spend our week in Iceland.

The Laugavegur Trail is Iceland’s most popular and iconic long-distance trek. It is divided into four segments, each marked by a mountain hut and camping area at the finish. At the official end of the trail, there is the option to add on another day’s hike on the Fimmvorduhals Trail, which climbs up to pass between two glaciers and then descends into the small town of Skogar. Our plan was to combine the first two segments of the Laugavegur Trail on our first day to complete the entire thing and make it to Skogar in a total of four days. Keep reading for a summary of each of our days on the trail:

Views from Landmannalaugar and one of many amazing landscapes you’ll encounter on this hike.

 

Day Zero: Landmannalaugar

We arrived in Landmannalaugar in the afternoon with plans to camp there for the evening and then set off for our hike early(ish) the next morning.  Landmannalaugar is known for it’s amazing geothermal landscape, which is punctuated by otherworldly colors, random steam-spewing crevices, and some truly lovely hot springs. We almost talked ourselves into skipping the hot springs, considering the fact that we hadn’t brought swimsuits and didn’t want to haul around wet clothes in our packs for the next few days. Fortunately, Ian pulled the whole “It’s not everyday that you find yourself at some dope geothermal hot springs” card and I was quickly convinced. Us Coloradans would have preferred to soak in nude, but after a quick survey of the scene we determined that Iceland wasn’t ready for all that and opted to sacrifice one of our precious few pairs of underwear for the cause. Soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by dramatic mountains and dynamic colors in every direction was truly an unparalleled way to kick off our trek. We returned to a very chilly night in our tent before hitting the trail the next morning.

The lovely hot springs at Landmannalaugar.

 

Day One: Landmannalaugar to Hvangill

We began Day One in good spirits. The initial uphill climb helped us thaw out a bit (did I mention that Iceland is a cold place for camping?) and the views blew us away from the start. Iceland is like no other place on Earth that we’ve ever been. The geothermal activity, volcanic landforms, vibrantly colored mountains, wide rivers, black sand deserts, and powerful waterfalls all come together to give this place a character that is completely unique and totally spectacular. The first day of hiking on a long-distance trek is always a bit of a euphoria-filled blur.  For example, we were so blissed out on our first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc that we missed an obvious turn and walked in the wrong direction for an hour before realizing it. On our first day of the West Highland Way, we stopped for a very long lunch (whisky included) thinking we were much closer to our stopping point than we actually were. On the Laugavegur, the trail really gave new meaning to the expression, “a surprise around every corner.” It seemed like every hill we crested or bend we rounded presented a completely new and wondrous landscape. Despite hiking for over eight hours, we finished feeling energized and totally stokey about the next day. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we decided to combine the next two segments into another big day the following day. Why sit around and be cold at the campsite when we could spend the entire day exploring the trail?

Crossing snow on day one!

 

Day Two: Hvangill to Basar

On Day Two, we packed up camp in damp conditions and a literally bone-chilling wind. One plus side of this weather is that it makes instant coffee taste like the elixir of life. Another positive was that although we had nearly perfect weather throughout the hike, we did at least get a little taste of Iceland’s moody dark side. We set off towards the next hut feeling a little stiff after the previous day’s efforts but totally excited for what the trail would bring. We did have some trepidation however, as we’d read that the biggest of our river crossings would occur on this stage of the hike.  For such an expensive country with otherwise impeccable infrastructure, Iceland seems curiously reluctant to build bridges over rivers. Both people and vehicles are routinely expected to ford sizable rivers if they would like to carry on towards their destination. The warden’s notes at the previous huts warned hikers to take caution crossing the Emstur River, and recent reports suggested the water could reach mid-thigh depths. We’d hoped we’d get an hour or two of walking behind us to warm up before crossing the icy water, but lo and behold, we met it within a few minutes of starting the day. For the second time this week in Iceland, we found ourselves stripping down to our underwear and stepping into the steely glacial waters. This time, however, there was no geothermal action to soften the blow. We forged into the icy, fast-moving currents, carefully choosing every step even though we just wanted to run to the other side and get out as fast as possible. Well, that was one wickedly efficient way to wake up in the morning.

