Looking for a (mostly) downhill walk in the Picos de Europa with incredible views? Then this circular walk, which makes use of the Fuente Dé cable car, is probably perfect for you. Just as long as you don’t mind the odd car interrupting your mountain walk!
The route, taken from the excellent Sunflower guide to the Picos de Europa, is approximately 9.5 miles long. Choose a clear day to make the most of the views but be aware weather conditions can change rapidly in the Picos.
Fuente Dé cable car
The cable car from Fuente Dé is the quickest way to get into the high Picos. It transports walkers, climbers and sightseers up to 1850 metres and is the longest single-span aerial lift in Europe.
I’d read advice on various forums about arriving at the cable car before its 9am August opening time. So had everyone else. At 8.45am our ticket numbers showed there were already more than 200 people in front of us! Fortunately the ride takes less than four minutes so the queue moved relatively quickly.
As we set off I noted the ladder hanging above us, presumably for mid air rescues. Scenes from James Bond films flitted through my mind, along with the Italy cable car disaster. Sometimes my brain isn’t helpful!
There’s a dramatic change in scenery, and air temperature, when you disembark. The first few minutes were spent taking photographs of the view from the overhanging platform only to realise it gets even better when you walk away from the cable car.
There is only one exit route, a wide stone path. We, and everyone else, followed it around to a junction where it splits off. Those equipped for a more challenging mountain walk could choose the PR-PNPE 23. It looked relatively straightforward but we were walking in trainers and I didn’t want to risk it.
Instead we followed the signposted PR-PNPE 24 for much of our walk. It’s not a difficult walk in good weather, but is long and downhill. And, as we discovered later in the day, had a sting (or rather a bark) in the tail.
The track ran alongside the jagged rocks of Peña Vieja. This is a peak that can be summited by walkers, rather than climbers, but only if you’re comfortable with exposure and scree slopes. It’s firmly off my itinerary.
Instead our broad stony track wound down the hill towards Chalet Real, previously a royal hunting lodge. We soon discovered why the track was so wide. Jeeps were using them to transport people and goods from the valley floor to the chalet and nearby refuge. These were joined later on by 4WD tours and, rather incredulously, sightseers in everyday cars. So much for a quiet mountain walk!
Refugio de Áliva
It took an hour or so of gentle downhill walking from the cable car to reach the refuge at Áliva. We sat outside in the sun, drinking coffee, and watching choughs just above our heads. A little further away a griffon vulture circled on a thermal. Mesmerising.
From the refuge we walked through the Puertos de Áliva, summer meadows grazed by cattle. These were huge, but seemingly docile, beasts with big horns and tinkling cow bells.
We ate our lunch sitting on large rocks beside the path. Ignoring the occasional cloud dust thrown up by passing vehicles. This is where we saw our first everyday car. How it had managed to negotiate the mountain track without a puncture is beyond me!
Gates of Aliva
After walking beside a small stream we crossed a cattle grid which rather bizarrely had small fish swimming under it. Whilst the kids spotted fish I was distracted by a kaleidoscope of blue butterflies. Most of them, I think, were chalk hill blue butterflies but there were other blues in the group too.
Columns on either side of the road indicated we’d reached the ‘Gates of Aliva’. The view opened up with a stupendous panorama of the Cordilla Cantábrica, and the extent of our descent which was still to come.
This is where the PR-PNPE 24 splits off and returns to Fuente Dé. In hindsight, this is the route we should have taken. Instead we took the steep road zigzagging down to Espinama. At Espinama we refreshed ourselves with ice cream, crossed the road and started our return to Fuente Dé.
Our return route, on the opposite side of the valley, was undulating and mostly along quiet roads. We passed through Pido and then, on a bridge with just three or so kilometres to go we were faced with five large mountain dogs growling and barking at us. Now, I love dogs and am not generally afraid of them. However these ones meant business. After retreating for a while, looking for alternative routes and big sticks to protect ourselves with, we made the difficult decision to turn back.
Back to Pido and down onto the twisty main road running through the valley. Our scenic ramble turned into a forced march to Fuente Dé, walking in the gutter edging as there was no path. Cars whizzing by every minute or so. It wasn’t pleasant.
It was a relief to finally reach Fuente Dé. To look back up again at the cable car and mountains we’d walked down from. The route is spectacular, and well worth it. But if I was doing it again I’d stay on the PR-PNPE 24 route the whole way. And hopefully avoid the dogs!