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Crossing Europe by Footpath:

What is the Grande Randonnée Cinq?
What is the Europe 2 Trail?
The Alpine Crossing in France
Types of EuropeanTrekkers
Cost and Budgets

By David May

Copyright 2004 - 2014, 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 Léman) 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.

What is the Grande Randonnée Cinq?

The GR5, which mainly corresponds with the Europe 2 (E2) route, is perhaps the premier long distance hiking trail of Western Europe. GR stands for "Grande Randonnée", which in French means a long distance hike, or hiking trail.

The GR5 begins at Hoek van Holland on the North Sea, and ends in Southern France at the Mediterranean. It joins together many previously existing hiking trails, and a few new sections. It is laid out to traverse along, or to cross as many mountain ridges and highlands as possible—in Belgium, the Ardienne mountains; in Luxembourg, the hills by the rivers; in France, the Lorraine plateau, the Vosges Mountains of Alsace, the hills and gorges of the Jura, and, as the icing on the cake, the central spine of the Alps along the border between France and Switzerland, and further south , France and Italy. The Europe 2 (E2) hiking route extends the GR5 northward by, at present, beginning in Scotland, crossing England,and picking up on the European mainland. The eastern route in England picks up at the beginning of the GR5. The western English route picks up at Ostend, Belgium, and soon joins the GR5.

The GR5 is about 1,500 miles long (2,500 kilometers). Three and one-half months of walking time are required for an average walker to "do" the GR5. But if you walk this far, you should really take the variant of the GR5 called the GR52, which leads to Menton on the Mediterranean in a couple of extra days, rather than the GR5 itself to Nice. The GR52 provides a much more spectacular finish.

One cannot really compare the GR5 to the Appalachian trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The GR5 passes through several countries. It visits many more villages and towns, and lies on the doorstep of some others with great tourist interest. GR5 hikers normally stay in huts, lodges or hotels rather than in tents. The experience is more social and civilized; the cost is somewhat higher.

Everybody (almost) walks the GR5 from the north to the south. Probably, this is because they want to be walking from the the cold, rainy, grayer weather of Holland to the warm, dry, sunny Mediterranean; and also, to finish up their trip with the excitement of the Alps and a Mediterranean arrival.

This Site: The Alpine GR5, from Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) to the Mediterranean.

This Internet Site primarily covers the Alpine GR5 - 52, from north to south, as it crosses through the highest part of the French Alps, along the borders of Switzerland and Italy.

Rivers draining the Alps along the French border flow to the west, that is, across the grain of the north and south running GR5. What does this mean for you? It means that you will experience long ascents as you climb from the river valleys up to the high passes, and long descents as you hike down to the next big river. Passes traversed along the GR5 - GR52 are at 6,000 to 10,000 feet (1,800 - 3,000 meters), but the river valleys crossed can be as low as 1,500 to 3,000 feet (400 - 900 meters).

These vast ups and downs mean not only that you, the hiker, will have a difficult walk, but also that you will traverse and see a great variety of beautiful scenery and different ecosystems—from pastures to woods to sub-alpine meadows, to glaciers. In the lower lands you will visit areas full of villages and life, while in the heights you can be completely remote from civilization

Red arabic numbers below indicate weeks.The roman numerals refer to my first trips in the area, and should be disregarded

The through hiker of the GR5 Alpine Traverse also will experience an additional variety of scenery due to decreasing rainfall as one walks from north to south.. The hillsides of Chablais, rising above Lake Geneva, are a lush green; and dairy cows graze by the trail as it passes through Switzerland. On the other hand, in the south, on the GR52 variant of the GR5, you pass through the Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Marvels), of strikingly sculpted bare rock, without vegetation. In between these extremes, near Briançon, you l traverse beautiful semi-dry woods of larch trees, and alpine meadows of tiny rhododendrons.

On the dorstep of the Mediterranean, you visit still another zone, where rain falls in a temperate climate, protected from northerly winds by the high Alps that you have crossed. The sparse Mediterranean maquis shrubs, and the lush hillsides of semi-tropical plants dropping down to Menton, are a delight to the eye after the arid country further north.

Solitude and Wilderness

On a sunny day in the northern Alps, solitude on the trail is rare. People live in the northern Alps, or visit, much more often than in the mountains further south. The northern Alps are more easily accessible to the population centers of Europe, and are much more fertile. In the northern Alps there is no wilderness. Villages, chalets and pastures lie close by one-another. The Vanoise National Park is natural and wild, but still close-at-hand to civilization, and certainly full of hikers. None-the-less, except in the tourist towns, you can feel on your own. It is rare to see hikers in front of you or behind you on the trail, but you probably will pass day hikers traveling in the opposite direction several times an hour, or several times a day.

In contrast, in the southern Alps hikers are few and far between. Parts of the high and arid Mercantour Park are as wild and isolated as you can get in France, and might even be called a small "wilderness". Through these wilder areas in the southern Alps, particularly off the main GR5-52 route or well before or after the main hiking season, you could go all day without meeting another person.

I must add to the two paragraphs above, written almost ten years ago, that in early July, 2012 the northern Alps were more full than ever. The region around Mount Blanc is most famous internationally, and surely the most crowded. In Chamonix hundreds and hundreds of hikers, many from the far east, were starting the Tour of Mount Blanc (TMB), which overlaps for two days the GR5. Moreover, on my weekend hike to the Col de Tricot, there was a "race"in which many hundreds of hikers were crossing the col. I was told these "races" were frequent on weekends. As before, in the Southern Alps trails were almost empty.

Wild animals

It is quite possible to see several types of wild animals— at least I have on my trips: Chamois, Bouquetins ( Ibexes) , several types of deer, many kinds of birds, and the ubiquitous marmot.

