Hidden among the many villages of the French Pyrenees is an amazing region of hiking trails, the most popular sight including the largest waterfall in Europe in a crescent-like shelter of gray, purple, and green rock faces—a cirque.
A cirque is a half-open steep-sided hollow at the head of a mountainside, formed by old glacial erosion. The hike includes bridges, wide dirt trails, steep rocky sections, and the most pristine nature in the region. The greatest part about this hike is not only the surreal beauty but the cultural experience that comes with it. Be sure to stop and grab some pastries in Lourdes at Boulangerie des Pyrenees—they have the best pastries I’ve ever tasted in my life! And if you have time, stop in the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur for the most locally French experience of your life. Stop at the butcher, the cheese shop, the chocolatier, and the produce stand and you won’t be disappointed!
How to get here: From the town of Lourdes, the French side, the route is pretty direct. You’ll follow the highway south, following signs for Luz-Saint-Sauveur, until you near the mountains where the road will begin to wind between cliffs. When you arrive in Gavarnie, you’ll see a large parking lot (great overnight parking for dirtbags) just past the visitor center. You can also choose to leave your car in Lourdes and take the bus up to Gavarnie. If you’re coming from the Spanish side there is no road directly to the town of Gavarnie but you can still hike to the cirque. In Ordesa National park, you can start from San Nicolas de Bujaruelo and hike through the Breche de Roland to get to the cirque but would be a challenge to hike in a day. See more about that here.
Due to the abundant amount of trails in Gavarnie, there are many different ways you can hike it but I personally think this is the best way to hike it. It’s 8 miles roundtrip when hiked this way but if you have backpacking gear, I highly recommend seizing the opportunity to camp at one of the refuges and exploring the Troumouse and Estaube cirques nearby. One popular backpacking route goes through all three cirques in the area. If you click this link you can download a trail map of the area. For the less adventurous, you can even opt to hike out 3 miles and stay at the hotel.
Start the hike walking straight through the town, following the paved road and river until you cross a bridge left and the road becomes a dirt trail.
Follow the trail signs straight for four miles upon which you’ll reach the cirque. You’ll get to see the waterfall get closer by the minute as you walk towards the large crest of the cirque.
Once you come to the hotel, enjoy a snack with the beautiful view of the waterfall. Hint: save those pastries from the bakery and enjoy them mid-hike here.
Continue directly toward the waterfall, scrambling up and around the cirque as much as you’d like.
From the waterfall, backtrack 15 minutes toward the inn where you’ll see a multitude of yellow trail signs. Instead of heading left and going back the way you came, go right here on a small dirt trail toward the Refuge des Éspuguettes (where you can choose to sleep). Further along the trail, you will eventually see signs for Gavarnie. I highly recommend taking this trail on the way back instead of backtracking because, a) It’s the same distance as backtracking b) This trail is much less crowded and more secluded, and c) The views are unique and AMAZING!!
Last but not least, try out some urban sport climbing. You can see most of the bolt lines looking down from the sidewalk of the lowest parking lot.