There’s a chance you may have never even heard of the incredible Picos de Europa National Park. Perfectly nestled in the middle of the north coast of Spain, these rugged and diverse mountains are less than 15 miles from the Bay of Biscay. Although the tallest mountain peak sits at just about 8,700 feet, this “hidden gem” area remains a favorite of hikers, rock climbers, and those looking to get a little off the beaten path.
From charming villages, jagged mountain peaks, speedy cable cars, stunning viewpoints, beautiful day hikes, lovely alpine lakes, and a unique culinary scene, this under appreciated region of Spain, actually doesn’t feel very “Spanish” at all.
The Picos de Europa National Park is also unique as it sprawls through 3 autonomous communities of Spain. The 250 square mile park covers the regions of Cantabria, Asturias, and León (Castille & León). With this National Park spread out over three different regions, it can be hard to plan a visit. Each region has a wealth of information about their own section of the national park, but the tourist information centers can lack details on the neighboring areas of the park. This itinerary includes all three unique communities!
Follow along with this diverse 4 day road trip itinerary that allows for the perfect sampling of the Picos de Europa National Park.
Table of Contents
- How to Reach Picos de Europa National Park
- About This Picos de Europa Road Trip Itinerary
- Santander | Potes | & Fuente Dé |Day 1
- Epic Viewpoints | Ruta del Cares | Sleeping Options | Day 2
- Cangas de Onís | Lagos de Covadonga | Day 3
- Leave Picos de Europa National Park | Santillana del Mar | Santander | Day 4
- A Taste of Picos de Europa National Park
How to Reach Picos de Europa National Park
Due to the diversity and size of the park, the best way to utilize your time is to rent a car.
Note: Public transportation is sporadic and usually runs to limited destinations. These services are usually only available from July to the first week of September. I had to trade my love of public transportation for a set of wheels.
It’s super easy to pick up a rental car from the bustling port town of Santander. This city is the capital of the Cantabria region. Bonus, the gateway mountain village of Potes, is only a scenic hour and half drive away. Santander has a ton of charming tapas restaurants and is easily to reach via public transportation for those travelers coming from the Basque region and Bilbao.
Another popular way of entry is from Oviedo. If departing from Oviedo, it’s best to reverse this itinerary and head first to the village of Cangas de Onís, only an hour and half from the Principality City of Asturias.
When to Visit Picos de Europa National Park
Many areas of the Picos de Europa National Park are open year round. With its close proximity to the ocean, the park’s weather can be surprisingly temperate. However, some areas of the park are hard to access and can be closed due to weather conditions. The peak season is from July – September. During this time, almost all of the trails are open and the crowds a plentiful. In contrast, during the off-season, some of the trails may be hard to access and you encounter some road closures.
Believe it or not, I took this road trip in the first week of November. In some areas I encountered snow, but nothing too drastic to deter a visit. Many of the mornings started out with overcast skies, but I was usually fortunate enough to enjoy sunny afternoons.
Travel Tip: Always check the weather conditions and stay up to date with current data by visiting the official website of the Picos de Europa National Park.
About This Picos de Europa Road Trip Itinerary
This four day sampling of the Picos de Europa National Park starts from Santander and visits all three autonomous communities that make up the park. Here’s a brief schedule of this 4 Picos de Europa National Park Road Trip.
- Depart Santander | Visit Potes | Take the Cable Car at Fuente Dé
- Visit Beautiful View Points | Day Hike at Ruta del Cares
- Lagos de Covadonga | Explore Around the Lakes |Sleep in Cangas de Onís
- Depart Cangas de Onís | Detour at Santillana del Mar | Return car to Santander
Santander | Potes | & Fuente Dé | Day 1
Yeah!! Lets begin this epic “taste of the Picos de Europa National Park road trip.” Remember, this itinerary can be reversed for those departing from Oviedo.
