There are few things better in life than a well-earned liter of wine and some world-class charcuterie after a long hard day on the trail – but that’s what the GR 20 offered, day-after-day. Often considered one of the hardest, if not the hardest, trails in Europe, the GR 20 provided us with a stout challenge and tons of fun. After hiking the remote Alpamayo Circuit and the well-groomed Walker’s Haute Route, we found the rocky miles and long stretches of scrambling to be exhilarating and a nice change of pace. Though the trail doesn’t offer the “classic” high Alpine experience, it makes up for it with crazy amounts of bare rock, stunning sunsets and mountain top sea views.
While we had often dreamt of hiking the GR 20, the scale of planning the trip and the intimidating/dangerous history had always caused us to put it on the backburner. We hope this trip report will be of help to anyone who has had similar concerns, but is ready to take on this amazing trail. As with most of our hikes, we completed this trail using our own tent and carrying the majority of our food.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a trail than the semi-autonomous French island of Corsica. With a single mountain chain occupying almost two-thirds of the island, Corsica is a rugged place that hosts miles of beautiful beaches and untamed wilderness. The GR 20 spans roughly 180km, North to South, and covers some of the most difficult and remote terrain on the island. The trail is split into sixteen stages and two sections, the North and South, with the Northern section being considered the most scenic and dangerous.
Almost every guide and guidebook (we used Paddy Dillon’s Trekking the GR20 Corsica kindle edition) has the hike starting in the North and ending in the South, and this is the direction almost everyone we met was traveling. We, however, decided to hike from South to North and would do so again for several reasons. First, it is easier to get your trail legs in the South where the trail is a bit gentler, and arrive fit for the Northern Section. We saw plenty of people questioning their desire to continue the trail on our last day (their first) due to the steep climb out of Calenzana in the heat of the day. Second, many people have said that the Southern Section is a bit of a letdown (we don’t agree) after the North, but you can avoid that feeling by starting in the South. Third, we like to move at our own pace and it is harder to pass groups on this trail because the path is often rocky and narrow. That being said, if you start in the South make sure you give yourself enough time to complete the trail as it is very hard to make up time in the North. We were able to double some days in the South, but the terrain and spacing of the huts in the North make it more difficult, especially with the frequent thunderstorms.
This is a burly trail with difficult underfoot conditions. The path is very rocky and you will often find yourself in areas of exposure where falling is not an option. While there has been much made about the difficulty of the trail, anyone who has some scrambling or solid off-trail hiking experience will not be caught-off-guard.
What I found to be the most dangerous part of the trail was the long, sustained periods of time spent on ridges. This is not a typical hike, where you go up to a pass and then down into a valley and repeat. The GR 20 will typically take you up a ridge and keep you there, looping back and forth for miles. This can be a novel experience up until a lightning storm blows in and you are stuck in constant exposure with no way down! The good thing about the trail is that several stages give you the option of a high-route and a low-route. And, while the high-route will often give you better views, the low-route will give you the opportunity to avoid the most exposed areas in bad weather.
The main trail is typically very well-marked with red/white paint on rocks, trees and other fixed objects. The general rule is that if you have gone more than 20 feet or so without seeing a marker you are probably going the wrong direction. Even though we didn’t carry a map, we never had an issue finding the trail. The only place we managed to get lost was first day in the town of Conca!
Lodging, Food and Water:
For all its ruggedness, the GR 20 is well-situated with sleeping options and food. At the end of each stage (and sometimes in-between), there is a refuge (mountain hut) where you have the option of pitching your own tent, renting one of their pre-pitched tents or sleeping in the refuge. Since we never had an issue finding a spot to pitch our own tent, we didn’t have to worry about the rental or reservation process that can at times be an issue. In addition to the refuges, there are a number of bergeries (farmhouses) that often offer camping as well as homemade cheese, bread, charcuterie and other foodstuffs. The camping at the refuges was typically 7€ per person and at the bergeries 8€ per person.
In order to save money and not worry about what food we would find along the way, we purchased six days of food at the Spar grocery store in Bastia and four days at a small store/campground in Vizzavona. If I were to do it again, I would bring a bit less food and purchase more cheese and bread at the bergeries along the way. One thing to keep in mind is that almost everything needs to be purchased in cash. While the refuges do sell some food, wine and beer, they only take cash and you may find yourself spending too much. We ran into several people who had to leave the trail and go to Corte-loosing a day on the trail-in order to access an ATM. We were fortunate that the store in Vizzavona accepted our credit card and we were able to spend the rest of our cash on wine and charcuterie.
There was water at every campsite, some people filtered it, some didn’t – we did about 50% of the time. The Paddy Dillion guide gives pretty accurate information for water along the way. It was never a problem for us.
