Classics: Corsica’s GR20 North

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.

Views from around Calvi: a busy street; the citadel; and the view to the mountains from the citadel
Views from around Calvi: a busy street; the citadel; and the view to the mountains from the citadel
Taking off from the back streets of Calenzana, an unassuming start of the GR20 trail, the first stage is predominantly uphill.

Leaving Calenzana and the sea behind
Leaving Calenzana and the sea behind
Panoramic views rapidly unfold as lizards scuttle across the parched terrain.

Early views on the GR20
Early views on the GR20
Keep an eye out high and low for the flora and fauna along the way.

Flora on the GR20: big and small, dead and alive
Flora on the GR20: big and small, dead and alive
Flocks of mouflon range across the rocky slopes of the island
Flocks of mouflon range across the rocky slopes of the island
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.

Morning sun on the GR20
Morning sun on the GR20
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.

Morning light in the Ladroncellu valley
Morning light in the Ladroncellu valley
Further into the route lies the spectacular Spasimata gorge, where sprawling slabs are crossed.

Spasimata Slabs
Spasimata Slabs
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.

High in the mountains and dark clouds gather
High in the mountains and dark clouds gather
The first tarmac met since setting off is the access road for Haut Asco, an old ski station.

The descent to Haut Asco
The descent to Haut Asco
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.

Approach to Monte Cinto
Approach to Monte Cinto
Leaving Haut Asco behind, the GR20 climbs once again to more remote terrain.

The climb to the Col Perdu
The climb to the Col Perdu
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.

Cirque de la Solitude views: the view down the valley; the characteristic red and white flashes show the way on GR routes; and ambient clouds at the start of the descent
Cirque de la Solitude views: the view down the valley; the characteristic red and white flashes show the way on GR routes; and ambient clouds at the start of the descent
Once these difficulties are surmounted, the route briefly dips back into more verdant land before rising above the tree line again.

Climbing to the Bocca di Foggiale
Climbing to the Bocca di Foggiale
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.

The view from the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori towards the Paglia Orba (right)
The view from the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori towards the Paglia Orba (right)
Sitting at 1991m, this refuge can be a cold place to spend the night, even in the middle of summer.

Early evening at the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori
Early evening at the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori
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.

Morning light at the head of the Golo
Morning light at the head of the Golo
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.

Lac du Ninu
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.

Horses on the GR20. Watch your lunch
Horses on the GR20. Watch your lunch
From the Refuge de Manganu, an abrupt boulder-laden ascent gains higher ground.

Boulder strewn slog to the Brèche de Capitellu
Boulder strewn slog to the Brèche de Capitellu
The GR20 has resumed its mountainous character after a sojourn across the planes.

Lac de Capitellu
Lac de Capitellu
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.

Looking to Monte Ritondu from Lave Bellebone
Looking to Monte Ritondu from Lave Bellebone
The final climb to the summit is along a spiny ridge, an entertaining scramble from the pinnacle at Col du Fer de Lance.

View from the summit of Monte Ritondu back along the ridge; and the Lance
View from the summit of Monte Ritondu back along the ridge; and the Lance
As Vizzavona draws closer, there is a final optional summit of Monte d’Oru.

Approach to Monte d'Oru
Approach to Monte d’Oru
Requiring some scrambling to reach the summit, this is the perfect way to conclude the northern half of the GR20.

Monte d'Oru
Monte d’Oru
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…

Notes

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.

Guidebook and IGN maps for GR20 north
Guidebook and IGN maps for GR20 north
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.

Sunrise and sunset on the GR20
Sunrise and sunset on the GR20