Pico de Peñalara Hike
On Old Hallows Eve 2016, I drove with a group of friends into the Sierra de Guadaramma range, north of Madrid.
Blessed with clear blue skies, we enjoyed a wonderful day’s hiking up, over and around the range’s highest mountain, Pico de Peñalara (2,428 m/ 7,966 ft). This adventure included rock-hopping along a thrilling ridge line, witnessing the behaviour of some stunning mountain wildlife and very nearly losing our heads to a low-flying glider.
If you are in Madrid and hear the call of the hills, this hike is an excellent option.
In brief, the summit ascent is relatively easy and short enough to let you and your group to take whatever time they need. The circuit has some more challenging terrain and requires a little more dynamic balance and general fitness.
The circuit wouldn’t be wise in the wet or high winds either, while the summit return is safe enough to be attempted in (almost) any weather. But in good weather, I’m not sure the rewards the circuit has to offer could be matched by any other hike in the vicinity.
Below I describe the hike of Pico de Peñalara in four sections:
- Location and General Information.
- The Experience of the Pico de Peñalara hike.
- The Route around Pico de Peñalara.
- Getting to the mountain.
Location and General Information.
Pico de Peñalara is the highest peak in the Sierra de Guadarrama. This range is part of the wide sweeping Sistema (Central) system, a range of peaks and sub-ranges that reaches west from north-east of Madrid into central Portugal.
The mountain straddles two provinces: Madrid and Segovia. The main trailhead, in Puerto de Cotos, is only an hour’s drive north from the centre of the Spanish capital (see below) and is also accessible by train.
Peñalara’s summit area was declared a natural park in 1990 and is carefully conserved. It contains a number of small lakes, steep escarpments, subsidiary peaks and one fantastic bouldered ridgeline.
The Peñalara Massif contains a number of subsidiary peaks; none except Pico de Peñalara have a large enough prominence to be considered as independent peaks.
On the ascent from the south-west, you pass over the Dos Hermanas or the Two Sisters: Menor (2,268 m/ 7,441 ft) and then Mayor (2,285 m/ 7,497 ft).
Beyond the summit are two crags, stretching above a narrow, continuous ridge line: Risco de los Claveles (2,387 m/ 7,831 ft) and Risco de los Pajaros (2,266 m/ 7,434 ft), the Crags of the Carnations and Birds respectively.
Along the lower eastern slopes lie numerous ‘cirques’ or glacial lakes. Most are shallow and are found between heights of 2,000-2,177 m (6,560-7,142 ft) at the base of the rocky slopes.
The principal ones, known as the Cinqo Lagunas, are (east-west): Laguna de los Pájaros (Bird lake), Laguna de Claveles (Carnations lake), Laguna Grande de Peñalara and Laguna Chica (Girl lake).
Crystal clear and peacefully still, these formations are evidence of the area’s previous glaciation. They are fed by and feed small streams, which wind through another evidence of the glacial history, the impressive moraines.
This massif is formed of granite and gneiss rock forms, reflecting both its oregeny through plate collision and the processes of magma rising and cooling, which ended over 250 million years ago.
Since then, the processes of erosion—begun by the epic lowering of sea levels exposing the massif—have left a massif that is covered with large boulders, moraines and crumbling ledges and steep slopes.
There was plenty of life to witness on these slopes beyond the mass of human visitors (who number over 100,000 annually). Salamanders, small mammals and butterflies are known to populate the slopes, though none were obviously out-and-about for us.
But in the skies above us, we were lucky enough to witness either Spanish imperial eagles or the Eurasian black vultures soaring across the range and effortlessly spiralling upwards on warm air currents.
The eagle’s wingspan is up to 2.1 m (6.9 ft) while the vulture has the largest bird of prey wingspan in the world, measuring up to 3.1 m (10.2 ft). Given the shape of the wings, it was likely that it was eagles we saw, but I wouldn’t want to say for sure.
Equally extraordinary was the sight of a group of feeding and resting cabra montes, or Spanish Ibex.
Native to the Iberian mountains, these amazing mountain climbers have streaks of black and white along their brown bodies, and metre-long, backward-curving horns. We saw these markings all the more clearly as, in these early days of the annual rutting season (November-December), we saw males rising up on their hind legs to reveal their underbellies (read more below).
The Experience of the Pico de Peñalara Hike.
