The Grande Traversée du Jura (GTJ), created in 1992, is one of France's best-loved long distance mountain bike routes. Crossing the entirety of the Jura Mountains, it connects the three departments of Doubs, Jura and Ain using 420 kilometres of mountains, forests and meadows. Although this route would appeal to all, I think it would make a fantastic choice for someone heading out on their first bikepacking trip.
The Jura Range is an uplifted limestone plateau that forms the border between France and Switzerland. It might not have the majestic jagged high peaks of the Alps, but it does have kilometre after kilometre of spectacular unspoilt countryside.
The GTJ - VTT route is filled with quiet country lanes, gravel forestry roads, grassed farm tracks through rolling meadows and flowing singletrack. It is constantly undulating and sometimes a little rough in places, but the hard efforts are always rewarded with the rural charm and character of the area.
Not only does the Jura offer a fabulous landscape for mountain biking, passing through the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Jura, but it also boasts delightful villages with friendly inhabitants offering warm welcomes. Plenty of heritage and culture; this is where cows reign as kings, clocks are made and the creation of spectacles began. And finally, it’s food and wine, especially cheese, famous for its Comté, Morbier, and Mont-d'or to name a few!
This is a fantastic route for anyone looking to spend some quality time with mother nature. It is incredibly beautiful, well preserved and well protected. You can soak up the peace and quiet, and get a sense of remote wilderness, whilst actually being very close to amenities at all times.
My journey started in the town of Mandeure in the north, and I travelled south down the Jura range to Culoz. The route is signposted in both directions, but riding from north to south as I did makes for a better ride.
The GTJ had been on my to-do list for a few years. Although the Jura is only a couple of hours drive from home, it is somewhere I just hadn’t got round to exploring, but with far-flung travel curbed for another year, this year seemed a perfect time to explore a little closer to home. A busy schedule this summer meant the trip kept getting pushed further back into autumn, but eventually I found a short window of opportunity and headed off on the 23rd of October.
As you can see from the pictures this late in October meant the spectacular Autumn colours were in full swing and the trees were truly stunning. However, I wouldn’t recommend you go this late in the year. Not only is it very cold at this time of year in the Jura, it reached -3 degrees Celsius one night, but most of the mountain restaurants, refuges, campsites and cafes are shut for the season. It’s best to go between mid-May and September, with September being an ideal month to explore in my opinion. Work commitments meant I was short on time, so rode the route a little quicker than necessary in just four days, but to ride at a slightly more leisurely pace, and enjoy all the area has to offer, then I would suggest six to eight days.
I was wild camping along the route and there is no shortage of pretty places to pitch your tent or bivy. Although wild camping is technically forbidden in France, it is excepted along this route, as long as you set up late, leave early and above all leave no trace. You will find a suitable spot every couple of kilometres. If you would prefer to use campsites, guesthouses, mountain refuges and hotels, then you will be pleased to know these are abundant along the route, with further amenities of a town every 30-40km.
The only exception to this is the most southern part of the route, where amenities are more sparse, so stock up in advance for the last couple of days. You can access a full list of accommodation options on the GTJ official site gtj.asso.fr. As for water, natural water sources, streams and springs, were very infrequent and not to be relied on. Make sure you top up your water in village fountains, restaurants and cemeteries (there is always a tap) when you are passing by.
The route isn’t too technical and has very little hike-a-bike. There are a few stony steep descents but these are very short, so walkable if you wanted. Almost everywhere on the route, you can take an easier road alternative if you want to. Many of these are listed as ‘GTJ Light’ on the TopoGuide, but are not signposted. This is also useful if you should be caught in heavy rains, as the single track can get very muddy, so just deviate onto one of the many small quiet roads instead for a short section.
My 29er hardtail was the perfect choice of steed for the GTJ-VTT, but before you ask… yes, if you are an experienced gravel bike rider, then you ‘could’ do this route on your gravel bike.
Local trains service this area, which means you can roll your bikes straight on fully loaded. The closest station to the Mandeure start in the north is Montbéliard. It’s just a short easy cycle along the GTJ à Vélo way to get to the starting point. In the South, the route finishes at Culoz railway station.
All of the above is why I think it would make a perfect choice for a first time off-road bikepacking trip. It’s not too technical, incredibly well signed, has lots of route alternatives, and accommodation and amenities very frequently.
What a beautiful autumn day to start the Jura Traverse. Cold, crisp and not a cloud in the sky. Within a few hundred metres of leaving the start village of Mandeure, I was in the woods and surrounded by trees that were every shade of yellow, gold and orange. Wow! What an autumn spectacular I was going to get. I …
I was up and about as dawn broke. There was a serious frost and my watch read -3 degrees Celsius, so I packed up camp in a speedy fashion in a bid to keep warm. The sunrise was beautiful, made even more spectacular by the sea of cloud/mist below me on the valley floor.
Unfortunately, I had to head down …
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Waking up without any frost on the outside of my tent and no condensation on the inside was a real treat, as it meant I could pack everything away dry and there would be no need for a mid-day drying session. It was still pitch black and freezing cold when I set off, but the stars above were enough to …
I woke to expect a rainy start to the day but was delighted to find the weather had moved through during the night. It was still grey and overcast rather than the bluebird days I had had previously, but with the cloud coverage came warmer temperatures, so I was able to set off looking a little more like a cyclist …
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