The Aragonese Pyrenees seem to define all the superlatives associated with the soaring Pyrenean mountains: the peaks here are the highest, the wildest and, in the eyes of many, the most beautiful of the Spanish Pyrenees. From the snowy mountain tips piercing the blue sky to lushly forested valleys and thundering rivers, the Aragonese Pyrenees are one of the country’s national treasures. And you can lace up your ski or hiking boots, and take to the verdant valleys or snow slopes – the mountains offer adventure throughout the seasons.
Huesca and Jaca are the two biggest cities, with plenty of bus connections into the Pyrenees. Huesca, the provincial capital, is a good jumping-off point for the splendid castle of Loarre, the relatively under-the-radar Sierra de Guara, with sculpted gorges, and the surreal rock formations of Los Mallos. East of Huesca, Barbastro is the centre of the fertile Somontano wine region. Amiable Jaca, with a formidable cathedral and decent array of hotels and hostales, makes for a popular base, particularly for the busy ski resorts to the north, Astún and Candanchú. As for summer activities, hiking trails traverse the entire range, including in the gorgeous Ansó and Hecho valleys and the magnificent Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido.Read More
The busy industrial town of Jaca is one of the main crossroads and transport hubs of northern Aragón, and first impressions are not great. Venture into the city centre, however, and you’ll find a bevy of sights that powerfully evoke the town’s long history, including a magnificent cathedral. Extending south of the cathedral is Jaca’s casco antiguo (old town), which includes atmospheric little plazas and streets, and the fifteenth-century Torre de Reloj (watchtower).
Jaca was founded by the Romans and then conquered by the Moors in the early eighth century. Later in the century, it was won back by the Christians in a victory that’s celebrated annually on the first Friday in May. In an interesting twist, the Moorish armies were driven back thanks to an immense – and brave – effort by the town’s women, and the festival includes a parade that pays homage to these brave Jaca ladies. In the eleventh century, Jaca became the first capital of the Aragón kingdom, though by the end of the century the power had shifted to Huesca.
Jaca makes for a good jumping-off point for outdoor adventure in the Pyrenees, including skiing at Astún and Candanchu, just 30km away. During the Festival Folklórico de los Pirineos (wjaca.es/festival), held in early August every odd-numbered year, people stream in from all over the Pyrenees to show off their cultural traditions with religious dances, performances and food. Also in August, over a two-week period, is the annual Festival Internacional en el Camino de Santiago (wfestivalcaminosantiago.com), featuring religious and classical music concerts at different venues, including the famous cathedral, as well as a medieval market in the city centre.
San Juan de la Peña
San Juan de la Peña
The Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña, set amid protected natural parkland 21km south of Jaca, is one of the most stunning sacred buildings in Aragón, if not in Spain. Tucked protectively under the overhang of a massive boulder, it’s built right into a rocky mountain: from certain angles, it’s hard to tell where man-made structure ends and nature begins. Dating from the ninth century, the monastery is named after a hermit who lived in solitude atop the towering cliff (peña). The monastery features a Romanesque church with twelfth-century murals and the Gothic San Victorián chapel, but the real standout is the elegant twelfth-century cloister, shaded by the bulging rock face that looms over it. The cloister has ornate capitals, some fully ringed by saints and apostles, depicting different scenes from the Bible.
In 1675, a fire in the monastery forced the monks to leave and build a newer one, which sits further up the hill. The Monasterio Nuevo (same hours as old monastery) features a helpful visitors’ centre and two interpretation centres, which chronicle the history of the monastery and the eventful lives of the Aragón’s kings and queens.
Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido
Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido
The best of Aragón’s natural wonders all seem to converge with climactic glory in the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. Presiding over the park’s greenery is the Monte Perdido (Lost Mountain) range, the largest limestone chain in Western Europe. Verdant valleys blanketed in beech, fir and pine cut through the terrain, and clear blue streams and gushing waterfalls keep the fields fertile. After the snow melts, honeysuckle, primroses and irises bloom in rocky crevices and on sun-speckled slopes. As for wildlife, the park is teeming with it: Egyptian vultures and golden eagles soar overhead; Pyrenean chamois scamper up hillsides; and trout dart through ice-cold streams.
Many of the deep valleys were created by massive glaciers, at the heads of which are cirques: basins shaped roughly like an amphitheatre with steep walls of rock. Elsewhere, tiny alpine villages, with stone houses crowned with sandstone-tile roofs and conical chimneys, dot the mountainsides and make for pleasant stops along the many routes that meander through the park. The park is divided roughly into three main sections: Ordesa (to the west), Añisclo (to the south) and Escuaín (to the east). The chief town of Torla, 3km south of the park’s southwest border, is one of the more popular gateways, from where trails lead into the park.
