Trail running in the Costa Blanca

The footpaths and mule tracks leading through these rocky mountains make for some spectacular trail running - all just a stone's throw from the resorts of Spain's Costa Blanca

Spectacular views on the Serrella traverse
The spectacular views on the Serrella traverse are a highlight of the running trails through the Costa Blanca.
The rugged mountain trails in and around the Guadalest Valley may be just a few miles from the brash resort of Benidorm, but they are a world away in every other sense. Tom Phillips, who has been exploring the region as a trail runner for many years, describes what’s on offer in this surprising corner of Spain.

Over the last year I have been fortunate to spend quite a few weeks running and exploring the mountain ridges around the beautiful village of Abdet in the Costa Blanca. I have followed a combination of footpaths, forgotten mule tracks and ancient trading routes leading through the dramatic landscapes.

The Guadalest Valley is only 15 miles inland from Benidorm, and you can see the "high-rise hell" on the coast quite clearly from the summits. But it may as well be a million miles away – you'll rarely see another soul in these hills.
 

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GUIDE TO TRAIL RUNNING IN THE COSTA BLANCA

The mountains are all limestone, and erosion from wind, frost and soil has carved away at the rock to expose amazing ridges, pinnacles and cliff faces of gigantic proportions. The paths and trails navigate their way through this landscape via high passes, rock staircases and even notches, caves and slots in the sheer rock faces.

The area bears the hallmarks typical of much of rural Spain, as local people have given up trying to scratch a living from the dry hills and have moved into towns and cities. Many of the smaller settlements have been abandoned and are slowly disintegrating, while dense forest has reclaimed many of the slopes. Higher up, the vegetation is a combination of gorse, dwarf oak and other spiky Mediterranean shrubs - it's only on the very highest ridges that the vegetation has been stripped back by the goats.

Maps of the area aren’t very good, so it’s often a case of just getting out there and exploring - seeing where you end up. It is hoped that the following descriptions will enable you to make an informed choice of where to aim for.

THE BEST COSTA BLANCA TRAIL RUNS

Sierra Aitana

This run starts at an altitude of 600 metres in the village of Abdet, but still has nearly 1,000 metres to climb to gain the summit of Aitana (the highest peak in Valencia Province). In spring the almond blossom lights up the terraces and the heady perfume is almost intoxicating. Summertime means early pre-dawn starts - running into a Mediterranean sunrise is a real treat, the sun climbs very quickly and the dazzling light soon illuminates the many overhanging orange rock faces between you and the summit.

You have to squeeze through a slot in the rocks to gain access to an area of massive crevasses on the summit plateau of Sierra Aitana, which are testament to some huge earthquakes. One hundred metres or more deep, they have released enormous blocks which are now tilted like giant seracs on the mountain edge.

Ridges of the Aitana trail
Impressive views from the ridges of the Sierra Aitana trail.

The route follows the edge of the cliffs with dramatic views across the valley below, then a choice of scree or track marks the start of the long descent down through olive and almond terraces and a possible visit to one of the valleys amazing ruined Moorish castles, perched on a pinnacled outcrop. After the Moors had been ejected from the area, the king of Spain decided these castles were too much of a liability and so blew them to pieces with gunpowder. Quite a lot of the walls remain, however, and the cleverly constructed water tanks - vital to survival under siege - still hold water hundreds of years later.

In summer the temperature will start to climb rapidly and by 11am I always aim to be heading back downhill, perhaps stopping at one of the "Fuentes" to refill my bottles with refreshing cold spring water or soaking my cap to keep a bit cooler. There are a few "secret" rock canyons with crystal clear water where you can really cool down after your run if you do overheat. The cold water will take your breath away!

Almond blossom line the descent on the Aitana trail
Almond blossom line the descent on the Aitana trail.

Monte Ponoche - 'the sleeping lion'

The profile of this peak explains its nickname; the sleeping lion. The colossal 600-metre overhanging rock walls tower above you on the relentless climb at the start of this circular route. The reward is a great traverse and then a climb through a rock notch to access the hidden valleys that are the location for a Buddhist community. This is a really varied run with some fast sections of vehicle track but also footpaths which twist and turn and will have you whooping with joy! More impressive rock walls mark the finish and you may spot climbers high up above you.

