Things to Do

National parks in Spain

Spain is more than just beaches and historical sites. Follow a hike through one of the many national parks in Spain.

National parks in Spain

By Zach Frohlich

Updated 1-3-2024


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Visiting national parks in Spain

Americans are rightfully proud of their country’s natural treasures. I always tell Europeans that if they want to see something truly different, truly American when visiting the US, they ought to forgo the trip to New York City, Miami, or California (a.k.a. L.A/San Francisco), and instead visit its National Parks out West. It embodies the core of our frontier culture and national psyche. Well, the truth is this advice goes both ways.

How many Americans or Brits have travelled to Spain, toured its many beaches, and never thought to do rural or mountain tourism here, of which Spain has much to offer? Americans come to Europe to see its cities, its civilization or history, and as a consequence by and large reduce its natural beauty to either quaint towns (with splendid backdrops), Mediterranean beaches (with splendid clubs), or Alpine ski resorts (with splendid ski lifts).

In the spirit of counterbalancing this tendency, I offer you today this photo entry of my visit to Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, my first Spanish national park to visit, but most certainly not my last. Located in the Spanish Pyrenees, Ordesa is an incredible natural beauty, and also a cool mountain retreat, to escape the heat in the summer. In 1997 it was even marked a UNESCO World Heritage site, and should be added to the list of places to visit for those of you fortunate to stay in Spain for a year or longer. It is a wonderful place for senderismo (hiking).

Finding your way off the beaten track

To arrive there you drive to the small town of Torla, to park your car and take a bus up to the Ordesa National Park entry grounds and opening pradera (prarie). (In the summer season park officials close this route to individual cars, in order to control the quantity of people who frequent this very popular family vacation destination.)

There are many trails in the park (you can find more information at this website, clicking on the ‘Senderos de Gran y Pequeño Recorrido‘ link on the right). We chose to do what is the most popular destination: ‘La Cola de Caballo‘ (the horse’s tail), a three-hour hike to a waterfall and three hours to return, thus one of the ‘Gran Recorrido‘ trails or ‘GR #’, marked by red and white stripe paint.

On this trail you are effectively following a river up to its source in the mountains, which means you are nestled in a valley between magnificent mountain peaks and cliffs with periodic spectacular views of waterfalls (cascadas). This particular trail is a real treasure because of the varied terrain that you move through.

Los Hayedos

Early on you enter a series of forests or hayedos (forest area, which comes from the word ‘haya’, or beech tree). This part is heavily shaded, which keeps the strong mountain sun off your back!

About an hour in, you arrive to the first series of waterfalls. They make for a great stopping point, to snack, and you can walk down some steps to see the waterfalls up close. Then you pass along a cliff trail, to arrive at the first raised valley, which has lots of wild flowers and is nestled between striking orange and white cliffs.

Las Gradas de Soaso

The next destination along the trail, and in my opinion one of the two main contenders for ‘most incredible sight’ along it, are the gradas or waterfall steps, a series of waterfalls formed as the river flows down a bunch of terraced drops. They are a nice place to stop with the family for a picnic.

El Circo de Soaso

Continuing up a steep trail, you suddenly arrive in the land of the Wizard of Oz – that is, a brick road appears in place of the dirt and rock path, things level out, and you are in a valley high up in the mountains, with even higher mountains and cliffs surrounding you. Frankly, there is no way to capture with photos the peculiar sensation you feel in this enclosed, elevated valley. It is incredible, beautiful, surreal, and gorgeous. (Don’t take my word for it! Go visit it!)

Confession: I found myself humming songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1965), such as ‘Climb every mountain’, or ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’. Cue panoramic shot of protagonist spinning, pull back camera to reveal breathtaking mountain backdrop.

At the very end of the circo (geological term, ‘cirque’) and end of our trail is the ‘Cola de Caballo’, a waterfall whose dispersed arrangement on the rocks resembles the hairs of a horse’s tail. Though not as impressive as the gradas, it is still a nice final destination for a trail. (Though the more adventurous and travel-tested can continue up a steep trail to the ‘Refugio de Góriz‘.) Up above the waterfall is the ‘Monte Perdido‘, whose name ‘lost peak’ is ironic given that it is one of the tallest in the Pyrenees (3,355 meters high), and hardly easy to loose.

Although it is technically prohibited, it is simply a must to stop at some point along the river and take a foot bath. The water was so cold, I found it impossible to keep my feet under the water for longer than 10 seconds. But, man, were my feet happy to cool off there after heating up along the trail. (Among the other things which are prohibited, but which I saw tons of Spaniards and other park-goers partaking in: taking dogs with you on the trail, bathing or walking in the river…)

And yes, there are animals and plants to enjoy. We saw a chamois on the bus ride up. Though in general, we didn’t see much wild life beyond birds. There were lots and lots of beautiful butterflies! What our trip lacked in fauna, it more than made up for in flora. Lovely wild flowers; there are edelweiss flowers there, though we didn’t see them this trip, since they bloom in the winter. (Cue Sound of Music sentimental scene, lone man with guitar singing, “Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me…”).

Since the hike takes around six hours overall, you also experience a change of light over the course of the day. The shadows on the cliffs shift, the light in the forest changes, and along with it the mood shifts, adding a different texture to sights you’ve already seen, but don’t tire of seeing again.

When we got back to the forest, there was this incredible, magical blue light. I snapped this photo, which only partially captured the surrealness of it.

By the end, my feet were killing me, but my eyes would have kept my body there all day. I knew I would miss these majestic cliffs…