Arriving to a busy car park on a beautiful blue-sky day in late Autumn, we were greeted by a steady stream of walkers and trail runners making their way up the mountain. No doubt they were drawn by the public holiday and unseasonably beautiful weather too!
The information centre, located by the trailhead, was very helpful. They even gave a laser-guided tour of the route on a 3D sculpture of the massif! More useful was the clear map they gave us, listing our options along with useful elevation information.
From the trailhead, the early walking was an easy, steady incline through pine forest. The trail grew incrementally steeper up the light-coloured, rocky path, with some larger stones requiring a little more concentration on foot placement.
After about half an hour, the path wound into switchbacks as the slope steepened further. We began taking breaks to appreciate (and photograph) the changing landscape, now revealed to us as we climbed beyond the tree line.
From a lookout at 2,100 m (6,890 ft), the three peaks that you’re soon to walk over come into clear view above you. This view of the summits, seemingly so close, early in the walk has a motivating affect, and we moved on quickly to reach the top of this barren massif.
Summitting the first of the two sisters, Hermana Menor, the view of the wide plains to the north-west is a spectacular view. The summit of Peñalara was also now straight ahead of us, a target to aim at. The steepness is less here, and the wide open path here led us to find more of a wandering pace and open conversation.
Two hours after leaving the trailhead, we were sitting by the monolith just below Penanlara’s summit watching an eagle swoop high above us. Moments later, a glider passed a matter of metres overhead, before circling repeatedly around the summit. While genuinely impressive to see such graceful flight from a human invention, witnessing the soaring eagle is the sight I wish to remember.
After some lunch in the shade of boulders below the summit, we headed off for the ridge line. And this was where the route went from pleasant to exciting!
While the ascent had been a good walk and the views thus far impressive, the prospect of rock-hopping over a narrow ridge line of angled boulders was thrilling and we hurried towards it like excited children (I speak for myself!) to make a start.
(One note of caution: if you suffer from vertigo, this may not be the route for you!)
With the eastern side being a sheer drop and the western a steep slope, we leaped and scrambled over the line of rocks, delighted at the sense of playful risk. As our confidence grew, we rejected several exit options down the easier western slopes, and climbed along, over and down to the very end of the two crags, exhilarated by the unexpected thrill of it all.
That ridge line experience was worth a whole day’s hiking alone!
The following descent to the lake was steady, largely comparable to the terrain of the ascent. There was a little more scrambling over rock fields, so the thrill of rock-hopping was sustained a little longer.
Arriving at the first lake half an hour later, the Laguna de los Pájaros, we rested to stare up at the peak we’d just scaled. A deep satisfaction settled over the group. And while we sat, soaking up this truly peaceful place, four great birds (eagles or vultures?) flew overhead and off into the distance across the valley.
The crystal clear water of the lake enticed us to cool our feet at first, but the discovery of feeding lava covering the bottom caused us to refrain. Instead we playfully jumped across the stepping stones and, energised by the break and the sense of what we’d already achieved, made our way back towards the trailhead.
The path from here had some more rock-hopping, lots of little lakes and some muddy patches. During a wetter period, I imagine this would be boggy, though on this walk it stayed mainly firm underfoot.
Before one of the two short but steep descents int his section, we paused to watch some Spanish ibex lounging on a rock and feeding from a lone tree. Delighted at this privileged experience, we then descended towards some other small lakes, only to see another group of them cantering down beyond the far shore.
The first crack of horns got us cantering too, and we headed over to find a good viewing place that wouldn’t disturb them.
As more cracks echoed through the valley around us, we witnessed these ibex rearing up, circling around and smashing their horns into one another. This early season rutting occurred in a big group, with various males locking horns and scrapping to establish their mating rights early in the season.
Along with the eagles, this hike turned out to be a really special wildlife experience for us, and I can only wish you similar fortune should you take this hike.
A final steep descent, losing 160 m (525 ft) in 25 minutes, led to a sweet, old wooden bridge over the stream fed by the Laguna Grandes de Peñalara. The walking from here on is an easy descent back into the freshness of the forest. After the bright sun and exposed landscape, we were glad to end this way.
After being on the mountain for 6.5 hours (with 5.5 hours of walking) we walked back out to the trailhead at Puerto de Cotos and celebrated with high-fives all round. Satisfied, though not overly tired, we drove into Cercedilla for a quick refreshment before heading back to Madrid as the autumn dusk fell.
While we had first contemplated heading to the Cercedilla trails, as they seemed a ‘safer’ option with more online information available, we all agreed that we were glad to have chosen this hike. If you can get out onto these trails, whichever trail you choose to do, we would wholeheartedly recommend the experience.
