When to Go
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.
Most 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 reguge Moëde near Chamonix, a refuge in the southern Vanoise, and the Gîte de Larche.) The information you recieve 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 carring 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 asAugust.
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 evening storms.
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 you can in general use a tent or tarp if you want to when the terrain is ammenable. 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 bivouacing along the trail, carefully consider your water needs. All water in streams or lakes is contaminated by marmots, chamoix 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.
A 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.
Hotel 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”. You can also use Internet sites such as Tripadvisor, which also lists hotels that their partners cannot book. If no pricing is available, look up the individual hotel’s web site, and then I suggest calling to see if space is available, before sending an email. Some hotels are requiring minimum stays, but they will have gaps in their schedule bookable by calling. On Tripadvisor you can bring up a map, which is helpful in choosing a hotel by location. You can move the map to look at nearby locations. Rooms rentalscan be found on Airb&b.com or upon arriving in a town at the Tourist Office.
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.
Entre-les-Lacs Refuge in the northern Vanoise Park
Depending 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 “Decathalon” 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 telelphone number, is usually available in English. Once you know the refuge you want to reserve, if it is more than two days in advanc and space is available you should be able to reserve on line at theabove-mentioned site. 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. For the Vanoise Park there is this excellent site: http://www.refuges-vanoise.com/portail/
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 very poor.
The character of refuges vary greatly, depending upon their size, frequentation, and the personality of the gardian. 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 common.
Sleeping mattresses in the Gîte d’étape of Larche. My friend is spreading his mattress cover.
Gîites 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 (rahter 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 not—a 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.
Planning your Route
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 hardships—shall we call them adventures?—(yes!, if you are young!)—along the way.
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 walkers—out 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.