Hiking the Cirque de Gavarnie
The Cirque de Gavarnie in the Hautes-Pyrenees mountains of France is a relatively easy and very family friendly hike. Much of this gentle route is within the Cirque, where you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the many waterfalls that cascade down the vertical walls of this incredible place.
At a Glance
When to Go
May to October is the best time for hiking in the Pyrenees mountains of France. Head to Cirque Gavarnie, one of the French Pyrenees most popular attractions, from Lourdes for a less crowded hike in May or September.
Cars – there is a lot of paid parking along the sides of the main road through the village. In summer, you need to get there early to secure a space. Cirque de Gavarnie parking costs around €5. The village is closed to traffic from 9am to 5pm daily so make sure to arrive outside of these times.
Motorhomes – As you head out of the village of Gavarnie on the D923, there is an aire with services on the left side of the road, about 2km outside the village. Expect to pay €8-10 a night for superb Cirque de Gavarnie camping, motorhome style! Or, head up the D923 to the Col de Tentes for fantastic motorhome wild camping.
The Cirque de Gavarnie walk can be as family friendly as you want to make it. The route to the cirque is well maintained and level underfoot, with minimal altitude gain. Kids will love running on ahead or exploring off track. Getting up to the main Gavernie falls is a bit of a scramble and may be too much for smaller children.
There are lots of bars and shops in Gavarnie village and plenty of Gavarnie hotels too. The last toilets are soon after the start, on the left of the main street. Just before the Cirque proper, there is The Cirque de Gavarnie Hotel where you can get a cold drink and use the loo.
There will always be lots of people hiking the Pyrenees mountains in summer, especially in places like Gavarnie where the difficulty level is easy. In summer the crowd levels at Gavarnie can be extreme. Start early to enjoy people free tracks and views of hike in May and June or September.
Other Things to Know
The Cirque de Gavarnie is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as being in the Parc National des Pyrenees. This means strict regulations apply to protect the nature and wildlife in the area. Dogs are not allowed, even on a lead. You must not pick wildflowers or start a fire and there is strictly no camping. No aerial or shooting type sports are allowed and you cannot ride a mountain bike or use a motorised vehicle. Basically, respect the national park and its surroundings.
Cirque de Gavarnie Map
Once described by Victor Hugo as the “Colosseum of nature”, the Cirque de Gavarnie is a pretty awe-inspiring place. This classic French hike will take you through beautiful countryside on well maintained and signed paths, to the Cirque de Gavarnie itself, the best part of the hike.
The Cirque itself is full of wild flowers and littered with sheep, goats and incredible waterfalls rushing down the sheer vertical walls of this behemoth of nature. At 422m, the Cirque de Gavarnie waterfall is the highest in mainland France and the fifth highest in Europe (and you can stand right underneath it!)
To start the hike, head downhill from the main car park to the crossroads in the centre of Gavarnie village. Follow the main street south and after the bend take the left fork. The Cirque is visible from here, even from a distance you can see how it dominates the skyline and landscape.
Follow this road as it runs out of the village and along the pretty river, called Gave de Gavarnie. There are a couple of bars on the other side of the river. Cross the bridge just after these and follow the road until it becomes a gravel track, the starting point of the Cirque de Gavarnie trek.
Keep on this track, perhaps stopping at the traditional stone bridge, the Pont de Nadau, for a photo opportunity. Do not cross the bridge and keep following the main track. From here you’ll start to notice the track inclining as you pass through forest and the UNESCO World Heritage sign. The views start to become really stunning, with the Cirque ahead in all its glory.
The track starts to descend to open ground and then rises gently up to to around 1400m. From here, it becomes quite steep for a few hundred meters, the most difficult part of this hike. You’ll soon spot the Hotel du Cirque in the distance, with the Cirque and waterfalls providing breathtaking views.
You are now at 1570m elevation, look up to the highest walls of the Cirque, where the peaks are over 3000m and may well still be covered in snow. Somewhere up there is the Brèche de Roland (or Roland’s Breach), a gap in the upper layer of the Cirque at 2807m on the border with Spain.
Literally on the other side of the Cirque de Gavarnie, over Mont Perdu, or Monte Perdido (literally hidden mountain as it cannot be seen from France) is the Circo de Soaso in the Ordesa National Park in Spain. It is possible to hike to Roland’s Breach and across the Spanish border between the cirques, staying at the the Refuge des Sarradets on route, a relatively easy hike from the Col de Tentes.
The huge glistening grande cascade waterfall of the Gavarnie Cirque can be approached continuing on the track, until you start to ascend the 150m of shale required to feel the mist on your face. This can be a tricky ascent and descent as the shale is loose and steep. If you’re not sure-footed, poles may help.
For a longer hike, park at the aire up the D923 and hike from there and return to add another 5km and 500m elevation gain.