The Welsh 3000s make a fine, fine walk. The ‘Ruta Integral de los Tres Mil’ is the same thing in Spain – but in metres rather than feet!
Link to my route guide here . You’ll need to write this in the box: AlcAzAbA .
However keen we may be on Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat, Granada is every bit as deserving of its World Heritage status, even ignoring the way the Sierra Nevada are Arthur’s Seat a lot larger. They’re Europe’s highest hills outside the Alps and Caucasus, and they loom above the Alhambra as a compelling four day walk with wild flowers, lakes and humble stone bothies, snow and a bit of scrambling.
Various routes in the Baja Montaña seemed suitable for a warm-up, until I realised that in late June it’d be a warmup altogether too warm – and also only reachable by way of a hire car. So the morning after our day at the Alhambra, with the snowy Sierra Nevada looming in the distant high haze, it was off up to Spain’s third highest hill…
At 9.02 (yes, scheduled departure time is 9.00) the little bus suddenly fills up with young people in slightly casual clothing and dangly foam mats. There’s also a gnarly old gent who’s pretending he’s not with them but he’s obviously the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ responsible adult.
The bus grinds slowly from 700m to 2500m over an hour and a half, with views into deep greeny-brown valleys with reservoirs and radio masts and giant iron bull cutouts advertising brandy.
At 2500m the sun is cool and Scotlandlike, and so is the terrain, with hawthorn and dog rose in the lower woods (can’t be says Clare, they don’t flower together) gravel and scrubby broom bushes above. The little path winds gently up the ridgeline. After a couple of hours, cliffs rear overhead, and the ridgeline, while still gentle, takes to bare rock. The easier way is to follow the road, which here slopes away to the right, all the way across the western slope of Veleta, to the Collado del Veleta. Here there are sudden new views southwards over the Alpujarra, with the stone Carihuela Hut just below. The snowfields make it like a mountain, and so do the long views back all the way to Granada, the Alhambra a pale speck at the town centre. (Meanwhile the big white radio telescope makes it not so much mountain as something from a sci-fi film set.)
The road turns up Veleta’s southwest ridge in sweeping zigzags. Small paths head more directly to the summit, with its small building in scruffy concrete. Clare settles comfortably against the survey pillar before suddenly noticing the 200m vertical drop immediately beyond.
Altitude 3400m feels to the unacclimatised just like very, very tired. So the gentle angle of the Veleta roadway can be a welcome start to the descent. It sets off northwards, before sweeping left in several bends, passing the top of a T-bar ski lift.
Veleta is not only the most interesting easy-ish hill walk from Granada – but also useful acclimatisation to altitude, and a snow survey. The aged and rather heavy crampons I’ve brought out on reports of late snow will indeed be carried over the four days of high walking ahead, rather than a pointless (albeit pointy) piece of extra luggage for Clare into Cordoba.
The 3000s are more often started from Jerez del Marquesado, northeast of the first summits, at 1300m. This will let you get well into the eastern tops, perhaps to Cuneta de Vacares, on the first day. However the approach from Guejar-Sierra is on my (Alpina 1:40,000) map, is convenient for Granada, and will let me experience the full range of terrain from valley through forest to the tops. With any luck, too, I’ll gain height (1100m to 2800m) faster than the day gains heat.
The road, more walked than driven and more cycled than walked, runs along the valley side, gradually descending to reach river (Rio Genil) at Estadion de Maitena. At the Bar Chiquita (642107), the last hot food: potatoes greased in enough olive oil to turn them primrose yellow, with chewy Serrano ham that stays between your teeth for an emergency reserve later on…
In another quarter-mile the Vereda de las Estrellas turns off. ‘Vereda’ means a well engineered path, terraced and even carved into the rocks, formerly serving some mines. It runs easily and pleasantly to right of the river in its deep gorge, gradually rising quite high up the valley side, easy and often shady as well.
