Picos de Europa was Spain’s first national park, and is Asturias most visited area. Picos de Europa literally means the Peaks of Europa. A name given by sailors and travelers. As returning from the sea, the first land they saw, were the majestic mountains of the Picos.
Picos de Europa is a limestone massif reaching a height of 2648 meters. Rising 20 km inland from the northern coast of Spain. And as such a massive barrier to the clouds coming from the sea. Perfect conditions for mountains full of green meadows and forests, and a huge variety of fauna and flora. No wonder it was declared a Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO on the 9th of July in 2003.
The Picos de Europa covers parts of the Autonomous Communities of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León, forming part of the Cantabrian Mountains. In Asturias it covers the municipalities of Amieva, Cangas de Onis, Onis, Cabrales, Peñamellera Alta and Peñamellera Baja.
Picos de Europa, the peaks of Europe
Originally, the first national park was, the Western part of the current park. It was called as well the National Park of the Mountain of Covadonga. Covadonga is Spain’s most important religious site, receiving of over 1 miljon visitors a year. It was there where the first king of Asturias Pelayo, won a battle against the Moors. This resulted in the foundation of the kingdom of Asturias. And a start of the reconquista, or the liberation of Spain from Moor occupation. On the 30th of May in 1995 it became the largest national park of the country as we know it now.
Today the Picos de Europa consists of three major massifs :
- the Western massif also known as the Macizo del Cornión
- the Central massif or Los Urrieles
- the Eastern massif or Ándara
The river Sella marks the limits of the Picos de Europa in the West, and in the East by the river Deva. In total the park consists of 64 600 hectares or 646 square kilometers. The major part is located in Asturias and is 550 square kilometers wide.
The Western massif is separated from the Central massif by the river Cares and its deep gorge (Garganta del Cares). Most of the water of the river comes from cave resurgences. In the North of the deep valley the water is diverted through a canal to the hydroelectric central of Poncebos. It is there where a famous spectacular walk along the canal starts, which ends in the village of Caín in Castilla y León.
The three massifs are moles of limestone from about 300 million years ago. Initially they were submerged, until heavy forces folded them up. Later strong karst erosion and glacier modification created the mountains as we know them now. Typical for such a karst topography is the lack of surface water, as limestone dissolves in water and erodes through the stone creating caves, deep valleys or gorges, chasms and vertical rock faces.
It is almost a mystery as not many talk about it, and you can’t see them where tourists come. But Picos de Europa contain many of world’s deepest caves which are over 1500 meters deep. We have Torca del Cerro (−1589 m), Sima de la Cornisa (−1507 m), Torca los Rebecos (−1255 m) and Pozo del Madejuno (−1252 m). New caves are still discovered and explored.
Beside that, some of the sinkholes or jous (“hous” in Asturian) are over a kilometer and more wide. Sinkholes which are formed by lakes which drained through the limestone creating huge caves which eventually collapsed.
Off course the Picos de Europa attracts many mountaineers, climbers and mountain walkers. It can count on a good network of well-established mountain refuges. The most well known peak is the Picu Urriellu, or el Naranjo de Bulnes as the tourists call it. This name comes from the color orange it gets when the undergoing sun is shining on the peak. El Picu is not the highest, but this peak in the Urrieles massif is the most famous climb in Spain. The highest peak is Torre de Cerredo, with an altitude of 2,650 meters.
Fauna & flora
In the Picos de Europa traditional methods of livestock farming goes hand in hand with wildlife preservation. Sometimes the two clash, especially when wolves kill to much cows or sheep. Those wolves live in the more remote regions, as well as the Cantabrian brown bear. Further you find Cantabrian chamois, roe deers, the Spanish Ibex, choughs, buzzards, eagles and griffon vultures in the park, and 154 different butterfly species. If you are lucky you find the Capercaillie, which is the emblem of the Picos de Europa. In the rivers you find trout and salmons.
The oak, the holm oak, the beech and the holly are the trees which occupy the forests. If you like orchids, then you can find them on the green meadows.