Nothing like crossing an ice cold river to wake you up in the morning.

 

The rest of Day Two was tremendously beautiful, but definitely more of a slog than Day One, due to very long stretches through rocky desert and the fact that our bodies were starting to feel the miles a bit more. Still, we saw so many amazing sights, like the enormous canyon where two rivers-one slate gray and the other sepia toned-together hundreds of feet below us. Finally, we reached Þórsmörk, the technical end of the Laugavegur. We bought a ridiculously overpriced, but yet so necessary, Twix bar at the Þórsmörk campsite shop and then continued on another mile to the campsite at Basar where we’d be better positioned to start the next day’s big hike. Upon reaching camp, the sun had fully made an appearance and we enjoyed some very relaxing evening hours soaking up the endless daylight before putting on our sleeping masks and turning in for the night.

End of the Laugavegur Trail at Þórsmörk.

 

Day Three: Basar to Skogar

Day Three brought more excellent sunny weather, and we knew we had to take advantage of it and bust out the last big day of walking before allowing ourselves a rest day. Today we would complete the Fimmvorduhals Trail.  Have you ever wanted to climb between two glaciers, see the youngest mountains on earth, witness recent volcanic eruptions where black ash meets white snow, crest a mountain pass to see the ocean in the distance, or gaze at 20 waterfalls all in one day? Well we never knew we wanted all those things either until we hiked this trail, but it turns out that it definitely doesn’t suck. You’ve got to work for your views though.  The trail included some ridiculously steep climbs, a mildly sketchy exposed section, and lots of hiking through slushy snow fields. Technically, today was supposed to be way harder in terms of challenge than the previous day, but we both felt significantly better. It was one of those all-around perfect days in nature.

The second half of the Fimmvörðuháls Trail passes no less than 17 waterfalls!

 

Reaching the end of the hike was an interesting experience. Skogar, where the Fimmvorduhals terminates, is a huge draw for tourists due to its proximity to the main highway and its very impressive waterfall, known as Skogafoss.  To us, after being on the lightly trafficked trail for the past few days, it felt like a total zoo. Giant buses dropped off camera-wielding tourists who aggressively fought their way into position for the perfect Instagram shot.  It was such an entertaining spectacle that we had no other choice to embrace it and relish the experience. The campground was smack dab in the center of the action, so we enjoyed an endless stream of premium people-watching from the comfort of our tent. The waterfall views were pretty sweet too. Although we appreciated Skogar for what it was worth, we realized pretty quickly that we would struggle hang around at the campground for the nearly 48 hours until our bus was scheduled to pick us up (since we finished a day early). Fortunately, we were able to change our tickets and decided to make the most of our extra time by heading back to Reykjavik, where we spent the night at the lovely Reykjavik Campground.

The Laugavegur Trail completely blew us away. Every day brought dramatic beauty, dynamic challenges, and huge, wild spaces.  It was an unforgettable experience and the most incredible way to kick off our round-the-world adventure. Iceland’s rugged landscape is bound to carve a special place in the heart of anyone who is lucky enough to explore it.

Crowds gathered at the Skogafoss Waterfall.

 

What’s Next?

Ready to keep planning your Laugavegur trek? Be sure to read our entire series on the Laugavegur Trail to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for this incredible adventure!

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West Highland Way Trip Report

We completed Scotland’s iconic West Highland Way with a couple of friends in July of 2018.  The trail is 96 miles (154 km) long and took us eight days to…

We completed Scotland’s iconic West Highland Way with a couple of friends in July of 2018.  The trail is 96 miles (154 km) long and took us eight days to complete. The West Highland Way is an ideal trek for campers, as there’s a wealth of lovely places to pitch a tent along the route. Be sure to check out our Camping Guide for detailed maps, facility descriptions, booking information and more. In the meantime, we wrote this post to share about the less technical and more personal aspects of our journey in hopes that it will get you excited to embark your own WHW adventure. Read on for inspiration, advice, photos, and insider’s tips.

