The PICOS DE EUROPA may not be the highest mountains in Spain, but they’re the favourite of many walkers, trekkers and climbers. Declared a national park in its entirety in 1995, the range is a miniature masterpiece: a mere 40km across in either direction, shoehorned in between three great river gorges, and straddling the provinces of Asturias, León and Cantabria. Asturians see the mountains as a symbol of their national identity, and celebrate a cave-shrine at Covadonga in the west as the birthplace of Christian Spain.
Walks in the Picos are amazingly diverse, with trails to suit all levels, from a casual morning’s stroll to two- or three-day treks. The most spectacular and popular routes are along the 12km Cares Gorge – which you can take in whole or part – and around the high peaks reached from the cable car at Fuente Dé and the subterranean funicular railway at Poncebos, though dozens of other paths and trails explore the river valleys or climb into the mountains. Take care if you go off the marked trails: the Picos can pose extreme challenges, with unstable weather and treacherous, unforgiving terrain, and what appears from a distance to be a slowly undulating plateau can too easily turn out to be a series of chasms and gorges.
As road access has opened up the gorges and peaks, the Picos have been brought increasingly into the mainstream of tourism, and the most popular areas get very crowded in July and August. If you have the choice, and are content with lower-level walks, spring is best, when the valleys are gorgeous and the peaks still snowcapped, although the changing colours of the beech forests in autumn give some competition.
You can approach – and leave – the Picos along half a dozen roads: from León, to the south; from Santander and the coast, to the north and northeast; and from Oviedo and Cangas de Onís, to the northwest. Public transport serves much of the park, but services are generally infrequent, even in summer.