a conversation with the earth guidebooks + inspiration + insight

Posts categorized “Go Far”.

Outdoor Gear Shops Are Off Route Without Guidebooks

outdoor storeBecause we publish hiking guidebooks, whenever we enter an outdoor gear shop we notice if it carries guidebooks. If it does, we always take a few minutes to examine how the books are merchandised. For example, when we went to Yeti—an outdoor gear shop in Montreal, Quebec—we saw it carries few guidebooks and displays them behind the sales counter where customers cannot reach them. Our intention here is not to criticize Yeti in particular. It’s an otherwise well-stocked gear shop. The salesperson we spoke with (regarding waterproof gloves) was knowledgeable and helpful. Our point is that how Yeti handles guidebooks is typical of nearly every outdoor shop we’ve ever visited. They seem to believe guidebooks are peripheral to their business and of scant interest to customers. With the exception of MEC*, the big chain stores are no different. For example, every REI store we’ve visited in the U.S. has only a small, token bookshelf virtually hidden where customer traffic is minimal. This is a mistake. Outdoor gear shops are overlooking the fact that hiking guidebooks ARE gear. Guidebooks are essential to hikers’ enjoyment and safety. Besides, guidebooks drive experience. Experience then drives interest in gear. If outdoor shops recognized this truth and acted on it by stocking more guidebooks and merchandising them more effectively, they’d boost clothing and equipment sales. (Case in point: us. We took interest in Yeti’s extensive selection of gloves because of our experiences hiking with wet, cold hands.) Attention outdoor gear shops: You’re ignoring a significant revenue stream. You’re failing to serve an important customer need. And you’re falling short of what must have been your original goal: help more people enjoy the outdoors.

*Mountain Equipment Co-op stores in Canada do a superior job of stocking and merchandising hiking guidebooks. Way to go MEC!

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Southern Utah: Snow-Free Winter Wonderland for Hikers

The Opinionated Hikers On Patrol For You

Since mid-November, we’ve been hiking in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park, in south-central Utah.

We’ve been alone. Under sunny skies. On bare slickrock, free of snow or ice. And it’s been glorious.

                      (Click on a photo once enlarge. Click on it again to enlarge fully.)

The daytime temperatures have been comfortable: about 54° F  (12° C). The nights have, of course, been well below freezing, but we’ve been dayhiking, not backpacking, so frigid nights have not deterred us.

Minimal daylight (sunrise at about 7:21 am, sunset at about 5 pm) necessitates we start early and be vigilant about our turn-around time. But that’s the only drawback here, in the season when hiking is fraught with discouragement across most of North America.

Looking ahead, into the first week of December, the weather forecast remains optimistic: no precipitation, and daytime highs nipping above 40° F (4° C). So we’ll continue ranging into the backcountry.

Our intention isn’t to gloat. It’s to prod you to consider a winter visit to canyon-country. By February, the high-desert terrain at about 4800 ft (1463 m) will again likely offer the optimal hiking conditions we’re enjoying now.

To plan your trip, get our book: Hiking From Here to Wow, Utah Canyon Country. You’ll find it online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Hiking-Here-WOW-Canyon-Country/dp/089997452X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448821951&sr=8-1&keywords=hiking+from+here+to+wow+utah

Walk on!

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Where to Road Cycle in Quebec

The following road rides rank among our favourites in Quebec. All are from the guidebook we relied on most often: Le Quebec en 30 Boucles. (A boucle is a loop.) Like the other guidebooks we used, it’s in French. But the maps are excellent, and if you can read of bit of French, you can easily decipher where to begin the ride, then follow the map the rest of the way. The trip numbers here correspond to those in the book:

Trip 2 – The description suggests riding on the roads through much of Gatineau Park, just north of Ottawa. But we preferred staying on the extensive bike paths in the park and along both shores of the Ottawa River.

Trip 4  Laurentides: Brebeuf, La Conception. Often along Riviere Rouge. Length: 57 km. Gain: 267 m.

Trip 5 – Laurentides: Monteregie et Ontario. Along the Ottawa River, passing many historic, stone homes on the N bank. Length: 70 km. Gain: 179 m.

Trip 6 – A beautiful, vigourous loop passing several lakes. Length: 79 km. Gain: 645 m.

Trip 10 – Mascouche / Crabtree / L’Epiphanie. A relatively quiet ride in the countryside just NE of Montreal. Length: 54 km. Gain: 88 m.

Trip 12 – Cantons-de-l’Est (Eastern townships, near  Sherbrooke). Bedford, Dunham. We liked best the section between Frelighsburg and Pigeon Hill. Length: 83 km. Gain: 468 m. But you’ll see options to shorten it.

Trip 13 – Richelieu River: NE of Montreal-St Marc Richelieu /Antoine sur Richelieu / St Denis Richelieu. Length: 47.5 km. Gain: 60 m. 

Trip 16 – Mauricie et Quebec. Cycling on the historic Chemin du Roy, beside le Fleuve St. Laurent, you’ll visit a a few of the most beautiful villages and eglises in Quebec: St. Anne-de-le-Perade, St. Casimir, and Grondines. Length: 62 km. Gain: 146 m.

Trip 17 – Cantons-de-l’Est. Magog, ESE of Montreal. To shorten the ride and avoid some of the Magog traffic, start in St. Catherine-de-Hatley. Visit North Hatley, Hatley, Ayer’s Cliff, and Lac Massawippi. Length: either 58 or 78 km. Gain 600 m.

Trip 24 – Chaudiere-Appalaches. Along the le Fleuve St. Laurent, this ride takes in Beaumont, St. Michel de Bellechasse, and St. Vallier. Length: 54 km. Gain 179 m.

Trip 29 – Bas St. Laurent et Gaspesie. Hwy 132 along the St Laurent is usually very busy, so it’s not enjoyable. If you cycle this, travel from W to E so the prevailing wind is at your back. The section from Metis-Sur-Mer up to St. Octave is tranquil and lovely, with views over farmlands to the le Fleuve St. Laurent. Length: 83 km. Gain: 423 m.

Not Recommended – Trip 25 – I’lle-d’Orleans. There’s virtually no shoulder on the road circling this island outside Quebec City. The asphalt is terribly broken and rutted. Traffic is nearly constant. We didn’t enjoy it. It often felt dangerous.

The following, two road rides rank among our favourites in the Montreal area. Both are from the guidebook titled 15 Circuits Autour de Montréal — Itinéraraires de 63 à 107 km. The maps are detailed and indicate distances between each junction. But the book does not state the elevation gain for each ride. The trip numbers here correspond to those in the book:

Trip 8 – Lachine / Chateauguay / Voie Maritime. We did this 70-km loop on a Saturday, when it seemed all of Montreal was outdoors, in the parks and on the bike paths. It was exhilarating to experience the city by flowing along with the energy and enthusiasm of the locals. Because we were camping at the KOA in St. Phillippe (10 minutes from Sainte Catherine), we started on the Voie Maritime (La Riveraine)—a narrow strip of land in the le Fleuve St. Laurent. The ferry from Lachine departs at 11:15 am, 1:45 pm, 4:45 pm. If you want to shorten the loop, from Lachine you can return on Les Bergers path along the S shore of Montreal to cross Pont Champlain.

Trip 11 – An easy, nearly level loop starting in St. Martine. Traffic was minimal. Pavement was good. The undulating agricultural land was a constantly soothing sight. Length: 65 km or 76.9 km

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50 Impressions from a Cycling/Camping Trip in Quebec

                          click on photo once to enlarge, click on it again to enlarge fully

Most of the time we’re HikingCamping. But once in a while we take a break from the trail and become CyclingCamping.

For the first month of this summer, we were in Quebec—road biking nearly every day, camping in every night.

We visited much of the southern half of the province: from Gatineau in the west, to the east end of Gaspésie. Sure, we stopped in Quebec City and Montreal. Other prominent waypoints were Charlevoix, Mt. Tremblant, Saguenay, Lac St. Jean, and the Chic Choc Mountains. But our goal was to pedal quiet, scenic roads, and admire villages en route.

The province trumpets itself as a cyclists’ haven. Promotional materials—provincial, regional, local—work in concert to give the impression Quebec rivals Europe for safe, beautiful bicycling opportunities. Cycling maps are available free-of-charge at most tourist info centres. “Share the road with cyclist” signage is ubiquitous. Bike lanes beside roadways are pervasive. Dedicated bike paths are common.

So, did our experience corroborate the hype? And how did we feel about the scenery we witnessed? The people we met? The camping along the way? What encouragement or warnings can we offer others contemplating a similar journey?

Here you go. 50 impressions of Quebec from a couple of trailer-toting road bikers:

(1) The effort Quebec has made to welcome cyclists and accommodate cycling is admirable. We gratefully applaud.

(2) Quebecois motorists, however, don’t get it. Many are oblivious to cyclists. Some are so intentionally rude it seems they resent sharing the road. Overall, they drive very aggressively—not just in the big cities but throughout the province. 90 kph in 60 kph zones seemed to be the norm. We’ve cycled in many countries, but only in Quebec have cars heading toward us been passed by speeding motorists who could obviously see us riding toward them. It’s an outrage: dangerous and alarming. And it happened to us several times.

(3) Though Quebec is Canada’s second-largest province, it’s the most populous: 8 million people. So the busy-ness, the buzzy-ness of Quebec should not have surprised us. But it did. No place on our entire trip did we escape traffic. Everywhere we drove or pedaled, Quebec is inhabited. Of course, the far north is dominated by forests, lakes and streams, and pierced by few roads. The rest? Plenty of roads, but far too many people, and way too many cars driving much too fast, for it to feel like a cycling haven.

(4) The roads in Quebec are worse than those we cycled in Cuba (http://www.hikingcamping.com/free-cycling-cuba.php). That is to say, they’re positively third world. Long stretches of pavement are so broadly and deeply fissured, it’s as if they’ve been clawed by rampaging dinosaurs. Potholes certain to damage a road-bike wheel are common. Often, the crumbling roads have been “repaired” with patches so rough they too are serious obstacles for road bikers. The quality of the roads here is appalling. In our experience, smooth pavement is rare in Quebec. You’ll find it on some major highways, but only sporadically on the smaller roads appealing to cyclists. Sure, winters are long and cold here. Sure, the weather is hard on pavement. But cycling aside, the pavement in Quebec is in such desperate decay, it must contribute to automobile accidents. How can a province that inflicts such a heavy tax burden on its citizens (15% sales tax!) not have sufficient funds to properly maintain its roads?

(5) Despite reckless drivers, traffic, and lousy pavement (points 2, 3 & 4) we enjoyed the cycling, the province, and the people. We’re glad we invested so much time there. In the end, it was hard to for us to leave.

(6) The Quebecois (in person, not in their cars) are open, friendly, welcoming. Nearly all were kind and helpful. They seemed to laugh readily and easily. We enjoyed them very much.

(7) The Quebecois were always surprised when they discovered we were from Alberta. And not just surprised, but grateful and impressed that we’d made the long journey. Apparently not many western Canadians drive to and throughout Quebec. Our entire time here, we saw only a couple B.C. and Alberta license plates, and none from Manitoba or Sakatchewan.

(8) The farther east you go in Quebec, the less English is spoken. It seemed to us that many, perhaps most, residents of Montreal are comfortably bilingual. But we passed entire days in Gaspésie when nobody we met spoke English.

(9) When traveling throughout Quebec, it’s helpful to have at least a small, emergency “tool-kit” French vocabulary. Better yet to have a few French phrases to ease your way through common situations. It’s simply good manners. It shows respect. And sometimes, a little French might be necessary to communicate accurately.

(10) Still, vastly more Quebecois speak English than western Canadians speak French.

