9 August 2018.
Carved dramatically through the Picos de Europa mountains of northern Spain lies the chiselled ochre cliffs of the Garganta del Cares, the Cares Gorge, one of the Asturias region’s most striking features and an incredible place for a hike.
Hugging the cliff’s edge above the gurgling Rio Cares, the rocky trail meanders between austere peaks and barren slopes before funnelling you deep into the belly of the canyon, an oasis of deep green foliage and tangled vines.
As one of the easier hikes in the Picos de Europa and one of few that can be managed in just one day, the Cares Gorge hike is arguably the most popular in the region, and with good reason. Here’s how to plan your hike along the Cares Gorge, where to stay and our top tips for your trip.
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The Cares Gorge hike is a relatively easy 12-kilometre trail starting in Poncebos and ending in Cain, or vice versa.
Beginning with a steep uphill climb from Poncebos, the path weaves higher toward the wide entrance of the gorge. Spindly trees cling tightly to rubbly slopes, abandoned terracotta huts dot the mountainside and goats munch away unfazed on the edge of impossibly steep cliffs.
If you’re lucky, the cold morning air may even paint the valley with a mysterious blanket of mist.
Onwards, the canyon walls draw closer together and the path levels out, teetering high above the glittering river before reaching the gentle downward stretch toward Cain.
This narrow section is perhaps the most beautiful of the hike where cool air sweeps up from below and dewy leaves dress the gorge walls, the dusty trail replaced with dark tunnels carved into the cliff face, muddy puddles and creaking bridges that crisscross the river.
Arriving in Cain, you’re greeted with a number of small restaurants and shops for you to refuel before the return journey.
Hiking one way takes around 3 hours including breaks for photos and snacks.
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Though we and many others chose to hike the Cares Gorge both ways, it’s certainly not the only option. Depending on your time and budget, these are the alternatives for making the return journey.
Hike The Cares Gorge Both Ways | Generally the most popular option for hikers, the return trip can be done in around 6 hours including a break in Cain (or Poncebos) for a picnic lunch. Though you’re following the exact trail both ways, it’s quite beautiful to see the gorge from the other direction and takes about the same time as driving back to where you started.
Take The Bus (Summer Only) | As we visited in April, there was no bus to speak of, but according to Spanish bus company, Alsa‘s website, limited buses do run during the summer months to help alleviate traffic on the narrow mountain roads. There are two to three daily services between Cangas de Onis and Cain, taking nearly 2 hours and costing €8. For the other direction, regular services travel between Cangas de Onis and Arenas de Cabrales, while just a few continue on to Poncebos.
Search the summer bus timetable here.
Take A Taxi | Particularly in high season, taxis wait around at both ends of the trail for hikers who don’t wish to make the return journey on foot. Prices are rumoured to be around €120 from Cain so try to find other people to share the cost with. From the Poncebos side, you can also take a taxi for around €10 to Arenas de Cabrales from where you can catch a bus to Cangas de Onis during the summer months.
Join A Hiking Tour | If you’re travelling outside of peak season and not with your own transport, joining a tour may be your best option. Numerous operators organise hiking trips to the Cares Gorge from Cangas de Onis, dropping you at either Cain or Poncebos and picking you up at the other end a few hours later. Prices start at around €25 per person depending on group size and often require a minimum of 4 people.
Explore the Picos de Europa by Car | Outside of high season, there is very little public transport in this part of the Picos de Europe so hiring a car is often the easiest option for accessing the hiking trails and exploring the many beautiful sights of the region. During the busy summer months though, daytime traffic is restricted in some areas, including between Poncebos and Arenas de Cabrales.
Depending on where you arrive, car rental in Spain is generally very affordable often costing less than €20 per day for a small car and full insurance. Oviedo and Santander, both within a 2-hour drive of the Picos, are excellent pickup points.
Where you stay to hike the Cares Gorge will really depend on what mode of transport you are travelling with and what else you plan to do in the area. As we were keen to see the Naranjo de Bulnes as well as the Cares Gorge, Poncebos made a perfect choice.
We stayed at Hostal Poncebos, a cosy guesthouse with a beautiful setting right beside the Rio Cares between the soaring mountains. As virtually the only accommodation option in Poncebos, it’s a perfect place to use as a base for hiking in the region. The hearty menu del dia dinner option from the onsite restaurant is also excellent value, including copious amounts of food and wine, for a much-needed feast after a day in the mountains.
In high season, prices are wildly inflated but rooms do book up quickly so be sure to reserve in advance.
If Poncebos is full, nearby Arenas de Cabrales has a number of excellent options as well, though of course, they are not as convenient for accessing the hiking trails. Check rates and availability in Arenas de Cabrales here.
Alternatively, if you’re not travelling by car, Cangas de Onis is your best bet for accommodation. This buzzing resort town has the best access to public transport and tour operators and if you’re visiting in the summer months, this is an excellent place to use as a base.
Get An Early Start | As one of the most popular hikes in the Picos de Europa, and the most beautiful, the trail understandably becomes quite crowded as the day goes on, particularly in summer. Try to get an early start and you may very well have the gorge to yourself for a few hours. Starting early also means you can enjoy the cool morning shade the cliffs afford for as long as possible.
Mind The Vertigo | If you have a fear of heights, some parts of the Cares Gorge hike may make you a little uneasy. At times the rocky trail hugs tightly to the sheer cliff line with no barrier to block the long way down.
Visit Out Of Season | Unsurprisingly, the Picos make a perfect summer destination and are quickly becoming a favourite choice for outdoorsy Spaniards and Europeans looking for an alternative to the Alps. By visiting during spring or autumn instead of summer, you’ll enjoy the milder temperatures when the colours blush vibrant green or orange, the prices are cheaper and the crowds non-existent.
Use A Base To Explore Even Further | Whether you’re staying in Poncebos, Cangas de Onis or even Potes on the opposite side of the national park, there are hundreds of hiking trails, spectacular viewpoints and hidden natural spots to explore. Choose a base for your trip and take the time to explore the beautiful Picos area – with just 3 days here, we wished we had not left quite so soon.
Bring Plenty Of Water, Snacks And Wet Weather Gear | As always when hiking in the mountains, it pays to be prepared. The Picos de Europa experience a lot of rain, but they can also be stiflingly hot. Bring enough water to last for the return journey, some snacks to keep you energized and a decent jacket in case a storm catches you off guard.