Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park
With a total surface area of 209,920ha and covering almost a fifth of Jaen province, this is Spain's largest protected area and one its most extensive forested zones. Located in eastern Jaen province, it connects the Sierra Morena and the Subbética mountain ranges. The highest peak in this immense park is Pico Empanada at 2,107m and the entire park is higher than 600m.
Recognizing its exceptional ecological importance, it was designated a Unesco biosphere reserve in 1983 and created a natural park in 1989. First impressions of the park may consist of barren rocky crests and vast pine forests, but the area's botanical importance within Andalucia is matched only by the Sierra Nevada, with a fifth of the vascular plants in the Iberian peninsula being found in the Sierra de Cazorla Natural Park. It is also home to 51 species of mammals, 185 birds, 21 reptiles (including an endemic lizard), 12 amphibians, 11 fish and one of the highest number of butterfly species in the Iberian peninsula, with 112 varieties found here.
Two of the Iberian peninsula's most important rivers, the great Río Guadalquivir and the Segura, have their sources in the Sierra de Cazorla, amid some of the wildest landscape in Spain.
Innumerable brooks and rivulets tumble sometimes torrentially from the sides of this mountain enclave, creating some magnificent waterfalls, like those of the Salto de los Órganos and the Cascada de Linarejos, and sheer-sided gorges, such as the Cerrada de Utrero and the Cerrada de la Canaliega. Many lakes and reservoirs are dotted around the park; by far the largest is the Embalse de Tranco, fed by the infant Guadalquivir and its tributaries.
This is a fine camping and hiking area. You can wake up in the middle of the night to the sound (and smell) of boars snuffling around outside. This is also the spot where you are most likely to discover a herd of red deer in the undergrowth. They're not tame and will turn tail at your approach, but encounters are frequent.
The Sierra de Cazorla offers a wealth of activities; you can do hiking, horse treks, mountain biking expeditions, four-wheel drive tours, canoeing, fishing, paragliding, hang-gliding, mountaineering, climbing and caving.
Geologically, the Sierra is composed of hard limestone, beneath which lies a softer layer of clays and red sands; they can be seen in cross-section in some of the largest gorges. Its sheltered position between the Montes Universales and the Sierra Nevada means that it was ideally situated to provide a refuge for high altitude plants during the tremendous climatic changes in the Ice Age.
Consequently, these mountains contain a number of Tertiary relict species not found anywhere else in the world. Viola cazorlensis, a shrubby violet with unusual deep crimson or carmine flowers and very long slender spurs, is one of the most interesting. Found in remote areas hidden in the depths of shady rock crevices, it flowers in May; its nearest living relatives are found as far away as Mount Olympus in Greece and Montenegro. Another of these relict species is the insectivorous butterwort Pinguicula vallisneriifolia.
The climate is extremely changeable. There is plenty of rainfall in this part of Andalucia; the park receives an annual average of 770mm. The intense summer heat frequently causes dramatic electrical storms that often lead to major forest fires. In summer 2005 around 5,000ha of woodland were destroyed by a series of fires caused by lightning. Snow and frost are common in winter and below-zero temperatures can persist until late May.
The summer thunderstorms hurl banks of dark clouds against the perpendicular walls of the high sierras. The mountains capture moisture from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and their effectiveness as a natural barrier is enforced by the thermal masses of warm air from the Levant which usually prevent the Atlantic clouds from moving further east; rain falls in sheets when warm air meets cold air above Cazorla. These periodic inundations are irregular and unpredictable.
There are two visitors' centres, both on the A319. These have some interesting exhibitions on the park's flora and fauna and can provide maps and information on walks and accommodation.
The main one is the Centro de Visitantes Torre del Vinagre at Km 18, housed in a former hunting lodge and around 30km northeast of Cazorla, 953 713 017. It's open 10am-2pm and 5pm-8pm every day in summer and Wednesday to Sunday in winter.
Further north is the Centro de Interpretación Fluvial Río Borosa, with an interesting exhibition about a typical river in the park showing its flora and fauna, along with an aquarium. It is near Torres de Albánchez at Km 47, 953 124 235. It's open daily in July and August (Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year) 10am-2pm. Opening times for the afternoon vary according to month: July and August 6pm-8pm, April to September 5pm-7pm and October to March 4pm-6pm.
The helpful tourist information office in Cazorla is at Paseo del Santo Cristo 17, just north of the Plaza de la Constitución, 953 710 102.
The park is easily accessible via the main A319 road that dissects the park north to south. There are other roads to choose from within the park, in various conditions, from dirt tracks passable with four-wheel drives only (particularly in winter) to paved minor roads suitable for all vehicles. Some roads may be impassable after snowfalls in winter. Bear in mind that the whole area is extremely busy with visitors during holiday periods - especially at Easter and in July and August - and at weekends.
