Most people come to the Pyrenees with walking or mountaineering in mind, which is pretty obvious for a mountain range stretching over 430km and culminating at 3,404m. That formidable divider between France and Spain treats walkers of all levels with spectacularly remote mountain terrain, wildlife aplenty and needle-sharp peaks. However with 2,512 lakes, the Pyrenees is also a wild swimming paradise, especially for swimmers looking to get away from it all.
My love affair with the Pyrenees began in 2012 as a summer trip with my father (then 72), my two daughters (then 7 and 8) and my husband. Every year since then, we have explored the French and Spanish Pyrenees, wolfing down our weight in saucisson, leaving no lake unswum (given the opportunity) and enjoying the legendary hospitality of high mountain refuges. Despite long days out and basic conditions, my girls really look forward to our annual “unplugged” Pyrenean trips, a wonderful excuse to reconnect as a family while being active outside.
Last summer, we tackled the Tour des Perics a brand new 85K long-distance path that very few people have walked so far. Reasonably challenging, it features beautiful altitude trails, four high-mountain refuges, two summits (optional) and nine different wild swims. Our group of nine consisted of four adults, four children (8 to 12) and my father (76). And this was our adventure:
... we have explored the French and Spanish Pyrenees, wolfing down our weight in saucisson, leaving no lake unswum (given the opportunity) and enjoying the legendary hospitality of high mountain refuges.
Swims: Etang des Bésines
On an overcast mid-August day, we set out from the parking lot at L’Hospitalet and skirted a mountainside, walking up through a coniferous forest that gave way to meadows peppered with brown cows. Two hours in, as we reached the Etang de Bésines, hard rain made most of us zoom past the lake. However, a couple of stragglers outwaited the shower and enjoyed a dip in the lake, where the water was excellent and relatively warm.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, the Refuge de Bésines offered a most welcome sight an hour later. In high spirits, we enjoyed apéritif drinks on the balcony before an epic refuge evening meal. It never fails to impress, what refuges come up with in such remote locations with most food supplies helicoptered in. Dinner started with a warm noodle soup, followed by a lamb stew with rice, then a generous slice of Bethmale Pyrenean cheese and to finish, chocolate pudding. Not too shabby for the middle of nowhere, right?
The swim spot can be found on the wildswim map here
Swims: Estany de Rouzet, Estany del Reco, Lac des Bouillouses
After a breakfast of rustic bread and jam, we decided to bypass the regular trail for a more interesting route. We cut through the mountainside, admiring Apollo butterflies stretch their wings in the morning sun, and reached the next valley via the Porteilla de Lanos. En route, our kids enjoyed a muddy pond where they watched dozens of tiny black frogs leap in the grass, while my dad, a soil scientist, waxed lyrical about granite landscapes and metamorphic rock, known as gneiss.
We cut through the mountainside, admiring Apollo butterflies stretch their wings in the morning sun ...
At lunchtime, the sun was high and we all jumped in the Estany de Rouzet, a shallow lake with underwater grass forests in places. My father was the first to swim, so he could dry in the sun while the young crew splashed about.
Replenished, we picked up the GR10 to the Portella de la Grave and down into the Grave valley. The sky was getting darker as a narrow silvery finger appeared at the bottom of the valley. Lake! Decisions, decisions. A quick swim at the Estany del Reco ensued in earthy water that seemed to carry our voices well into the mountains.
A quick swim at the Estany del Reco ensued in earthy water that seemed to carry our voices well into the mountains.
The best was yet to come with the Lac des Bouillouses, a lake whose northern shores harbour picture-perfect coves with rocky islets. The visible “no swimming signs” could have been an issue in crowded areas, so we found a sneaky spot far from the trail. Oh, the water, clear and chilly, made us feel better instantly. It was such a great feeling after six hours of walking. We even found big boulders to jump from but the apéritif called and we didn’t linger. And a good thing it was too as torrential rains came down the minute we closed the refuge door behind us.
These swim spots can be found on the wildswim map:
Swims: Estany del Mig (Estany de Camporells), Estany Gros
The tiny Refuge des Camporells was a gem with a stunning location at the foot of the Péric mountains, easily accessible via a trail passing by wide, open meadows with wild horses. The only problem was the chain-smoking grumpy refuge keeper.
When she saw us jump in the beautiful lake by the refuge, she came out the door and yelled at us from afar. “You can’t swim here. It’s a water reserve and a lake of scientific interest!” With no “no swimming” signs in sight, we were stumped but obediently got out. When the keeper’s partner admitted that she was OK with swimmers when she was in a better mood, we decided to cheer her up. How about some map studies? Refuge keepers love sharing their map expertise and they’re darn good at it too.
