Valsaín – traversing the great valley

Looking down and across the great forested valley of Valsaín from the Peñalara side.

Looking down and across the great forested valley of Valsaín from the Peñalara side.

What is the most beautiful valley of Guadarrama? I love my local Fuenfría Valley like no other. The Rascafría or Lozoya Valley is the vastest, longest, deepest of the Sierra’s valleys. Not long ago i wrote of the delights of the less-travelled but no less great Río Moros Valley. So now it’s the turn of Valsaín, a valley second to none..and quite distinct from the other high valleys of Guadarrama in its amplitude. Whereas most valleys tend to narrow towards a high point at the head of the valley, Valsaín does exactly the opposite spreading out at the head to a breadth of some 10km (almost exactly 9km as the crow flies from Puerto de Cotos to Puerto de Fuenfría). Think of it as something like a hammerhead shark. The lower valley where it opens out towards the town of La Granja – and Segovia in the distance and the plains of Old Castile – would be the shark’s tail. The middle valley – the shark’s body – is relatively narrow. The upper valley forms a wide basin with Puerto de Navacerrada in the center – the shark’s mouth – and with Cotos and Fuenfría – the shark’s eyes – on either side.

The forestry track leading down to Valsaín from Cotos.

The forestry track leading down to Valsaín from Cotos.

Last weekend we set out to cross this upper valley starting down from Puerto de Cotos, following the GR10 trail. After a section of forestry track we took the narrow road that runs around the upper valley, leaving the GR for a stretch.

On the road..

On the road..

Now i know that walking on an asphalted surface might not be everybody’s idea of hiking in the mountains, but this forestry road really is a very special road. We soon left the road for a trail that took us down to the valley drainage, where the La Cantina bridge crosses the Eresma river.

Getting down towards the bottom of the valley, the mountains rising above all around.

Getting down towards the bottom of the valley, the mountains rising above all around.

Having crossed the river it was now time to ascend in the direction of Puerto de Fuenfría, once more following the GR10. And once more following the forestry road, and now for several kilometers. Nature lovers might frown here and say ‘hey man, what’s with all the asphalt?’..but you really have to see this road, dare i say feel this road, in order to get it. The photos will give you an idea, but they are nothing like the experience.

On the road again..

On the road again..

My feet pound multiple kilometers of artificial surface every week, concrete, asphalt, paving tiles, pavestones, whatever..and i am the last person to want more of that when i get out into the forests and mountains. But this road is different. To begin with, it’s absolutely closed to traffic, so it’s very rare to see a motorised vehicle on it. Next, as you can see in the photos, a lot of the time you don’t actually tread the asphalt..there’s a practically continuous layer of pine needles on the road. And where do all those pine needles come from..?

..surrounded by the wild pines of Valsaín..

..surrounded by the wild pines of Valsaín..

..from the wild pines of Valsaín, that surround you and shelter you at all times. At times they stand over you aloof, at times they almost seem to caress you. The ferns that often cover the forest floor add to this sense of closeness, clothing us in floral lavishness. The relationship between the forest and the road is one of intimacy. I’m not sure if a road can ever be a delightful thing, but if there is such a thing as a delightful road..then, this is it. And should you be lucky enough to get it with the right light, it’s truly magical. Like something out of a fairy story, or maybe like the yellow brick road..

Still on the road..

Still on the road..

It goes on gently ascending for quite a bit, but you don’t want it to end. Of course it does, kilometers later..and all too soon? When the asphalted road tops out, it’s still pretty can choose between the forestry track for the last stretch to Fuenfría or take the historic Bourbon/Roman Way. They run almost parallel until just before the pass where they come together again, and they both pass close to the famous ruins of Casarás on the way. And finally at Fuenfría, el Puerto de Fuenfría, we said goodbye..with just a hint of sadness, to the magnificent valley of Valsaín.

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Late Summer and Winter Nostalgia is hitting

WP_20160322_11_10_43_Pro (2)The Summer scorches on, the sun beats down day after day..local temps have been relatively normal (that means hot, mean temps from late June thru August around 21-22ºC, many days maxing at 28-30ºC) but it has been extremely dry. A few dry storms, hardly a decent rain-shower all apart from the odd couple of days where temps have dropped slightly there has been little respite from the sun, and the sensation is that of months of consistent heat. And even if local temps are normal, we all know that AGW marches on. So forgive me for wallowing in a little Winter  nostalgia.

