France was the birthplace of the Grandes Randonnées walking trails, otherwise known as GRs or, to many keen hikers, the odyssey oscars. And they are definitely grand, covering over 35,000km of waymarked ways in France. And so, with so many colossal treks to choose from, it’s a struggle to come up with a favourite day trek, but we think that our eight best hikes in France capture the perfect soupçon of this country’s wide array of walking. Not all of them are on GR trails, but all of them are definitely GRrrreat.
1. Camino Frances: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles
The Camino Frances is the most popular of the Camino routes, between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. This first day of trekking between France into Spain on the GR65, sets the bar very high, starting in the medieval town at the foot of the Pyrenees, then heading up over Roncesvalles Pass, with views that make you think you are on a stairway to heaven. Although it’s very tough, so it may feel more like hell in some parts, with a 20km ascent followed by 5km of descent.
The first 8km take you to Orisson, where there’s a refuge at 780m, the perfect spot to break bread and check for blisters, but also take solace and strength from the magnificence of the mountains. The next highlight is Col d’Arnostéguy (1,240m) on the Spanish border, with one more ascent to El Collado Lepoeder, or Col de Lepoeder, the highest point on this day trek at 1,450m. From where you can see the roof of the abbey in Roncevalles, the village where you finally lay down your head for the night. Note that this high route to Roncesvalles is only open from the beginning of April until the end of October, and even those dates are weather dependent. If you are choosing to do the Camino during those dates, there is a lower level route along the Valcarlos Route. You can walk this section on the Complete Camino Frances, or on its first section between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Logroño.
Hiking time: 7h
2. French Pyrenees: Cauterets to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube
Another Pyrenean great, and another Grande Randonnée (GR10), the hike on day two of this GR10 holiday takes you through a magical world of waterfalls, lakelands and all round Pyrenean prettiness. Starting in the traditional mountain spa and ski town of Cauterets, you follow the Chemin des Cascades, a path that is literally strewn with waterfalls, up to Pont d’Espagne, a stone bridge with the splendid sights and sounds of the falls. Then continue up to another water wonderland at Lac de Gaube, the perfect picnic spot, although it does get busy here with car trippers who can park at the bridge. You will find quieter spots on the second half of your hike up to the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, where you spend the night, taking in the drama of the north face of Vignemale, the highest of the French Pyrenean summits at 3,298m. Not surprisingly, the next day has a few highs too, walking up to the highest pass on the GR10, the Hourquette d’Ossoue, with views across to summits above Gavarnie. The GR10 just keeps on giving.
Hiking time: 5.5h
3. Tour du Mont Blanc: Refugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur
Every day brings both challenges and charm on the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it is this trek between Refugio Elisabetta and Courmayeur that so many of our natural adventurers rave about as one of the best hikes in France. It takes place on day five of our TMB from Les Houches tour, where you wake up at this refuge at the bottom of Val Veny at 2,195m. You then continue into some of Mont Blanc’s wildest spots, climbing up towards Chécrouit Pass and its eponymous lake, where you have the choice to descend to Courmayeur either on foot or by cable car shortcut, as the final stage isn’t quite as stunning as the first. However, the next day’s hike competes with this one for beauty, taking you across Grand Col Ferret, one of the highest points on the TMB at 2,537m, into the highs and heights of Switzerland’s Valais.
Hiking time: 4.5h
4. GR20 Corsica: Petra Piana to Camputile Plateau
The island of Corsica’s crowning glory for hikers is the GR20 trail, which takes both training and a good head for heights. The GR20 is considered one of the toughest of the GR routes in France, but you are rewarded with some of the country’s most exquisite elevated landscapes, such as the route between Petra Piana and Camputile Plateau, where you camp for the night. On our complete GR20 self-guided holiday, you take on this stretch on day ten, so you are well into the swing of things by then. On our guided GR20 tour, you have this trek to look forward to by day eight of the tour.
Starting out at an altitude of 1,842m from your campsite at Petra Piana Refuge, you trek up to a ridge with a superb view back to the tiny refuge up to a lunar-like landscape, and it feels as if you’re as high as the moon too with the views all around, including the island’s capital, Corte, in the distance. You also take in some glacial lakes such as Lac de Melo which you contour around, or Lac de Capitello which you can see from Bocca alle Porte, a mountain pass at 2,200m, from which you descend to Camputile Plateau, where you pitch tent for the night.
