ITS 13 mountain systems cover almost half of the territory and almost a quarter of Spain is above 1000 m. The best known ranges include the Pyrenees, the Picos de Europa, the Sierra de Guadarrama just north of Madrid and the Sierra Nevada to the south. Within each range there are thousands of mountain trails, some the domain of serious climbers, but others accessible to hardy day-trippers.
We put on sturdy shoes and several layers, and set off to select our choice of tops.
A REAL volcano, Teide extends up to 3,715 meters above sea level, making it the highest peak in Spain. It is located in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, and, in terms of visitor numbers, is Spain’s most popular natural wonder. In fact, Teide National Park, which welcomed more than 4 million visitors in 2016, is one of the most visited national parks in Europe.
There are two routes to the summit: one takes about six hours and the other more than eight. Both are very steep for long distances and rated as “high difficulty”. Temperatures can frequently drop below freezing at the summit during the winter months, and a permit is required to visit. Unsurprisingly, most visitors don’t care. You can cover most of the way in the “comfort” of a cable car which, in eight grueling minutes, will take you from the station to the bottom of the crater (2,356 m) at a fairly high altitude (3,555 m).
THE highest mountain in mainland Spain and Western Europe if the Alps are excluded, Mulhacen is located in the Sierra Nevada and rises to 3,479 meters. It is named after the penultimate Muslim king of Granada who is believed to have been buried on top of the mountain in the 15th century. If true, it was an inconvenient place to choose, but not a prohibitively challenging one.
Three trails to the summit start in the Alpujarras, the most popular being the Capileira Trail, and most people break up the hike by spending the night at Refugio Poqueira. Otherwise wait until summer when you can buy a ticket at the Capileira tourist office for a bus that will drop you off at Posiciones del Veleta, just half a day’s walk from the top.
At 3,404 meters, it is not only the highest mountain in Aragon, but in the whole of the Pyrenees. The largest remaining glacier in the Pyrenees is on its north face, although it is rapidly disappearing: In 2005 the glacier covered nearly 80 hectares, but studies show that half the surface has been lost in the past 100 years, and there are indications it could be gone completely by 2050.
Crossing rock and snow and what remains of the glacier makes this hike more technically difficult, but it is suitable for experienced hikers and beginner mountaineers alike. It is usual to spend the night before the push to the summit at Refugio Renclusa, above the town of La Besurta, in the province of Huesca. Unless you are extremely confident, go with a guide.
CENTER Spain’s highest mountain rises to 2,591 meters in the Sierra de Gredos and is largely made of granite. Its name is derived from Al-Mansur, Arabic for ‘The Victorious’. It is said that during the time of Muslim rule, a general who was called Al-Mansur because of his many victories over the Christians, spotted this mountain during a campaign and was captivated by its beauty. Somehow it filtered down to the cartographers.
Easy access from Madrid (two hours) and Avila (just one hour) make it a popular destination for weekend city dwellers. An impressive glacial cirque (sunken valley) and lake, lookout and summit are all accessible by fairly easy and well-marked trails. Accommodation is available next to Laguna Grande at Refugio Elola, and below in Valle del Tormes.
PEÑALARA (2,428 meters) is inside the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park, straddling the provinces of Madrid and Segovia. The area is heavily forested with pines and oaks, rich in wildlife and an important habitat for eagles and vultures.
Many routes are available, but the circular trail at higher elevation, traversing a stunning landscape of lagoons and ice formations to the summit and back, is the star attraction. Although this is a moderately easy day hike for most of the year, winter conditions can change that. The information-packed Peñalara Visitor Center in Puerto de Cotos should be your first port of call.
PUIG Major is the highest mountain in Mallorca at 1,445 meters, but it is in a military zone and access to the absolute summit is prohibited. The paved road that passes near the summit is famous among cyclists who like fast descents, but if you intend to climb on foot to the highest accessible peak of the island, you will have to settle for Puig de Massanella nearby (1,364 meters). Both are part of the Sierra de Tranmontana range (known as the Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca) in the north of the island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An idyllic circular trail starts and ends at Lluc Monastery and should take you around seven hours.
VISIBLE from Granada, the Alcazaba (3,371 meters) is the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada mountains after Mulhacen and Veleta. As for Mulhacen, the preferred route starts from Refugio de Poqueira above Capileira, before branching off. It may not be the highest, but the hike to the Alcazaba is more isolated, steep and difficult, and the rewards are more spectacular views.
Keep in mind that good physical condition is not enough to guarantee safety. Plan ahead by researching the route, checking the best months to visit and route classifications, and be prepared to scrap your plans if the weather turns bad. When you go, dress appropriately, stay on the trails, take plenty of water, and always let someone know your proposed route and estimated return time. Otherwise, go with an accredited guide and benefit from their expertise.