The GR20, known locally as Fra li monti, is an advanced trail along the jagged spine of Corsica’s mountainous centre. The route is a GR footpath that crosses the Mediterranean island from north to south and is often described as one of the top trails in the world.
GR stands for Grande Randonnée and denotes a network of long-distance footpaths in Europe. GR20 is considered to be the most difficult of all the GR routes, with its Corsican name Fra li monti literally translating as “across the mountains”.
It therefore goes without saying that there are plenty of ascents and descents over the two weeks of walking, with almost 12,000 metres of elevation gain over its course. Most people complete the route over the course of 15 days but in 2016 François D’Haene set the fastest known time in 31 hours.
GR20 is less of a designated trail and more an itinerary of mountain climbs. The northern part is considered to be the most difficult section, with steep and rocky paths, whilst the southern part gets easier as it crosses the island at a lower altitude with warmer and more sheltered conditions.
Corsica also offers other less difficult trails including the Mare e monti (from sea to mountain) and the Mare a mare (from sea to sea).
- Stunningly beautiful and varied route.
- Climbs through dense forest and larico pines, past shepherds’ huts and up through wispy coastal clouds before entering the quieter, mountainous inland.
There are regular flights to Corsica from most of Europe. The northern starting point of Calenzana is easily accessed from Sainte Catherine airport and nearby town of Calvi. Calvi can be reached by road or ferry and local buses proceeding to Calenzana.
Going from Bastia, you can get to Calvi either by bus (one two-hour connection a day) or by train (two three-hour connections a day).
The end point of Conca is located near Porto Vecchio, which offers onward ferries to Marseille and Livorno, and transfers to Figari airport. Bus routes connect Porto Vecchio with other towns on the island.
Vizzavona, considered the halfway point of the route, also has a train station for those who are considering doing only half of the GR20.
If choosing to complete a stage per day the GR20 takes 15 to 16 days. This obviously depends on fitness and the weather conditions, with super-fit and speedy hikers able to complete the route in five to seven days. In the North, steep ascents and plunging descents will slow you down and it’s worth allowing extra time to recuperate and soak in the sights en route.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
Each year 10-20,000 hikers attempt the GR20 but with a 75% drop out rate – proof that its difficulty is not to be underestimated.
The altitude gain and loss requires great physical effort and sections of the hike are exposed, so it is important to keep an eye on the conditions before setting off.
The northern section is the most technical, set in a mineral environment with loose rocks and stones on the ground. The southern section is lower and more sheltered, which sounds favourable but can mean high temperatures in the summer months which can sap your energy as you hike.
It is important to have a good level of fitness and some previous trekking experience to ensure you are able to cover prolonged distances over continuous days of hiking, many of which are on tough terrain. On a fifteen-day itinerary, you will be walking for a minimum of six hours a day. On some of the peaks it is necessary to scramble and there are several technical sections with rocky passages and steep descents.
There are no permits required or fees to pay to hike this trail.
Guided or Self-Guided
The GR20 can be completed without a guide thanks to the uniform markings throughout its length withred and white blazes.
In good visibility and with plenty of people around, it’s easy to follow from start to finish. In quieter months or when there are low clouds, it can be easy to miss the red and white stripe at forks or crossroads so it is worth having a compass and map on hand.
There is a plethora of trekking information available online and as long as you abide by weather warnings and stay off the exposed areas then you will be fine.
Having said this, many people opt to go with a guide or tour group to take the hassle out of planning their route and stopovers.
Just make sure you choose an itinerary suited to your fitness and ability.
The best time to tackle the GR20 is early June to late October but steer clear of July and August if you want to dodge the crowds. In late June and early September, weather is cooler and the route is less busy but most huts are still open, making these the prime windows to trek. Note that in winter the GR20 can be only crossed by experienced cross-country skiers with a high mountain guide. If you have time it’s worth factoring in an extra day (or two) in case of inclement weather.
As mentioned above, the trail consists of two parts.
The northern part from Calenzana to Vizzavona is the most difficult, because of the steep paths, but also more beautiful.
The southern part from Vizzavona to Conca is easier but less spectacular (with the exception of the green plains of the Coscione plateau).
You can walk the trail in either direction or complete just one of the two sections by starting/finishing in Vizzavona.
A typical 15-day itinerary on the classic trail would be as follows:
Arrive Calenzana to prepare and stock up on food if necessary.
Calenzana to Orto di Pobbiu -11km.
Orto di Pobbiu to Carrozu – 7km.
Carrozu to Haut Asco – 7km.
Haut Asco to Melarie Valley – 8 km.
Melarie Valley to Col de Vergio – 12 km.
Col de Vergio to plateau de Camputile – 14.5km.
Plateau de Camputile to Petra Piana – 9km.
Petra Piana to L’Onda – 7km.
L’Onda to Vizzavona – 10km.
Vizzavona to Col de Verde – 28km.
Col de Verde to Usciolu – 15km.
Usciolu to Coscione plateau – 13km.
Coscione plateau to Bavella – 15km.
Bavella to Conca – 18km.
As well as the key entry points in Calenzana, Vizzavona and Conca there are a handful of other places where you can get on or off the GR20 trail, including Bonifatu (Refuge de Carozzu), Asco Stagnu (Haut-Asco) and Col de Verghio.
Outside of the main access points, the majority of accommodations along the route are mountain huts described as “refuges” or gîtes. The price of accommodation and food varies from refuge to refuge but are typically around €10-15 for a bed – typically a wooden bunk in a large dorm room.
Those on a budget can sleep in a tent near the refuge but pitching tents along the trail is banned. During high season, accommodation tends to fill up so it’s worth planning and booking in advance. There are a couple of private bergeries, gites and hotels along the trail that are generally more comfortable but this is reflected in the higher price tag.
Stock up on supplies at your start point as huts can only offer the basics such as bread, cheese and chocolate until you get to Vizzavona where there is a larger shop.
If you are walking the GR20 over 15 or so days, you’ll have enough time to make the most of some of the stunning stops along the way.
There are numerous swimming holes where you can cool off with a dip in the crystal clear pools, or treat yourself to a stay at one of the hotels en route where you can enjoy fine dining or get a massage.
Wherever you start or finish, tag on a few days to explore the island pre or post hike. There are some amazing hill-top villages and beaches scattered around the island, all rich in culture and colourful history. In fact, Napoleon was born in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio and his ancestral home is now a museum.
If you’re a foodie you can enjoy the combination of Italian and French cuisine, fresh seafood or visit a wine estate. If you’re flying over in summer you can also rent gear from one of the beachside vendors and try diving and snorkelling at various points around the coastline.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||20214 Calenzana, France|
|Finishes at||20135 Conca, France|
|Length of route||180 Km|
|Average time to complete||12 - 16 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||2134 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|