Winding some 170km from Calenzana (12km from Calvi) to Conca (22km from Porto-Vecchio), the GR20 is Corsica’s most demanding long-distance footpath. Only one-third of the 18,000 to 20,000 hikers who start it each season complete all sixteen stages, which can be covered in ten to twelve days if you’re in good physical shape – if you’re not, don’t even think about attempting this route. Marked with red-and-white splashes of paint, it comprises a series of harsh ascents and descents, sections of which exceed 2000m and become more of a scramble than a walk, with stanchions, cables and ladders driven into the rock as essential aids. The going is made tougher by the necessity of carrying a sleeping bag, all-weather kit and two or three days’ food with you. That said, the rewards more than compensate. The GR20 takes in the most spectacular mountain terrain in Corsica and along the way you can spot the elusive mouflon (mountain sheep), glimpse lammergeier (a rare vulture) wheeling around the crags, and swim in ice-cold torrents and waterfalls.
The first thing you need to do before setting off is get hold of the Parc Régional’s indispensable Topo-guide, published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, which gives a detailed description of the route, along with relevant sections of IGN contour maps, lists of refuges and other essential information. Most good bookshops in Corsica stock them, or call at the park office in Ajaccio.
The route can be undertaken in either direction, but most hikers start in the north at Calenzana, tackling the most demanding étapes early on. The hardship is alleviated by extraordinary mountainscapes as you round the Cinto massif, skirt the Asco, Niolo, Tavignano and Restonica valleys, and scale the sides of Monte d’Oro and Rotondo. At Vizzavona on the main Bastia–Corte–Ajaccio road, roughly the halfway mark, you can call it a day and catch a bus or train back to the coast, or press on south across two more ranges to the needle peaks of Bavella.
Accommodation along the route is provided by refuges, where, for around €13–17, you can take a hot shower, use an equipped kitchen and bunk down on mattresses. Usually converted bergeries, these places are staffed by wardens during the peak period (June–Sept). Advance reservations can be made online via the national park (PNRC) website, parc-corse.org, for an advance payment of €5 per bed; any un-booked places are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, so be prepared to bivouac if you arrive late. Another reason to be on the trail soon after dawn is that it allows you to break the back of the étape before 2pm, when clouds tend to bubble over the mountains and obscure the views.
The weather in the high mountains is notoriously fickle. A sunny morning doesn’t necessarily mean a sunny day, and during July and August violent storms can envelop the route without warning. It’s therefore essential to take good wet-weather gear with you, as well as a hat, sunblock and shades. In addition, make sure you set off on each stage with adequate food and water. At the height of the season, most refuges sell basic supplies (alimentation or ravitaillement), but you shouldn’t rely on this service; ask hikers coming from the opposite direction where their last supply stop was and plan accordingly (basic provisions are always available at the main passes of Col de Vergio, Col de Vizzavona, Col de Bavella and Col de Verde). The refuge wardens (gardiens) will be able to advise you on how much water to carry at each stage.
Finally, a word of warning: each year, injured hikers have to be air-lifted to safety off remote sections of the GR20, normally because they strayed from the marked route and got lost. Occasionally, fatal accidents also occur for the same reason, so always keep the paint splashes in sight, especially if the weather closes in – don’t rely purely on the many cairns that punctuate the route, as these sometimes mark more hazardous paths to high peaks.
In June 2015, a landslide caused by a violent storm in the notorious Cirque de la Solitude, between Asco Stagnu and the Tighjettu refuge, killed five trekkers and forced the closure of this part of the route. At the time of writing, minibuses were being used to shuttle walkers between the valleys instead, while the PNRC were equipping an alternative high-level “variant” route to bypass the cirque, which is expected to remain closed for the foreseeable future. Full details on the new variant are posted on the PNRC website.