First Steps in the Pyrenees II: Around Cauterets

Cauterets is an important town for walkers and trekkers in the High Pyrenees: it is a good starting point for treks on both the GR10 and the High Route; walkers can easily enter Spain and the dramatic gorges of the Ordessa valley from here. And for through hikers, Cauteret is an important re-supply point and is often used for rest days.

For the purposes of this post, Cauterets is also a good place from which to head out for a first short holiday taking in three or four days in the mountains. But whereas Lescun (see First Steps in the Pyrenees I) is a lovely spot that is made for circular, day hikes, Cauterets is a little more hard core. Cauterets is a place from which to set off for a three or four day backpack. There are day walks from here but they are more limited.

Cauterets

Cauterets is a town rather than a village like Lescun, indeed, Cauterets is something of a holiday destination, though these days more of a coach trip and overnight destination. Arriving here, in summer, can be a little odd. The coach drops you at the Gare at the bottom of the town. The first thing that often catches your eye is a massive outdoor store that is closed. But this is a Ski store and, in many ways, Cauterets is a more vibrant place in winter.

Cauterets
Cauterets

From the Gare the town stretches out up the hill. A ten minute walk takes you to the top street that runs the full width of the town. Here you’ll find restaurants, bars, some gear shops and the kind of tackly fancy good shops that you’ll find in all day trip resorts. But in between the Gare and the main street you’ll find good food supply stores and most useful services. Cauterets also boasts a good range of accommodation; more of this later.

Walking From Cauterets

From Cauterets the best way out is always up. The town lies on the GR10 and you can go East but here things are a little crowded. One day on the GR10, east, will take you to the next gateway town, Luz St. Saveur, which is even more of a holiday place than Cauterets.

Day 1

So, most keen walkers will want to go upwards. From Cauterets you should head towards the Pont d’Espagne. You can either walk up past some wonderful waterfalls (cascades) or – if time is tight or the weather is very hot – you can take a regular bus up from the Gare.

Les Cascades de Cauterets
The Cascades

Your first visit to the Pont will be something of a shock. One hell of a shock indeed. Although you’ve been climbing high for some time you’ll end up in one of the biggest car parks that you’ve ever seen. There’s a visitor centre here and a bat and restaurant. From here many casual walkers will take the trail to the Lac de Gaube; the really immobile one can even take a cable car up to the bar and restaurant. We’ll meet the Gaube Valley again. But for now we’ll leave it – and its crowds behind – and head up into the beautiful Marcadau valley

From the Pont you’ll find yourself walking along a very gentle incline that is very popular as a little amble from the Pont. But beyond the hostellerie you leave the crowds behind. The trail begins to climb through woodland. A track off to your right takes you onto the famous Circuit des Lacs, but we’ll come to that tomorrow.

First look at the Macadau Valley
First Look at the Marcadau

The woods lead to the most beautiful, lush green pasture, one of the high pastures that feature so prominently along the HRP. This is really not a walk to be rushed. Linger. Take your time. Have your picnic while dangling you feet into the cooling waters of the river. A little further on and the walk climbs out of pasture and cuts its way via. rock steps and rocky paths. You may think you’re up high now but all of a sudden you find yourself in a higher, hanging, green, plateau – the upper Marcadau. This is the most beautiful of valleys and it takes us to one of the most famous features of the High Pyrenees, the Refuge du Wallon and the end of day 1.

March of the Cows
Wallon: cows and humans in perfect harmony!

Wallon is a big refuge. Some mountain walkers now like to – rather snidely – claim that Wallon is now more of a hotel than a refuge. But you can’t visit there in the height of the season without noticing that there are families here. Parents, sometimes grandparents, take the young ones up here for their first taste of the high mountains. And you can sense the excitement in the children. You can see the next generation of mountain walkers being shaped even at this age.

Wallon Stone Circles
The view from the Wallon Camping Ground

While Wallon is a big refuge it will still be full in the summer. But there are extensive camping grounds around the refuge, lunch, soft green grass, much of it at the side of the river and everywhere with the most dramatic of mountain views. You don’t have to stay in the refuge to be able to use its facilities. If you arrive early enough you can book and evening meal there or even breakfast the next morning. Campers can also use the (cold) showers in the refuge.

Day Two: Circuit des Lacs

This is a fabulous, rigged, high mountain walk. Starting at Wallon you climb away from the refuge on a path the arcs through the mountains, past a series of high and remote lakes, before dropping back down to join the main path through the Marcadau Valley. From here you climb back up again to Wallon. In his book Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees, Kev Reynolds suggests you allow 4 to 5 hours for this walk. But I’ve done this walk in bad weather when it took almost twice as long! I was also carrying a full pack.

