The GR5 Grand Traverse of the Alps: A 400+ Mile Thru-Hike of the French Alps

The Grande Traversée des Alpes, or Grand Traverse of the Alps, is a 400+ mile alpine section of the GR5. Traveling along ancient trade routes from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea, this is a thrilling 4-5 week thru-hike through some of the most glorious scenery of the French Alps. The route dips briefly into Switzerland and Italy and offers high variations through three national parks.

GR5 vs Grande Traversée des Alpes

The full GR5 (Grande Randonnée 5), is a roughly 1400-mile trail beginning in the Netherlands. It’s part of an extensive network of long-distance “Grande Randonnée” footpaths in Western Europe. (Fun fact: in France alone, the GR trails cover around 37,000 miles!)

However, when people refer to the GR5, they are usually only talking about the French Alps section. This portion is so famous that the terms “GR5” and “Grand Traverse of the Alps” can essentially be used interchangeably.

The Grand Traverse of the Alps is the focus of this profile.

The GR5 Grand Traverse of the Alps At a Glance

Clear skies at Pas de la Cavale.

Clear skies at Pas de la Cavale.

  • Length: 400-450 miles (depending on alternate route choices)
  • Expected Completion Time: 4-5 weeks (10-15 miles per day)
  • Location: Primarily France but crossing briefly into Switzerland and Italy
  • Best season: Mid-July to mid-August
  • Trail Type: End-to-end thru-hike, though also walkable in sections and loops
  • Difficulty: Moderately difficult. Terrain is sometimes strenuous but always on well graded trail. No mountaineering skills required unless hiking early in the season
  • Elevation gain / loss: +84,997 feet / -86,299 feet
  • Highest Point: 9,061 feet at Col de l’Iseran

Why Hike This Trail

Entering the snowy peaks of Le Parc national de la Vanoise.

Entering the snowy peaks of Le Parc national de la Vanoise.

The Grand Traverse of the Alps is the most scenic part of the larger GR5 and is often tackled as a standalone hike. It’s one of Europe’s best Alpine treks, taking in the wondrous glaciated flanks of Mont Blanc, the high mountains of the Vanoise, the larch-covered hanging valleys in the Queyras, and the mysterious Mercantour National Park with its ancient petroglyphs.

The scenery is spectacular and changes dramatically along the trail. Well marked and well graded, a moderately experienced walker in good condition can successfully complete the GR5 Grand Traverse of the Alps.

You’ll see marmots, chamois, kestrels, and hawks, plus glorious wildflowers. Nearly every day, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of French cuisine at a well-stocked refuge or village.

Highlights of the GR5 Grand Traverse of the Alps

The White Mountain – Le Mont Blanc – perpetually covered in snow and the highest point in Europe.

The White Mountain – Le Mont Blanc – perpetually covered in snow and the highest point in Europe.

Views of  Mont Blanc: The pass above the Chalets d’Anterne valley affords one of the most stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif that you will ever see. You will join the Tour du Mont Blanc for a day and a half, meaning you’ll be sharing views of wildflowers, cows, and gurgling streams on electric green mountainsides with hundreds of hikers – but it’s only for a few days!

Crête des Gittes and Crête de Peyrolle: There are two narrow ridges to cross surrounded by white capped mountains, Crête des Gittes and Crête de Peyrolle, each one making for a memorable traverse. The day was ending as I crossed the latter, and on the other side I found a tiny tent site with a view of the setting sun on one side of the ridge and the rising full moon on the other.

Towns and Tourism: The walled city of Brianćon is a tourist destination, as is Chamonix. You will hike past the remains of an army barracks as well as Bronze Age petroglyphs. I paid for a tour in Vallée des Merveilles, where my schoolgirl French got a workout!

People: According to Paddy Dillon, author of the GR5 guidebook, around 10,000 people walk this section of the GR5 each year (either whole or in part). That being said, when I walked it seven years ago, I never felt like it was over-crowded.

I enjoyed the varied groups of hikers I met — day walkers greeting me with joyous morgens, bonjours, and buongiornos, older hikers tackling the trail bit by bit over many years, and the very few others I met who were walking the entire way.

French thru-hiker and Frank Zappa lookalike Christian flying down Pas du Mont Columb in Mercantour National Park.

French thru-hiker and Frank Zappa lookalike Christian flying down Pas du Mont Columb in Mercantour National Park.

