Picos de Europa: Yosemite can wait


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Let us surrender to the magnificence of the Naranjo de Bulnes, let us lose ourselves in the thicket of the Matona forest, challenge the throat of the Cares river and breathe very deeply when we reach Lake Enol.

These are the Picos de Europa, the domains of King Pelayo and the virgin of Covadonga; the first national park in Spain for a hundred years and to which we will pay the tribute it deserves with a trekking through its most emblematic places. But, first of all, how was the Covadonga Mountain National Park born?

Lago Enol

Enol Lake © iStock


Asturias, 1904. The French, in a military desire to map half the world reach the Picos de Europa and crown their main summits except for one.

The Naranjo de Bulnes or Pico Urriellu, among Asturians, was the last great peak yet to be conquered; a calcareous monolith of 2, 519 meters above the Massif Central that still seems inaccessible today.

At that time, Pedro Pidal, Marqués de Villaviciosa and deputy to Cortes, in a show of patriotism decides to climb the most mythical mountain of the Cantabrian Mountains. And he does it in the company of Gregorio Pérez “El Cainejo” thus starring in the first great feat of Spanish mountaineering.

"That's when he begins to be interested in the landscape, sports and tourism value of the Picos de Europa" explains Luis Aurelio González, doctor of political philosophy with several publications about the region, "until then his favorite chamois hunter."

With his new “eco” mentality he travels to the USA. UU. to discover the sanctuaries of nature tourism: Yellowstone and Yosemite parks. In the latter, go up to Glacier Point to see the colossal pattern of canyons, waterfalls, redwood forests and granite mountains that were already beginning to be a magnet for tourists.

"If they can, why can't we?" Pidal must have thought. The bulk of the Naranjo de Bulnes has little to envy to that of El Capitan ; neither the Cares gorge to the Tenaya canyon, nor the Urdiales viewpoint to the Glacier Point gorge. The latter only lacked a road to compete with the Californian, but the Marquis would take care of it.

Vega Urriellu

Vega Urriellu © Getty Images

And in this way, on July 22, 1918, to the surprise of the press that saw him as another of the eccentricities of Pidal , the first national park in Spain, that of Covadonga Mountain, where history, the Nature and mysticism merge into one.


And we will merge with him ; starting at the place where King Pelayo would forge his legend, Covadonga, (Cangas de Onís) to finish where Pedro Pidal would also forge his: the Naranjo de Bulnes.

But let's be cautious, that the mountain does not forgive. The Picos de Europa (67, 455 ha) are formed by three massifs between Asturias, León and Cantabria, with a changing climate and nature, from sharp ridges of 2, 600 meters to bucolic meadows almost at sea level.

A sunny day on this hill can become rainy when you reach the next valley, or foggy, which is much worse. But don't panic that we have everything under control.

In our team of "Pico explorers" you can not miss the mountain boots, waterproof and warm clothes (welcome to the north), sunscreen, map, first aid kit and enough water.

Covadonga desde la Cruz de Priena

Covadonga from the Cruz de Priena © Javier Martínez Mansilla

Consulting the weather will avoid us more than a dislike and planning the route with time is always the most advisable. We will do it with Fernando Ruiz, the guide of Picos de Europa (and there are a few) that for more than 30 years have organized tailor-made excursions from their lodge in the House of the Mountain (Cangas de Onís).

In the Sanctuary of Covadonga we forget the car and let spirituality take over us as it does throughout the valley among an exuberant nature. A deep beech and oak forest climbs from the Vega del Vega river to the Matona, Cruz de Priena and Auseva mountains where the virgin of Covadonga hides in her Holy Cave over a waterfall.

We climb the stairs that lead to the Basilica, with neo-Gothic elegance and pinkish complexion that makes it shine in the middle of the foliage. At its doors, a statue of King Pelayo still defends the site today and since 722, commemorating the place where the first great battle of the Reconquest would win.

After this natural explosion and between a mystical halo we take east to cross the Massif del Cornión (Western) and conquer the imposing Urrieles (Central) until we reach the most emblematic of the Asturian mountains. Let's get ready to climb.

Basílica de Covadonga

Basilica of Covadonga © Getty Images

The slope of San Ginés allows us to dominate the slope of the Cruz de Priena and witness the monumental panoramic view of the Sanctuary from above.

We walk along the path that runs between hazelnuts, streams, sidewalks and hills to the Covadonga Lakes road (CO-4), where buses give way to leisurely cows and heroic cyclists that emulate one of the most iconic stages of the Tour of Spain . Before taking the car, you should consult the access plan on the park website.