Day One: Milngavie to Drymen (5 hours)

As mentioned above, we hiked the West Highland Way with another couple.  Since we were each traveling separately prior to starting the hike, we had made a plan in advance to meet at the official WHW starting point on the morning of Day One.  Seeing our friends (who we hadn’t seen in nearly a year) in another country at the trailhead was about as good as it gets. Feeling totally jazzed, we set off on the flat and shady path towards Drymen.  We enjoyed warm, sunny weather the entire day as we walked through rolling hills and bucolic farmland.

Easy walking from Milngavie to Drymen.

Having read our Trailblazer guidebook (highly recommended, by the way), we knew to look for the Glengoyne Distillery as we neared Drymen. Without hesitation, we took the slight detour from the trail to check it out. We were expecting a quaint, hiker-friendly tasting room in which we could unload our dusty packs for a wee dram before continuing on our way.  Instead, we found ourselves in something that felt a little more Disneyland than Scotland.  The woman at the visitor’s center informed us that there was in fact no tasting room, and we would have to pay royally for an hour-long tour if we wanted to taste their whisky.  Perhaps she saw the disappointment on our sweaty faces or maybe she just wanted to find a way to keep us from going on the tour, because she then proceeded to offer another option.  She suggested that we buy some shooter bottles in the gift shop as an alternative.

Glengoyne Distillery is just off The Way.

So a few minutes later we found ourselves back along the trail, picnicking in the sunshine while sipping on some fine whisky.  Not a bad lunch break! The final hours of the day were challenging due to the long, hot stretches of road walking and the newness of having a heavy pack on our backs. We arrived at Drymen Camping early enough to secure a nice pitch, grab a hot shower, and savor some slow hours spent looking out across the green hills.

Day Two: Drymen to Sallochy (7 hours)

We awoke to gray skies, but the rain was kind enough to hold off until we’d packed up camp. After a relaxed breakfast of coffee and muesli, we hit the road.  Knowing that we needed to stock up on provisions, we made an early detour into the town of Drymen.  As we were picking up the customary instant noodles and granola bars, we made an important discovery in the bakery aisle: fresh, warm chocolate croissants! If there’s something better than a hot pastry on a damp and chilly morning, we haven’t found it yet.

Back on the trail, we headed towards Conic Hill, the first real ascent of the trek. As we climbed upwards, the rain grew steadier and the landscape became more rugged.  The steely weather made the scenery even more beautiful.  After cresting Conic Hill, we descended steeply towards Balmaha and caught our first glimpses of Loch Lomond.

Approaching the top of Conic Hill.

Shoreline walking on Day Two.

We made a quick, impulsive stop in Balmaha to pick up a bottle of wine for the evening (it was vacation after all), and then continued along the shores of the loch towards our campsite. Arriving at Sallochy, we had our pick of gorgeous lochside campsites, each with private beach access. We quickly made camp as the rain picked up again. Once it let up, we enjoyed a damp but fabulous dinner while watching the evening light play across the expansive loch.

A lovely lochside pitch at Sallochy Campground.

Day Three: Sallochy to Beinglas Farm (9 hours)

We’re still scratching our heads as to how this happened, but on Day Three we didn’t start walking until about 10:00am.  Knowing this was our longest and most difficult day, this was especially idiotic. The first part of the hike started innocently enough, ambling along gentle dirt roads.  A few hours in, we stopped at the adorable Cherry Tree Cafe for a slice of lemon cake and some fresh fruit, patting ourselves on the back for making it to the “halfway point.” Little did we know, we really had another five hours of hiking ahead of us!

The Cherry Tree Cafe makes for a great lunch break along Loch Lomond.

As we continued along the trail, it grew more and more challenging.  Hugging the shoreline, the path afforded some spectacular views of the lake, but also presented us with steep, undulating hills, technical rocky sections, and lots of ducking over and around tree branches. It was slow going, especially with heavy packs on.  Bearing in mind that we had to get past the end of the loch, it was a bit torturous to keep looking out at the long lake and viewing just how far we still had to go.

Leaving Inversnaid, the trail continues to follow Loch Lomond for a few more miles.

The steep ascent away from Loch Lomond.