I boned up on my French before I went and it served me well, helping me as a single hiker to make friends and start conversations. It’s not absolutely imperative, but I believe it shows a level of respect to at least learn a few phrases.

Cheese: I used my French in the Beaufort region, where I met a family of cheese makers. They invited me inside the cellar to try their cheese, rich with a terroir of fresh clover and sparkling streams. It was heaven on earth!

Blessed are the cheese makers.

Blessed are the cheese makers.

And where does cheese come from? It comes from the most beautiful cows you have ever seen, gentle creatures with long, soft lashes and sweet nuzzly noses. Each wears a bell of a distinct size. There is no sound as glorious as a tinkly symphony of cowbells rising up from a deep valley.

Refuge culture: Unlike most trails in the United States, the GR5 has a system of refuges within a day’s walk of each other. I stayed in one only a night when the weather got particularly ugly. Several times the refuges allowed camping nearby, which was convenient when I wanted to stay for dinner without sleeping inside.

There is a whole hierarchy of places to stay along the GR5, from self-service chalets and full-service hotels and more dormitory-like gîtes d’etape. The French really know how to live!

Costs in the refuges vary from about €20 for a three-course meal to  €40-55 for half board (dinner, breakfast, and a bed for the night). Half board in the gîtes (also called auberges) costs from €80-100.

Navigation

The distinctive red-and-white stripes of the GR5 blaze.

The distinctive red-and-white stripes of the GR5 blaze.

Guidebook: Trekking the GR5 Trail by Paddy Dillon, Cicerone Guides

The route is well marked by a red-above-white painted blaze. There is no route finding required except sometimes in town when the blazes all but disappear, although people will quickly point you in the right direction if you ask!

Unlike in the States, trail signs in Europe often indicate estimated walking time, rather than distance, to listed destinations. The time estimate is a more meaningful number, since mountain miles are completely different than valley miles.

For me, it became a bit of a game to see whether my actual hiking time was faster, slower, or spot on compared to the signs. Much of the time, I was just about right. Do note, though, that listed times don’t include breaks.

Best Direction To Hike and When To Start

La Stèle Valette in the Alpes-Martitimes where the heat is intense.

La Stèle Valette in the Alpes-Martitimes where the heat is intense.

Most people walk the GR5 from north to south. This is a matter of preference but is usually chosen because hikers like starting in the humid and wet conditions of the north and ending in the dry and sunny conditions of the south.  There’s nothing like swimming in the Mediterranean after finishing your thru-hike!

Getting There

Crossing the stunning and airy Crête des Gittes.

Crossing the stunning and airy Crête des Gittes

There are two places to start the GR5 Grand Traverse of the Alps: Thonon-les-Bains in France or St. Gingolph in Switzerland. 

The French start is longer and more gradual, with easier access from the Geneva airport by train or from Nyon or Lausanne by boat.  Here is the train schedule and boat schedule.

I chose the Swiss option, which was practically straight uphill! It requires a train transfer in St. Maurice or to take a local bus from Villeneuve. Here is the train schedule.

Similarly, there are two ending points: the traditional terminus in Nice, or the town of Menton. The Menton terminus is accessed from the GR52, adding about five days to the overall journey. I highly recommend ending in Menton, as it takes the hiker deep into Mercantour National Park followed by a spectacular finish from Col de Berceau high above the sea then along the beach.

Nice has an international airport. Frequent buses and trains from Menton to Nice make it easy to reach the airport no matter which terminus you choose to end at.

Climate and Weather

A "patou" or Pyrenean Mountain Dog guarding the flock – and hogging the trail.

A patou, or sheepdog, guarding the flock – and hogging the trail.

The best seasons to walk the GR5 are mid-summer to early fall, though if moving south, snow may still linger in the high passes into July and the heat can be intense in late summer as you approach the sea. 

One thing to consider is that high mountain refuges often don’t open until late June. This may not be an issue at all if you plan to wild camp the entire hike, but the food is always excellent and there were days of heavy rain where I appreciated a roof over my head at night.

I wore my rain gear much of the time in the north because the dew was like a car wash. Even with a double-walled tent, I had extensive condensation. The tent froze solid outside of Chamonix, and I was glad I had a warm sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As I moved south, the sun became enervating and water sources were further apart. A wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, long sleeves and sun gloves are a must in my opinion.

