Spain: Ruta del Cares

Ruta del Cares is one of my all-time favorite hikes. Not only is it a beautiful journey through nature but the heights give it a scary edge, making it just as challenging mentally as it is physically.  The famous route has been in use for more than 100 years and lies deep within the Cantabrian Mountains. It spans almost 11 km point-to-point between the towns of Posada de Valdeón and Puente Poncebos cutting into the mountainside. I first read about the trail while researching hikes for a winter trip with a friend but it ended up being much too far from our other destinations of interest to visit at the time.  After a short wait and with much anticipation, I was able to fit it into a trip across the northern coast of Spain.

To reach the park from my guesthouse in Covadonga, I used a private rental car and headed to the Puente Poncebos side. I wanted to begin on the quieter of the two villages and it happened to be the closest to my accommodation. I chose to hike the trail out-and-back style to avoid having to hire a shuttle to take me 2.5 hours back to the starting point. On a nicer day I might have enjoyed a drive in the heart of the park but it made more sense to walk, especially since it would be no slower than taking a vehicle.

Unfortunately at the time, Northern Spain was experiencing wetter than average conditions and the day of the hike was cloudy and rainy. I thought I could still enjoy the hike, especially the dramatic atmosphere, fog and all, and I really didn’t want to skip it, as I had no idea when I could make it back to this part of the world.IMG_20170627_174837_397

The route is straightforward, well maintained and it’s impossible to get lost – if you stray from the narrow path you can only fall down into the canyon. A map is not necessary although I brought one so I had a general reference of how far along I was at any point. As I set out the rain briefly broke and give me some hope I might spot the peaks towering over the Cares River canyon. As expected, the first two km were a zigzagging and steep along loose rock that then becomes relatively flat. Rock falls are a mild concern the entire way and clear evidence of slides can be seen in some early sections. Seeing this made me realize I should pay attention to not only what I see but also what I hear. After abut 15 minutes rolling thunder moved through the canyon and truly worried me; Steady rain doesn’t necessarily translate to danger on an established level path but lightening could be deadly. As I couldn’t hear or see lightening strikes I decided to wait a bit and hope for conditions to improve but didn’t go any further on the route. My stubbornness and dread at the thought of missing the opportunity to experience the hike was keeping me on the trail. Many people passed me on their way back to the start, having abandoned the walk themselves. Eventually there was no one in sight on the trail and as far as the eye could see the sky was dark and gloomy. After 30 minutes of rain and thunder I turned around and headed back down to the start point, feeling discouraged and disappointed by my bad luck. Feeling sorry for myself, I walked a bit slowly and at some point realized I could hear birds chirping in the distance, the sound coming from around a bend further along the route. I waited a few minutes more to see if the sounds would continue and when they did, I decided the storm must be over (for now). I reversed my direction again and started the second attempt of the day.

Eventually the path follows along undercuts in the limestone that forms the rocky mountainside and this provided small chances to get out of the light rain. The rest of the hike was a beautiful journey and well worth the troubling start. I’ve noticed how rain intensifies the colors of a natural environment, and the Cares Canyon was no exception. The river below appearing emerald in some places and a deep blue in others against the dark jagged limestone made a gorgeous contrast. Purple and yellow wildflowers dot some dark green slopes. I took a few photos during the experience but couldn’t quite capture the intense colors, the thick (spooky) atmosphere and the sheer scale of the mountains along the valley. I have much more experience hiking on top of ridges or along paths elevated over a valley so going low along a narrow canyon was a new experience and made me feel as if I was walking under huge towers. Overall the hike had a magical quality, truly exposing me to the nature of the valley – something I will never forget.

I’m so glad to have visited Picos de Europa and to have experienced Ruta del Cares.

Thank you for reading!


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