Exploring the Great Outdoors of Spain

hiking in spain, catalonian mountains

From the plateaus and coastline of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim’s way in the far north to the majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the southern region of Andalusia, Spain has grand landscapes and plenty of outdoor adventures. You have the option to access remote country areas with car hire in Spain, visit quaint villages, rolling farmlands, olive and citrus groves, rugged coastlines and much more.

The Santiago de Compostela way is an excellent choice for those wanting to explore the northern areas. While many pilgrims (and tourists) choose to hike, cycle or even horse-ride through the natural landscapes, driving means that you are able to veer off the beaten path more easily and investigate some out of the way or less easily accessible spots. Highlights on the way include the snow-capped Pyrenees, the Magdalena and Ladra rivers, picturesque monasteries and vineyards in La Rioja. The landscape varies enormously, from the baked earth of Castile to the verdant green Galician landscape. At the end of the journey is beautiful Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, which makes for a wonderfully scenic drive.

The Pyrenees themselves are worth a trip in their own right. Forming a natural border between Spain and France, this mountain range is older than the Alps and has a number of significant features, including its lack of great lakes, dizzyingly high passes and the semicircular precipices known as cirques. The mountains are well-placed for skiing and mountaineering. The Picos de Europa, meanwhile, have some of the world’s deepest caves.

In Andalusia, the Sierra Nevada offers countless opportunities to explore the great outdoors. This is Spain’s highest mountain range (and Europe’s highest, after the Alps), and certainly one of the most spectacular. Nestled at the foot is the picturesque town of Granada, and this makes an ideal base to start from. Heading out on the A395, you’ll pass pine slopes and blue lakes before hitting the Sierra Nevada National Park. Up in the mountains, you can come across terraced fields, charming villages, herb-scented slopes, cascading streams and soaring views; go higher, and you will come to rockier, more arid landscapes, where the whole world becomes a little wilder. The Sierra Nevada also caters to skiers, with top resorts and world-class runs. Also in the southeast are the Alpujarras Mountains, just southeast of Granada.

View of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The view of Granada’s mountains from El Mirador de San Nicolás

In the provinces of Seville and Huelva, in the south, is Doñana National Park, an expanse of wetlands and sand dunes. It’s a great spot for wildlife, with red deer, fallow deer, Iberian lynx and hundreds of bird species, including rare and endangered species such as the imperial eagle. A UNESCO World Heritage Site – as several of Spain’s great outdoor regions are – due to its rare and fragile ecosystems Donana National Park is also noted on the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

Another wetland national park is Tablas de Daimiel National Park, which is also on the Ramsar Convention. Migratory birds to be found here include the purple heron, grey heron, little egret, great bittern and black-necked grebe.

Spain is not just the mainland, and its many islands contain some of the country’s most dramatic scenery. In the Canary Islands off the African mainland coast can be found some weird and wonderful geological formations. In Tenerife, there is the spectacular volcano of Mount Teide and National Park, with miles of hiking trails, as well as the Caldera de Taburiente National Park. Lanzarote’s Timanfaya National Park, meanwhile, is a lunar landscape of surreal appearance.

Back on the mainland, the Sierra de Gredos lies west of Madrid and is a popular trekking spot, while another option for heights in central Spain is the Guadarrama National Park. Just to the south, Cabaneros National Park contains the largest stretch of Mediterranean forest on the Iberian Peninsula and is a Special Protection Area for black stork and imperial eagle.

Whether you want to meander along the pilgrim’s way, search for scallop shells at Cape Finisterre, step up to the heights of the Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada, or watch for migratory birds in the wetland national parks, Spain offers everything for lovers of the great outdoors.

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