Like their wines, when the French do walks they often take the lead in a very big way.
France has a network of over 37,000 miles of long distance routes crisscrossing the country, managed and run by the French Hiking Federation.
That rather left us spoiled for choice where it came to selecting for you the 10 best long distance hikes in the country!
In this piece we offer a mix of treks that will appeal to people at different stages of their life and of different ages.
There’s even a walk of over 800 miles that may appeal to someone who’s just retired!
Walks of a Month or More
Have a month or two to spare?
Fluent or wish to become fluent in French?
These walks will immerse you in French culture and its glorious scenery as you trek, day in, day out for a month or more.
These are the most epic of the walking-mad country’s epic walks!
Whether walking the entire length of the River Loire or crossing/following mountain ranges, you will be in for an experience of a lifetime with hardly any journey time from Blighty to the start/finish lines.
GR3 Trek – Loire Valley walk
From pre-history cave paintings to some of the best wines in the world, this monster of a trek will allow you to see some of the best that France has to offer.
The Grand Randonnée 3 was the first of the Grand Randonnée routes to be mapped and marked, and to this day is one of the best for those who wish to get to know France as it is today and through the ages.
Along the route you will visit the cities of Orléans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Chinon, Angers and Nantes, but many a town and village between for you to rest and enjoy the world.
Another element of the human history you will encounter are the myriad castles and palaces (chateaux) as you travel.
With those come wine. Gallons of it of all hues from sparkling white to fine reds, and on a journey like this you can take time to imbibe and enjoy.
There is no fixed route for this, though all the variations are way-marked appropriately.
There is a wine-tasting route, a chateaux route and other variations that you could even mix and match as you go.
As our treks in this article go, this could well be something for those who have just retired and fancy a big adventure on foot.
Yes, your grown up kids may think you’re nuts but this is your life not theirs, and you have every right to spend what you have carefully saved over the years!
GR10 Trek – Atlantic Coast to Mediterranean Coast
The Pyrenees separate France from Spain and present a barrier where you can understand how cultures became distinct thanks to the sheer difficulty of crossing these mountains.
Starting in the fiercely independent Basque Country and ending in the also fiercely independent Catalonia, you will get to meet peoples whom the empires ignored as they drew their boundaries.
The Basque and Catalan languages are not French or Spanish but their own.
They will understand you in French thanks to the similarities but where you can speak their languages they will welcome you all the more.
The GR10 is the easiest of three routes that go from coast to coast.
The Haute Route is the hardest and is worth exploring if you wish to climb high peaks and mountain passes.
The GR10 however is no gentle stroll – you will ascend great heights at times but far more gently than the beast that is the Haute Route.
Even though this is the easiest of the three, as late as May/June you may require an ice axe and crampons to manage some of the route, such is the elevation!
The summer heat can be fierce as well – do be aware that wildfires can break out at times on much of the landscape.
This walk is famous for its wildlife and meadows that you will cross day after day.
For anyone with 45 days to spare who wishes to explore human culture as well as the terrain of these high mountains, this is a biggie that will please you no end!
Grande Traversee du Massif Central (GTMC)
The Massif Central is a mountain range that, logically, sits very much in the middle of the country.
This 700km trek takes the mountain range in and allows you to explore a part of the world that for many is considered off the beaten track as they head for the Pyrenees or Alps for their treks (and yes, we include a few treks in both in this piece!).
Along your route you will get to explore the Margeride region where the French Resistance was based during the Second World War.
These brave partisans risked torture and execution in fighting the Nazis from behind the lines and ultimately would weaken the Germans considerably when the Allies arrived in Normandy in 1944.
Another section we will cover later is the Cévennes National Park that Robert Louis Stevenson explored (see trek below).
The mountains fall into dry limestone hills as you descend to the Mediterranean coast.
Beware of bike-packers on this route as it is also (just about) suitable for serious mountain bike-packers.
That said mountain bikers tend to go as far as possible where walkers go – only faster!
In summer this trek can be uncomfortably hot thanks to much of it being at lower levels.
There is also the risk of fire. As such a spring or autumn start is recommended.
