Ordesa National Park is the enchanted mother of the Spanish national park system. Set aside in 1918 by royal decree, the park has been progressivly expanded to include more than 56,000 acres of lush valley forests and meadows, steep limestone slopes and delicate alpine reaches. Wildlife abounds, although some of the efforts to protect the more wary species have met with mixed success due to the popularity of the park.
Times to Vist
The park is open from May through mid-November, but if you plan to visit early or late in the season, double check snow conditions. Also, mid-July through August are the height of the Spanish vacation season -- not a good time of year to come if you want to avoid crowds. Besides, it's the hottest time of the year.
Ordesa Park actually comprises three separate valleys emanating out of Monte Perdido, "the lost mountain." The park's namesake, the Ordesa Valley, is renowned -- and deserves to be. Carved out by glaciers, the valley is outlined by limestone folds brilliantly marked with bands of gray, red and yellow ochre. Unlike most valleys in the Pyrenees, the Ordesa runs east/west. Since it is open to the west, the valley gets lots of cool, moist air from the Atlantic, making the plantlife lush and the climate moderate. The valley ends in the dramatic Circa Soasa, a glacial cirque.
The valley floor is home to forests of firs and beeches. On the slopes, tough dwarf mountain pine hold out up to the tree line. Above the treeline are beautiful alpine shrubs and meadows, with many seasonal wildflowers such as edelweiss, gentians, orchids, violets, belladonna, and anemones.
Ordesa National Park was set up specifically to protect the ibex, a wild goat. Ironically, the ibex is still in decline, along with the lammergeier, a type of bearded vulture. However, many other species are flourishing in this otherwise well preserved enclave. The valley shelters 171 species of birds -- including golden eagles, griffon vultures and alpine finches, 32 mammals -- including wild boar, otters and foxes, eight species of reptiles, including the asp (Vispera aspis) of Cleopatra's doom, and five amphibia. Especially notable are the only herds of Pyrenees mountain goats in existence and a healthy number of chamois deer, which in the nineteenth century were in danger of becoming extinct.
Hiking and Climbing
One of the great advantages of Ordesa is that if offers a variety of hiking opportunities, from the relatively short and easy to the very challenging. Your best bet is to land in the almost-too-charming village of Torla, frequently overran by tourists. But from Torla there are dozens of trailheads that will allow you to leave the tapas-munching hordes behind. (Tapas is like Spanish gorp, but with lots of olives instead of raisins.)
The most popular walk is the Circa Soasa, which takes 5 to 8 hours and offers a lot of beauty and interest without a lot of exertion. If you strike out towards the Circo de Cotatuero, you can pay a visit to the Brecha de Rolanda, where legend has it the heroic Roland struck a breach in the wall with his sword, Durandal.
Climbers have many choices. Two noteworthy are the Petit Vignemale, which reportedly offers almost every possible technical challenge, and for very experienced climbers, the Aqisclo Valley.
From three star luxury to tenting. The towns surrounding the park offer many hotel options. On the opposite extreme, although you can't sent up a base camp in the park, you can pitch a tent overnight, as long as you strike it first thing in the morning.
The park also has several refugi (plural for refugio). A refugio is an alpine shelters, sort of like a youth hostel, but unlike a hostel where you frequently need a special card to stay, a refugio is open to all comers. Price vary from 100 to 900 ptas. To ensure a spot, it's best to arrive by mid-afternoon, although you probably won't be admitted to the sleeping area until evening. Food is sometimes available, but because it frequently has to be packed in or dropped by helicopter, it can be pricey. So bring you own, but then you might want to spring for a carafe of wine to wash it down and relax your hike-weary muscles.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication