In June and July 2017, we spent a week hiking in Spain’s spectacular Picos de Europa. The jagged limestone peaks, verdant green pastures, delicious food, and a pleasant stop in Bilbao made for a fantastic trip.
Read below for our notes on planning a trip, getting around, and where to stay, or jump right into our description of the trip:
- Bilbao and the drive to Espinama
- A three-day, two-night hike on the Central Massif
- A rainy stop in Covadonga and Arenas de Cabrales
- Hikes from Camarmeña, including the Cares Gorge, back up to the Central Massif, and a bit of the Western Massif
Planning a trip to the Picos de Europa
For a small mountain range, we found planning this trip to be surprisingly difficult. Online, we could locate good resources on the various refugios. We also found descriptions of some day hikes, including circuits at the top of the Fuente De cable car and the popular Cares Gorge route. However, we could find less information about how to put the various routes together into a coherent itinerary with some less common day hikes and some great overnight stays.
We did look to some books. While we normally like the Cicerone series, their book on the Picos de Europa was not well reviewed and appeared to not have been recently updated. We eventually settled on Trekking and Climbing in Northern Spain. It presented some longer routes. They covered appealing terrain and helped us get the lay of the land. However, as long, one-way routes, they did not quite fit our preferences.
Due to shipping delays, we actually bought two sets of maps:
- Adorados’s Picos de Europa. We purchased both the Macizos Central y Oriental (Central and Eastern massifs) map and the Macizo Occidental (western massif) map. Only the central and eastern massif map ever made it though international shipping. 1:25,000 scale.
- Alpina’s Parque Nacional de Picos de Europa. This set contains two maps, also divided as the western massif and a combined map for the central and eastern massifs. 1:40,000 scale.
Both sets of maps are in Spanish but have English keys, and they disagree slightly on translations and place names. We generally found the Alpina maps to be easier to read and, at a smaller scale, a little more manageable. However, even though they were newer (2012) than the Adorados maps (2006 date on ours), the Adorados maps seemed to have more accurate trail information. This was especially true regarding whether a section was a trail or a route or something else.
Once the topographic maps arrived, we finally started making headway on planning. Combining the background from the book we had bought and various blog posts we had read with the route information on the maps, we could mark out potential routes. Gregor Samsa’s excellent photo set and descriptions led us to focus our planning on a mix of day hikes and overnights on or around the central massif.
On the trails
For weather, we recommend meteoblue, including their mobile apps. This is the same weather service most of the refugios seem to use too.
We had expected more developed trails, similar to what I had experienced in the Swiss alps or on our trip to the Dolomites. There were places where this was true. The Cares Gorge is a marvel of trail engineering, and the trails immediately around the Fuente Dé cable car are also wide and well-graded. Other trails, however, were really just routes over boulder and scree. We encountered several spots where fixed ropes facilitated passage. Trail signs are overall sparse. Blazing is mixed. If you go and leave the beaten path, take maps and know how to read them. We also recommend supplementing with GPS traces.
We flew in and out of Bilbao, connecting through Madrid. We spent a night in Bilbao after we arrived and the night before we flew home. This worked well. It gave us a day to recover from jet lag (or deal with lost baggage, if we had that bad luck) before driving anywhere. On the way home, it gave us a bit of padding for getting to the airport. We also very much enjoyed our time in Bilbao, where we visited the Guggenheim but otherwise mostly wandered around the riverside.
In Bilbao, we stayed in NH Collection Villa de Bilbao (Booking.com | Hotels.com), which we could get at a good rate with our flights. It was conveniently located by the river and just a block from the airport bus stop. It was comfortable and worked well for our needs.
For getting to and from, and around, the Picos de Europa, we had looked into public transit. Ultimately, we decided that a rental car would give us a lot more flexibility. We also got a good rate, so it was not much more expensive than busing. We rented from EuropCar at the Bilbao train station, within walking distance from the hotel. This saved us from having to go back to the airport and meant we could pick up the car and quickly stop by the hotel to collect our bags.
