Off the back of a work trip to Amsterdam in late October 2019, we thought it’d be worthwhile adding a week to explore a part of Europe we hadn’t been to previously. With the weather getting colder at that time of year, we started looking south for a few options that might be a bit warmer and settled on the Basque Country in Northern Spain.
Well known for having excellent surf, we thought we could spend a couple of days on the Basque coast and then get some hiking in around the Pyrenees, so started poring over maps of the region. In doing so, we noticed a little blob of high altitude peaks in an area you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them, about 2hrs west of Bilbao, but only an hour from the coast – Picos de Europa!
No one I mentioned this to had even heard of it, so with a bit of Googling it was quickly apparent this area is one of the hidden gems of Europe. The largest limestone mass on the continent, the Picos (Peaks) soar 2600m above sea level and were used by sailors as a landmark when returning from Atlantic voyages. Millions of years of glaciation and erosion have carved out deep gorges and dramatic peaks in a region that’s still remarkably undeveloped.
Part of the reason for this isolation are the narrow, winding roads you need to drive through before arriving at the town of Potes and the surrounding valleys. A few small villages dot this region, but it’s heavily forested and sparsely populated by locals and tourists – especially at this time of year.
Upon our arrival, the mountains were largely shrouded by cloud with the odd snow covered summit peaking through. According to the forecast, we’d have a small window of clear weather the following day to drive two hours to Cain and walk the famous Cares Gorge through to Poncebos. This drive itself was part of the adventure, winding up and down mountain passes, dodging herds of cows and getting sweeping views of the South side of the range.
With Winter fast approaching, we were treated to beautiful vistas of Autumn colours in the lowland forests, accentuated by soaring, snow covered peaks in the distance. We parked our rental car in Cain and commenced the six hour return walk through the gorge.
The gorge itself is over 1km deep and has a path carved along the contour line about 300m above the river. Parallel to the path is a canal that was constructed in the early 1900s to feed a hydro power station in Poncebos, much of which is tunnelled straight through the sheer rock faces. The path is generally flat most of the way with only a couple of gentle up and downhill sections, so we made it to within 2kms of Poncebos within a couple of hours.
We could see the weather closing in, so made our way back to Cain before the rain set in, covering about 18kms round trip in the process. The better informed walkers had started in Poncebos and booked a room in one of the many guesthouses in Cain, making their way there for the night, then returning the following day.
We awoke on our second day to torrential rain in Potes, so took our time to get moving and decided to gear up and do a shorter 6km forest walk in the foothills near town. While we missed out on any dramatic views, we did get some excitement from being chased by one of the many livestock guardian dogs that live with the cows or sheep full time, protecting them from local wolves. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any of the brown bears that still frequent the mountains in this region.
Day three saw the clouds starting to lift, so we did the short drive from Potes to Mogrovejo and a lovely 10km loop up through the forest to the base of the peaks and back through the town of Tannario. Again, the walking was relatively easy with spectacular views once the weather cleared.
Our final day started with a perfectly clear sunrise over the peaks and an early start to get the first lift up at Fuente Dé. While there’s no permanent ski area in Picos De Europa, the gondola runs from February to December providing access up to a high plateau that apparently has excellent ski touring through winter. There’s also a number of mountain refuges that you can book ahead to stay in for multi day hikes and ski tours.
The landscape at Fuente Dé is as spectacular as Yosemite Valley – with around 1500m of vertical relief from the valley floor. The lift zips you up in under 10 minutes and you can then choose from any number of loops, peaks and return walks to do. We unfortunately had a plane to catch home, so did a quick reccy of the plateau before taking the lift back down and scooting the 2hrs back to Bilbao Airport.
Picos De Europa is a fantastic destination, perfectly suited to a short side trip from most major European capitals with plentiful options for all grades of hikes, climbs and ski tours.