Gear Suggestions

As stated above, conditions on this trail run the gamut from snow to heavy rain to blistering sun. Come prepared with proper rain gear, a conservatively rated sleeping bag, and sun protection.

This thru-hike was the last I ever walked wearing hiking boots. Since it is so wet in the north and there are some stream crossings, I recommend non-waterproof trail running shoes. With steep and rocky conditions, trekking poles are essential.

I was never visited by animals and just kept my food wrapped in plastic bags. There are no bears in the French Alps.

Though water is plentiful from reliable sources, I recommend bringing a supply of purification tabs and/or a filter.

Camping

Camping outside Refuge du Col Palet where a hiker offered up an alpenhorn concert.

Camping outside Refuge du Col Palet where a hiker offered up an alpenhorn concert.

It’s possible to camp the entire time on the GR5, though you will have to choose your sites carefully. France allows camping above treeline most of the time except in national parks. Even in protected areas, camping is generally tolerated as long as you set up after 7:00 p.m. and take down before 9:00 a.m. Posted signs will alert you of current regulations.

Many of the refuges, even in the parks, allow camping next to their building or in a designated area. 

French campgrounds are really cool, oftentimes with a fully stocked bar and orders taken in the evening for bread and coffee the following morning. Have I mentioned already that the French know how to live?

The breakdown for my thru-hike was: 

16 nights wild camping
4 nights camping next to a refuge
2 nights in a campground
1 night in a refuge
3 nights in a gîte d’etape

I always found a place to sleep, even when arriving in Les Houches on a busy weekend filled with Tour du Mont Blanc trekkers trying to escape a major storm.

Water Sources

Every village has a public fountain for drinking, as do the refuges. This is one of the only hikes of my life on which I did not bring a filter. I only used purification tabs one time high above the Vallée de la Tinée, where a large metal drum was the only water source. 

Public fountains abound with reliable and potable water.

Public fountains abound with reliable and potable water.

Resupply Options

The trail passes through many villages, ski resorts, and larger towns where it’s easy to buy food or eat at restaurants. Selection can be limited though, and I sometimes found it hard to get enough calories unless I supplemented my meals at the refuges. There are vegetarian options including pasta — and, of course, wonderful cheese, bread, and chocolate! 

It’s not practical to send food ahead if traveling from the United States. If you are on a strict diet, it would be possible to send boxes from Geneva to larger towns such as Chamonix, Modane, and Briançon. 

Closing Thoughts

The Valley of Cairns in the Vanoise.

The Valley of Cairns in the Vanoise.

I was concerned about finding fuel for my cook stove so I made a cat food can alcohol stove. France is the land of fondue so I thought it would be easy to find alcool à brûler (denatured alcohol). It was not as easy as I expected, though generous cafe owners seemed more than happy to top me off as I moved along and I never went to bed without a warm meal. 

The Globetrotter is an outfitter where you can buy fuel in Geneva. Chamonix and Les Houches have many more outdoor stores where you can stock up as well. If you’re bringing a screw-on stove from the US, check that the canister you’re buying is compatible. European retailers often sell click-on and pierceable gas canisters alongside screw-on types.

Quiet St. Dalmas-le-Selvage.

Quiet St. Dalmas-le-Selvage.

I mentioned earlier that I learned enough French to communicate and made friends along the way. Since I was a woman-of-a-certain-age and alone, I was often invited to join families who found me an object of interest. 

I did have one very scary experience with a gîte owner who did not like Americans. Although I consider the Alps relatively safe overall, it’s important to listen to your gut if something feels off and get yourself to a safe place. 

Weather can be wild and changeable, so you will need to approach this thru-hike with a flexible attitude.

The Alps are one of the most beautiful places in the world and there is always something new to see over each pass. People have been living in them and traveling across them for centuries. Walking here is not just a workout or a box to be ticked, but a life-changing experience. 

Bonne randonnée!

Featured image: Photo via Alison Young. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 2

  • Brian Crabtree : Feb 22nd

    Alison, is it possible to walk this route without camping, without having to bring a tent, stove, etc, by sleeping in the gites or refuges every day, like the Camino de Santiago? Are gites and food availability close enough on a daily basis?

    Reply
    • Alison Young : Feb 22nd

      hello Brian! Yes, it is possible to walk the entire trail and stay in refuges and guest houses rather than camp. The trail is very popular, so my advice would be to plan ahead. That might mean calling a few days out, but ensures you have a spot!

      Reply

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