I’m going to start this post with a bold statement: the GR20 is the best hike I’ve done. I’ve loved the Spaghetti Tour in the Italian Alps, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, Hadrians Wall, the Coast to Coast, the West Highland Way, but the GR20 is the one that really takes my breath away whenever I think about it. It’s not an easy walk, in fact it’s the most difficult one I’ve done, but it’s absolutely worth it and I can guarantee that you’ll finish this hike with new friends, new memories and a new appreciation for just how stunning it can be up in the mountains. This post will act a guide to what to expect on the GR20, hopefully inspiring you to give it a go yourself.
What is the GR20?
The GR20 is a two-week hike along the ‘backbone’ of Corsica, most commonly walked from north to south. It’s considered to be the most difficult hike in Europe, which I think is due to the rocky terrain, steep inclines and the climate (it’s pretty hot there in summer).
The GR20 starts in Calenzana and heads south with significant ascents and descents but equally spectacular views, winding through rocky ridges, mountain forests, pretty villages and glacial lakes. The first half of the route, the northern section, is the toughest part with the steepest ascents/descents and areas of scrambling, not to mention finding your mountain feet!
After the first week, you’ll find yourself in the small village of Vizzavona, marking the end of the northern section and the start of the slightly easier southern section which continues through to the end point of Conca. From here we got a transfer to the port town of Bastia for a final meal and a night on the town – at which point, after avoiding any injuries during two weeks of hiking, I managed to sprain my foot dancing.
Booking Your GR20 Trip
We booked through tour operator KE Adventure Travel. In my Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn post, I’ve listed a load of reasons for using a tour company such as KE, but in the case of the GR20 the main reason was that it’s not an easy walk and there are some technical parts, so having a guide who knew what they were doing was really important to us. The fact that we didn’t have to worry about any of the planning, had all of our food provided and didn’t have to carry two weeks worth of luggage was a huge bonus!
I’ve had fantastic experiences with KE Adventure Travel and would highly recommend them if you’re happy to pay a little more for a company that you can 100% trust.
What to Expect on the GR20 in Terms of Difficulty
It’s important to mention what you should expect on the GR20 in terms of difficulty. The GR20 covers 180km in distance and 10,000m of ascent with tough terrain, including a fair amount of scrambling as I’ve already mentioned. The weather is hot (I got a fantastic tan) and the days are long, and most of the time you’re camping or staying in mountain huts so you can’t even end the day with a hot shower and comfortable bed!
Based on this, I would only recommend the GR20 if you have prior experience of long distance hikes and have a good level of physically fitness… I was fairly fit at the time (standard 2-3 times a week gym sessions but nothing major) but I wish I’d be a lot fitter. I was one of the slower ones in the group, but I’d have loved to have been racing up the mountains to be the first one to see the views!
Please don’t let this put you off though, if you want to hike the GR20 just make sure you get in some walking before and train in the gym!
I racked my brains as to best way to tell you what to expect on the GR20, and figured the best way to do this was to share my highlights. Of course there were lows (crying all the way up a mountain early one morning as a result of too many Corsican beers the night before) as well as highs, but I’ve already covered the difficultly so I think it’s fair to focus on the highs now!
Ok this one isn’t strictly about the GR20 … and I’m sure that not everyone booking onto a group tour gets company as amazing as we did. Chatting to interesting people from different walks of life was a great way to pass the time, and everyone was so motivating through the harder bits. I laughed a LOT on this trip!
Particular mention needs to be made to my Dad (obviously, because he’s amazing); our incredibly experienced and knowledgable tour guide Coralie; Peter, who was like a second dad to me on this trip, Isabelle, my Australian idol; and Shaun, who is one of the funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But honestly, everyone in our group was amazing!
I appreciate this is a really obvious one, but I’m still going to mention it. There wasn’t a second where the views weren’t stunning, but the moment that sticks with me was when we made it to the top of our first ascent on day one. I wasn’t expecting how magical it would be, and it brought a little tear to my eye. Being constantly surrounded by natural beauty for two weeks puts your life into perspective and, as cheesy as it is, makes you feel very lucky to be on this planet.
I didn’t take my phone with me on the GR20, as there would be little signal anyway. This meant two full weeks of being totally disconnected from the world, meaning that I could fully focus on being present in my surroundings and enjoying the company of the people I was with. Combine this with sunshine, fresh air, exercise and breathtaking scenery and you have the recipe for complete relaxation! I absolutely felt my best self on this trip, even when I was struggling up the steepest inclines or trying to sleep through the snoring of my hut mates.
Roughing it on the GR20
Our proximity to civilisation varied throughout the trip. Some nights we were in small villages which could be reached by car, meaning that our luggage could be driven to us. This meant that we could get clean clothes and enjoy small luxuries (like moisturiser) that we had sacrificed in the name of a light backpack. In a some of these cases, we were staying in hotels which also meant a hot shower and a comfortable bed!
Other nights, we were either camping or sleeping in mountain huts in the middle of nowhere, with only the things we were carrying on our backs. This meant no hot water (sometimes no showers at all), squat toilets and sleeping on the floor. This might sound like hell, but these were my favourite nights as I loved the feeling of remoteness and the appreciation of the absolute basics.
The lack of showers meant bathing in natural rock pools (and yes, washing hair under waterfalls in some cases, obviously with environmentally friendly products), always accompanied by a can or several of Corsican beer and good conversation. This was followed by an evening relaxing with new friends over food and beer, admiring the sunsets (another highlight) and reflecting on the day.
The Night Sky
This gets it’s own section because it was my number one highlight. On one of the camping nights the sky was clear and the air was warm so I bravely slept outside. The downside of this was waking up in the morning with a cow standing over me, but I will never, ever forget waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the most magnificent cosmos above me. I used every strength I had to try to keep my eyes open longer to admire it, but the GR20 is a tough hike!
The Sense of Achievement
The GR20 was really hard at times, and sometimes I’d be half way up a mountain and have no idea how I would make it the top. And two weeks is a long time to be doing the same (difficult) thing every day. But the sense of achievement at the end (even the sense of achievement at the top of each ascent and at the end of each day) made it completely worth it. Even better, I made it through the entire trip without any injuries, other than the sprained ankle on the last night which I’ve already mentioned.
Hopefully this post has given you a good idea of what to expect on the GR20, and inspired you to look into completing it yourself. If you’ve hiked the GR20 already, I’d love to hear what you thought about it. And of course, if you have any questions please feel free to get in touch. Finally, if you enjoyed this post you might also like these:
- 10 Things I Learnt on the Spaghetti Tour
- Mountain Huts: What to Expect and How to Survive
- What to Pack for Glacier Hiking in the Alps
- A Guide to Planning, Booking and Walking the West Highland Way
- Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn
- Crib Goch and Snowdon