For the GR5 Alpine crossing, the normal and best time to go is
in July, August, and September. If you begin the crossing before July, in an average snow year you are likely to find your progress blocked. In a light snow year, or for low altitude sections of the trail, you could begin in June.
alpine refuges (huts) don't open until June 15th and many don't open until June 21st, or a few days later depending on the year. High mountain refuges may open as late as June 28th.
See the information under accommodations below, for checking opening and closing dates.
You may, however, begin a few days earlier from Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) (please double check all lodgings). Hotel Gai Soleil is open as of June 1. The Dent d'Oche refuge is open in June on the weekends. The Chalets de Bise open around June 1. You will find hotel lodging in Chapelle d'Abondance and gîte or hotel space in Samoëns. You will need to find someplace(s) to stay in between Chapelle d'Abondance and Samoëns, perhaps in a valley hotel, if you start your trip before June 10.
The least chance of rain, but also the hottest days of the year, fall between July 15th and August 15th.
Important: Deep snow (niege) or snow patches (névé) on the trail:
Snow is not generally off the highest passes
near Chamonix, of the Vanoise and of the Mercantour until early July. In a light snow year these passes may be open in late June. In a very heavy-snow year, snow may linger at the
high passes into August.
Unless you know how to use crampons and an ice axe, or are otherwise an accomplished mountaineer, simply don't go when snow blocks the trail. Doing so can risk your life. Snow sometimes falls in late May and June. Do check conditions with refuges, such as
Refuge Moëde near Chamonix, a refuge in the southern Vanoise, and the Gîte
de Larche.) The information you receive from them on the year's snowfall should be accurate.
In my experience the information received on the crossability of snow patches does not error on the side of safety; rather it assumes that you are a competent beginning alpinist willing to undergo an amount of risk. For those who consider themselves walkers, those who don't have trekking poles, and those with vertigo, it is better to wait until the trails are free of snow, or that only a few "very" flat patches remain. For occasional crossing of "very" flat snow patches (névé) be sure you are carrying one or preferably two walking sticks.
Do not assume that the southernmost Alps can be hiked early or late in the season. In some Mercantour passes in a very high snow year (such as 2009), snow may linger as late as August.
The huts on the GR 52 in the Mercantour National Park (at about 7,000 feet) provide full service from approximately the 14th June to the 28th September. During the rest of the year they remain open on a "non-guardian" basis, providing shelter, blankets and cooking facilities.
If you are doing the entire GR 5 starting in Holland, you could
start as early as April, reaching the Alps by early July. However,
it would be more pleasant to start in early May, reaching the Alps
in August. In Holland and Belgium average April daily temperatures
range from 41F to 56F; in May they range from 47F to 65F.
How much time to allow
Leave a few days extra for rain if you can. Unfortunately in some years the days of rain can be sequential, and spoil a trip, so if
you are in Europe and have flexibility, wait to leave for a good "meteo"
(weather report). In my experience, during the 1990's and
2000's, it rained in the July and August less than 20 % of the days.
When in the day to Walk
While hiking the GR5, try to arrive at your destination before
3:00 PM French time (equivalent to about 1:30 PM sundial time).
In the northern Alps clear mornings often turn to middays with cumulous
clouds obscuring the high peaks, followed by afternoon and early
In the Southern Alps, from Briançon south, where rain is
rare, the midday sun shines very intensely. Early morning starts
(i.e., 6 or 7 AM) are recommended for longer hiking days, so that
you can hike in the shade of the mountain lower down, and be across the inevitable pass or passes before the strongest
sunlight at noon, and the heat of the day.
Accommodations can be classified into these categories: Tents, hotels, refuges (huts), and gîtes d'étape.
Tents or tarps: Because group accommodations, such as Refuges and Gîtes d'étape
are not that expensive hikers on the GR5 seldom use tents or tarps. But there are those who prefer to sleep in nature, or who cannot afford refuges, and one can in general use a tent or tarp if you want to when the terrain is amenable. Tents are banned in the Vanoise National Park, except if space is available on the grounds of certain huts and only during July and August (I suggest calling ahead). In the Mercantour Park, "camping" is not allowed, but "bivouac" is allowed between 7 PM and 9AM if 1 hour from any border of the park or any road (and perhaps around some of the huts). A few campgrounds can be found near the major towns along the GR5 route.
If you are bivouacking along the trail, carefully consider your water needs. All water in streams or lakes is contaminated by marmots, chamois and bouquetin; stream sources can be hours apart. Carry means of purification. In the southern Alps (south of Celliac and north of Utelle) on the GR5 it can be impossible to obtain drinking water for stretches of 8 - 10 hours, so carry extra water for camping with you.
