St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles : How Hard is Day One?

Created by Colleen Sims * 17 October 2023

Gerry walking from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles on the trail amongst the sheep that graze in the mountains
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Are you planning on walking the Napoleon Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles? I’ve walked this route 8 times and led several groups over the mountains.

I love walking the Napoleon Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. I’ve walked solo and led groups along this spectacular stage, crossing the Pyrenees mountains from France into Spain.

I’ve walked this route in glorious sunshine, rain, snow, fog and a bitterly cold wind and I’ve loved every single journey. And the question I get asked the most is how hard is day one.

It would be foolish to say that this stage is not difficult. The hike from St Jean crosses the Pyrenees, along roads and mountain trails. You’ll gain 1365 metres of elevation and cover 25 kilometres. It is a challenging walk. But if you are in good health, you have trained and prepared, with the correct shoes and equipment, then you will rise to the challenges.

Read on to find out in detail what to expect from Day 1 including :

  • The Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles with distance and elevation
  • How to Break the Stage Over 2 Days
  • Orisson and Borda
  • What to Expect (every 5 kilometres)
  • Which Route Down to Roncesvalles
  • My Tips and Recommendations Emergency Assistance

Roncesvalles or Roncevaux : If you ask a French speaker they will say Roncevaux. If you as a Basque speaker they will say Orreaga and in Spanish it’s Roncesvalles.

Rescue hut near Col Lepoeder between St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles, taken in 2015
I took this photo when I walked from St Jean to Roncesvalles in April 2015. There was still snow on the trail and in parts it was quite foggy. My walking buddy submitted this photo to an Australian calendar competition and it was used as their December image!

Map of the Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

Buy any guidebook for the Camino Frances and you will find a map of the stage from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. The first map below has a marker at Hunto (5.4 kilometres from St Jean) and it shows where you cross from France into Spain. But in my experience these maps don’t really offer much information.

The second image is a little more useful. You can see St Jean Pied de Port, followed by Hunto, Orisson and Auberge Borda. Then the longer section without services crossing into Spain and the two trail options at Col Lepoeder leading down to Roncesvalles.

St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles : Distance 25.1 kilometres

The first stage of the Camino Frances may not the longest stage on this Camino, and for most hikers a 25 kilometre day may not sound too daunting. What makes this stage harder is the elevation that you face.

Wise Pilgrim, Wikilocs, Alltrails and John Brierley measure the stage distance at somewhere between 24.3 kms and 25.1 kms; the latter being from the Brierley guide.

I always believed this stage was 25 kilometres so I am going to stick with John Brierley’s distance. For information other distances are :

  • St Jean to Hunto (Honto or Huntto) is 5.4 kms
  • St Jean to Orisson is 7.8 kms
  • St Jean to Auberge Borda is 8.9 kms
  • St Jean to the Virgin is 11.6 kms
  • St Jean to Cross Thibault is 15.1 kms
Sunrise over the Pyrenees mountains, taken at Auberge Borda

St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles : Stage Elevation

Over the course of this stage you will gain 1365 metres in elevation. You’ll walk this over 20 kilometres because the last 5 kilometres are downhill.

I have seen condensed versions of this stage elevation, including within the documents provided by the Pilgrim Office in St Jean Pied de Port. When the distance is squished, the elevation looks impossible. I like the image below as it’s a more accurate representation of what you’ll walk.

Elevation plan of the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

How Hard is the Napoleon Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles?

It’s challenging. How challenging is down to each individual. The first time I walked this stage, I thought that my lungs might explode in my chest walking from Hunto to Orisson. The third time I walked we almost skipped over this stage as my walking buddy was so fast. These days I prefer to take my time.

The question you need to ask yourself and answer honestly is how fit are you? Walking the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela is not for the feint-hearted. Walking from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is a difficult day. You need to train. And you need to prepare. But I have led many pilgrims over the mountains who thought they couldn’t do it; don’t let lack of confidence get in your way!

Difficult is not the same as impossible. When I lead groups I tell everyone to start walking a little every day. Then walk with your pack. Then push yourself and walk a little faster or further each time. Do other forms of exercise. Walk the dog or your neighbour’s dog. Take the stairs, walk to the shops or get off the bus a stop early.

