Did you know that the iconic red and white stripe markings that jump out at you on an Alpine boulder or a Corsican beech tree along France’s network of Grandes Randonnées (GR) long-distance trails are hand painted by volunteers called baliseurs? They are veritable trail blazers, with their pots of red and white paint and plastic templates to ensure that the markings are précis. Volunteers are trained in these skills by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, which has been protecting and maintaining a 350,000km network of paths since 1946, a time when a need for freedom in nature must have run deep. This network extends throughout Europe but, for this blog we are focussing on our top GR routes in France where the baliseurs pave and paint the way for hikers exploring the likes of the Pyrenees and Provence, Corsica and the cols of Mont Blanc’s massif. Bravo les baliseurs.
Corsica is, in many ways, like a natural kingdom all of its own, its colossal peaks towering over the Mediterranean, located 170km from the French mainland. Its crowning glory for hikers is the GR20 trail, which takes both training and a good head for heights. The GR20 is considered one of the toughest of the GR routes in France, but you are rewarded with some of the country’s most exquisite elevated landscapes, such as the route between Vizzavona to Calvi on the north coast where you have to really work out to bliss out. Most of our GR20 tours are self-guided, with the exception of this guided one, which is also open to solo travellers.
The GR20 in Corsica is GRitty and GRand.
Many of our walking holidays in the Pyrenees, and its eponymous national park, follow the GR10 trail. At 866km long, it is topped and tailed by contrasting Atlantic and Mediterranean seascapes, with trailheads at Hendaye and Banyuls-sur-Mer respectively. Extraordinary landscapes in between, some needing slight detours from the main GR10, include the Cirque de Gavarnie vast natural amphitheatre, solitary lakelands and views of Vignemale, and the highest French Pyrenean summit (3,298m). On this eight day self-guided trek between Cauterets and Néouvielle, for example, you hike across the highest pass on the GR10, the Hourquette d’Ossoue (2,734m), as well as the magnificent Madamète Pass (2,509m). Or this GR10 holiday which starts in the hiking haven of Cauterets and follows the trail to the thermal spa village of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, finishing Gavarnie village with views of its celebrated cirque en route.
GR4, Atlantic to Alpes-Maritime
Another coast to coast, the GR4 is 1,530km long, covering colossal terrain between Royan on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, and Grasse in the Alpes-Maritime region, just 21km from the coast at Cannes. The Palme d’Or of the GR4 goes to the Verdon Gorge, called the Gorges du Verdon in French, because it is split into three parts. Which is why it takes a week to explore on this magnificent Verdon Gorge hiking holiday, following a collection of steps, tunnels, ladders and bridges over the turquoise-green Verdon River to access all 23km of its length.
The vertiginous Verdon is a veritable highlight of the GR4.
GR65, Chemin du Puy
The GR65 follows an ancient pilgrim path, the Chemin du Puy, which eventually joins up with the Camino de Santiago. It goes from Le Puy-en-Velay in the Haute Loire to the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region. After this point, pilgrims traditionally join up with the Camino Frances. You can walk the entire Chemin du Puy, which covers an epic 750km through southern France over 40 days, walking through the Auvergne, volcanic landscapes of the Velay, wild moorlands of Aubrac plateau, the ancient village of Conques in the Lot Valley, and some incredible Pyrenean landscapes to finish off. Or you can break it into one or two of six segments, exploring other regions in depth along the GR65, such as the vineyard-filled Armagnac region, the ancient sacred sites of Aveyron and Lot, or luscious landscapes of the Velay Massif.
Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe chapel in Aiguilhe, near Le Puy-en-Velay. A grand rendez-vous on a Grande Randonnée.
GR Tour du Mont Blanc
The GR Tour du Mont Blanc doesn’t have a number and yet it probably still stands out as one of the number one trails in the network. It was first marked up in 1951 becoming the first international GR route. Known as the TMB for short, it does not actually conquer the great peak but circumnavigates it instead, on the GR Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland and Italy en route. We have a variety of self-guided holidays on the Tour du Mont Blanc, and we answer all your questions on how, when and where to do it in this blog.
GR9, Jura to the Riviera
Another mountains to Med trail, the GR9 covers 953km between Lancrans in the Jura Mountains and Port Grimaud on the Mediterranean, just 10km from St. Tropez. Swap Riviera for ravishing rambles on the Vercors Massif circuit, which follows sections of the GR9 through Alpine foothills, forests, gorges and limestone caves, all protected by Vercors Regional Natural Park (also known as a Parc Naturel Régional or PNR). A week of hiking the Vercors Massif circuit means that you can take in the four mountain areas that envelop it, namely the Chartreuse Mountains to the north, Dauphiné Alps to the east, Diois Massif to the south and, in the south-east, the Col de Menée (1,457m). Bring your binoculars, because this underrated region for hiking is also home to ibex, chamois, deer, mouflon, griffon vultures and wild boar.
Mont-Aguille in Vercors Regional Natural Park, towering over the GR9.
If you want to see the baliseurs in action on the GR routes in France, check out this lovely video. You can also donate to support their invaluable work here. Another good tip for non-French speakers is that GR is pronounced ‘shea-air’ and you will hear it bandied around quite a lot along the way. For other hiking inspiration, you may enjoy our blogs on Island walking holidays, Walking the Via Dinarica Trail or Top Tour du Mont Blanc alternatives.