The French Grande Randonnée number 20, better known as the GR20, is a 180 km long hiking trail that winds its way through the mountainous heart of Corsica. It’s also commonly described as the toughest long-distance hike in all of Europe. The GR20 consists of two parts. The south part, which is considered moderate, and the north part, which is known for being more technical. In June 2023, I made a solo attempt to complete the GR20 in 14 days, and here is everything you need to know about this hike before you go.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO HIKE THE GR20?
The GR20 is no joke! It’s a 180 km long hiking trail with a total elevation change of 28 000 m. You can walk it in both directions, starting from Calenzana or Conca. The average walking time for most hikers is between 10 to 16 days. The GR20 is officially divided into 16 stages, which means 16 days on the track. However, it’s absolutely possible to double some stages, especially when you choose the alpine variations. My walking time was 14 days, and I completed the hike in 15 days due to a storm forcing me to stay in a refuge an extra day. My full itinerary can be found in a separate post, hiking the GR20 in Corsica: 14-day itinerary .
HOW HARD IS THE GR20?
The GR20 is known as Europe’s toughest long-distance hike. In reality, the hardest part is the daily elevation change, overall physical effort, rough terrain, and extreme heat. You do not need to be a rock climber to complete it, but previous experience in alpine hiking is a must. There will be a couple of exposed sections secured with chains, as well as some very steep walls with no metal aids at all. Rock scrambling skills are crucial to lift your body up with extra weight on your back, and deal with these sketchy sections smoothly. So is the GR20 really that hard? Well… it depends on your previous experience and the exact route you take.
IS THE GR20 WELL-MARKED?
The GR20 comes with two variants, the standard variant marked with red and white signs, and the alpine variant marked with yellow dots. The standard GR20 is well-marked. There’s basically no need to check the map. The alpine variants, on the other hand, are lacking signs, so strong navigation skills are needed. I used mapy.cz app for that. It helped me a lot on those poorly marked bits. With that being said, I did all the alpine variants on the GR20, and summited the following peaks: Monte Incudine (2134 m), Monte Renoso (2352 m), Monte d’Oro (2389 m), Monte Cinto (2706 m). For detailed GR20 itinerary, go to a separate post.
HOW TO MAKE THE GR20 EASIER?
The GR20 difficulty is very subjective, and it pretty much depends on the route you take. If you decide to take the standard GR20, skip the alpine variants, and popular side trips, the overall experience may not be too challenging for you. Another thing that makes your life easier on the GR20 is starting the hike with a low pack weight. You can achieve that by taking ultra light gear with you, sleeping in the huts or renting a tent from the huts, and eating along the way. Getting up early to avoid heat is also a good idea. Not sure what to bring on the hike? Go and check my separate post with the ultimate packing list for the GR20 in Corsica.
WHERE TO START THE GR20?
Most hikers walk the GR20 from north to south, which is from Calenzana to Conca. I did the opposite, wouldn’t change my decision, and here’s why. First of all, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect on this hike, wanted to test my skills, get used to the terrain, and gain confidence before entering the infamous north. Second of all, I wanted to avoid snow in the north, and starting from Conca bought me some time. Lastly, I do think that going from south to north makes more sense mentally. Summiting Monte Cinto, Corsica’s highest peak, is a great reward after long days on the track, and it motivates to keep pushing on.
HOW DO YOU CLIMB MONTE CINTO?
Monte Cinto at 2706 m is the highest peak in Corsica, and you can go up there on your way from Refuge de Tighiettu to Refuge d’Ascu-Stagnu. The side trip starts at Pointe des Éboulis, and takes up to two hours both ways. It’s well-worth dropping your bag at the junction and going as light as possible. The track to the summit is relatively well-marked with dots and cairns. Many people say it’s extremely hard to summit Monte Cinto, but I disagree. Rock scrambling skills are required to reach the peak, but there’s no real climbing involved. Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend doing it in rain or when it’s very windy, but the way up to the top is no harder than the standard GR20. Interestingly, I think that summiting Monte d’Oro is harder.
HOW DO YOU CLIMB MONTE D’ORO?