Hiking time: 7h
5. Mercantour National Park: Vallée des Merveilles
Mercantour National Park is one of France’s best kept secrets, an Alpine paradise without the crowds, a culture that combines Italian and French heritage, and a climate that reflects its proximity to the Med. On our Mercantour six day hiking holiday, which takes in some of its natural heritage highlights, one of them includes the Vallée des Merveilles which, although the holiday is self-guided, you need a guide to accompany you on this one, as it’s highly protected. Walk through wildflower-filled woodland up to Refuge des Merveilles, on the shores of Lac Long Supérieur, between Mont Bego and Cime du Diable. You can see why its name translates as Valley of Marvels, particularly when you get to see its prehistoric rock carvings, the largest find of open-air Bronze Age petroglyphs in Europe. Which is why it’s so well protected.
Hiking time: 6h
6. Verdon Gorge: Martel Trail
This is another GR great, the GR4 taking you on a journey from the Atlantic to the Alpes-Maritime, just 21km from the coast at Cannes. The Palme d’Or of the GR4 goes to Verdon Gorge, called the Gorges du Verdon in French, because it is split into three parts. Which is why it takes a week to explore on this magnificent Verdon Gorge hiking holiday, following a collection of steps, tunnels, ladders and bridges over the turquoise-green Verdon River to access all 23km of its length. The most spectacular section is the Martel Trail, named after Edouard Alfred Martel, who was the first to explore the Verdon Gorge in 1905.
You get to the Martel Trail on day three of our holiday. Along the way, you pass the Brèche Imbert, six metal ladders with a total of 252 steps that facilitate the steep descent, which then take you through the Trescaire and Baou tunnels, when torches and headlamps are required. This is one of France’s most adventurous treks, but not one for vertigo sufferers.
Hiking time: 6h
7. Provence: St. Remy to Maussane
This isn’t a trek to push your physical limits, but it will push your romantic buttons, following a trail through some of Provence’s prettiest villages in the Luberon, where you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that this is not a Van Gogh painting. Oh wait…starting in St. Remy in the Alpilles hills, this is actually home to the former monastery where Van Gogh spent the last year of his life. Continue along the Van Gogh Trail, following in his footsteps to landscapes that inspired him. One of the first stops is Rocher des Deux Trous, with magnificent views across the hills, then along a ridge to the medieval village of Les Baux-de-Provence. As with so many stunning villages in the region, it’s perfectly poised on top of a hill and is also listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. An actual official designation and, with this many pretty villages, pourquoi pas? When you’ve got your breath back continue on to the village of Maussane, one of the most important olive oil producing areas in the country.
Hiking time: 7h
8. Calanques National Park: Marseilles to Cassis
A calanque is like a small fjord, created by limestone rocks that meet the Med, and then carved into a collection of creeks and crevices. In Calanques National Park, there are 26 calanques stretching for 20km along the coast between Marseille and Cassis, creating high white cliffs and promontories that you can follow on this walking holiday. Start your day with a transfer from Marseille up to the Route de la Gineste, where you start your walk to Col de la Gardiole, gateway to the national park. From here you get fine views of the calanques, as you walk along aromatic scrubland and coastal pine trails to Calanque d’En-vau.
Head down to Calanque de Port Pin, a narrow inlet with a sandy beach that’s perfect for a picnic lunch, followed by a walk to Calanque de Port Miou and its quiet cove, where sailing boats bob and swimmers head out to admire the gleaming white rocks. Your last stroll takes you into the centre of Cassis, a small ancient town where the trick is to find the coolest bit of limestone to lie on and dive off.
Hiking time: 4-5h
If you get a chance to try out some of our best hikes in France, whether it’s as part of a long-distance walking trail, or a saunter in a national park, you will see that the French take protection of their landscapes very seriously. They signpost them clearly and share them generously. In return, please give back by hiking responsibly and following the rules of Leave No Trace at all times. For more ideas on where to make the most of France’s walking trails, check out our blogs on France’s national parks, Getting your head around GR routes in France, Walking holidays in France accessible by train and the Best time to go to France.