It’s best to pick up a rental car before noon. From Santander, it’s under a 2 hour drive to Potes. I picked up my car by 11:00, so that I could return it in time and still visit Santillana del Mar on my return. There’s usually an hour cushion window on most companie’s return policy. The cars were few and far between, but a mini-cooper whipped through the mountains better than I thought. However, I did encounter snowy roads in one area, and my tires spun a bit to get up a hill.
Pro-Tip: There are multiple car rental agencies located right at the main train station | Estacion De Tren, Plaza Estaciones, Santander, Cantabria, Spain | Average Daily Cost: $30- $40 USD | Those who can drive a manual car will find cheaper rates!
Leave the train station and exit Santander. The road is quite easy to follow and passes through small villages and windy mountain roads. Be mindful as there were some rock fragments I had to dodge as I began my ascent up to the village of Potes.
Santander Train Station to Potes: Around 70 miles | Under 2 hours
Arrive to Potes, in the Cantabria region of the park. Explore the twisting cobblestone streets of this medieval village. Located in a stunning valley, wander across beautiful bridges that straddle and connect this picturesque village. Either spend the afternoon soaking in activities in the city, or drop off your luggage and head to Fuente Dé.
Potes to Fuente Dé: 15 miles | 25 minutes
Teleférico de Fuente Dé
Visit the stunning village of Fuente Dé, where the main attraction is to take the almost 2,500 foot climb to the top of the mountain. Reach these impressive views that sit at just shy of 6,000 feet. Zip to the top in under 4 minutes!
From here it’s possible to explore a few trails, or even hike down. It’s best to take the cable car up, and if time permits, hike and enjoy the views downhill. The official website offers a few hiking routes that are reachable from the drop-off of the cable car. There is a restaurant at the top for those looking to just savor in those incredible views of jagged peaks. Keep your eyes peeled for Chamois, which is a goat-like almost antelope.
Practical Info: Fuente Dé Cable Car
High Season: July 4 – September 20 / Daily: 8:00 – 17:00 | Last Departure runs 15 minutes before closing | High Season Adult Ticket: Round-Trip € 18.00 / One-Way: € 11.00 | Buy Ticket Online Here
Closed: December 24, 25, & 31 | January 1, 6 | January 13 – February 6
Sleeping in Potes & Night Activities
At night, Potes becomes quite full of life. Although the population is under 1,500 people, the medieval streets fill with eager visitors out enjoying the nightly tapas scene. Don’t forget that the Spanish culture eats late, and many restaurants won’t start serving dinner until around 21:00.
You may start to notice multiple signs for “Sidra” bars. These cider bars are a trademark of the Asturias region, but nearby villages have started offering these popular watering-holes.
A great place to sleep with close proximity to the heart of Old Town is the Hostería Picos de Europa. Find friendly owners, comfortable, yet modern rooms, on-site parking (a huge bonus), all within walking distance to the charming streets of Potes.
Epic Viewpoints | Ruta del Cares | Sleeping Options | Day 2
On Day 2, try to get an early morning start. There are a few epic viewpoints via en-route to the incredible day hike of Ruta del Cares. The Ruta del Cares will take at least 6 -8 hours round-trip, so awakening with the sunrise is important!
Mirador del Corzo / San Glorio (Deer Statue)
Potes to Mirador del Corzo: 15 miles | half an hour
This nice little viewpoint is a great place to get out and stretch your legs. This is where the autonomous communities of León and Cantabria meet. Take a few photos and head just a few miles further down to Oso Pardo, which offers even more sweeping views.
Monument to Oso Pardo / Collado de Llesba (Bear Statue)
Mirador del Corzo to Monument to Oso Parado: 3.5 miles | under 10 minutes
The views of the mountains from Oso Parado are absolutely stunning. The friendly man who owns the Hostería Picos de Europa told me this was his favorite viewpoint in all of Cantabria. There are a few trails nearby, but due to time restraints, I only enjoyed the epic views before heading towards Caín de Valdeón.
