Picos de Europa part 3: Cares Gorge, Jou de los Cabrones, and Ondón

On the way to Jou de los Cabrones

For the final part of our trip to the Picos de Europa, we spent three days day hiking near Camarmeña and Poncebos. This included hikes to Cares Gorge, Bulnes and Jou de los Cabrones, and Ondón.

In late June 2017, we spent a week hiking in Spain’s spectacular Picos de Europa. This post covers the second part of our trip, based out of Camarmeña, where we hiked on the Central and Western Massifs as well as in the Cares Gorge. Separate posts cover our arrival in Bilbao, a three-day, two-night hike on the Central Massif from Fuente Dé, and a stop in Covadonga. We also share our notes on planning a trip to the Picos de Europa.

Even though Ondón is on the western massif, the hikes in this post are mostly covered by the Macros Central y Oriental maps by either Adrados or Alpina. Ondón appears to be just off the edge of the Adrados map, but the entire route is on the Alpina map.

Cares Gorge

While researching our trip, it often seemed like the Cares Gorge was synonymous with hikes in the Picos de Europa. Anticipating large crowds even in early season, we woke up early for the short drive from Arenas de Cabrales to Poncebos. We had about a 14 mile hike with 600′ of elevation gain, round trip, ahead of us.

The early start paid off. We were able to find a parking spot just a few hundred yards from the trailhead. There were several other groups ahead of us and getting ready behind us. Despite this, the trail never felt crowded on the way to Caín, at the other end.

The sky was cloudy and the morning cool when we started. Limestone walls of the central and western massif loomed above us, the Cares River far below. The trail was constructed between 1916 and 1921 to support the hydroelectric plant in Camarmeña – Poncebos, with later improvements between 1945 and 1950. All of this engineering pays off. From Poncebos, the trail climbs steadily to some ruins and then descends, before settling into a nearly level grade.

After maybe an hour, the clouds started to break and we got some sun. Cascades flowed under the trail from streams. We passed high above a place where a torrent of water emptied from the cliff into the Cares River.

At one point, as we walked through a short tunnel, Kyle asked “why haven’t we seen any goats?” (The Cares Gorge is also known for its goats.) A moment later we exited the tunnel, a goat leaped onto the trail, directly in front of Kyle. He was followed by four others. Ask and ye shall receive, it seems.

We continued on to Caín, where the trail crosses the river, passes through a narrow section of the gorge, and reaches the river level. Once in Caín, the landscape opens up, offering views to higher peaks.

Caín had several restaurants from which to choose. Each appeared to serve mostly the same menu in mostly the same setting. We settled on one that seemed popular and had a shaded table with good views. Lunch was good, and we enjoyed the break before returning back through the Cares Gorge.

Back at the car, we had just a short drive to our hotel in Camarmeña — but it involved ten sharp switchbacks. At the end of the road, we pulled slightly past the bed and breakfast. This caused us to have shuffle cars with the other guests, who coincidentally arrived at the same time.

Once that was sorted, we checked in to the hotel, Casa Maru (Booking.com). This was a splurge for us, but it had perfect reviews, was in a great location for our hikes, and had views back up to Naranjo de Bulnes. The owners, Jhousy & Alberto, made us a welcome cocktail and helped us get settled.

We cleaned up, relaxed for a bit, and then went to the restaurant in Camarmeña for dinner. At the restaurant, we were the only ones dining in, and we enjoyed a leisurely, simple dinner. For a backdrop, the sunset made Naranjo de Bulnes glow almost gold. We also got to meet a burro that seems to wander the town of its own accord.

Bulnes and Jou de los Cabrones

We awoke to gorgeous sunrise views of Naranjo de Bulnes from our room, and then headed downstairs for an early breakfast. Jhousy & Alberto served a lavish spread of cheese, fruit, meats, breads, and a smoothie. We ate slowly while enjoying the views from the patio. As we talked about which of the various items were our favorites, Jhousy would reappear with additional small items, saying that if we liked them, we must try these.

By the time breakfast was over, we were unsure if we were going to be able to walk anywhere that day. With the good weather, though, we had ambitious plans. We drove back down the switchbacks to the Funicular de Bulnes, where were arrived in time to take the first one heading up.

We took the funicular to Bulnes, a mountain village reachable only by trail or by the funicular. In a seven minute trip, the funicular climbs 1,318 feet as it follows a 2.2km tunnel carved in the mountains.

From Bulnes, we followed wide, cobble-stone paved paths to the higher El Castillo. The paths then gave way to trails as we climbed higher, through cow pastures and then up the steep Canal de Amuesa. The day warmed up quickly, making us more glad for the early start.

At the top of the pass, we reached Amuesa, a village and cow pasture 2300′ above Bulnes and nearly 4000′ above the Cares Gorge.

This was our first potential turn around point. We were making great time and enjoying the clear views, so we continued.

For a while, the trail followed the edge of the pasture, above steep drop offs. This offered steadily improving views with each bit of elevation we gained. Eventually, we had to descend off the pasture on a rockier route. From here, the trail skirted the base of Cuetos del Trabe (marked on other maps as Cuetos del Trave).

After a few substantial climbs, the trail rounded a corner. This brought us within sight of Refugio Jou de los Cabrones. We were happy to make it here: this had been a potential side trip destination from Refugio Urriellu earlier in the week, but we were rained out.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch next to the refugio, basking in the sun and views. Eventually we had to leave, and we retraced our steps down.

At El Castillo, we stopped at a café — Bar Miradores Lellenas — for a small, late, second lunch and refreshing beverages.

