Hiking in a natural park near Madrid

While Green Spain, the rainy north of the country, is Spain’s popular place for hiking, there are lots of good hikes near the capital Madrid. The Comunidad de Madrid encompasses not only the city, but also several large parks, rivers, and mountains crisscrossed by numerous trails.

Yesterday I headed to one of the most beautiful spots in the region, El Parque Natural de Peñalara, an hour’s bus ride from Moncloa, one of the major bus stations in Madrid. I went with the group Hiking in the Community of Madrid, run by two American expats who have the only English-language hiking group in Spain’s capital. They’ve also written an English language hiking guide to the Community of Madrid that I’ll be reviewing once the publisher sends me a review copy.

The group leads weekly hikes from Madrid except in summer (when many people leave) and the depths of winter. It’s very popular and international. On this trip there were hikers from Spain, the USA, Canada, England, Wales, Colombia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Switzerland, and two tourists from Hong Kong who are spending a week in Spain. They told us that hiking is hugely popular in Hong Kong and their hiking group has 6,000 members! The Madrid group has “only” 1,600 fans for their Facebook page, so they have some catching up to do.

%Gallery-125381%The bus left us at Puerto de los Cotos and immediately we felt the difference from Madrid. At 1,795 meters (5,889 ft.) the air is cooler and much fresher, and we spotted patches of snow on some of the surrounding peaks. From there our trail led us downhill 8.7 miles to town of Rascafría, a drop of about 600 meters (1,968 ft.).

The path took us through thick woodland and over a fast-flowing mountain stream. This caused a bit of trouble because the path went right up to one of the widest parts, impassable except for a pole vaulter, and innocently continued on the other side as if there was no obstacle. Everyone spread out to look for a way across. I hopped a series of rocks, grabbed a tree, and swung over to the opposite bank. Other people found better or worse ways to get across. Luckily there was only one set of wet feet.

Shortly after this we came upon a pond overgrown with plants and scum. We heard it long before we saw it because it was alive with frogs croaking merrily away. I managed to get a shot of one of the little guys. See if you can find him in the photo gallery. Another hiker caught a lizard.

From there we continued on through pine forest to the Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, founded in 1390. The grounds are worth a half an hour of wandering to see the quiet cloisters and fine stonework. There’s also a black Madonna in a chapel by the gate. Some of the monastery is closed to visitors because monks still live there, while another part has been turned into a Sheraton hotel!

From there it was a short riverside stroll to Rascafría and the traditional post-hike beer in a lovely outdoor cafe. These hikes cost 12 euros per person and include lunch, snacks, and the first round after the hike. Bus fare isn’t included and came out to nine euros. All in all, a cheap and fun way to explore some of the Spanish countryside and meet Spaniards and internationals.

Alternatively, this hike is easy to follow on your own. Once you get to Cotos, however, it’s wise to stop by the information center within sight of the bus stop and pick up a map. They have some interesting displays that are worth seeing if you can read Spanish. Did you know lichen can live up to 200 years?

Favorite hiking spots near Madrid

While most people come Madrid to sample the cuisine and see the art museums, Spain has much more to offer. Just an hour from the capital Madrid is the Sierra de Guadarrama, a chain of rough mountains wreathed in pine forest. While the strange rock formations of La Pedriza are perhaps more impressive, the Sierra de Guadarrama is the favorite getaway spot for madrileños because it’s so easy to get to and provides a variety of hikes for all fitness levels. Even out-of-towners will be able to get there and navigate the trails with no trouble.

The hikes start at the little town of Cercedilla, which can be reached by bus from Madrid’s Moncloa station or by train from Atocha station. Both take about an hour. If you want to stay overnight, several hostels and pensions offer cheap accommodation and the little local restaurants serve up traditional food at small-town prices.

First stop should be the visitors’ center just 2km (1.2 miles) uphill from the station. Here you can get a free map (in Spanish, but easy to understand without any linguistic knowledge) and advice on current conditions. There are also the usual nature exhibits to tell you a bit about the land you’re about to see.

From here you can branch off onto one of many trails. Cercedilla is at the head of the dead-end valley of Fuenfría, surrounded on three sides by the Guadarramas. Unlike many trails in Spain, the ones here are actually well marked with color-coded spots on trees and rocks. Various hikes go up the sides of the valley to viewpoints on the surrounding mountains. There’s also a dirt road that loops around the valley high enough to give excellent views and easy access to the peaks. The sides of the valley are sheltered by pine forest, but once you get up towards the peaks you’ll be exposed to the elements. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and if the weather is at all cool don’t forget some warm clothing. Wet weather gear is necessary sometimes too!

Beau Macksoud of the English-language hiking group Hiking in the Community of Madrid recommends Los Miradores, marked as the orange trail on the map.

“It’s not super difficult but has great views. It’s about 9 km (5.5 miles). Also, if you want to change your path for something more challenging, it crosses with other routes.”

%Gallery-106170%The trails range from short loop hikes you can do in an hour to all-day slogs that will test even the most fit. Most have a marked change in elevation that will get your heart pumping, and don’t forget to explore the bottom of the valley and its sparkling stream.

The Sierra de Guadarrama played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The forces of the Second Republic, an uneasy coalition of liberal, socialist, communist, and anarchist parties, defended Madrid in a long siege against the fascist and Catholic forces of General Franco. The mountains were the city’s northern bulwark, and you can still see a string of concrete bunkers that protected the passes and valleys of the Guadarramas. Most aren’t fenced off and are safe to explore.

The Guadarramas are the scene for most of the action in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, considered by many to be the classic book on the war, although George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia gives a more realistic view of what the war was really like.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, set aside the wine and art museums for a day and head to the mountains!