The diverse natural landscape of Spain: National Parks, Preserves, and Natural Spaces


As we are coming out of several long weekends coupled with consistently warm weather, many of us are beginning to see summer on the horizon and are planning our getaways and June weekend trips. One thing I’ve noticed to my chagrin is how many North Americans in Spain tend to favor escaping to other European countries, while neglecting some of the wonders contained within the Spanish borders. Entire books have been dedicated to highlighting various routes, villages, monuments, and beaches worth visiting while in Spain. And with good reason. Here within Spain you can find an enormous wealth of natural landscapes worth visiting, often times unique to the peninsula and undiscovered by the majority of travellers. Here is a list of several lesser known destinations (within the peninsula to avoid flying) that highlight the diverse landscape of Spain and why you should consider visiting.

Parque Nacional de la Sierra de Guadarrama

The first on the list is chosen for two reasons: its proximity to Madrid and given its status and the newest national park as of 2013. Located between the provinces of Madrid, Avila, and Segovia it is easily accessible by public transit. The most common ways to access Guadarrama being through the villages of Manzares El Real (Bus 724 from Plaza Castilla) or Cercedilla (available on the Cercanias line C2). From Manzanares El Real the most common hiking routes lead through la Pedriza, a favorite of Madrid locals to escape the heat in the summer and visit the Charca Verde or the Manzanares River. Keep in mind it is now prohibited to swim within la Pedriza (the below picture is from 2012, when it was permitted). Cercedilla is a lovely town to take the historic “snow train” up to the Cotos mountain pass at 1830 meters above sea level. Animals to be seen in the area are the Iberian imperial eagle, the black culture, wild boars, hares, mountain goats, the Iberian wolf, deer, and foxes amongst many others. Those interested in staying the night in the mountains, be aware free camping is illegal as are campfires and carry a heavy fine. However, there are several refuges in the area such as the Refugio Giner de los Rios.

La Charca Verde (when dips were permitted)

Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido

As someone who has an insatiable lust for discovering rural Spain, I was first surprised the Huesca’s Pyrenees in December of 2012 while renting a cabin right over the border in France for the New Year. The province of Huesca in Aragón is a sight to be seen as you traverse the Pyrenees, and Ordesa and Monte Perdido perhaps best encapsulate the area’s beauty. The Pyrenees mountains which divide Spain and France contain some of the highest peaks in peninsular Spain. Pico Aneto at 3,404 meters, Pico Posets at 3,371 meters, Monte Perdido at 3,355 meters and Pico Viñamala at 3,298 all belong to the province of Huesca. The area is famous for its glacier valleys and mountain crests, and just over the French border you will find the highest waterfall in Europe: Gavarnie. Within the National Park, the Soaso waterfall as well is remarkable. The area is a favorite for visitors in autumn given its population of abetos, tremolines and hayas (fir, aspen, and beech trees respectively). Notable fauna in the area include the oso pardo or brown bear, groundhog, and the quebrantahuesos (literally the bone breaker or osprey). While in the area try some of the wines from nearby Somontano, the typical shephard’s dish migas aragonesas (Aragonese bread crumb dish made with sausage, black pudding, and animal fat), any of the local varieties of cheese, and chuleticas de cordero (lamb chops).

Huesca is a region with a longstanding history of shepherding. Cheese lovers try Radiquero, a strong goat’s cheese. It will not disappoint.

I told you, it’s lovely.

The Pyrenees. Enough said.

Parque Nacional/Natural de Doñana

A radical departure from the last two parks is Doñana, located in the Andalusian province of Huelva between the province of Cadiz and Portugal. Not only in location, but also in its physical characteristics, Doñana is different from the last two parks as a marsh system with wild horses, sand dunes, and coastal pine forests. A favorite of birdwatchers, given Doñana’s climate and location between Africa and Europe, around 300 species of bird call Doñana home at some point during the year for nesting during migration between the two continents and due to the health of the ecosystem and its abundant fish to feed on. One of Doñana’s most emblematic species is the Iberian lynx, a beloved species in Spain and one of the most endangered species in Spain.

The hiking routes in and around Doñana are lovely for long summer days and sunsets.

The pine trees and dunes are a very unique landscape to this part of Spain

La Islas Cíes (Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia)

One of the national parks in Spain I feel most attracted to but have yet to visit is the Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia, and more specifically the Cíes Islands. Anyone who has lived in Spain and hasn’t been to Galicia is doing themselves a huge disservice. If the diverse landscape, the abundance of beautiful aldeas inhabited by three elderly people who still work the land, and the incredible gastronomy of Galicia aren’t enough, the Cíes Islands should convince you. Located a short ferry ride from Vigo, the Cíes Islands are three islands: Monteagudo (the north island), la Isla del Faro (the central island), and la Isla de Martiño (the south island). In 2007, the Guardian declared the beach Praia de Rodas as the most beautiful beach in the world for its crystal clear water and ideal climate in the summer. Camping in the island is permitted from during Easter week and summer.

Reserva de la biosfera de Urdaibai

After having lived three years in the Basque Country, my Basque friends would be greatly disappointed if I didn’t mention Urdaibai, a delicate marsh ecosystem at the river mouth of the Oka river in the province of Biscay. Surrounded by beautiful Basque fishing villages and phenomenal beaches, Urdaibai is a unique and largely undiscovered park by non-Basques. Nearby there is no shortage of mountains with incredible views of the river and marsh such as Astogana and Atxarra. Given the unique Cantabrian holm oak and other species of trees in the area, Urdabai is home to a plethora of species of birds and is also a favorite for bird watchers given the creation of the Urbaibai Bird Center in 2009, a center created to study the birds of the area and foment their protection. A visit to Urdabai is not complete without a cultural excursion to the nearby fishing villages of the Basque coastline such as Mundaka (perhaps the most famous wave for surfing in Europe), Lekeitio, Bermeo, and of course the church of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in Bakio. If wine is your thing, check out the Txakoli wineries in the area where the unique Basque white wine produced. It pairs wonderfully with the fish and seafood famous in this lovely region.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Pardon the graininess, these photos are from a time when I shot almost exclusively on high speed 3200 ISO black and white film.

The harbour in Mundaka, with the wave in the background. Surfers enter the water through the harbour and paddle out to the world famous left.

It’s been very difficult to compile this list. Other options I considered much worthy of consideration and research are the Lagos de Covadonga and Picos de Europa in Asturias. Drink sider, eat cheese (GAMONEU!), and prepare to be impressed by the unique mountain landscape.

The Sierra de Cazorla in Jaén is another park that recently has attracted my attention, a friend recently returned from a trip there remarking the incredible desnivel as she drove through the mountains. In the area be sure to do an olive oil cata and prepare to be blown away by the province that produces more olive oil than the whole country of Greece.

Hardly a secret, the Sierra Nevada in Granada also deserves mentioning. Home to the highest mountain in peninsular Spain, Mulhacen, as well as the incredible series of mountain villages dubbed Las Alpujarras (where the Moors were fabled to have taken refuge during the inquisition in beautiful white Andalusian villages), the mountains and villages of Granada can have you skiing in the morning and swimming in the mediterranean in the afternoon while enjoying a bit of pescaíto frito in the afternoon.


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