Walking in Peneda-Gerês National Park

Peneda-Gerês National Park is Portugal’s only national park, sequestered away in north-west Portugal against the Spanish border. Despite celebrating its 50th year in 2021, Gerês remains one of the least-known national parks in Europe.

“I came to live here in 2001,” says João Pedro Serôdio, the owner of our partner Quinta Lamosa Ecotourism. “I fell in love with the region and wanted to create sustainable holidays here. There is a calm that only the mountains provide.”

But despite the quiet, you’ll find signs of life (and past lives) all over the place. People have lived here since 6000 BC – and it shows. Footpaths lead hikers to villages that are isolated but self-sufficient, filled with people who welcome an extra face at the table with a glass of vinho verde and a plate of bean stew.
The most famous walking path in Peneda-Gerês National Park is the GR 50: a 200km hike pieced together from millennia’s worth of human movement.
There’s been a steady drift of people leaving Peneda-Gerês for the cities since the early 20th century, and the people who remain work hard to carve a living out of rocky farm terraces and orchards. Our partners also work hard to connect you with them by offering local B&Bs to snooze in and mountain food to feast on.

Even in the wilds, people have left their bootprints behind. Roman mile markers like standing stones signpost even the craggiest parts of the Via Geira, the ancient road that links Braga in Portugal with Astorga in Spain. Wooden shrines and cave sanctuaries decorate mountaintop pilgrimage paths. Other trails have been carved by farmers flocking from mountain pastures to milder valleys in winter, shepherds driving their sheep through meadows, religious pilgrims, and smugglers loaded with goods bound for the Spanish border during the Restoration War. Endangered wolves follow the paths, too – as well as fojos, the disused stone wolf traps that tell the troubled history of people and wolves here.

Where to walk in Peneda-Gerês National Park

There are over 300 hiking trails in in Peneda-Gerês National Park. They range from easy strolls to challenging mountain climbs, and from immaculately signposted routes to tracks known only by local people. Our walking tours, designed and run by local experts, will show you both, giving you a rounded view of this region of northern Portugal. And they’re accessible – you can get the train to Braga and then hop on a bus to Gerês, or drive 1.5 hours from Porto. Once you’re in the park, our holiday partners set you up with accommodation where the trails start from the front door or just a short (included) local taxi transfer away.

GR 50 long-distance path (Grand Rota Peneda-Gerês)

The GR 50 is the most famous walking route in Peneda-Gerês National Park. It isn’t really a single path, but is stitched together from parts of the Roman road, herding tracks and medieval pilgrimage paths. The route largely keeps to the mountains for the full 200km, so this challenging hike is best stretched over a couple of weeks so that you can appreciate the villages and scenery along the way. It’s all neatly waymarked, too. Follow the stages from one to 19 or vice versa, or just dip into the sections that take your fancy.

Via Geira Roman road

Walking the Via Geira is surreal. This Roman road is currently the least used it’s ever been, bumping through the oak forests between the Roman cities of Braga and Astorga. You get to admire the ghostly ruts and smoothed stones caused by thousands of years’ worth of carts and feet in complete peace. The Portuguese section, especially the bit through Peneda-Gerês National Park, is not only signposted, but has mile markers like works of art – mossy stones carved with the emperor’s name, Octavius Augustus, and newer, beautifully rendered glass information boards.

Peneda sanctuary pilgrimage paths

There are many routes up to the sanctuary of Senhora da Peneda, but they all traverse the Peneda Mountains. Some of our holidays favour the 11km-long shepherds’ trail that starts in Branda la Aveleira and winds up through rocky highlands, plateaus and high-altitude reservoirs.

The stone stairway down is precipitous enough to make your heart race, but Peneda is a great reward – a terracotta-roofed village dwarfed by the 19th-century Senhora da Peneda sanctuary, with its gothic staircases and statues set against the sharp granite mountains. Here, you can kick your boots off in a hotel that has long hosted weary pilgrims.

Smugglers’ paths from Lindoso

Lindoso might only be a 1,300-person village, but it was an important outpost in the 13th-century Restoration War, when Lindoso Castle was built on a rocky ridge to guard the Portuguese border. There’s another curiosity: 50 tomb-like espigueiros. These dark granite granaries are raised on stilts to protect the harvest from weather and pests, finished off with a flourish of crosses.

Lots of footpaths reach out from Lindoso towards other valley hamlets such as Tibo. They also head towards the Lima River, a wide waterway split by the Spanish border that covered the tracks of smugglers. A paved road arches over the Alto Lindoso Dam, where water plunges into a gorge and powers the hydroelectric station that powers many of the villages.

Shepherd tracks of the Serra Amarela

Walking in the Serra Amarela reveals the traditional seasonal movements of people in Peneda-Gerês National Park. Take a circular walk around here, starting in Lindoso village, and you’ll find absolute peace and quiet amongst the summer pastures. Many of these hilltop villages are only used in summer, when shepherds take their flocks up into the mountains. Worn drove paths show the routes that whole farming villages would take to winter in the warmer valleys. Pause for a picnic on a green foothill for views over Lindoso and the Soajo Mountains opposite – while keeping an eye out for any golden eagles that might wheel into view.

Village life in Soajo

Soajo village is one of the most popular starting points for hikers in Peneda-Gerês National Park. From here, you can trace a figure of eight into the countryside, where mossy boulders sit in stream-fed oak forests and meadows come with views across the Lima Valley. Alternatively, instead of starting here, you can end up in Soajo. We recommend the 19km route via the Ramiscal Valley, which plods past ancient wolf traps and shepherd shelters, and is overlooked by the Penedo and Soajo mountain peaks.