A signed path arrives from up right, and in another couple of hundred metres, watch out for a path forking down to the left, signed for ‘Peña Partida’. This junction is actually the first of the two marked on the Alpina map, but the second doesn’t exist – I already had doubts about the map, it marking no crags but only smooth contours, and giving hill names interestingly different from the guidebook.
The path, rougher than before, zigzags down to a wooden footbridge over Rio Genil. (The guidebook has this a concrete bridge, and a ruined Badillo Hut – hmmm, guidebook matches map, not in content as they differ at many points, but in being also not entirely sound.) The path zig zags up through woods, to reach the lightly-wooded crest, fairly gently and pleasantly (it’s not got too hot yet). Some Spaniards coming downhill want to know how far to the bridge. Assuming they mean the one that isn’t Puente de los Burros, I give them an hopeful ‘quarante minutos’. As for the Piedras Partidas hut, ‘todo recto’ is gratifying not just for being straight out of the phrasebook so’s I can understand it, but also in that the map makes paths seem complex and doubtful rather than any nice ‘straight on’.
A man in blue comes down the path, then a man on a horse. And that’s it. For the next two days there’d be plenty of wild mountain rebec. People, no.
The ‘todo recto’ is confirmed by a signpost at the ridge crest. Here you join a long-distance route GR240. Peña Partida is still 6km ahead – surprisingly as since the previous ‘6km’ signpost, an hour and a half ago, you’ve gained half a km in the upwards direction alone.
The path ahead runs up the ridge crest for 5 minutes, then bends left to contour, at about 2000m level, through dog rose and yes hawthorn (I photographed the flowers) and a yellow flowered shrub up the valley called El Chorro (honestly, this Spanish is just as expressive as Scottish Gaelic: the name means ‘Stream Valley’). It crosses two streams (seasonal ones, according to the map) to a footbridge over the main one, Rio Barranco de Piedra Partida, in a grassy, flowery hollow.
The path turns upstream, then zigzags up under pines to the top of the tree line. A big brown bull was on the path, avoided by shortcutting a zigzag. The path emerges into stony ground of dwarf broom scrub, and slants up and to the right, to reach the stone hut Pena Partida on the broad ridgeline above. (On the map it’s Refugio Piedra Partida: guidebook plays safe by not even mentioning it.)
A tide of sheep swelled across the gravel ridge, with two huge and rangy dogs; one of them ambled over towards the hut to see if I seemed like a sheep-stealer. Simple stone floor, the usual bothy broom with its broken handle, but no bothy spade, this sophistication has yet to reach Spain. Who needs one, when large boulders with handy hollows start right above the hut terrace. (Careful how you tread when taking hut photos from the boulders… )
I dozed on the hut doorway in the evening sun, moving indoors at nightfall once the flies had fallen asleep. I’d been expecting a Spaniard or two in the hut to supply the traditional snorer and also useful hints on getting onto Alcazaba. So I was pleased to hear a footfall on the stones outside. But the footfall was a clumsy rebec – mostly they move silently even over scree.
Day 2 Monday 1 July: to Lagunas de las Caldeteras (2900m)
From the hut a faint path runs east, up across the ridgeline of Loma de los Cuartos. (NB alternative placenames are available.)
The path fades at the rim of the wide grassy hollow Lavadero de la Reina. Here a bank of old snow gave a downslope steep enough to require my crampons, dragged up through 2000m of vertical height gain already, but it was simpler just to walk around it. The hollow is grassy floored, with the streams (seasonal ones according to map) babbling merrily, occasional boggy bits, and gentians unfortunately not yet open under the early sun. Attractive camp grounds here, with the rockface of Los Cervatillos rising above the little streams – the map has a small tarn too, a bit further up.
Fairly gentle stoneslopes lead up to Picon de Jerez. This isn’t a summit, but a survey post beside a cairn on the northern shoulder of Cerro Pelao (Puntal de Juntillas). The broad gravel ridge runs gently up south to the cairn on Cerro Pelao (3140m) itself.