When to Go

July, August, and September!  See the page that discusses this in detail.

How long does the Alpine Crossing take?

You can walk comfortably from Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) to Nice on the GR5, with a few rest days and a few extra days in Chamonix, in about five weeks; many hikers who walk longer days and don't stop for recreation have done it in four or less. Add a two or three extra days for the more spectacular finish at Menton.

Depending upon your routing, you will cover about 700 - 850 kilometers (420 - 510 miles).

You can easily divide your trip over several years. This site gives information on the most common break points, and how to reach them (see this page).

Types of Trekkers - Purists and Easygoers

The "Purists" are people like myself, who want to feel proud that they walked "every inch of the way" from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. Some purists may feel they have to do this only upon the trails officially designated as the GR5, or the GR52 (or GR 56 in the Vanoise Park). Other "purists", like myself, take pride in deviating from the official trail, but still walking "every inch of the way".

"Easygoers" (like a number of friends who came along with me on some parts of the GR5) feel they don't have to walk every bit of the trail. If the day is too long, if the trail is less interesting, or if the climb or descent is too arduous, they turn to motorized transport: possibly they hitch a ride, take a bus or taxi, or use a télépherique (i.e, a mountain lift).This site is written from the point of view of a purist—but not a purist who sticks only to the GR5,GR52 and GR56— and I include some suggestions for easygoers.

Costs and Budget (2009)

For a resident of the United States, walking the GR 5- GR 52 undoubtedly needs a bigger budget than does the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, first to get to Europe, and the, unless staying in a tent, to pay for the costs of lodging. Nonetheless, a GR5 hiking trip certainly costs much less than a European city vacation and much, much less than a commercially-guided biking or walking trek.

Northern European and British readers of this site will find the costs of a GR5 - GR52 trip quite reasonable.The following numbers will help you estimate the cost of your trip:

Costs Train transportation from (say) Paris to Lake Geneva and back from the Mediterranean should cost a total of less than 200€ (2014) per person, if your French is good enough to buy your train tickets from the French Railroad French Internet Site well in advance and pick up your ticket at a railway station in France. If you purchase your tickets in Britain or the Untied States from Rail Europe they will be at least 20% more expensive, but that may well be worth it to save trouble.If you buy your tickets at the last minute in France, expect to pay somewhat more than the advance fare. For groups of three or more it may be easier to rent a care one-way. The cost of the rental, in 2014, was about the same as three one-way tickets purchased in France. By the time you add tolls of €50 to €100 and gas or diesel fuel, your total cost per person for three will probably bring the cost to 1.5 times the individual train tickets. I personally enjoy taking the French high-speed trains, and would choose train over car for most trips if starting from central Paris.

If flying directly from the USA or England, then it will be cheapest to fly to Geneva and return from Nice. From England, Easyjet services both destinations. To reach intermediate GR5 breakpoints, it may be best to fly to Lyon or Nice and take the train or a bus from there. Another gateway to the GR5 Alpine Traverse could be Geneva, Switzerland.

You can walk the GR5-GR52 in an "accommodation-only""style, or in a "accommodation and meals" style, or (or in a mixture of the two). Most refuges and gites provide a room for doing your own cooking. Most also provide full service family meals or menus. Hotels usually provide room only rates, and half-pension rates (dinner and breakfast), which are about fifty percent more per person. In 2014, a night's lodging, per person, in a French Club Alpin (CAF) refuge (hut) along the GR5 and 52 ranges from €17 to €25 per person and the same amount again for dinner and breakfast. The lodging cost, but not the food cost, of a Club Alpin Refuges is cut in half if you are a member of the French Club Alpin or a true mountaineering club in your home country (but not, for example, in the USA the Appalachian Mountain Club or Sierra Club). Joining the Club Alpin Français (you must choose a local club) costs about 70 €, so it would take 4 or 5 nights in CAF refuges to pay the cost of membership. (To join the CAF, follow the link on this iInternet page: http://www.ffcam.fr/adherer.html.)

One or two star hotels cost about €40 to €50 per person in a double room, or somewhat less in the Southern Alps. If you take dinner and breakfast as well as lodging, gîtes and refuges cost per person about 40 to 50 Euros per night, while half-pension in hotels cost €65 to €75 per person in the northern Alps and about €55 to €65 Euros in the southern Alps.

Bivouacking: I have met on the GR5 ultralight bivouackers carrying probably ten pounds of gear and exchanged emails with others carrying much heavier packs. It is not possible to bivouack everywhere along the GR5 and its variants, but it is usually possible. The advantages of bivouacking, to my mind, are lowered costs, less noise at night in the gites and refuges, and ability to break up those few days that require excessive hiking hours to reach a refuge. The disadvantages are: the extra weight that must be carried, the lack of comfort, the greatly reduced opportunity to meet with others in gites and refuges, missed opportunity to experience French cooking, and finally the inability to bivouac or camp in most of the spectacular Vanoise Park.

Budget (2014) : A budget for the GR5 could be less than 45 Euros a day per person if you are going to stay entirely at refuges and gîtes d'étap, and do your own cooking or eat out inexpensively (at pizzeria's, etc.) If you are going the full service route with a mixture of refuges, gîtes, and hotels (double occupancy in a room), and if you spend, say, 10 € each day on lunch and 5 Euros on incidentals, a budget of 75 Euros per person per day should be attainable. Bivouackers might get by on a budget of less than 20 Euros per person per day. Thus, a two week trip along the GR5, per person, including train transportation but excluding transport to France, might range from less than 400 Euros to 1,200 Euros or more.

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