How to Hike the GR5, the Grande Randonnée Cinq (Five)—also know as the E2 (Europe 2)—through the Alps.

The GR5 walking trail and particularly the Alpine Crossing is Europe's most rewarding long-distance footpath.

By David May

Copyright 2004 - 2012, All rights Reserved
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Table of Contents Links:

General Information:

1. Why the GR5 and GR52?

Difficulty

Who should use this site?

Other Long Distance Alpine Hikes

About the author

2. The Entire GR5, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean (three months) (only summarily described here with a few references).

The Alpine Crossing, from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) to either Nice or Menton on the Mediterranean. Nice is a 4 weeks walk from Lake Geneva, Menton, almost 5 weeks. I recommend the walk to Menton over the GR 52 variant, if you can possibly find the time.

Types of trekkers - "purists" and "easygoers".

Costs and Budget

3. When to Go and When to Walk

Accommodation: Types and Reservations

Planning your Route

Meeting People

4. Trail Identification and Direction Marks

Gear

5. Books, Maps, Internet sites, GPS

6. Conditioning, hiking speed, rest days

7. Shopping and Communications

8. Top sights attractions:
Lake Geneva Steamer*;
Dent d'Oche**;
Samoens*;
Chamonix area*** (a very slight detour; consider allowing three or more sunny days);
Briançon**;
Sospel*and Aspremont* ;
Nice** and Menton**.

9. GR5 access points:

Author's Route Recommendations and Tips for the demanding hiker:

10. Starting Points on the South Shore of Lake Geneva: The official St. Gingolph or Thonon-les-Bains, vis-a-vis my preferred starting point of Evian-les-Bains. Advantages and disadvantages. Getting there. Detouring to visit the Dent d'Oche**.

11. Accommodations from La Chapelle-d'Abondance to Chamonix (or Les Houches).

12. Accommodations and route, Chamonix to Briançon.

13. Accommodations and route, Briançon to Larche: My difficult but thrilling back way out of Briançon.

14. From Larche to the Vésubie Valley.

Recommended for the intrepid: Partially off-trail variation in the northern Mercantour Park to beautifully austere and isolated lakes.

Isola 2000 short-cut to the lower GR5 or GR52, possibly saving a day or more and much more interesting terrain than the official GR5 route

15. From the Vésubie Valley to the Mediterranean:

Comparison of the GR5 to Nice vis-a-vis the GR52 to Menton: Two possible endings for your walk.

The GR5.

How to handle the 2,000 meter (6,600 foot) descent from the Valley des Merveilles to Sospel on the GR52.

Don't miss the stupendous GR52 final day from Sospel to the Mediterranean at Menton.

Why the GR5 - GR52?

The alpine portion of the GR5 long distance European hiking trail is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and personally rewarding multi-day hiking experiences in the world. This route, also known as a Grand Traverse of the Alps, goes from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean.

Is there a better hiking route in the world? It depends what you are looking for, but for me, only the around Annapurna trek in Nepal, or arguably, any Nepal trekking route is a better experience... not the TMB (Tour of Mount Blanc);. not the Dolomites traverses; not the summer Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt; not the St. James Pilgrimage, or countless other mainly low-country or hill-country multi-day walks in Europe. not the USA's AT (Appalachian Trail) nor the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) nor the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail).

(You could, of course, argue for many of these: The Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt if you want to walk mainly on glaciers, away from villages and towns, with touches of Swiss civilization; the Dolomites if you want to traverse along precipices and climb ladders and other fixed aides above the tree line in striking scenery; the St. James Pilgrimage if you want to be a pilgrim or if like to contemplate woods and fields, visit churches in French and Spanish towns, and follow where millions of travelers have walked before; the AT if you are a glutton for physical effort among woods and streams with occasional long views; the CDT or PCT if you want a mainly wilderness, backpacking experience with many open views in a diversity of beautiful mountain terrain.)

View of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) from the Dent d'Oche.
Click to enlarge.

But you can't beat the GR5 - E2 for the sheer beauty of Alpine slopes and pastures, flanked by some snow-covered mountains and glaciers, and punctuated by the the charm of flower-filled French villages, served up with good food of French hotels and inns and/or the camaraderie of French communal lodgings—refuges and gîtes d''etape, (and a few Italian and Swiss ones)— all this with the variety that comes from changing elevations and diminishing rainfall as you move from the lush and green north to the sparse and brown south and to the sub-tropical Mediterranean.

There are three considerations that might deter you: First, you won't be among many native English speakers: Few British and even fewer Americans walk the GR5. That said, most hikers will speak English as a second or third language. In lodgings of all types, if you are polite, people will try to speak English. They will view conversation with you as an opportunity to practice their English.. If you are worried about possible negative feelings that someone might have about America, don't. It is extremely rare for anyone to feel animosity, and in any event, feelings will not carry over to you as an individual. To an adventurous traveler the language issue is more of an opportunity than a problem.

