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Trails in the Pyrenees: The Ordesa National Park

By: Guy Reifenberg, Founder of Kokopeli Adventures………..

Edelweiss, the snow flower, is naturally associated with Switzerland and ¨The Sound of Music¨. I associate it with quite a different place, no less breathtaking than the Alps whose beautiful vistas act as a background to the film and to the little flower immortalized in the soundtrack.

In the Ordesa National Park, amidst the wild landscape of immense cliffs, waterfalls and forests, the largest concentration of edelweiss in The Pyrenees can be found – but with all due respect to the delicate flower, to the film and to the Alps, there are much better reasons for a visit to this singular Reserve.

There are three main Reserves in The Pyrenees in France and in Spain, The Aiguestortes in The Catalan Pyrenees, The Midi-Pyrenee Reserve and our destination of today which is The Ordesa Reserve, or  to give it its full name, The Ordesa National Park and The Monte Perdido -the Lost Mountain (Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido).

How do decide upon which Park to visit

Before expanding upon The Ordesa Park, I would like to answer a question often put to me, namely, which of the three should I visit? There are these three Parks, all in The Pyrenees, so what can the great difference be – some more mountains? a tree more? Or less?

Well, there is an enormous difference – it is hard to believe how three sites in the same mountain range can be so different from each other. Each one has its own singular characteristics so that, in short- don´t miss any one of them!

Still, if it is impossible to visit them all and a choice has to be made, the best idea is to be practical. If you are coming from Barcelona and are short of time, visit the Aiguestortes Reserve which is the closest. If you are coming from the French side, again short of time. You will obviously visit The Midi-Pyrenees Reserve.

If you are hesitating between Midi-Pyrenees and Ordesa – most of the famous sites of Midi-Pyrenees are more easily approached after a very short walk.  At Ordesa there is more walking, but not that much more.  Would the simplest way not be to take a few days extra and not to forego any of the reserves?

From the highest mountain to the lowest canyon

If you are still reading it must mean that you decided upon a visit to Ordesa—so, let us talk a little about Ordesa.

The Ordesa Park is in the District of Aragon in the north of Spain, bordering on the French Midi-Pyrenees. The Roland Pass and the Cirque de Gavarnie lie beyond the Ordesa Canyon and form part of the Midi-Pyrenees reserve.

The Ordesa National Park takes up an area of close to 160 square kilometres, with height differences of 2600 (!) meters. The Park is part of one of the largest limestone massifs in the world dominated by impressive rocks and cliffs.

The park is composed of three main areas:

1-      The Ordesa Valley (Valle de Ordesa) in which the Arazas River )Rio Arazas) flows.

2-      The Lost Mountain (Monte Perdido), one of the three Sorores Summits, is the tallest mountain in the Reserve (3,355 meters), and one of the last permanent glaciers in Europe graces its summit.

3-      The Añisclo Canyon (Cañon de Añisclo) lies at the lowest point in the Reserve (750 meters)

Map of the Reserve

Villages around the Ordesa Reserve: (A) Ainsa  (B) Escalona  (C)  Broto  (D) Boltaña  (E) Torla

Visiting the Ordesa Reserve

On a visit to the Ordesa Reserve, you will pass through and along crevasses, majestic cliffs rising hundreds of meters above you, waterfalls, glacial circuses and immensely tall summits. The flora is varied, from Mediterranean to European to sub-tropical. You will find, growing in fairly close proximity, mountain pine, beech, scots pine and many more varieties, some of them endemic to The Pyrenees. Large populations of vultures can be observed among the cliffs as well as smaller numbers of bearded vultures. Many marmots inhabit the higher regions although they are not truly native to the place but were brought there at the beginning of the 20th century.

Several days can be spent exploring the Reserve with hikes of various levels of difficulty, beginning with short walks and going up to difficult treks for experienced trekkers.

Anyone coming from Barcelona will usually arrive through the town of Ainsa which is situated at the place where the Ara and Sinca rivers meet. At first glance the town does not seem particularly pretty but only because this is the new and uninteresting part of the town. Look for the way leading up to the old town and you will discover a town surrounded by an impressive wall, winding streets and an ancient market place. In short, it is well worth climbing to the old town (It is possible to drive up to the entrance to the fortress) to wander along the narrow streets and then take a rest at one of the coffee shops or bars.

After the visit we are faced with two choices – whether to carry on northwards towards the French border and the Añisclo Canyon or to go westwards to the village of Botaña and the villages of Broto and Torla, the main exit points to the Ordesa Valley.

An excursion in the Añisclo Canyon

In order to reach the Añisclo Canyon we must climb northwards in the direction of France, till the village of Escalona. If seeking a cheap place for the night I would recommend the Arnal hotel, a very simple place with really charming owners

A small sign will direct us westwards from the village towards the Añisclo Canyon. Further along the way divides: the left fork going upwards and passing above the cliff and the canyon.  We, however, are interested in the right fork, the one leading to the canyon.

The Añisclo Canyon is one of the deepest in Europe. At certain places the walls are so close to each other that it seems as though the vehicles are bound to collide with them (not to worry – vehicles up to 3 meters high can pass, but a vehicle taller than 2 meters should be driven with great care). Please note that due to the narrowness of the way, driving is permitted only from east to west most of the year, but look out for those drivers who choose to ignore the law.

After a drive of some 40 minutes (probably more as there are places where one can stop and take pictures as doubtless you will want to) you will reach a small car park. A short walking trail (about an hour) leads from there to St. Urbez, named after a local saint who lived in a cave in the area. According to tradition he is the Patron Saint of shepherds and was able to talk to animals. The route is circular but I would recommend, before completing the circle, climbing another 20 minutes or so along the crevasse which is now going northwards, just to enjoy the sheer beauty of the place.