(11) Not once did we encounter any resentment toward us as Albertans, or toward us as Anglophones who speak French like drunken oafs.

(12) The ability to read French is essential if using Quebec cycling guidebooks. We found no English-language editions.

(13) The four cycling guidebooks we used and recommend are Le Quebec en 30 Boucles, Le Québec Cyclable ? Pistes Cyclables au Québec, 15 Circuits Autour de Montréal ? Itinéraraires de 63 à 107 km, and Le Québec à Vélo, 20 Circuits Découverte au Québec. All are available online from Mountain Equipment Co-op (www.mec.ca).

(14) Cycling guidebooks like these can be a helpful reference for traveling. They direct your attention to villages you might otherwise miss when motoring and following only a highway map. They also reveal walking opportunities.

(15) The province is wonderfully green, lush, verdant. Small farms are prolific.

(16) Outside the cities and major towns, most of Quebec that we drove or cycled through is inhabited—consistently but not densely. On the bike routes we chose, we were forever passing houses and farms. Typically, each was within sight of another, yet all were surrounded by land (mostly cultivated), thus all possessed a measure of privacy. It seemed to us a very pleasing, rural environment.

(17) Even the smallest Quebecois villages appear to be pinned to the Earth by the gleaming, silver steeple of a Catholic church. Many of these churches are huge. Some are architecturally gorgeous. Towering above blazing-green Quebec, these churches are a frequent, dramatic sight. It sometimes felt that, lacking a map or guidebook, a cyclist could navigate across Quebec by steeples, because they’re often visible from afar. These churches, by the way, are ideal places to start and end a bike ride. Their parking lots tend to be spacious and—Monday through Saturday—empty.

(18) Many Quebecois houses evince old-world craftsmanship, are colorfully painted, and meticulously maintained. They have a charming style that includes steeply-pitched ski-jump roofs, covered porches, and filigree ranging from subtle to ornate. Nowhere else in Canada is there such a preponderance of distinctive, admirable houses. All this fine architecture and pride-of-ownership significantly boosted the reward/effort ratio of our rides.

(19) Much of the southern Quebec countryside ranges from level to gently rolling. There are some monster hills, but we encountered few while cycling. We appreciated not having to face frequent, long ascents. It made the cycling much less onerous and a lot more fun.

(20) Loops. A loop road-cycling route is always preferable to an out-and-back. Quebec is laced with so many roads that loop rides are nearly always possible.

(21) For the many reasons cited above (points 15 – 20), southern Quebec kept us wanting to re-mount our bikes day after day. Despite the considerable drawbacks (points 2, 3 & 4), we believe Quebec offers more and better road biking than does any other Canadian province. That’s largely because we were constantly cycling through countryside where nature dominates yet is generously peppered with scenically-engaging civilization.

(22) Quebec has many appealing villages. A couple that leap to mind are St. Jovit, near Tremblant, and Kamarouska, en route to Gaspésie.

(23) Kamarouska has what surely ranks among Canada’s best bakeries. It’s called Boulangerie Niemand. You’ll find it at 82 Avenue Morel. For details, visit www.boulangerieniemand.com, or call (418) 492-1236. The owners, Denise and Johan, are gracious and hard working. Their German-style loaves are as delicious and healthy as any bread we’ve ever tasted.

(24) Kamarouska also has an excellent, fish-market restaurant: Poissonnerie Lauzier – Bistro de la Mer. It’s located at 57 Avenue Morel. Website: www.poissonnerielauzier.com  Phone: (418) 492-7988. We recommend the lobster bisque and the salmon dinner.

(25) Quebec has many small cities that struck us as desirable places to live. Victoriaville, for example, southeast of Montreal. Or Magog, in the eastern townships.

(26) Magog has a superb Mexican restaurant. It’s called Guacamole Y Tequila. The meal they served us was wonderful—and that’s coming from a pair of discerning, life long, Mexican-food afficianados. The restaurant is in the heart of town, at 112 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 868-0088.

(27) In Magog, across the street from Guacamole Y Tequila, is Bar Laitier la Lichette, where they make gelato with as much dedication, creativity and passion as any gelateria we’ve sampled during many months in Italia. Their address is 25 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 919-0972.

(28) Our favourite Quebec beers are Alchemist, Belle Gruelle, and St. Ambroise. We always kept a bottle in our trailer fridge, tucked up high against the freezer, so we could split an ice-cold one with our post-ride dinner. (We’re also partial to Original 16, brewed in Saskatoon, and we brought a dozen of them with us on our eastward “crossing.”)

(29) In Quebec, we were often near water (rivers, lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean), so the air was usually moist. It was soft, fragrant, soothing. Perhaps because we’re usually in dry environments—big mountains, desert canyons—we were always aware and appreciative of the gentle air in Quebec.

(30) Camping is expensive in Quebec. Many times we turned away from campgrounds where it would have cost us $40 or $50 for a single night. (The price included only water and 15-amp electricity, no sewer hook-up.)

(31) We camped free-of-charge more than half the time we were in Quebec. (By “camp,” we simply mean we parked late in the evening, stayed in our trailer there that night, then drove away early in the morning.) It was easy. It helped that our car and trailer are small. It also helped that our trailer is endearingly innocent. We camped behind churches, beside cemeteries, in school parking lots. We restricted ourselves to inconspicuous spots where we were unlikely to be noticed and, if noticed, would not cause concern. Nowhere that we free-camped did we feel threatened or in any way uncomfortable. Nobody ever questioned us. Nobody ever gave us a suspicious or resentful glance. A couple times we asked permission to “park” for a single night on the uncultivated edge of a farmer’s field and were kindly welcomed.

(32) An astonishingly high percentage of Quebecois own enormous 5th-wheel RVs. We saw them everywhere. Often it seemed one of these white whales was parked beside every rural home we passed. RV dealerships are widespread. We saw hundreds of used 5th wheels for sale by owner. We were told the owners of the used ones were selling them so they could buy bigger ones. The buzz in one Gaspésie village was that a local had recently purchased a 5th wheel comprising two storeys.

(33) There are a couple reasons for the Quebecois 5th-wheel craze. (a) They use them as base camps for hunting in the winter. (Quebecois are fanatic hunters, we were told. Apparently the province nearly shuts down at the start of hunting season.) (b) Many Quebecois keep their monster 5th wheels at campgrounds, where they use them as weekend cottages in summer.

(34) Private, lakeside campgrounds in Quebec are typically crammed with these humungous 5th wheels. The RV owners pay to keep their rigs at campgrounds year-round, so they can visit them whenever they want.

(35) We can’t fathom the attraction of constantly going to the same campground where your 5th wheel is slotted in with others as if in an RV sales lot. And for us—tourists towing a tiny trailer—these campgrounds held no appeal. They really aren’t campgrounds. They’re 5th-wheel ghettos. And they have very little space to offer true travelers. The big rigs hog all the prime real-estate. We stayed—out of necessity only—at a couple of these “campgrounds.” It was early in the season. The white whales were mostly empty. We were nearly alone. Still, we found these fiberglass ghost-towns weird, ugly, creepy.

(36) In Quebec, provincial parks (sometimes called “National Parks”), and genuine (federal) National Parks do not allow seasonal occupancy in their campgrounds. So they’re not blighted by 5th-wheel ghettos.

(37) Reading about the history of Quebec while traveling the province made our experience there substantially more meaningful than it would have been had we remained ignorant tourists.

(38) Learning about the history of “New France” enabled us to understand why some Quebecois would want independence from Canada. Quebec really is a nation within a nation.

(39) Nevertheless, we believe Quebec should not call provincial parks “national parks.” Not as long as they’re still part of Canada.

(40) Pulling a trailer was essential to making our Quebec journey enjoyable. We don’t like having to find accommodation each night, and constantly haul our gear in and out of different spaces. And we prefer living outdoors as much as possible. Plus, our little trailer enabled us to often camp free-of-charge (point 31), which helped us afford us a long stay in Quebec.

(41) That said, we cannot enthusiastically recommend driving the entire breadth of Canada—a task we’ve now completed twice. For us, it was just that: a task. An excruciating task. Partly that’s because we dislike sitting and never sit for long periods, so having to sit in our car day after day after day was torture. Even if you can tolerate sitting in your car that long, most of the drive is a cruel experiment in scenic deprivation. Between the Rockies and western Manitoba, there is no topographical relief—nothing to alleviate the monotony of horizon-to-horizon prairie. The granite outcrops and highway-side lakes near Kenora are a welcome diversion—at last, something to see!—but shortly beyond, the highway plunges into dense bush and remains there most of the way across Ontario. Not until we reached the west edge of Quebec—for us, a five-day drive from southwest Alberta—did the motoring become pleasurable. From there, the eastern tip of the Gaspésie Peninsula was still several days distant. And the entire time we were in Quebec, the inevitable, return drive hung in our mental sky like an ominous cloud. We began referring to it as “the crossing,” because it seemed epic, like a trans-ocean voyage.

(42) Driving across Canada, we witnessed perhaps a dozen others doing the same, but on bicycles. To us, a trans-Canada bike trip looked miserable and dangerous; a spectacular waste of time and effort. Most of the way, the cyclists were pedaling on the major trans-national highways. Not in bike lanes, but on the road edge where often there wasn’t even a paved shoulder. Roaring transport trucks constantly passed within a few feet of the cyclists. The noise, as well as the threat, seemed great and nearly constant. On highways walled-in by forest, there’s no more to see from a bike than there is from a car. The distance just takes weeks longer for cyclists to vanquish. In rural Ontario, cyclists must often contend with an onslaught of mosquitos when they dismount. And much of the way, they’re far from any trace of civilization when they stop for the night, which explains why they’re laden with massive panniers that slow them to a crawl on the long, steep hills. Those who’ve cycled across Canada are proud of their accomplishment. Many consider it a pivotal event in their lives. We understand and respect that. We certainly admire their tenacity and endurance. But with so many beautiful and thrilling places to cycle on this planet, grinding across Canada doesn’t strike us as an option worth considering.

(43) We also saw many long-distance cyclists working their way around the Gaspésie Peninsula. This seemed to us a worthwhile venture. At times we envied them.

(44) Camping every night as we drove across Canada, we sometimes found ourselves flailing and slapping at an onlaught of mosquitos. For us, Ontario was the worst. The mosquitos were a nightly torment: a dozen or more would slip into our trailer whenever we entered or exited. Before going to sleep, we’d spend half an hour hunting each one down and swatting it. Kathy finally said, “This is too tedious. Let’s just get a vacuum, wave it around, and suck ‘em all up.” We both thought that was a brilliant idea. So, in Deep River, Ontario we stopped at a Canadian Tire store intending to buy a small, portable, battery-powered vacuum. We actually tested every model they offered. We walked up and down the store aisles, looking for bits of detritus, trying to gauge each vacuum’s mosquito-sucking power. But they were all too weak and most were way too expensive, we decided. Not such a brilliant idea after all. So our nightly swat-fests continued until we arrived in Quebec, where we were relieved to find the mosquitos generally weren’t such a nuisance.

(45) The famous Quebec cycling path known as the “Route Vert” is often unpaved. Sometimes it’s just the rough shoulder of a busy road. Other times it’s a dedicated bike path but unpaved, suitable only for fatter tires. We rode a few paved sections, but they were slender corridors through monotonous, viewless forest: boring. The name Route Vert suggests idyllic cycling. Some sections live up to that implicit promise. Most do not. Skinny-tire road bikers shouldn’t focus on the Route Vert.