A mile to the south is Horcado de Trevelez. At 3182m it’s the highest point at this end of the range and the first real 3000-er. With an inkling that strict 3000-bagging is going to be abandoned along the four days ahead – I take the half-hour wander out and back to bag it anyway, on the basis that (mostly without rucksack) it is a lot more relaxing than the chunky looking stuff ahead.
The chunky stuff starts with a snowy crest, and then there’s a short scrambly section (not exposed, difficulties avoidable down left) before the tall cairn of Los Cervatillos.
The continuing ridgeline southeast then south is a tumble of giant boulders, so it’s slow clambering – or much easier walking along the top of the snow banked alongside. The guidebook refutes the map’s ‘Puntal de los Cuartos’ saying it’s actually La Buitreia (Vulture Hangout) but the summit doesn’t actually exist, so you can call it what you like: the second fine cairn you come to is La Atalaya, or watchtower.
Ahead, Puntal de Vacares is the most formidable peak so far. More small cairns led me across the right flank to pass below another pinnacle. The ridge top rises in a rocky tower. Just keep contouring, following small paths and cairns, on terraces across the foot of the rocks, then head directly up in broken ground, to reach the rocky summit.
Various routes are offered up onto La Alcazaba, the direct one being a formidable cliff. Mine was the ‘wimpy way out’, turning down left on moderate snowslopes to the floor of charming Cañada de los Calderones with its many tarns. (Probably this descent would be nastier without the smooth snow cover.)
Thus I reached the Barranco del Goteron below its tarns, at around 2700m altitude, at grassy stream banks below a sizeable waterfall. By Scotland standards I’d done 5 or 6 hours worth of ground: in fact it had taken 9. It was 4.30pm, but crossing Alcazaba from this wimpishly low altitude would take another 3 or 4 hours, and the weather was hazy gray, with several spots of rain even. Green and lush was the vegetation, a good inch deep, its main problem being the clearing away of old but well dried cow pats. I justify my diversion to the crag feet by a long afternoon eating some of the weight out of the sack, and a comfortable night in the thicker air of the 2700m contour line.
Day 3 Tuesday 2 July: Alcazaba, Mulhacen, Refugio La Carihuela (3229m)
In stead of the expected stony slog, a small, cairned path slants up the steep screes, southeast, onto Lomo de la Alcazaba. Once on the wide, smooth ridge you can go up anywhere, on schisty gravel with wild flowers and rebec. It may be 500m of height to gain, but with gentle going and widening views – and even that opened-out gentian that I’d been too morning-early for on Day One.
A tall, slender cairn with layers of quartz marks Alcazaba’s summit. Though only the second highest, it’s the craggiest and least accessible of the range, and a worthy companion to Nanga Parbat and Lakeland’s Glaramara. (Alas, a day and a half always, many Mars bars and bananas, as a chap walks far Alcazaba. Check out the vowels.)
Descend southeast along the ridge, then veer left towards Peñon del Globo. From the saddle before the Peñon, turn down right, southwest, on stones and rocks below the formidable crag of the Peñon itself. At the crag foot, you could contour right, across steep ground, to regain the main ridge line above Cañada de las Siete Lagunas. The usual route onto Mulhacen is by a scree chute, steep and loose, immediately to left of the main ridge line.
However, with steep old snow in the scree chute, again I chose an easier way. The open gully below Peñon del Globo leads down to the floor of the wide Siete Lagunas (Seven Tarns) corrie. I crossed its snow and gravel floor, past a tarn like a blue eyeball at the foot of Mulhacen’s east spur (733012). Round to the left are open, stony slopes to left of the crag complex. Happily, this was moderately angled old snow rather than loose stonefields. (The loose stones did start higher up, however.)
Two parties were descending here: the only walkers I would meet on the mountains. It was hard to explain the snow conditions lower down: I’d used iceaxe for half an hour or more, but maybe they’d find some strips of nasty loose stones alongside the snow.
