We could not resist - completing the GR20 deserved it's own number plate!

Journal: GR20 Corsica

We have been privileged to have hiked, trekked, climbed and run on some of the most unique and beautiful mountains and trails in the world. Some of our experiences cannot compare with our adventure of traversing the 200 kilometre GR20 trail on the French island of Corsica. Why this is so, we do not quite know, but we suppose it’s as the Greeks describe the trail as being kalliste – the ‘most beautiful’. Then, maybe it is because each person’s experience is as diverse and unique as each trail, mountain and country is to another.

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The Grande Randonnée 20, otherwise known as the GR20, is known as Europe’s toughest long distance trail, with remote rugged peaks and spires covering most of the island and the trail rarely dropping below 1 000 metres above sea level. Normally completed in 15 to 16 days, we managed it in 12 straight days. Besides water which we replenished at each refuge (mountain hut), we carried all supplies including our own tent and food for 13 days. The GR20 route can be hiked in either direction, however we decided to follow the traditional North to South high level route beginning from the town of Calenzana and ending in Conca. The trail covered over 14 000 metres each of accumulative ascent and decent, with several days hiking above 2 000 metres. The time of year was late September to early October 2015.

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With the toughest section being the first four days in the North, knowing that the infamous Cirque de la Solitude was closed to due rockfalls a few months earlier, as well as having to complete some double stage days to get through the trail in 12 days, we knew we were in for more than an adventure, but an experience of a lifetime. This is our 12 day journey traversing the mountain tops of Corsica as an adaption from our personal journal which we wrote after each day’s stage, a more detailed and somewhat emotional Tale to this remarkable experience.

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Day 1: Calenzana to Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (12.15 km; 07h32; 1.6km/h; Descent – 207 m; Ascent – 1 500 m)

Taking a lift from the port of Bastia we arrived in the village of Calenzana, our starting point of the GR20. We intended to complete this trail being fully self-sufficient, so this made for heavy backpacks and some slow going, especially given that the route for the day was uphill the whole way and very technical underfoot. The GR routes are characterised by red and white blazes and the trail is well marked. There were some scrambling sections which were challenging to negotiate with a heavy backpack on and not being able to lift one’s head that easily to navigate the rocks. After a long day’s hike in warm weather, we arrived at Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu and still had the task of setting up our tent with tired and sore bodies. We were thankful that we chose to invest in an all season, alpine tent as it was very windy where we camped. As we finished setting up our home for the night, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset. Most of the refuges are very remote and nestled into the mountains, so we were lucky to have a lukewarm shower. Our wake up is set for 3:30 am so that we can start hiking at 6:00 am as we intend to tackle two stages in one day.

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Day 2: Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carozzu (8.84 km; 07h50; 1.1km/h; Descent – 1 368 m; Ascent – 1 101 m)

It started raining as we were packing up and because we were unfamiliar with the mountain and its weather conditions, we decided to wait it out until the sun rose at 7:00 am so that we could assess whether it was safe to hike. At 7:00 am, the weather looked manageable and we also noticed that some of the other hikers had already left, so we decided to push ahead. It rained most of the day and there were some strong winds which kept the temperatures very low. Joseph slipped and knocked his shin quite badly while he was making his way up a rocky ravine. Even though a single stage was only 8.84 kilometres in distance, we quickly realised that the terrain, altitude adjustment, weather and amount of ascent for this first stage was going to be challenging and attempting to do a double stage wasn’t going to be possible, particularly given that we left later than anticipated.  Our packs were getting slightly lighter as we consumed the food. The final descent to the refuge was particularly steep and took a long time which was frustrating as we could see it, but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We weren’t as lucky as the previous night as the showers were icy to say the least.

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Day 3: Refuge de Carozzu to Haute Asco (8.30 km; 06h48; 1.2km/h; Descent – 698 m; Ascent – 859 m)

The day started with hail! It rained at about 4:00 am and we were supposed to get up at 5:00 am. We struggled with the cold at night as our sleeping bags are insufficient for this weather. Although our bodies are sore each day, we are starting to get into the rhythm and felt strong. We crossed a suspension bridge over a river and there were numerous chains on the ascent, but we found the descent easier underfoot than yesterday. The views were beautiful with rugged mountains and a small lake. Our daily food rations are going well. Most days had a menu of muesli and tea or coffee for breakfast, with mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks consisting of an alternated variety of dried fruit, nut and trail bars, sweets, chocolate and energy gels. For lunch we either had soup, cheese and crackers or tuna, and for supper we alternated between packets of pasta, rice or couscous. We were envious of the few people running the trail as we would have loved to have run it, but it just wasn’t possible to run and be fully self-sufficient due to our backpack weight. We set up our tent at Haute Asco with a spectacular view of Monte Cinto, the summit we would tackle the next day.

