The red and white way marks of the GR20 wind their way over dramatic mountains, through idyllic forests and past pristine lakes on a journey across the entire length of Corsica, at times more than a whole day’s walk from the nearest town. Regarded as one of the toughest and most spectacular long distance hikes in Europe, the GR20 is among the most memorable trips I’ve taken - for the scenery, the people and the sheer sense of adventure - and a journey I could not recommend highly enough.
For some French hikers the GR20 is a rite of passage. It's justifiably popular: when I was hiking in June the path was already fairly busy and the refuges were near full. But it never felt overly crowded and I never had difficulty securing a tent pitch. Something that really struck me was the convivial atmosphere on the trail. On the whole, people were friendly and keen to share their stories. There was a real sense of connection between those taking on the challenge in a way that I have not felt on other hikes.
The GR20 can be split into 14 stages and generally takes between 9 and 14 days to walk in full. It is possible to hike just the north or south sections, with Vizzavona providing a logical half-way point, but if possible I would recommend completing the entire route. If you only have time to complete one section, I would probably agree with the majority and recommend the north. The scenery is more dramatic, you pass near the highest peak on the island (Monte Cinto) and get to take on the most notorious section of the route, the Cirque de la Solitude. However, the south also contains beautiful landscapes and some very enjoyable walking so should not be considered any less worthy.
The issue of the direction in which you should tackle the trail provokes a surprising amount of debate and some people seem to have strong opinions on the matter. But to be frank it's a pretty dull question: both directions have their advantages and disadvantages. I chose to hike from south to north, mainly for the reason that the sun would be on my back. Possibly the main difference is that most people tackle the GR20 from north to south, meaning you can choose whether to go with the flow or against it, so to speak.
Reaching the southern trail head at Conca is not entirely straightforward. I took the only direct flight from London to Ajaccio on a Sunday morning. As most things are shut in Corsica on a Sunday and public transport grinds to a halt, I stayed one night in the city. I spent an afternoon exploring, including visiting the house where Napoleon was born (his name appears on everything here). The following morning on the Monday I arrived early at the bus station as I wasn’t sure of the times (the website is a little difficult to navigate). The bus took several hours to get to Porto di Veccho, where I anticipated I would take another bus to St Lucie de Porto. Just as I was boarding the connection, however, the shuttle bus from the gite in Conca turned up to drop off a group. A few of us sprang on the opportunity to ride the shuttle straight back to the gite, saving ourself having to call from St Lucie. Arriving at Conca around 2pm, I did consider leaving that day but as everyone else seemed to be settling in I decided to do the same. You should therefore allow yourself the best part of a day to get to the trailhead. When we arrived at the northern end of the GR20 in Calenzana we discovered there were no buses running that day and ended up hitchhiking to Calvi. We were picked up by a guy in the French Foreign Legion within a few minutes.
In terms of accommodation, gites can be found along the entire length of the route. Some have spectacular locations, some are very atmospheric and some serve very delicious and hearty food. It’s possible to buy cheese at a couple of bergeries along the route: you would be mad not to. All of the gites have camping areas and it is generally not necessary to book ahead (it was not in June but it does get busier in July and August).
The main issue on the GR20 in my experience was the weather, which was unseasonably bad that June. There were a number of storms and plenty of rain, which would generally arrive in the afternoons. This meant we would start walking very early in the morning (sometimes before 6) and finishing by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. A number of afternoons were spent reading in the tent with the sound of rain and thunder providing the soundtrack. You should be prepared for all weather conditions whatever time of year. There was, of course, plenty of good weather as well and suncream was needed as much as a rain jacket.
The poor weather did have some more serious and tragic consequences. A few days before I reached Cirque de la Solitude 7 hikers were killed in that section by an avalanche caused by lightning. Apparently the storm appeared quite suddenly. It was one of the worst accidents in the trail’s history and a sobering talking point amongst hikers on the trip. It was a reminder to always check the forecast and not to continue hiking in exposed or dangerous terrain during a storm.
The only tip I would give is the same as on any other long-distance hike: to travel as lightly as possible. I was carrying my own tent but elected to buy food at the gites rather than carry and cook, and believe that was a good decision. There were plenty of places to fill up on water so it was not necessary to carry more than 2 litres at any time. The GR20 can be rough going in places and a heavy backpack increases the likelihood of a trip cut short by foot problems, as experienced by a German hiker I met who was trudging along with over 21 kilos on his back.
I hiked the GR20 south to north in 13 days. Physically, I could have done it in less time but I chose to walk shorter days rather than persist in the rain with poor visibility.
Day 1: Conca to Bavella
Day 2: Bavella to Refuge d’Asinao
Day 3: Refuge d’Asinao to Refuge d’Usciolu
Day 4: Refuge d’Usciolu to Bocca di Verdi
Day 5: Bocca di Verdi to Vizzavona [low route]
Day 6: Vizzavona to Refuge d’Onda [high route]
Day 7: Refuge d’Onda to Refuge de Petra Piana [haute route]
Day 8: Refuge de Petra Piana to Refuge de Manganu
Day 9: Refuge de Manganu to Bergeries de Tula
Day 10: Bergeries de Tula to Asco Stagnu [via Calasima]
Day 11: Asco Stagnu to Refuge de Carrozzu
Day 12: Refuge de Carrozzu to Refuge d’Ortu
Day 13: Refuge d’Ortu to Calenzana
We took a couple of detours from the main route. On Day 6 we took the high route from Vizzavona to the top of Monte d’Oro, persisting with the 1400m ascent despite the clouds that obscured any possibility of a view. On Day 10 we were forced to leave the trail and take a short bus to Asco Stagnu as the section containing Cirque de la Solitude was still closed following the accident. An alternative route was being created, but as it had not yet been fully way-marked and we did not feel confident of finding the path with the basic maps we had, we reluctantly took the transport that had been laid on for hikers. On Day 12 we left the trail at Capu Ladroncellu and navigated our way along a ridge to Monte Corona before descending to Refuge d’Ortu. We were clearly inspired when we saw a group of French Foreign Legion leave the trail in similar fashion and disappear off over a crest.
I generally camped at the gites and had no difficulty securing a pitch without booking. In Vizzavona I slept at the campsite by the railway line. Most memorably, on day 9 I slept in an empty stone shepherd’s hut at Bergeries de Tula, with a view peaking through the open doorway to the mountains, the smell of wild mint growing on the hillside and the sound of cow bells sending me to sleep.
In terms of the best scenery, my favourite section was between Refuge de Petra Piana and Refuge de Manganu. We set off very early in an attempt to avoid the heavy rain that had caused us such misery the previous day. Viewing the sunrise over a sea of clouds below from a ridge between two valleys was spectacular, especially as the cloud began spilling, waterfall-like, from one valley to the next. We then passed the beautiful Lac de Capitello before descending into a valley beyond, taking a quick plunge in a small ice-cold lake to cool off before enjoying an amazing omelette at Refuge de Manganu.
It's certainly worth attempting some of the variants and extensions, such as the ascent of Monte Cinto. There are many options as detailed in guidebooks.
At the end of the hike, we had three days spare which we spent at Calvi, enjoying the beach and restaurants. It's a very pleasant 'holiday' town and the perfect place to recover after the physical exertion, although possibly three days was the limit I would spend there. After satiating our appetite for pizza and wine it wasn't long before I felt that familiar draw to the mountains once more.