By James Stewart Nov 19 2020
In the summer of 2018, I made a decision to spend three months in Europe car camping budget style so I could affordably see as many places in the mountains as I could, and not have to worry about the costs and logistics of finding hotel accomodation or camping. I also didn't know exactly what areas I wanted to visit - basically I planned to just wing it based on the weather, how many body felt, and what I would discover in my adventures. I felt a bit uneasy about my decision, but I quickly learnt that it was probably one of the best decisions of my life. I've always hated it when I travel to a place where I only planned for a day or two and realise that there are so many things to do that I could stay for a week or longer or when I had planned out an intinerary and bad weather fell on the only day I had planned for a certain adventure. I allowed myself the flexibility to adventure when the weather was decent and rest when my body needed it and the weather looked poor.
Car camping isn't easy if you're more than one, but since I was solo, I really really loved the experience. I leased a specific car that I knew I could completely lower the back seats flat at night. All I had to do then was roll out a camping mattress and my sleeping bag and I could sleep comfortably completely stretched out! Some nights were a little hot, but I kept the windows down and the mosquitos out with door covers made out of mesh that would allow the cooler night air to come in. It was like camping in a secure portable tent that I didn't have to set up or take down and I could park in very quiet locations right near the trails I wanted to hike. All I had to do was wake up at the crack of dawn and get going! Europe is very car camper friendly unlike many other places like North America, and typically you won't be harrased my the authorities to move on if you park following the local parking regulations. I used an app called park4night that was really awesome to find places to sleep because its crowd sourced and most people explain the pros and cons of the location in the reviews so you get the heads up on where to go and what to expect.
The day I arrived into Europe (Paris) to collect the car I had no certainty on which direction I would head. I had thought of going up toward Belgium and Amsterdam, some places I always wanted to visit but there were no mountains there. Going east I could go to the French Alps where I had been in 2013 and 2015, but there was also the option of going south to the Pyrenees where I had only briefly visited for a single race back in 2015. I sat in the car for a while and then my heart said to go south.
I had done no research on where to go (which I probably wouldn't do again because I ended up learning later in the trip that its very rare to get really really lucky when you wing it and you'll probably miss the really good stuff you don't know about)...but I just went on intuition and drove south following random back-country roads to avoid the horrifically expensive highway tolls that quickly shock a car-travelling tourist travelling through France. It doubled the length of time for the drive, but you end up driving point to point between countless french farming villages with extremely old architecture. I enjoyed the drive over two days see those sights, but certainly experienced some interesting farm road fails along the way.
Eventually, I came upon signs that directed me to Gavarnie. In the back of my mind I had heard the name before but had no idea what was there. I looked at the map and saw that there were a bunch of high mountain passes around the area that were used in the Tour de France. I know what that means, that the spectacular high mountains await. Thankfully my drive south had led me luckily to a very famous and mythical spot in the southern France Pyrenees that I had never know about it. Such fortune!
When I arrived into Gavarnie, I followed some roads around and saw one on the map that went up high to what seemed like a good vantage point - it was the Col de Tentes. When I got out of the car, I was in the fog of clouds and had no views at all. I could see a vantage point out in the distance that you could hike to, so I set out there with my camera and waited. At times there was small breaks in the clouds and I could get a sense that the view was going to be good. Then after an hour of frustration a brief 2-minute window offered me my first view of Gavarnie's famous cirque. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I stayed up high for several hours and eventually the clouds cleared so I could take some photos.
Knowing I was in a breathtaking location, I drove back down and walked into the tourist office to charge my devices and look at the hiking maps so I could experience all the trails in the park. Then I set out on the hike to the cirque and it was the most impressive thing I had probably ever seen in the mountains. A massive horseshoe bowl carved into the rock with probably 20 or more waterfalls gushing down. This was a mountain paradise and by chance and intuition I had stumbled on it.
What happened to me that day truly lit a fire under me and awoke my passion for adventure photography. The next three months was an epic adventure through the Pyrenees, French, Swiss and Austrian alps that I will never ever forget.
What I learnt is that there are actually three massive cirque formations around the Gedre-Gavarnie region. The most famous of course is Gavarnie but there is also the Cirque d'Estaube and the Cirque de Troumouse.
I took the drive from Gavarnie out to the Vallee de Heas where the Cirque de Troumouse is located.
I parked the car at the free parking just beyond the Auberge de La Munia, but I believe you can drive high up the mountain to the Auberge du Maillet, where you can then take a tourist bus right up to the viewpoints to save a lot of hiking time. As a trail runner, I am more than happy to do all the work myself and save the expense, plus I had no other option that day in early June, nothing was open and there were no people in sight because the winter snowmelt had not yet concluded.
Unfortunately, the weather was not completely my friend on my visit to the Cirque, but sometimes I don't mind the moody weather days as long as at times the weather opens up so I can see the views. As you can see from the photos I took at the Cirque de Troumouse, the weather during my visit definitely took on a mythical element to it. Some of the photos remind me of the Lord of the Rings. While I was cold and wet for a lot of the day, I am incredibly thankful for being able to witness this cirque without any hordes of tourists. In fact, I didn't see a single person during my 6 hours running/hiking and taking photos. Here is my Strava of the route I took:
My hike began and I was quickly engrossed in bad weather but I was able to see some of the waterfalls coming out from the sides of the mountains to the left.
After 4km of hiking about 600m elevation gain, I noticed a hut on the map, called the Cabane des Aires. The rain had started to bucket down and I took refuge in the empty Cabane for over an hour. Eventually the rain stopped, but the rain clouds were still obscuring the views. I decided to carry on and then I was quickly presented with this stunning view:
I then knew I was hiking in a special place and any discomfort I was feeling about the weather and being wet quickly left my thoughts. I knew I had to carry on and I felt I would get lucky eventually with the weather. And boy did I! Heading right into the heart of the Cirque the weather cleared so I could see this majestic place.
The deeper I got into the cirque the more snow I came across:
It was a glorious sight to experience on my own:
Some of the Lord of the Rings type scenery:
There are a few lakes in the lower regions of the cirque. With all the snowmelt and rain, they were certainly filled to capacity:
What a day! I was so happy to stumble on this rare gem of a place. I really like it when I get to have adventures without any other people. From what I understand, this is a reasonably busy hike in Summer with the tourist crowds, but its certainly not as busy as the Cirque de Gavarnie. If you want less crowds and bit more technicality in the hike (snow, mud etc...) then experiencing it in the shoulder season like I did might be your best bet, just be prepared for a minimum of 15km with over a 1000m of elevation gain for the full experience.