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Day 4: Haute Asco to Auberge U Vallone via Monte Cinto summit (13.45 km; 11h47; 1.1km/h; Descent – 1 619 m; Ascent – 1 631 m)

We had an early start with a 3:30am wake up as we had to do the new route (alternative to the Cirque de la Solitude) and summit Monte Cinto at 2 706 m, an extra section which we could add onto the day’s trail. We were treated to a sky full of stars when we started packing up our tent. We were warned about the foxes at this refuge that prowl to steal your food at night and we were prevented from filling up with water by two of them who were playing near the water source. We followed double yellow blazes for the alternative route and the ascent was slow with lots of scree, chains, 45° inclines and large rocks to climb up which were a challenge for Lisa as her legs are quite short. The mist kept on rolling in and out as we made our way further up the mountain. We finally got to the crest at a height of 2 600 metres after five hours. We left our backpacks there and began the additional scramble ascent of Monte Cinto which took us three hours to complete. Most of the other hikers opted to skip the summit as visibility was poor, but we couldn’t leave Corsica having travelled so far to get to here without summiting its highest peak! The summit was mostly cloudy, but we were rewarded for our efforts with some glimpses of the surrounding view. After returning to our backpacks, we had some lunch before beginning a gruelling and long descent which felt like a 45° angle down loose rocks which is not ideal for sore, aching legs and knees! Most hikers spent the night at Refuge de Tighjettu, but we decided to go a further 1.5 kilometres to spend the night at Auberge U Vallone. We were treated to a lovely, quiet little bergerie with steaming hot showers – just what we needed to soothe our tired, sore muscles!

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Day 5: Auberge U Vallone to Hotel Castel di Vergio (15.30 km; 08h09; 1.9km/h; Descent – 878 m; Ascent – 913 m)

We got started a bit later as we were so exhausted from yesterday. The first few kilometres were fairly flat and undulating. This stage reminded us very much of the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua hiking trails back in the Garden Route in South Africa. We then had a steep ascent up to Bocca di Foggiale (a bocca is a saddle in Corsican) at 1 962 m which was particularly challenging for our legs at this point of the GR20. Once we reached the bocca it was a fairly flat walk to Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori where we stopped for lunch. After continuing along the top of the slope, we saw amazing vistas of the rugged western coastline of Corsica. The trail then dropped into a beautiful valley and made its way along for approximately eight kilometres before we reached Hotel Castel di Vergio where we camped inside an animal pen, while the animals roamed freely outside of it!

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Day 6: Hotel Castel di Vergio to Refuge de Manganu (17.31 km; 06h49; 2.5km/h; Descent – 516 m; Ascent – 726 m)

Just before we started our hike we watched a car pull up and a herd of pigs ran for it. It was so humourous to witness the pigs run after the car as someone threw food out of the window to feed them! Today’s hike was a welcome break from the intense, rugged terrain through which we have been making our way so far. Even though the stage was 17 kilometres, it was easy
underfoot and the scenery was beautiful with trees in autumn colours, surrounded by mountains, and coming across some cows and horses near Lac du Ninu (lac is French for lake). After setting up tent at Refuge de Manganu a cow nearly trod over our tent!

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Day 7: Refuge de Manganu to Bergeries de l’Onda via Refuge de Petra Piana (20.50 km, 12h12; 1.6km/h; Descent – 1 641 m; Ascent – 1 447 m)

We were already halfway into the number of days we aimed to complete the trail in and yet we still had not completed a double stage. Today was to be the first and it was difficult, especially the first stage. We woke at 3:30 am to pack up our tent and be ready to leave at 6:00 am. We were treated to an amazing sight of an eclipse of the moon as we packed up!