(46) Though the purpose of our Quebec sojourn was to cycle, we did some walking and hiking. For example, to fully appreciate the magnificent Fleuve St. Laurent, we found it essential to walk along the water’s edge. When driving east, be alert for places where you can get down to the shore and walk during low tide. Here’s one walk we enjoyed and recommend. Start in St. Denis, northeast of Montmagny. Walk the village road along the sea, then round the marshy bay on the unpaved road. Continue around the forested peninsula, then tag on to the paved road and loop back. Total distance: about 15 km.

(47) In the Chic Choc Mountains, we day-hiked a loop trail that started at the Parc National de la Gaspésie visitor center and gradually lofted us over the 1151-m summit of Mont Albert. If you’re a hiker, we recommend it. Though that elevation sounds hill-ish to a western Canadian, the Chic Chocs are so far north that we were in tree-less tundra up there. Caribou country!

(48) Lac Saint-Jean is huge. It covers an area of 1,053 sq km (407 sq mi). And it’s ringed by the  Veloroute des Bluets (the Blueberry Route)—Quebec’s most famous cycling path. We gave it a go but actually found it scenically tedious because the surrounding terrain is bread-board flat and the architecture seemed dull to us compared to elsewhere in Quebec. We much preferred cycling in the Cantons Est (the eastern townships).

(49) Late May to late June seemed an optimal time for road cycling in Quebec. The field’s were green, and the weather warm, yet the Quebecois had yet to begin vacationing, and most tourists had yet to arrive, so the vehicle traffic was below peak volume. Campgrounds were open, but most of their available campsites were vacant.

(50) http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/velo0.html is a useful resource for planning a Quebec cycling trip.

Next post coming soon: Road Rides We Recommend in Quebec

 

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The all-new Ultralight Gear 7th edition of “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, the Opinionated Hiking Guide”

Hiking Guidebooks have always been hiking gear. They just haven’t fulfilled their mandate until now. Play video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv3PyKzZ1rU

The Canadian Rockies

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Should You Hike the Alps, or the Pyrenees?

Most North American hikers planning a trip to Europe don’t ask themselves, “Should I go to the Alps or the Pyrenees?” They dream only of the Alps. And they assume the range is entirely within Switzerland.*

Having trekked throughout the Alps for many months, we much prefer the French and Italian Alps to the more famous and crowded Swiss Alps.** And now, having devoted June through September of 2014 to hiking the Pyrenees, we realize the “Alps vs. Pyrenees” question is one all North American hikers bound for Europe should ponder.

The Pyrenees

The Pyrenees

It’s a worthwhile debate because the Pyrenees are spectacular, deserving of comparison with the Alps, yet the two ranges are distinctly different.

Had we ignored the Pyrenees, our mountain education would be deficient. Our perspective on the world’s vertical topography would be incomplete. We would have missed out on several trails that—in a lifetime devoted to hiking—rank among our most exhilarating and memorable.*** And we would have passed up a marvelous adventure. Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.

Looking back on our summer, however, we’re aware that… drum roll… we favour the French and Italian Alps over the Pyrenees.

Yes, that verdict is subjective. But it’s reasonable—substantiated below by a point-by-point comparison. Bear in mind, our goal isn’t to bend you toward our conclusion. It’s to shed light on a topic rarely discussed even among dedicated hikers, and perhaps help you decide where to invest your precious trail time in Europe.

•Hiking almost anywhere in Europe entails visiting many villages. We savoured this aspect of our journey through the French Alps. So we eagerly anticipated seeing and staying in Pyrenean villages. But we were generally disappointed and sometimes dismayed. French Pyrenean villages are distinguished by an absence of charm. Structures with exterior stone are few. Drab plaster (cream, grey, beige) dominates. Flower boxes (ubiquitous in the French Alps) are rare in the French Pyrenees. It seems the residents long ago abandoned any effort to beautify their homes and woo tourists. Pride of ownership appears to have succumbed to hard times. Few French Pyrenean villages occupy noteworthy locations, whereas many villages in the French Alps are impressively perched. And, what? No water fountains? Potable water flows from fountains in most French Alps villages, suffusing them with a “Welcome, travelers!” ambiance. But we eventually gave up searching for village fountains in the Pyrenees.

Granted, many villages in the Spanish Pyrenees are pretty and lively. Here, dwellings and buildings with stone exteriors are common. We lingered in and admired many Spanish towns and hamlets, including Panticosa, Sallent de Gallego, Torla, Benasque, Biescas, Jaca, Alcazar, Ainsa, and Vio.

The Spanish Pyrenees, however, were severely disfigured by the development surge that ended abruptly in 2008. Condo complexes are prolific. Most are tasteless, constructed thoughtlessly, quickly, cheaply. Many are enormous, yet devoid of residents. Some were abandoned mid-construction yet still have cranes poised above them. A few, only partially finished, are already collapsing. All are monuments to greed. They give the impression an army of spendthrift dilettantes briefly conquered the region but were recently routed.

So, if we were judging a civic beauty contest, we’d say that, on the whole, Pyrenean villages do not compare to the villages of the French Alps.

Driving in the French Alps is a joy. The roads—often lined with gorgeous stone walls—climb to remarkable heights and cross sensational passes: Col du Galibier (2645 m / 8678 ft), Col du Lauteret (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col de l’Iseran (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col du Mont Cenis (2083 m / 6827 ft), Col du Noyer (1664 m / 5459 ft), to name a few. Driving in the Pyrenees didn’t elicit in us anything approaching the wonder we frequently felt in the French Alps. One notable exception in the French Pyrenees was the D918 highway between Col d’Aubisque (1709 m / 5607 ft) and Col du Soulor (1474 m / 4836 ft) where several times we stopped and marveled. The best-known Pyrenean pass—Col du Tourmalet, of Tour du France fame—is a jaw-dropping disappointment. The peaks ringing Tourmalet are nondescript. The huge, gleaming-white observatory atop Pic du Midi is a monstrosity. And the extensive development near where the road pierces the 2115-m (6939-ft) col is a ghastly goulash.

Trailhead elevations in the French Alps are generally higher than those in the Pyrenees. In the Alps, smooth, paved roads nearly always deliver you to trailheads in or near the alpine zone, where trees are few or nil, and where the scenery opens up immediately, or soon after you begin hiking. In the Pyrenees, particularly on the French side, approaches are longer, more forested thus less scenic, and require more elevation gain. Bear in mid, they’re never as demanding and tedious as is common in North America. But nowhere in the Pyrenees is there anything comparable to, say, driving up Valgaudemar, between soaring mountain walls, to the Gioberney trailhead, where several, premier, French Alps trails launch you into the alpine zone.

Trail signage in the French Alps is consistently excellent. We never faced a navigational quandary there. Trail signage in the Pyrenees varies from ideal, to poor, to nonexistent. We hiked sections of all the primary GR (gran randonneé) trails in the Pyrenees, including the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), which uses the GR 11 in Spain, and the GR 10 in France. The HRP in particular requires trekkers to be confident, skillful navigators.

The Pyrenees are reputed to be significantly less crowded than the Alps. That’s true, but only if the Alps in question are Swiss. We’re convinced it’s a myth that the Pyrenees are less crowded than the French Alps. Our impression is that the two ranges are equally popular. You certainly shouldn’t choose the Pyrenees over the French Alps expecting to avoid crowded trailheads and busy trails. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. If anything, the Pyrenees are busier longer. Most French start their summer vacations in mid-July. The French Alps attract mostly French hikers, so the crowds diminish when most French return to work mid-August. But the Pyrenees attract hikers from both France and Spain, and most Spanish take their summer vacations later than do the French. While both the French and Spanish are on vacation, you can expect to see a hundred or more vehicles parked at the most popular Pyrenean trailheads.

Lakes are a prominent feature of the Pyrenees. We saw notably fewer lakes in the French Alps. It’s an oversimplification to say the Pyrenees are half granite, half limestone, but the range has that appearance. And in the granitic regions, the Pyrenees are splashed with lakes. Many of those lakes, however were dammed, thus are actually reservoirs. When the water levels are low, you’ll see unsightly, unnatural “bathtub rings.” Regardless of water level, the dams themselves, particularly those in the alpine zone, are eyesores.

If it’s sharp, soaring peaks you want to see, the French Alps will please you more than will the Pyrenees. Of course, the Pyrenees are occasionally peaky, but overall it’s a range of rounded, broad-shouldered summits. Pyrenees elevations are not comparable to those in the French Alps. And the undramatic shapes characteristic of the Pyrenees give the impression the peaks are more modest than they actually are. The three highest summits in the Pryenees are Pico de Aneto (3404 m / 11,168 ft), Pico Posets (3375 m / 11,073 ft), and Monte Perdido (3355 m / 11,007 ft). Compare that to the Mont Blanc massif (shared by France and Italy), where numerous peaks stand well above 4000 m (13,123 ft). Mont Blanc itself is Europe’s highest at 4810 m (15,781 ft). But even well beyond the shadow of Mont Blanc, the French Alps comprise many peaks nearing or exceeding 4000 m (13,123 ft), for example La Barre des Écrins (4,102 m / 13,458 ft), and La Meije (3,984 m / 13,071 ft).

Glacial ice is rapidly disappearing the world over. Still, the French Alps shoulder a readily-visible abundance of glacial ice. But the Pyrenees have almost none. This absence of white is startling, because it’s obvious glaciation was once a pervasive, powerful force here.

Low cloud—what we called the “French Fog Factor”—seemed to be an almost daily occurrence along the north slope of the Pyrenees. The cloud would begin forming early, become dense enough to obscure the peaks by midday, and not dissipate until evening. Many times we ascended the Spanish side under a blue sky, only to reach the crest of the range and witness a sea of cloud just below us on the French side. While the FFF often made it difficult to enjoy hiking on the French side of the Pyrenees, we never witnessed anything like it during our four months in the French Alps.

Our summer in the Pyrenees was consistently hotter and more humid than was our summer in the French Alps. That’s not to say this is always the case. But we were often, notably less comfortable—specifically more sweat-drenched—while hiking in the Pyrenees. Hiking above Valle de Hecho on the Spanish side of the range in mid-September, Kath succumbed to heat exhaustion for the first time ever.

Thunderstorms are another weather phenomenon that, based on our experience, distinguish the Pyrenees. Never, in any other mountain range, have we witnessed such frequent, apocalyptic storms. Sure, a few storms swept over us in the French Alps. But they were nothing compared to the hours long, carpet bombing, firmament illuminating, peak blasting, tree bending, tent-shaking tempests that regularly engulfed us in the Pyrenees. Fortunately, we were almost always in our very-storm-worthy tent at only moderate elevations when the lightning and thunder began swirling about, so we generally found the storms more fascinating than annoying or worrisome. But some hikers would surely find the Pyrenean thunderstorms frightening, perhaps unbearable.

In the Swiss Alps, trailhead-access toll roads and pay-to-park trailheads are annoyingly common, as well as bank-account depleting. We don’t recall any in the French Alps. But you will encounter them in the Pyrenees, for example the Pont d’Espagne trailhead (above Cauterets, France), and the road accessing the trail to Col de Madamète (above Saint-Lary-Soulan, France). To reach the Ordesa Canyon trailhead (above Torla, Spain), or the Cirque de Troumouse trailhead (above Gavarnie, France), you must pay to ride a shuttle bus, which underscores how crowded these must-see Pyrenean sites are.

The French Alps are green. The Pyrenees are greener, or at least that was our impression. Sweeping, undulating carpets of alpine grass were among our favourite features of the Pyrenees. But these aren’t just meadows, they’re pastures, so we shared them with cattle and sheep. Grazing seems to be more pervasive and intensive in the Pyrenees than in the French Alps. Even if no animals were in sight, their shit was often underfoot. Sheep shit has an astringent stench that we will forever associate with hiking in Europe, particularly the Pyrenees.