The main gateway to the park is Cazorla, which is 45km east of Úbeda, although this route can get overcrowded at the busiest times. Other entry points are north from Úbeda along the N322 or, from the south, the A315 from Baza (but this route involves passing through Cazorla). The southern section is more touristy than the north.
Off road, the park is crisscrossed by dirt tracks and footpaths, although few walks are signposted.
Apart from Cazorla and La Iruela just outside the park's southwest border, there are loads of hotels and self-catering cottages within the park, particularly in Arroyo Frío in the southern Guadalquivir valley and around Coto Ríos further north. Make sure you book ahead in August. There is a youth hostel in Cazorla.
The luxurious Parador El Adelantado is situated in an attractive, remote spot in the heart of the park, 25km north of Cazorla town. Unfortunately, few rooms have windows looking out on the wonderful views around the hotel.
Within the park is a good choice of campsites, with lots of attractive places, often in a riverside position, tucked away in dense pine forests.
Camping Chopera de Coto Rios is, as its name suggests, located in a poplar grove near Coto Rios. A few kilometres from the Torre del Vinagre visitors' centre, it has plenty of shade, a swimming pool and a restaurant.
Camping Fuente La Canalica and Camping Río Molinos are the park's northernmost campsites, both southeast of Siles on the road to Las Acebeas. Both have swimming pools and Río Molinos rents bungalows.
Camping Rural Fuente La Pascuala is on the A319 at Km 55 near Coto Rios. It is set in poplar and pine trees on the Guadalquivir river, with a swimming pool.
Camping Rural El Robledo is 10 minutes' drive south of Segura de la Sierra on the Yelmo road. In a beautiful setting at the foot of the 1,809m Yelmo peak, you can pitch your tent beneath pine trees, or rent a wooden cabin. The campsite also has a good pool and restaurant.
Camping La Bolera is on the shores of a small reservoir, the Embalse de la Bolera, on the southermost edge of the park. Halfway between Pozo Alcón and Castril at Km 8, there is a campsite (with camping gear for hire) and bungalows.
Camping Garrote Gorde is a basic campsite on Calle Francisco Quevado in Segura de la Sierra. Camping Montillana is just outside Hornos on the A319 road towards Tranco at Km 78.5. It has a swimming pool and bicycle hire and horse riding are available.
Camping Puente de las Herrarías, at Km 2 on the Carretera del Nacimiento del Río Guadalquivir, is a complex with a hotel, wooden cabins and a shady campsite located by the side of the Guadalquivir river. Activities available include horse riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, archery and fishing.
Camping Rural Los Llanos de Arance is set in shady pine forest on the banks of the Guadalquivir, a great spot for swimming and fishing. Wooden cabins are available for rent. The campsite is just off the A319 at Km 53.8.
Just outside the park is Camping Cortijo San Isício, a small campsite within walkable distance (2km) southwest of Cazorla, off the road to Quesada. It has a pool and lots of shade.
Parque Cinegético Collado del Almendral- The main route into the park is through Cazorla town and La Iruela. Before heading into the park, it's worth having a stroll around Cazorla's attractive centre, its beautiful main square, the Plaza de Santa María and the Castillo de la Yedra, the Moorish castle on top of a rocky slope that overlooks the town. Another castle, although more ruined than that of Cazorla, is 2km away in La Iruela, perched precariously in an impressive position atop a rocky pinnacle.
From La Iruela there are two options. Either head north towards Burunchel where the road climbs over the Sierra de Segura via the mountain pass of the Puerta de las Palomas, stopping at the mirador for the magnificent views down the Guadalquivir valley.
Or turn south towards El Chorro, following the signs to La Cañada de la Fuente to see the source of the Guadalquivir river. You can then turn north to join up with the A319 along the Guadalquivir valley.
Whichever route you choose, from El Valle the road threads its way through the beautiful wooded, narrow Guadalquivir valley. The tiny village of Arroyo Frio has some accommodation options and restaurants. Nine kilometres later is the Torre del Vinagre visitors' centre, with a hunting museum and a botanical garden alongside, where you can find out more about the park.
Further on is the long Embalse de Tranco, Jaen's largest reservoir and one of the biggest in Andalucia; an excellent spot for a picnic and a dip if it's warm enough.