The Route around Pico de Peñalara.
Timing and distance:
This route describes the summit return and the circuit.
The summit return covers 12 km (7.5 miles) while the circuit is 13.5 km (8.4 miles). For those who wish to protect knees with a steadier descent, opt for the circuit. Even if they terrain is more challenging, the descent is more evenly spread out, decreasing impact on joints.
The summit return is estimated at 5 hours, though 4.5 hours is realistic for moderately fit individuals. The circuit took us 5.5 hours, including short pauses but not including our longer stops.
Arriving at the car park on the right-hand side of the road (coming from Madrid), cross the road and pass behind the restaurant to find the tourist information building. Here collect a map, which has guides to the range of walks available.
The first parts of the track are easy to follow: wide tracks amidst pine forest with some loose rock. If you want to head to the summit, keep to the left-hand trail (RV2) at each of the signposted junctions (there are three). The others take you to lower elevation lakes.
Occasional steep sections of switchbacks as you leave the forest will get your heart rate up, but none are particularly difficult. The path can get a bit rocky in places, but the ascent is nothing more than a simple walk up.
Leaving the switchbacks, you summit the first of two subsidiary peaks known as the Dos Hermanas, the two sisters. The trail opens out over the barren ground as the view of the flat, seemingly endless plateau to the north-west is revealed. The summit of Peñalara will now be in sight, so head straight towards it.
At the summit, you will see the boulders that will become a theme in the next section of the walk. But first pause and enjoy the achievement of having ascended 600 m (1,969 ft), standing at the high point of this Spanish mountain range. The guide time suggests allowing 2.5 hours for this ascent, but we took 2 hours at a leisurely pace.
For a straight return, turn around and follow the same route back down to the trailhead. For the circuit route, keep going beyond the summit towards the rocky ridge line to the north-east.
The most exciting part of this route (for me) is the rock hopping, scrambling and occasional bouldering that makes up the next section. This ridgeline is full of wide, secure rocks, with a number of exit routes down the slope to your left should you wish to skirt around it and rejoin the route at the end of the ridge line. But if you feel able for it, this really is a thrilling section (read my experience of it above).
Descending the ridgeline on terrain similar to the ascent (clear, wide path with some loose rocks), you’ll notice the first of the lakes down to your right. This is where you’re headed (though stick to the path to help conserve the fragile environment).
From the lake (after a pause to appreciate the crystal clear water), begin the route back to the trailhead, keeping the massif to your right-hand side. The path (RV8) is not consistently well-marked on this section, often only a thin slice of worn dirt among the grass and rocks. Stone piles (cairns) and occasional wooden posts mark the route, though they come in irregular bursts. But where possible, endeavour to keep to the path, again for conservation reasons.
This path includes a couple of steep descents (one in the middle and one towards the end, finishing at the Laguna Grande de Peñalara) as well as some more rock hopping. Generally, this section is steady walking over soft ground.
During a wetter period, I imagine this path would get boggy and sodden. In winter, should snow lie on the ground, this would be a hard trail to stay on, though the direction you should take is pretty clear and there are no great hazards on the path.
After the second steep descent, you’ll meet up with the RV7, which takes you down into a wide easy trail through pine forests. Eventually, you rejoin the path you took on the ascent at the lookout, Cobertizo del Despósito.
A short walk down to the trailhead from there and you’ll be on to a refreshing, deserved beverage in Cotos, down the road in Cercedilla or back in Madrid.
Getting to the Mountain.
It is possible to get to Puerto de Cotos from Madrid by public transport, though driving there is simpler and faster.
Take the A-6 north towards Collado-Villalba, taking the Guadarrama exit onto the M-604. Head towards Rascafria/Segovia, (ignoring the signs to Cercedilla).
The road begins to wind uphill past elevation signposts before entering Cotos (take a look at Google’s Street View to recognise the restaurant opposite the car park). Blink and you’ll miss this mountain outpost, but it’s pretty obvious when you keep your eyes open!
The whole journey from the centre of Madrid takes just over an hour.
Poorly timed and you could have a wait on your hands, as these trains do not depart very often. If this is the case, consider opting for one of the many hikes possible from Cercedilla. The information centre is a 2 km hike from the train station, which you can just call a warm-up!
Article written by Tom Pritchard.
Featured image used with kind permission of Jessica Connell Photography.