The GR20 is a 180km or 112mile long footpath that runs roughly the length of Corsica from Calenzana to Conca. It can be hiked in either direction from about mid-May to late October depending on the weather. The trail can be hiked in 5 to 16 days with most hikers taking around 11 to 14 days (the fastest known time is 31hr 6min). The local language is French, and it helps to know some. The local currency is the Euro, and it helps to carry a fair amount of cash as not every place accepts credit cards. There are huts or “refuges” along the way, which you can pay to stay in. These huts are open for reservations during the high season: http://www.pnr.corsica/. You can also pitch a tent next to these huts for a small fee, or even rent a tent. During low seasons, the huts are still open, but toilets may be locked, and no reservations are available. Camping between huts is not allowed.
The GR20 is very mountainous and rocky and is often touted as the hardest “GR” trail, or perhaps even the hardest trail in Europe. Although I really cannot speak to those claims in particular, as I haven’t done enough hiking in Europe, I can say that the GR20 is one of the more difficult trails I’ve walked on. But, having said that, not all of the GR20 is actually so grueling. It’s really only a few sections that make it live up to those claims. The trail is exposed in many areas making it dangerous to hike in thunderstorms which are common in the afternoons.
Getting to the GR 20:
Flights can land in one of several airports: Ajaccio, Calvi, or Figari. The trail goes very close to Calvi, and so that airport seems like an obvious choice. Ajaccio is the largest city in Corsica, and so traveling to and from the airport is possible. Figari is tiny, and although close to the southern terminus of the GR20, it is difficult to get there.
Ferries also go to Corsica from France and Italy: http://corsica.forhikers.com/ferries
Public transport in Corsica leaves something to be desired. The train works, and that’s about it- but check the timetables as they change from the high season to the low season. The train does not go along either coast, so if you wish to go somewhere not serviced by a train station, you will need to find a bus. Buses on Corsica are run by many different companies, and information and timetables are very difficult to find, but here is a good place to start: https://www.corsicabus.org/
Hitchhiking works OK in Corsica, but it definitely helps to know French. Keep in mind that Corsican drivers are crazy, and the roads are narrow, steep, and twist all over the place.
The GR20 Stages:
The GR20 is divided into sections, or “etapes”. What surprised me was that not every guidebook breaks this trail up into the same sections, so while the English book that we were using broke it down into 16 stages, someone else with a German guidebook had the route in 15 stages. It’s not a big deal, but a lot of people talk about “stage 3” or whatnot, and you’ll have to compare guidebooks to make sure you’re actually talking about the same section. People tend to hike one or two sections a day, depending on weather and fitness.
The most difficult section of the GR20 is the northern half, and in particular, these are the hardest sections (in my opinion), in order of difficulty:
Stage 4: Haut Asco to Refuge de Tighjettu. This section used to go through the Cirque de Solitude, but this route was closed after a deadly accident in 2016 killing seven people when rocks fell on them from heavy rain. I know the old route was notorious (for being the hardest section), but having never done it, I cannot speak about how it compares to the new route, but I found the new route very challenging, with the most difficult rock scrambling sections of the entire trail. There are several metal cables to help you along the way, but I thought there could have been more (although I have to admit that I do have a fear of heights).
Stage 3: Refuge de Carrozzu to Haut Asco: The fact that this section is only 6km long suggests something about its difficulty. In those 6 km, the route goes up 860 meters and down 710 meters. The scrambling was difficult and time-consuming, but not as scary (in my opinion) as Stage 4.
Stage 2: Refuge d’Orto di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carrozzu: This was the first really difficult section we encountered, and the scrambling was challenging but fun and rewarding. There was at least one section where more than one path around some rocks had markers, and so we wound up going in a circle before finding the way.
Hiking in October:
Although online resources seemed to give mixed advice about hiking in October, we found it to be the perfect season. We hiked during the first two weeks of October, and locals told us it would be rare to see any snow accumulation until the second half of October. There is much more precipitation in October compared to summer months, and you can definitely expect to encounter thunderstorms with downpours in the afternoons. For this reason, many hikers were getting up early and only hiking one stage per day, finishing around mid-day or early afternoon on any given day. However, I do think that it is entirely possible to double practically any two series of stages on the GR20, weather permitting.
In October, the places where you will be able to find some supplies to resupply: Haut Ascu, Hotel Castel di Vergio, Vizzavona (from here you can take a train into bigger towns for a full resupply), and maybe Bavella (I cannot say for sure as we did not pass through here).
Advantages of hiking in early October included:
There were obviously fewer people on the trail. This is a very popular trail, and even in October we found there to be quite a few hikers, but I can only imagine the chaos of peak-season. From what I’ve read about hiking in summer, we definitely experienced cooler weather. In the summer, temperatures can be oppressive, and the exposed nature of much of the trail means that there is little to no shade in the most difficult sections. In October it was still warm enough to be in shorts and a t-shirt practically every day, but at night it would cool down significantly. Because October sees more rain, water is easily found along the trail when the guidebook suggests there will be none. We did not have to worry about making reservations at the refuges, in fact, many times there was actually no way to pay. Only occasionally there would be a “guardian” still working at a “refuge” whom we would pay for spending the night or for pitching our tent.
Disadvantages of hiking in early October included:
Most of the bathrooms at the huts were closed and locked up meaning that scores of people were left trying to find a place to go to the toilet in exposed rocky terrain often with several streams running near the hut. The result was disgusting with toilet paper, poop, and other trash everywhere. Because it is low-season, no meals can be purchased along the route at any of the “bergeries” or “refuges” (the farms and huts). This means that late-season hikers will miss out on some really good cuisine in favor of lightweight, calorie-dense backpacking food. Packs will be heavier as a result. Weather is fairly good but definitely wetter than the summer months, and the days are of course a bit shorter. This means that water is easily found, but afternoon storms are likely. Thunderstorms are dangerous in exposed areas, and rocks can get dangerously slippery when wet.
Final thoughts: what I liked and didn’t like about the GR20:
What I liked least about the GR20 was the lack of leave no trace education amongst hikers. I assume this must be the case, or else perhaps we were just seeing the effects of a waaaay overused and under-loved trail. I’ve never seen a trail so covered in toilet paper and trash. It doesn’t help that they accept and burn trash at the refuges (huts), and it certainly doesn’t help that they lock the toilets at the end of the peak season when there is no longer anyone working at these huts. In any case, what I would wish for would be one or two pit toilets at each hut which would be kept open year-round along with some education on proper backcountry hygiene and Leave No Trace Principles.
What I liked most about the GR20 was the food in Corsica. It’s great. Cheese and sausages have never tasted so good along with french bread, a little wine, and a few pastries… my mouth is watering just writing about it! In order to eat well in Corsica, all you need to do is buy food.
The trail itself was beautiful and rewarding, but probably a little beyond the challenge that my body was willing to accept. I have a unique situation, physically, but I think a lot of people are not physically perfect human beings and would find that this trail exposes some of their weaknesses. I was far from the only one with injuries on the GR20 with other people having knee problems and other leg problems. Usually, these over-use injuries are more commonly seen on longer trails, but given the difficulty of the GR20, I’m not surprised by the injuries we were seeing.
The history of this area is also fascinating and old, which is refreshing after hiking mostly in places with comparatively little history. In Corsica, cows have been grazing there for over 1000 years, which is difficult to fathom. However, when you find out that the soil beneath your feet makes your shoes smell incessantly of cow shit, no matter what, you realize that most of the soil is probably made of centuries-old cow manure.
Thanks for following along on this adventure, and let me know in the comments if you have any questions about the GR20, and, as always, please don’t leave any toilet paper behind!!