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?