Hugging the reservoir, the road continues north towards the small village of Coto Rios, which has a beach on the Guadalquivir river and several campsites. Seven kilometres further is the game park Parque Cinegético Collado del Almendral. Just past the game park look out for the Bujaraiza island, with its ruined castle, in the reservoir. Bujaraiza is the name of the village that was submerged when the reservoir was created. The best place to stop and view the lake is the Mirador de Rodríguez de la Fuente, with great views of the reservoir's islands and the Yelmo peak beyond. Tranco is the next small village before you leave the reservoir behind and the hilltop village of Hornos appears on the horizon. It's worth a stop to enjoy the spectacular views over the Tranco reservoir and the village's pretty narrow streets.
About 5km north of Hornos is Cortijos Nuevos; turn right here to ascend the peak of Yelmo (1,809m). You can drive all the way up or walk to the top, for magnificent panoramic views of the park.
Over 200 caves have been catalogued in the park and speleology is a popular activity.
Cueva del Agua is just outside Tíscar on the A315 at Km 47, halfway between Pozo Alcón and Quesada. To reach the cave you have to go through a tunnel, 10m long and 1m high. The Cueva del Agua lives up to its name (the Cave of Water), since it is close to the source of the Tíscar river, which tumbles down, sometimes turbulently, over the limestone rocks and has formed magnificent waterfalls over the steepest drops. Occasional music concerts are held in the cave, to take advantage of its superb natural acoustics. The cave is also known as the Cueva del Virgen de Tíscar, after the village's saint that allegedly appeared here before Tíscar's Moorish ruler in 1319.
Cueva del Peinero, near Villacarrillo in the Sierra de las Villas, is located in a beautiful, remote steep-sided valley, next to a picnic area and a mountain refuge, surrounded by woodland ash trees, maples and gall oaks. To get there, go to Chilluévar and drive north to the Embalse de Aguacebas and La Fresnedilla.
Sierra de Quesada, near the town of the same name, is one of Andalucia's most important areas of prehistoric cave paintings, which can be found in the Abrigo del Cerro de Vitar, south of the town. Also in this Sierra are the Cueva de Encarejo and the Cueva de Hiedra.
The park contains around 1,300 species of plants, but you don't need to be a botanist to enjoy the immense forests of tall pines that reach up to 20m in height, the sweet-scented profusion of thyme, rosemary, marjoram and lavender and the brightly coloured wildflowers, such as peonies, gladioli and orchids. The most outstanding areas of the park for flora are the Sierra de las Empanandas, the Sierra de las Cabrillas, the Sierra del Pozo and the Sierra de Segura.
There are 24 native flora here. Two endemic species of daffodil thrive in these mountains: narcissus longispathus and n. hedaenthus. The latter is a tiny hoop-petticoat daffodil, the smallest narcissus in the Iberian peninsula, which is found in early May in snow melt areas high in the mountains.
Pines have been the predominant vegetation in this area for over 10,000 years and the park has some of the oldest pines still standing in Spain. In the Sierra de Cazorla, for example, there are nearly 100 laricio pines that are estimated to be over 1,300 years old. Also in this sierra is the mighty Pino Galapán, which is 35m high and measures 5m around its trunk.
Very little of the native Mediterranean woodland remains, having been replanted largely with pine trees. Some holm oak woodland is left, along with small areas of gall oaks and the Mediterranean scrubland that has managed to survive beneath the pine trees. However, there are a few examples of centuries-old Mediterranean trees, mainly holm oaks and gall oaks, in the Sierra de Segura.
Above the treeline at 1,300m are many sheer rocky cliffs and peaks that appear to be barren, but are in fact the park's richest areas for endemic and rare plant species. On limestone slopes are the blue columbine aquilegia pyrenaica ssp. cazorlensis, which is only found around the summit of Pico de Cabañas (2,036m) and flowers in early June; the toadflaxes linaria lilacina and linaria verticillata; fairy foxglove (erinus alpinus) and sarcocapnos baetica.
On north-facing slopes are some interesting examples of butterworts, like the renowned but rare flycatcher pinguicula vallisnerifolia, which is found in a highly specialised habitat under towering limestone cliffs drenched in continually dripping water and totally out of reach of the rays of the sun. Other plants growing on these damp, cool slopes are anthyllis ramburii, the saxifrages saxifraga camposii and saxifraga rigoi and the bell-shaped campanula mollis.
An endemic tree species found above 1,300m is laricio pine, which flourishes on high mountain slopes. Also at this altitude are hardy shrubs like hedgehog broom (erinacea anthyllis) and echinospartium boissieri, as well as savin and common junipers (juniperus sabina, j. communis), dog roses (rosa canina), the endemic milk vetch astralagus giennensis, genista lobelii, various species of sandwort (arenaria tetraquetra, a.armerina, a.alfacariensis), Spanish barberries (berberis hispanica) and a honeysuckle endemic to the Iberian peninsula that grows as a small tree (lonicera arborea).