Get active and stay active. If you’re a little overweight, try to lose a few kilos. Most people plan their Camino months in advance; if this is you then use this time wisely. BUT start slowly and gradually you will build your level of fitness.

  • Ensure you have the right gear
  • And train in that gear
  • Have appropriate hiking shoes and appropriate clothing
  • Have sunscreen and weather protection
  • Take snacks and plenty of water

A few years ago I met a lady at the Statue of the Virgin. The ground was pretty water logged and I helped her back to the trail. She was 83 and on her 25th Camino. She was halfway between St Jean and Roncesvalles and carrying a rucksack. The stage from St Jean is a challenge. But if you prepare it is perfectly manageable.

The statue of the Virgin at Pic D'Orrison.  Made more famous by a scene from the film The Way

Two Options to Break the Stage Over 2 Days

For many people the idea of walking from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is just too much. If this is you, then thankfully you do not have to walk the entire stage in one.

You can opt to break the day in half and cover the distance over two days. This is my preferred way of walking this stage. It not only makes for an easier hike, it gives you more time in the mountains to enjoy this stunning location.

There are a couple of ways that you can split the stage; you can stay in pilgrim hostels in the mountains or you can use pilgrim transport to return to St Jean.

Spend Two Nights in St Jean Pied de Port : Use Pilgrim Transport to Break the Stage

Express Bourricot and CaminoFacil offer shared pilgrim transport to and from the halfway point to Roncesvalles. Indeed many taxis offer the same service and you’ll see pilgrims being ferried back and forth as you walk.

For the most part from St Jean, you’ll follow a small country road. Indeed you follow this road for 15 kilometres, apart from a few kilometres off road after Hunto.

If you wish to split your stage you can have a taxi collect you from Refuge Orisson, Auberge Borda, the statue of the Virgin or the Cross of Thibault. You can spend a second night in your accommodation in St Jean and take a taxi or pilgrim transport back on day two and continue your walk.

This options has the advantage of meaning you can leave some of your things in St Jean and only take what need. And you can choose the distance you wish to walk on day one :

  • The distance to Hunto (Honto or Huntto) : 5.4 kms
  • The distance to Orisson : 7.8 kms
  • The distance to Auberge Borda : 8.9 kms
  • The distance to the Virgin Statue : 11.6 kms
  • The distance to The Cross of Thibault : 15.1 kms.
The view looking back towards St Jean Pied de Port along the Camino Frances in the Pyrenees

Take Two Days to reach Roncesvalles : Stop at Orisson or Borda

The second option is to break this stage into two and spend the night in the mountains. This is my preferred choice. If you’re lucky you’ll get to witness both sunset and the sunrise over the mountains. And you’ll enjoy the company of pilgrims over dinner in one of the two hostels along the route.

Refuge Orisson is a bit of an institution. Many many pilgrims (including myself) have spent the night here and enjoyed the communal evening meal. It is a pilgrim hostel so you will be in shared dorms in bunk beds.

Auberge Borda is newer having opened in 2020. It is smaller than Orisson and is where I now choose to spend the night when I walk to Roncesvalles. Borda has beds not bunks and each bed has it’s own privacy curtain (and your own light and socket for charging your phone). There is also fabulous communal dinner with other pilgrims. This is a glorious little pilgrim hostel and I thoroughly recommend a stop here.

Beautiful pilgrim beds and dorm  in Auberge Borda between St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles

If you like the idea of sleeping in either of these hostels then you MUST book ahead. They fill up very quickly. I like to stop for lunch and a leisurely rest at Orisson before walking the final kilometre to Borda.

Top Tip : Have your bag transported for the first few days if it is more comfortable. Both Express Bourricot and CaminoFacil offer luggage transport services.

What to Expect on Stage 1 of the Camino Frances

The Napoleon Route is beautiful but nonetheless challenging.  However, the route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is very well marked and for most part you will see, or be walking with other pilgrims along the trail.

