Mountain biking in the Sierra Nevada

The highest peaks in Spain are home to a dense network of trails that will satisfy all mountain bikers with a sense of adventure

The Sierra Nevada mountains of southern Spain offer some of Europe's finest mountain biking, writes local enthusiast and guide David Isaacs.

Trails descend from the rocky heights over 2,000 metres through forest and farmland to the semi-arid foothills below, the glorious scenery illuminated by 320 days of sunshine per year and punctuated by time-warped mountain villages.

Across the main Sierra itself and surrounding outliers are thrilling routes of all types, with tecnical singletrack and easy stretches on forestry roads. Making it even more special is the fact that this region of Spain is still wild, not a manufactured bikers’ playground. There are no ski lifts and no coach parties: just you, the bike and the trail.

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There are four principal areas for mountain biking in this part of Spain. The Sierra Nevada mountains are the highest and most extensive, but those in the know also head for the smaller sierras of Lújar, Contraviesa and Guájares. The trails are natural - a combination of generations of mules, shepherds and also forestry access. Combined with the scenery and the villages, a mountain biking trip here combines white-knuckle thrills with an authentic encounter with rural Spain.

Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada (meaning "snowy range" in Spanish) is a mountain range in the region of Andalucia, extending across the provinces of Granada and Almería. It contains the highest point of continental Spain, Mulhacén, which rises to 3,478 metres (11,411ft) above sea level.

Parts of the range lie within the Sierra Nevada National Park, while the area has also been declared a biosphere reserve. The southern slopes extend down towards the Mediterranean Sea and the Costa Tropical (the eastern extension of the Costa del Sol), known for its warm temperatures and abundant sunshine. The city of Granada, famous for the spectacular Alhambra Palace, lies in the western foothills.
Water channel to Soportujar on the GR7
There is a wide range of altitude and as you descend the environment changes from rocky peaks and open alpine slopes through pine forest to farmland and, eventually, semi-arid Mediterranean scrub – the lowlands here are the driest parts of Europe. The trails that criss-cross the region are often old mule tracks and paths used by shepherds, as well as broader dirt roads used by forestry vehicles. From a mountain biking perspective, there’s an exciting mix of rocky single track, with some steep technical sections through gorges and gullies, plus gentler stretches on wider trails: the terrain is often forested, but less so at higher levels. The views from the upper slopes are utterly entrancing on a clear day - which means practically every day in these parts.

Most of the mountain bike routes are concentrated on the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada: these valleys are collectively known as Las Alpujarras, an area of picturesque whitewashed villages and terraced fields set below the mountain forests. Prime locations in the western Alpujarra include the south-facing valleys of the Rio Lanjarón above Lanjarón, and the Rio Chico above the large town of Órgiva at 420 metres in the Guadalfeo valley.

A little further east, and higher, are the lush gorges of the Rio Poqueira around Pampineira, Bubion and Capileira, as well as the trails around Trevélez (at 1,476 metres the highest village in mainland Spain and famed for its cured ham) which lead down to Pitres, Altabeitar and Ferreirola. Many trails run from around 2,000 metres altitude down to around 500 metres.
 
One of the 46 switchbacks on the north side of the Sierra de Lújar

Sierra de Lújar

The Sierra Lújar is an uninhabited limestone massif south of the Sierra Nevada, between the town of Órgiva and Motril down on the coast. It is a lesser used walking and biking destination than the more famous Sierra Nevada, and hence it is possible to have the whole mountain to yourself and not see anybody all day. Mountain biking routes here are superbly rugged, with views to the Sierra Nevada to the north, and the Mediterranean and Morocco to the south.

Various trails on both the north- and south-facing flanks feature sections of rocky single track. Descend in exhilarating fashion from the summit plateau at 1,870 metres altitude to Órgiva (420 metres, on the northern side) and Vélez Benaudalla (on the western flank, 450 metres) via a mixture of rarely used hunters’ and goat herders´ tracks. The tracks are sub-alpine on the summit with pine forests dominating on the descents down to the Mediterranean scrub at lower levels.

Sierra Contraviesa
Another lesser-known corner of southern Spain is the Sierra Contraviesa, which rises to the east of the Sierra Lújar between the Mediterranean and the Sierra Nevada. The ridge runs east-west parallel to the coast and reaches 1,500 metres in altitude.

Somewhat less rugged than the Sierra Lújar, the landscape is mainly cultivated with vines, almonds, cork oaks and pines. It is, however, a very sparsely populated area offering a fantastic setting for some thrilling mountain biking. Trails include stretches of single track and rutted vehicle tracks going south to the coast at Castell del Ferro and north to the Rio Cadiar Valley, which forms the divide between the Sierra Contraviesa and the Sierra Nevada.

Las Guájares
For precipitous limestone scenery, head for Las Guájares to the west of the Sierra Nevada. The peaks here rise to 1,450 metres, and the hills are a mixture of pine forests and cultivated land (olives, almonds, citrus fruits). There is an extensive network of tracks offering exciting mountain biking. Depending on the routes, there are views to the south to Almuñecar, the Mediterranean and Morocco to the south, or east to the heights of the Sierra Nevada.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Cañar to Órgiva

A classic Sierra Nevada route on the GR7. Follow the pristine single track between Cañar and Soportujar, 600 metres above Orgiva, traversing the valley side through breathtaking scenery. There's a steep but rideable descent on single track with switcbacks to Carataunas then a minor climb to traverse a ridge. Finally a quick blast on classic singletrack takes you into Órgiva town.

2. Sierra Lújar 46 switchbacks

Get close to the dramatic scenery of the Sierra Lújar - like something from a spaghetti western, with wildlife including ibex and imperial eagles. Enjoy incredible views back to the Sierra Nevada then descend on a rough track with its 46 switchbacks - demanding but doable - down to Tablones. Cross the Rio Guadalfeo and return to Orgiva.

3. Las Guájares

Set out from the idyllic village Guájar Faguit and proceed to Guájar Alto, then up the Rio Tobas among limestone peaks and pine forests. After 11km a track leads off to the left to reach Alto de Posta at 1,200 metres, with amazing views of the Mediterranean Sea, and the snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Continue along this high ridge for 6km before the exhilarating 800-metre descent back to Guájar Alto and Guajar Faguit via a spectacular route that traverses the valley.

4. Sierra Contraviesa

Begin at 1,000 metres altitude on the Sierra Contraviesa, heading east with amazing views of the Mediterranean and the Sierra Nevada. At Hazo de Lino, there is a spectacular track plunging down from 1,300 metres to Torvizcon at 500 metres, via vineyards and almond groves, before the return via the Rio Guadalfeo back to Órgiva.

5. High altitude mountain biking

There are various trails over 2,000 metres altitude, including one brilliant route that runs to the top of Pico Veleta – mainland Spain’s second highest mountain at 3,400 metres (11,150 feet) – and a 3,100-metre (10,300ft) descent to Órgiva.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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With one of the mildest climates in Europe, mountain biking is possible year-round. In the height of summer negate the fierce heat by doing higher level routes; conversely in winter, the lower trails remain warm and springlike. For all-round enjoyment at a variety of altitudes, late March to early June and early September to early November are ideal.

 

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