Thirty minutes later, the world was a happier place. We even saw a family of four and a donkey at the refuge, which had our kids very excited. While they happily petted the donkey, my dad was playing sudoku, and four of us followed the keeper’s instructions to summit the Petit Péric across the lake. As it turned out, the peak was rather far from the lake and the weather was turning sour. A hundred meters below the summit, two of us came down the mountainside, mischievously stopping at the far end of Estany del Mig for a skinny dip. The other two reached the summit and stopped at the Estany Gros for an evening swim, watched by two browsing isards (Pyrenean mountain goats) deep in shrubs. Now that was of scientific interest, as isards are notoriously shy creatures. That evening, we all enjoyed the house red wine with gusto, but in hindsight, should probably have drunk more. The harmless-looking ladies who were our dinner neighbours proved to be a power-snoring bunch in the dorm.
These swim spots can be found on the wildswim map:
Swims: Estany d’En Beys
That day, our group split in two. Three of us left at dawn to summit both Péric peaks (2,690 and 2,810m), cross a giant glacial cirque called La Coquille (the shell) and meet up with the rest of the group some 6 kilometres away at 10am. (Or so we thought.) The larger group followed the regular trail but when they had had enough of waiting in the wind on an exposed ridge, they carved a message on a stone. “11.20. On continue. Latham.” Two hours late, the trio found the message and pressed on. On a ridge, hundreds of sheep dawdled and grazed, fiercely guarded by a patou, a splendid Pyrenean herd dog right at home in remote mountains. What an incredible sight they cut across a backdrop of peaks and a sea of clouds.
At 1pm, we were all reunited at the border at the Orlu Wildlife Nature Reserve (hurrah!) and together, started the very long descent to the Refuge d’En Beys. Within minutes, fog rolled in thick and damp. Later, we almost missed the refuge. That would have been a shame as it was recently refurbished into a quasi-boutique mountain lodge, with hot showers and comfy dorms.
For the “frogs” in the group, there was a lake ripe for swimming steps from the Refuge d’En Beys and before the sacrosanct apéritif, we went for an eerie dip—not a soul in sight, no views either, and the lake’s smooth surface disappearing into the fog.
The swim spot can be found on the wildswim map here.
... before the sacrosanct apéritif, we went for an eerie dip—not a soul in sight, no views either, and the lake’s smooth surface disappearing into the fog.
Swims: Etang Faury (several swimming holes + tarn)
A cloudless morning revealed the Estany d’En Beys in all its splendour, its glassy surface reflecting steep mountainsides like a mirror. Before long, our kids stumbled upon an irresistible treasure—a whole hillside of wild blueberries! Juicy and sweet, they dotted the bushes with their dark blue orbs and we all stopped to pluck a few handfuls and even saved some for dinner. The trail led to a boulder field and, a strenuous climb later, to green mountain meadows, crystal-clear swimming holes, and to the kids’ delight, more tiny frogs. A string of swimming spots followed a glacial stream and culminated at the Etang Faury, a deep glacial lake encased in rocky cliffs like a dark blue jewel. Of course, we all jumped in the water several times.
The trail led to a boulder field and, a strenuous climb later, to green mountain meadows, crystal-clear swimming holes, and to the kids’ delight, more tiny frogs.
Around mid-afternoon, we enjoyed fruit snacks from the Coll de la Coma d’Anyell (2,475m) with a 360 vista on surrounding summits. Wow. From now on, the walking was mostly downhill and as a bonus, we found a surprise snow névé (granular snow accumulated on high mountains), which the kids joyously slid down.
The swim spot is on the wildswim map here.
Day 6 Refuge de Bésines – Parking lot | 10.5K | -400m
Swims: Etang de Bésines
Coming back to the parking lot at L’Hospitalet was straightforward and we would have swum at the Etang de Bésines, had we not anticipated a long drive home. Too bad. A last swim close to the tiny island with a lone pine tree would have been a fitting ending to a beautiful long-distance path.
The swim spot can be found on the wildswim map here.
For more information on the Tour de Perics, visit http://www.tour-des-perics.com/
French author Laure Latham discovered open water swimming while living in San Francisco with her family. Now based in London, she writes about the outdoors and active travel. You can read more on her blog FrogMom.
For more French swimming inspiration check out Wild Swimming France, which takes you from the azure-blue pools of Provence to the secret hot springs of the Pyrenees.
You can purchase a copy of Wild Swimming France from the publisher by following this link.
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