Bordering on the French Midi-Pyrenees, in the District of Aragon in the north of Spain, is one of the most unusual and spectacular mountain cliffs in Europe and one of the largest limestone massifs in the world – the Ordesa Canyon. At 11km long and more than 1,000m deep, the canyon is the most popular day hike in the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido (Ordesa National Park and The Lost Mountain), which is Spain’s oldest National Park and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Reaching an area of close to 160 square kilometres, the park in fact has three plunging canyons that glaciers and rivers have carved into the soft limestone – Ordesa, Añisclo and Pineta – which are topped by a string of 3,000 metre peaks. The highest summit in the park, and the third highest in the Pyrenees, Monte Perdido (3,355m), is a popular goal for hikers and gives tremendous views across the range and down into the canyons below.
The four classic day hikes in the Ordesa valley are the Valley floor to Circo de Soasa, the Faja Racon, the Faja de Pelay and the Faja de las Flores. As we were thru-hiking and had large packs we chose the classic walk along the valley floor of Ordesa. Here, a rich procession of plant life, made up of beech trees, pines, willows, ash trees and poplars covers the bottom of the canyon, where the waters of the pounding River Arazas flows.
We had been looking forward to this section of our thru-hike even before we had set foot in Spain, so we were glad that the immense scenery lived up to our expectations – even if we did have to share the trail…
From 1,000m deep canyons to 3,000m summits, there’s great walking to be had in the Ordesa National Park!
Thursday 17th August 2017 – Day 7 – Camping Valle De Bujaruelo (€13) to Refugio de Goriz through Ordesa Canyon – ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait…’
Start time: 09:11. End time: 19:21. Distance: 24.5km. Ascent: 1,875m / Descent: 914m.
In general, taking a shower is a rare occurrence on the trail, so we made the most of the excellent campsite facilities at Camping Valle de Bujaruelo and also enjoyed a shower this morning before we headed back into the ‘wild’ so to speak. The on-site supermarket was opening at 8:30am, so with our tent and freshly laundered gear quickly stowed away in our packs, and us having de-camped for what felt like the zillionth time, we hot-footed it there to get in the queue ready to purchase some freshly baked bread before it all disappeared! We then methodically went through all the items on the shelves that screamed out to us ‘easy cook hiker food’ and stocked up with 3 days’ worth of food rations, plus fresh croissants and peaches for breakfast. Even more of a rarity than a shower, we were able to sit on a bench and prepare our meal at a table, utilising the picnic shelter, where we were able to savour a civilised breakfast before we left.
Packed up and ready to go – but not before having breakfast in the picnic shelter. We love making use of ‘proper’ facilities when we have access to them. On the trail we always miss the simple home comforts that are often taken for granted, such as sitting on a chair!
Outside the shop, laden with a full set of rations for the next 3 days. As the campsite had a post box, we also took the opportunity to buy and send postcards with a little note home about our progress on the trail.
There is also a natural spring just past the campsite where we filled up with fresh water for the day to keep ourselves hydrated in the canyon.
We had been really looking forward to today as we would be hiking through Ordesa Canyon – one of the famed areas on the GR11, with cliffs rising over eight hundred metres on each side of the valley and Monte Perdido perched majestically at the valley’s end. We had seen lots of pictures of the canyon on the internet and were both eager for a beautiful river walk along the canyon bottom.
It didn’t quite work out like that though! Mainly because the Parque National de Ordesa y Monte Perdido is one of the most popular areas in the Pyrenees, so of course we had to share the canyon with thousands of other tourists arriving by the coach load! (We try not to get annoyed, and realise our own selfishness of wanting to be alone on the trail, but one of our major bugbears is that day trippers seem to be completely oblivious to any trail etiquette and generally have no consideration for hikers going uphill in a slow manner because they’re carrying heavy packs! – Ok, tantrum over!) We also realised after a couple of hours of walking that quite a few kilometres are spent hiking through forest with limited views before it finally opens up to reveal the spectacular scenery that we had been anticipating – hence today’s subtitle that ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait‘. When we’re hungry, we’re not always that patient!
But let’s backtrack a little… From Bujaruelo we followed the GR11 markers along the Rio Ara that lead to the National Park. (Don’t take the route down to the old stone Spanish town of Torla.)
