Comparison of the GR5 to Nice vis-à-vis the GR52 to Menton
To recapitulate, depending upon the routes you have taken, you could be either in the town of Boréon on the GR52, or in Saint Dalmas-Valdeblore on the GR5. Which route to the Mediterranean should you take?
Because it is the end of “The GR5”, and because from Valdeblore the GR5 it takes three or four days (17.5 – 19 hours) less time than the GR52 (or from Boréon on the Balconies of the Mercantour Route it takes two days – 12 hours less time), and because the GR5 has much less vertical elevation to negotiate (i.e., it is easier), many walkers will be tempted to end their journey at Nice. Enough of this hardship on the trail!!!, they may say.
Lac du Basto, Valley of Marvels on the GR52
I strongly recommend, rather, that you take the GR52 variant of the GR5 to Menton. The are two good reasons: First, nowhere on the GR5 network is there any terrain like the Vallée des Mervilles (Valley of the Marvels)— a sort of moonlike, thunderbolt-struck area more desolate than anywhere else in France (other than my special bushwhacking route out of Larche, which most hikers don’t take).
Unfortunately, much of the famous prehistoric rock art in the Vallée Des Merveilles has been defaced or washed away, or is hard to find. If you are interested in seeing many of the engravings, I suggest planning for this in advance by arranging for a guide with the Refuge des Merveilles. None the less, the valley is exciting.
The second reason is that the last day’s descent from the Alpes to the Mediterranean Menton is literally “unforgetable”. At a distance of 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Mediterranean your elevation still is 1,090 meters (about 3,600 feet). The drop of the mountains from there is steep and the view is gorgeous, up the Mediterranean coast to Monte Carlo and beyond. As you descend, views are constant. At lower elevations you pass through attractive countryside, then lovely villas with subtropical vegetation, and finally you come down the last few steps—to a beautiful sand beach.
Do be aware, however, that you may not encounter other hikers on the trail from the Marvels Valley to Sospel, nor on the next day on parts of the trail to the Mediterranean, particularly in mid-summer when local people consider it too hot for hiking; solo hikers should think carefully before undertaking this part of the GR52 and consider taking the escape route described below. Also, the steep descent from the Col du Berceau above Menton to the Plan de Lion is initially among loose rocks on the trail, and will possibly take the careful walker double the book time of 30 minutes..
By contrast, the descent to Nice on the GR5, which the author has also made, is very gradual. Views are limited. You will be practically at sea level before you reach the Mediterranean, so you will finish with a long and somewhat boring walk through mundane sections of the city of Nice. The “beaches” of Nice are of pebbles. To summarize, the last day of your GR5 trip is pleasant, but not memorable.
Both Nice and Menton are on the main Riviera train line. Nice also has an international airport. There is also a very inexpensive bus line along the coast, but road traffic barely moves forward along the Riviera coast during the summer.
The GR5 from Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore to Nice
Assuming that you take the easier choice, your 5th day from Bousiéyas (and 6th from Larche), will have brought you as far as St. Dalmas-Valdeblore. GR 52 branches off here .
Your final nights on the GR5, are spent in the charming tiny hill town of Utelle, an 8 hours’ walk; and then in Aspremont, another 7 hours’ walk (though you could stop in the less charming Levans, after 5 hours.
Aspremont Village, a 3 hours’ walk from the coast at Nice.
A final short day of 3 hours from Aspremont or 5 hours from Levans takes you to the Mediterranean coast in Nice. It will take 7 days total from Larche, not counting nights in Larche or Nice.
The official routing for the GR52 from Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore to Boréon:
If you are taking the GR52 to end your trip, as I hardily recommend, from Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore, where the GR52 splits from the GR5, 7 hours and 20 minute —according to the FFRP topoguide— are required to arrive at Boréon, the next town with lodging—a lovely little resort on a lake with hotels, restaurants and a gite d’étape. It also has a trout fishing pond and a refuge for wolves. Most likely, it will be your 7th day out of Larche. Or you could have taken my highly recommended shorter special route, described on a previous page.
From Boreon to the Vallée des Merveilles on the GR52
From Boréon the lodgings are spaced as follows: Madone de Fenestre (guarded CAI refuge) 4 hours (an extra 1 1/2 hours by the Col de Fenestre variation); from Madone de Fenestre to the Refuge “Nice” 3 1/4 hours; from the Refuge “Nice” to the Refuge des Marveilles, 4 1/2 hours.
It is your choice whether to take 3 days or only 2 days (as my group did) from Boréon to reach the Refuge des Mervilles. Consider combining the first two days into one, not staying in Madonne de Fenestre (but definitely visiting the church), and rather pushing on to the Refuge Nice. Definitely do get a very early start each day, because this country is very hot and exposed at midday (and cold at night). Carry extra water.