The first stage was a hard ascent to around 2 200 metres. The trail then traversed above 2 000 metres for a long time before dropping down to Refuge de Petra Piana. The first stage was very cold and we spent most of it in mist with poor visibility which meant that we unfortunately missed out on seeing a few lakes.

It was quite challenging mentally to stop for lunch at Refuge de Petra Piana at the end of one stage, knowing all the other hikers would be staying the night there, and that we had another whole stage to complete before we could call it a day. We started the second stage with a steep and rocky descent which we were glad to be climbing down rather than hiking up. Although there was a gentle six-kilometre downhill, the terrain was so rocky and technical underfoot that it was hard to move fast and was particularly tiring on our feet and legs.

The scenery in the valley and forests was beautiful with rivers, ponds, pines and autumn-coloured trees, and this helped to a certain extent to take our minds off the pain our bodies were experiencing. On reflection, we found this to be one of the toughest trails we have ever done and were sure we would not have been able to complete each day without each other’s help and encouragement.

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Day 8: Bergeries de l’Onda to Vizzavona (11.69 km; 07h34; 1.5km/h; Descent – 1 213 m; Ascent – 774 m)

It was a struggle to get up this morning following yesterday’s double stage. We only left Bergeries de l’Onda at 10:00 am and started with a steep climb to 2 120 metres and then a steep descent before the route became more gradual in gradient. Lisa’s knees were quite sore on the descent and over the technical terrain, but she is learning how to manage it better. We missed out again on some of the scenery at the high points due to mist and cloud, but were rewarded with autumn-coloured forests and cascading waterfalls when we reached the valley. We started to feel the remoteness of the trail and it was strange to walk into the quaint, small village of Vizzavona where there were people other than hikers around. We were treated to hot showers where we camped, which gave us the opportunity to wash our hair for the first time in eight days.

Tomorrow we start the GR20 South section and are hoping to do a double stage.

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Day 9: Vizzavona to Bocca di Verdi via Capanelle Gite d’Etape U Fugone (29.50km; 11h51; 2.3km/h; Descent – 1 129 m; Ascent – 1 480 m)

We were packed up by 7:00 am with the first stage being a good eight kilometres of mild uphill which then flattened out for several kilometres along a contour. Although another misty day with limited views, we enjoyed the autumn forests and saw many black and yellow salamanders.

Our lunch spot was on the benches outside of Capanelle Gite d’Etape U Fugone, the end of stage one. For the first time, Lisa went into a refuge which was warm and cosy with a fireplace and warm meals being served. It was hard to go back outside into the cold after that.

Stage two brought new challenges as we endured a consistent, drenching rain to Bocca di Verdi. Our spare clothes, sleeping bags and most of our equipment were protected from the rain by drybags. This also helped us to compress items which usually expand once packed. We eventually got to camp at 7:00 pm and set up the tent in record time as the rain came down heavily. We had no dry towels, our tent was leaking and water was coming up from the ground. It was hard to find a dry spot to put anything down. A serious low point for us. The GR20 has all variety of terrain and conditions which really test the endurance, character, patience and tenacity levels.

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Day 10: Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d’Usciolu (15.75km; 06h33; 2.4km/h; Descent – 1 247 m; Ascent – 1 696 m)

It rained non-stop from the time we set up tent last night until we left Bocca di Verdi and it didn’t stop after that – it was still raining! Our tent flooded so it was sopping wet inside and out. It took us much longer to pack up because of that and we only left at 11:00 am. Today’s stage was intense in terrible weather conditions, so we were extra careful as most of the stage was a crest walk with some boulder traversing. Due to the wind, hail and rain, we didn’t take any breaks as it was too cold and there was no shelter. We kept talking to each other to test that we were alright and not slipping into hypothermia. We only saw one other hiker on the trail, going in the opposite direction to us.

Our backpacks were heavier due to the waterlogged inner and outer tents we were carrying. We arrived at Refuge d’Usciolu and the guardian of the refuge wasn’t too friendly at first, but he eventually warmed up to us. We were the only hikers here and would sleep in the kitchen.  The guardian managed to get a fire going for us and we tried to dry all our equipment. We were informed that the whole of Corsica was on an “orange alert” due to severe weather. Our bodies were beginning to feel the strain of hiking for so many days in succession over such challenging terrain.

