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

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.

Ondón

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.

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