The Picos de Europa (literally: "Peaks of Europe", often abbreviated in English to the Picos) is a range of mountains 20 km inland from the northern coast of Spain, forming part of the Cantabrian Mountains. A widely accepted origin for the name is that they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas.
The range consists of three major massifs: Central (also known as Urrieles), Eastern (Ándara) and Western (also known as the Picos de Cornión). The Central and Western massifs are separated by the 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) deep Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares), with the village of Caín at its head.
Almost all of the rock in the Picos is limestone, and glacial action has contributed to create an impressive area of alpine karst. The highest peak is Torre de Cerredo, with an altitude of 2,650 metres. The area is popular with mountaineers, climbers and mountain walkers. There is a good network of well-established mountain refuges.
In a group of three, we visited and explored the area during late autumn (beginning of November), escaping crowds and enjoying bearable weather suitable for hiking. The weather could hardly be any better: we got a week full of splendid sunshine, and just after we left, first snow started to fall in high altitude areas of the Picos.
Instead of a week-long circular hike with heavy backpacks, we opted for three-night stays in the mountains (Refugio de Urriellu) and in the valley (Casa Cuevas in Caín); from these "base camps", we were setting out on day-long day trips, going as much as light as possible. Picos de Europa are formed by a VERY rugged mountain terrain; daily altitude gains of 2000+ meters were not an exception during our hikes.
A few days before winter, the range was almost empty except for main routes and Vega de Urriellu hut; actually, most of the refugios were closing on the last day of October. We liked the emptiness and solitude. What we also liked was the fact that some of the routes are not properly marked, and using a GPS and / or a map is sometimes essential - these moments brought a little bit more adventure than expected, and we were quite happy about that as well.
The journey to Picos de Europa was not that much complicated one would expect: we took two convenient and not expensive Lufthansa flights from Prague to Bilbao, and then rented a car for a 3-hours journey to the small settlement of Poncebos, just below the northern slopes of the mountain range.
The following morning, we started hiking to the south, aiming to reach Vega de Urriellu mountain hut where we had booked accommodation for three nights.
It took us around three hours to reach the small and beautiful settlement of Bulnes, an altitude gain of app. 600 vertical meters. The village cannot be reached by car - simply, there is no road. Traditionally, the only way to get there was on foot; in 2001, a funicular was opened that had been cut through the rock massive making the village a popular destination of day-trippers. Instead of using the funicular, we opted for hiking - nice warm-up exercise :-).
The Bulnes village lay in shade when we reached it and we continued hiking to the east quite quickly. There are two footpaths up to the Refugio de Urriellu from Bulnes, and we opted for the less strenuous one - the one that goes to the east and than turns north via Refugio de la Terenosa.
The views back to the valley were beautiful: it was a sunny October day and the weather could hardly be any better.
We made a short stop at the Refugio de la Terenosa that was still open (something we hoped for) - it was Saturday and there were other hikers too, usually day-trippers from the village of Sotres located in the east.
We realized that one has to really *carefully* plan water supplies - here in the mountains, the potable water sources are rather scarce.
On top of water, we enjoyed couple of soft drinks at the refugio, and then continued hiking on the well-trodden footpath towards the Colláu Valleyu viewpoint.
We made a short stop at Colláu Valleyu viewpoint and enjoyed the views all over the valley below us.
These were the very last autumn days, full of bright sunshine and fall colours all around.
Soon we realized that timing of our trip was just perfect; in summer, it has to be unbearably hot here.
Already later in the afternoon, we continued hiking uphill on the mountain slopes towards the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes limestone peak. In total, we covered almost 2000 vertical meters on the first day - quite a challenge given the warm temperature and backpacks on our shoulders.
We reached Vega de Urriellu hut already in the evening, enjoying last sun beams on the mountain peaks around us. The refugio was (quite surprisingly) almost full; it was a sunny autumn weekend and a lot of people had similar idea of sleeping high up in the mountains.
The food was delicious (we were really hungry) as was the Rioja red wine we enjoyed.
The night in the refugio was... packed, let's call it in this way. We were thankful for being under the roof in a warm place, but there were (too) many other people around.
We started later in the morning - climbers targeting Naranjo de Bulnes peak were already on their way. Again, the weather was sunny and without any cloud; quite an exception in the area, I would say.
We had planned a circular route across the barren landscapes of the high altitude areas of the Picos.
First, we started to climb Canal de La Celada aiming to continue across a rocky plateau on the other side.
We continued hiking in the southern direction towards the Canal del Vidrio; the landscape around us was surreal, like on the Moon: completely different than the meadows and woods we were passing through yesterday.
Here, we were moving in a barren world, with the sun unmercifully shining.