A faint aeroplane rumble broke the afternoon stillness. “Hai, tormentas!” I’d been mugging up on my phrasebook’s weather section; ‘tormentas’ aren’t miscellaneous discomforts, but thunderstorms. A bit surprising, given the hot sun, still air and clear blue skies …
But as I emerged above the crag tops, I saw gray cloud swirling up out of the northern corries of Alcazaba, and the thunder rumbled less distantly. A dozen flakes of snow were further evidence that the Sierra don’t just do sunny and hot. For a good 10 minutes I was walking in cloud, along the boulders and jaggy rocks of Mulhacen’s short summit ridge. Rather than the candles, broken walking poles and votive ribbons of the summit shrine, I trusted in a quick up and down to the survey pillar and off down the less lightning-likely broad western flank.
Descent from Mulhacen
This is the normally busy standard route to Spain’s summit (accessed by a National Park minibus to the 2700m contour line on Alto del Chorillo). The path zigzags down the scree flank, with Spaniards being disciplined enough not to destroy it with shortcuts as would happen in the UK. At the slope foot it joins the Sierra Nevada ‘road’, a dirt track running right across the range.
This offers a stretch of leisurely walking, over the next 5km to Veleta col and indeed up Veleta itself: a welcome break from the ruggedness of everywhere since the start of the 3000s ridge. Well, it would do, except that the road is mostly covered over with snow. The snow is quite steep, and although there’s a well-trodden way, it’s still comforting to have crampons underfoot and iceaxe to poke into the slope. The first short snow stretch has plain rubber footprints, and puncture marks of poles both above and below the trod. By the second, much longer, stretch, the prints are spiked ones, and the little holes are above the path only, indicating ice axes.
Above the dirt track or snow trail, as the case may be, rises Puntal de la Caldera: a sharp-edged scramble summit that would certainly embellish the 3000s crossing if one were up there on it. (But variety is also important. Down here on the easy bit is an important new type of terrain for the traverse.) Another possible peak, Lomo Pela, is steep and stony on the front, but reachable by gentle slopes from behind. To include it would be to omit a charming alternative hut, the Refugio Viele Vientos, superb above the southwards views. The road then runs along steep slopes below the Crestones de Rio Seco, a succession of loose and tottering rocks.
Los Machos is sometimes counted as the fourth mountain of Spain. But it’s just a sticky-out shoulder of Veleta, with a mere 28m of drop between it and the main peak. Well, given that its approach will be a scree slog from the southwest, and descent the same way again, I decide that it’s a mere sticky-out shoulder. (The direct continuation from Los Machos to Veleta would involve two pinnacles and some very steep rock – a worthy embellishment to the 3000s walk for those up to such stunts.)
The dirt road passes along Veleta’s steep south face, for a short zig-zag up to the base of its very unsteep southwest ridge. The Carihuela hut stands where the track crosses the ridgeline, below a little rock wall that you’ll have to clamber up to get a mobile phone sightline to any girlfrield in Granada.
I left my luggage in the hut, and feeling rather stronger than three days ago, rambled up the road and gravel to Veleta’s evening summit.
The Carihuela hut is comfortably appointed, with a large wooden table, benches, and a double sleeping platform partly upholstered with a luxurious foam mat. On the other hand it is currently sunken three feet deep in the snowfield, with a slot around the walls filled with empty plastic bottles (litter makes excellent insulation) and with a puddle of meltwater in a corner of the floor. One tiny window, and a heavy metal door that clanks like a dustbin lid. Just one hour by car plus two on foot above Granada, this place is well used: it would be the second and last place on the ridgeline where I’d meet people rather than wild goats.
At least one Granadan uses this a high altitude hovel as an unlikely love nest. Well, the double sleeping bag on my right emitted three full hours of whispering and giggling – with one brief spell of silence. Well that’s if heavy passionate breating counts as silence; you have to be well acclimatised to make love at this altitude without a lot of extra air…
Late in the evening there comes a whooping sound from outside the hut. The third Granadan has just discovered that after the afternoon of light drizzle, haze and gray lighting conditions, the sky has cleared to a splendid sunset. Mobile phoning from the rocks above the hut (his girlfriend being presumably still down in town) silhouettes him just right for my photo.