Speaking of “underfoot,” the Pyrenees are not an easy-striding range. Many of the trails are rough and bouldery, entailing lots of gymnastic, even choreographic, hiking. This is especially true in the granitic regions of the Pyrenees. In the French Alps, we were more often able to enjoy heads-up trekking on smoother trails.

Compared to the French Alps, the Pyrenees are thin. Arriving at a crest, col, or summit often grants a vista extending out of the mountains, to the flatlands beyond. In the Alps, attaining a vantagepoint usually rewards you with the impression you’re deep in the range and suggests there’s infinitely more to explore.

For cultural immersion, the Pyrenees and the French Alps are about equal. In the French Alps, it’s a safe bet the next hiker you see will be French. During our four-month, 1,000-mile summer in the Pyrenees, we crossed paths with only three people from our home continent. We shared Pyrenean trails and huts with a few Germans and Dutch, but the overwhelming majority of Pyrenean hikers are French or Spanish. You’ll meet more French on the French side, more Spanish on the Spanish side, but the range belongs to both nations. Trails, therefore hikers, constantly cross the frontier.

Most Spanish are sociable and garrulous. They also tend to hike in large groups, so those groups can be very loud. Nonstop, lively conversation punctuated by frequent laughter seems to be intrinsic to the Spanish hiking experience. (That’s fact, not criticism. The Spanish readily acknowledge this cultural trait.) The French, too, often hike in large groups, but the French tend to be quieter. If you prize tranquility, this distinction is one you should consider. In the Pyrenees, tolerating (or distancing ourselves from) noisy hikers or hut mates was a daily experience. Not so in the French Alps.

Pitting the Pyrenees against the Alps, and illuminating how—from our perspective—the Pyrenees fall short, might give the impression the Pyrenees disappointed us. They did not. We stand by the statement we made earlier in this post:  “Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.”

Might we return to hike in the Pyrenees? Yes. Would we do so with eager anticipation? Yes. But returning to the French Alps is a higher priority for us.

Next post coming soon: “The 677-page Hiking Guide to the Canadian Rockies that’s now Ultralight Gear”

*In the Swiss Alps, we met hikers from all over the world, including Canadians and Americans. In the Italian Alps, we encountered fewer North American hikers. In the French Alps, our fellow hikers were almost exclusively French.

**Here’s an excerpt from our many posts about hiking in the Alps (www.hikingcamping.com/blog/?s=french+alps). It summarizes our feelings about the French Alps vs. the Swiss Alps: “We, like most people, thought of Switzerland as profusely green: the land of sweeping alpine meadows. The Alps are carpeted with more vast meadowlands than are North American mountain ranges, but the Swiss Alps are not predominantly green above treeline. They’re profoundly rocky, heavily glaciated, strewn with moraines, covered with scree. Shades of grey and black dominate. Often, the Swiss Alps appear as stern as the Swiss themselves. So the high-mountain scenery in Switzerland wasn’t as pleasing as we expected it to be. It was awesome, to be sure, but often rather menacing as well. We prefer the French Alps, which, though slightly less towering overall, are nearly as impressive yet vastly greener, more welcoming, more beautiful. We concede that’s highly subjective. For us, however, it’s absolutely true.”

***Our July 31, 2014 post titled “Best Trek You’ve Never Heard Of” details one of the Pyrenean trails we believe rank among the world’s best: www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2014/07/best-trek-youve-never-heard-of/

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35 Premier Hikes in the Pyrenees

Where to invest your precious trail-time in the mountain range shared by Andorra, Spain and France

We began hiking in the Pyrenees in late June, 2014. We continued at a fervid pace, hiking nearly every day until early October. Roaming through Andorra, then weaving across the French-Spanish border, we covered about 1932 km (1200 mi). That doesn’t qualify us as authorities on the range, but we do know it well. We offer the following recommendations because they would have helped us immensely when we began probing the Pyrenees. If you go—and we enthusiastically urge you to do so—we hope our advice helps you make optimal use of your precious trail-time. These 35 hikes were our favorites in the range. Bear in mind, our blog-post descriptions are far less detailed than those we provide in our guidebooks.

To better appreciate a photo above, click on it to enlarge. Click on it again to enlarge fully.

 

ANDORRA

On a Pyrenees hiking trip limited to a couple weeks, it’s possible to stay entirely—and very happily—within the peak studded, trail laced, micro-nation of Andorra. We loved it there. But don’t look for accommodation in the capital, Andorra la Vella, unless you want to immerse yourself in duty-free-shopping mayhem. Base yourself in the comparatively small, sane village of Soldeu, where Philippe Courcol manages numerous apartments. His office is immediately right of the Hotel Himàlaia entrance. From there, it’s a 0h10m walk to the comfortable, fully-furnished studio apartment he rented to us. It was quiet, the balcony had a fine view, the wifi was stable and fast, and the price was low enough to compete with Andorra campgrounds. His company is Soldeu Paradis (www.soldeuparadissl.com). You can reach Philippe at 376 32 25 61, or 376 85 14 85. You can also reach him via email: <soldeuparadis@hotmail.com>. You prefer to camp? You’ll find appealing campgrounds in Llorts, in the valley N or Ordino. There’s also a campground just outside Soldeu, at the S end of Vall d’Incles.

 

Jucla Cascades

Jucla Cascades

 

Collada de Jucla 

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Collada de Jucla, plus 1h30m for col below Pic de Ruf

elevation gain 582 m to Collada de Jucla, plus 108 m to col below Pic de Ruf

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

 

Just W of Soldeu, drive N into Vall d’Incles. Proceed 4 km to the road’s end trailhead at 1860 m. Hike E, then NE, to Estany de Jucla. (Estany is Catalan for lake or pond.) Walk around the S and E shores to reach Collada de Jucla at 2442 m. (Collada is Catalan for col.) Want more? Ascend E to the 2550-m col on the S slope of Pic de Ruf.

 

Valle dels Pessons

hiking time 3h30m for lake circuit, 5h round trip to Pic de Ribus

elevation gain 490 m on lake circuit, 736 m to Pic de Ribus

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

From Soldeu, drive SE on highway N2 about 4 km to Grau Roig ski area. Park in the large, paved lot at 2120 m. Hike above the ski area to Estany dels Pessons. Continue right, hiking the loop counter-clockwise, WSW toward 2846-m Pic dels Pessons. At the SW end of the loop, fork left (E). The SW end of the loop is the S end of Estany de los Fonts. Fork left (E) here to return. Or extend the hike by ascending to the 2833-m col, then summiting 2813-m Pic de Ribus. Retrace your steps to the lake loop, then return on the GR7 via Estany de los Fonts and four other small lakes.

 

Ascending Pico Tristaina

Ascending Pico Tristaina

Pico Tristaina

hiking time 5h0m to 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 650 m

map IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos

From La Massana, drive NE, then generally N, to Arcalis ski area. Park near road’s end, at 2228 m. Compared to most trailheads in the Pyrenees, this one’s quite high—a special opportunity for hikers. From behind the lodge, ascend NE (on the trail above the GRT) to Estany Primer. Continue NNW, past Estany del Mig, into the impressive Tristaina cirque. Pass Estany de Tristaina. Ascend toward Port de l’Albeille, but do not follow the trail NE into the scree. From the flat area above the final, tiny lake, look for a small, wood signpost marking the route leading N toward Pico Tristaina. Surprisingly, this route, which begins as a faint trail, is not indicated on the IGN map. Soon begin a sustained, steep scramble posing minor exposure. The 2878-m summit affords a sensational view. Visible N, above the N shore of Etang Fourcat, is Refuge Fourcat at 2445 m. (Etang is French for lake or pond.) To summit via the French side, you’d need to overnight at the refuge. A route descends from the summit, first SSW along the ridge, then N, into the Fourcat cirque.

 

Pic de La Serrera 

hiking time 4h0m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 943 m

map French IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos, Spanish Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

Drive a couple km W of Soldeu. At El Tarter, follow the road N from Ransol, about 5 km to road’s end at 1960 m. Hike NW, creekside, through flower-filled meadows, to Estany dels Meners and a couple other small lakes beneath steep slopes. Proceed W, bearing left where a faint trail forks right. Reach a 2738-m col. Follow the easy ridge-route NW to the 2912-m summit of Pic de La Serrera, on the Andorran/French border. Overlook a vast area of creeks, lakes, and meadows.

 

Port de Baiau

hiking time 9h0m to 10h30m round trip

elevation gain 1717 m

map Rando Editions 21 Andorra – Cadi

Most people will likely need to overnight at a refuge to complete this demanding circuit. But if you’re swift and start early, it’s possible to do it in a single day. Regardless, you’ll need confidence born of experience on rough, sketchy, high-elevation routes to expediently, safely complete the N part of the loop: over Port de Baiau and Coll dels Estanys Forcats, beneath awesome 2911-m Pic de Medacorba.

From La Massana, drive NW to Arinsal ski area. Park near Pont Pedregat, in the paved lot at 1580 m. It’s just before and left of the tunnel. (The road ends near condos just beyond the tunnel.) At the small tourist office in the parking lot, ask for their map of the complicated approach and trail network.

Figuring the next move

Figuring the next move

Walk through the tunnel, turn right, soon reach road’s end, and proceed onto trail (a former road). Hike NW, then W, on the GR11 to Refugio de Comapedrosa, at 2241 m. Cross to the N side of the creek, continue W, then ascend steeply to a small lake between 2885-m Pic de Sanfonts (left/W) and 2942-m Pic de Comapedrosa (right/NE). Ascend N to 2756-m Port de Baiau. From here it’s a steep plunge NNW to Refugio de Baiau, at 2517 m. Ascend to 2695-m Forcats col, beneath Pic de Medacorba (N) and Roca Entravessada (S). Then descend through a tight, deep canyon to Refugio del pla de l’Estany, back to the GR11 junction, where you’re on familiar ground.

 

 

SPAIN

Parque Natural Posets-Maladeta

Base yourself at the modern, stone village of Benasque. Hotels and rental condos are plentiful. We pitched our tent about 3 km N of town, on the bank of Rio Esera, at Camping Ixela. The Caprabo grocery store in Benasque is open late, and on weekends.

Puerto de Benas

Puerto de Benas

Puerto de Benas

hiking time 4h0m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 745 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139. At about 11 km, just shy of road’s end, turn right near the 71-km milepost. Descend toward Vado de l’Hospital. Turn left, into the large, public parking lot. Elevation: 1700 m. Beyond here you must walk or ride the shuttle bus, unless you’re staying at the hotel. Forget the shuttle bus. Start hiking. Pass the hotel on the GR T-46. Ascend to 2445-m Puerto de Benas. It affords a grand view S, across the valley, to 3308-m Pico de la Maladeta, and SSE to 3404-m Pico de Aneto—highest in the Pyrenees. To overlook lakes on the French side, descend N a few minutes from the tight col.

A round trip to Puerto de Benas takes only about 3h30m. So consider lengthening the return by traversing E to Port dera Picada, then descending toward La Besurta. You can then ride the bus back, or resume on foot, hiking above the road, on the trail through meadows.

 

Puerto de la Glera

hiking time 4h30 m to 5h30m round trip

elevation gain 675 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139. Park where the road ends, at about 12 km, 1790 m. Proceed on the initally rough, awkward trail. It soon improves. Pass above two lakes before reaching 2364-m Puerto de la Glera. Seen from this angle, Maladeta and Aneto appear peakier than they do from Puerto de Benas.