Getting There and Back:
Getting to and from the trail can be a bit tricky and transportation information in Corsica is spotty at best. We used corsicabus.org for some of the planning, but found it wasn’t always updated or accurate. After flying into Bastia Airport, we caught the airport shuttle into the center of the city where we stayed at the Best Western and stored our main luggage. Once in town, we walked to the information center down by the waterfront and confirmed the stop (there are multiple bus stops) for the early morning bus toward Porto Vecchio. When on the bus make sure you tell the driver you want to get off at St. Lucie(Conca), and not go all the way to Porto Vecchio. The bus should drop you off in front of a bar where you can grab a beer and ask them to call for a jeep to take you up to Conca to start the trail (This seems to be something they do often and they shouldn’t be too surprised when you ask). I read somewhere that there is a scheduled jeep shuttle, but that wasn’t the case when we arrived. You can also walk about an hour on the road to Conca – if road walking is something you like to do…
When we exited the trail at Calenzana, we planned to take a shuttle to Calvi that we heard was operating, but apparently, it no longer was. The taxis were wanting 40€, and so, after grabbing lunch and having a beer, we started walking to Calvi. The road walking was a dangerous and hot affair, but luckily, after ten minutes or so we had an elderly gentleman pick us up in his work van and drive us most of the way to Calvi – first “hitchhike” ever!
After setting up our tent at a campground in Calvi, we walked down to the main port area where there is a great information center with all the bus and train schedules. We were lucky the bus to Bastia was still operating and we were able to catch an early morning ride back to Bastia.
Who We Recommend it For:
The GR 20 is a serious trail and has seen its share of accidents. In 2015, a large storm swept over the mountain range that triggered landslides on one of the most treacherous stretches of the trail and led to multiple hikers being killed and injured. While the area has since been closed and the trail re-routed, it is a reminder of how dangerous and unstable some areas can be.
That being said, I think this is a great trail for those hikers looking for an exciting challenge and who are comfortable making slow miles over difficult trail conditions.
We were already in Barcelona before the hike so we were able to catch a short, cheap flight on Vueling Airlines to Bastia. We allotted for 16 days on the island and that was about right. If we were to do it again, I would probably schedule an extra couple days to account for weather and to allow for a beach day or an extra day to travel to Corte from Vizzavona.
Day 0: After arriving in Bastia mid-morning, we dropped our bags at the hotel and promptly went to work looking for our trail food and gas for our MSR Micro-Rocket stove. We were able to buy all the food we needed at the Spar supermarket a few blocks from the water and found our gas at the Millet store a few doors down. If you are down by the water keep an eye out for a wine shop that sells 1.5L of homemade wine (in used water bottles) for 3.5 € . After we obtained all of our food and wine, we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel packaging our food, organizing our gear and eating a massive/awesome pizza from Snack Pizzaria Mediterania (highly recommended!).
Day 1: Bastia to Conca to Refuge d’ I Paliri – We woke up bright and early ready to catch the 8:30 bus toward Porto Vecchio. After a bit of confusion we found out you couldn’t buy the bus ticket from the driver, but had to go into the bus company’s shop across the street. Our limited French added to confusion, but luckily the other passengers were kind enough to get us straightened out. The bus ride was uneventful and we arrived at the St. Lucie (stop for Conca) around 11:30 am. The bus dropped us off in front of a bar where we had heard there is normally a jeep shuttle waiting for hikers, but given this was the off-season we had to ask the bartender to call for us. We ordered a beer and they were happy to help. The jeep arrived after 25 min and drove us to their camp just outside Conca for 7€ .
The trail starts on the road just outside Conca and weaves you through the town before you actually hit dirt. We have a knack for getting lost in towns and at the beginning of our hikes and this time was no different. Somehow, in this town of only 3 or 4 streets, we had managed to get off track and had to backtrack 20 minutes in order to find where we had gone astray. Once we got back going in the right direction it was a nice hike to Paliri. The day was blazing hot, but it was great to be back hiking.
Day 2: Refuge d’ I Paliri to Refuge d’Asinau – A nice day of walking, but I had hurt my knee the day before and was moving a bit slow. The trail takes you through Vilage de Bavella where we highly recommend you grab a panini from the shop on the left side of the street right when you arrive in town. Best ever!
Day 3: Refuge d’ Asinau to Refuge d’Usciolu – You begin to get a better sense of the trail the second half of this day. Some good ridge walking and scrambling as you get closer to Refuge d’Usciolu. We unintentionally got off-trail for a bit and had to down climb some tough stuff with our full packs, not the funnest, but not the worst.
Day 4: Refuge d’Usciolu to Cassetta di Gjalcone – We did a stage-and-a-half or something like that. The first half of the day is spent pretty high and exposed and we were lucky to just miss an incoming storm. Once you descend, the hiking is easy and you can make good miles. We made it to Cassetta di Gjalcone with plenty of time to spare and almost had the whole place to ourselves. It is a new Cassetta, but the campground is pretty small.
Day 5: Cassetta di Gjalcone to Vizzavona – This was a very easy day with lots of descent and blackberries! On both ends of the trail and in the middle by Vizzavona, the roadsides are teeming with blackberries. I don’t know about other times of the year, but in September they were going nuts. Most people were just passing them bye, but we couldn’t stop going out of our way to find the biggest and juiciest! A good distraction from the heat. We decided to stay in the first campground we came to upon entering Vizzavona. There may be others, but this one had a store and allowed us to use our credit card to buy a few days worth of food. We had a great night drinking wine, eating cheese and packaging our food.
