How to Hike the Alpine Traverse:

The final week: Choosing between the GR5 and GR52 to theMediterranean

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 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.

From The MercantourPark to the Mediterranean:

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. But which route to the Mediterranean should you take?

Because it is the end of "The GR5", and because from Valdeblore the GR5 takes three or four days (17.5 - 19 hours) less than the GR52 (or from Boréon on the Balconies of the Mercantour Route it takes two days - 12 hours less), 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 recommend, rather, that you strongly consider taking the GR52 variant to Menton. The are two good reasons: First, nowhere on the GR5 is there any terrain like the Vallée des Mervilles (Valley of Marvels)— a sort of moonlike, thunderbolt-struck area more desolate than anywhere else in France. (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.)

The second reason is that the last day's descent from the Alpes to the Mediterranean Menton is literally "unforgetable". At a distance of 3.5 kilometers (2.1 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. Also, the steep descent from the Col du Berceau above Menton to the Plan de Lion is mostly 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 reach sea level before you reach the Mediterranean, so you finish by 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

 

Aspremont Village, a 3 hours' walk from the coast at Nice.

Assuming you take the easier choice, the next day, your fourth day from Bousiéyas (and 5th from Larche), will bring you as far as St. Dalmas-Valdeblore. GR 52 branches off here if you age going to Menton.

The GR5 from Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore to Nice

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. A final short day of 3 hours from Aspremont or 5 hours from Levans takes you to the Mediterranean coast in downtown Nice. It is 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, it takes —according to the FFRP topoguide— 7 hours and 20 minute 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 refuge for wolves. Most likely, it will be your 6th day out of Larche. Or you could have taken my highly recommended special route, described on a previous page.

From Boreon to the Valée 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 walked it. In now visits the brand new, 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 mmap 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 total hours to Sospel (as always, not counting stops) would be too much walking for you, 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 routes. For either route, unfortunately, there is a section on a recently built asphalted road. Walking time from the Pointe des Trois Communes to the Camp d'Argent is 45 minutes (or less), despite what the sign says. From the Camp d'Argent it took me an hour and 30 minutes to reach the old GR52 at signpost #151.

Dirt! Grass! Mediterranean Flora!

Otherwise, take the more scenic and shorter alternative, the old GR52. Walk directly from the Pointe de Trois Communes to the Baisse de la Dea (via signposts #150 and #151) in about one-half hour. To doso, 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 straight on a dirt road. Do detour 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).

Whichever version of the GR52 you take, the trip will not be boring. The views are great, and 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 five to seven 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 as far as San Remo.

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!