A stony track frees us from the tired asphalt and leads us to the Collado de Uberdón, which protects the Vega de Comeya from the strong wind. From this muddy plain we will climb the El Escaleru tunnel to the outskirts of the Covadonga lakes.

It is now time for rest and meditation, to lie on the banks of the Enol and Ercina and see the snowy peaks reflected in its waters. A picture of the most bucolic, if the herds of tourists do not spoil it.

The House of Shepherds of Vega de Enol (€ 35), will be a good place to spend our first night on the mountain.

Las ovejas reinan junto a las cabañas invernales de Sotres

The sheep reign next to the winter huts of Sotres © Javier Martínez Mansilla

The path that departs from Tiese's fields and is lost on the mountain evokes our Pidal spirit and invites us to continue the march. Heading southwest, we go up to the Majada de las Bobias to continue along the hill of the Head of the Form (1, 717 m) to the Collado de Jito.

These are the Picos de Europa of which they had spoken to us. The soft pastures are giving way to the sharp limestone ridges and the nice cow cows are giving way to the chamois, which climb as if nothing snowy slopes.

Before us, one of the most spectacular prints of the national park with the Urrieles peaks unfolds, forming a gigantic wall of limestone ridges on which the Torrecerredo (2, 648 m), the roof of the Cantabrian Mountains, rises. Who remembers Yosemite now?

The jokes are over, we have risen to 1, 631 meters and we still want more, but let's rest first in the shelter of Vega de Ario (€ 15), and let's review our next stage with the mountaineers : the Trea canal.

Slowly and very carefully. This breathtaking path, 1, 200 meters of unevenness through caves, boulders and the occasional oak, ends in the park's most famous gorge, the Cares, and demands a good physical form and little fear of heights.

Vega de Ario

Vega de Ario © Getty Images

After Trea, walking along the "divine throat" becomes a peaceful walk with wonderful views of this gorge carved by Cares between mountains of more than two thousand meters.

In two hours we arrive at Poncebos where we will make an ascent (yes, another) through the Tejo river channel (GR-202) until we reach Bulnes (Cabrales).

The funicular that connects Poncebos Bridge with this village is also a very valid option (€ 22 round trip), although quite expensive.

Isolated in the middle of the mountain, Bulnes is one of the most picturesque villages in Asturias, with just 20 inhabitants and endless anecdotes to tell. We asked the locals for the best route to Naranjo de Bulnes. "Orange? Of that nothing, " they correct. Here (and throughout Asturias) is called Picu Urriellu. And that's it

We talked for a while about Cabrales cheese, grazing and life in general with the wisest of the place until we resume the climb to Urriellu. In a couple of hours we reach the Pandébano hill (1, 200 m), one of the best viewpoints of the Naranjo, which challenges us and invites us to take the pulse from the top of its wall of 550 meters of limestone. Small heroes were made Pidal and "El Cainejo".

Aldea de Bulnes

Village of Bulnes, isolated in the middle of the mountain © Javier Martínez Mansilla

The path leads us through the Majada de la Terenosa to the Collau Vallejo. We follow the silhouette of the huge Jou Lluengo, a valley of glacial origin where the fog begins to appear and the goats watch our way. How small Bulnes looks down there and how big the Urriellu up there.

Finally we reach the valley of Urriellu, at 1, 960 meters from altitu d, where the mountain environment reigns around the refuge (€ 15) and the camp at the foot of the legendary peak.

Un pastor vigila su rebaño

A shepherd watches over his flock © Javier Martínez Mansilla

Here the climbers prepare to crown one of the most tempting mountain peaks in the world and we … we will enjoy the atmosphere and the views from the base camp and begin to consider our way back to end in Sotres, at the gates of the massif Oriental (or Ándara). We have lived enough adventure.

El Parador de Cangas de Onís

The Parador de Cangas de Onís © Javier Martínez Mansilla

To eat, we chose the Peña Castil Restaurant in Sotres. Quality traditional cuisine to regain strength after the ascent of Urriellu (€ 20)

And to sleep, luxury and sobriety in a historic monastery on the banks of the Sella: the Parador de Cangas de Onís (€ 100-200). Or we can also choose the option of Heredad de la Cueste, a wonderful village house in Llenín (Cangas de Onís) with views of the western massif (from € 60).

Collado de Pandébano

Pandébano pass © Javier Martínez Mansilla