In the two previous articles, while we wandered through the Montagne Noire, the Pyrenees were only part of the background. However, this time we're heading for the range on a weekend getaway. Located just an hour and a half from Toulouse, separating Spain and France, the Pyrenees are known for their stunning views, thousands of streams, and steep rocky paths.
In recent years, soaring temperatures have greatly impacted the climate in the Pyrenees. It has become more unpredictable and hotter days are often unbearable. While most people still enjoy hiking in the range throughout the summer, my favorite time is fall. When September comes around, the soft warmth, empty paths, and golden colors are when the mountain is best enjoyed. This week and the next one, I’ll take you on a short gateway, trading the city’s busyness for the calm of high altitude plateaus. Joining me on this adventure is Tara, a friend from Canada traveling through Europe, with a pied à terre in Paris.
On a Friday afternoon, after having prepared the necessary gear, we borrowed a friend’s VW van (thanks Thierry!), and we headed out of Toulouse, successfully avoiding most of the traffic. While our first destination in the valley of Campan, wasn’t too far away, small mountain roads did lengthen the journey quite a bit. It didn’t matter, Tara, also known as DJ TJ, set the mood with the perfect road trip playlist she had carefully put together. With nothing but empty backroads before us, we caught up on each other’s lives to the sound of country music. Before we could even realize it, we were already close to our diner and camping spot.
The plan for the evening was to park the van at the bottom of our first hike’s starting point, enjoy dinner at the nearby local restaurant and get a good night of sleep before a long day on the paths. To our delight, when we arrived, the parking was completely empty. It meant that we could pick a leveled spot for the van (nights are best enjoyed on flat grounds). I had placed a reservation for around 8 pm, which left us close to an hour to stretch our legs, explore the beautiful surroundings, and sit by the river. For Tara, an unconditional fan of animals, it was also the occasion to pet dogs, chat with cows and unsuccessfully try to feed them with handpicked grass.
Dinner was excellent, so good in fact, that I only captured a still of the starter (a smoked trout tartare). I highly recommend you experience this hidden restaurant for yourself: Ô Chiroulet. A few glasses of wine later and it was already time to transform the back of our van into a bed. The weather forecast for the next day wasn’t encouraging, and with close to 20 kilometers awaiting us we quickly got to counting sheep and falling asleep.
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of thunder resonating through the valley. Unsure at first whether we would be able to hike, we decided we would see after breakfast. I enjoyed a few simple yet comforting baguette toasts with honey while Tara tried a gluten-free loaf. Fortunately, by the time breakfast was over, we hadn’t heard thunder for a little while. Things looked a little bit more promising, or a least somewhat safer than they were when we had woken up. Hoping the clouds would later dissipate, we made our sandwiches with the help of our new dog friend. Attracted by my pâté, he even wanted to climb in the van!
We hadn’t come this far only to stay in the van and decided to hope for the best. I knew the beginning of the route quite well and knew we wouldn’t risk anything with the storm, at least for the first hour. This one-day hike would lead us through the valley of Campan, up until the Col de Bareilles, down to the Lac Bleu, and back to the parking through an adjacent valley.
We started hiking under light rain in the forest. The first few kilometers were on a rather flat four-by-four road. We crossed a few small meadows and followed the river up the valley until it became a stream, fueled by a large waterfall. Of course, we saw cows, many of them in fact, and Tara couldn’t refrain from shouting “cow, cow, cow” whenever we saw one. After crossing the stream for a final time, the path really steepened and the rain intensified even more. While Tara had hiked quite a lot in the past, it was often on flat grounds. Although expected, the sudden changes in elevation meant that things were even harder for her. What’s more, the storm and downpour were transforming the path into a steep, slippery, and muddy slope.
After this steep climb, Tara finally got a chance to catch her breath. We had gotten out of the forest and valley and were now following the stream on a pastured plateau. The views were supposed to be stunning. Instead, we were deep in the fog, with only our wet boots and the path ahead to admire. Nonetheless, the moody and dark atmosphere allowed us to capture great pictures.
A few moments later, Tara noticed a shepherd’s hut on the horizon. Unsure whether it was on our path or not, we crossed the river, jumped over rocks, and opened the steel door. We took a break, away from the harsh conditions. A kind soul had left a bottle of Ricard, naturally, we both took a sip to warm ourselves up for the upcoming mountain pass. As we waited for the thick of the storm to pass, in the distance, we saw a few cowboys and their herds. They were bringing their last cattle down into the valley for winter.
Luckily, as we resumed our hike, the sky cleared up for a bit and we even enjoyed short but relieving minutes of sunshine. We hoped it would last for a little while, but just fives minutes later another shower was clothing in on us. We hiked our last kilometer of flat grounds on this plateau, surrounded by a beautiful cirque before heading towards the steepest part of the route. We waved goodbye to the sun and slowly started our ascension.
As we navigated through the rocks, I was getting increasingly worried about Tara. I knew the path would only get steeper and steeper until the very top of the pass. Tara was constantly out of breath and although we weren’t particularly high (around 2200m), she had never experienced this kind of altitude before. She insisted on the fact that she was fine and suggested I carry on minding my own business. With heated spirits we continued hiking up the increasingly slippery hairpins, occasionally falling in spiky grass, and enduring several waves of rain.
After slowly hiking up the mountain in torrential rain, stopping in shepherds’ huts along the way, the path seemed like it never ended. But we didn’t give up, and what awaited us at the top was magical. As we reached the crest, the sun came out once again. Clouds were dancing over the peaks and for a moment, it felt like we were floating above everything in a sea of cotton. We admired this vastness in complete silence.
We were getting hungry but couldn’t take the risk of eating at the top in such hazardous weather. We decided it was best to descend towards the lake, in search of a sheltered picnic spot. Motivated by our appetite, we descended at trail pace down the rocky path, jumping around, avoiding puddles and mud pools. Once again, we got lucky, as two shelters appeared in the fog. We were so wet that we didn’t care about the rain anymore but did fancy a little bit of warmth and shelter from the cold wind. We sat in the only room that still had windows and ate our soggy sandwiches, contemplating the storm. A stark contrast with the five-course dinner we had had the night before.
Getting going again was tough. For me, the worst part of getting back into the storm was putting my already wet jacket back on. For Tara, in love with the rain, it was probably her swollen hands getting cold again. We took a quick picture of what seemed to be the lake and resumed our journey. The following kilometer borrowed a staircase carved in the rocks, overlooking a waterfall that we would follow until the bottom.
On our way down, the only stops we made were for quick pictures, cows, and wild horses. I admired Tara’s resilience as she slipped in a puddle of mud, but didn’t seem to be bothered. She only cared about petting wild horses (she had never seen some before). At last, we made it back to the car, accompanied by a few of our new friends (horses). The night before, we chatted with the owner of the restaurant who told us we would be welcomed for a hot chocolate and homemade crêpes. It didn’t take much to convince us after such a rough day. We desperately needed some warmth and a few calories. The hot choccy and numerous crêpes (for me) were the best way to end the hike.
After a quick change in the bathroom, we set up the van to dry our clothes and got back on the road, heading to our next location. Come back next week to read about the second day of our getaway in the Pyrenees.
As always, you can check the route and the activity on Strava using the link below.