Our top Portugal walking Holiday

Madeira walking holiday

Madeira walking holiday

Small group walking tour of Madeira

From £872 to £1608 8 days inc UK flights
Small group travel:
2021: 20 Dec
2022: 5 Mar, 19 Mar, 2 Apr, 16 Apr, 28 May, 18 Jun, 6 Aug, 3 Sep, 17 Sep, 1 Oct, 15 Oct, 29 Oct
2023: 11 Feb, 4 Mar, 18 Mar, 1 Apr, 15 Apr, 13 May, 27 May, 17 Jun, 5 Aug, 2 Sep, 16 Sep, 30 Sep, 14 Oct, 28 Oct
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Walking with wildlife

Abandoned villages are one of the most striking sights you’ll see while hiking in Peneda-Gerês National Park. Since the political and social upheaval of the early 20th century, farms and villages in the region have experienced an exodus of residents, mirroring many rural areas in Europe. After all, while the park might feel remote, it’s only an hour’s drive away from Porto – a tempting escape route for those not interested in or unable to live a hard life in farming, or reliant on fleeting seasonal work in the few cafés and hotels.

The flow of people out of the park has led to a trickle of unexpected visitors in. Where farms have been abandoned, more endangered Iberian wolves have crept back into the deep pine-lined valleys and craggy foothills – although they are still confined to just 20 percent of their previous territory. Butterflies burst into the sunshine of rarely-grazed meadows, a rare breed of local wild horse called the Garrano grazes besides farm tracks, and horned ibex perch on ravines like gargoyles.

“In addition to the fabulous diversity of flora in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, it’s possible to see Iberian wolf, lynx, deer, wild horses, wild pigs and golden eagles…,” says João Pedro Serôdio, from our partner Quinta Lamosa Ecotourism. “The number of animals here will transport you. In Portugal, it’s a reality only possible on the trails in Peneda-Gerês National Park, together with a peace that isn’t possible elsewhere.”

Some biodiversity scientists see the land abandonment as a form of passive rewilding. Older generations in areas like Castro Laboreiro, where many villages have been abandoned, have glimpsed boars and ibex for the first time in their lives. There are knock-on effects to the animals’ return too – when the boars root around in the soil, they make room for a variety of species to grow back. When ibex die naturally, they provide carcasses for golden eagles and vultures to feed on.

Tourism that connects communities

Our walking specialists are working towards an even brighter future for Peneda-Gerês National Park – one where both people and wildlife return to the region. They’re investing in often forgotten communities, helping to provide and support a range of jobs and small businesses.

The best walking holidays make learning about and interacting with local communities as important as respecting the environment you’re walking through. You won’t just breeze through Peneda-Gerês – you’ll get the chance to stay and really get to know it.

The hotels you’ll stay in are run by some amazing local entrepreneurs. João’s “tree house” is inspired by the famous espigueiros grain stores, built on stilts from local wood. In Peneda, you can stay in a hotel that’s been a hostel for pilgrims for centuries. Solar electricity powers some off-grid mountain hotels, which have been renovated from decaying cottages for tourists. Or you might stay the night in a village B&B, where the embroidered linens and delicious cornbread, jams and honey are bought from local people.

Arriving as a walker on your own or in a small group, you’ll receive a warm welcome. Your hosts have often lived their whole lives in the mountains. They’re filled with knowledge about the area – as well as larders filled with smoked meats and cornbread that they’ll pack up into a picnic for you. And they’ll ease you into the slow, simple way of living here – usually by settling you under the shade of an arbutus tree with a glass of vinho verde.

Practicalities

Self guided or small group?

Most walking holidays in Peneda-Gerês are self guided and can be tailored to your requirements. It’s worth sticking close to the suggested itinerary, however – they’re designed by local experts who know the most atmospheric hotels, secret shrines and beautiful villages in the region.

However, self guided walking holidays don’t leave you to fend for yourself. You’ll often be met at your first hotel, where a guide will go through your routes (usually in paper or app form) and answer any questions. They’re fonts of local knowledge, and often the people who have helped design your holiday, so this is a great opportunity to pick their brains. They’ll also bring or help you hire any walking poles you might need on the rocky mountain ways.

How do I get around?

Some walking holidays are centre-based, staying in one place and exploring from there. Others move from village to village, staying in a different place every one or two nights. Any local taxi transfers needed along the way will be included and pre-booked for you. Luggage transfers are often included on point-to-point walking holidays too.

How far will I walk each day?

11-20km – so about 4-6 hours daily. Tailor made itineraries can be amended to your abilities and preferences, swapping mountain climbs for river strolls, keeping hikes to half-days (or multi-day treks, depending on your preference), or adding rest days.

When to visit Peneda-Gerês National Park

May and June are the best months for walking in Peneda-Gerês National Park. Temperatures range from a comfortable 19°C to 25°C, plus there’s almost 300 hours of sunshine a month. (That’s 100 more hours than midsummer in London.) The rain eases off, too – although the chance of wildfires stopping play increases in July and August. After summer, the forests turn autumnal. “I recommend visiting us from mid-September to mid-November,” says João. “The colours of nature are like postcards.”

We would like to thank Visit Portugal for commissioning this page.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Beatriznog10] [Intro: StaraBlazkova] [GR 50 long-distance path: Mvs12] [Smugglers’ paths from Lindoso: Francois Philipp] [Walking with wildlife: Joao Malho] [Practicalities : Jose Antonio Gil Martinez]