The above photo is probably among the best, if not the best, that i took this last Winter..and certainly the best that i have not published. It had snowed heavily from the previous evening and there was well over a foot of fresh that morning. The weather was very closed in earlier but it began to open up as the day wore on. It seemed like a perfect moment – with perfect snow – as we ascended..mid-morning. As so often though, all was not as it seemed. Temps were high and the snow went transfo quickly, even on North-facing slopes. By midday it was poudre lourde/heavy pow and, while still good to ski, not quite the dream that the morning had promised.

And it was the 22nd of March..officially Spring!

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Unnatural obsessions

WP_20160720_13_06_18_Pro (5)I am not unwont, every now and then, to do a little selfie..i wouldn’t exactly say i get very obsessive with it – tho i can repeat and delete up to twenty times and later spend maybe half an hour (or more) editing the acceptable shots on the big screen. So here’s me close up on a sweltering day in midSummer Madrid..

WP_20160720_13_06_18_Pro (4)..doing a selfie, apparently unclothed in something like a motel room environment in the land of the brutal sun..

WP_20160720_13_06_18_Pro (3)..nothing too earth-shakingly weird there, you’ll say, c’mon this is the innarnet ..but get the full’s 40ºC outside (and not less than 30º inside) in late July like i said, and..ahm..i’m wearing..

WP_20160720_13_06_18_Pro (2) boots.

Yes, maybe i should see a doctor or something..i’ll think about it, i promise.


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One more Wonder of Water..from the disappearing Pyrenees

Many and varied are the water wonders of the mountain chain that separates the Iberian peninsula from the rest of Europe. Beyond surging rivers and crashing falls, you have the most stunningly placid mountain lakes..but you also have the dramatic natural phenomenon of powerful Summer storms, when water falls from the skies with an intensity rarely equalled..and you have the very special water phenomenon seen below..

WP_20160712_09_57_55_ProThis photo was taken in mid-July, at 3150m, at the point where the Maladeta Glacier comes to an end below the rocky ridge that climbs to 3308m. Water frozen in the form of snow, firn to be more precise – compacted refrozen snow. This is the snow which, surviving the heat of Summer and further compacting as more snow falls on top of it, eventually transforms into ice, glacier ice. Now i’m a sucker for fine waterfalls and mountain lakes knock me out..but if i get to choose my mountain water feature, give me glaciers any day. On this particular day i didn’t get to see any ice (in fact didn’t get to see anything much at all, the weather was very closed in all day) as snow covered practically all of the glaciated extension from the upper limit of 3200/3150m down to about 2600m at the lowest point. But i thought it was pretty cool that you could still get almost 600 vertical meters of ascent on snow in the middle of July, in a nominally “hot” country like Spain. Indeed, despite the fact that the snow was a tad hard and irregular on the surface and somewhat discoloured by dirt, i was thinking: damn, shudda brought skis!

WP_20160711_12_39_03_ProThe Maladeta Glacier – as seen in the upper left of the photo, covered in snow – amounts to little over 30 hectares of ice and reaches down from just under 3200m to no lower than 2800m. Not exactly huge. And shrinking year by year. Pyrenean glaciers have been receding thru the twentieth century, but the rate of recession has really accelerated in the last 10-15 years. That’s what i meant in the title by “the disappearing Pyrenees” – the Pyrenees as we know them today are disappearing. Within 40-50 years there will be no glaciers left in the Pyrenees. This particular wonder of water will be gone. Of course there will still be snow, and maybe even quite a lot of it some years..but there will be no permanent ice. Indeed, the masses of ice that remain today are already more dead than alive..they are residual ice-fields that practically no longer move. They no longer flow, as does a real glacier, a river of ice moving with gravity from high to low.

For more on the disappearing glaciers of the Pyrenees, check this article in Spanish.

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Water Wonders of the Pyrenees

WP_20160704_13_16_27_ProWe are the water planet. And we are water beings..even those of us who don’t swim or enjoy getting immersed in h2o, every living thing on Earth..we are made of water, we are totally dependent on water for life. Personally, though i am always amazed by the sea – or any great body of water – i am not especially attracted to it. Indeed i see the attraction of visiting the “seaside” as something akin to the attraction of visiting a zone affected by the plague. I prefer my water in large quantities frozen. Nevertheless i am not immune to the delights of flowing liquid water in lesser volumes. Have i not waxed lyrical this very Spring on the wonderful waters of the Sierra de Guadarrama? The streams and waterfalls of Guadarrama tend to dry up a bit however as the Summer progresses, the higher Sierra taking on a very desert appearance. Not so the Pyrenees. Summer in the mountains of Pirene is just a continuation fiesta del agua.

This month of July we visited the Benasque Valley, once again, to experience this liquid fiesta..