Follow the ridge left (NW) toward Pico Sacroux. In about 0h15m, Luchon, France is visible far below (N). Competent scramblers can continue ascending to the summit of 2676-m Pico de Sacroux and overlook the lakes in Cirque des Crabioules.

nearby option

About 400 m shy of this same, road end is the trailhead for Vall de Remune. It’s a very worthwhile 4h0m – 5h0m round trip hike to Ibons de Remune, in a vice-grip canyon beneath 2800-m and 2900-m peaks. (Ibon is Spanish for tarn.) You’ll gain 430 m on a constantly awkward, boulder strewn, impossible-to-stride trail that demands patience.

 

Ibon de Creguena

hiking time 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 700 m

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Benasque, drive NE on road A-139 about 5.5 km. Descend right to park at Plan de Senarta, in the unpaved lot beside a stone building. If you’re willing to pay the hefty shuttle-bus fee (17€ per person for a round-trip in 2014), begin hiking at Refugio de Corones, at 1950 m. Ascend to Ibon de Creguena, at 2650 m, on the S side of 3308-m Pico de la Maladeta.

 

Vielha

Anyone who visited Vielha a decade ago laments how the town has burgeoned. Free of that perspective, we immediately liked Vielha and enjoyed staying there. Located in Val d’Aran, this small city is close to Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes and other, premier hiking territory. But none of the campgrounds here appealed to us. We recommend basing yourself at the pleasingly affordable Hotel Husa Urogallo (http://www.hotelhusaurogallo.com/EN/hotel.html). Here’s the five-star review of it we posted on TripAdvisor.com:

“Conveniently located in the the heart of Vielha, the Urogallo is a fine hotel, run by a friendly, efficient staff. The rooms are small, but very clean and comfortable. The price we paid in September was a bargain. The buffet breakfast is lavish yet the price is so low, I had to ask twice to be sure I was hearing it correctly. We enjoyed staying here several days, ranging into the mountains above where we discovered some of the most rewarding trails of our four-month journey through the Pyrenees.”

 

Estanh de Mar

hiking time 7h0m round trip

elevation gain 879 m

map Editorial Alpina Val d’Aran

Estanh de Rius

Estanh de Rius

From Vielha, drive the N-230, ascending to and through the Vielha tunnel. After exiting the tunnel and starting to descend, turn around as if returning through the tunnel. Pass the Refuge de Conangles (right). Slow down. Do not re-enter the tunnel. Bear right onto the road ascending above and beyond the tunnel entry. Park in the large, unpaved lot in front of the (apparently defunct) Espitau de Vielha, at 1626 m. Begin hiking E on the GR11. The trail ascends to 2340-m Port de Rius in 4.5 km (about 1h30m). From there, it’s an easy, 0h30m cruise along the shore of Estanh de Rius. (Estanh is Spanish for lake.) At the far end of the lake, depart the GR11 by forking right, to Lac Tort de Rius. It’s beneath 2882-m Tuc des Estanhets. Proceed to the 2505-m col overlooking Estanh de Mar. Most dayhikers will turn around here, thrilled. You can, however, descend sharply to and beyond Estanh de Mar, to reach Refugi Restanca and rejoin the GR11. From there, you can circle back to the junction at Estanh de Rius. You’re then on familiar ground. Staying at the refuge breaks the circuit into two, comfortable days. It’s also possible to complete the circuit in an aggressive, 8h0m to 9h0m day.

 

Val de Molieres

hiking time 4h0m round trip to Pleta Naua, 7h0m round trip to Refugi de Molieres

elevation gain 324 m to Pleta Naua, 763 m to Refugi de Molieres

map Editorial Alpina E-25 Aneto Maladeta

From Vielha, drive the N-230, ascending to and through the Vielha tunnel. After exiting the tunnel and starting to descend, turn around as if returning through the tunnel. Pass the Refuge de Conangles (right). Slow down. Do not re-enter the tunnel. Bear right onto the road ascending above and beyond the tunnel entry. Park in the large, unpaved lot in front of the (apparently defunct) Espitau de Vielha, at 1626 m. Begin hiking on the unpaved road that initially drops to the Molieres River. Within 0h20m, cross a meadow where, in early summer, we witnessed an orgiastic flush of wildflowers. Within 0h45m, the trail steepens. Blocky boulders underfoot demand heads-down focus and gymnastic effort. At 1h30m, ascend a scramble route beside a cascading stream. The trail then eases into Pleta Naua, at 1950 m. It’s worth hiking even just this far. Peaks nearing 3000 m crowd the tight valley. If you’re up for another ascent like the one you just vanquished, carry on to 2357 m, where Refugi de Molieres is perched above several lakelets and beneath 3013-m Tuc Molieres. For a sensational, multi-day hike, continue over 2939-m Col de Molieres, then descend Valleta de L’Escaleta to Le Besurta, and pick up the road to Benasque.

 

Circ de Colomers

hiking time 5h0m round trip, plus 2h0m relaxing at the lakes

elevation gain 610 m

map Editorial Alpina Carros de FOC

An exquisite dayhike allowing you to sample the world class, multi-day Aiguestortes trek (see below). In this amphitheatre-shaped valley ringed by horned peaks, you’ll tour a dozen lakes among meadows and granite domes. From Vielha, drive E on the C28, through Val d’Aran to Salardu. Fork S toward Banhs de Tredos. In summer, you must park there, then either walk the unpaved road or pay for a taxi to reach Pont dera Montanheta (picnic area and trailhead) at 2.5 km, 1980 m. Beyond, walk SE, then SW, to Refugi Colomers. From there, begin a 4h0m loop. Hiking counter-clockwise, pass Estanh de Mort. At the S end of the loop, pass Estanh de Gelat at 2590 m, then Estanh de Podo beneath 2862-m Pic de Ratera. Hike N to Estanh Obago and Estanh Long to complete the loop.

 

Aiguestortes

Aiguestortes

 

Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes

See our previous blog post about a six-day hut-to-hut trek through an area of such unique and exquisite beauty that we’re urging all our mountain-minded friends to seriously consider walking there: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2014/07/best-trek-youve-never-heard-of/

 

 

Balcón de Pineta

hiking time 6h30m to 7h0m round trip to Balcón de Pineta, plus 1h30m round trip to Lago Helado de Marbore

elevation gain 1100 m

map Editorial Alpina #10, Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park

A seriously steep, 3h30m ascent grants you a stupendous perch beneath the icy, N face of 3355-m Monte Perdido. The trail climbs past cascades, flowery pocket-meadows, and arresting cliff faces. From the French (N) side of the Bielsa tunnel, drive 14 km to the town of Bielsa, then turn right (W) into Valle de Pineta. From Spain, drive N about 32 km from Ainsa to Bielsa, on the very scenic A-138, then turn left (W) into Valle de Pineta. (Before or after your hike, visit the gorgeous, authentic, medieval village of Ainsa.) From either approach, drive NW 14 km through Valle de Pineta, to the huge, unpaved, trailhead parking lot at road’s end. Elevation: 1400 m. Begin hiking upstream on the trail along the W bank of Rio Cinca. Ignore the spurs (left) leading to cascades. And don’t go to Llanos de la Larri. After the initial, somewhat confusing 0h20 m, cross to the river’s N bank. Proceed NW on the trail signed for Balcón de Pineta. Crest the Balcón at 2500 m, about 3h30m from the trailhead. The remnant glaciers on 3348-m Monte Perdido are visible left (SSW). The frontier peaks near Perdido are 2800 m to 3200 m high. After resting, muster energy to continue NNW across bouldery terrain, about 0h30m to Lago Helado de Marbore, at 2595 m.

 

Ordesa Canyon

hiking time 6h30m to 8h0m circuit

elevation gain 780 m

map Editorial Alpina #10, Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park

Circo de Soaso cascades

Circo de Soaso cascades

A balcony trail high on the S wall of this justifiably famous canyon offers a spectacular traverse. You’ll contour into the Circo de Soasa, at the head of the canyon, then return along the canyon floor. The contouring trail allows you to appreciate the sheer, colourful cliffs forming the canyon’s N wall. Above those cliffs, you’ll see many 3000-m peaks along the Spanish/French border, and the famous Brecha de Rolano—a unique, missing-tooth-gap in the Pyrenean crest, better known by its French name, La Brèche de Roland. After dayhiking the canyon’s S wall, if you want to probe Ordesa again, hike the Faja Racon on the N wall. It gains 580 m and takes about 5h0m to 6h0m. Drive to the handsome, stone town of Torla. There’s a well-managed, good-value campground here, beside Rio Ara. To access this hike, drive to the huge parking lot on the SW side of Torla. Ride the shuttle bus to the road’s end trailhead at 1320 m in Ordesa Canyon. Follow the signpost for Sendero de los Cazadores. Go S, across the river, toward the canyon’s steep wall. Ascend through forest on a good, switchbacking trail. At 1875 m, fork left and continue climbing. After gaining 630 m in about 1h15m, reach a mirador at 1950 m. Proceed E from the mirador, along the slopes of Sierra de las Cutas. This is the Faja de Pelay. To the N are giant peaks: Tobacor, Gallinero, Perdido. The contouring trail eventually descends into Circo de Soaso, near the head of the canyon. Returning down-canyon, the trail initially passes an impressive series of cascades. But after about 1h0m, the remainder of the hike (about 1h15m) is a viewless trudge on a former road through forest to where you can board the shuttle bus. The alternative is to make this a one-way trip by hiking the Faja de Pelay (the S-wall traverse) out and back from the mirador. If you do that, you’ll enjoy the traverse twice, you’ll avoid the crowd that perpetually throngs the canyon-floor trail, and you’ll spare yourself the viewless forest plod, but you’ll face a very steep descent from the mirador.

 

Valle de Tena

Driving N of Huesca, Spain, into Valle de Tena, in about 85 km (1h0m) you’ll reach two of the Pyrenees’ premier hiker havens: the towns of Panticosa, and Sallent de Gallego. Skiers surge into Valle de Tena every winter. Summer, however, is slow season, despite the superb hiking opportunities. Among 2700-m to 3000-m peaks, are huge, granite basins harbouring vast meadows and numerous lakes. This is granite terrain of of Yosemite scope and beauty yet devoid of crowds. An extensive network of trails links several refugios, enabling you to devise superb, multi-day treks. Dayhiking here is also appealing, because the trailheads are at high elevations (much higher than is typical on the French side of the range). Fog—which shuts the curtains most afternoons on the French side—is far less common here. We’d hoped to car camp near Sallent or Panticosa, but found no suitable campgrounds. We did, however, stay at the Vicente Hotel, in Panticosa, and found it affordable and very pleasant: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2015/01/hiker-havens-in-the-pyrenees/  If rain thwarts your hiking plans while you’re here, drive 0h45m to visit Jaca—an engaging city to wander in for an afternoon. Or, if you’re in need of some hiking gear, visit the Guara Mascun shop (www.guara-mascun.com), at Calle Vicente Campo #11, in Huesca. We purchased boots there at bargain prices.

 

Respomuso signpost

Respomuso signpost

 

Embalses Respomuso and Bachimana Alto

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Refugio de Respomuso, or 9h0m round trip to Col de Faxa, or 7h0m one way to Refugio de Bachimana

elevation gain 750 m to Refugio de Respomuso, or 1165 m to Col de Faxa, or 1295 m to Refugio de Bachimana

maps Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From Sallent de Gallego, drive N to the road’s end trailhead just beyond the restaurant at the N end of Embalse Sarra. Elevation: 1500 m. (Embalse is Spanish for reservoir.) Hike the GR11 N up-canyon along the Rios Aguas Limpias. Curve E into Val de Piedrafita. Reach Refugio de Respomuso at 2231 m, about 2h30m from the trailhead. It’s above the huge reservoir of the same name. This is a good turnaround point for a dayhike. If you started early, however, it’s possible to extend your dayhike to 2665-m Col de Faxa. If you’re a competent scrambler, the 3005-m summit of Pic Grand Faxa is also attainable, but to have sufficient time you’d probably need to spend a night at the refugio. Scrambling in the morning also gives you a chance of attaining views before the afternoon fog obscures the French side of the range.