Of course, there were no water sources around, and we had to carefully plan when and where we are going to re-supply.
We descended further to the south to a green valley with rolling hills and meadows. Here, finally, there was a reliable water source, and we drank a few litres...
It was an beautiful area indeed and what we liked even more, there were hardly any tourists around. We met a few hikers, sure - but for the rest of the day, it was a solitary endeavour in the southern part of the Central Picos massive.
We hiked on a gravel road to a pass interestingly called Hdna de Covarrobres - and from here, we turned to the north, following a footpath back towards Vega de Urriellu hut. Later in the afternoon, it was a still a matter of a few hours to reach the hut: first, we had to climb a few hundreds of vertical meters to a pass close to La Cabaña Verónica hut.
From here, we followed a steeply descending path where fixed cables had been installed to make passing through easier. Quite an adventure for the last part of the journey, and we finished the trip at the Urriellu hut just after twilight.
Another day full of mountain hiking since the morning till the evening; well-deserved dinner and Rioja naturally followed. The hut was a bit less crowded on Sunday night than during the previous day, but still it was far from the solitude evenings one may enjoy in the areas of deep north.
For the third day in the Central massive, we once more planned a circular route, this time via Bulnes settlement and Refugio Jou de los Cabrones hut.
We used the straightforward and steeply descending route to Bulnes, the one we wanted to avoid on the first day during our way up to Vega de Urriellu. It was a truly steep descent, exactly as the map indicated.
Yet again, the weather was very favourable; we got really lucky, especially when we compared actual weather and the favourable forecast with the long-term average and statistics. Here, on this steep route, we met just a few people during our descent, far less than on the other less steep route to Sotres.
It was already almost lunch time when we finally reached the beautiful settlement of Bulnes.
The views of the village as well as of the few houses forming El Castillo settlement were truly beautiful - it's a picturesque tranquil place located in a lush valley among mountain peaks.
Here, we had to split our group: whereas I continued towards El Castillo and high up to Refugio Jou de los Cabrones, Filip and Lukáš opted for the safer and quicker return to Vega de Urriellu using the route we used on the first day; knee problems are not those than can be underestimated.
In an hour, I reached Bulnes' El Castillo and continued hiking in the southwest direction, climbing the Canal de Amuesa towards the meadows of Colláu Cima.
In the midday sun, it was a bit gruelling exercise - I was moving rather slowly, with a few short stops along the way.
I enjoyed my lunch at the Colláu Cima viewpoint - and was surprised by the vast and beautiful green meadows with a few stone houses built on the plateau.
There was cattle and a few horses too; truly a picturesque setting for a short break.
Not surprisingly, this wasn't a crowded place; except for a pair of hikers, I was at Colláu Cima alone, and this solitude was about to continue for the rest of the day.
I continued hiking to the south, continuously ascending the slopes towards Refugio Jou de los Cabrones (J. R Lueje) mountain hut. It wasn't fast ascent, however quite soon I left the meadows behind and continued hiking and traversing in the barren rocky terrain in a series of shorter climbs and traverses.
In two sections, fixed ropes helped me overcome areas that were somehow tricky and a bit exposed.
At the Jou de los Cabrones hut, I refilled my empty water bottle, and without taking a longer rest continued further to the east in the direction towards Vega de Urriellu. In the Cabrones hut, a few hikers and climbers were staying overnight; actually, it was the last day the refugio was open this year - November was about to start the following day.
There were some tricky moments in the barren terrain and I had to use my GPS (offline map in iPhone) to confirm the correct route. There are a few paths in the uplands here marked by stone cairns, and as it often happens, the paths tend to disappear and their marking is far from being perfect.
Meeting a herd of chamois during the sunset was a beautiful moment and one of the highlights of the overall trip.
I met two Spanish hikers and joined them for the last mile - and was quite happy for this encounter since there was a somewhat tricky and exposed section going steeply downhill through a rocky couloir. In upcoming twilight, we descended quickly and I reached Vega Urriellu hut already with my head torch switched on.
We got up really early - with a few climbers we were the first to queue up for breakfast down in the eating space of the hut. It was about to be a long day and we wanted to start really early, knowing that autumn days are short and darkness falls quickly.
The direction was set towards Jou de los Cabrones hut though we were thinking of leaving the marked trail in the middle of it to cross a pass to another valley more to the north, with more straightforward route to Caín (at least according to the map). However, an older local hiker we met was rather uncertain about the route we planned and we finally opted for a safer route following the footpath I used yesterday.
Yet again, beautiful weather continued, now with a few occasional clouds; high up in the rugged terrain of the Picos, it was not hot and we had to keep moving not to feel cold - just perfect weather for hiking.
