Trekking in the Picos de Europa

Juanjo Alvarez is a busy man. He’s worked with our partners Explore Worldwide since 1993, hosting their travellers at his hotel in the town of Sotres, in Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park. And with the support of his family, he also acts as tour leader, mountain guide, driver, reliable source of weather advice, and everything else in-between in the national park, as well as being part of the Asturias caving rescue team. You won’t hear Juanjo complaining about being busy though. “The Picos are my home. I know every single corner of these mountains, and there’s nothing I love more than showing them to people.”

The Picos de Europa – the peaks of Europe – are so named because for American ships crossing the Atlantic they would be their first sight of Europe. Set just in from the north coast of Spain, this is one of the continent’s most renowned walking destinations, yet it remains relatively under the radar.
“I know every single corner of these mountains, and there’s nothing I love more than showing them to people.”
Trekking in the Picos de Europa sees you follow faded shepherds’ paths, ancient Roman roads, and tunnels cut into the cliff face. You cross alpine meadows, take cable cars up to high mountain passes and dramatic plateaus, and summit imposing limestone peaks. The Picos’ western, central and eastern massifs are separated by plunging river gorges, most notably the vast Cares Gorge, a cleft over 1km deep and some 12km long, which you’ll cross by a medieval packhorse bridge. Keep an eye out for the rare wallcreeper birds that cling daringly to these vertical rock faces, their narrow bills perfect for probing into cracks where spiders and insects scurry.

“The wildlife in these mountains is very important and the reason that the Picos de Europa was the first national park in Spain,” says Juanjo. “Here you see birds like the bearded vulture, eagles and hawks, as well as wolves, wild boar, chamois, deer and more. And we have lots of human history too. All part of this little mountain paradise in the north of Spain.”

Walking responsibly in the Picos de Europa

How to travel responsibly in the Picos de Europa? “Just enjoy everything,” affirms Juanjo. “The wildlife, the flowers, the landscapes, the culture, the gastronomy. Listen to your tour leaders’ explanations, and just relax. I’ve been welcoming people here for thirty years and they’ve always been responsible travellers with a great environmental awareness, and I’m sure that won’t change.”

When you trek in the Picos de Europa you’ll stay in small, often family-run hotels like Juanjo’s own, eating delicious and hearty homemade meals. Your base will be in a mountain community such as Arenas de Cabrales, Abándames, or Sotres with its delightful stone houses. “Sotres is the highest town in the Picos de Europa,” says Juanjo of his home. “Just seventy people live here all year-round. In the summer it is full of sun and flowers, in the winter it is full of snow. But it’s difficult to explain how Sotres is with words, it’s much better to come and experience it.”
Some of these places can be totally cut-off by snow during winter which means they really depend on tourism during the rest of the year. And not just the hotels and restaurants. Forgot your poles? Purchase a hand-carved wooden walking stick from a local craftsperson in the handsome medieval town of Potes, perhaps. And – if you’re a turophile, as cheese aficionados are known – walking here can be heavenly. The Asturias region produces the finest cheeses in Spain, and many are made within the national park.

Older residents of Picos communities very often won’t speak much English, or any at all. But that doesn’t mean they’re not happy to chat. Holidays that combine walking and Spanish language lessons are popular – you’ll spend a few hours in the classroom in the morning, then hike the trails and wander the villages in the afternoon practising your conversation with local people introduced to you by your guide.

Knowledgeable local guides such as Juanjo make walking here so enjoyable. They know the best refuges for an alpine picnic with a spectacular view, which springs are safe to fill your water bottles from, and a wealth of unmarked trails where you can find yourselves completely alone.

Erosion is becoming an issue on some more popular routes, so guides will also ensure you stick to the trail and avoid damaging any fragile habitats. Once known for its coal mining and steelworks, today the Asturias region boasts a number of biosphere reserves, including the Picos de Europa, that combine biodiversity with small-scale industry. Iberian wolves and brown bears roam these peaks, though you’d be extremely lucky to spot one.

What does hiking in the Picos de Europa involve?

I think I have found my piece of paradise in these mountains.

Small group or self-guided trips

There are both fully escorted and self-guided options available for trekking in the Picos de Europa National Park. The Picos can be quite an unforgiving mountain range – you need only look up to notice how these limestone massifs have been carved by savage elemental forces. And the weather can change quickly, hence you’re well-advised to layer clothing and pack waterproofs even in summer.