Kilometres : 0 – 5

The trail starts in St Jean Pied de Port, just above the Pilgrim Office on Rue de la Citadelle. Over the following kilometres it climbs steadily through rural splendour of meadows, farms and forests.

The path is mostly uphill but it is relatively easy and the views are magnificent.  From St Jean Pied de Port you almost immediately find yourself climbing out of the town on a steep incline.  However, this section is thankfully very short.  After this the road levels and for the following few kilometres the incline is more gentle. 

This section is along pavements and road.  Pilgrims sometimes forget their good road sense when walking the Camino and this section is no exception.  Make sure you walk on the left hand side of the road, facing oncoming traffic and spare a thought for local drivers who have to weave around pilgrims every day.

The road gets steeper as you approach Hunto.  Stop here and pause.  There’s no guarantee Hunto will be open but there are toilets and a vending machine and tables and chairs at the entrance.  If you do use the facilities then do remember to leave a few coins as a donation. 

Pilgrims leaving St Jean Pied de port along a quite country road

Kilometres : 5 – 10

From Hunto, you leave the road for the first time.  For me this is perhaps the most challenging section, although my walking buddies disagree.  For 2 kilometres it’s steep.  Take your time and don’t forget to stop and look back at the views. I cannot stress enough how beautiful the landscape is.

After a steep two kilometres the trail ends and you are back on the road.  There is a Table D’Orientation here which is worth a stop; take a look and see if you can spot where you started in St Jean.  On a clear day you might just make out the Citadelle walls.

A kilometre further along the road you’ll reach Orisson and a kilometre after this Auberge Borda.

Glorious views from the trail from St Jean to Roncesvalles.  Pilgrims stop partway to catch their breath and admire the scenery

Kilometres : 10 – 15

The road continues to climb from Orisson.  At 11.6 kilometres, do make sure you drop off the trail and go visit the Virgin D’Orisson.  Many pilgrims just keep walking but it’s only a few metres off the trail on the left and worth stopping for.

After the Virgin, you’ll stay on the road for another 4 kilometres until you reach the Cross of Thibault.  There are no services after Borda but if you’re lucky the food truck will be parked just before the cross. Take advantage of this stop and have a hot or cold drink and some snacks and a pause before tackling the next stage.

And as always! Don’t forget to stop and look at the views as you walk. I see so many pilgrims head down tackling this stage, they are so intent on their goal that they forget to admire the incredible scenery around them.

Day 1 from St Jean to Roncesvalles.  Distant pilgrims on the hillside walking through the green rural landscape of the Pyrenees Mountains

Kilometres : 15 – 20

At the Cross de Thibault you finally leave the road (yeah).

From here you’ll be walking along a trail until you reach the highpoint at Col Lepoeder.  As you leave the road there is a grassy hill before the trail levels to a more gentle incline.

You’ll walk on through a forest until you reach the fountain of Roland; you can refill your water bottles here. Shortly after the fountain you’ll cross into Navarre and Spain.  Many pilgrims miss the significance of this marker; it’s only a short distance from the fountain so make sure you stop for a photo.

Kilometres : 20 – 25

Congratulations. You’ve reached then highest point at Col Lepoeder. From here it’s downhill to Roncesvalles. If you use walking poles now would be the time to lengthen them, to help you cope with the change in terrain.

The views from the top are simply staggering. You’ll leave the views of the mountains behind you as you walk onwards into Navarra.

Which Route Down to Roncesvalles? Forest or Road?

At the Col Lepoeder you are faced with incredible views of Navarra and a choice of two paths.  Go left to walk down through one of Europe’s largest beech forests or go right to walk down along an abandoned road.  I’ve walked both. 

The Pilgrim Office in St Jean and your accommodation might recommend you that go right and take the road.  The path down through the forest can be very steep in parts and slippery when wet. You might hear “left is death and right is life“. That’s a tad dramatic but on balance I do prefer the road.  The views are wonderful, you get to walk through varied terrain and forest.

On this route you also pass by Franco’s bunkers at Ibañeta; built as a defensive barrier along the French Spanish border from the Mediterranean to the Cantabrian Sea. 

