Picos de Europa National Park in northern Spain is so far from the classic image of the country that it might as well be on another planet. There are no olive plantations or palm trees here; this range of mountains is a land of jagged peaks hewn by the harsh weather systems coming in from the Atlantic. It is a place with its own special rugged beauty and allure, and for hikers and nature lovers, it is a wonderland of wilderness still largely untouched by the unrestrained tourist development of other parts of the country.
Once you head onto the trails, wildlife is a big attraction. You are most likely to spot birdlife, including griffin vultures, red egrets and eagles. Wild and domestic goats are common, and you may encounter wild boar. The iconic animal of the mountains is the Cantabrian chamois; brown bears and Iberian wolves are present, but it is unlikely you will see any.
The dramatic landscape of the Picos begins almost directly from the Atlantic Ocean on the north coast of Spain, with some of the peaks soaring precipitously to over 2000m. The high mountains are rugged and imposing and some remain snow-capped for much of the year. The verdant valleys below are criss-crossed by sparkling rivers and feature many waterfalls.
- Wilderness factor:
There are several small settlements within the National Park, most of them no more than hamlets. There are one or two tourist hot-spots with a few hotels or restaurants, but once you set out into the mountains, there are large areas where you are unlikely to encounter any other living soul.
Hiking in the Picos is the main reason visitors venture here. The area boasts a wide variety of trails that traverse the high mountains or pass through the valleys below, ranging from a few hours to two or three days in length. The easiest walks are suitable for any ability but the hardest can be a test for even the most experienced hikers.
- Cares Gorge Trail, one of the most scenic hiking trails in Picos de Europa
- Basilica of Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga, a rosy walled church perched on a hill
- Puente Romano, a high-arched bridge dating back to the 13th century, at Cangas de Onís
- Adventure activities such as canoeing, mountain biking, canyoning and horse riding
- Popular sites such as Potes, Covadonga and the funicular de Bulnes, can become very busy during July and August
- Weather is highly unpredictable year-round
- Locals are unlikely to speak any English
Good to know: hiking
- The most famous and arguably most attractive of the trails is the Cares Gorge Trail, a highly picturesque walk of around 11km that takes in some of the Picos’ most spectacular scenery.
- The many other rewarding trails are mostly clearly signposted.
- Many of the walks in the area are highly challenging and often include tough steep sections.
- Weather can be unpredictable, and it is essential to plan walks properly and to choose trails suitable for the abilities of all participants.
If you’d like to trek the Cares Gorge, and explore a little bit more of the national park, here is a Picos tour that might suit you. For a longer hiking experience through Picos de Europa, you might want to check out Walking in the Picos de Europa tour.
- Covadonga occupies an important position in Spanish history as the place where the reconquest began. The site now consists of an impressive basilica clinging to the side of the hill, a museum, and caves nearby containing holy shrines.
- Cangas de Onís is a small, tourist-friendly town that makes a good place to stop for lunch as you drive through. The main landmark is the high-arched Puente Romano — although the bridge that now stands there is not the original Roman construction. The town is also home to the Capilla de Santa Cruz, a tiny 15th century chapel, one of the oldest Christian sites in Spain. An excavation inside displays ancient Celtic remains.
- Adventure activities abound in the area, and as you drive through, many signs advertising canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, horse riding and more line the road. If you are in the area for a few days and want to do something other than just walking, there are plenty of options to choose from. Check out this tour to get a little bit of everything to do in Picos.
The walking season in the mountains is from June to September. Outside of these months, the weather at high altitudes can be treacherous. Peak season is July and August, but at this time, the most popular places can become overrun by tourists. During spring (April – May) and autumn (September – October), the higher trails are not recommended, but at these times, there are few tourists and the area is at its most picturesque.
It is possible to visit the Picos in a day trip, which would allow enough time to attempt a shorter walk or to visit some of the more accessible towns or villages. However, to truly appreciate the area, it would be preferable to stay at least three or four days. This would leave enough to tackle some of the longer walks, to stay overnight in some of the quaint mountain villages and to experience traditional life in this remote corner of the country.
The towns and villages within the park provide a full range of accommodation. Inexpensive, homely hotels are available in the main tourist-oriented settlements and prices are usually around USD 49 – 124*.
The towns and villages also often have hostel accommodation consisting of dorm rooms with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. Prices are around USD 12 – 25.
Many campsites exist for those with their own camping gear. Campsites cost around USD 12 – 37 depending on the facilities available.
In the mountains, there is an established network of refugios (mountain refuges), some staffed, others simply unmanned huts for hikers to shelter in overnight for USD 12 – 25. It is also possible to camp next to refugios if you have your own equipment.
- The weather systems coming in from the Atlantic hit the mountains of the Picos and can cause conditions to change abruptly. Even in summer, clouds can roll in, suddenly and dramatically reducing visibility. Rain is also always a possibility. It is essential to come prepared for all weather conditions.
- During high season, accommodations can quickly become booked up. Even in the off season, it is recommended to book ahead to avoid disappointment.
- Some public transport is available but is infrequent. Especially during winter, it might be impractical to rely on public transport to navigate the Picos, and private transport can make things far easier.
- No permit is required and there is no fee to enter the park.
Although popular with domestic tourists, the Picos de Europa National Park is largely unknown outside of the country. This is rather surprising since this hidden corner of wilderness in the far north of Spain offers superb hiking possibilities through an appealingly rough and scenic landscape. For lovers of the outdoors in search of a more unusual destination, the Picos could be an inspired choice.
Note: Prices are as of February 2018.