Day 4: western ridges
“Puerta abierto – o cerrado?” In common with bothy-dwellers world wide, they wanted the darkness, and the comfortable overnight fug: they wanted the dustbin-lid door firmly closed behind me. (Even the ones who’d confidently been going to arise at 5, two hours ago, presumably to get to work in Granada …)
Outside, meanwhile, the snow was cold and crisp, and the sunrise was etching the folds and shadows of the Virgin’s Tajos. (chasms, it would seem.) Two thirds of my food was eaten; my water bottles were empty; even the kilogram of crampons was on my feet rather than my back. And with the crunch of those crampons into firm, down-sloping snow, I felt myself a mountaineer rather than a load-bearing mule. The pinnacles above have been described variously as “an easy ascent on good clean slabs and blocks”, as “particularly dangerous: I would highly recommend doing it with someone who already knows the area…”, and as whatever’s Spanish for “scare-ey!!”. The cop-out option is a wide, wellmade path on the northern flank – except that this year, the well-made path is a whole lot more snowslope to crunch up in the crampons.
From Carihuela hut, a sign points down the Olimpica (a red run, so should be easy enough in crampons rather than skis… ) Out on the right, the radio telescope glows like a giant white buttercup: facing not the sun but whatever ultimate black hole or quasar may have its current attention. During the day, the 30m antenna turns slowly – or rather, stays straight as the earth turns underneath it. It operates at centimetre wavelengths, so for it the atmosphere is almost transparent, but it’s still good to get up above some of it: nowhere else in Europe has so benign a climate above the bottom 3000m of the air, plus road access and a handy hamburger stall.
At 3000m the ground levels off, with a stream and a couple of tarns (if snowcovered, the lower Yeguas reservoir may offer water supplies.) On the slight rise behind the tarn is the wide, well-made Vereda path. It slants uphill below the rocky ridgeline, southeast. Being well snowcovered, though, this stretch offers some more ice-axe excitement. Eventually path, iceaxe and me arrive on gentle scree slopes near the ruined Refugio Elorrieta.
Roofed tunnels run into the hillside, there’s a handsome window and remains of a tiled floor. But the window has no glass or shutters, and you’ll have to shovel aside the snow to sleep there.
I headed down a gentle stony slope to join the narrow ridgeline towards Pico del Cartujo. This becomes quite rocky, with a pair of stubby pinnacles, passed first on the left, second one on the right. (There are small cairns, and even a couple of red paint spots.) There follows a section of giant boulders, like the eastern part of the route over La Atalaya. This time the chunks and chasms are only brief, before the ridge rises in a rocky tower.
I could strap crampon on again for the steepish snow and boulders on the right. However, the direct assault is okay up to the top left corner, where there’s a couple of moves of very exposed scrambling above the tremendous drops along the rim of the upmost Lanjaron valley. A rebec heads up before me, apparently without needing to stop and rope up: and trodden scree and small cairns are more reassurance. In the event, after a gentle rocky slab, the scrambling moves turn out to be a narrow but walkable ledge leading onto the easy ridgeline above.
That ridge continues as a fine high-level walk, with stony slopes on the right flank and vertical drops on the left. There’s an intermittent small path marked with cairns. The ridgeline rises over a fine triangular peak, with a rocky and exposed crest but easy ground a few steps down to the right. The contours on my map don’t name or even show the triangular summit.
After the next col the ridge gets wider, with outcrops and hollows, so it could be a bit awkward in cloud. After a couple of hours, there’s a dip in the ridge, a little stone hut and its blue-green tarn down on the left. And ahead, a small path leads up slaty slopes of the last of the 3000s, Cerro del Caballo. A whole herd of mountain rebec are lounging about here, ready to form decorative foreground for photos looking back along the ranges.
