The Picos de Europa: Everything You Need To Know
The Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada, the Guadarrama to the north of Madrid… the list of mountain ranges in Spain is as extensive as the country itself. But in the minds of many, the Picos de Europa are the jewel in the Spanish crown. This tiny gem, only 30km by 25km in size, climbs to over 2500m in numerous places, but plunges to below 100m in others, offering, as a result, walking for all tastes. From gentle strolls along fertile valley bottoms, to hikes along gorges that slice through towering walls and peaks, to exacting high-mountain adventures over dry, cratered limestone, the variety of walks in the Picos de Europa means that there is something here for everyone.
Barely 20km south of the sea and 20km north of the plains of Castille, the Picos witness the intriguing effects of the Atlantic and Mediterranean climates rubbing up one against the other. Apparently exclusive habitats happily survive in close proximity, with north-facing slopes swathed in mature beech forest directly opposite rugged hillsides of thick Mediterranean scrub. Add to the equation the first-rate options for accommodation, the rich and varied cuisine, the favourable northern Spanish climate, plus the chance to mix demanding mountain days with long afternoons lazing on the beach, and you have all of the ingredients for an unforgettable holiday.
Walking in the Picos de Europa
42 walks and treks in Spain's first National Park
Guidebook describing walks and multi-day treks in the Picos de Europa, a striking limestone range that forms part of the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain. Routes vary in difficulty and some include an element of scrambling. Includes notes on transport, bases, accommodation and equipment, plus history, geology, plants and wildlife.More information
How to get there
Access to the Picos de Europa from the UK or Europe is not difficult and can be made either by air or by road through France. From the UK it is also possible to travel to Spain by ferry.
Brittany Ferries currently run twice-weekly services from Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) and three times a week from Portsmouth to Bilbao.
The closest airports to the Picos de Europa are those of Asturias (OVD), Santander (SDR) and Bilbao (BIO).
Bus services in and around the Picos de Europa are not good, with the exception of the summer service from Cangas de Onís to Covadonga, and from there on up to the Covadonga lakes. Much less frequent is the service between Cangas de Onís and Arenas de Cabrales on the north side of the range, or the service from Panes to Potes and then on to Fuente Dé on the south side. In short, it pays to have your own transport in order to be able to move around freely.
Language and money
European Spanish is spoken everywhere, although people in the villages in Asturias might mix this with their local language, Asturiano. In hotels, hostels, restaurants and many bars, somebody will speak some English. In an increasing number of places young members of catering and hotel staff will speak fairly good English.
The currency in Spain is the euro. Credit cards are used for many types of payment in shops, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and for online booking of mountain huts. However, cash is still the norm in bars and cafés. Payment through phone apps has not caught on yet to any significant extent but is still possible where credit cards are accepted. There are cashpoint machines in all the major towns.
Where to stay
Most of the walks in the guidebook can be done in a day, allowing you to return to a comfortable valley base each night. There is accommodation to fit all pockets in the valleys surrounding the Picos, from luxury hotels to simple hostels (albergues), and from self-catering cottages to cabins on campsites. In addition, some towns, such as Posada de Valdeón, have official camper-van parking with full facilities.
For longer walks or for strategic reasons, you may want to stay in one of the mountain huts. Full details of the huts in the Picos can be found in the guidebook, and whilst they are not of the hotel-like standards of those in the Alps, the refuges in the Picos de Europa offer meals and accommodation at reasonable prices. All nine huts currently operate through a centralised booking system (https://reservarefugios.com/en) and will require payment in advance. It is essential to use the booking system in July and August in order to guarantee a place. Most wardens speak some English.
When to visit
Depending on the routes you hope to follow, there is no closed season for the Picos de Europa. Valley walks can be done in mid-winter, and even if there is snow in the high mountains, this only adds to the scenery. However, for many visitors from the UK or the rest of Europe, the season running from early May to the end of October is probably the best.
As a minimum, parties venturing above 1500m in May and June, and some years even into July, should carry ice-axes and possibly crampons, and the skill set required to use them safely. By mid-July and August, the high mountains have shed the last of the snow and are open to all who are willing to make the effort. But be sure to carry enough water and know where springs are; even at 2000m it can get very hot in mid-summer. In addition, always carry a good waterproof, hat and gloves. Mid- and late-summer afternoons can end in thunderstorms which, quite apart from the fear factor, will give you a good soaking.
The weather usually cools off and calms down in September and October. However, early autumn nights can be decidedly cool, and of course the days are shorter than in high summer, although still long enough to do the routes in this guide.