Col Piedrafita, from Col Infierno

Col Piedrafita, from Col Infierno

For a spectacular hut-to-hut trip, continue SE on the GR11. Pass Ibon de Llena Cantal. Cross the dual cols—2765-m Piedrafita and 2722-m Infierno—with a deep lake between them. (If icy, as it was for us, Piedrafita is a technical col. Even without ice, the scree is so steep you might be scrambling on all fours.) Descend E beneath the vivid chocolate-and-vanilla veined 3075-m Picos de l’Infierno. In a gorgeous basin, pass Ibon Azul Superior and Ibon Azul Inferior. Below, turn right (SE) at the junction to follow the W shore of Embalse Bachimana Alto and reach the refuge of the same name at 2197 m, perched above the reservoir’s S end. Refugio Bachimana is new, gorgeous, and efficiently run by a friendly staff. Left at the aforementioned junction ascends over 2541-m Puerto Marcadau. From there, it’s an easy, 2h0m descent to Refuge Wallon at 1865 m. But do not stay at Wallon. It’s the most disgusting hut we’ve ever experienced. The staff was rude. The place was filthy. The food poisoned us; we both became violently ill. The next day, our 7h0m hike over 2665-m Col de la Faxa back to our car, was an ordeal due to our severely weakened state. Thanks to Refuge Wallon, we were forced to abandon our plan to explore the intriguing, lake basin N of Valle du Marcadau.

 

Above the Balneario

Above the Balneario

Embalse Bachimana Alto

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Embalse Bachimana Alto, or 8h0m round trip to Ibon Azul Superior

elevation gain 750 m to Embalse Bachimana Alto, or 792 m to Ibon Azul Superior

maps Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Drive N of Panticosa, to Balneario de Panticosa, at 1637 m. From this magnificent, granite cirque (which should have been declared a national park and world heritage site and protected from development, but sadly wasn’t), hike the GR11 to Embalse Bachimana Alto. Don’t be deterred by the crowd. The scenery along this trail, as well as the scope and beauty of the surrounding terrain, is staggering. Reach Refugio Bachimana at 2197 m. It’s perched above its namesake reservoir’s S end. If you have energy and time for a 3h round-trip extension, ascend to the Blue Lakes—Ibon Azul Inferior and Ibon Azul Superior—W of the reservoir’s N shore. The Blue Lakes basin is ethereal.

 

Ibon de Sabocos

Ibon de Sabocos

Sierra de Tendenera

hiking time 5h30m to 6h30m loop

elevation gain 1160 m

map  Editorial Alpina #6, Valle de Tena – Sierra de Tendenera; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From the Panticosa ski-area parking lot, at 1148 m, cross the Roman bridge, Puente la Zoche. At the gondola building (left), there’s a signed junction for Hoz de Jaca and El Pueyo de Jaca. Go behind (left) of the gondola building (white roof). Pick up the path there. Go left, ascending SSE on the trail signed “PR95 Ripera.” There’s a creek below (right). Pass ancient terraces among flowery fields in Valle La Ripera. At 1h30m, intersect an unpaved road and follow it right. Do not descend to the bridge. At 1h45m curve right (S), crossing a small bridge to the creek’s left (E) bank. Visible ahead (S) are the 800-m walls of the Sierra de Tendenera. The pleasant road-trail ascends SW via switchbacks, then NW to 2090-m Cuello de Sabocos, about 3h30m from the trailhead. Descend to Ibon de Sabocos, at 1906 m. The stone building above the lake’s N shore bears a yellow blaze (on the corner, by the door). Continue NW across grass. The Picos del Infierno are visible N. From here on, we found it difficult to follow the route. But you’re in the alpine  zone, with distant views in all directions, so navigation is easy. In short… Ascend to the ski station, at 2092 m. From there, follow the road down to Panticosa. Where possible, short-cut the road’s sweeping switchbacks by hiking directly down the fall-line. In summer, when the skit lift is running, you can spare your knees the long, sharp descent by riding down instead of pounding down.

 

Punta Mesola

hiking time 4h30m round trip

elevation gain 700 m

map Editorial Alpina #4, Valles de Ansó Y Echo, or Tourist office Los Valles Occidentales

Several long valleys ascend from foothills to high ridges in the western Pyrenees. After probing the Hecho, Aisa, and Ansó valleys, we thought this hike was among the area’s premier options. From the city of Jaca, drive W to the Valle de Hecho road. At 16 km, turn N toward Jasa, into the Aragüés valley. Drive to Refuge Lizara, where the road ends and trail begins at 1545 m. Walk E, toward the limestone Sierra d’Aisa, to 1995-m Collado d’Bozo. Go right (S) onto the easy, panoramic ridge of Punta Napazal. Follow it to its 2168-m highpoint, Punta Mesola. For a more demanding hike to a more panoramic summit, ascend from Refuge Lizara to 2670-m Bisaurin. It’s a 6h30m round trip gaining 1125 m.

 

FRANCE

Etangs Fontargente

hiking time 4h30m round trip

elevation gain 454 m

map IGN 2148 OT Vicdessos

Haute Vallee de L'Aston

Haute Vallee de L’Aston

 

From Foix, in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees, drive the N20 toward Tarascon. At the NW side of Les Cabannes, follow signs for Aston, then proceed on the D520A toward the Rulhe shelter. Pass Barrage Riete and Lac Laparan. (Barrage is French for dam.) Reach road’s end at Plat des Peyres. Elevation: 1696 m. Hike across the bridged creek and follow the trail SW, ascending gradually to another crossing at 1864 m. Continue E, ascending to Etangs de Fontargente, at 2150 m. (Etang is French for lake.)

 

 

Refuge du Portillon  

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip to Refuge d’Espingo, 8h0m to 9h0m round trip to Refuge du Portillon

elevation gain 827 m to Refuge d’Espingo, 1623 m to Refuge du Portillon

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

Refuge d'Espingo

Refuge d’Espingo

 

From Bagneres-de-Luchon, drive W on the D618 W. Turn left and drive SW into Val d’Oo. Reach the road’s end trailhead at les Granges d’Astau. Elevation: 1140 m. Ascend the GR10 to Lac d’Oo, at 1504 m. Continue to Col d’Espingo, at 1967 m. The setting is gorgeous, but strong hikers who start reasonably early can, in a single day, vanquish the 1623-m ascent the to Refuge du Portillon, at 2671 m. The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP) continues E & W from there.

 

 

 

Pic de Cecire

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 660 m

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

From 1132 m in Vallee du Lys, you can ascend into Cirque des Crabioules and continue to a series of lakes at about 2300 m. The cirque is grand, but you can can see it without enduring that 1170 m ascent. Instead, drive the D46 to the road’s end trailhead at Superbagneres ski area. Elevation: 1786 m. Hike the GR10 SW to Pic de Cecire, at 2403 m. Most of the way, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of Cirque des Crabioules, 3060-m Grand Quayrat, and 3109-m Pic de Maupas.

 

Lac de Caillauas

hiking time 6h0m to 7h0m round trip

elevation gain 973 m

map IGN 1848 OT Bagneres-de-Luchon

Yes, there’s extensive hydroelectric development here. And, yes, you should hike here anyway. You’ll enjoy a thrilling, mostly high-elevation, balcony trail through a tight gorge to a couple grand lakes (actually dammed reservoirs, but still dramatic sights). Alpine terrain is easier to access here than is generally possible elsewhere on the French side of the Pyrenees. (However, we don’t recommend the other option here: hiking from Pont du Prat, into Vallee de la Pez.) From Loudenvielle, drive S on the D725 S about 10 km up Vallee du Louron to the road’s end trailhead at Pont du Prat, immediately below the Tramezaygues hydro plant. Elevation: 1230 m. At the first trail junction, fork left to ascend into Gorges de Clarabide. In about 1h0m arrive at Refuge La Soula. From there, fork right and ascend SE to Lac de Puchergues, at 2111 m. This trail traverses back NW, accessing the spectacular Lac de Caillauas, at 2158 m. It’s surrounded by high peaks, including 2964-m Pic du Hourgade and 2848-m Pic des Hermitans.

 

Cirque d’Estaube / Hourquette d’Alans

hiking time 3h0m round trip to the cirque, 6h30m to 7h0m round trip to the col

elevation gain 150 to the cirque, 780 m to col

map IGN 1648 OT Gavarnie

From Gedre (S of Luz St. Sauveur, en route to the famous Cirque de Gavarnie), drive SE to park below Lac des Gloriettes, at 1650 m. (This “lac,” like most in the Pyrenees, is actually a dammed reservoir.) Ascend the grassy valley surrounded by rugged ridges. Continue to Hourquette d’Alans, a 2430-m col. From the col, overlook Val de Gavarnie (though the famous cascades are not quite visible), and see icy, 3298-m Vignemale (NW). Should you turn around before the col, however, this is still a beautiful, worthwhile hike.

 

Col de Tentes

hiking time 2h0m to 3h0m round trip

elevation gain 150 m

map IGN 1648 OT Gavarnie; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Cirque de Gavarnie is a world wonder, justifiably famous, and perpetually thronged. If you hike there, you’ll almost certainly be shouldering your way through a crowd of Paris Metro proportions. So here’s an option… Drive past the village of Gavarnie, to the road’s end trailhead at Col de Tentes. Elevation: 2208 m. Hike the easy, gentle, grassy ridge to its end, at 2292-m Pic de la Pahule. Across the deep valley, you’ll see 3144-m le Taillon (SE), and 2739-m Pic des Sarradets (S). Between them is La Brèche de Roland, a unique, missing-tooth-gap in the Pyrenean crest. Cirque de Gavarnie is visible SE.

 

Vallon de la Gela / Cirque de Barroude

hiking time 5h0m to 6h0m round trip

elevation gain 997 m

map IGN 1748 ET Neouvielle-Aure Valley; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

From St. Lary, drive the D118 (the road to Spain via Bielsa tunnel) about 13 km SSW to the turnoff for Piau-Engaly ski area. Continue a bit farther to a tight SW jutting hairpin turn. Parking is minimal here, along the road edge. Just above the hairpin is the signed trailhead, at 1380 m. Hike SW into Vallon de la Gela. Within 0h40m, the valley’s steep, grassy walls are impressive. At 1h0m the trail crosses pastures at 1500 m. Fork right (SSW) at 1704-m le Gela hut. At the 2340-m junction, the sheer, two-toned walls of Pic de Gerbats and Gela are immediately ahead (NNE). Go left (S) beside Muraille de Barroude, to Refuge de Barroude, at 2377 m. It’s above several slender lakes. Given time and energy, you can continue ascending SE about 0h40m to 2534-m Port de Barroude for a view into Circo de Barrosa.

 

Vignemale

hiking time 5h0m round trip to Refuge des Oulettes, 9h0m to 10h0m for entire loop

elevation gain 655 m to Refuge des Oulettes, 1178 m for entire loop

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale – Ossau – Arrens – Cauterets; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

VignemaleFor athletic hikers in search of an enduring sense of accomplishment as well as gorgeous scenery, here’s a five-star loop. It ascends to the striking N face of 3298-m Vignemale, highest of the French Pyrenean summits, then continues over two, high passes before descending through the most beautiful, lake-splashed basin in the range. If you can’t manage the 9h0m to 10h0m loop, hike just the first leg as a round trip: to Refuge des Oulettes, which sits directly in front of Vignemale’s vertical N face. To begin either option, drive S from Cauterets, to the enormous, paved, pay-to-park lot at Pont de Espagne. Elevation: 1496 m. (Cauterets, by the way, has a huge, excellent campground.) From Pont de Espagne, hike S on the GR10 to Lac de Gaube, at 1731 m. Continue S to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, at 2151 m, about 2h from the trailhead. To proceed on the loop, hike SW then ascend W to 2591-m Col des Muletas and cross into Spain. From there, the trail drops only to 2445 m as it traverses the head of a basin to cross 2528-m Col d’Arratille. After resting at this less-visited col, descend past lakes, through meadows, and besides streams. Allow yourself a 0h30m break near the shore of Lac d’Arratille, at 2247 m. At the 1830-m junction just E of Refuge Wallon, turn right (NE). Descend the Vallée du Marcadau, back to Pont de Espagne.