Hikes in the park
The park offers a wide range of hikes, from half-day ambles to multi-day treks, all of which take you past natural wonders, including crashing waterfalls, gaping canyons and bright-green valleys. You can access the park on foot from Torla on the well-marked GR15 path from town, which eventually links up with the GR11, a right fork of which goes to Pradera de Ordesa, entrance to the Cañón de Ordesa and the starting point for most of the popular hikes further into the park. The whole trek from Torla to Pradera takes about two hours.
Circo de Soaso
The Circo de Soaso trek is one of the park’s main crowd-pleasers – and for good reason. It offers a lovely overview of the park’s natural highlights – gorgeous greenery, tumbling waterfalls – but is not too challenging, and it can be completed in a day. From Pradera de Ordesa the route leads through forest, followed by a steep climb up the Senda de los Cazadores (Hunters’ Path), which then flattens out as the Faja de Pelay path to the beautiful Cola de Caballo (Horsetail Waterfall). The journey takes about three to four hours (around 6–7hr roundtrip).
Circo de Cotatuero
This trek also has a lovely waterfall as a reward, and takes you along the northern crest of the impressive Valle de Ordesa. The full round-trip hike takes about 5 to 6 hours. Park officials warn that the hike should only be done in the summer or early autumn; in the winter and spring, there is the risk of avalanches. From Pradera de Ordesa, the hike starts steeply and eventually leads to a lookout point below the thundering Cascada de Cotatuero (for an onward route from the Cascada, see Brecha de Rolando). To return from the Cascada, head downhill and then continue on the Cotatuero circo back to the Pradera de Ordesa.
Refugio Góriz and Monte Perdido
From Pradera de Ordesa, trek along the GR11 to Circo de Soaso (about 3hr) and then up to the Refugio Góriz (2169m), the traditional jumping-off point to climb Monte Perdido (3355m). The trek up Monte Perdido (about 5hr) requires intermediate mountaineering skills, crampons and other professional equipment.
Brecha de Rolando and Refuge des Sarradets
If you have a head for heights, try this memorable onward route from the Cascada de Cotatuero: from the waterfalls, on the Cotatuero cirque, you can climb, via a series of iron pegs in a wall, the Clavijas de Cotatuero. Note that you don’t need any special climbing equipment but you should be fit and have the aforementioned affinity for heights. Once you’ve done the climb, it’s about a two- to three-hour trek to the Brecha de Rolando, a large natural gap in the Cirque de Gavarnie on the French border. From the Brecha, it’s then a steep climb (about 500m) to the Refuge des Sarradets (2587m;), across the border in France.
Parc National des Pyrénées and Gavarnie village
The northern section of the park is adjacent to France’s Parc National des Pyrénées, which in total runs for about 100km along the Spain–France border. The French side offers more of the same wild Pyrenean landscape, and a popular trek with hikers is to cross northwest into the French park and on to the pretty village of Gavarnie. Many will do this hike over the course of a couple of days. From Torla, hike along the GR15.2 to Puente de los Navarros and then continue on the GR11 to San Nicolás de Bujaruelo (roughly 7km from Torla), which is marked by a medieval bridge. Here you’ll find the Refugio Valle de Bujaruelo. From the San Nicolás bridge, you can trek over mountains and into France and Garvarnie – about a six- to eight-hour hike.
- Benasque and around
Hit the slopes in Aragón
Hit the slopes in Aragón
Skiing in the Aragon Pyrenees matches that of Catalunya and, increasingly, of France. Overall, the ski resorts are well maintained and cater to all levels, from downhill daredevils to wobbly first-timers. Note that, as in the Catalan Pyrenees, some of the best discounts are via pre-trip package deals offered by hotels, agencies or the resorts themselves. But even if you don’t book a package ahead of time, you can often find on-site deals once you’ve arrived, offered by the turismos as well as the hotels and the resorts.
In the west are Candanchú (wcandanchu.com), with a well-known ski school, and Astún (wastun.com), which lies just 4km away, and has a wide range of pistes, including plenty for beginners. The main hub for accommodation and the like is Jaca. Partly funded by the Aragón government, the Aramón group (waramon.com) now manages a group of formerly independently run ski resorts. Of these, Formigal is one of the larger, with 93 runs and 21 lifts, and caters to all levels. Panticosa is smaller but also less crowded, as daily numbers are limited to 3500 people per day. In the Pyrenees’ easternmost section, sleek Cerler attracts seasoned skiers, with several ski centres totalling about 52km, altitudes up to 2630m, 61 runs and 18 lifts. Cerler also offers equipment rental and ski and snowboard schools. Benasque is a popular hub for Cerler, with a decent array of accommodation.