For visitors based on the northern flanks of the Picos, Poncebos and Sotres are the best spots from which to start hiking. As well as being the northern trailhead for the Cares Gorge, Poncebos also lies at the foot of the path up to Bulnes. Allow roughly 1hr 30min for that climb, which branches east from the Cares Gorge trail 1km south of Poncebos, across the photogenic medieval bridge of Jaya. While it’s not a hard slog, you’re better off taking the funicular if you have problems with vertigo.
Sotres, 9km east of Poncebos along the narrow CA 1, is not one of the more attractive Picos villages, but it lies at the northern end of the ravishing 12.5km hike from Espinama, and thus makes a good overnight halt for walkers heading right across the central Picos. A direct trail connects Sotres with Bulnes in just 5km, by way of the broad, windy pass of Pandébano (which, with care, can also be reached along primitive roads by car). The high meadows at the top are still used for summer pasture by villagers from Bulnes, some of whom spend the summer there in simple stone dwellings. An old, steep, cobbled path leads down to Bulnes itself.
From both Bulnes village and the pass at Pandébano, well-used paths lead up to the Vega de Urriello, the high pasture at the base of the Naranjo de Bulnes (2519m). An immense slab of orange-hued rock, the Picos’ trademark peak stands aloof from the jagged grey sierras around it. The approach from Pandébano is easier, a two- to three-hour hike along a track that passes the small refugio of Terenosa (t985 252 362; no food; closed Oct–April). The direct path up from Bulnes is heavy going, and can take up to six hours in bad conditions, with a slippery scree surface that’s very difficult, and dangerous when wet. Once up on the plateau, you’ll find another refugio, the Vega de Urriello, at an altitude of 1953m (t985 925 200), and a permanent spring, as well as large numbers of campers and rock climbers, for whom the Naranjo is a popular target.
Experienced trekkers can stay the night in the Vega de Urriello refugio and then continue across the central massif, through a roller-coaster landscape unforgiving of mistakes, to the Cabaña Veronica refugio, which is for emergency use only, and has just three bunks. An easy descent from there brings you to the top of the Fuente Dé cable car. Alternatively, you can continue west through further challenging terrain to another refugio at Collado Jermoso (t636 998 727, wwww.colladojermoso.com) before dropping down the ravine of Asotín takes you finally to Cordiñanes at the top of the Cares Gorge. The trek from Vega de Urriello should only be undertaken in a group equipped with proper maps and gear.