WP_20160704_10_13_06_ProThe impact of the Estós River as you walk up the lower Estós Valley, just off the main Valley of Benasque, is truly forceful. The water seems to hurl itself downwards over rocks and small drops with an apparent driving intent. Year after year, in late Spring or early Summer, it never ceases to impress me.

WP_20160704_13_15_21_ProFurther up the same valley you have the magnificent falls of Gorgues Galantes, where the Estós River tumbles down a steep drop in the valley floor, rushes between walls of rock and cascades once more in a most spectacular manner..this last seen in the above shot taken from a somewhat precarious mirador overlooking the gorge. Riveting entertainment, you find yourself transfixed..time seems to stand still.

In practically every valley you will find white water, rushing streams, falls and tumultuous rivers..but there is also another ubiquitous Pyrenean water feature: the ibón or mountain lake. These small lakes of glacial origin are scattered throughout the Pyrenees, generally to be found above 2000m and as high as 3000m.

WP_20160706_12_21_15_ProHere we see the ibón de Gorgutes, perched above Llanos del Hospital in the Benasque Valley at 2320m. This lake occurs very high on the watershed, just a few minutes walk from the historic pass between Spain and France known as Puerto de la Glera (2367m).

WP_20160706_12_22_34_ProIn this picture our group can be seen just about to reach the pass above the lake..and France! On the French side a sea of cloud lay in wait for us, in marked contrast to the clear views of the Maladeta massif across the valley on the Spanish side. And while the ibón may be just a few minutes from France, it’s several hours hiking from the valley floor in Spain. The trail up is of course decorated by lots of other water features such as this one..



On the other side of the Benasque Valley, opposite to Estós and Gorgutes, is the somewhat less travelled Vallibierna Valley. Less travelled maybe..but not less spectacular. The Vallibierna river has a beautiful red-brown colour to it, due to the mineral nature of the rock.

WP_20160708_17_53_03_Pro The lower Vallibierna Valley is a vast ravine, where the river has worn its way deep down into the rock, and the upper valley presents – you probably guessed it – several high mountain lakes, principally the ibóns de Vallibierna. The following photo shows the ibón inferior, at 2400m.

WP_20160708_13_33_42_ProThis lake is relatively large and the glacial basin in which it sits gives a great sense of stillness and can be appreciated in the near perfect reflection its still waters offered. Captivating..the sense of touching the eternal.

WP_20160708_13_40_49_ProI’ll offer another shot of the ibón inferior de Vallibierna, trying, perhaps in vain, to communicate the enchanting stillness of the place..a very profound place, a somehow perfect place. The eternal made tangible?

WP_20160708_13_50_29_ProThis very compelling contrast between the great stillness and absorbing peace of the lakes..and the intense, racing, almost violent energy of the rushing streams, rivers and falls had never struck me before, in multiple visits to the Pyrenees. Both phenomena are very beautiful in their different ways, the two versions of water are equally entrancing..despite their black and white, ‘worlds apart’ opposition.

I could hardly finish this post without including one more water feature..from the top of the Benasque Valley. The ineffable falls of Aigualluts. Perhaps the picture-postcard image of the Pyrenees.

WP_20160710_17_32_55_ProMeltwater from the Glacier of Aneto, monarch of the Pyrenees, flows down to the valley, meanders gently across a small plain, crashes over a fall and into a karstic rip in the rock where it disappears underground to resurface kilometers away in France and follow its course to the Atlantic.

If you haven’t seen it, go.

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Monte Abantos..and its fox

The blue mountain that i see in the distance when i step out on my balcony looking South, as the crow flies some 15km away, is the mountain that rises above El Escorial, Monte Abantos.

Monte Abantos, seen from the explanade of the Monastery of El Escorial.

Monte Abantos, seen from the explanade of the Monastery of El Escorial.

When i first started to visit the Sierra de Guadarrama – while still living in Madrid – i frequently visited the El Escorial area and its mountains, including of course Abantos. But since i moved out to Cercedilla, close to the central Guadarrama sector, i hadn’t been back. In at least fifteen years. My six-year-old son has often asked about ‘that mountain that we can see far away’ and i promised him that we would go to visit it as long ago as the Summer before last. Finally this last weekend we got around to it.

Looking back down at the monastery after an hour walking up the mountain.

Looking back down at the monastery after an hour walking up the mountain.

Leaving the small town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, we hiked up thru the forest of oak, ash, willow and pine on the southwestern slopes of the mountain. There’s a fairly well-marked GR trail that leads all the way to the top..and many stretches of it have a good deal of shade so it’s fine for a Summer hike.