Monte d’Oro at 2389 m is a prominent peak that lies between Refuge L’Alzarella and Refuge de l’Onda. You can summit it by taking the alpine route from or to Vizzavona. It does have some serious challenges though. A giant snow field hanging on the north-east side of the mountain even in summer, significant elevation change, and a fairly challenging climb to the top. That’s the closest you will get to traditional climbing on the entire GR20! This final bit to the summit requires you to do a couple of moves vertically up a chimney with a big drop behind your back. On top of that, the track is poorly marked, so you need to navigate with a map. I would strongly suggest leaving your backpack just before the final climb, and going up with no extra weight.
WHAT OTHER SIDE TRIPS TO DO?
Other popular side trips on the GR20 include Monte Incudine and Monte Renoso. Monte Incudine at 2134 m is the highest peak on the south part of the track, accessible by taking the alpine variant from Refuge d’Asinau to Refuge d’Usciolu. It’s worth mentioning that the signs say that this route is closed. Feel free to ignore them. This section is open, and can be walked both ways. Monte Renoso at 2352 m is located between Refuge Prati and Refuge d’E Capannelle. You can reach the peak by taking an unofficial alpine route, which connects these two huts, or by hiking from Refuge d’E Capannelle up to the top and back. The first option is a little off-trail, and largely unmarked. The second one is much easier, but takes up more time.
WHAT MONTHS ARE BEST TO HIKE THE GR20?
End of June seems like the best time to hike the GR20. You will get heaps of daylight, quite stable weather, and temperature ranging between 20°C and 30°C during the day. Although, the weather seems perfect in June, there may be a need to cross some snow fields, especially in the north. Snow in May is a given, end of June – it shouldn’t be there, but each year is different. Just one week before my departure for Corsica, there was a sudden change of weather, and a heavy snowfall. Fortunately enough, the snow was gone by the time I reached the north. In July and August the heat is immense. September is cooler, but happens to be stormy.
HOW TO GET TO CORSICA?
Corsica has four airports, in Ajaccio, Calvi, Figari and Bastia. The local operator is Air Corsica, but it’s worth checking connections from any other airline depending on where you live. If there’s no suitable flights, you can jump on a ferry instead. There are 7 passenger ports, in Bastia, Ile-Rousse, Calvi, Ajaccio, Propriano, Bonifacio, Porto-Vecchio, and you can book your cruise with these operators: Corsica Ferries, Corsica Linea, La Méridionale, MobyLines. Getting around the island is not easy. Buses do not go too often, so it’s better to check the schedule beforehand. Train can be a good alternative. It goes between Ajaccio, Calvi, and Bastia.
HOW TO GET TO CONCA?
There are many ways to get to Conca. Since I’m based in Poland, I flew myself from Cracow to Marseille, took a bus from Marseille to Toulon, and crossed the ocean with Corsica Ferries from Toulon to Porto-Vecchio. Fun fact, I booked my ferry to Ajaccio first, but it turned out that getting from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio by bus would take me another two days. Continuing my journey, I took a bus from Porto-Vecchio to Sainte Lucie de Porto-Vecchio, and then hitchhiked to Conca. No buses go on this last bit, so you either walk, or try to get a free ride. On a final note, if you’re taking an overnight cruise, it’s wise to pay for a cabin.
HOW TO GET TO CALENZANA?
It’s best to go directly to Calvi or Bastia, either by plane or boat. If you happen to arrive in Bastia, catch a train to Calvi and then take a bus to Calenzana. Since I finished the hike in Calanzana, I did this journey in the opposite direction. Happy to say that I skipped the bus and train, as I managed to stop a car on the street and get a free ride straight to Bastia. Seriously! After that, I boarded a plane from Bastia to Berlin, and then took a bus from Berlin to where I live, which is Katowice. You can easily get to Bastia with Corsica Ferries. They leave from Livorno, Savona, Toulon, Nice. Another option is to check for a ferry to Ile-Rousse.
ARE BOOKINGS REQUIRED TO HIKE THE GR20?