The route to 'The Sleeping Lion'
Varied terrain on route to 'the sleeping lion'.

Monks Towers

On the other side of the valley, the long Sierra Serrella offers many running possibilities. A visit to the Monks Towers (Agulles Frares) is certainly worthwhile. The mountainside here has eroded to create a forest of crazily-shaped pinnacles and fins of rock, and a spectacular trail takes you right through the middle of them, although the escape route does involve a bit of easy scrambling.

This can be linked in with the exhilarating, seemingly never-ending 250-metre scree run further along the ridge, which is followed by a stiff climb under rock walls colonised by mountain choughs which dive and swoop in the thermals.

Approaching the Monks Towers
The trail climbs as you approach the Monks Towers.

Keep going and you'll end up on the summit of Pla de la Casa, the location for an incredible 15-metre-deep snow hole, one of many in the area, and all that remains from a once thriving industry that provided ice for the villages and towns and even exported abroad. Mule trains heavily laden with blocks of ice would descend in the night with their valuable cargo in the days before mechanical refrigeration.

Leaving the mountain via a goat herders' counting notch (Contadores Pass), you can choose the sunny or shady side of the next valley, Sombria Solaro, depending on the temperature or time of day. This returns you to the village past the many centuries-old irrigation channels and an old ruined mill that is more recent, a relic from the last century when wheat was quite a common crop hereabouts.

Summit of Pla de la Casa
The views from the summit of Pla de la Casa are unrivalled.

Through the Bernia Ridge

The Bernia ridge dominates the view out to the coast with its Matterhorn-shaped profile. In reality it is a long thin rib of limestone that invites exploration. It is quite popular with walkers, and makes a great short mountain circumnavigation, although on your return you actually make use of a natural cave that pierces right through the ridge.

I remember one New Year's day emerging from the cave blinking in the sunlight with stunning views over a sea of cloud. It's a joy to rest at such vantage points and take it all in. On my last visit a couple of golden eagles landed quite close and eyed us up before soaring back into to air. In summer the bee eaters are a delight with their porcelain like wings and vivid colours. Red squirrels have made a return to the area in recent years and they always entertain with their acrobatic displays.

Sierra Bernia
Sierra Bernia in all its glory.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. AItana summit views

Head for this 1,600-metre peak, the highest in the region, for unforgettable views across the surrounding mountains and the coast. Best of all, come for the sunrise.

2. Descent from the Sleeping Lion

Perhaps the most exciting trail of all, a fantastic traverse with a 'secret' valley and a great variety of terrain.

3. Bernia ridge

Take a short cut through this narrow mountain ridge by means of a cave through the limestone.

4. The rock pinnacles (Monks Towers)

Follow the trail that leads right through the middle of these extraordinary natural rock formations, part of a rewarding longer run.

5. Night running

A night run high in the mountains under a starlit sky is something special. If there is a full moon then you won't even need a torch. In mid-August the Perseid meteor shower may well accompany you on your way. You may also come across some of the valley's elusive wildlife - a few times I have seen groups of wild boar that plough up the land in search of food.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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F
M
A
M
J
J
A
S
O
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D

It's possible to run at any time of year, but in the heat of the summer you'll want to restrict exertions to the early mornings. From November to March the climate is ideal for longer runs, great if you are training for ultra-marathons.

KIT LIST

You can get away with minimal kit most of the year round. Well cushioned shoes are a wise choice as the terrain is very rocky and hard packed. Most runs have mountain springs so you can refill your bottles and thus avoid having to carry large volumes of water. The humidity is generally low so you may not get as sweaty as you might imagine, but even so it's well worth starting each run well hydrated. It can be windy, so a gilet or windproof is a good idea in winter, along with a buff and thin gloves. Of course the sun can be fierce from mid-April to late September, so suncream, hat and sunglasses are vital.

Car hire is required to get into the hills, but again that is very good value. It's worth staying up the the mountain villages so you can start most of your runs without driving anywhere.

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