Picos de Europa is the reason we came to Spain. After seeing photos online of mountain top balds, vertical rock faces, and high-elevation lakes, we were hooked. Located in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain and a mere 12 miles from the coast, the park straddles the three provinces of Asturias, Cantabria, and Castile and León. Years of glacial erosion shaped immense limestone massifs which are now bounded by deep valleys and gorges. (Before Picos we didn’t know what a “massif” is–and though I’m still a bit confused–my understanding is that it’s essentially a large stone outcropping.) The Rivers Cares and Duje split the area into three massifs: western (El Cornión), central (Los Urrielles) and eastern (Andara).
In 1919 Picos became Spain’s first national park. The original park boundaries have since been expanded and now encompass just under 250 square miles. Being such a large area, we feared missing places, but we feel that we got to experience the highlights. Below is a list of our favorite trails. Some are well known, but others we “discovered” are well off the beaten path. The trail lengths are based off of the park trail maps while the difficulty level is our personal opinion (which we often deemed more strenuous than the park officials). The duration does include time for rest breaks, food stops, and (of course) photos. Though the words here do not eloquently nor adequately describe the awesome beauty that is Picos, hopefully the pictures below can speak for themselves.
Medium | 8.6 mi | Loop | 4.5 hr
This hike starts with a ride up the Fuente Dé teleférico (or cable car) up to the trailhead. A 4 minute ride on the longest single-span lift in all of Europe drops riders off 2,500′ higher in elevation than the valley down below. A one-way ticket costs 11€/person.
The trail is mostly downhill as it leads back to the cable car departure station. Starting off in snow-capped rocky peaks, the trail leads to open mountain meadows, eventually meeting the treeline and finishing in forested areas bordered by cattle and sheep pastures.
Ruta Del Cares
Hard| 15.0 mi | Out & Back | 10 hr
Built over 100 years ago, this trail was originally intended for the workers at an upstream hydroelectric plant. Also known as the “Cares Gorge Trail,” the path carved into the rock connects the towns (if you can even call them that) of Poncebos and Caín. Mostly uphill for the first 1.5 miles, the gravel trail eventually levels out as it meanders along the cliff’s edge above the Cares River. Goats stubbornly block the trail at times while others butt heads on seemingly-impassable steep slopes. There is no tree cover or any other relief from the sun which can make this trail brutal on a hot and sunny day.
Though we hiked this trail as an out-and-back, it is possible as a one-way. The Alsa bus company offers transportation between Poncebos and Caín during the busier summer months. When buses aren’t operating, local adventure companies also offer a shuttle service, but for a hefty price. We were quoted 125€ for the 2.5 hour return ride.
Lakes of Covadonga
Easy | 2.6 mi | Loop | 2 hr
Leaving Cangas de Onís, the drive to the trailhead rises over 3,000′ until eventually touching the clouds. We thought we were unlucky with the weather, but later learned that quick-moving clouds in the area are typical. Non-demanding trails wrap around Lakes Enol and Ercina leading past cattle pastures, winding through glacial moraines, and following seemingly forgotten roads. Of the trails we hiked in Picos, nowhere else did the weather change more rapidly. Overcast, rain, wind, cold, sun, hot, rain, sun, overcast happens in mere minutes; so (even in the summer months) a rain jacket and hat is recommended.
It is interesting to note that this area is access restricted. From June 1 to the first Sunday in October the road to the Lakes at Convadonga is closed to private vehicles between the hours of 8:30 AM and 9 PM. During these hours, the only way to access the lakes is by parking near the Sanctuary of Covadonga (2€/vehicle) and riding the Alsa bus (9€/person). Save some money and allow for some flexibility by driving yourself (being sure to arrive before the access gates close at 8:30 AM!)
Collado de Llesva
Easy | 2.5 mi | Out & Back | 2 hr
This trail, though easy, is very rewarding. Expect to have this ridge line trail completely to yourself. A clear day provides sweeping 360 degree views of the park and surrounding area. Even the Cantabrian Sea to the north can be seen (first photo). Solitude, panoramic views, and (though uncontrollable) great weather, makes this hike one of our favorites.
BEWARE OF THE DRIVE TO THE TRAILHEAD! The road twists and turns and is something out of a car commercial. Though it is fun to drive, blind turns are everywhere and the truck drivers here seem to make excessively wide turns. Had we not been defensive, we would have had a head-on collision with one.