Throughout the French Pyrenees National Park camping is forbidden by bivouacking allowed. Bivouacking, in reality, is being able to put up your tent and sleep anywhere for the night. Strictly, you are encouraged not to put up your tent until 7 or 8 in the evening and to have broken camp by 8 the next morning. But rules are made to be broken and it is acceptable to make camp earlier provided that you exercise a little basic discretion.

Circuit des Lacs
The Lakes

At some place, though, it seems to be acceptable to leave you tent up longer. Over recent years I’ve seen a lot of French hikers rise early in the morning, leave their tents behind and then go off and tackle the Circuit des Lacs; mind you they never leave their tent up for two days. If you’re not happy with this, another tactic is to take down the tent and to leave your heavy pack in the refuge within the safe keeping of the Guardian. Either way, there are real advantages to completing the Circuit without your full pack weight.

Just recently I’ve come across another interesting variation. Ecco – often a poster in these parts – is planning a short, fast, raid on the area late in the year. He and his mates are planning to walk from the Pont and immediately take to the Circuit, camping up high overnight, before dropping down to Wallon. An interesting idea. The Circuit is quite exposed and so I wouldn’t recommend that unless you are an experienced wild camper.

Circuit des Lacs
The Rugged Circuit

But back to our day excursion.

You can end the day at Wallon. But if you still have some strength, or have rested a while at the refuge, you could always make your way up to towards the Col d’Arratille, wildcamping at the Lac d’Arratille and giving you a real experience of wildcamping up high. The is probably between two and two and a half hours climb up from the Marcadau Valley, and a straightforward climb at that.

The path around the Lac is some distance above the water surface. There are occasional spots to pitch a tent above the Lac. But at the far end of the LAc, near the small waterfall the feed it, is an almost perfect spit of grassy soil that makes for a perfect camp site. There is always evidence of other campers here although the site has always been vacant whenever I’ve wanted to camp there; but if it is occupied then simply camp higher up,near the trail.

You aim to do this all by the end of the second day. But just be aware of the need to be flexible in your itinerary. Weather can slow you down. My slow Circuit was accompanied by driving, freezing rain and snow – and that was in August. And you will be conscious of walking at altitude. The trick is to be prepared to rest when you need to and not to force yourself on and on in a way that makes the whole thing unpleasant. On this horrible weather version of the Circuit I made for Wallon, had a late start the next day and simply climbed up to the Lac, pitching the tent at about 1.00 in the afternoon. I had a great time lazing in the sun, reading books, doing some washing; al without being disturbed by a soul.

Day Three

So day three may start of Wallon or higher up at Arratille. The path takes the western side of the Lac and then begins a zig zag climb up to the Col d’Aratille. From here there is a simple drop down to the Ara Valley and Spain, but we’ll leave that for another time. On this walk we climb over the Col des Mulets and drop down to the refuge and camping ground at the Oulettes des Gaubes.

Approaching Lac D'Arataille
Approaching Lac d’Aratille

Lac D'Arataille
Wildcamp at Aratillie

Many people think of this a Pyrenean classic. The camping ground is at the foot of a glacier and you’ll be there early enough to explore it thoroughly. The refuge here has recently been refurbished and should provide some good hospitality for the evening.

Glacier at  Oulettes de Gaube
Camping Ground At Oulettes!

But to get the full atmosphere here it is crucial to camp at the edge of the glacier; this is often the highlight of many people’s visit. Over the years campers have created little stone circles in which they pitch their tents. The stone circles seem to be endowed with all kinds of mystical property. Campers wait, patiently, until seven in the evening to pitch their tents. They hover over the best stone circles. Last time I was here my tent was too big for the stone circle nearby. I gave up my circle to a latecomer; he was deliriously happy.

Of course, your facing north here. Light fades quickly and nights are very cold; you are after all camping at the edge of a glacier. It’s an early night or an evening in the refuge.

Day Four

A straightforward day this, simply dropping down the Vallée Gaube. You won’t have to leave too early to be able to have breakfast at the hotellierie on the Lac. But it’s probably best to press on to Pont d’Espagne. Take the buss down and you can spend a relaxing lunchtime in one of Cauteret’s restaurants.