In the Picos de Europa you find traditional farming. In the summer shepherds go into the mountains with their sheep, goats and cows. As such it is an aera with the finest produce of mountain food : a stew like Fabada, a meat casserole like Pote de Berzas, natural cider, … and most of all cheeses like the blue cheese Cabrales or the Gamoneu.
What to visit !
The principal entrances to the Picos de Europa Park and sites to visit are …
Cangas de Onís
From Cangas de Onís you can go to the Sanctuary of Covadonga, dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Covadonga. As I wrote earlier, it is historically and religiously the most important site in Spain. Here, the first Asturian king Pelayo, defeated the Moors in the Battle of Covadonga. This battle took place somewhere between 718 and 725 AD, and was the start of the Reconquista of Spain.
GPS Sanctuary of Covadonga … 43.308534 | -5.054996
From Covadonga you can go up to the mountains, towards the Lakes of Covadonga. This you can do with your very own car or by bus in the high season. From glacier origin, they are extraordinary as normally there is no surface water in a karst topography. The two lakes are named Enol and Ercina, and located in the Western massif. These lakes became a popular site as since 1983 it is frequently a finishing line in the Tour of Spain or La Vuelta. For the real mountaineers among us you can go higher into the mountains to the viewing platform of Ordiales.
Arenas de Cabrales
After leaving Arenas de Cabrales, a small deep valley gives you access to Poncebos. Which is the starting point to discover the best sightseeing of Asturias, located in the Central Massif. Such as the Pico Urriellu, with its 2519 meters high the most famous mountain of Spain. The village Bulnes is closest to the mountain. Don’t search it on your car’s GPS system! As the village can not be reached by car. At Poncebos you can take the funicular of Bulnes, or the fit, can walk on a very nice mountain route to Bulnes. The mountaineers can go from Bulnes up into the mountains to the refuge Vega de Urriellu at the base of the Pico Urriellu.
GPS Poncebos … 43.258371 | -4.830876
At Poncebos starts as well a walk through the 1,5 kilometers deep Cares Canyon towards Caín in Castilla y León. It is a 12 kilometer long easy walk, apart from an initial small climb it is a level route on a wide path. This route offers you a spectacular scenery and is a must-do among the Asturians.
Fuente Dé is located at the end of a valley, at 28 km from Potes. Beside a few hotels and a Parador. There is a station of an aerial tramway which brings you up into the mountains. From there tourists make a little walk, but for mountaineers it is the starting point to discover more.
GPS Fuente Dé … 43.143923 | -4.812434
Hiking and walking in Picos de Europa is not without dangers. Numerous stories are going around, about people who have disappeared and never have been found again. Due to the steep valleys, the many sinkholes and the weather which can change rapidly. So taking precautions is necessary.
Unfortunately there is not any decent website in English about Picos de Europa. Yet, here a small list I recommend, if you need more information.
… the Picos de Europa … English guide
… Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa … Website about the Spanish National Parks by el Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente.
… Parque Nacional Picos de Europa … This website has lots of information, unfortunately not in English.
… Iberian Wildlife Tours … About Fauna and Wildlife in the Picos de Europa.
Oficina de Información “Casa Dago” …
Address … Avenida Covadonga, 43 | 33550 Cangas de Onís
Telephone … 0034 – 985 84 86 14
Opening hours … 09.00 till 14.00 | 17.00 till 18,30 (summer)
and … 9.00 till 14.00 | 16.00 till 18:30 (rest of the year)
With exposition and projection hall with educational and audiovisual exhibitions on the natural environment and ethnography. As well a library, an arboretum and guided visits.
GPS … 43.350941 | -5.125621
There is as well a visitor center near the parking space at the lakes of Covadonga.
Centro de Visitantes Pedro Pidal …
Address … Área de Buferrera, Lagos de Enol
Here you will find audiovisual models on the National Park. Outside there is an arboretum with native species, a little mining museum and walking itineraries from the center.
Contact the “Casa Dago” information office in Cangas de Onís for group visits or information on opening times.
Header photograph © by Manuel Angel Cueto