Pro-Tip: On foggy days it’s best to skip these two viewpoints, as there will be nearly zero visibility.
Next, take the twisting and turning roads to Caín de Valdeón.
Day Hike at the Ruta del Cares | (PR-PNPE 3)
Monument to Oso Parado to Caín de Valdeón: 25 miles | 1 hour
The Ruta del Cares (Cares Gorge) may be the most popular and famous day hike in all of the Picos de Europa National Park. This trail is an out and back route that follows along the Rio Cares along a stunning gorge, engulfed by rugged limestone mountains. This trail is 12 km each way (around 7.5 miles), and includes walking through small caves, crossing awesome bridges, and sharing the way with silly goats. The trail runs between the two villages of Caín de Valdeón (León) and Poncebos (Asturias). While it’s more common for people to start from Poncebos via Las Arenas de Cabrales and walk to Caín, I much prefer reversing the normal route.
- Distance 7 miles
- Time 2 h 52 min
- Speed 2 mph
- Min altitude 758 ft
- Peak 1801 ft
- Climb 5712 ft
- Descent 6253 ft
The trail, although extremely well marked, can offer up its own set of challenges. Many sections of the path have no guard rail and it can be mind boggling to look down at the depths of the canyon. There are a few parts of the trail which go through a cave, so it’s best to carry a headlamp just in case. The trail is flat, but there are a few parts of the trail that have steeper inclines. Overall, I would say this trail is fairly easy, but allow 3.5 hours to reach Poncebos and another 3.5 to return.
Why Start the Ruta del Cares from Caín?
First off, leaving Potes, you get to witness two great viewpoints en-route to Caín de Valdeón. Secondly, although the windy road deters some drivers, the road is beautiful and sees little traffic. Also, with a car, it’s possible to park right next to the trailhead for free. With less people starting this route, it’s almost always possible to snag a great parking spot. Finally, in my humble opinion, the most scenic and adventurous part of the trail is closer to Caín. So, if you can’t make it all the way to Poncebos, you get to experience the best part of the trail!
Tip: Utilize the parking spaces in front of Hostal La Ruta and enjoy a beverage upon return
Depending on how you wish to enjoy the beautiful Ruta del Cares hike, there are a few different sleeping options.
- Take the 7.5 mile hike to Poncebos and spend the night. Poncebos is tiny, but the Hostal Poncebos is a great option to enjoy the lovely mountains.
- Do the round-trip version of the Rutas del Cares and come back to sleep in the adorable village of Caín de Valdeón. La Casona de Palmira is a popular hotel. Budget travelers may wish to sleep at the Hostal La Ruta.
- If looking to get closer to the next destination of Cangas de Onís, spend the night in the sleepy village of Oseja de Sajambre at Hostal La Cuna del Sella.
Cangas de Onís | Lagos de Covadonga | Day 3
Caín de Valdeón to Cangas de Onís: 43 miles | 1 hour and 45 minutes
In the morning, if leaving from Caín de Valdeón, this will be one of the longest stretches in the car. However, the views around Oseja de Sajambre are absolutely stunning, so it makes it that much better.
Reach Cangas de Onís and drop off your stuff, or head straight to the beautiful Lagos de Covadonga. These two highlights are located in the Asturias region.
Lagos de Covadonga
Cangas de Onís to Lagos de Covadonga: 13 miles | 35 minutes
Lagos de Covadonga comprises of two lovely alpine lakes: Lake Enol and Lake Ercina. There is a nice parking lot, a restaurant, and during the season, a helpful tourist information center. The winding road up to the parking is an adventure in itself!
Upon arrival, there are plenty of things to see and do just around the two lakes. Many families are usually picnicking and wandering the trails nearby. Keep in mind, it is not possible to swim in these lakes, as they are protected!
Extremely close to the lakes are the Buferrera Mines. They are temporarily closed, but it’s permitted to wander around the outside of them. They are worth a quick gander.
