Corsica is a mountainous island in the Mediterranean Sea off the south coast of France. Due to this location, the population of Corsica has experienced a turbulent history of colonisation. However, it is the sparsely populated, rugged interior of the island that concerns the GR20, a north-south traverse of Corsica.
Reputedly the most demanding of the Grande Randonnée long distance itineraries, the GR20 involves scrambling on the main route and optional adjacent summits making a superb objective for adventurous walkers comfortable on this terrain. The northern tranche of the route, from Calenzana to Vizzavona, casts the spikiest section of the profile.
Taken in the classic north to south direction, the GR20 begins in Calenzana, a small town in the north of the island. Before going to Calenzana, most will first visit Calvi on the north west coast of Corsica. If your journey begins in Bastia, it’s worth taking the train journey across to Calvi to get a taster of the beautiful scenery you will encounter.
Taking off from the back streets of Calenzana, an unassuming start of the GR20 trail, the first stage is predominantly uphill.
Panoramic views rapidly unfold as lizards scuttle across the parched terrain.
Keep an eye out high and low for the flora and fauna along the way.
The early morning sun makes the mountains glow, and early starts can help deal with the extreme heat that is possible in the summer months.
One of the most spectacular situations on the route is encountered after climbing to the Bocca Piccaia: the towering rocky spires surrounding the Ladroncellu valley. The route circles the head of this grand arena with some entertaining walking.
Further into the route lies the spectacular Spasimata gorge, where sprawling slabs are crossed.
It pays to keep an eye on the weather; forecasts can be obtained at mountain refuges. Hot sunny days can easily turn into thunder storms.
The first tarmac met since setting off is the access road for Haut Asco, an old ski station.
It can be worth staying in Haut Asco an extra night so a day can be spent tackling one of the peaks close to the GR20, Monte Cinto. The way up requires more challenging scrambling than yet found on the main route and at 2706m, Monte Cinto is also the highest point on the island.
Leaving Haut Asco behind, the GR20 climbs once again to more remote terrain.
The Col Perdu overlooks the famous Cirque de la Solitude, where the path descends steeply into the basin; several fixed chains were set up here to assist in the passage through the cirque. However, after an accident resulting in seven deaths in 2015, the GR20 has been rerouted from Haut Asco. The route now crosses very close to Monte Cinto and the fixed chains have been removed from the Cirque de la Solitude.
Once these difficulties are surmounted, the route briefly dips back into more verdant land before rising above the tree line again.
The Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori sits near the source of the Golo, the longest river in Corsica. A short excursion involving exposed scrambling to the summit of the Paglia Orba can be made from here.
Sitting at 1991m, this refuge can be a cold place to spend the night, even in the middle of summer.
Waking up high in the mountains means the next day is off to a good start. Coming down from here, the GR20 crosses a rare section of road at the Col de Vergio; coaches full of people arriving at the hotel here give a fleeting glimpse back to the world away from the journey.
Leaving the asphalt and moving south from the Col, the next section of the route unfolds over flatter ground. The high standard of scenery is maintained, with the highlight being the serene Lac du Ninu.
This is a fantastic spot to have some lunch, but beware the horses which have no sense of personal space and go from group to group in the hope of scrounging a morsel of food.
From the Refuge de Manganu, an abrupt boulder-laden ascent gains higher ground.
The GR20 has resumed its mountainous character after a sojourn across the planes.
From the Refuge de Petra Piana, it is worth leaving the often busy main trail to take in an ascent of Monte Ritondu, Corsica’s second highest point at 2622m. Reaching the quiet of the Lavu Bellebone basin is a welcome break from the crowds.
The final climb to the summit is along a spiny ridge, an entertaining scramble from the pinnacle at Col du Fer de Lance.
As Vizzavona draws closer, there is a final optional summit of Monte d’Oru.
Requiring some scrambling to reach the summit, this is the perfect way to conclude the northern half of the GR20.
Arriving at Vizzavona there is the option to take the train towards Ajaccio to the south and west, Calvi or Bastia in the north. Alternatively, continue with the southern half…
Navigation is straightforward, but maps are still essential and a guidebook helps you get the most out of the route. For the main path, follow the red and white flashes on the rocks. Variations and optional summits are usually signed with different colour flashes.
Packing for the GR20 can be done in a fast and light style, which is recommended for days of back to back walking; a 35-45l pack can be perfectly adequate. Accommodation is in refuges or camping in designated areas near the refuges. The refuges have outdoor stoves, bring something to light the gas with and you will soon be popular. The amount of food on sale at the refuges varies, make sure to take enough to keep going for a few days if you don’t intend to dine in and of course take plenty of water each day. Refuge showers are refreshing.