Into the valley: swimming, hiking and camping at the Cirque de Gavarnie

Sometimes you can get a bit too much beach. I know it might seem like an odd concept but after our time in Galicia and a few days ‘a la plage’ back in the Basque Country with friends, we were ready to shake the sand out of our shoes and take to the hills. We unloaded all we could from the van – bikes, boards, wetsuits, swim togs and unnecessary baggage – and set off for the Haute Pyrenees. Without the extra weight to slow us down the van skipped along the motorway to the foot hills and purred up steep sided ravines, along giddying gorges and round tight hairpins until we arrived at the small village of Gavarnie.
It's the end of the road and a popular tourist spot so the village is made up of restaurants, gift shops and small hotels. From here we hiked up the valley to the magnificent Cirque De Gavarnie, a huge glacial amphitheatre with Europe’s highest waterfall at its head. The valley is immense, with swirling pools of ice blue melt water, scree slopes and boulders the size of houses. There are wild strawberries and raspberries growing in the meadows on the valley floor and myrtles under the pine trees on the higher slopes. As with all great walks there was one of those 'wow' moments thrown in for good measure: as we rounded a bend in the gorge to see the Cirque clearly for the first time, there it was. Like, er, wow. We hiked up to the cirque itself, then Maggie and I trudged up the last half a mile or so to the base of the waterfall. We passed the remains of the winter ice, a glacier that had melted to form a deep ice cave ten metres high by thirty metres wide. You don’t see that very often. Maggie was exhausted by the walk but I felt so proud of her and pleased that she was able to see such things. It’s what we came on this trip for. She said the valley looked like a painting and she was right: it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Once we reached base camp (where Joanne and Charlie were waiting with supplies of biscuits and bananas) I dared the girls to take a swim in the river. We stripped off to our undies and plunged into a deep pool of ice blue water below a small waterfall. We screamed and shouted and sucked our breath as we dipped our heads in the crystal clear – and very, very cold – water. It was only about a hundred metres downstream from the glacier.
On our way back to the van we noticed some tents at the back of La Bergerie, one of the last buildings out of the village and nearest to the valley. We stopped and enquired and were happy to hear they had space. We skipped back to the van and pitched up. The campsite has one of the best positions of any that I have been to, bar perhaps the site at Goredale Scar. Camper vans have to stay on level ground next to the river but the real treat lies for those with tents as they can pitch up on any number of little plateaus on the hillside. If you don’t mind scrambling up to bed, a pitch like this will guarantee a wake up view like no other: the imposing cliffs of the Cirque, the river, Europe’s highest waterfall and the steep sides of a beautiful, high mountain valley. Mind you, the view from the van was pretty good too.
The site is basic (and one of our cheapest overnights at just 20 Euros), the family who run it are friendly and very welcoming and those who stay here – hikers, families and a few camper vanners, don’t need much else. Pools, play parks or evening entertainment would be out of place here. The valley is more than enough.


  1. Sounds great! We have holidayed in that part a few times, still unspoilt a lot of it. After my recent trip through France I will never stay at a camp-site with Swimming pool, play park etc again. Myself, my wife and our 2 little ones, had a mare. Will go Rural in France and Spain every time from now on.
    Roll on next summer.



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