Cangas de Onís
The walks in the Cangas de Onís sector all lie in the Western Massif, with a good number of them starting out quite high up at the Lagos de Covadonga, one of the foremost destinations for visitors to the Picos. From there, a number of routes venture up into the high mountains, although almost always on paths that are not as steep as those in the other sectors. This can make some of these outings attractive to less experienced walkers.
Cangas de Onís, the main town in the sector, offers all the services you would expect, including banks, supermarkets, shops, a post office, and a tourist information office. Cangas makes an excellent base for routes not just in the immediate area, but also in the Cabrales and Sajambre sectors. On the down side, because it is popular, Cangas de Onís can be quite crowded during the summer season.
The walks in the Cabrales sector lie in the northern reaches of the Eastern and Central massifs. Unlike those in the Onís sector, many walks in Cabrales involve considerable height gain and loss, as well as long sections of rough, sometimes trackless, high-mountain terrain. Despite this, the draw of the sector is irresistible – the spectacular Cares Gorge, Bulnes, the tiny village I passed through on my first visit to the Picos, and El Naranjo de Bulnes, or Picu Urriellu as it is known today, the king of the Picos skies, the mountain that left me speechless back in 1979.
The main town, Arenas de Cabrales, is conveniently situated at the entrance to the Cares Gorge. This makes it a major gateway for hiking in the Central and Eastern Massifs, and for access to delightful mountain villages such as Tielve, Sotres or Tresviso. Arenas and the nearby district capital, Carreña, offer most of the services you are likely to need – banks, supermarkets, shops, equipment stores, bars, restaurants and simple tourist information services. As is the case everywhere in the Picos, a wide range of accommodation is available, as well as a good campsite 2km east of Arenas.
One of the attractions here is the almost Mediterranean climate, due to the valley lying in a marked rain shadow. Liébana is the only place in the Picos where grapes are cultivated for wine-making, for example, and it enjoys more dry, sunny days than any other part of the range. The other major attraction of the Liébana is the wealth of gentler walks in and around the tiny villages that dot the northern slopes of the valley in particular. Finally, the cable car at Fuente Dé can whisk you up to 1800m in a matter of minutes and give you easy access to the high-mountain terrain of the Central Massif of the Picos.
For anyone travelling without their own transport, buses from Santander currently run twice a day run through Unquera and Panes, and then on to Potes via the spectacular Hermida Gorge. During the summer months the route from Santander is extended up the valley, through Espinama to Fuente Dé. For details see www.autobusespalomera.com.
Valdeón is an ideal base for activities in the southern part of the Western and Central massifs and is the starting point for the Cares Gorge walk. Wilder and far more remote than the other valleys of the Picos, the effort needed to reach Valdeón is amply rewarded once there. The whole valley lies in the same rain shadow as the Liébana area, and consequently enjoys equally good weather, although the nights are cooler as most villages lie at altitudes around the 1000m mark. The scenery is epic: huge sweeps of pristine beech woods clothe the southern slopes of the valley, whilst kilometric walls of vertical rock close Valdeón to the north. In short, it’s a mountaineer’s paradise, with walks for all tastes and abilities.
Is there a downside to Valdeón? If there is, it is the limited services, with no bank or sizeable supermarket operating in the valley at the current time. This means you need to plan in terms of food and supplies before you get there, or shop in Riaño, some 45 minutes away by car. Accommodation, on the other hand, is more than adequate, and can be found in one form or another in all the villages in the valley.
Sajambre is the smallest sector in the guide, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in other ways. The villages cluster around Oseja, the capital, and are surrounded by ancient beech woods and sheer rock walls. The walks range from strolls along centuries-old drove roads, to long days in middle- and high-mountain terrain.
Oseja de Sajambre has enough basic services to make a short stay comfortable, with a small supermarket, a chemist’s and three bars, two of which have basic restaurant services. In such a small place, accommodation is limited, although there are several rural houses for rent in both Oseja and Soto. There is no campsite and the nearest petrol stations are some way away in Riaño or Cangas de Onís.
Maps and GPS
GPS in the Picos
Over these last few years, the benefits of GPS when it works have become apparent, as have the problems when it doesn’t. The benefits hardly need stating, but the vertical cliffs, gorges and woods make the Picos too steep for GPS to be fully reliable. In short, you need to take a paper map with you, and you need to know how to use it in combination with a reliable compass.
Editorial Alpina, Picos de Europa Parque Nacional, 1:25,000 - http://www.editorialalpina.com/en
Adrados Ediciones, Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, Mapa topográfica excursionista con la reseña de los itinerrarios de Pequeño y Gran Recorrido (PR y GR) 1:50,000
Digital maps: Bob Boulan, Picos de Europa - http://boulan.blogspot.com (and go to Adquirir el mapa)
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