Where we stayed
NH Collection Villa de Bilbao (Booking.com | Hotels.com): Good location convenient to the airport bus and the river. Fantastic breakfast spread.
Posada Maximo, Espinama (Booking.com): Smaller hotel, with cozy rooms. The breakfast was a bit basic, but sufficient for us to get an early start. It also was inexpensive, so we felt comfortable booking it for four nights even though we planned to spend two at refugios. This gave us somewhere to keep our things and, more importantly, an easy out if the weather turned out for the worst.
Refugio de Urriellu (web): One of the larger refugios in the Picos, Refugio de Urriellu is in a fantastic location below Naranjo de Bulnes. The views are great. The food was so-so but filling, and the dorm rooms were large but worked for sleeping. To book each refugio, we found that US credit and debit cards did not work. For a while, we were worried that we would not be able to make a reservation. Fortunately a friend working in Barcelona agreed to do the booking for us. While a reservation was not necessary at either on the days we visited — there was plenty of space — we still felt much more comfortable having a confirmed booking.
Refugio Collado Jermoso (web): A smaller refugio in the central massif, also in a good location perched on the edge of a steep valley with expansive views of the western massif. Compared to Urriellu, this refugio was more comfortable and brighter, and it had better food.
Apartamentos El Caxigu, Arenas de Cabrales (Booking.com): Large, cheap apartment (60€ in shoulder season) in Arenas. The location works great for exploring cheese museums, learning about cider and cheese production, and hiking the Cares Gorge. Arenas also has more restaurants than Poncebos and Camarmeña. We did not take full advantage of the apartment since we stayed only for a night. The main thing to know is that check-in hours are limited.
Casa Maru, Camarmeña (Booking.com): Probably the best bed and breakfast at which we’ve ever stayed. Comfortable, spectacular views, amazing local breakfasts, and kind hosts. While a splurge, we highly recommend Casa Maru.
Read on to our arrival in Bilbao and drive to Espinama, or skip ahead to our time in the Picos de Europa:
This blog is terrific; I hope you don’t mind if I post links to it in future replies on Tripadvisor’s Cantabria Forum. I only wish I’d had resources like these 30 years ago when I first visited the Picos and was fit enough to tackle these more challenging treks; my 70+ year old knees won’t really cope with much more than the PRP PNPE 24 walk now, so your description is an evocative substitute!
Thank you for your note, and, yes, please feel free to share!
Photos had convinced us that the Picos were unique and that we really ought to visit. When it got down to planning, it was hard to figure out hikes beyond the most popular (Cares Gorge and Lakes of Covadonga). We’re hoping our notes can entice others to visit and help them plan.
I’ve read this post many times as it’s been a source of inspiration and information for a potential trip to the Picos. I think my husband and I are finally ready to make a trip later this summer, but the animals are giving me pause…notably the wolves and bears. I haven’t seen people talk about the animals as something to be worried about, the way they are in the US (the abundance of the “what to do if you see a bear!” info).
Did you find there was much warning about this aspect as you were planning the trip? Were there signs at trail heads? I read a couple articles (from 2022) about how the bears are making a comeback and locals are learning how to live with them, but that’s it. I cant tell how likely it is that a large animal will be seen and how aggressive they can be (I’m hoping these are particularly shy wolves and bears…).
We usually hike in Europe because of the lack of animals, so this is new territory, lol. Thanks for any info!
Hi Jenna – glad to hear the post has been useful!
I didn’t know that wolves and bears had been recovering in the Picos – that’s cool to learn! When we visited, I don’t think I saw any warnings (or interpretative signs) about it.
Based on your comment, I also did a little reading and probably found many of the the same articles as you, plus a few others that talked about them as being pretty shy and that visitors may be unlikely to see them. For most of the trails we were on, it would be hard to imagine surprising an animal — they were popular enough that other hikers were often within earshot, except when we were in the very rocky landscapes of our first overnight trip.
We have hiked in other parts of Europe where large wildlife are recovering, and we’ve not seen them. On those hikes, my thoughts are much more on making sure not to alarm sheep dogs than they are on the wildlife the dogs protect flocks against.
If you go, I hope you have a wonderful time!