From here, rather than returning to Bulnes and the funicular, we turned to descend the trail following Canal del Texu. With its steep sides, dusk had already arrived in the base of this gorge. We stopped at places to enjoy the blue waters of the stream, and again when crossing the Cares River at the bottom.

A short walk along the road brought us back to the car. The total distance for the day had been about 12 miles, with 5500′ of elevation gain. We rewarded our efforts with another dinner and sunset in Camarmeña.


We awoke for our last day without clear plans. It was sunny, so we knew we wanted to make the most of it. One option was to return to the Lakes of Covadonga and try again, now that the weather was on our side. That meant a lot of driving, though, since we also had to get back to Bilbao.

At another delicious breakfast, Jhousy & Alberto suggested an alternative. We could walk up the western massif from Camarmeña to an old village named Ondón. This would save us a lot of driving, and give us excellent views of the central massif peaks and back down the Cares Gorge.

That sounded good to us, and so, equipped with their route-finding advice, we set out. As we left, the other guests paused to ask us how we had learned about the Picos de Europa. They commented that the destination was not yet well known in the Netherlands, and they were surprised that we had made the trip. They also expressed surprise that we were visiting for only a long week. In response, we lamented about limited vacation days in the United States.

The first part of the climb Camarmeña was strenuous, and we were sore from the previous day. GPS traces and maps agree that we gained about 2200′ in the first mile, and another 1000′ over the next 0.8 miles to Ondón. The views, however, were worth it. They also presented us with many excuses to pause and rest.

At Ondón, we ate a snack as cows grazed around us. The trip down took a lot less time than the hike up. We were back at Casa Maru just a bit past noon. Jhousy & Alberto greeted us with cold water. We cleaned up a bit, said our good byes, and set out for Bilbao.

We did have one last obstacle to address before we left, though. As we got ready to leave, the Camarmeña burrow walked up to the driver’s side and leaned against the door. Pulling out of the spot involved alternating between ever so gently nudging the burrow with the car, petting him through the open window, and very much hoping he didn’t get the idea to kick.

The drive back was otherwise uneventful. We again stayed at NH Collection Villa de Bilbao (Booking.com), so we checked in, dropped our bags, and returned the car to the train station. We had one last fantastic dinner in Bibao, followed by an evening stroll along the river. The next day, we flew home, or at least we tried.

Ready to plan your own trip? See our notes and advice on planning a hiking trip to the Picos de Europa.

4 thoughts on “Picos de Europa part 3: Cares Gorge, Jou de los Cabrones, and Ondón”

  1. Hi Sean and Kyle: Awesome post. Had several questions about the hike up to Refugio Jou de los Cabrones and back to Bulnes. For context, we’ve hiked a fair bit thru the Stubai alps, Dolomites etc. We are not technical climbers just solid trampers:

    (a) In the hike up to Refugio Jou de los Cabrones there is a section where we use a rope to get up the slope. Do we have to depend on the rope to find our way up or is it more like we are climbing up but using the rope for protection and to provide addl support? I am asking because neither my husband nor I could climb up a rope you know? I mean like propel ourselves up a rope just depending our weight on it LOL. But if it is like a low grade Via Ferrata we could climb up rocks while holding onto a rope. Can you advise?

    (b) Once you get past the rope section, the other side looked pretty steep. Can we find footings in the crevices and pretty much find our way down? It would be sad to overstate our skill level and get to that point and then be unable to go further.

    (c) In checking out the hiking path at various points it almost seems like a social path. We will have Gaia GPS, but where would we find a paper map, and what else did you use to ensure you were on the right track? Or am I mis-stating and it’s fairly well sign-posted?

    (d) We are planning to do this hike (if we can) in late September 2023. Any ideas when the snow fall comes thru in these areas?

    Thanks for all your advice, and would much appreciate your insight on these points. Best Regards, Chitra

    1. Hi Chitra – thanks for your questions!

      As background – we are also not technical hikers (and definitely not climbers). I (Sean) have done one or two via ferrata, but otherwise, we mostly hike.

      My recollection of the rope assist on the hike to Jou de los Cabrones was that it was not necessary for route-finding and that the route was very clear. I also felt that on a dry, clear day, the rope was a convenience but not necessary. Footholds and handholds were plentiful in this rock, though sometimes a little sharp. The steepest section is shown in this photo – lot of good places to put hands and feet. I think I was personally more concerned about another party showing up and knocking down loose rock than I was about falling.

      My recollection is that the route after the rope section was also well within our abilities (both in terms of hiking and route finding). I remember one additional section, mostly level, that had been blasted or hammered into the rock, also with a rope handhold – that’s in this photo. It was mostly marked with yellow and white blazes, and I think (but do not fully remember) a few strategic cairns.

      For comparison to our other hikes in the Picos de Europa, I found the route down from Collada de los Horcados Rojos into Garganta de los Boches closer to the limits my comfort in terms of finding and following a good route (all talus and scree, and in an unexpected thunderstorm storm), and the route from Cabaña Veronica to Tiro Casares more difficult for routefinding (few markings or cairns; glad to have nav).

      I unfortunately don’t know much about fall conditions. Because we were planning a June trip, we were paying much more attention to when the snow would melt compared to when it would start :-). That said, from our trip and from following some of the refugios on social media, the weather can certainly be unpredictable! We had some light snow just a few days earlier in June, and I *think* I’ve seen September social media posts about snow. Refugio Collado Jermoso is a little more active, I think, than Refugio Jou de Los Cabrones, but looking back through their accounts might give a sense of seasonal variation.

      Finally, a lot could have changed in the past six years–and a rainy day could make the experience much different! But I hope this is helpful!

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