Time: 6 hours
Difficulty: Easy, but long
Distance: 24k round trip
In a remote pocket of Northern Spain, you’ll find the Picos de Europa. The gray stone mountains jut out of the ground to form incredible gorges. The way the rocks stretch skyward from the ground in a bluish haze, they seem to have come out of a painting rather than nature. But what’s more amazing is how man has tamed these mountains to form the Ruta del Cares.
Stretched along a 12k span between two quiet mountain towns, there is a trail cut plumb into the side of the stone wall. It’s like a scar running clean across the valley, carved out by miners in the 1910s for a canal and later widened into the walkable route that’s there today.
According to the signposts on the trail, the Ruta del Cares is one of the most popular trails (rutas, senderos) in Spain. But as far as I know, foreigners are none the wiser.
Most people don’t think of Spain as an adventure destination. They visit Madrid and see spicy flamenco espectacúlos. They go to Pamplona for the thrill of witnessing the running of the bulls. They travel to Barcelona to party and drink sangria and eat paella. But they’re totally missing out on all the outdoor action that’s happening along the northern coast.
If you’re into hiking at all – and you aren’t afraid of heights – I highly recommend the Ruta del Cares*. It’s an easy yet extremely rewarding trail.
*And the Picos de Europa National Park in general.
Where is it?
Despite being tucked away at the junction of three northern regions (Cantabria, Asturias, and León), the Ruta del Cares is pretty accessible.
- From where I live in Asturias, it’s about a 2-hour drive east
- From Santander, Cantabria, it’s just a 1.5-hour drive
That means you can be lounging on the beach one day and walking the cliffs of a remote mountain the next.
The 12k trail runs between two tiny towns, Poncebos and Caín. The former is a smattering of roadside cafeterías. The latter is a quaint mountain village with a handful of albergues (inexpensive hotels), restaurants, and houses. Most people start the hike in Poncebos and head toward Caín, but I’ve seen people do the opposite.
Why do it this way? I think Caín is a nicer place to stop for a break. There are more restaurants and facilities. And I believe Poncebos is more accessible by car.
How long does it take?
It takes about 6 hours to do the trail roundtrip, from Poncebos to Caín, Caín to Poncebos. It’s 24k (15 miles) in total, and I would recommend doing the whole thing because the trail is the most direct route between the two towns.
There’s no public transportation option as far as I can tell. And you can grab a cab back, but it’ll cost you. A waiter in Caín estimated it would cost $150 and take nearly three hours. A more economical way to go, he suggested, was to fill our backpacks with beer and drink one every hour to pass the time and enjoy the walk.
It takes about 2.5 hours to go from one end to the other, and you’ll want to stop for pictures and snacks along the way. I’d also recommend allowing some time to take a load off and enjoy a drink in the bars/restaurants in Caín. They have plenty of outdoor seating. They’re fully stocked. And they’re inexpensive. We ordered a round of drinks for 7.60. You can also order full meals at the restaurants if you don’t feel like packing a lunch, or grab a sandwich and snacks.
Cuevas y cabras
Remarkable views aside, this hike has a few additional attractions that make it so special. For one, the cliff-dwelling goats will greet you as soon as you hit the trail. They are very used to seeing humans on the trail and will approach you looking for food.
I saw a goat take down a banana peel while I was there. Although, they seemed to turn up their noses at discarded apple cores. Let it be known that I do not condone feeding the goats. My inner park ranger knows this is a horrible practice that’s bad for the goals in the long-term, even if they come up to you begging for it!
There is also a short network of caves along the trail. Well, some may technically be considered grottos. There is a waterfall that runs along the mountain and showers the windows of the caves as you walk through. This is a warning to wear shoes that can get wet. The caves are filled with puddles that you have to wade around and it’s inevitable that you’ll step into one.
Tips for hiking the Ruta del Cares:
- Start early, especially during the summer – As one of the most popular trails in Spain, this trail does get crowded. Starting early will ensure you have time to enjoy the route and also help you avoid the crowds.
- Give yourself enough time – The first time I tried to hike the Ruta del Cares, I started in the afternoon and had to turn back halfway through. It was a bummer because we missed the gravity-defying bridges and caves on the Caín side.
- Bring plenty of water – A liter per person to be safe. Perhaps two during the summer. The sun is strong in Spain and it gets hot quick once the clouds break. Even in mid-March, it was pretty toasty and we had to shed layers.
- Wear stable, comfortable shoes – It’s not a difficult hike. There is some elevation gain at the beginning, then it’s flat the rest of the way. But unless you’re used to walking 15 miles a day, your dogs are going to be barking. And stable shoes will help you feel confident walking on the inclines/declines with loose rocks.
- Bring snacks – The cafeterías in Caín are great, but you should bring some trail food on the hike in case you need a little energy.
- Pack your camera – The views really are gorgeous. Bring a nice camera so you can capture the landscape in all of its glory. Just be respectful to other hikers! The trail is narrow and has a steep drop off on the side, which means everyone needs to be aware of others and share the trail.
Out in the Picos de Europa, you’re more likely to hear bagpipe music than flamenco music. You’ll be drinking more beer and sidra than sangria. You might completely forget you’re in the same country where those stereotypes exist.
And I think you’ll be amazed that tucked away in Northern Spain, you can see something like you find on those ‘things to do before you die’ lists, in a place where you least expected it.