During a short trip to France over Memorial Day weekend (and London Bank Holiday), we flew into Toulouse from London. Toulouse is a stunning city with its buildings, churches, and rivers, but I wanted to explore more. What better way to explore the southwest of France than to head to the Pyrenees for some hiking?
Researching hikes was a tad difficult to find in-depth information with maps, distance, and elevation of hikes without translating. I normally like to find hikes that are circular or loops, so I see more scenic landscapes and perspectives.
Below are trip reports for hiking at the end of May. Note, it was a low snow year and conditions vary year-to-year.
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Day 1: Lac de Gaube – Pont d’Espagne
Distance: 6 miles
Elevation: 1,645 ft
Estimated Time: 2 to 3 hours
We started from Toulouse and drove to Parking du Puntas, which is a ski area in the winter with a gondola. We paid roughly €6 to park for a few hours and explored the base area (including public toilets) for more information on the hikes in the area.
The drive to get to Cauterets-Pont d’Espagne was stunning. Caution the roads switchback up the mountains through small villages. The lush, green mountains were refreshing from the city life I’ve been living the last few months.
As we started the hike, it was mainly paved paths or wide roads. We ventured off towards the right side of the gondola and passed the Pont d’Espagne bridge. After some navigation we took the trail towards the ski lift and followed on a wide pathway. Here, you can take the chair lift up and have a gradual 15 minute walk or you can hike up the left side of the lift on the melted out ski slopes. One woman did the whole hike without shoes!
After gaining elevation, the trail merges at the top of the lift where you continue along the contour line and start to see gorgeous mountain views that lay behind Lac de Gaube. Lac de Gaube is an alpine lake. Even in the 80-degree Fahrenheit weather, barely anyone was swimming. It was also a holiday weekend for France, so the lake was crowded on this particularly warm and sunny spring day.
You’ll reach the lake and a hut that looks out of place. I was wishing for a chalet-looking building, but it was a large one made of tin to survive the mountain seasons. You can stop here and order food or cold beverages. Instead, I wanted to continue to gain more miles, so we took the trail along the lake. The trail continues beyond the lake, where backpackers can do multi-day backpacking trips.
It was time to bust out the Pâté de Canard and baguette. When in France, right?
After snacking in the shade and breathing in the fresh mountain air, it was time to complete the loop. The trail passes the hut, and we decided we needed a cold beer to help us with the last bit of the hike. I found a table as Andy ordered our beers. We enjoyed our last views of the lake and the snow-capped Pyrenees.
The last bit of the hike was straightforward, but the trail was slightly more difficult than the approach. The route was more in the trees, so the views quickly disappeared with few openings to see the valley or the surrounding mountains.
I tried passing many groups as they struggled with descending the steeper parts of the trail. This side of the route was narrow and harder to pass people.
After the hike, we paid the parking meter with the ticket we got as we entered, similar to a parking garage system, and made our way to Pau for the first night in the region.
Day 2: Cirque de Gavarnie
Distance: 7.7 miles
Elevation: 2,430 ft
Estimated Time: 2 to 4 hours
After a night in Pau, we headed back to Lourdes and instead of taking the Pont d’Espagne exit at the roundabout, we took the Gavarnie exit.
Gavarnie is a quaint little mountain town situated on a river flowing from the mountains above the Cirque de Gavarnie. It was a Monday, so it wasn’t crowded. The drive was a little less windy as it climbs through the mountain valleys.
Pay to park in any of the public parking lots and start your hike from the village. Walk along the milky blue glacial runoff. The easiest way to walk to the cirque is to follow the valley floor. I wanted more of a challenge and opted to do a high traverse.
Looking at the cirque, we took the trail on the left hand side of the river and walked along pastures. Soon, we were passing waterfalls and crossing streams and wildflowers, only seeing one another hiking group on the trail. The trail becomes more gradual once you reach a green tin mountain hut of Cabane de Pailla. Here the trail slowly descends in elevation and follows the contour line under rocky overhung walls on the side of the trail. If only we had brought our climbing gear!
The views begin to open up as your eyes see the valley and you wait until you round the next corner to see the Gavarnie Falls. While hiking along this side, we could see another high trail across the valley. One section still had a large patch of snow on it, and Andy was hiking in tennis shoes. Not wanting to give up on our original plan, we decided to make a game time decision once at the cirque.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the Cirque de Gavarnie or the waterfalls flowing down the steep rock walls. The Pyrenees didn’t disappoint in beauty and were way more impressive than I imagined they’d be. The trail meets with the other trails at Hôtel du Cirque, which was closed. Tables were out on the terrace, so we used them to eat our sandwiches we bought at a bakery in Lourdes. The only thing that could have made it better was a cold beer.
After our lunch break, we continued into the cirque to get closer to the waterfalls. The water runoff was high and parts of a seasonal bridge laid disassembled near one of the larger crossings. I imagine the areas we crossed aren’t there in the summer months after most of the snow has melted.
Here’s where we tried our luck at our choice of shoes. After hiking across a long snow patch, we decided steeper snow would be dangerous to attempt with our gear. Turning around was hard for me, but I knew it was the right decision. My spirits were lifted after I climbed a large boulder in the cirque while Andy spotted and took pictures.
The second half of the loop was down the easy, gradual trail along the valley floor. It was lush and green with birds chirping all around us. It was detoxing and maybe less challenging was the better choice.
Just as we were finishing the hike and approaching town, it started to rain. I was delighted that we were almost finished to avoid the dark clouds blowing over. It only lasted 5 minutes before the sun was breaking through puffy clouds. I always find it interesting how fast weather changes in the mountains. A celebratory crepe snack in town ended a beautiful hike.
BONUS: A Non-Circular Walk from Col de Tentes to Spain
Distance: 2.2 miles
Elevation: 413 ft
Estimated Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
After the hike, we drove up the Col de Tentes road and pass the ski resort to walk the 1-mile road to Spain. France completed the road with the agreement that Spain would build a road on to join the countries in the mountains. Spain never built the road, but I’m glad France did!
Rental Cars – Since neither Andy or I can drive manual cars, I tried various combinations of pick-up and drop-off locations until I found an automatic transmission that didn’t cost double the manual rental cars. I found that Dollar (using Hertz) was the cheapest options with pick-up at the Toulouse train station and drop-off at the Toulouse airport.
Tolls – The major highways have tolls booths throughout the route. Make sure to use the ones with the green arrows or ones that show a credit card symbol.
Petrol/ Gas – Make sure you fill up your tank before driving around. One day in the southeast regions, we stopped at a few stations to be turned away because the pumps were off. It was a Sunday on a holiday weekend in France.
Where to Stay
Lourdes is one of the larger villages in this region, and we drove through both days. It’s an ideal location for day trips to the Pyrenees.
Pau is the capital of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques of France. The first night, we stayed with a friend and the other night we rented an inexpensive Airbnb apartment.