Picos de Europa part 1: Three-day hike to Vega de Urriellu and Collado Jermoso

The Central Massif of the Picos de Europa contains a mix of steep-sided canyons and ravines, green pastures, limestone peaks, and rocky, barren landscapes. To start our hiking in the Picos de Europa, we went for a three-day, two-night tour of the Central Massif. From Fuente Dé, we hiked to Refugio de Urriellu below the spectacular Naranjo de Bulnes, then to Refugio Collado Jermoso, and finally back to Fuente Dé. Despite encountering thunderstorms, rain, and snow, we loved the spectacular scenery.

In late June 2017, we spent a week hiking in Spain’s spectacular Picos de Europa. This post covers our overnight hike on the Central Massif. Additional posts cover our arrival in Bilbao and drive to Espinama, a rainy trip to Covadonga, and our time in Camarmeña and the Cares Gorge. We share our notes on planning at trip to the Picos de Europa.

The routes in this post are covered by the Macros Central y Oriental maps by either Adrados or Alpina.

Fuente Dé to Vega de Urriellu

In Espinama, we awoke to the smell of fresh rain. Mists hung over the hills. As we got ready for breakfast, a rainbow appeared.

Breakfast was small — especially after the spread in Bilbao — but that was okay, as we were eager to set out. After telling the hotel that we planned not to be back for two nights, we drove back to the Fuente Dé cable car. The weather called for afternoon storms, so we decided to take the “short cut” of using the cable car to ascend the Central Massif and hike from there. We arrived about 15 minutes before scheduled opening and were fifth and sixth in line for the cable car.

Showers passed through while we waited for the cable car. Once the cable car got going, though, we were greeted with views of clearing skies.

From the upper station, the route followed a rocky, wide, and well-graded trail past goats and sheep. After a bit, we saw our first chamois, a goat-antelope native to Europe. Shortly later, we had to make a decision: take the most direct route to the refugio, or a higher, longer route through Collado de la Canalona and a lunar-landscape-like valley? With storms still in the forecast for the afternoon, we chose the direct route.

The trail began climbing more, but the skies also kept getting bluer and the views better. We were soon starting to regret not taking the higher route.

With good weather, we took the detour to Cabaña Veronica (2,325 m). This small refugio was built in 1961 from an anti-aircraft emplacement from the aircraft carrier USS Palau. It features commanding views of the area. This gave us warning that while the southern side of the massif was sunny, rainclouds were gathering on the other side of the pass. This motivated us to hustle back to the main trail and on up to the Horcados Rojos.

At this pass, views were largely obscured by clouds. It was starting to rain and we heard thunder in the distance, so we decided to descend rather than wait for better views. After descending for a few minutes, it began pouring and the thunder got a lot closer. We no longer regretted taking the lower route.

While the route up to the pass had been easy to follow and well-graded, the route down was — to our surprise — nothing like it. We descended over broken rock with no clear trail. Well-blazed rocks provided bread crumbs, but in many places the routes between them were undistinguishable. In places, rubber-wrapped cables aided the descent. This combination of weather and terrain is something we plan carefully to avoid. Still, there was nothing to do but descend.

As we reached level ground at the base of the pass, the rain and thunder moved off for the time being. Following the trail, we crossed a wide, scoured valley, Jou de los Boches. Thunder rumbled against distant peaks and we heard at least one rockfall. At the far side of the valley, we paused for a snack. An alpine chough soon joined us, hoping for handouts. It left disappointed.

The route then climbed again, passing on the eastern side of another long, wide valley: Jou Sin Tierre. From the side of the valley, we saw dozens of chamois grazing below.

At the end of the valley, we reached another pass. From here, we got our first view of the Refugio de Urriello, tiny below the massive limestone tower of Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu). Moments later, the rain returned with vigor. While we covered the short remaining distance to the refugio quickly, it had still soaked us to the bone by the time we arrived.

At the refugio, we checked in and were pointed to our bunks in a large dormitory. We changed into warm clothes and paused to warm up. Which is to say, we napped. Despite a short 4.2 mile day (2400′ of elevation gain), we were tired.

When we woke up an hour or so later, the sun had come out. Thin clouds moved quickly past the refugio — fog shrouded it one minute and then moved off the next. We took this opportunity to explore the area around the hut, taking in views that included deep valleys and the massive Naranjo de Bulnes.

After our walk, it was time for dinner. Dinner was an enormous quantity of spaghetti with vegetables and some sides. We ate family style with the other guests, making broken conversation in Kyle’s limited Spanish and their limited English. Exhausted, we headed to bed shortly after dinner.