Chapel of the Good Shepherd
In the opposite direction of the Lakes, it’s possible to venture towards a few trails and open pastures. Sitting in the middle of the pasture lies the tiny Chapel of the Good Shepherd. This small monument offers some incredible views of the mountains. If you continue on the path, it’s also possible to visit the Mirador del Rey. This simple viewpoint has nice views of the mountains, but no views of the lakes.
Buferrera Ordiales | PR-PNPE-5
For those looking for a more challenging, but really beautiful path, follow the signage to Buferrera Ordiales. Although I didn’t make it all the way to the viewpoint, this hiking trail was one of my favorites in Picos de Europa National Park. On this path, I was able to walk past wild horses, spot more Chamois, and did not pass a single soul along the way. Due to the fact that it was November, I went up as far as I could until I needed proper snow gear. But, it was totally worth it!
Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga
After exploring the Lagos de Covadonga, take the curvy road back towards Cangas de Onís. Look for the viewpoint to snap some great photos of the pink Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.
Cangas de Onís
Cangas de Onís is a cute little mountain village in the heart of Asturias.
This is the place to make sure to try out the “Sidra,” or cider house/ bar. It’s crazy, but the region of Asturias has over 80 major cider mills and produces 80% of all the cider in Spain. Asturias cider culture is unique to the region and one of the best ways to experience it is at a cider bar. Here, it’s all about the pour! Ciders are typically poured from a tall height, so to create bubbles. These bubbles allow the true flavor of the cider to shine through. This is why only a few “sips” are poured at a time. To ensure the flavor of the cider, many cider houses have little machines that replicate the process. Make sure to experience at least one cider house in Asturias.
Old Roman Bridge
Another popular place to visit in Cangas de Onís is the Old Roman Bridge. Walk along the cobblestone path and enjoy the surrounding mountains.
Where to Sleep in Cangas de Onís
In the center of it all, Pension Reconquista, offers simple rooms with lovely little balconies! Enjoy a morning coffee with the beautiful mountains in the backdrop. The owners are warm and very accommodating. This little hotel is close to the bridge and within a few minutes walk of some of the best cider bars in Cangas de Onís.
Leave Picos de Europa National Park | Santillana del Mar | Santander | Day 4
On Day 4, it’s sadly time to leave the incredible Picos de Europa National Park. However, there’s still one great spot to enjoy before returning the car to Santander.
Santillana del Mar
Cangas de Onís to Santillana del Mar: 70 miles | 1 hour 15 minutes
Leave the Picos and head towards the sea. The road basically follows near the coast until you reach the village of Santillana del Mar. Yes, I know, Santillana del Mar is quite touristy. However, there is still a little charm to find throughout the city. This city is also known as the “City of Three Lies,” since it does not have a Saint, is not flat (llana) and not directly on the Sea (Mar).
The village can feel a little “sold out” to tourism, but if you go in with an open mind, the streets are extremely picturesque. Maybe it was because I visited in the off-season, but I really could appreciate the architecture with no crowds. Due to its touristy nature, maybe try to not eat here, as the food can be really hit or miss.
Return Car to Santander
Santillana del Mar to Santander: 20 miles | Half an Hour
Leave the village and return the car back in Santander. If you haven’t yet, now that you have no car, spend the night there and enjoy a night of wine and fresh seafood tapas joints!
Psst… Santander Central Hostel is a centrally located hostel with nice common spaces, welcoming staff, super clean, and close to some of the best tapas places in Santander.
A Taste of Picos de Europa National Park
In short, this 4 day itinerary is the perfect sampler to get a taste of the Picos de Europa National Park. This diverse road trip crosses all three autonomous communities that make up this sprawling National Park. This itinerary is jam-packed with a wide range of activities from riding a cable car, to day hikes, lovely viewpoints, and participating in cultural traditions.
Have you been to the Picos de Europa National Park? Did you fall in love with it as much as I did? Is there a place you visited that I have not included on this itinerary that you really enjoyed? Let me know in the comments below!
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