Day 6: Vizzavona to Refuge de Petra Piana via link route – Leaving Vizzavona you have a couple choices of how you want to proceed. After having some really close calls with thunderstorms in the South and looking at our schedule, we decided to jump on the Mar a Mar de Nord route to take us up to Bergeries de Tolla and then hop back on the GR20. This route allowed us to save a full-day and ensure that we could finish the trail. This path also takes you close to some caves that were used by Neolithic hunters – they are worth the stop, but not very interesting. Some hiking purists may not like the idea of this route, but it is worth considering if you are running short on time. It worked well for us and gave us some breathing room in the Northern section. The Bergeries de Tolla had some amazing looking cheese, and I wish we had bought some, but we just had a quick snack and headed on to the Refuge de Petra Piana. The refuge is is an amazing location and it was a bit busy, but we were able to snag a great campsite out of the hustle and bustle.
Day 7: Refuge de Petra Piana to Refuge de Manganu – If you like scrambling and rough terrain this is the day for you! The path after Petra Piana is very rough and has some tough scrambling sections – one spot also has chains set up for you to use. If you have any climbing experience, you will find the chain section very easy and probably safer to do without them. Great views all day! We arrived in camp in the early afternoon and had just enough time to set up camp, take a dip in the creek and drink some wine before a large storm system blew in.
Day 8: Refuge de Manganu to Hotel Castel di Vergio – The storm system that blew in the day before persisted all day and we were stuck with heavy rain and fog all the way to the hotel. The hotel has a large camping area out front and is a good place to grab some food.
Day 9: Hotel Castel di Vergio to Auberge U Vallone – Another spectacular day on the trail! The path takes you through a large valley and up and over an amazing pass. The trail is very rough and slow going headed down, but you end up at Auberge U Vallone which is a great spot to take a dip in one of the amazing swimming holes.
Day 10: Auberge U Vallone to Ascu Stagnu – Ouch, probably the toughest day of the trip. This is the section that had to be re-routed around the Cirque de Solitude. The day started off with a very steep climb and some difficult sections of scrambling. Once you make the climb out of the valley you have the option to climb Mt. Cinto. We set our packs down and started to head up, but decided to turn around about 3/4 of the way because we were feeling pretty beat-up and wanted to have fresh legs for the long rocky descent. My feet were killing me at the end of the day.
Day 11: Ascu Stagnu to Refuge Carozzu – My favorite day of the hike! The night before we were able to grab a couple beers and eat some paninis at the restaurant next to Refuge Carozzu. Once you leave camp the trail takes you straight up the mountain-side, which was a fun and exhilarating way to get the day started. This is also the day of the dreaded slabs of doom or whatever… there are lots of warnings about the slabs when wet or icy, but we had no problem in the afternoon sun. The campsite was pretty large and spread out, more wine.
Day 12: Refuge Carozzu to Refuge d’Ortu – This is the time of the trip where you can picture yourself siting at the end eating a giant pizza and sipping cold beer. The first part of the day is spent climbing up to an amazing ridge, where you get some of the best views of the whole range. The trail is tough like all the others and you have to descend a ways into the valley before coming up again to reach Refuge d’Ortu. The Refuge d’Ortu is also the first camp for many hikers doing the trail from North to South. It was fun to see everyone’s expressions and body language after they struggled into camp after their tough first day. I am glad we did the hike South to North…
Day 13: Refuge d’Ortu to Calvi – Easyish hike down to Calenzana in the mid-day sun. If you decide to hike the trail from North to South I would highly, highly recommend you get an early start from Calenzan. The climb and the heat would be exhausting for anyone carrying a heavy pack, especially for a first day. Calenzana is a beautiful, sleepy town that is rich in history and a great place to end the hike. After grabbing a bite to eat and drinking a celebratory beer, we were able to catch a ride to Calvi.
We didn’t change much of our gear choices from our previous hikes except we left behind our down jackets. The weather was hotter than we expected and we were happy with the versatility of our Enlightened Equipment Quilts. I used the Addidas Terrex Fast X mid-hiker and really appreciated their support and stiffness on the hard trail. Chelsea was using her New Balance Leadvilles and I know there were times she wished she had a bit more mid-foot protection and stiffness for scrambling.
We hiked the trail in mid-September and were glad that we did. The trail was very hot (for hiking) when climbing out of Conca and down to Calenzana. When you are up high, it is quite nice, but down low it is very hot and humid. This is not a trail we would want to hike July-August. We like to hike in the shoulder seasons for the cooler weather, and while an early snowstorm could add to the adventure, we find the better weather and fewer people to outweigh the risks.
Of all the trails we hiked on our trip, this was the most fun! I don’t know if it was the constant flow of wine or the hard scrambling or the combination of both, but we had a blast. We had great weather for the most part and never had an issue finding camping spots at the refuges. The island of Corsica is enchanting and is worth a visit even if you don’t plan any hiking. The Corsican culture, food and people make this a world class destination for anyone. The badass hiking trail is just a bonus.