Leaving Camping Valle De Bujaruelo with high expectations. Beneath bright blue skies, the day looked very promising…
Crossing the River Ara, we headed eagerly towards the Ordesa National Park.
The trail begins as a gentle woodland walk and we were thankful of the shade provided by the density of the trees as it was already a very warm morning. The path then follows a series of ledges along a cliff face high above the river, finally leading on to a single-laned extremely dusty road, which had frequent traffic trying to pass each other. The downside of this was that as we were now walking on the roadside, we had to keep waiting when vehicles passed each other, and it wasn’t very pleasant breathing in the dust that was generated as they rushed on past. But thankfully this only lasted for a short section before we reached the main car park area at the Pradera de Ordesa.
During peak holiday times, the number of people allowed into the Ordesa valley is controlled through the use of the Ordesa National Park shuttle bus. Access is closed to private cars. Most day visitors park by the Ordesa Visitor Centre in Torla and catch the bus into the National Park from there.
Options to take the high or low routes into the National Park. The GR11 officially takes the low route following the river, but both trails are along shady paths, so are perfect for the summer.
As the woodland opens up a little, a mere glimpse at the spectacular peaks that surround the National Park.
Aside from the Ordesa Canyon. the entire National Park presents a wild landscape of immense cliffs, waterfalls and forests.
We couldn’t have picked a better day in terms of the weather and the foliage was in full bloom. As nature lovers we were in for a real treat too, as the park has superb flora and birds of prey.
With a recommended time of 4 hours 30 minutes to reach the Refugio de Goriz, we thought we’d enjoy some time at the plunge pools today.
Once in the National Park, you pass the huge car park area (Pradera de Ordesa) where the trail continues on good path through a shady woodland area to the Tourist Information Centre and the start of several trails along the canyon. Day trippers tend to do the 17km return hike along the valley floor to the Cascada Cola de Caballo or Horse Tail Falls, situated at the far end of the canyon. This also forms part of the GR11, so was our designated route, however GR11 hikers then continue by zigzagging up the canyon wall on switchbacks towards the Goriz Refuge, which is the only permissible area to camp in the Ordesa sector of the National Park. As we knew we had several hours before we would reach camp and as it was already hotting up, we visited the Café-bar area for an ice-cream before we set off on today’s spectacular walk!
Making our way to the Cola de Caballo trailhead.
The next 4 hours or so were then spent for the most part climbing steadily through woods. It was both hot and tiring as well as frustrating to feel so enclosed after being in the middle of such expansive scenery with spectacular mountain views for days! We just couldn’t wait for the trees to open up so that we could see the incredible skyline again!
Beech trees, pines, willows, ash trees and poplars thrive in the canyon and provide plenty of shade.
Taking a breather from the heat and making sure we drank plenty of water.
Following the cliff line and hiking deeper into the canyon, waiting expectantly for the view to open up.
Beautiful cascades are a regular feature along the trail.
Along the first section, we passed several inviting looking swimming holes but to our dismay they were completely inaccessible with no route down to them. Clearly they were there just to tease us and whet our appetites for what was to come! There were also a couple of impressive looking waterfalls, but we avoided detouring off trail to the viewpoints as they were crowded with tour groups. We had an expectation that we would see more later, and there would be less people the further through the canyon we progressed.
Rushing waterfalls create several striking turquoise plunge pools along the route, but many are not accessible for a swim.
On reaching the Cascada de la Cueva and the Cascada del Estrecho we stepped off the trail to a good viewpoint of the falls. The water was so clear and the whole scene was just beautiful. (The water here although accessible, was presumably lacking in bathers as it was icy cold!)
Frenchman Lucien Briet first visited Ordesa in 1891 and was so captivated by its outstanding beauty he realised the need to protect the area. From then on he set about helping to promote the cause, which resulted in the creation of the National Park in 1918.
After continuing along a very busy ‘tourist path’ still heading up alongside the Arazas River that has cut the canyon walls, we finally reached the grassy ‘hidden valley’ of the Circo de Soasa at 1,700m. It was a stunning view up to the end of the canyon with a lovely path winding its way through the middle on the left side of the river. This was the beautiful image of Ordesa Canyon we had seen in the photos and what we’d been expectantly waiting for all day!
Our first view of Ordesa in all its glory as the canyon begins to open out.