 

Refuge de Larribet

hiking time 4h30m to 5h0m round trip

elevation gain 712 m

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale; IGN Rando editions #4 Bigorre

Refuge de Larribet

Refuge de Larribet

 

Approaching from the W, drive to Laruns. Proceed E on the D918 to Col d’Aubisquet (above Gourette ski area). Continue E to 1474-m Col de Soulor. We consider this the most beautiful highway pass in the French Pyrenees. From Col du Soulor, drive 8 km to Arrens-Marsous. Carry on SW about 9.5 km into Vallee d’Arrens. Trailhead parking is near the Maison du Parc, at 1470 m. Hike S along Lac de Suyen. Bear right at two junctions, left at the third, and ascend to Refuge de Larribet, at 2060 m, below 3144-m Balaitous, and 2579-m Petit Balaitous. From the refuge, resume to Lacs de Batcrabere, at 2182 m.

 

Pic du Midi d’Ossau

hiking time 7h0m loop

elevation gain 927 m

maps IGN 1:25K 1647 OT Vignemale; IGN 1:75K Vignemale, Pic de Ger, Vallee d’Ossau

Midi d’Ossau is a landmark peak, visible all the way from Pau. This hike  loops around the iconic horn. Drive S from Laruns. Just SE of Gabas, turn right for Lac d Bious-Artigues. Trailhead parking is at road’s end. Elevation: 1420 m. Unless you arrive early, however, assume the upper lot is full. Park in the large lot below, at 1360 m, and hoof-it from there. From the upper parking, we hiked counterclockwise, because most hikers were doing the opposite. Ascend E to 1698-m Col Long de Magnabaigt, then SSE to 2127-m Col de Suzon. Descend to 2031-m Refuge de Pombie. From there, Val d’Soques (details below) is visible E. Instead of ascending over 2208-m Col de Peyrege, walk the gentle trail S to 2129-m Col de Soum de Pombie. Circle W, then NW, around Pic Peyreget and over 2194-m Col de I’Iou (not indicated on this IGN map). Descend NW (bearing right at a fork) into the Gave Bious valley. Go right on the dirt track to reach the trailhead in another 2.8 km.

 

Soques / Col d’Arrious

hiking time 6h0m to 7h0m round trip to Lac d’Arrious, 10h0m to 11h0m round trip to Pico de Arriel

elevation gain 910 m to Lac d’Arrious, 1470 m to Pico de Arriel

map IGN 1647 OT Vignemale

Above Col d'Arrious

Above Col d’Arrious

 

From Laruns, drive S. Or, from Col du Pourtalet, drive NW on the D934.  Trailhead parking is in the small lot on the W side, at Soques. Elevation: 1380 m. Walk to the E side of the road. The trail departs the road 200 m NE. Ascending the grassy, steep-sided valley, reach 2259-m Col d’Arrious within 2h. Lac d’Artouste is visible below. The main trail descends toward Lac d’Artouste, then—via tight switchbacks—climbs to Refuge d’Arremoulit, in a stupendous, rocky bowl. Scramblers comfortable with exposure can shortcut to Lac d’Arremoulit via the Passage d’Orteig (a cable-aided traverse on a vertical wall), then loop back to Col d’Arrious via the switchbacking trail.

Another option from Col d’Arrious is to ascend SE on trail to the NW end of Lac d’Arrious, at 2290 m. Find the trail first contouring, then ascending S, to reach 2449-m Col de Sobe in about 1h0m. At this point, experienced routefinders will recognize the way (E) to Col d’Arriel. From there, ascend S to 2824-m Pico de Arriel. The summit is about a 2h0m round trip from Col de Sobe. From Col d’Arrious, the elevation gain is 565 m. The summit panorama includes Lac d’Arremoulit (N), 2974-m Pic Palas (NE), Balaitous (E), and other lakes (SSE).

Next post coming soon: The Opinionated Hikers compare the Alps with the Pyrenees

 

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Hiker Havens in the Pyrenees

In our last post, we explained how free-camping allows us to travel and hike for extended periods in Europe. Yup, we’re dirtbaggers. We enjoy it. And we’re proud of it. But we don’t dirtbag full time. And we don’t do it entirely out of need. We bring a little dignity and discernment to the practice. You might say we’re “executive dirtbaggers.”

While driving between trailheads, we’re always watching for opportunities to free-camp. But while passing through towns and villages, we remain open-minded about perhaps taking recess at a restaurant, or seeking refuge at a hotel or campground cabin. We know that an occasional break—a respite from the elements and the rigours of camping—keeps us energized and motivated on our multi-month journeys.

We don’t duck out on a reprieve whenever we want to. We do it only when we’re aware we need to. And still, we always seek a bargain, or at least a solid value that we can justify within our low-to-the-ground budget.

Last summer, while hiking 1000 miles (1600 kilometers) through the Pyrenees, we found three hiker havens that we urge you to remember for when you explore the mountainous, French-Spanish frontier:

Soldeu, Andorra

Apartment balcony, Soldeu, Andorra

Apartment balcony, Soldeu, Andorra

On a Pyrenees hiking trip limited to a couple weeks, it’s possible to stay entirely—and very happily—within the peak studded, trail laced, micro-nation of Andorra. We loved it there. But don’t look for accommodation in the capital, Andorra la Vella, unless you want to immerse yourself in duty-free-shopping mayhem. Base yourself in the comparatively small, sane village of Soldeu, where Philippe Courcol manages numerous apartments. His office is immediately right of the Hotel Himàlaia entrance. From there, it’s a ten-minute walk to the comfortable, fully-equipped studio apartment he rented us. It was quiet, the balcony had a fine view, the wifi was stable and fast, and the price was low enough to compete with Andorra campgrounds. His company is Soldeu Paradis (www.soldeuparadissl.com). You can reach Philippe at 376 32 25 61, or 376 85 14 85. You can also reach him via email: <soldeuparadis@hotmail.com>.

Panticosa, Spain

View from room, Vicente Hotel, Panticosa, Spain

View from room, Vicente Hotel, Panticosa, Spain

After completing a multi-day backpack trip, then free-camping for a couple nights, a thunderstorm blackened the sky while we neared the end of a long, steep dayhike. Rain splattered us while we stuffed our packs into our car. Lightning split the evening gloom with flashes of high-noon visibility. Driving into Panticosa, we saw Vicente Hotel. We parked and walked in. We met Jaime, the owner. He showed us a room, and we instantly knew we’d found a hikers’ haven. This reasonably-priced hotel is small, family owned and run, conveniently located beside the main road, yet within easy walking distance of the village. The rooms are simple, but very clean and comfortable. They’re also quiet (facing away from the road), with pleasing views of the village immediately below and the ski hill beyond. Best of all, Jaime is a font of knowledge about the Pyrenees. He grew up in Panticosa and began climbing as a boy, alongside his father, who eventually passed the hotel on to him. Though a hotelier by trade, Jaime is a black-belt mountaineer who loves the Pyrenees, knows them intimately, and gladly, patiently shares his knowledge with hotel guests keen to hike. Talking with him was fun, inspiring, and extremely helpful. He studied maps with us and offered advice that proved invaluable for our next foray into the mountains. Though we intended to stay at Vicente Hotel for just one night, we stayed a couple more. While you’re there, be sure to eat dinner at San Pietro, a superb restaurant just a couple minutes’ walk from the hotel. Order the potatoes-onion-garlic dish, and the green beans, along with whatever meat they grill for you. They also have Spain’s most distinctive beer—Marlin—on tap. Vicente Hotel is on your right as you’re passing just above the village, en route to the Balineario.  For reservations, phone (34) 974 48 70 22. Here’s the Booking.com link to Vicente Hotel: http://www.booking.com/hotel/es/vicente.html?

Vielha, Spain

Town centre, Vielha, Spain

Town centre, Vielha, Spain

Conveniently located in the the heart of Vielha, the Hotel Urogallo is run by a friendly, efficient staff. The rooms are small, but very clean and comfortable. The price we paid in September was a bargain. The buffet breakfast is lavish yet the price is so low, I had to ask twice to be sure I was hearing it correctly. Free camping in the immediate vicinity of Vielha was impossible, and none of the campgrounds there appealed to us. So we enjoyed staying a couple nights at Hotel Urogallo, each day ranging into the mountains above where we discovered some of the most rewarding trails of our four-month journey through the Pyrenees. For reservations, phone (34) 973 64 00 00. Here’s the Booking.com link to Hotel Urogallo:  http://www.booking.com/hotel/es/husa-urogallo.html?   If many days of athletic hiking have tightened you up beyond what yoga can relieve, be aware there’s a physio therapy / osteopathy practice in Vielha. It’s called Eutsi. Telephone: (34) 973 64 32 40. The office is a three-minute walk from the large, free-of-charge parking lot in the town centre. Book a deep-tissue massage with Rafael Mombiedro. He’s very skilled.

Next post coming soon: “35 Premier Hikes in the Pyrenees”

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Camp Free in Europe

We devoted all of last summer to trekking in the Pyrenees. As soon as possible, we’ll offer useful info gleaned from four months—more than 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers)—of exploring the mountainous, French-Spanish frontier.

But first, we’ll answer the question that a few people have asked us recently: “How can you afford so much time in Europe?”

The answer: By doing it on the cheap, which means camping frequently and, as often as possible, camping free.

We’ve been camping free all our lives––primarily in western North America, but also throughout New Zealand, Italy, France, and Spain. By “camping free” we mean pitching a tent and spending the night in a place where (a) it costs us nothing, (b) we’ll be physically comfortable (flat ground, minimal noise from cars or people), (c) we’ll be emotionally comfortable (a degree of privacy, little or no chance of someone threatening us), and (d) others are unlikely to notice us, and, if they do, are unlikely to object.

Our goal when camping free, however, is not only to save money. For us, camping free is almost always more enjoyable than staying in a campground, because (a) we’re alone in a natural, tranquil, beautiful setting, (b) we’re often within earshot of a stream, and (c) we sometimes have an impressive view, and (d) we drive less, because we sleep closer to trailheads. Campgrounds can’t compete.

Bear in mind, we’re always stalking mountains. We occasionally visit cities, but most of our travel is in or near mountains, where the terrain is more pleated and forested, and where there’s a bit of space between villages or towns. In urban settings, pitching a tent anywhere but in a campground isn’t just free camping. It’s stealth camping. We’ve stealth camped near and sometimes in cities—Nice, France, and Auckland spring to mind—but it’s a bit desperate, requires skill and nerve, and is not a practice we recommend.

Even in rural settings, however, free camping is rarely easy. Compared to defaulting to the nearest campground, free-camping is an endeavor. Experience helps, of course, enabling you to locate potential campsites faster. But searching out a site can be time consuming, regardless of your free-camping proficiency. It can demand patience and effort, usually when you’re already tired. And free-camping always entails a measure of deprivation: no running water, no toilet. Plus, it’s rarely possible to leave your tent unattended all day at a free campsite while you go hiking. Pitch it late and pack it early is the norm.

