Hiking in Ordesa National Park
Encompassing a series of awesome canyons in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees, Ordesa offers some of the most spectacular hiking in Europe
The kilometre-deep canyons and 3,000-metre peaks of Ordesa National Park are simply awe-inspiring when explored on foot. Local hiking guide Phil James describes what's on offer.
High in the central Pyrenees, Ordesa is Spain’s oldest protected area and has received UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural beauty and pristine environment. For hikers it is sheer perfection – with grand mountain landscapes culminating in the extraordinary Ordesa Canyon, plus an abundance of wildlife and flora.
The area is famous for its ‘faja’ paths that thread through the high limestone cliffs. Some of these are jaw-droppingly narrow, while others are much more gentle and suitable for everybody.
On the rim of Ordesa
The Ordesa National Park has four deep canyons. Ordesa and Pineta are glacial in origin, while Añisclo and the Garganta de Escuain have been formed by rivers. The hiking is quite different in each of these areas.
Above the canyons sits a high plateau with a string of jagged 3,000-metre peaks. Towering above the rest is Monte Perdido, at 3,355 metres the third-highest mountain in the Pyrenees and a popular summit for experienced hikers.
Gazing down to the Ordesa Valley
The Ordesa Valley
Ordesa is the main destination for hikers in the park and has the best variety of any of the valleys. The most popular hike is along the valley floor to the Cola de Caballo (horsetail) waterfall which is straightforward although, at 17km, quite a long hike. You get great views of the cliffs from the valley floor, however more adventurous walkers should climb up out of the valley and follow one of the faja paths that follow the high cliffs - these are just fantastic paths. There are three main routes - Faja Racon (easiest), Faja de Pelay (see below) and the vertiginous Faja de las Flores (see below).
On the rim of Añiscio
The deepest of the canyons in the park and totally different in character to Ordesa, Añiscio is characterised by its lovely waterfalls and woods beneath towering cliffs. The steep-sided nature of the canyon means most people follow the Rio Bellos at the bottom of the valley which is a lovely walk. If you want to take in the views from on high, head for the peak of Mondoto (on the western rim of the canyon), which you can reach from the village of Nerin or - if you're up for a really big day - Sestrales on the eastern rim.
A lammergeier soars high above Escuain
Garganta de Escuain
A smaller but still very pretty canyon. There are some lovely miradors (viewpoints) that can be reached from the village of Revilla on the eastern side of the canyon. The other main attraction of Escuain is the vulture feeding station, without doubt the best place to see lammergeier - the huge bone-eating vulture with a wingspan of nearly three metres. To reach the feeding station start from the village of Escuain.
Another deep glacial valley. For me Pineta doesn't offer so much for hikers as there is a road that reaches a Parador right at the end of the valley. Two good walks are Llanos de Larri (gentle) and the Balcon de Pineta (steep). If you're in the area, it's a great place to drive to and take in the views even if you don't hike.
The high plateau and Monte Perdido massif
The high plateau
Above Ordesa lies a high arid plateau that has some wonderful 3,000-metre summits and the famous Brecha de Roland. The most popular summit is Monte Perdido, the highest; however there are plenty more to choose from, with Taillon and Marbore being two of my favourites. These are hikes for experienced walkers and mountaineers. To explore the plateau you need to spend a night at Refugio Goriz - basic, but with a great atmosphere. Book in advance as it gets really busy. Check conditions and come prepared as you can encounter snow on these routes even in midsummer.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. The Faja de Pelay
A wonderful balcony path on the southern cliffs of the Ordesa Valley. A steep climb of 600 metres gives you fantastic views of the border peaks as well as down into the valley. The path then contours around the cliffs for the entire length of the valley before dropping down to its lower reaches. One of the best hikes in the Pyrenees - a long day but not vertiginous.
2. Faja de las Flores
This is a tremendous path that a full kilometre up on the northern cliffs of Ordesa. It needs to be seen to be believed: a very narrow trail winding for around 5km around the cliffs - there is an ever-present drop of several hundred metres to your right, so it's only recommended for those with an extremely good head for heights! There's a strenuous ascent of 1,100 metres to get to the start of the path, but it's well worth it.
3. Vulture feeding station
Seeing huge vultures fly just over your head is a wonderful sight and the feeding station in the Garganta de Escuain is the best place to see lammergeier, the rarest vulture in Europe, which feeds almost exclusively on bones. Feeding takes place once a week in summer but on any day there are plenty of vultures in the area. An easy hike heads out to the feeding station and a lovely path heads back to the village of Escuain from the Puentelos Mallos.
4. Monte Perdido (3,355m)
The highest mountain in the park and the third highest in the Pyrenees. From the summit you get spectacular views down all four canyons of the park. The normal route from Refugio Goriz is strenuous but fairly straightforward, although experience and the right equipment is required. Snow can be found on Perdido until midsummer so check with the Refugio whether you'll need to bring crampons.
5. Brecha de Roland
The Brecha de Roland is the only easy place to cross between Spain and France in the park and links Ordesa with the Cirque de Gavarnie. The 'breach' is a spectacular gap in the cliffs that legend says was carved out by general Roland as he was fleeing to escape the Moors during the reconquista. Best reached with a night at either Refugio Goriz or Sarradets on the French side. A wonderful spot.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The park is open all year, although snow makes access difficult until around Easter time. The main Faja paths in Ordesa are usually snow-free by mid-June, but this changes each year depending on conditions. From 1st July until mid-September you need to take a shuttle bus into Ordesa from Torla - at other times of the year you can drive and park right in the valley.
The Ordesa Valley gets very busy with Spanish tourists from mid-July until the third week in August. However nearly everybody stays on the valley floor path - if you head up higher you soon lose the crowds.
For the higher peaks expect to encounter snow any time from late August and be aware that it not unknown for fresh snow to fall on the summits even in midsummer. The Refugio Goriz website (and also its Facebook page) is an excellent source of information about the state of the paths.
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