For those who want to climb to the summit of the Monte Perdido , The canyon goes onwards and upwards to the Oñisclo Pass and from there to the Refujio Goriz . This is a very difficult route, to be attempted only by experienced and very fit hikers. If you feel you fit this description, take into account that the climb from the Añisclo Canyon to Refujio Goriz will take 7-8 hours and as the refuge is very crowded during the summer months it is advisable to book ahead or to risk sleeping outdoors.

On the way to the Ordesa Valley

After our excursion in Añisclo the way joins up to the road which passes above the canyon. Here it is possible to either turn back taking the upper road to Escalona or to continue to the village of Broto and Torla, entry ways into the Ordesa Valley which constitutes the heart of the reserve. A river, cascades thick forests and cliffs hundreds of meters high – all these await the visitor to the valley.

My favorite point of entry to the reserve is the little village of Torla, a village built of stone, very quiet most of the year and then full of travellers and mountaineers in the summer. The village boasts various shops offering surprisingly varied camping equipment considering the size of the place. There are several hotels to choose from, ranging from pleasant to good. My recommendation is for the Vila Russel, named after the famous climber who made these summits his home. Sir Russel was a rich and eccentric mountain climber who lived in the late 19th century and who believed that life in the heights is healthy and affords longevity. His favourite regions were Ordesa and Midi-Pyrenees. He even excavated two caves at the height of 3000 meters in order to live in there. They say that he even tried to hold a party in one of these caves but there were very few guests as not many could make the climb.

The hotel owner, Jose Antonio, does not speak a word of English, but it is well worth trying to communicate with him as he is a charming person and is on first-name terms with every rock and stone in the area.

One of my favorite restaurants in all The Pyrenees is also in this village. I shall not give you the name for fear of its becoming overcrowded, but if you are staying at the Russel hotel, ask the owner which is Guy´s favorite restaurant.

If you don´t find lodging in Torla, Broto is also a possibility. The place is not as enchanting as Torla, but it is a somewhat larger village with a greater variety of lodgings and restaurants.

An excursion in the Ordesa Valley

Having eaten and slept well. It will be time to set out. The starting point is at the car park of the Ordesa Park which is at about 15 minutes´ drive along the road from Torla. In July and August private cars cannot use the car park due to the many of travellers, but there is a bus which leaves from the car park at the entrance to Torla and shuttles back and forth every half hour for the price of a few Euros.

Shortly before arriving at the Ordesa Valley, there is a fork in the road. There is an lookout point on the road going to the right, to the park.  The road going left soon becomes unpaved, but not difficult to navigate. If you have the time, it is possible to continue along this road for about 25 minutes, up to the bridge of San Nicolas de Bujaruelo.  This ancient bridge is an ideal place for a picnic by the stream or just to spend a pleasant day.  Do take into account that in summer, particularly on weekends, many other people are likely to think this a wonderful  idea .

There is a small refuge with a simple restaurant and cafeteria by the bridge and this is also the point joining the way to the Roland Pass.

The Cirque de Gavarnie and the Roland Pass

Routes for experienced (and brave) hikers in the Ordesa Valley

Hikers leave the Ordesa car park to take  the various routes and trails. Those seeking a challenge can go from here towards the Refujio Goriz in order to continue the next day to the summit of the Monte Perdido. It is also possible to carry on from Goriz to the Roland Pass. Another possibility is to climb to the Faja (meaning corset) trails – very narrow paths that surround the cliffs like a sort of corset, the views from these paths are breathtaking!

A word of warning – climbing to these strips from the base of the valley is very hard, long and steep. The paths are extremely narrow; close to the cliff wall and beneath them a free-fall of 300 to 450 metres. This is not for the faint hearted or those who suffer from vertigo.

Some of the trails include parts where it is necessary to climb using iron bars hammered into the rocks. Occasionally a bar can be missing – particularly after the winter. I discovered this to my cost – hanging between heaven and earth, a backpack on my back and two hundred metres beneath me. My foot was feeling for the next bar that was not there. I did manage to get down but at the cost of several white hairs…In short, the Pyrenees trail are recommended for their beauty, but only for those with experience.  At all costs it is important to inquire as to the condition of the trails before setting out as they can be very dangerous.

Easy trails in the Ordesa Valley

What should a traveller who does not want to reach the summit of the Monte Perdido or to test  the limits of his/her equilibrium on the corset paths do? There is, most fortunately a great option which is easy but does enable us to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the park.

Leaving the parking area, we will set out along the river, along the north bank (the left one when moving upwards). There are a number of bridges along the river so that it is possible to return along the opposite bank.  My recommendation for an excursion of two to three hours (there and back depending on the rate you go at) is to go past the second bridge. Small signs will guide you to two vantage points for two amazingly beautiful waterfalls (!). Next, go back to the bridge and cross it, returning to the car park. This excursion along the valley and up to the waterfalls can be attempted by anyone who has no serious walking limitations. The last part has a slightly steep, but short rise.

Anyone wanting a longer but not much more difficult trail will continue up to the famous horse´s tail waterfall (Cola de Caballo). The hike will take about 5 hours and will require somewhat more fitness.

Returning to the car park, please do not forget to visit the bathroom as there is nowhere to stop on the way till Torla.

Useful information for the visitor to the Ordesa Park

Maps of the park are available at the various information posts such as the bus exit point to the Ordesa Valley. Topographical maps can be bought at Torla or Broto.

From the car park there is a short trail along the river which is suitable for the handicapped and for wheelchairs.

The park can be visited most of the year, but in the winter months it is likely to be very cold and there might be ice on the trails. It is possible to visit the higher parts only in the summer and one might encounter ice in the higher places even in August.  It is very important to know the state of the roads and come suitably prepared and equipped.


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