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Day 11: Refuge d’Usciolu to Refuge d’Asinau (16.91km; 08h01; 2.1km/h; Descent – 1 366 m; Ascent – 1 167 m)

A massive storm occurred last night with some lightening and torrential rain. When we woke up, the path we were supposed to hike up was a gushing river. We walked along the crest of the mountain for two hours and the view opened for a few minutes, but otherwise the day was much the same as yesterday in terms of weather. The GR20 is a challenging and difficult hike as it is, but to add bad weather makes it even harder to complete!

We finally reached the summit of Monte Alcudina at 2 134 metres above sea level. Seeing the cross at the summit was heart-warming and reminded us of Christ’s love for us. The descent from Monte Alcudina to the refuge was very steep and rocky and with all the rain meant we were climbing down waterfalls. We spent the night inside the refuge again and it was lovely to thaw out in front of the fire.

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Day 12: Refuge d’Asinau to Conca via Refuge d’ I Paliri (30.55km; 11h12; 2.6km/h; Descent – 2 462 m; Ascent – 1 161 m)

As we were hiking at the end of season, some of the refuges were empty and the guardians who spends six months of the year there had already left. This was the case at Refuge d’Asinau, which enabled us to sleep next to the fire and hang out all our wet equipment to dry, except for the outer tent as we ran out of space. Carrying a wet outer tent was considerably more difficult than it should have been.

Our final day on the GR20 trail was a double stage. The sun finally came out and we enjoyed hiking in the warmer weather. The first stage allowed for some fast-paced walking as there was a large section along the contour path. We saw some tracker dogs run past us and one later returned to walk a short distance with us until he met up with his owner. The second stage was long and arduous with few fast, walkable sections as the trail was incredibly technical and relentless
underfoot. The trail just kept on coming and didn’t seem to end. The views of the surrounding mountains and spires were beautiful as we made our way between them.

We made our final descent into the village of Conca at night, using our head torches. We had celebratory refreshments at the Bar Le Soleil Levant before making our way to Gite d’Etape La Tonnelle where we set up camp for the night. By this time, we were both elated to have finished the trail, but also beside ourselves with pain and exhaustion. We realised that we could not have completed the GR20 without the preparation and hard work that we did beforehand, but more importantly without each other this would not have been the successful completion and the remarkable experience that is was.

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Summary statistics for the GR20 (traditional high level route, 12 days):

GR20 Hiking Trail From To Kilometres Hours Average km/hr Descent Ascent
Day 1 Calenzana Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu 12.15 07h32 1.6 207 1 500
Day 2 Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu Refuge de Carozzu 8.84 07h50 1.1 1 368 1 101
Day 3 Refuge de Carozzu Haute Asco 8.30 06h48 1.2 698 859
Day 4 Haute Asco Auberge U Vallone 13.45 11h47 1.1 1 619 1 631
Day 5 Auberge U Vallone Hotel Castel di Vergio 15.30 08h08 1.9 878 913
Day 6 Hotel Castel di Vergio Refuge de Manganu 17.31 06h49 2.5 516 726
Day 7* Refuge de Manganu Bergeries de l’Onda 20.50 12h29 1.6 1 641 1 447
Day 8 Bergeries de l’Onda Vizzavona 11.69 07h34 1.5 1 213 774
Sub-total: North     107.54 67h37   8 140 8 951
Day 9* Vizzavona Bocca di Verdi 29.50 11h52 2.3 1 129 1 480
Day 10 Bocca di Verdi Refuge d’Usciolu 15.75 06h33 2.4 1 247 1 696
Day 11 Refuge d’Usciolu Refuge d’Asinau 16.91 08h01 2.1 1 366 1 167
Day 12* Refuge d’Asinau Conca 30.55 11h12 2.6 2 462 1 161
Sub-total: South     92.71 37h38   7 224 5 504
Total: GR20     200.55 105h05   15 364 14 455

* Double stage day

Preparation was fundamental to the success of this hike. We made extensive use of the following resources:

Campbell G: GR20 Kit List, available here.

Dillon P: GR20: Corsica, Complete Guide to the High-level Route, Cicerone, 2014.

GR20 trip planning, available from Corsica for Hikers.

Our GPS tracks and waypoints are available for the North section, South section, the complete GR20 trail and any of the single day stages over the 12 days here.