Vega de Urriellu to Collado Jermoso

We woke up early for sunrise. From a rocky point a few hundred feet from the refugio, we could see to the north and east — all the way to the Atlantic Coast. The sun cast a mix of orange, pink, and grey light as it rose through layers of clouds and mist. Soon, fog enveloped us again, and we returned to the refugio to eat breakfast and get ready for the day.

Showers passed through again during breakfast. In their wake, they left a beautiful double rainbow to the south, over the peaks of the Macizo Central. After gawking at the rainbow, we returned inside, settled our bill, and set out.

Our route for the day would take us back to Horcados Rojos and Cabaña Veronica, west along what appeared to be a fairly level route, then up through a pass, and finally down to Collado Jermoso. We got no further than a quarter mile from the Refugio de Urriellu when it began pouring again. We huddled to discuss our plans. Did we really want to go back up Horcados Rojos in this weather? Should we look into an alternative route, even if it meant descending and cancelling the rest of the day’s hike. With rain but no thunderstorms in the forecast, we decided to press ahead.

Happily, by the time we reached Horcados Rojos and Cabaña Veronica, the skies had cleared considerably and there were even patches of blue. This boosted our spirits considerably as we began following the “red route” west. Sporadic red blazes marked our way.

The limestone made for a challenging walk. At times the trail followed stable, smoothed ridges or boulder fields. At other times, we had to pick our way over and around sharp, shark-mouth like pockets in the rock where the limestone had eroded. While blazes were generally good, there were places where it was easy to lose sight of the previous or the next. This made us glad we had saved GPS traces of others’ routes, so we could tell when we had strayed.

After following the limestone maze for a while, we reached a stream, still partially covered in snow fields. The trail began climbing toward a pass, Collada Blanca. By this time, we had a sunny day. We enjoyed a leisurely snack and views at the top. A chough again joined us.

From the pass, the trail descended and then undulated over some smaller passes — gaps in ridges coming off the peaks. Along the way, we passed a couple dozen grazing and napping chamois. The trail then reached a wide, steep valley, separating the Central Massif from the Western Massif. We skirted the edge as the clouds returned. We reached Refugio Collado Jermoso just ahead of a sudden downpour. Our distance for the day had been 5.4 miles and 3300′ of elevation gain, but with the rain, the route finding, and the rocks, it had again been a long day.

Compared to Urriellu, Collado Jermoso felt smaller and more cozy. It was also much brighter, including the dining room which had great views. Without many guests, we were shown to a room that we’d have to ourselves. We again took the rain as a sign to nap.

After our nap, the sun returned. We took this opportunity to explore the area north of the refugio, though only briefly as thunder soon rumbled and a freezing mix started falling.

When we returned to the refugio, one of the staff noted the current snow, the previous week’s sunny warmth, and exclaimed “the world is broken.” We cleaned up and ate a delicious, filling dinner. After that, it was time to read and then head to sleep.

Collado Jermoso back to Fuente Dé and Espinama

In the morning, we woke up to a dusting of snow around the refugio. Higher elevations had an inch or so of accumulation. At sunrise, just a few beams of sunshine found their way through gaps in the clouds.

We ate breakfast, settled up, and got ready to head out. The hut staff advised us that our planned route down — Canal del Embudo — could be slippery and dangerous in the wet weather. Unless the sun came out and dried the rocks, they encouraged us to turn at Vega de Liordes and descend via Canal de Pedabejo.

For a while after we left the refugio, a patch of sun illuminated mountains a mile or so ahead. We hoped for clearing, but soon this closed in and we found ourselves back in snow showers. The trail paralleled a long valley, high up on the walls. The clouds lifted only enough to give us tantalizing glimpses of the scenery below and across the way.

Eventually, we reached Vega de Liordes. With the ground still wet and the skies still sprinkling, we turned toward Canal de Pedabejo. As we crossed the vega (pasture), the light changed, illuminating the vega a brilliant green and reflecting against the dark rocks.

Across the pasture, we had to climb again. Rain returned in periods of intense showers as we started down a ravine on a steep but sturdy trail. At the bottom of the ravine, the trail led across fields to join a road. To close out our hike, we followed the road around back to Fuente Dé. Our total distance for the day was about 6 miles (1600′ elevation gain).

There, we picked up the car. After cleaning up at the hotel, we returned to Vicente Campo for another excellent dinner. We had planned to order the baby goat to share, but in his excitement, Kyle accidentally ordered us the steak. We didn’t mind, and we finished up with a wonderful cheese plate.

Read on for our trip to Covadonga and Arenas de Cabrales or skip ahead to our hikes from Camarmeña, including the Cares Gorge. For notes on planning your trip, see the overview post.

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