The second consideration that might deter you is the weather: This consideration applies to any northern Alps hiking trip, whether in France, Switzerland, or Austria, —and for that matter to trips of any sort almost anywhere. While the southern Alps are generally sunny, the Northern Alps can be rainy—that is why they are so green—and rain can delay or even spoil a GR5 trip. By and large I personally have had good luck with the weather with either no rain or only a couple of days of rain, but one never knows.

The third consideration that might deter you is the difficulty of the GR5 and GR52:

Difficulty

Hours walked versus elevation, Leman to Chamonix. Click all photos to enlarge.

The GR5 - E2 Alpine Crossing could be difficult, unless you are a mountain hiker at home, or have conditioned yourself as described herein in Part 6. You should be able to handle 1,300 meters (4,000 feet) up or down in a day, carrying a 10 - 20 pound pack. Additionally, if you are a purist (that is, if you won't use taxis or hitch rides) you need the stamina to hike 7 or 8 hours a day on occasion, not counting rest stops. (On most days you could choose to hike four or six hours, not counting stops.) You may be able to partially condition yourself on the trail by taking it easy for the first few days, but if you are going to be doing so, be sure to allow for this in your schedule.

Who should use this site?

All potential GR5 - GR52 hikers can probably benefit from the topics presented here under the table of contents heading "General Information".

Even if you plan to precisely follow the official GR5 - GR52, sleeping entirely in gites and refuges, you will probably also gather useful information from the "Route Recommendations" that follow the general section. However, much of the information in that section is written for walkers who are willing to stray from official routes: to experience even more interesting terrain, with perhaps even more challenge, to stay from time to time in more luxurious lodgings, to see even greater views, or to enjoy world-class non-hiking attractions.

Route descriptions on this Site are deliberately not detailed or exhaustive. For detailed descriptions, trail instructions, and timings consult guidebooks and/or maps—you will need them in any case. For information on guides and maps, see Books and Maps.

Other Long Distance Alpine Hikes

In the Alps, many two-or-more-week hikes are possible.(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_long-distance_footpaths.) I am familiar with some of these. In Italy, there are first of all, the cross Dolomites trails, 9 in number, all taking two weeks or so, and ranging from fairly easy walking to highly difficult. Most of these have portions which are equipped with ladders and cables, though these can usually be avoided if desired by detouring. Equipped sections range from very easy to highly technical. The trails start in German-speaking and German culture areas of sud-Tyrol in the north, and end in Italian speaking and Italian culture areas in the south.

There is also the so called GTA, which is the Italian Grand Traverse of the Alps (Grande Traversata delle Allpi). This begins at Lake Maggiore in Lombardy, and reaches Ventimiglia on the Mediterranean in about two months; most of the hikers on this route are German, and general information on the web is in German, while maps and local information are in Italian. A variation from the GR5-52 that I recommend for consideration is one stage of the GTA. No further information is provided here.

Other fine Alpine long distance hikes with which I am familiar are the TMB (Tour of Mount Blanc) and the summer version of the Haute Route between the Chamonix valley of France and Zermatt, Switzerland. The Haute Route has a low-level longer and easier version, and a glacier-level shorter version. Organized tours of both versions today usually use train or bus transport to skip over two days of lowland walking.

About the author

I started walking the GR5 because I was looking for an "encore" for a fabulous 22 day long "around Annapurna" trek in the Nepal Himalayas. In a book store, I found a book, by Margolis and Harmon's, now long out of print (but available on the Net used) about the GR5. I was spending several weeks in France, and—the weather forecast being good—decided on the spur of the moment to walk the first week of the GR5, from Lake Geneva to Mont Blanc. Thus started a saga of walking the GR5and 52 (and re-walking two segments) that lasted for six summers over ten years(1992-2001), with visits to individual day walks in 2003 and 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2009 I explored a new link in the Mercantour National Park which has received very little attention. The memories of these walks were and are still fresh as I put together and have modified this site. Yes, I do now enjoy medium-light backpacking in the US Western wilderness; but I still often prefer touches of civilization with my mountains, and the the European trails' good food and lodgings.

In writing this site, I hope to bring the GR5 and particularly the GR 52 to the attention of more Americans and other English speakers. I want also to share some of my knowledge as to how to do the Alpine Traverse with a degree of comfort, a dollop of sightseeing, and an additional helping of adventure.

I have tried to double check all the routings, times, lodgings, and sources. Certainly, I will have made errors, and so I advise you the reader to double check everything yourself— once before you set out, and again, along the way.

If you have suggestions or questions, please do let me know, at author@grfive.com.

Sister Sites: EuropeBicycleTouring.com for information on great cycle tours and organizing, budgeting, kinds of tours, choosing a bicycle, transporting a bicycle on trains, etc.
Mayq.com for information on cycling in Paris, using public transportation with a bicycle, and on low-traffic bicycle routes out of Paris to the countryside and the airports.

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