Why you should hike the GR 5 and 52

The alpine portion of the GR5 (GRE2) long distance European hiking trail is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and personally rewarding multi-day hiking experiences in the world. Also known as a Grand Traverse of the Alps, this trail goes from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) to the Mediterranean.

Is there a better multi-day hiking route in the world? It depends what you are looking for, but for me, only the (pre-2000) around Annapurna trek in Nepal was a better experience, though the iron-equipped vertiginous high level circuit of the Brenta Dolomites came close.  However, you might prefer The Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt if you want to walk mainly on glaciers, away from villages and towns, with touches of Swiss civilization;  the St. James Pilgrimage if you are a pilgrim or if you like to contemplate woods and fields, visit historic and often beautifu churches in French and Spanish towns, and follow where millions of travelers have walked before; the Appalachian Trail if you are a glutton for physical effort among woods and streams with rare long views; the  Pacific Crest Trail if you want a mainly wilderness, backpacking experience with many open views in a diversity of beautiful mountain terrain, especially in the Sierras and the North Cascades.

Mont Blanc from Le Prarion, GR5 visible below

But you can’t beat the GR5 – E2 for the sheer beauty of Alpine slopes and pastures, flanked by some snow-covered mountains and glaciers, and punctuated by the the charm of flower-filled French villages, served up with good food of French hotels and inns and/or the comraderie of French communal lodgings—refuges and gîtes d”etape, (and a few Italian and Swiss ones)— all this with the variety that comes from changing elevations and diminishing rainfall as you move from the lush and green north to the sparse and brown south and to the sub-tropical Mediterranean.

Reasons not to walk the GR5:  

What are possible reasons not to walk the GR5?   First, you won’t be among many native English speakers: Few British and even fewer Americans walk the GR5. That said, most hikers will speak English as a second or third language. In lodgings of all types, if you are polite, people will try to speak English. They will view conversation with you as an opportunity to practice their English. If you are worried about possible negative feelings that someone might have about America, don’t. It is extremely rare for anyone to feel animosity, and in any event, feelings will not carry over to you as an individual. To an adventurous traveler the language issue is more of an opportunity than a problem.

The second reason why you might not wish to walk the GR5 is the weather: This consideration applies to any northern Alps hiking trip, whether in France, Switzerland, or Austria, —and for that matter to trips of any sort in Europe. While the southern Alps are generally sunny, the northern Alps can be rainy—that is why they are so green—and rain can delay or even spoil a GR5 trip. By and large I personally have had good luck with the weather with either no rain or only a couple of days of rain, but one never knows. In some cases it is possible to used public transportation, or else taxis, to avoid hiking on rainy days.

The third reason not to hike the GR5 -GR52 is its difficulty:

Difficulty of the GR5

Hours walked versus elevation, Lake Geneva to Chamonix.

The GR5 Alpine Crossing could be difficult for you, unless you are a mountain hiker at home, or have conditioned yourself as described on this site. You should be able to handle 1,300 meters (4,000 feet) up or down in a day, carrying a 10 – 20 pound pack. Additionally, if you are a purist (that is, if you won’t use taxis or hitch rides) you will on rare occasions need the stamina to hike 7 or 8 hours a day, not counting rest stops. (On most days, not counting stops, you could choose to hike four or six hours.) You can, of course, improve your physical condition on the trail in the first few days, but if you are going to be doing so, be sure to plan for this in your schedule.

Should you use this site?

All potential GR5 – GR52 hikers can probably benefit from the general topics presented here.

Even if you plan to precisely follow the official GR5 – GR52, sleeping entirely in gites and refuges, you will probably also gather useful information from the “Route Recomendations” that follow the general section. However, much of the information in that section is written for walkers who are willing to stray from official routes, to experience even more interesting terrain with perhaps even more challenge, to stay from time to time in more luxurious lodgings, to see even greater views, or to enjoy world-class attractions that sometimes may require a detour.  Route descriptions on this Site are deliberately not detailed or exhaustive. For detailed descriptions, trail instructions, and timings consult guidebooks and/or maps—you will need them in any case.  For advice on guide books and maps, consult this page.

Other multi-day alpine hikes are possible (although not equal to the GR5 in my opinion):

In the Alps, many two-or-more-week hikes are possible.  (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_long-distance_footpaths.) I am familiar with some of these. In Italy, there are first of all, the cross Dolomites trails, 9 in number, all taking two weeks or so, and ranging from fairly easy walking to highly difficult. Most of these have portions which are equipped with ladders and cables, though these can usually be avoided if desired by detouring. Equipped sections range from very easy to highly technical. TheDolomites trails are usually started in German-speaking and German culture areas of sud-Tyrol in the north, and end in Italian speaking and Italian culture areas in the south.

There is also the so called GTA, which is the Italian Grand Traverse of the Alps (Grande Traversata delle Alpi). This begins at Lake Maggiore in Lombardy, and reaches Ventimiglia on the Mediterranean in about two months; most of the hikers on this route are German, and general information on the web is in German, while maps and local information are in Italian. A variation from the GR5-52 that I recommend for consideration is one stage of the GTA. No further information is provided here.

Other fine Alpine long distance hikes with which I am familiar are the TMB (Tour of Mount Blanc) – now extremely overcrowded,  and the summer version of the Haute Route between the Chamonix valley of France and Zermatt, Switzerland. The Haute Route has a low-level longer and easier version, and a glacier-level shorter version. Organized tours of both HauteRoute versions usually use train or bus transport to skip over two days of lowland walking.

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