Which ever route you choose your journey will end at the historic monastery of Roncesvalles; although your first stop might be at the Posada for celebratory refreshments.

My Tips and Recommendations

The hike along the Napoleon Route from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is one of the most spectacular days hiking along the Camino Frances. I love this hike and I look forward to my next visit. But before setting out, there are some things that you can do to make the most of your journey and help ensure that you arrive safely at Roncesvalles.

  • Start early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day but do not walk in the dark.
  • Wear comfortable, hiking shoes and appropriate hiking clothing.
  • Ensure you carry water (I usually carry 2 litres) and take snacks. Nuts, dried fruit, bananas, hard boiled eggs, granola bars or a sandwich make great snacks.
  • Be aware of the weather conditions. Ask at the Pilgrim Office or your accommodation before setting out. Do not attempt to hike if you are advised not to walk.
  • Make sure you have waterproofs and a warm clothing option in your bag. The weather can change suddenly in the mountains.
  • Take breaks often and enjoy the scenery!
  • Break the stage into two days if you are not feeling confident or if you wish to make the very most of your time in the mountains.
  • Don’t rush; book your bed at Roncesvalles if you are walking the full stage so that you can slow down and enjoy the walk
  • Have lunch at Orisson or at least stop for a rest and a drink
  • Take a small first aid kit and blister kit with you, just in case
  • Take a few coins as there are vending machines en route
  • Tell someone that you’re leaving and also make sure to tell them when you have arrived at your destination
  • Take your rubbish with you; leave no trace in the mountains
  • Make a note of the emergency service telephone number : 112
  • Download What3Words and AlertCop app and learn how they work before leaving home.
A fallen tree over the trail between St Jean and  Roncesvalles
After mountain storms the route may be littered with fallen trees. Expect the unexpected when walking the Napoleon Route.

Calling for Emergency Assistance

If you feel ill or suffer an injury as you walk from St Jean to Roncesvalles and you are unable to continue, you should :

  • Stop. Do not keep walking if you feel unable to continue. And if they are around, ask other Pilgrims for assistance
  • Call 112. The International Emergency Operator for both France and Spain
  • If you or another person is immobile then keep warm and dry
  • Do not move an injured person unless for safety or if you are told to

It might be an idea to travel with a hiking whistle, a foil emergency blanket (they are tiny and lightweight) and a small head torch. They might be useful in an emergency situation.

Please note that I cannot and I am not offering medical advice. However, if you are feeling unwell or you injure yourself and you are unable to continue then seek medical assistance.

Where to Stay in Roncesvalles

Just as I recommend that you book your accommodation in St Jean and in the mountains in advance, I also recommend that you reserve your bed (and your dinner) at Roncesvalles.

There are limited beds in these first few stages and for peace of mind I like to know that no matter how slow I want to go, my bed will be waiting for me at the end of the day. I strongly recommend you do the same. This route is stunning so why rush?

Click the links below to discover the 5 different accommodation options available in Roncesvalles and as soon as you have your dates then book ahead!

Click Links Below to Book Hotels and Albergue in Roncesvalles

★★★★★

Spoiler Alert : A Video of the Napoleon Route

This is a hyper lapse video of the stage from St Jean to Ronscasvalles. Don’t watch if you wish the hike to be a surprise!

So How Hard is Day 1 from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

Day one is a challenge. But with the correct training and preparation it will be one of your most favourite and memorable days hiking.

If time allows break the stage and reserve your bed at Orisson or Auberge Borda. Also reserve a bed at Roncesvalles and take your time over the mountains.

The views change as you leave St Jean from foothills to mountain views. As you go higher the more breathtaking the views. Once you reach Roncesvalles your sense of accomplishment will keep you on cloud nine for weeks.

If you’re planning to walk the Camino De Santiago you may find these posts useful too :

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

I’ve had the mis-fortune to end up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal and Ireland; every time my insurance took care of everything. We all hope and expect to complete our Camino without incident but I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

Whenever you travel overseas it’s imperative to travel with a good travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy now for an extended global trip and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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