In September 2017 I hiked the GR20 from north to south together with my girlfriend. It was an epic experience. Corsica, a mountainous French island in the Mediterranean with its own distinct culture and language, has a stunning amount of natural beauty, and the trail itself is difficult but rewarding. It crosses impressive mountain ridges, beautiful forests and picturesque countryside.
The GR20 is not a trail to be taken lightly: there is a lot of ascent (and descent of course – as my knees can attest to) which means it’s a significant physical challenge to complete – especially when carrying a backpack of around 20 kg. The trail can sometimes be very technical and steep, and in some sections, chains are attached to the rock in order to assist hikers. There is also a lot of scrambling involved and you need to have a good head for heights. Having said that, the GR20 is a hiking trail and there is no actual climbing involved meaning that there is no need for climbing gear such as ropes when traversed in the summer. Along the route there were, however, one or two passages that could be described as steep scrambles and caused my girlfriend a bit of difficulty, especially on days 2 and 3. The paths are generally very well marked and there are manned huts at every stage. All in all, I think the GR20 is very doable for a fit, experienced, and – not unimportantly – motivated hiker.
One factor that should be considered if you’re planning to hike the GR20 is the summer heat, especially in July and August, which can make the trek substantially more difficult. If you plan on hiking in these months, make sure to get up early, make sure you have enough water and protect yourself against the sun. Later in the year, don’t forget to take warm clothes, as it will cool down significantly at night. We underestimated this and were shivering in our tent towards the end of September.
Cirque de la Solitude
The most difficult and notorious section of the GR20, the Cirque de la Solitude, has been closed since 2015, after several hikers were killed there during a severe rainstorm. The GR20 has been diverted since then and the Cirque closed. When I did the GR20 in the autumn of 2017 this was still the case, although there seem to be some new developments. For up to date information on the Cirque de la Solitude, you can check this website: http://www.le-gr20.fr/en/blog/14th-june-2018-the-opening-of-the-cirque-of-solitude.html.
Camping at Refuge Ortu di u Piobbu at the end of the first stage.
Most stages of the GR20 start and end at the manned mountain huts (refuges) owned by the national park (Parc naturel régional de Corse). In these huts you will find very basic accommodation comprising of a bunk bed in a dorm room. Around the huts you will find a camping area (nothing fancy), where trekkers can pitch their tents for a small price. You will also be able to use the facilities (cold showers and dry composting toilets, and in some cases a kitchen) of the huts. I think camping is currently the best option, due to the plague of bed bugs that has hit the huts in recent years (I did the GR20 in 2017). As said, it is possible to pitch your own tent, but all of the huts also offer places in pop-up tents that are permanently pitched around the refuge.
In case you want to sleep in the refuges, it is advised to reserve in advance. As for the camping places, we never experienced any difficulty securing a spot.
There are also several privately owned ‘bergeries’ (summer farms) on the GR20. They often sell some provisions and meals, and you can find a bed, hire a tent, or pitch your own tent here. We had one of the nicest experiences in one of these bergeries (Bergeries de Croci) listening to songs in the Corsican language in a room heated by a woodfire… eating local cheese and homemade clementine jam.
At the end of some stages you may also find a hotel along the route in which you can stay if you’re after a bit more luxury for the odd night. Examples are at Ascu Stagnu, Col de Vergio, and Vizzavona, but it is also advised to reserve in advance.
Stage 5: going up the Bocca di Foggiale.
- Calenzana – Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (12km – ascent: 1550m – descent: 235m – time: 7 hours)
- Refuge d’Ortu di U Piobbu – Refuge de Carrozzu (8km – ascent: 750m – descent: 1050m – time: 6.5 hours)
- Refuge de Carrozzu – Refuge d’Asco Stagnu (Haut Asco) (6km – ascent: 860m – descent: 710m – time: 5.5 hours)
- Refuge d’Asco Stagnu (Haut Asco) – Refuge de Tighjettu / Bergeries de Ballone (alternative to Tighjettu) (9km – ascent: 1250m – descent: 1230m – time: 8 hours)
- Auberge U Vallone – Castellu di Verghio (15km – ascent: 850m – descent: 870m – time: 6 hours)
- Castellu di Verghio – Refuge de Manganu (17km – ascent: 670m – descent: 475m – time: 5 hours 45 minutes)
- Refuge de Manganu – Refuge de Pietra Piana (10km – ascent: 980m – descent: 740m – time: 7 hours)
- Refuge de Pietra Piana – Refuge de l’Onda (11km – ascent: 500m – descent: 910m – time: 5 hours)
- Refuge de l’Onda – Vizzavona (11km – ascent: 670m – descent: 1180m – time: 6 hours
- Vizzavona – Bergeries de Capannelle (16km – ascent: 1000m – descent: 335m – time: 5.5 hours)
- Bergeries d’E Capannelle – Bocca di Verde (14km – ascent: 320m – descent: 620m – time: 4.5 hours)
- Bocca di Verde – Refuge d’Usciolu (16km – ascent: 1290m – descent: 830m – time: 7 hours 15 minutes)
- Refuge d’Usciolu – Refuge to Matalza (Bergerie de Croci is also a good option on this stage) (12km – ascent: 340m – descent: 640m – time: 4.5 hours)
- Refuge to Matalza- Refuge d’Asinau (11km – ascent: 665m – descent: 545m – time: 4 hours 15 minutes)
- Refuge d’Asinau – Col de Bavella (11km – ascent: 380m – descent: 695m – time: 4 hours 45 minutes)
- Col de Bavella – Conca (19km – ascent: 700m – descent: 1670 – time: 7 hours).
Food and other supplies on the GR20
It is wise to carefully plan your meals when doing the GR20. It is, however, possible to walk the GR20 in its entire length without taking any meals with you. Refuges, hotels and bergeries along the route will serve breakfast, provide packed lunches and cook dinners. The prices can be very steep though and eating at one of these places for every meal will make the GR20 a very expensive undertaking. We chose to take a lot of our supplies with us and supplemented them with some meals at refuges. Refuges and bergeries will often also sell a few supplies, while some hotels even have a small shop with basic foodstuffs.
There are a lot of springs on the route, and all refuges will have a source of drinkable water. It is still wise to plan ahead with your water supply, as you might run out and the Corsican sun can be relentless!
- Length: 180 km
- Ascent: around 10600 metres
- Level: Difficult, only for fit and experienced mountain hikers.
- Best time to go: June or September: this is the time when all the huts are open and manned, but it’s less hot and busy than in the summer months. Between November and May there is snow in the mountains and the route might get dangerous or not traversable.
Good sources of information
Stage 12: Bocca d’Oru.