When we finally reached the end of Loch Lomond, we still had a long climb and another hour or so of walking before we reached Beinglas Farm campground.  Learn from our mistake and don’t underestimate this stage of the hike! We finally arrived at Beinglas weary but very happy.  After a hot shower in the luxurious facilities, we opted to forgo stove cooking and treat ourselves to curry and beer in the restaurant. It was a splurge, but totally worth it. As we wandered back to our tent rather delirious from the exhaustion and a few pints, we didn’t realize that the campsite had transformed into a full blown midge-fest once the sun had set. Before we knew it, we were absolutely covered in the little buggers.  Up until this point, we’d experienced a few midges, but we now understood what all the hype was about. Luckily, we escaped into the shelter of our tent and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

Beinglas Farm camping.

Day Four: Beinglas Farm to Strathfillan (6 hours)

Day Four brought a much easier day of walking, and we didn’t mind at all. About halfway into the day, we took the twenty-minute detour into Crianlarich.  There, we stopped at the supermarket for a lunchtime feast of cheese sandwiches, bananas, and cookies- a real upgrade to our typical backpacking lunch which consists of handfuls of peanuts and not much else. Throughout the day, we did a lot of gentle climbing and passed several sheep farms.

Gentle walking through beautiful scenery.

Highland cattle grazing at Strathfillan.

Our day ended in a gorgeous valley, surrounded by green hills in every direction.  We arrived at the quirky Strathfillan Wigwams just as the sun began to peek through the clouds.  Although the place was a little strange (think Native American motifs and a slightly sad petting zoo), the actual campsite was downright stunning.  The valley offered peaceful, wide open views punctuated only by the occasional sound of sheep bleating. We forked over the extra fees for hot showers and laundry, and then we enjoyed a fabulous (midge-free) dinner at a picnic table near our tents. It was one of those perfect evenings: great weather, good times with friends, and a totally relaxed atmosphere.

Beautiful sunset at the Strathfillan Wigwams.

Day Five: Strathfillan to Bridge of Orchy (4 hours)

Due to the great conversation, easy walking, and gorgeous weather, this day flew by and we were at Bridge of Orchy before we knew it! The path followed the highway for quite a long stretch which didn’t make for the most ideal walking conditions, but the scenery was still pretty fabulous. Upon reaching Bridge of Orchy, we set up camp, soaked our feet in the river, and then headed up to the hotel for some afternoon beers. Expert tip: the stout at the hotel bar is really excellent.  The evening proved to be relatively midge-free, so we were able to enjoy our time outside long into the evening.

Beinn Dorain dominates the walk to Bridge of Orchy.

Lovely camping at Bridge of Orchy.

Bridge of Orchy frames the Highlands beyond.

Day Six: Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe Mountain Resort (4 3/4 hours)

We awoke  at Bridge of Orchy to another spectacularly sunny day. This stage of the trail was the most remote of the entire trek, winding through wide open moors and breathtaking highlands scenery. As we skirted past Rannoch Moor, fifty square miles of uninhabited wilderness, we remarked on the goodness of such wild land in an increasingly developed world.

Rannoch Moor, 50 square miles of uninhabited wilderness.

We tackled a few good climbs on this section, which was a nice change of pace from the mostly flat walking of the previous few days. After another short day, we arrived at the campground at Glencoe Mountain Resort. We’d heard that there was free camping further along the trail at Kingshouse Hotel, but since it was under construction we didn’t know what the conditions would be like.  Deciding to play it safe, we opted to stop at Glencoe instead.  Embracing the developed, ski-resorty vibe, we enjoyed a few pints in the lodge.

Buachaille Etive Mòr comes into view approaching Glencoe Moutain Resort.

Despite its location next to a large car park, our campsite had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Upon retiring to our tents after hanging out at the lodge, we discovered that the campground was being used by some enterprising kids as a mountain biking course.  We watched as they repeatedly caught air, landing within a foot or two of the surrounding tents.  It was pretty impressive and rather funny, but didn’t lend itself well to an early bedtime.  Eventually, as the sun set and the rain began, the kids packed it up for the evening and we did the same.

Great views from our campsite at Glencoe Mountain Resort.

