Fresh off of the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California it may seem a strange time to write yet another post on the GR20 in Corsica, but when better to compare these two world renowned trails and offer an American perspective for those contemplating one of Europe’s toughest through hikes?
Terrain and Trail Conditions
Both trails traverse a rugged mountain range. The JMT is a product of the early 1900s and was designed for pack animals, thus the track is generally well graded, following river valleys and crossing high mountains passes, several of which are over 12,000ft.
The GR20 was designed for sport in the late 1960s and early 70s, and as such spends more time among the mountain peaks and is often not a track at all but merely painted blazes directing you up and down rugged boulders or slabs. To put this difference in numbers, the JMT has a total ascent of 46,000ft over 212 miles while the GR20 does nearly the same total ascent, 41,000ft, in just over half the distance, 118 miles.
Both trails are a microcosm of their respective regions. The JMT, which traverses the California Sierras from Yosemite to Mt Whitney, is a vast landscape. Distances and vistas are long. It can take all day or more to ascend 20 miles to the top of a single pass, most of it staring at the same view. But what a view.
In contrast, the GR20 is compact, traversing the mountains of a Mediterranean island. You often cross up and down a mountain pass in a single morning. While the views are stunning, they are not as far reaching as those of the JMT, however, this also means that they change frequently.
Both regions generally follow a dry summer mountain weather pattern, meaning the weather is typically good, waking to clear skies with the chance of afternoon thundershowers. That said, weather in the mountains is unpredictable, including morning thundershowers and turbulent weather that can last for days. Snow can linger until well into July on both trails depending on the year, a bit longer in the Sierras than on Corsica.
The camping culture in the US and Europe is quite different, differences that some Americans might find charming or intriguing or at other times aggravating and annoying. Typical of most American wilderness areas, with the required permit (free but numbers are restricted) you can camp nearly anywhere along the JMT, although using established campsites is strongly encouraged. It is rare to go more than a few miles without finding one.
Since you choose where you camp you have the possibility of being completely alone. Campsites are often in charming locations – along stream banks, beside lakes or looking across mountain ridges. Although free, the back country sites have no services. Campfires are generally permitted at lower elevations.
No permit is required to hike the GR20, however, camping is only allowed around designated refuges for about 7€ per person. That means everyone camps at a few locations and the sites are congested during the summer months. Thus, if you want a good place to pitch your tent it’s best to arrive at the refuge before mid-afternoon.
The refuges include cold showers, wash basins for laundry and general washing up, toilets and cook tops (pots and pans available in the refuge are generally only for those staying in the refuge). These facilities, however, are frequently insufficient for the number of hikers, producing long lines at peak hours – in the afternoon when everyone wants a shower or in the morning when everyone is trying to get an early start on the trail.
At the refuge you also have the possibility to reserve a bed in the bunkhouse or rent a tent, thus eliminating the need to carry your own. Although many hikers advocate this approach, we liked the ability to choose our own campsite on the refuge property, often choosing something along the edge with a little more privacy.
Like camping, food is another area where the hiking culture is quite different. Hikers on the JMT must carry all their own food between resupply locations which are from 2 to 10 days apart. Hikers often eat dehydrated meals that are commercially produced and are simply reconstituted with boiling water, and high energy foods such as commercially produced bars, nuts or candy. Tortillas, cheese, peanut butter and Snickers bars are popular food items.
Hikers put together resupply packages that they send ahead to the respective resupply location. At most of these locations there is also the possibility to buy additional items including – food, toiletries, fuel and small camping needs. Resupply stations also include bins where hikers leave food and other items they no longer wish to carry or pick up additional items that other hikers have abandoned. The best selection is at Muir Trail Ranch.
Along the GR20 every refuge has at least some stock food items for sale. Some have a very good selection while others may be out of most everything. Food items tend to be heavy and not selected for carrying long distances, i.e., prepackaged canned goods, cheese, bread, charcuterie, peanuts, chocolate bars.
An evening meal and breakfast are also served at the refuge; if you are willing to pay for these prepared meals you only have to carry lunch and snacks on the trail. The quality and price of the prepared meals varies – at the low end, pasta with carrots for 10€; at the high-end, a three course meal starting with Corsican soup, followed by spinach lasagna and cheese and fruit for dessert all for 20€. Breakfast is a version of bread, butter and jam with a choice of hot beverage for around 8€.
Hotels and other Services
Both trails offer the possibility to sleep in a bed every so often. Every resupply location on the JMT includes a hotel type option. Conditions vary from a traditional hotel to rustic cabins. Often at these places hikers compete with other summer travelers making reservations a good idea although not always essential. If you are dying to sleep in a real bed, it can pay to ask upon arrival.
These locations generally also have a café, small store, hot shower and washing machines or a laundry service available for through hikers. The exception is Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) where other than their great resupply service, including the best hiker bins on the JMT, there are absolutely no services for through hikers that are not staying in one of their upscale rustic cabins. If asked about a toilet the MTR staff simply point to the woods.
As mentioned before, on the GR20 you can reserve bunk space in the refuge for every night if you wish. There are also 4 or 5 locations with hotels along the trail. These are standard hotels with a restaurant or evening meal. In June we stayed in hotels, where possible, without a reservation or a reservation simply made by phone a day or two ahead.
Language and Social Aspect
The culture of the JMT is decidedly American. Most hikers are American with a smattering of Europeans. It’s a friendly community where most through hikers will stop and talk a few minutes comparing destinations and travel plans before continuing on. You often run into the same people on consecutive days (or maybe not until the next resupply location or longer) adding to the sense of community.
The culture of the GR20 is decidedly French. Most hikers are French, some other Europeans and just a few Americans. Hiking in larger groups is more common than on the JMT with fewer solo hikers. Interestingly many of the solo hikers we met in Corsica were American.
It is possible to do the GR20 without speaking much French, although you will make more friends if you can put together a few sentences. The atmosphere is equally friendly and respectful despite the crowded conditions. Dinners at the refuge are often communal making it a great place to meet people and practice your French.
Which trail is more difficult?
A tough question that depends on the individual hiker. The difficulty of the JMT is the length of the trail, having to carry a heavier pack and the high altitude. Much of the trail is above 8,000ft, with five passes near 12,000ft and Mt Whitney at 14,500ft.
That said, most of the trail is well graded and overall a nice trail to walk on. There are, however, some rocky sections, especially along the southern half of the trail. Still, next to no scrambling is involved and the average daily elevation changes are far less than on the GR20. On the JMT planning and logistics, i.e., organizing your food and sending resupply packages, is more critical, whereas on the GR20 you can buy food as you go.
On the GR20 most days require some amount of rock scrambling, which can be challenging for those who are not used to it. There are also a couple of sections where you ascend or descend with the aid of chains or cables bolted to boulders, which can also be a challenge for those with little experience. Overall it’s a much rockier and rougher track which some hikers grow to hate.
In my opinion the challenges of either trail can be overcome with adequate planning, training and most importantly giving yourself the necessary time to complete the trail without wearing yourself out. They are both spectacular trails that combine stunning scenery with an unforgettable cultural experience.