Below: Fancy two star Hotel Les Gentiannettes in La Chapelle d'Abondance.
hotel is, well, a hotel. In France the government ranks them with
stars according to amenities provided (these are not the same stars
as those in the Michelin red guides). A one star hotel will not
have an elevator, for example, but a one star hotel can be quite
clean and nice. It is best to go on-line or write hotels in advance
to get an idea of their pricing and features. Some one and two star
hotels have rooms that share baths. Some also have a dormitory ("dortoir")
with shared accommodation like a refuge or gîte d'étape.
Hotels may or may not serve meals.
Hotel dinner at the Gentiannettes.
guides in book form are too heavy to carry. You can find hotel lists
by searching on the Internet with the town name. The "Office
de Tourism" or "Syndicat d'Initiative"
maintains lists for the town. "Hébergement"
is the most usual word meaning accommodations. Some Regions maintain
lists, for example http://www.hautes-alpes.net.
Click on "Hébergements".
Refuges are communal lodgings at altitude, and people sleep side
by side, although occasional refuges may have some private sleeping
rooms, or rooms for 4 or 6 persons. Showers (if any) and toilets are communal. Some refuges serve
family style meals; most allow you to order from a limited menu.
A very few do not prepare meals at all. Refuges may or may not have
stoves and cooking equipment available for hikers use, and if so,
may charge a minimal fee for their use. Refuges are roughly comparable
to the huts in the Sierras and in the New Hampshire White Mountains.
Refuges of the CAF always provide blankets and pillows, and mattress covers; if they provide bed linens and towels (which is very rarely the case) they require an extra charge. Showers may also require an additional fee. You are required to provide a bed liner and pillowcase, for sanitary reasons, as the blankets are cleaned only once per season, but I have seen people sleep in their clothes.
Above the Entre-les-Lacs Refuge in the northern Vanoise Park
upon the elevation of the refuge and the difficulty of access, the
amenity of the sleeping rooms and toilets, and the quality of the
food can vary greatly. Some cater primarily to hikers, others to
Alpinists who will arise and depart before dawn. A typical layout
of the dormitory is mattresses placed side by side on two levels
on both sides of the room.
Most nights, people go to sleep at a reasonable hour, without disturbing
their neighbors. However, if you sleep lightly, snoring can be problem..
If this describes you, bring ear plugs. Sheets and towels are typically
are not available for rent, so if you don't want to sleep directly
under the provided wool blankets (in your clothes?) you will need
to bring a sac or sheet. In Europe silk sleeping liners of very light weight and low cost are available. Sources in France are, among others, the sports chain "De cat halon" and "Au Vieux Campeur".
The following Internet site has a listing of all of the gîtes and refuges in the Alps with links to their individual web sites) and wonderful photos of the region besides: http://www.alpes-photos.com/refuges.htm. The departments are in alphabetical order. From north to south they are Haute-Savoie, Savoie, Isère, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes -de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes.
Another useful site is: http://www.refuges.info.
Many refuges are under the management of the CAF, the Club Alpin
Français. (The individual chapters of the club actually run
the refuges in their area.) In CAF refuges, usually you cannot access the dormitory until after 5 or 6 PM. Information on these refuges is available
on-line at: http://www.ffcam.fr. Click on the heading "Refuges-Chalets-Centres de Montagne". Click on the area of the mountains that you are researching. Information on an individual refuge, including their telephone number, is usually available in English. Once you know the refuge you want to reserve, if it is more than two days in advance, if possible you should reserve on line at the Internet site http://www.cafresa.org. You may be required to pay a deposit with a credit card. Information on all the prices of each refuge is on their reservation page. It it is less than two days in advance you may reserve by phone. I believe that it may be possible to get individual refuges to take phone reservations further in advance if you call from the trail without Internet access.
So called "private refuges" are also plentiful, and they
can be found on the lists above or at the local tourist offices or parks, or
in the Topo Guides. They usually have a higher standard of amenity
than the Club Alpin ones, and cost a bit more. Some, however, are
The character of refuges vary greatly, depending upon their size, frequentation, and the personality of the guardian. They can be wonderful experiences or occasionally, horrible.
Always check online or by phone before leaving to make sure all refuges are in operation. Closings can occur for rebuilding or other reasons.
There are two types of "gîtes" in France: "gîtes d'étape"
and "gîtes rural". We can disregard the second type, which are
for long-term vacations in agricultural settings. Gites d'étape
are very similar to "refuges", except that they are located
along roads in villages or in the countryside. The obligatory dormitory
is sometimes supplemented by private rooms, but usually the toilet
and shower facilities are normally common.