It was too early to overnight at the hut below, and anyway it seemed more natural to continue across the summit. (I had been hoping fellow residents might drop hints on the path down to Lanjaron. But the rebecs have even worse Spanish than I do… ) Rounded gravel ridges run down to the good path alongside the ruined Lanjaron hut. The good path spirals down around a hollow, then zigzags downhill, and abruptly becomes not-good as it contours across the top of a slope of screes, stones and dirt, keeping along the foot of more craggy ground above. The path here even the rebec may find a bit minimal, presumably recreating itself each spring after the snows.
Eventually the path and I reach slopes browny-green with dwarf broom. Here the path is clear, slanting very gradually downhill along the flank of the Loma de Lanjaron.
With a few modern distractions, such as aqueducts, the path runs roughly where the map says it should, down to Refugio Ventura. The path passes above the hut, which has no door and a cracked roof but appears rainproof. It better be, as about 20 young folk with big backpacks are clearly planning to lie around in it giggling and whispering until the small hours of the morning. Stopping would make sense, for a half day of further descent and no hurries over buses at the bottom. But last night already revealed that whispering in Spanish is an uninteresting way of staying awake, and I carry on down towards the treeline.
The path is now much clearer, and is occasionally marked by milestone (or gravestone) like slabs of schist alongside it. After some zigzags it meets the top of a wandering track. But there’s an older and nicer path, not marked on maps, and in the guidebook in uphill direction only and including, at the top of some rather rambling route description, the ominous ‘the next section is navigationally the most difficult’. Knowing it existed, I aimed in its general direction – and by happy chance plus a couple of signposts, hit it off.
Another gravestone marker points a sidepath down to a white building with corrugated roof. It labels itself as the Casa de Tello. Casa de Tello appears in my (uphill only) route description – and even on my map, no more than a kilometre downhill from the very place where I now stand. (The actual Casa de Tello is on the map as a square dot named ‘El Vadillo’. It is a staging post on the GR path, but locked up with no indoor accommodation. There is a welcome water trough.)
A signpost indicates the stony path continuing downhill for Lanjaron, with steep zigzags to a wooden footbridge over Rio de Lanjaron.
Just to counter any complacency the path turns uphill and upvalley, but soon curves back above a house. This is the old Camino de la Sierra, and as you descend you’ll find stretches of pitched stonework in it. It runs down to left of the river all the way, along the rim of the river’s gorge hollow, and is the closest path to the river, so if in doubt fork right. At 1300m level you cross a main aqueduct, Acequia Mesquerina, with an interpretation board explaining it all in Spanish.
At 2km short of Lanjaron (the distance is on the fallen-over signpost), the path joins a driveway track; then runs out as terraced path across a steep craggy slope – Lanjaron now in sight down ahead. Don’t take a path turning back down right to a chained gate; but at the next junction, keep ahead. After 1500m descended on serpentine wiggly ways that go gently uphill as often as not, the path now hits the tired bootsoles with some steep, pitched zigzags.
But steep zigzags eventually reach a lane where one hopes the evening pushchairs have good emergency breaks on them. And the lane leads to the bridge at the eastern edge of Lanjaron. Here is a fuente or water trough, where you can wash and drink – simply elbow aside the various small dogs.
The first bus stop on the right gets you to Granada: the bar opposite is full of expat Brits. ‘You look shattered,” they tell me kindly. But the four Spaniards down off the Sierra never found the dog-bowl fuente, and are scruffier even than I am. The bus is air conditioned even: and high above the craglets and limestone gorges and (eventually) Granada high-rise, the snowy tops look a long, long way up and above.
They look different when you’ve been there!
Much extremely useful information (and pictures) on the Sierra Nevada and the 3000s ridgeline is at this website www.spanishhighs.co.uk. This Lanjaron based company offers guided walks and climbs throughout the range and nearby.
Another ‘Ruta Integral’ blog is on Chiz Dakin’s website.
I intend shortly to add a route description for the 3000s walk.
Link to my route guide here . You’ll need to write this in the box: AlcAzAbA .