Short answer is yes! Long answer to follow. You have three options on the GR20. You can sleep in a shared room in a refuge, in a rented tent or your own tent. Since 2023 it doesn’t matter which option you choose, all of them require an upfront online reservation. Here comes the question. What if you won’t make it to the next hut as planned? In reality, if you’re going with your own tent with no reservation, no one will turn you back. However, you will pay 18€ for a camping spot instead of 9€. At least this year. This whole booking system is new, so no one knows if it’s still going to work like this next year. The same with being late a day or two. This year no one had to pay again, if the reservation was made in the first place. Will it work like that next season? No idea! Important note. If you sleep in refuges, or renting a tent from them, you can’t be late.
WHAT FOOD CAN YOU GET IN THE REFUGES?
Refuges serve meals only in high season, which is from June to September. You can get breakfast (from 10€ to 12€), and dinner (from 20€ to 25€) there, as well as buy some snacks, sweets and groceries. The choice of products varies from one hut to another, and it strongly depends on the hut’s location. Dinners are served at a specific time, menu is fixed, and made up of three courses – a starter, main dish, dessert. Signing up for dinner is crucial. You need to do it by 6:00 pm, otherwise, you won’t get served. What I really enjoyed on the GR20 is the fact that everyone eats together. Sometimes you can choose the table, sometimes the seat is appointed, but you always get to chat with other people. Breakfasts need to be booked in advance too, and picked up from the kitchen the following morning. Important note. Refuges accept payments in cash only.
WHERE TO TAKE WATER FROM?
Each refuge on the GR20 has a source with water that doesn’t need any treatment. The question is, how much water to take with you each day? I was deciding case by case, based on the map, and what’s coming next on the hike. If there was a chance for a refill along the way, I walked with one bottle of water (1,5L). If I couldn’t locate any source of water on the map ahead of time, I took two bottles of water (3L). In reality, there are only two stages on the GR20 with no water sources, Refuge d’Usciolu to Refuge Prati and Refuge de l’Onda to Refuge de Petra Piana. Mapy.cz is the app I used both for navigation, and checking the water sources. In June the app was correct. However, the hotter it gets, the higher the risk some sources are dry.
IS THERE ANY RECEPTION ON THE GR20?
Reception on the GR20 comes and goes. Literally! One second you have it, and the next one it’s gone. On average, you will get signal once a day, usually while walking on the ridge, or passing by some towns. The least connected parts of the track include the top north. There’s hardly any reception in the refuges either as they are mostly isolated. That’s why you should download all the maps to your mobile before the hike, so that they work offline. Corsica is a part of France, so if you are an EU citizen, you can access Internet by enabling the data roaming. If not, you can purchase a French SIM card. LycaMobile offers 150 GB for 24,99€.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GR20?
Is there anything else you need to know about the GR20? Yes, a few more things! Here comes some random facts about the hike, I didn’t mention before. Firstly, wild-camping is prohibited, and you can get fined for it. Secondly, dogs are allowed on the GR20, so feel free to take yours. Although, I wouldn’t risk taking a dog on the north part, and would rather avoid alpine variants in the south, due to safety reasons of course. Thirdly, bins are provided in the huts, so there’s no need to carry all the rubbish throughout the hike. Lastly, you do not need to speak fluent French to do this hike, but some basic vocabulary will make your life much easier.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO HIKE THE GR20?
1615.76€ is my total for hiking the GR20, and that doesn’t include the cost of gear. Food in the refuges is not cheap, it adds up to almost 500€, but that’s the price to pay for going light. Another thing I spent quite some money on is accommodation after the hike. I have a weakness for going extra fancy after long hikes, and that made me pay a fortune for a luxury apartment in Calenzana. Ferry from Toulon to Porto-Vecchio was expensive too as it was an overnight cruise with a private cabin. On the contrary, I paid as little as possible for camping on the trail. That was only 9€ per night as I walked with my own tent, and had all my bookings done. If no reservation, that would be 18€ per night, or even higher if I rented a tent, or slept in the refuges.
The cost of hiking the GR20 in Corsica
That’s everything you need to know about hiking the GR20 in Corsica. Are you planning to sleep in refuges or carrying your own tent? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
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