Lac de Gaube
Lac du Gaube

If you have an afternoon spare then you could do worse than to visit the Museum, musée, of Cauterets. This is located in the old Hotel d’Anglettere a famous address when Cauterets was at the height of its spa town fame. Here you’ll find a nicely put together exhibition of Spa society. But for the walker the real excitement is in the basement. Here you will find a re-creation of Henry Russell’s caves, complete with original style sleeping sacks and a whole host of vintage climbing gear.

Itineraries and Variations

This, basic trip, will take six days – allowing for a day to get there and a day to get back.

You could cut things down by missing out the Circuit des Lacs although this would be a great loss. Alternatively you could follow Ecco’s idea and do the Circuit on day one. Take the bus to Pont d’Espagne and turn off the trail onto the Circuit which you then take in the opposite direction to the one suggested in the route. With luck you may make Wallon in the same day but you might need to wild-camp if the weather is bad or you’ve started late. This would be a respectable alternative but you would miss the nice climb up the Marcadau. The Circuit easily justifies a day on its own.

For a short trip it’s not easy to go further. You could walk on up to Baysellance and the climb over to the Vallée de Lutour and from there drop down to Cauterets. But this would be a very hard days walk and probably not something for a first tip.

But if you have a day to spare it is a nice option to take the walk up past the Spa and on to the Lac du Lutour. Here a private refuge sits at the base of a high mountain Lac. It’s nice to have a cool beer here, or even lunch, before heading back down along the lush and green valley to return to Cauterets.

This would be a superb first, short, step in the Pyrenees. Do it and you’ll be back in Cauterets within the year! And next time, well you could head for Spain, strike out on the GR10 or on the HRP. But I bet you’ll be there longer than six days!

Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees, Kev Reynolds (Cicerone) for further details.

Comments

  1. Wow – fame at last. A mention on the best walking blog on the net !

    Tickets are now booked – we’re flying to toulouse on a monday morning and back friday night (easyjet do great times). The train and bus (so easy – can all be booked online)will get us to cauteret by late afternoon and a taxi/bus to the Pont should see us pitching camp low in the valley (the lacs might be a bit too much on the same day). Then we will walk via the lacs to wallon and then over the passes to the glacier, perhaps with a side trip to petit vignemale, time permitting. The last day will see us descend back to cauteret and the trip back late afternoon.

    My mates are very grateful for your comments about the refuges – they like the idea of evening food/beer and showers. Should be quite luxurious compared to the bothies I take them to in scotland !

    Once again Andy, many thanks for such a great effort – it’s really made our trip planning a breeze.

    Steve

  2. Andy…A great two part series so far. Really raises your appetite to follow your example! Can’t even imagine how long it did take you to write all this up and make it “blog compatible”.
    Thanks for all your efforts!

  3. Steve,

    You’ll have a great time – and you’ll be back !!!

    I’m not sure what time of the year you’re going but carry food with you in case the Refuge is booked out – for if you arrive late. The beer (and wine) will still be there though!

    As for the showers – well you can use them. On my last visit they were decidedly cold. But the toilets were more than a hole in the ground.

    The camping ground is luxurious. Grassy, comfortable and with – well – wonderful views.

  4. Roman,

    There’s more to come. My next posts will suggest a first trek on the HRP – the section that I describe as the HRP’s Greatest Hits. (Actually I can only do this bit as it is the only bit I have decent digital photos of!).

    I’ve been meaning to do this as separate web pages for 2 years, Indeed, there must be people out there getting fed up of waiting. I then decided to write the text as blog entries – and I might then paginate them more professionally later.

    The HRP section will be split into four or five posts.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was wondering if it wasn’t a little too big!

  5. Great Blog. Just one question- how much time does it take you to make it so good ? I am tempted to get into blogging, but only if I can do it (nearly) as well as you.

  6. Grief.

    Martin. Such flattery will get you everywhere.

    I like to write and I have endless stories (as you’ve probably noticed). And I’ve been messing about with this for 18 months in one guise or another.

  7. Matt Shaw says

    Andy,

    Thanks for all this work! Helped me to plan my on trip at the end of Sept:
    http://terrocs.blogspot.com/2007/10/part-1-idea.html

  8. Nice stuff Matt – I’ll put some ilnks up soon.

  9. Hi Andy, came across your site while planning for a walk in July. We will be walking for 9 days, staying in a mix of refuges and hotels. Is it possible (and advisable)to book a refuge 2 or 3 months in advance? Rhanks for a great site. Steve

  10. Thanks for the inspiration and detailed info – now I’m off to Cauterets this weekend!
    Can you tell me your walking time estimate for Wallon to Oulettes des Gaubes?

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