A stunning mountain walk… But quite the oxymoron as the view gets better and the crowds become less!
We crossed over onto a grassy plain further up the trail towards the Horse Tail Falls where we decided to make the most of the wonderful scenery and have a rest break, plus a little nap in the sun after all our efforts ascending to this point. After all, the day was not yet done – we still had another long climb ahead of us to reach the refuge.
With now just a few hikers to share the trail, we revelled in the magnificence of Ordesa Canyon.
After crossing the river, we looked back along the canyon from where we had hiked up.
The expansiveness of the canyon is hard to encapsulate in a single image.
Taking a breather on the grassy banks of the canyon floor. It was a perfect spot to lay out in the sunshine and take in the incredible views all around.
Showcasing the picturesque Ordesa Valley, the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido was made a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.
Rehydrating again before we continued further up the canyon to the Cola de Caballo waterfall.
After about an hour, we decided it was time for the final push. We rejoined the trail and continued to the bridge at the foot of the Cascada Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail Falls), which in August was a little on the dry side. It is at this point, the guide-book explains, that you cross the Greenwich Meridian! It is also here that the ‘day hikers’ turn back, but the thru-hikers continue on up the mountain path. There is a signed short-cut by which you can climb the lower band of crags on iron rods (las clavijas) but with carrying heavy packs and not feeling that adventurous in the heat, we decided to follow the switchbacks that looked on fairly good gradients weaving systematically through the bands of crags. Slowly but surely we made our way up the mountainside towards Refugio de Goriz.
Getting closer to the end of the canyon. It is here that day walkers turn back after reaching the Horse Tail Falls.
Nearing the Horse Tail Falls, a trickle of a cascade at this time of year.
Taking what we considered was the easier option to the top of the canyon along gentle switchbacks!
Panorama looking onto the canyon wall.
An incredible view of one of the largest limestone massifs in the world.
Stopping to soak up the awesome scenery…
At the top of the ridge there is a tremendous view looking back down Ordesa Canyon, so we downed our packs for some ‘selfies’ and took a breather before the final push to the refuge, which at 2,160m we could now see perched high on a ridge in the distance. We could also see a plethora of tents, in all colours, shapes and brands already dotted around the grassy terraces surrounding the refuge. That 40 winks we’d had in the canyon earlier meant we were now late to the party!
Selfie stick shot at the top looking down into Ordesa Canyon.
A quick phone shot to upload to social media the next time we had a data signal! How could we not share this magical moment with friends and family?!
What a view!
As canyon’s go, this one is pretty spectacular!
Wild camping isn’t permitted in the National Park – you may only camp at the official campgrounds in the valleys. However, regulations do allow camping in the Ordesa sector above 2,100 metres, hence the designated area around the Refugio de Goriz – that’s why every hiker in Spain seemed to be congregated on the grassy terraces around the refuge. By the time we got there all the best spots had been bagged and there didn’t seem to be a flat patch of grass in sight, so we had to make do with a bit of a slope. But hey, it was free! And there was a toilet block. (Though we were a bit out of practise as it was the first time we had used a squat toilet in a while!)
Pitching on what was the best bit of ground left around the Refugio de Goriz.
It’s quite different to a wild camp knowing there are at least 100 other hikers sleeping in close proximity. There was lots of merriment coming from the refuge and a banjo was playing in the background with a Spanish ‘Ed Sheeran’ leading the soiree. So we listened to some ‘flamenco factor’ whilst cooking dinner. After 8+ hours of hiking, we were famished, so our favourite staple of pasta with a cupa soup sauce was just the job to settle us down for the night.
Panorama of the camp area above Ordesa Canyon, looking on to the Refugio de Goriz.
Our sloping pitch, but hey, with a view like that to wake up to, we’d survive for one night!
As we settled down in our sleeping bags, we (or rather ‘I’) was trying hard not to think too much about what lay ahead tomorrow. We knew we had to face two challenging descents, one being a scramble down a limestone ledge and one zigzagging down a steep mountainside on scree. Going down is always my least preferable direction especially on loose gravel, on which I am always petrified that I will slip or stumble and find myself staring death in the face over a cliff edge!
“Death” – the words from the guardian at the Bachimaña Refuge a few days earlier resonated in my ears. No I really didn’t want to think about tomorrow. I was worried that our most challenging day was still yet to come…