How to handle the 2,000 meter (6,600 foot) descent from the Valley Des Merveilles to Sospel
An escape route from the GR52, which my easygoing friends took, leads eastwards from the Refuge des Mervilles: A two-hour downhill walk leads to the train station at St. Dalmas-de-Tende. From there trains run to Sospel (and to Nice). If you bypass the GR52 descent, do by all means stay overnight in Sospel and walk the final day to the Mediterranean at Menton.
The GR52 has been rerouted since I first walked it. In now visits the very nice Gite d’Etap – Refuge called L’Estive and the Hotel Le Yéti at the Baise de Camp d’Argent (1737 meters, about 5,600 feet of altitude). You can see the new routing on the map of the Geoportail web site at the”town” level of magnification. If you take the new routing of the GR 52, it will add at least 2 hours to your walking time, and you will have to spend the night there; so use the old routing via signposts 150 and 151 if you plan to walk to Sospel in one day.
Sunrise, Hiker and Lake de la Muta, Valley of Marvels.
Start at the crack of dawn, so you won’t spend too much time in the heat. You will be walking roughly 35 kilometers (21 miles) over 8 1/2 hours. Carry extra water, which ever routing you take. This is a ridge walk, and there are no drinking water sources.
Watch your walking technique: Don’t bang your legs down, and don’t keep your knees straight. Use your quadriceps to cushion your steps. Tread as lightly as you can. (My hiking companion—who was stronger than I —ran down many slopes jumping from rock to rock. As a result, he couldn’t walk the next day, and very sadly, his knees were never as good afterwards). By all means, use shock-absorbent innersoles, and use trekking poles to help cushion your steps.
Pas du Diable (Pass of the Devil).
The Mediterranean is somewhare out there in the distance.
An hour and 1/4 from the Refuge Des Mervilles lies the Pas du Diable (Pass of the Devil) at 2,346 meters (about 7,700 feet). Sospel, your destination, is at 350 meters. (1,100 feet)!!!
At the Pointe des Trois Communes, which is where you arrive at a concrete wall with a hole in it, you must make a choice. The GR52 was rerouted in about 2009 to pass through the Camp d’Argent, adding about 1 hour and 45 minutes of walking time. The sign at the Pointe des Trois Communes (#410) is on the back side of the sign post, and it is easy to miss. If your knees bother you, or 8 1/2 hours to Sospel (as always, not counting stops) would be too much walking, turn west, staying on the GR 52 and spending the night at the gite-refuge L’Estive or the hotel Le Yéti at the Camp d’Argent. In 2012 I walked both the old and new GR52 sections, and in my opinion, the old routing is more scenic. Either way you go, unfortunately, you have a section on na asphalted road that was built in recent years. My timing from the Pointe des Trois Communes to the Camp d’Argent is 45 minutes (or less). The sign’s time for this section is wrong. My timing from the Camp d’Argent back to the old GR52 at signpost #151 is 1 hour 30 minutes.
Otherwise, walk directly from the Pointe de Trois Communes to the Baisse de la Dea (via signposts #150 and #151) on the old routing of the GR52 in about one-half hour. To do so turn east, and then immediately go right and left. Once you reach the ashphalt, I recommend you stay on it (rather than going into the valley and climbing up again) until it reaches a switchback, where you continue on a dirt road. Do go up to the left of the ashphalted road to look at the great view and wander about the ruins from the 2nd World War (going inside is not safe).
Dirt! Grass! Mediterranean Flora!
However you do it, it is a memorable trip, never boring. The flora changes as you drop in altitude and approach the Mediterranean.
Sospel is a very interesting, picturesque village astride the Bevera River. There are hotels and a gîte d’étape.
The Final Day of the GR52: The fantastic Decent to the Mediterranean
The main point about this day is: Don’t miss it. From the river in Sospel there is a 740 meter (2,400 feet) climb to a pass at 3,300 feet, a descent of 700 feet, and another 1,000 foot climb back to 3,600 feet. This takes 4 1/2 hours not counting stops. This last pass lies only 3 1/2 miles from the Mediterranean coast. As you descend, a mile from the water you are still at 600 meters (2,000 feet)!
As the ground falls away, the views are never to be forgotten. You can see up the coast to Cap-Martin, Monte-Carlo and beyond, as well as down to Menton and the turquoise blue Mediterranean.
Know in advance that your descent will not be easy; initially it is very steep and strewn with rocks for the first 300 meters vertical of the descent.
It takes 2 1/2 to 3 memorable hours—excluding multiple photo stops— to walk from the pass down to the Mediterranean. About one-half way down, make a slight detour up to the ridge on your left where you can see into Italy.
Once in Menton, among pennants and flags, walk onto the beach, and dip your toes in the Mediterranean. You have earned it! Spend an extra couple of days on the Côte d’Azur!