Self-guided trips tend to be best suited to experienced walkers. Your tour operator will provide you with detailed route notes that you can rely on, and some will also issue GPS devices. Everything is organised ahead of you, from transfers to accommodation, so you can focus on the walking. Furthermore, itineraries can be adjusted according to your abilities and interests. More challenging tailor made trips can be accompanied by dedicated mountain guides, and you’ll sleep in basic but comfortable refuges.

Fully escorted small group walking tours, meanwhile, help you get the most from this majestic setting in a supportive and sociable way. Group sizes range from around ten to sixteen people, and trips are typically eight days in length. Often, you’ll be led by truly expert guides such as Juanjo, who was born here and has spent most of his life in the area. He may never leave… “I plan to stay here for the rest of my life, because I think I have found my piece of paradise in these mountains.”

Getting there

Small groups of walkers will usually be met at the airport, either Bilbao or Santander, and then transfer up into the mountains, which takes a couple of hours. On a tailor made trip, however, you would make your own way to your accommodation. While most people do choose to fly, it’s not the only option. From the UK you can easily get to Spain by ferry, though it’s a good 18–24-hour journey depending on the route. Worth it, perhaps, for the chance to spot dolphins and whales in the Bay of Biscay.

The Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago follows the coast of northern Spain through the Asturias region, and the Picos de Europa is just 20km inland. Pilgrims on the Northern Way can duck into the park for a few days of walking. And, of course, you can easily do it the other way round too: spend a week trekking in the national park, then a few days relaxing on the coast.

When to go

High season in the Picos de Europa is from July until mid-September, but the temperatures are far more pleasant than you can expect in southern Spain as it boils in summer. From October through to May the Picos de Europa weather tends to be wet, and over the winter many routes and small communities will be inaccessible due to snow. “We run our trips from May to October,” says Juanjo. “Every season has different aspects. The spring is great with flowers and the last part of the year is wonderful with all the trees changing their colours; the daylight is very special too.”

How fit do I need to be?

You’ll want to be in decent shape to get the most from trekking in the Picos de Europa. A day’s walking can easily be eight hours, covering 18-20km, with a few steep ascents and descents involved too. You don’t need any equipment beyond a good set of boots and perhaps some walking poles if you favour them, but getting in a few practice walks before departure is advisable.

What to eat in the Picos de Europa

The Picos de Europa, and the Asturias region in general, are well-known for their gastronomy. Given the proximity of the coast it’s not surprising to see fish dishes on the menu, adjacent to meaty mountain fare such as the traditional Asturian bean stew with chorizo and black pudding, or grilled rack of lamb.

The most important items to seek out are the region’s many cheeses, and walking tours here will often stop for a visit with a local producer and a tasting. “The Cabrales cheese is the most renowned in Spain,” assures Juanjo, and this is a man who clearly knows what he’s talking about. This spicy, award-winning blue cheese is matured deep in limestone caves, and a block of the stuff holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive cheese ever sold at auction – €20,500 for a two-kilo block. Don’t put that on a cheap biscuit.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Picos de Europa or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Bearded beauties

After decades of persecution, by the end of the 20th century the bearded vulture was close to extinction in Europe. But thanks to a widespread and highly effective reintroduction project, this scavenging predator is on its way back. They may only occupy a fraction of their former range, but in 2021 their status was upgraded from Threatened to Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Also known as lammergeier (lamb vulture) or quebrantahuesos (bone breaker) the bearded vulture disappeared from the Picos de Europa in 1956. Now, though, they’re a familiar sight above the Cares Gorge, on the lookout for carcasses. Misunderstood and maligned for centuries, the vultures’ scavenging ways are essential to mountain ecosystems as they recycle the bodies of dead animals and prevent infectious diseases from being passed around herds.

As part of the reintroduction project, vulture chicks are raised in the Spanish Pyrenees then released into the Picos – a couple of three-month-old bone breakers by the names of Lesley and Europa arrived in June 2023. You can learn more about the conservation program by visiting the Center for Biodiversity and Sustainable Development in Benia de Onís, a gateway to the Picos de Europa.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mikel Ortega] [Intro: Tubamirum] [Potes: Vilanchelo] [Small group or self-guided trips: Gabriel Gonzalez] [When to go: Mick Stephenson] [Bearded vulture: Juan Carlos Norena]