We’ve been on holiday. What has that to do with this blog? Well, I’d say it’s half relevant content, half off-topic because, among other places in northern Spain, we’ve been to the Asturian part of the Picos de Europa, one of the fifteen National Parks of the country. And, OK, you can also guess that this is a cheap excuse for not writing for a few weeks…
Picos de Europa was, together with Ordesa (in the Pyrenees), the first protected area in Spain, being declared in 1918, just a few years after the first one in the world, Yellowstone (1872). This way, Spain became a pioneering country in European conservationism.
Back in the day, Picos de Europa was called the Montaña de Covadonga Park, and had barely one fourth of the extent it has nowadays.
The landscape and the flora
We are in the Cantabrian range, just 15 Km away from the coast, among limestone mountains. The weather is constantly wet, and fog goes up and down as veils during the warmer months. The soil is poor in the mountainsides and deep in the valleys, highly influenced by cattle, that has modeled the landscape for many years. Endless pastures in the lower part, deciduous forests in the middle part, and sharp, rocky peaks inhabited by tiny alpine flowers.
Our (short) trip
We had so many plans for the holidays, but most of them were spoiled by the weather and the fog. I’m just going to talk about the hit moment of the trip: the Picu Urriellu. A tough hike, but an amazing experience that we’d repeat anytime.
Hike to the Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu)
We planned to tackle this ambitious hike on the last day, but we had to change our plans due to the weather. The Urriellu, with its 2519 meters height, isn’t the highest peak of the mountain range (that’d be Torre Cerredo), but it’s very famous because of the huge limestone rock that crowns it, that appears orange at sunset.
If you are botany freaks like me, you’ll enjoy a lot seeing how vegetation changes along the track. We start in man-made landscapes, with no trees and devoted to cattle and small vegetable gardens. As we go uphill, hillock after hillock, we cross mountainsides covered in mixed forests of ashes, maples, oaks, chestnuts, walnut tress… The higher, the more oaks we see, until the rest of species disappear and beeches start showing, dominating a landscape made up of cleared forests and mountain pastures. Yews and service trees are also somewhat present among the oaks and the beeches. Finally, as we get into the alpine zone, the size of the plants decreases along with the depth of the soil. Trees lead into shrubs (Juniperus, Genista) and then they disappear as well and the landscape seems lunar. Just rocks, and tiny herbaceous plants where a bit of soil accumulates.
Even though the peak ends in 600 m of vertical stone wall, and it’s only possible to reach the highest point by climbing, you can hike to the shelter placed just at its base. There are several routes to get there, being the ones departing from Sotres and Puente Poncebos the two most famous. We decided to start from Sotres, as it’s a slightly easier hike.
The walk starts in a forest path coming out of the right side of the road just before reaching Sotres. We parked the car in the village itself, but there are people parking on the track itself. After walking about 1 Km, a split leads us downhill to the right to a group of cabins (los invernales del Texu), we saw a few more cars parked in this area. We continue through the path among the cabins and start zigzagging uphill through a wooded slope.
In the highest point, the path becomes flatter and we head up to another zone with several parked cars. From this area, a path goes downhill to the Bulnes village. Instead of this path, we walk uphill crossing a pasture to the right of the terrace with the cars to the Collado de Pandebano. The track is not very clear at this point, but there are signs pointing to Vega del Urriellu or Majada de la Terenosa. The sight from this point is supposed to be amazing, but we only saw fog, foggy, fog. And cows. And some goats. And more fog.
Oh boy was it foggy.
But we decided to continue to the Majada de la Terenosa using this wet, full of cow dung, blurred path. There is a group of cabins in the Terenosa and a shelter with a guard during the summer months. We stopped there to eat something and asked him if it was safe to continue with that fog. He told us to go on, as fog accumulates in the middle part of the mountain, but the highest part would be clear.
So we decided to be brave and go on through the cleared beech and oak forest past the Majada de la Terenosa. The path becomes clearer and we see fewer and fewer trees as we walk. The fog was also dispersing little by little and by the time we reached a part bordered by a rocky wall, it was completely gone. The landscape near the peak is otherworldly, but there’s still a bit of walking to do until a turn to the left where the huge stone appears crowning the moon-like scene. Only a few hundred meters are left to the mountain shelter at the base of the Naranjo de Bulnes.
But we couldn’t get there. It was kinda frustrating, but as the afternoon hours passed, the fog ascended very quickly covering everything and we thought it’d be safer to go down before it got dark.
Even though, we got to the car with just a dim dusk light, after a 40 Km route, tired as I’ve never been before, with a storm sounding at the distance, but with the sensation of having no limits and feeling a little more connected to Nature. Spartans! What’s your profession?! Huh, huh, huuuhhhhh.
Tips if you are planning to hike the Naranjo
Even though the track itself is not very difficult, it’s very long and steep (800-900 m slope) and that makes it tough. Besides, doing it in July made us be cold and hot intermittently, and that was pretty uncomfortable. After the experience, I think I’ve learnt a few things:
- It’s important to carry enough water, but bear in mind that water is heavy and the hike is long, so drink it all or don’t take too much in excess.
- But it’s always better to carry a little more than needed, than a little less.
- Regarding food, prioritize nutrient-rich but light foods: nuts, energy bars, dry fruit… They were fundamental for us towards the end of the route, when we were most tired.
- Wear boots. Lots of slopes and lots of loose rocks.
- Wear very comfortable boots. If they hurt you a little bit after a while, they won’t do. Bear in mind that you are going to walk for a very long time.
- Wear high quality socks. Soft, thick, comfy and moisture wicking. The best boot will be uncomfortable with bad socks.
- You’ve got to be prepared for both rain and scorching sun, the weather in Asturias is crazy.
- Finally, be careful with the fog, as it develops quite fast and the visibility is very low. I’ve been told that it’s usually foggier in summer, so I think that it’d be better to hike this route in late spring or September. Be informed about the weather and ask the locals.
Reaching a peak is an unforgettable experience that anyone can achieve being a little fit. As you finish the hike, you are already planning the next peak you’re going to crown, even tough you’re tired. It’s a real adventure, do you dare?
All images are my own.