A view of the trail with Las Machotas in the distance.

A view of the trail with Las Machotas in the distance.

Along the way we were treated to the delights of flowering escaramujos (musk rose), piornos (broom) and jaras (rockrose). We were particularly interested to see the jara which, though abundant in many areas of Guadarrama, is not so common in our local Fuenfría Valley.

The flower of the jara pringosa.

The flower of the jara pringosa..with visitors.

The middle part of the trail ascends the relatively steep mountainside by means of a long series of zigzags..some will say this makes for a gradual evenly-paced ascent, others will complain that the switchbacks are interminable. After a couple of hours walking you arrive at a rocky shoulder and the views open up.

End of the zigzags, getting closer to the top, 1550m

End of the zigzags, getting closer to the top, 1550m.

From this point there’s a long straight stretch that continues to rise gradually until you reach a small meadow with a spring, la fuente del Cervunal, at 1670m. The water was good and cold, a throwback to Winter – or cold Spring days at the very least! – and a delight to drink on a warm Summer afternoon.

La fuente del Cervunal, close to the summit of Abantos.

La fuente del Cervunal, close to the summit of Abantos.

Just five minutes from the spring the climb you emerge onto the summit plateau of Abantos. Now the views really open up, looking down on El Escorial, las Machotas, the southern Castilian plain stretching away to the horizon..and the central Sierra area to the NorthEast.

Looking down from the summit of Monte Abantos, 1753m.

Looking down from the summit of Monte Abantos, 1753m.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering about the summit, taking in the views in different directions, eating, watching the sun drop to the West. A few other people came and went, griffon vultures planed above – not surprisingly, as Abantos is named for the abanto or alimoche (Egyptian vulture), a species still present in many parts of Spain but long disappeared from the Sierra de Guadarrama – and we even saw an eagle briefly soar past.

Looking North over Cuelgamuros Valley to Siete Picos and Cercedilla.

Looking North over Cuelgamuros Valley to Siete Picos and Cercedilla.

But there was still more fauna on the menu for the evening. As we were taking it easy sitting comfortably on the rocks of the summit block, hungrily gobbling pasta, a fox suddenly appeared just ten meters away. It eyed us interestedly – probably our food more than us – closed in cautiously, backed off, circled round behind, came several times to within three meters or so of our group, and generally behaved in a most unfoxlike manner.

The fox checking us out.

The fox checking us out.

Not only did this ‘wild’ animal display little or no fear of humans, at one point it even lunged towards us with apparently aggressive intent when somebody produced a packet of biscuits (we did not feed it)..obviously accustomed to receiving tidbits from primate hands. Another unfortunate victim of Sierra tourism and the seemingly unstoppable humanization of the wild.

Close up of the fox of Abantos

Close up of el zorro de Abantos.

All in all the fox hung around for over ten minutes in broad daylight, coming and going, scavenging for whatever scraps other summit visitors might have left between the rocks, closing in on several occasions – we had to scare the intrepid little guy off a couple of times – before i finally decided to reintroduce a little wildness to the evening and chased him/her away in full scary human predator mode.

We camped a little below the summit, not far from the spring, and were treated to a night of fox barking though we weren’t raided. I well recall a night many years ago in Sierra Nevada, bivouaced at 3000m on the snow close to Laguna de la Mosca below the North face of Mulhacén, late Winter/early Spring, waking up in the small hours to a tugging sensation and having to fight to hold on to my backpack..barely a meter away with a strap firmly gripped between his teeth, one of Sierra Nevada’s notorious foxes.

So, an entertaining visit to Monte Abantos and one that i am sure we will repeat..hopefully before another fifteen years have passed!

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End of Spring water festival – the party goes on!


Though the Winter of 2016 came really late – we had no snow until the last two weeks of February – it would be wrong to suppose that this year has been parsimonious in precipitations. Temperatures were abnormally high in the early part of the year but there was no shortage of rain. Then we had a good deal of snow in late February, March and April, and May too was a relatively wet month. Result? Lots of water flowing down from the mountains in the streams and rivers of Guadarrama, the brooks are babbling, the waterfalls are cascading, the dams are full. You could call it la fiesta del agua – a full-on hydro-fest! It’s a great time to get out to the mountains and delight in the wonders of water winding its way incessantly down, down, down.


June has been quite hot so far and devoid of precipitation, so the spectacle is starting to wane..but there’s still lots of water about, and with a drop in temperatures forecast for the coming days you can still get out and enjoy the last cool Spring days before the Summer really begins to hit.


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