Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido

Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido


View from Faro de Higer campground

Every journey must start with a plan, however rough it might be. Since I hiked through the northern part of the Basque Country before, I had a clear idea of the initial part of my journey. But because I had never been to Cantabria, Asturias, or Galicia, the latter part of the trip was less defined.

In general, my plan was to hike the Camino del Norte (Northern Way), which follows the coast from the French border to the small port town of Ribadeo in Asturias, then turns inland and continues to Santiago de Compostela.

The specific plan was more complicated. I departed from the campground Faro de Higer just outside the Basque border town of Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía). When I hiked that leg with a friend four years before, we started on the Camino del Norte and inadvertently veered off it and onto what we came to learn was a hiking trail called the Gran Recorrido (GR). Oblivious as we were, we didn’t notice any turnoff, nor did we know there was any other trail than the Camino. But eventually we realized the trail was marked with two horizontal lines: white above and red below, rather than the yellow arrows which are so prominent on all parts of the Camino. We just shrugged and continued on.

From there until we halted our westward march in Lekeitio, we alternated between the two trails and the highway, mostly unintentionally. Whenever we were present-minded enough to notice a separation, we opted for the Gran Recorrido, because it tended to hug the coast and was more rugged than the Camino, which often required walking on pavement.

The GR, it turns out, is a series of hiking trails throughout Europe. We were on the GR 121, the Vuelta a Gipuzkoa (tour of Gipuzkoa), which forms a circle around the province of Gipuzkoa. For my second attempt, I planned to follow that same trail until it turned inland to circle back. From that point on, I would follow the Camino del Norte as a default, but would opt for GR trails as long as they went in the same direction and appeared to be more like hiking trails than a walking path or paved road.

I had no idea what problems that might cause. I could find few maps, either in print or online, of GR trails. So there would be risk of getting lost. However, I thought that if they were at all like the GR 121, then the destination and distance of each leg would be clearly marked on the trail signs.

I gave myself plenty of time to reach Santiago (about a month is recommended) because I had several side trips planned:

  • spend a day in the Basque town of Gernika
  • visit a friend in Bilbao
  • visit friends in Santander
  • see the Altamira cave paintings
  • summit a peak in Picos de Europa national park (weather permitting!)
  • hike in Somiedo natural park, home to one of the last remaining populations of Iberian brown bears


I hoped to eventually make it to Santiago, after which I would take the extension to the towns of Fisterra and Muxía on the Atlantic coast. By then I would most likely be short on time, but I still had plenty of ideas for more places to see. Whatever the case, I hoped to give myself a week or so after the hike to visit Sevilla and have a few last days in Madrid.

While this itinerary was quite full, I was determined to stick to it as much as possible with a minimum of compromises. I hope you enjoy reading as I recount my journey; tell me what you think in the comments section of any post or with an email to dan[at]danquixote.com!