The GR20 Nord: Trip Report

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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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