GR5 Trek – Great Crossing of the Alps
Starting on the shores of Lake Geneva, you will cross the Alps and take in all that this world famous mountain range has to offer – high mountain passes, wild, green valleys, emerald lakes and villages where time seems to have stood still.
Wilderness camping will be part of the adventure, but you can take a day here or there in a hostel, hotel or refuge.
This is up there among the best walks in France and this is saying something!
You will pass the Mont Blanc massif, the Vanoise, and Thabor massif as you journey through some of the greatest landscapes in Europe.
The next phase is through the Queyras and Ubaye regions that will awe you as well.
The Alps meet the Mediterranean around Nice, but not before you have transited the great valleys of Tinée, Var and Bévéra that will round off a mountain trek that competes in quality with the greatest mountain hikes in the world.
You need to be fit for this one and at times prepared to take on snow and glaciers as you go – this is crossing one of the major continental divides of Europe at the end of the day!
You should work on packing supplies for 3-4 days at a time as you go – that’s a typical wilderness leg on this epic route.
(Slightly) Shorter Walks
All but one of the next six walks are 100 miles plus.
That said it is possible to complete them in around two weeks – in a world where you may have a mortgage to pay and a two week break is possible (those halcyon days before children come on the scene perhaps!) these next six are feasible in one summer away from the desk.
Ranging from a brutal trek through four countries around Mont Blanc to a stroll through the war graves and memorials of the battlefields of the First World War, these are a transect through France that should appeal to every taste!
Let’s start with a gentler one – the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail
Robert Louis Stevenson Trail
In 1878 the young Robert Louis Stevenson and the truculent and manipulative donkey Modestine went for a walk through the Cevennes region of the Massif Central in France.
His memoir of the holiday would help make his name and allow his later classics like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island to be read even today.
His memoir is one of the first stories in the world we now call trekking and may have gone some way to popularise it as a holiday for those rich and not so rich.
It is possible to hike the trip but there are tour companies that offer donkey treks for you and your friends to explore the still-unchanged landscape he wrote about in a truly authentic way.
One big tip here would be to have read the book before you go to have an idea what it is about!
And yes, do bring a copy with you so you can compare your experiences of today with his of old.
There are paved roads and cars and things like electricity and wifi on much of the route but many of the villages aren’t that much different to those he wrote about in his memoir!
Who knows? The donkeys may be of character worthy of note too…
GR20 Trek – The Spine of Corsica
Many say this is the toughest hike in Europe, so you need to be as fit as a butcher’s dog for this one!
The route crosses the island diagonally from the north of the island to the south.
The island is a granite sea mount that juts out of the Mediterranean Sea and has long been a strategic outpost of the French empire.
This isn’t one of those strolls for pure culture vultures though.
The northern legs of the route involve high, steep climbs and descents as you push yourself to the limits in an almost typically French individual feat of great stamina.
The guide to the GR20 suggests that to consider yourself fit enough you should be able to carry a 10kg backpack up a steep incline for three hours in a day as well as a descent of a similar angle.
That’s a slog in the gym as fitness goes!
The sort of walk you should find fairly easy is Snowdon or Blencathra – these are no gentle strolls and you will be doing this daily for the wrong side of two weeks.
As you reach the south of the island the challenges become more a psychological one where you deal with narrow ridges and mind boggling drops either side of you.
Completing the walk you will have a real achievement under your belt and have explored an important island in European history from end to end.
The Cathars were a Christian sect that sufficiently worried the Catholic Establishment that the Inquisition was founded and those found to be following the creed were hunted down and subjected to some horrible deaths.
What really got the Vatican’s goat was that the Cathars believed that there were two gods – one that created the physical realm in the Old Testament and another that created the spiritual realm in the New Testament.
We know the former as Satan and the latter as God.
The fight from the Vatican started peacefully enough with the Pope sending missionaries to ask local leaders to deal with the ‘heretics’ in the early 1200’s.
When a senior member of the Catholic Church was murdered in 1208, the Pope started to play hardball and sent a Crusade to defeat the Cathars, which was completed in 1229.
It still took 120 odd years to eradicate the Languedoc based sect with the Inquisition that many a school child may have heard of due to the frightening torture and execution that was used against them.