Sleeping mattresses in the Gîte d'étape
d'étape typically serve better food than refuges, and have
better amenities. The dormitories are frequently split up into smaller
rooms. The gîtes d'étape are listed by tourist offices,
and may sometimes be found by name on the Web. See the URL two paragraphs
above. Remember, also, that most refuges and gîtes d'étape
(but not hotels) along the GR5 and GR52 are listed in your Topo
Guide or guide book (which I recommend you buy and carry).
The following (rather blaring) site has a list of all refuges on the GR5. http://www.gites-refuges.com/v2/recherche.htm. Click on "hebergements sur une iteneraire", then select GR5, GR52 or GR55.
Prices are discussed here.
To make them or nota perennial question: My answer: call
and find out whether they are essential. If they are, how far ahead:
a month or a day? Will the town or the refuge be full if you arrive
without reservations? Is this refuge the only one (or the only nice
one) in the area? Most lodgings will have someone who can speak
English. Assuming that you don't speak French, begin your telephone conversation with the hotel, refuge
or gîte by asking, "Can you speak English please?"
Very little is worse than to arrive at a hotel, gîte d'étape
or refuge after an exhausting, long day, and find out you have no
place to sleep—save perhaps on the floor of the dining room. It is almost as bad to find out that your trip will
be "ruined" because you can't reserve a space for the
day after tomorrow in a key location along the trail. So plan ahead! On the other hand, you don't want to hike for several days in the pouring rain, so don't plan farther ahead than need be, and call to try to change your reservations; often you will be able to.
Deposits and Payments
Depending upon their own policies, hotels, gîtes and refuges
may well require a deposit ("arrhes" in French)
to hold a reservation. Some hotels will accept credit cards to hold
reservations; others will require you to send checks. Many gîtes
and refuges will require checks; others will just hold the reservation. Those without access to Euro checks
should ask about sending checks in their own currency (dollars,
pounds, etc.). Such checks will probably not be deposited unless
you don't show. Some refuges and gîtes will make an exception
to their deposit rules, rather than having to deal with foreign
currency. Some will waive the rules if your reservation is within
the week. There is now an online credit card payment system for the refuges in the Mercantour park: (http://www.cafnice.org/cafbase/refuges.php?type=reservationsEnLigne). . In the worst case, your bank can prepare a Euro draft
for an exorbitant fee.
You need to carefully plan some parts of the GR5 route. In these
sections accommodations are spaced far apart, and walking times
each day can be long. Where you chose to stay one night, can greatly
affect where you can stay the next, and what you can see and do.
Use guidebooks and maps to do so.
In many cases, you need to weigh the pros and cons of alternative
routes and of side-trips. In the "Route
Recommendations" section of this site, I examine some
of these alternatives, and express an opinion if I have one.
That is not to say that you cannot just get on the trail and play
it by ear. But if you do, you are likely to have a few unexpected
detours and hardshipsshall we call them adventures?(yes!, if you are young!)—along
Few British and fewer Americans hike the
GR5. You are more likely to meet the French, Dutch and Germans,
perhaps also some Swiss and Italians. Around Chamonix the mix changes:
Mount Blanc draws enthusiasts of all nations, so don't be surprised
to meet Japanese and Chinese walkersout for an excursion to
one or two refuges.
Typically Europeans are reticent to strike up conversations, both
on the trail and in refuges and gîtes, but I have found that
it is easy to break the ice at dinner (or on the trail), simply
by asking people where they come from. Once the ice is broken, conversation
flows easily for hours. Europeans will find it intriguing that you
are an American (or English or whatever), and will want to talk.
Many walkers speak English. In the author's experience, political
differences will not be held against you, but can lead to discussion
if you desire.
Not everybody on the staff of mountain hotels, refuges and gîtes will speak English, but someone working there will, and when
necessary will happily translate to those in charge.
Guardians of refuges and owners of gîtes can help make reservations
at future destinations, and can provide information on local conditions.
Most will be only too happy to aide with any needs you may have.
Politeness and patience are called for: Most of these people work
hard at their many responsibilities. They will respect you and help
you if you respect them.
The chances of beginning a long-term friendship or a romantic relationship
on a trek are not high, but it can happen. For one thing, most people hike in groups of two. For another, the hiking speeds,
styles and destinations of various individuals are unlikely to be
matched. For a third, everyone is physically tired out. None the
less,I became friends with several individuals that I personally met on the trail or at dinner in a gite. In each case I followed up the initial
contact when I returned home.