Day Seven: Glencoe Mountain Resort to Kinlochleven (5 hours)

We started Day Seven in very wet, cold conditions.  After cooking breakfast under the covered porch of the lodge building, we forced ourselves to step out into the rain.  As is typical of these types of things, the rain wasn’t as bad as it looked.  Even better, it soon eased up into a more gentle mist.  As we walked towards the infamous “Devil’s Staircase,” we spotted several red deer set amidst the breathtaking valley views.

The walk towards the Devil’s Staircase.

Hiking into the clouds on the Devil’s Staircase.

Views from the top.

As for the dreaded staircase, it was a steep ascent, but nothing too terrible.  Plus, the views just kept getting better as we climbed! After a lunch break at the top, we began the winding descent to Kinlochleven.  If your knees are anything like mine, you’ll agree that the downhill portion of this day is way harder than the climb up Devil’s Staircase! In any case, we eventually made it down to our final campground of the trip. The Trailblazer guide describes Kinlochleven as “an ugly, modern village,” but we found it to be quite charming. It has an industrial vibe, but one that’s balanced out by friendly people, quaint pubs, and a beautiful natural setting.

Picnicking at the MacDonald Hotel.

We camped at the MacDonald Hotel, which was situated in a quiet location right on the edge of Loch Leven. Since the rain had cleared up, we decided to have one final picnic in this lovely setting.  After picking up wine, cheese, olives, and an assortment of other goodies in town, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner on the banks of the loch.

Day Eight: Kinlochleven to Fort William (7 hours)

Knowing we had another long day ahead, we applied the lessons learned on Day Three and made sure we were up and out a bit earlier this time. The day began with a fairly steep climb out of Kinlochleven, then passed through the wild expanse of the Lairigmor. We took our time on this final day, savoring our last hours of fresh air, simpler routines, and great companionship.

The winding path through the Larigmor.

As we neared Fort William, Ben Nevis came into view. This massive mountain is completely captivating, and we made frequent stops to admire it and snap more photos than were probably necessary. For the final stretch into Fort William, we took an alternate route in order to avoid another long stretch of road walking.  We followed the Cow Hill trail, which involved one last climb up to some great views of the town below.  Upon arriving in Fort William, walkers are required to traverse the entire length of the main commercial district before arriving at the official end of the Way. While it was a bit of a shock to the system to be back in the hustle and bustle of the town, the final stretch was fun and festive.

Catching a glimpse of Ben Nevis on our final day of walking!

We celebrated our achievement with  a delicious pub dinner at the Grog and Gruel, followed by an ice cream cone and a stroll through town. In the morning, we rode the train back to Glasgow.  As we sipped coffee, we gazed out at the green wilderness, recounting stories from the previous week, and soaking in the lifelong memories we had made on this amazing experience.

What’s Next?

Enjoyed reading our trip report and ready to get to work planning your own West Highland Way adventure? Be sure to read our entire series on the West Highland Way to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for your trip!

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Milford Track Trip Report

For many, walking the four-day Milford Track is a once in a lifetime experience. Known as the ‘finest walk in the world’ the Milford Track traverses a remote section of…

For many, walking the four-day Milford Track is a once in a lifetime experience. Known as the ‘finest walk in the world’ the Milford Track traverses a remote section of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park and includes such incredible sights as Sutherland Falls, Mackinnon Pass, Mackay Falls and the stunning beauty of Milford Sound. I walked the Milford Track in late October, at the very beginning of the tramping season in Fiordland. This Milford Track trip report will help prepare those interested in walking this incredible route for this 53.5 km hike.

Arthur River

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Tour du Mont Blanc- Our Trip Report

We hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc in July 2017 over 11 days, including one rest day. We camped the majority of the nights (see our guide to camping the…

We hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc in July 2017 over 11 days, including one rest day. We camped the majority of the nights (see our guide to camping the Tour du Mont Blanc here) and stayed in a few fantastic Refuges and hotels along the way. You can find a plethora of information about the route on the internet and available through the recommended Cicerone guidebook, but the goal of this photo-filled trip report is to provide inspiration and motivation for folks considering embarking on this great adventure! We’ve included some basic information and reflections on each stage, but our main focus of this post is showing off some of the amazing scenery you will encounter on the Tour du Mont Blanc!

If you’re wondering what we packed for this adventure be sure to check out our packing list here!

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