The GR5 is a 2 600 km hiking trail going from North Sea to Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes named E2 (European trails), it crosses the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France with some small sections going through Switzerland and Italy. This article will focus on its most famous part: the great crossing through the French Alps from lake Geneva to Nice. A must-do for hikers, probably one of the most rewarding hiking trip in the world.
Access points of the GR5
Of course, crossing the Alps requires to be in pretty good shape. But I believe that most people can do it; the key being to hike at your own rhythm and not to overevaluate your endurance. Some hikers will walk 8 hours a day with two pass crossings and sleeping under a tarp, while the beginner will plan to hike 3 hours a day and aim at mountain huts.
Besides, most hikers do not cross the Alps in one trip but divide it over several years. There are some key access points with good public transportation from where you can start and stop your trek.
- On the shore of Lake Geneva, the most common starting point is Thônon-les-Bains, well connected by train from Lyon. The first ascent through the forest is quite long but will lead you on the pasture of the Chablais mountains. Alternatively, the GR5 starts in Switzerland in Saint-Gingolph and that will spare you some efforts.
- The Chamonix valley is another access point. From les Houches or les Contamines-Montjoie, you can connect to the train stration of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
- Modane is one easy access to the GR5 because it is well-connected to Lyon, Paris and Italy. Going north, you aim at the Vanoise National Park and going south you head towards Briançon and the Queyras.
- The typical town of Briançon is a nice-looking access point and good spot for a day or 2 of rest
- From the Ubaye (Larche, Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye) you can find connection (especially during high season) to Barcelonnette and then Gap from train connections
- Southern accesses of the GR5 are Nice and Menton, well connected to Lyon and Paris.
Sections of the trail
From lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea, it will require between 3 and 6 weeks of hiking. Some possible sections include:
- From Lake Geneva to Chamonix-Les Houches: between 5 and 6 days with possible stop in Samoens to buy necessary supplies and visit the alpine botanic garden
- From les Houches to Modane: around 11 days via Tignes and Bonneval-sur-Arc but some variants exists via Pralognan-la-Vanoise or Lanslebourg.
- From Modane to Briançon: 2 to 4 days depending of the variants (and of the climate)
- From Briançon to Nice: around 10 days
Finish the GR5 in Menton or Nice?
While the GR5 stops (or starts) in Nice, the GR52 is a variant and stops in Menton. The ending in Nice is 40 kilometers shorter that the ending in Menton. The GR52 will take you through the beautiful Vallée des Merveilles and its unique prehistoric rock art. Some says that the descent to the sea is more beautiful on the GR52…but after so much effort you may be happy to swim in the sea as soon as possible!
Hiking highlights (personal bests!)
- The climbing of the Brevent on its South side and the arrival in front of the Mont-Blanc with view to the Aiguille du Midi and the glacier des Bossons. Starting from the Moede-Antern refuge, you walk to the bridge of Arlevé (1 597 m) before starting to climb the magnificient Brevent (2 368 m). The scenery at the top desserves your pain! Below you is Chamonix.
- From Rosuel to the col du Palet. This section in the Vanoise National Park will take you for a couple of hours through an entirely unspoilt territory accompanied with marmots
- The Narrow Valley (Vallée étroite). Getting down from the refuge of the Mont Thabor, you will cross the Vallée Etroite before entering the Vallée de la Clarée. A French and Italian preserved and outside of time territory.
How to prepare for the GR5?
The main season runs through July, August and September. At the beginning of summer you may still encounter treacherous snow patches and you may need to carry additional equipment like crampons or ice axe. At the end of summer, storms may be more frequent. Pay attention to weather conditions before you go.
Especially relevant, the Topoguides are a good source of information for your hike in France. Four of this little guide books will help you for your GR5 experience: list of accommodation, grocery stores, excerpts from hiking maps, itinerary explanations and indications about hiking times.
- Topoguide ref 504 Du Léman à la Vanoise
- Topoguide ref 530 La Vanoise from Les Chapieux to Modane
- Topoguide ref 631 De la Maurienne à l’Ubaye
- Topoguide ref 507 Le Mercantour, la vallée des merveilles
Pictures Wild France / ©