August 17, 2012

Spanish National Parks: "Parque Nacional de Ordesa," A Natural Treasure in the Spanish Pyrenees

One of many spectacular trails in Ordesa National Park
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 U.S., 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 clubs 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 and its "civilization" or "history", and as a consequence by and large reduce its "natural beauty" to either quaint towns (with splendid backdrop), 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 recent 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).

On "Gran Recorrido" trails,
look for this mark
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.

A panoramic view of Torla, the small Pyrenees town which is the
launch point for bus rides up to Ordesa National Park

The view from the Ordesa Park entry "pradera"

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 a 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 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! Come visit it!)

These two stray cows had the upper valley all to themselves,
living a perfectly happy life away from the herd.

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 (3355 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 here, 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…").

And lots of interesting trees…

Since the hike takes around 6 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...



Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

I would LOVE to visit this place. And you know, I always tell Spaniards that they should visit the national parks too! My in-laws think Yellowstone is Jellystone, though.

I really enjoy the tradition of "casa ruraling," you know, renting a casa rural and staying there, hiking around, etc.

I recommend Puebla de Sanabria and its lake if you're ever up in Castilla y Leon, near portugal. Beautiful, lots of history.

An Expat in Spain said...

Kaley, thank you for reading and commenting! I'm particularly proud of this post. Getting those photos was no small feat! And I suspect my readership (whomever that may be) has dropped significantly this summer vacation month.

Spaniards are big on "casa ruraling", so we expats need to be better about giving that equal time to that with beach-going in our blogs. I'll make a note of Puebla de Sanabria. It looks and sounds beautiful. Thanks for the rec!

Nieves said...

A great report! I was in Huesca last year and visited the Parque Nacional de Ordesa and I can only say it was great and amazing, and definitely one of the best places I have ever been.

An Expat in Spain said...

Thank you, Nieves! I was talking with a local in Lanuza about how amazing Ordesa was, and he said (in Spanish), "But don't you have plenty of better parks in the US?" I replied that I thought Ordesa was as amazing as any park we had. (Not necessarily better, but once a natural park reaches a certain level of amazingness, they are all incredible and worth visiting.) He just laughed and said, "Quieres lo que no tienes"... You want what you don't have. Despite being a resident of the Pyrenees, he still dreamed of visiting the Grand Canyon.

Cassandra said...

Hola Zach, que tal tu verano?

I've been catching up on blog reading and really enjoyed this entry on Ordesa. I was lucky enough to hike a bit in the Picos de Europa a few years ago, but have been at a loss for other parks to visit. Seeing your pictures and hearing your account of this hike (specifically for the gradas and circo de Soaso) made your enthusiasm for green things infectious. I'm adding this to my Spain must-do list!

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Cassandra! Good to hear from you! I'd have to say right back at you about the Picos de Europa. We've been wanting to visit them for ages, and after this hiking trip, we're even more eager to see them. It's my understanding the the Picos and the Pyrenees are the two best hiking spots in Spain. So I do highly recommend you add this to your must-do list. We're already thinking about returning in a different season, like spring or winter, just to get a different feel for it.

Cassandra said...

I wholeheartedly recommend the Picos. My family's travel base was a nearby pueblo called Potes, which was reminiscent of Switzerland. The Pyrenees must also be terrific any time of year!

Anonymous said...

Hi , we are from England and visited this part of the world for a few days last year ( whilst touring France) We want to go back this year for longer ( to do the area justice); How difficult are the hikes please?
Having always been a keen walker , Im frustrated by ill health at the moment ( lung inflamation, akin to severe asthma) Would there be any trails suitable , fo you know? THANKS X

Mike said...

Such a scenic place in the Pyrenees. I love the architecture which is very typical of Pyrenees. I'd get more info about this place. Kudos to this post!
routeperfect portugal

Carol Evans said...

Spain has some amazing national parks especially in Andalucia. In the Sierra Nevada you can enjoy skiing in the morning and sunbathing on the beach that same day. Breathtaking views of the mountains followed by a swim in the sea. There are a number of amazing places to see too. The caves in Maro near Nerja are memorable.

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