So what has this to do with a walk?
The walk takes in much of the Cathars’ lands and relics as you go, exploring the deep history and culture of this persecuted religion.
There are big hills and some astounding views to be seen.
This is as much a temporal journey as it is a physical one.
GR54 Trek – Tour des Écrins
This is considered one of the hardest treks in the whole mountain range.
Over the ten days you will ascend and descend more than 12,800 metres of mountain and will cross 14 high cols as you go.
For those who are mountain fit and perhaps readying themselves for a run to the Himalayas this is a trek that you should seriously consider, though if you are just after a couple of weeks away from your desk and find the Scottish Highlands rather unchallenging this is worth a go!
The 4,102 metre Barre des Ecrins is the most southerly 4,000+ metre peak in the Alps and you will get plenty of time to see this mountain as you take on the circuit.
You will also take in sights of La Meije (3983 m) and Mt Pelvoux (3946 m) that are only slightly smaller than the Barre des Écrins but no less stunning to behold.
On your trek you may see a variety of wildlife including Chamois and Ibex goats, eagles and a whole host of other flora and fauna.
You will ascend above the tree line for a while and take in the stupendous views of the valleys below.
Villages including La Grave, Vallouise and La Chapelle en Valgaudemar provide welcoming rest and refuelling stops as you go and there are a number of refuges on route so you don’t need to carry the world on your back unless that’s what you choose.
Perhaps a small step or so below that of the Tour des Ecrins trail above, this is still something you need a good pair of legs for.
Expect 10,000 metres or more of ascent and descent over the 11 day trip – that’s 11 hard days of walking!
There are two broad ways of taking on this walk – you can get a tour company in and stay in refuges, hostels and hotels as you go and just carry a day pack for your trip.
The other way is to carry tent, sleeping bag and all your food and commune with the mountain gods every day.
You can mix and match as well if you don’t fancy diving into a freezing lake every day to wash!
Another variation is to do the walk in four or seven days.
A four day hike will involve around 1,000 metres of ascent daily and with a big pack on you you need to be fit as a mountain goat!
The seven day version is a little more leisurely but you may well be walking a bit funny at the end.
You can start the walk anywhere and just do it.
Remember to bring your passport as you will be walking through sections in France, Switzerland and Italy as you go – as with so many important mountains it isn’t owned by any single nation…
A final note is that high season (July/August) is extremely busy and if you are planning to stay in refuges/hostels you need to book ahead.
An ultra-marathon is done in late August so there’s close to no hope of a place to stay during that event!
The Remembrance Trail
Three million soldiers of 20 nations fought and died in the Battle of the Somme, a 26 mile battlefront in the living hell of the deadliest war in human history to date.
This is not an energetic trek in the same light as the Corsican or Alpine walks above but one where you will dip your toe into the history and realities faced by those who fought and died in what they thought was ‘the war to end all wars’.
Given the habit of our leaders to send young men of fighting age to die nearly every decade in ‘corners of the world that will forever be England’ one can see the futility of their often gruesome deaths by gas, shelling and all sorts of other mechanised murder.
This walk calls for pauses for reflection and time spent at different memorials.
The suggested stops, excluding your hotels along the way are:
- The Thiepval Memorial and the Museum of Thiepval
- The Historical Museum of the Great War of Péronne
- The Somme 1916 Museum in Alberta
- The Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel
- The Ulster Tower near Thiepval
- The Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle
- The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux an the Sir John Monash Centre
- The memorial sites of Pozières, Delville Wood
- The South African National Museum
- The ‘Chapelle du Souvenir Français’ of Rancourt.
As to terrain? Very flat. It’s easy going but may weigh heavily on your heart.
They love to walk in France!
As with so many things we see in that country that are a different league better than we have in the UK, the French do walking at another level.
The walking in France could be compared to a fine Loire Valley wine against British Westcountry rough cider to some extent!
We hope we have inspired you to visit, whether telling your boss to stick the job in his ear while you walk 500 miles or perhaps on a two week exploration of somewhere wild and beautiful yet just a short hop from Blighty!
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