We refilled our water bottles at Jou de los Cabrones hut and continued quickly towards the meadows of La Cuesta'l Trabe. The two tricky sections with fixed ropes we had to pass through brought us a bit of an adventure.
On the slopes above La Cuesta'l Trabe meadows, we had quick lunch; it was already early afternoon when we left the marked trail and started to cross the rolling meadows towards the Cares gorge. Here, though the path was shown on the map, we were hiking on a pathless terrain, orienting ourselves by the map and checking the position with iPhone's GPS.
Perfect autumn weather continued to rule; in this area, there was no one, and we literally had the whole beautiful autumn landscape of Central Picos de Europa to ourselves.
We got some luck at the end of the meadows area when the footpath we re-joined was not easy to follow. After some hesitation, we ventured into the brutal descent of Canal de Piedra Bellida. It was really steep, though there was some fun when screeing (sliding) through small stones on our way down to La Quintana.
We were quite happy to finally reach the meadows of La Quintana though the descent was still to continue. We took a short rest here just laying on the grass and preparing for the last stretch of the journey.
Here, finally, we realized how much rugged and jagged the Picos really are; today, we reached the altitude of more than 2.300 meters (just before Jou de los Cabrones) and were about to finish our wandering at 500 meters in Caín.
Finally, after hours of constant descent, we reached the bottom of the Cares gorge and crossed Ríu Cares using a narrow footbridge. It was a beautiful area and we took a short break on the pebbled shore of the river.
From here, we continued for another six kilometres on the well-maintained Cares gorge footpath, and arrived in Caín just after twilight. Another long day out in the Picos.
We enjoyed our stay in Caín. At the beginning of November and before weekend, it seemed like we were the only visitors here at the end of the world. Actually, there is more than an hour difference when driving to Caín or Poncebos from Bilbao, although the villages are located just 15 kilometers from each other. Caín is just too far away.
Except for a pair of hikers we were dining in Casa Cuevas alone, enjoying the hearty local cuisine. Besides us, there were always a few locals at the bar, but otherwise the picturesque village was empty and silent.
It was quite funny to use a few Spanish words we knew to arrange breakfast and dinner; in the evenings, the bartender (son) called the cook (his mum) who promptly arrived and prepared us delicious meals.
For the 5th day, we didn't want to plan anything spectacular; instead of that, we opted for a short and easy day trip to the small settlement of Cordiñanes, exploring the southernmost part of the Cares gorge. It was a pleasant walk in a beautiful autumn setting, and we enjoyed it in a really slow pace.
Another short day trip followed: from Caín, we climbed to the scattered houses of Sedo Mesones, though we didn't reach the top due to an exposed section we didn't want to risk to pass through. It was a beautiful solitary walk, and we were blessed by beautiful autumn sunny weather for yet another time.
It was overcast during the last day and with a few rain drops, and we were almost thankful for it. Autumn was about to end: based on the (yr.no) weather forecast, there should have been snow showers in the Picos during the following week - we realized we were really extremely lucky with the weather.
The Cares gorge walk was beautiful and with some sensational views, though it was a rather long hike through the same type of terrain. Also, at the end of the journey, groups of hikers started to appear - day-trippers from Poncebos on their walk to Caín and back.
We drove to Bilbao from Poncebos in the afternoon and wanted to do just two things in the city: to see the famous and extraordinary Guggenheim Museum of modern and contemporary art, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and to enjoy some local tapas and wines after that (can only recommend the friendly pintxos (tapas) Irrintzi bar we visited).
Picos de Europa is a beautiful and still rather unknown mountainous area very suitable for adventurous hiking. There are many hiking routes, some of them marked and some not, and a few mountain huts caring for visitors.
Knowledge of Spanish language is definitely an advantage here - this is a remote region, and English is hardly spoken outside major tourist spots.
Time-wise, spring or autumn periods should be preferred choices for hikers who don't enjoy sweating in Mediterranean heat. At the beginning of November, the area was almost empty, maybe except for the main route to Vega de Urriellu from Sotres, Bulnes village and obviously the Cares gorge which seems to be crowded any time of the year.
The Picos form a *very* rugged mountain terrain; daily altitude gains or losses can easily sum up to 2.000 vertical meters or more.
Going as much as lightweight is highly recommended, and that's why we opted for 3-nights stays in facilities that also serve meals. We were glad with the choice we made, though a stay in a crowded refugio may not be a pleasant experience, frankly speaking.
High altitude areas with barren rocky terrain may be somewhat difficult to orientate in, and reading the map as well as common-sense precautions may be essential. Last but not least, water sources are scarce, and hiking routes should be also planned with regard to this crucial aspect.