GR5 section hike

Briancon to Chamonix · July 2020

So far, I started out my hikes alone, meeting people along the way. This summer I asked a friend to come along to the Alps, going on her first ever hiking trip. After some early morning trains, we arrive in Paris well before noon. We put our backpacks in storage at Gare Austerlitz and went for a long walk past most of the famous Paris landmarks before boarding the night train to Briançon.

Day 1 · 14/07 · Briançon

After a quiet night, until early morning when they started announcing the first stops, we arrive at Briançon around 9 in the morning. We rearrange our packs and after a first relaxing coffee outside the station, we are on our way. Given the thunderstorm forecast, we put up our tent at 15h next to a nice picnic table. And none too soon. Just a few minutes later, rain is pooring down. We do manage to make dinner during a 5 minute dry window before going to bed early.

Day 2 · 15/07

5h. Too early to get up but we do it nonetheless. Due to the weather, it's even colder than usual this early as we climb towards Col de la Lauze and Col de Dourmillouse. After soaking in the views, we descend towards Pamplinet where we enjoyg some great Tarte Tatin with a tiny coffee at lunchtime.

Alas more rain is forecasted and mid afternoon we decide to put up our tents next to a few picnic tables at a forester cabin.

Day 3 · 16/07

Climb to Col des Thures and descend to Granges de la Vallée Etroite where we have some thee before starting the long climb towards Refuge de Thabot. On our way up, we pass some very muscular cows. Size of cow belly and leg muscles are inversely proportional given the altitude. Great late lunch and allround break lounging in the sun.

Descending, it proves hard to find a decent campspot as we got lower and lower into the valley. Slopes filled with trees everywhere. We walked all the way to Valfréjus. While contemplating our course of action at a roadsign, we are greeted by a friendly mountainbiker. Who also happened to be the owner of the Gite down the road. 30 minutes later, we were enjoying a hot shower with our tents pitched behind the Gite. Ah good karma.

Day 4 · 17/07

We are rudely wakened by a rooster just after 5. Might as well get up. Slowly. Unfortunately the one other person staying overnight, mistook the small bathroom for her private free laundry facility, occupying the sink, shower, toilet and everything in between to rinse and dry her clothes. For a few days, we will follow the GR55, passing through the heart of Vanoise national park, rather than staying on the GR5 which more or less follows the Eastern park border.

Arriving in Modane, we had a quick resupply at the supermarket. Ready for another long climb towards Col de Chavière. We take a break halfway through, having lunch at Refuge de Polset. Given the time, we decide to camp before the Col and go over early morning. We lay down in the grass at the perfect campspot as the sun is still out and camping in the wild isn't very legal here in the middle of the national parc. Not much later, we are greeted by a park ranger asking about our plans. Luckily we are not walking anymore as of course he knows there is no refuge we could realistically reach in that direction. The first one being one the other side of the col. So we tell him we are descending down to Polset, which seems to satisfy him.

Day 5 · 18/07 · Col de Chavière

Wake up underneath a cloud, hike through the clouds and finally get to the sun above the clouds right before to top of Col de Chavière. Now we have found the sun, we are happy to stop for breakfast before starting the final part of the climb. Soon after we make it to the col, clouds from both sides catch up with us and any visibility is gone. Luckily we were just in time to take some great images on both sides. Italy to the South, the Mont Blanc in the far distance to the North.

Descending the North face we are greeted by a lot of snow and mist. We are fairly high up, just below 2800m and fully facing North. After making it through the snow and mist, we are greeted by the sun again, descending further towards Refuge de la Pêche. Very touristic and great salad. Even further into the valley we end the day at a campground in Pralognan.

Day 6 · 19/07 · Wildlife

Climbing, passing a lake with the trail going through the middle of it, consisting of large flat stones. A lot of tourists around here. After enjoying some soup at Refuge les Barmettes. In the afternoon we spent most of our time watching a large group of Bouquetin (Alpine Ibex). Calling out to eachother, running up and down steep uneven slopes as if it were flat ground.

We camp right before Refuge de la Leisse in sight of la Grande Motte, near Tignes.

Day 7 · 20/07 · Tignes

Very cold last climb passing la Grande Motte, where we seem to always just stay ahead of the sun. Unfortunately. Right before making it to the top, the sun finally catches up with us.

Tignes is all about tourism. Even with corona it is rather busy in town. We do some grocery shopping, have improvised lunch and start another big climb. First part passes a golf course where they decided if would be a good idea to put a few holes halfway up the mountain side. Let's hike in between tourists hitting golfballs. What a wonderful idea. We did end up making it to Refuge de Palet without getting struck. High altitude swing with a view at the refuge. Afterwards we descend to camp a bit after Refuge entre le Lac and a bit before Refuge Rosuel, taking our time to watch all the marmots wandering about, enjoying their relaxing early evening.

On both maps, the area is one big lake - Lac du Plan de la Grassaz. In reallity, it's a huge grassy plain.

Day 8 · 21/07

Not our best day. A few hours in, we make it to Refuge Rosuel. Despite the very official looking Parc Vanoise sign on the wall, next to the opening hours, it seemed rather closed. A rather unfriendly lady is cleaning and reluctantly serves us coffee. Want to charge your phone? Pay up. Furthermore, we are enjoying our coffee in the cold outside. Also it rains.

We descend further to Moulin, where we have a few trail options. As we are trying to cover much ground today, we'll take the lower alternate. The guidebook tells us the GR5 climbs steeply on rough terrain with similar descend on the other side so do not follow the GR5 signs if you want to take the alternate. That is exactly what we do! Unfortunately, the guidebook is outdated and what used to be the alternate is now the official GR5. Thus thinking we are taking the lower altitude alternate, we actually end up on the higher and difficult trail. The old GR5. It proves to be the hardest climb and descend to date. Hands are needed at times, plenty of fallen trees covering the trail. Clearly not maintained anymore. The one positive thing were the tiny strawberries at the top.

Descending to Montchavin and later Bellentre was more of the same. Steep and terrible. Trails higher up are always very well maintained, but when you get to lower altitude, closer to a valley town, it changes to badly designed switchbacks in between the road. Trying to get to town as quick and steep as possible.

We decide to hike just past Bellentre and look for a campspot in the wild. Given the low altitude and civilization, that might prove a difficult task. We end up finding a rather nice spot, camping next to a seemingly abandoned vegetable garden.

Day 9 · 22/07 · Goodbye GR5

Halfway through the evening, rain started pooring down and a thunderstorm soon followed. As we were about to start a long climb inside a national parc, we wouldn't cross much civilization all day, apart from the lone refuge. I checked the weather forecast before trying to get some sleep. Everywhere between Bellentre and Chamonix, there was forecast of heavy rain and thunderstorm for the next couple days.

After packing up our tents, we had a decision to make. Most thunderstorms are short and very local, halfway through the afternoon. Currently the forecast already shows heavy rain in the morning, with code orange or even red. Given we would be climbing most of the day with nowhere to take shelter, we make the hard decision to end our trip on the GR5 here and find our way to a train station.

We descend back to Bellentre and roadwalk to Landry to catch a train. A whole day of trains later, with a short break in Annecy - but long enough to get a glimpse of the lake - we finally make it to Chamonix early evening where we catch our train home a few rainy days later.

Campspots along the GR5
GR5 section
Length161 mi / 260 km
Elevation gain?
Best hiking seasonMay - September
Official website/