The easiest, most abundant, officially-sanctioned free-camping we know of is in British Columbia, Canada. That’s why we wrote a book about it: Camp Free in B.C. It provides descriptions of, and directions to, hundreds of campgrounds where you’ll pay nothing to pitch your tent, or park your RV. (Go to www.hikingcamping.com/camp-free-bc.php to learn more about the book.)

But the easiest place we know of to unofficially camp free is Europe, particularly France and Spain. Why is this, compared to the U.S. and Canada? Because outside densely populated areas, France and Spain enforce fewer land-use restrictions. In the mountains of both countries, we almost never see police officers or rangers. Most French and Spanish tend to be less concerned, defensive or protective about private property. Unlike in North America, rural land in France and Spain is not festooned with “Keep Out,” “No Trespassing,” and “Private Property” signs. The French and Spanish tend to be relaxed, easy going, and inclusive. They have a “we’re all in this together” social conscience. Their attitude tends to be “live and let live.” In France, “laissez faire” is a way of life. The Spanish are so empathic, that “muy simpatico” aptly describes the vast majority.

Still, we’ve tried not to lean heavily on those cultural attributes. Exploiting them, testing their limits, would be uncomfortable for us, because it would be rude and unappreciative. The generous nature of the French and Spanish have simply allowed us to often feel at ease doing what we’ve always believed should be possible and acceptable on unfenced, unsigned, unused, uncultivated rural land almost anywhere: to quietly, sensitively, unobtrusively nab a night’s sleep in tent.*

If what we’ve described sounds appealing and possible to you, we suggest you try it. Free-camping can greatly enhance your European hiking venture while saving you money and enabling you to stay abroad longer. So here are a few suggestions to ease you into it:

(1) Driving between trailheads, be on the lookout for minor roads—lightly traveled, tertiary lanes (perhaps unpaved) that might lead to a potential, free campsite. If you see one that looks promising, you can return after your hike and check it out. Small tracks beside streams and rivers are good bets.

(2) Study the maps. Not just road maps, but hiking maps. They show a smaller area in greater detail, indicating the kinds of roads you’re looking for. They also allow you to assess the surroundings before you actually invest time searching. The  IGN 1:25 000 topo maps for France are excellent.

(3) Follow your instincts. You think there might be a secluded spot on the other side of that hill? Go take a look. And don’t just look. Listen intently. When assessing a potential, free campsite, what you hear (passing vehicles, barking dogs, distant voices) or don’t hear is as important as what you see or don’t see. And trust your gut. You’ve found a suitable site, but something about it or the area doesn’t feel quite right, or makes you uneasy? Keep looking elsewhere. That unease will only grow and prevent you from having a comfortable, enjoyable night.

(4) Be tenacious but not insistent. Know when to give up. Sometimes you just won’t find a place to camp free. Don’t pursue your search late into the night. You’ll exhaust yourself. You and your partner will likely end up arguing. Well before that happens, head to the nearest campground. They’re much more plentiful in Europe than they are in North America. And nearly all have excellent facilities. Besides, after a few nights free-camping, you’ll probably want to stay at a campground, where you can shower, wash your clothes, and get wifi access.

(5) After you’ve found your home for the night, and you’re settling in, if someone happens by, don’t panic. Don’t act nervous. Don’t even be concerned. Just smile and nod confidently. Chances are, they too will be unconcerned about you, and they’ll just carry on. If, however, it’s evident they think you’re trespassing, approach them and, after a friendly greeting, ask (in their language) if it’s okay if you camp there for just one night. Be prepared to abide by their answer. If they say “no,” ask if they can suggest an alternative location, then leave promptly. If they say “yes,” you’ll feel even more relaxed having been granted permission by a local.

(6) Always abide by the three, self-imposed rules of free-camping: harm nothing, take nothing, leave nothing. All travelers should think of themselves as ambassadors and conduct themselves accordingly. When you look back on your travels, you want to see a wake of goodwill behind you.

(7) It’s sometimes helpful to stop, cook dinner, and complete your post-meal clean-up, before searching for a free campsite. That way you’ll end up pitching your tent later in the evening, and you’ll be more discrete (creating less visible and audible commotion) at your campsite. Ideally, you want to pitch your tent near sunset, so it’s visible for as little time as possible.

(8) In the morning, collapse and pack your tent shortly after you rise, ideally no later than 8 a.m. Then, when you prepare breakfast, you can relax, knowing there’s no visible evidence that you slept there. A passerby might surmise you’re a free-camper, but all they can see is that you stopped for a morning picnic, so they’ll have no reason to protest, and you can take your time before departing.

(9) No matter how secluded and out-of-sight your tent is, don’t leave it up unattended at a free campsite while you go hiking for the day. It will almost certainly be noticed by someone, which means there’s a chance it won’t be there when you return. The daily, pitch-and-repack routine is a free-camping requirement, even if you intend to return to the same site for a second night.

(10) In France and Spain, free-camping with a small, rental car and a tent works great. We enjoyed it throughout the summer of 2014. But free-camping with a self-contained campervan is better. Yes, it’s also more expensive, but perhaps not as much more as you might imagine once you factor in the many advantages. Read our December, 2012 blogpost titled “How Hikers Should Do Europe.” We wrote it after six months of traveling in a campervan: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2012/12/advice-from-35000-miles-on-the-trail/

*In Norway, Sweden and Scotland, the “freedom to roam” or “everyman’s right” refers to public access to private and public land for the purpose of recreation or exercise. This liberty is also known as the “right of public access to the wilderness” or “the right to roam.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam for further explanation.

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Best Trek You’ve Never Heard Of

 

Aiguestortes National Park

A car motoring at highway speed. An open passenger window. An outstretched arm. A hand holding a cell phone aloft. A tiny lens aimed at a distant object. A photo snapped without the photographer actually looking.

It’s an iconic act of modern travel and one that makes us uneasy whenever we witness it, because we believe in walking: taking all the time—and making all the effort—necessary to see a place thoroughly. To experience it, know it, meld with it.

This summer, we’re walking in the Pyrenees. And last week (mid-July) we completed a six-day loop through an area of such unique and exquisite beauty that we’re urging all our mountain-minded friends to seriously consider walking there.

It’s called Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. It’s a cluster of 3000-m, granite peaks on the Spanish side of the range. It harbours more than 400 lakes and is carpeted with luxuriant, boulder-studded meadows nurtured by “aiguestortes”—the “twisted waters” of the namesake streams and cascades.

The route we loosely followed is called the Carros de Foc, or Chariots of Fire. It was created in 1987, when some mountain-hut guardians completed the entire loop in a single day. It was not a competition then—just a challenging, adventurous way to visit the other guardians. Today, the Carros de Foc is a one-day race that attracts endurance runners. But most people take five to eight days to hike the loop, staying each night at one of several refugios (Spanish for mountain huts). Tent camping is not allowed in the park, so you have an official excuse for traveling light. Sleeping and dining at the refugios, some of which even have hot showers, allows for minimal pack weight, thus comfortable striding.

Bunking at the refugios has drawbacks, of course. Chief among them: zero privacy. But it also has many advantages, such as the opportunity to socialize and meet new friends. (Greetings Raisa & Zel, Vera & Christian!) Most of our fellow trekkers were Spanish or French, but we also met Dutch, Germans, Danes, and Israelis. In six days, we crossed paths with only one North American. He was hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP) and veered into Aiguestortes without previously knowing about it; he’d simply altered course to avoid dangerously snow-covered cols elsewhere. Apparently, the park is almost unknown among Canadian and American hikers.

The research we did prior to our Aiguestortes trek was invaluable. The route we chose was ideal, and we recommend it. Start on the south side of the park, at the top (N) end of Val d’Fosca, or Dark Valley. Ride the cable car—gaining 305 m—from Sallente, to Estany (Lake) Gento. Then hike the loop counterclockwise. The scenery builds to a climax in that direction. And, presuming you’re carrying your own lunches and enough power foods to adequately supplement the refugio meals, your pack will be significantly lighter by the time you face the most demanding ascents/descents. The most significant of those, by the way, is 2748-m Col Contraix, between the Ventosa and Llong refugios. It’s very steep, littered with loose boulders and scree, requires some hands-on scrambling, and can be snowy/icy on both sides until early August.

We were generally pleased with the refugios we stayed at. And the hiking distances between each were just about right: long enough to fill most of the day, but not so long we were pressed to arrive by dinner time. Day four was our shortest, with a hiking time of only 3h45m. We appreciated having an easy, slow day with lots of long breaks, because we felt slightly depleted after the first three days.

Several of the refugio dinners were excellent. A couple left us craving more. The same was true of the breakfasts. Before paying for breakfast, ask what it will consist of. The buffet breakfasts are great. The basket breakfasts are dismal: insufficient to fuel you past the first few cairns (itos in Spanish). Bring plenty of power foods for midday energy and protein.

Here’s the itinerary we suggest, along with each day’s approximate hiking time and elevation gain. (In Europe, trail signs might state hiking times and elevations, but rarely state distances.)

Day One
4h30m via Refugio Colomina to Refugio Josep M Blanc, at 2350 m. Elevation gain: 545 m. Blanc has a gorgeous, lakeside setting, serves abundant, delicious food, and offers a buffet breakfast.

Day Two
6h0m to to Refugio d’Amitges, at 2380 m. Elevation gain: 350 m. When the trail approaches Lake Sant Maurici, bear left on the trail above the S shore, in the direction of Subenuix and Mirador de l’Estany. Amitges has a spectacular setting and serves the most delicious, generous meals.

Day Three
5h0m to Refugio Colomers, at 2138 m. Elevation gain: 350 m. From Port Ratera (Port is Spanish for pass.), be sure to make the easy, 1h0m round-trip detour to 2840-m Ratera Peak. On a clear day, the summit affords an aerial view of lake-studded Circ de Colomers, and a view of Pico de Aneto—highest in the Pyrennes. Resuming the loop from the NW edge of Port Ratera, go left (NW), via Estang Obago. Do not follow the GR 211.4 descending NE to Refugio Saboredo. 

Day Four
3h45m to Refugio Ventosa, at 2220 m. Elevation gain: 430 m. The hut’s location is dramatically scenic, affording a panorama of the spiky, 2800-m ridges comprising Serra de Tumeneia. Ventosa also serves excellent food, including a buffet breakfast.

Day Five
5h30m to Refuge Estany Llong, at 1980 m. Elevation change: 620-m gain, 840-m loss. This is the most demanding day on the loop, as mentioned above. Inexperienced hikers, though strong, took 9h0m to complete the hike and were unnerved on the final ascent and initial descent of Col Contraix. A family (moderately fit, with teenage kids) took 11h0m. Even before approaching the col, the trail diminishes to a scramble route over huge boulders.  

Day Six
5h30 m to the Val d’Fosca cable car. Elevation gain 600 m. The easiest terrain on the loop. Just a few kilometers below the cable-car parking lot is a spacious meadow. You can pull your vehicle well off the road here and free camp, as we did. If you prefer a lodge, stay at Hotel Vall Fosca (info@hotelvallfosca.com), 973 66 30 24. There’s also an official campground in the valley, just S of Capdella. 

To see many more images from our Aiguestortes trek, go to our Dropbox: 
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/kzqu4qunj3f6g35/AADoH2qcWOVflrGBQ25qAnWZa

For more details about the trek, visit http://www.carrosdefoc.com/en/itinerari/

Before setting out, get the Carros de Foc guidebook and map published by Editorial Alpina. The guidebook is little more than a pamphlet, but the 1:25 000 topo is essential.

To make reservations at the Aiguestortes refugios, phone 973 64 06 98 in Spain.

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YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.