Known locally as navas, the high valleys are covered with grasses and wildflowers, ideal fodder for the red deer that graze here. Some of the mountain tops are treeless, partly due to natural causes, but also because overgrazing has tipped the ecological balance in favour of low-growing shrubs rather than trees. Here, too, snowy mespilus and Montpellier maple flourish alongside heather and the rock rose helianthemum croceum.
Between 1,300m and 1,00m are maritime pines (pinus pinaster), with an undergrowth of terebinth (pistacia terebinthus), maples (acer granatense, a. monospessulanum), Phoenician juniper (juniperus phoenicea), prickly juniper (juniperus oxycedrus) and aromatic plants like lavender (lavandula latifolia), thyme (thymus zygis) and marjoram (thymus mastichina).
In the more humid areas at this altitude are maples, gall oaks (quercus faginea), yew (taxus baccata), St Lucie cherry trees (prunus mahaleb) and, between rocky, wet areas, box (buxus semprevivens). Hellebores and peonies also grow profusely in these conditions.
Below 1,000m are forests of Aleppo pines, which are interspersed with Kermes oak (quercus coccifera), lentisc (pistacia lentiscus), laurestinus (viburnum tinus) and rock roses. The damper areas have climbing plants like various species of honeysuckle (lonicera splendida, l. implexa) and clematis.
Along the banks of the streams are verdant tunnels of flowers, grasses, ferns and shrubs. Rivers are lined with reeds, rushes, poplars, ash trees, willows and climbing honeysuckle, clematis and brambles, an often dense vegetation that provides food and nesting sites for aquatic birds and small mammals like otters. At the Madera river east of Hornos is a dense forest of laricio pines, as well as the beeches, poplars, oaks and pine trees that line its banks.
Although one of the park's major attractions is its abundant and varied wildlife, human intervention has meant that some of the mammals that used to roam these mountains have disappeared from the region. Bears were the first to become extinct, in the 17th century, followed much later by wolves in the 1920s. Game species like deer and wild boar died out here in the 1950s, prompting the creation of a 70,000ha national hunting reserve in 1960, with the re-introduction of these together with the mouflon, a wild sheep with striking overlarge horns.On the highest rocky slopes are Spanish ibex.
Deer watching is easy. If you visit in September or early October you can observe the extraordinary spectacle of the berrea, when the stags stake out both their territorial claims and their harems. Tilting back their heads so that their antlers rest on their backs, they bay to the winds to attract any females within earshot. Sometimes their cry is answered by a challenge and there then follows fierce butting and crashing of antlers until the weaker male gives way.
The animals to be culled are picked very carefully and the effect is virtually that of an integral protected zone. The red deer and roe deer are not easily intimidated by the presence of human intruders. Their visibility varies, however, according to the season. During the summer, when the days get very hot, especially in the rocky and treeless areas, the animals come out only at night, so you may catch a glimpse of them in the evening or early dawn. In winter their habits change and with a reasonable amount of discretion you can come close to them before they run off.
Many of the 29 species of raptors can be seen frequently, soaring on thermals high above the mountain peaks. These include griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures, short-toed eagles, booted eagles, Bonelli's eagles, golden eagles, red kites, kestrels, goshawks, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons. Nocturnal predators include the scops owl, tawny owl and eagle owl.
There are rare sightings of the famous lammergeier, with its immense wing span, which is memorably called quebrantahuesos in Spanish, or bone breaker, due to its habit of dropping its prey down to rocks from a great height to break their bones. It used to breed here but no longer does. It is the only place in Spain outside the Pyrenees where it can still be seen, although efforts are being made to re-introduce it as a nesting species within the park, with the creation of a breeding programme based at the Centro de Cria Guadalentin. You can find out more at the quebrantahuesos information centre in the Plaza de Santa María, in Cazorla.
The park has an important population of birds commonly found in pine forests, such as coal tits, great tits, crested tits, firecrests, azure-winged magpies, white wagtails and green woodpeckers. In the Mediterranean woodland of holm and gall oaks and maples are long-tailed tits, robins, short-toed treecreepers, wrens and blackbirds, which in winter are joined by blackcaps and song thrushes. Above the treeline and on rocky slopes are rock thrushes, blue rock thrushes, red-billed choughs and alpine accentors.
Among the predatory mammals inhabiting the woodland areas are the fox, genet, stone marten, wild cat, badger, polecat and weasel. A subspecies of the common squirrel is endemic to the park and inhabits the Sierra de Segura. A third of the mammal species found in the park are bats.
Reptiles include nine species of snakes, as well the Valverde lizard, otherwise known as the Spanish algyroides, which is endemic to the park and lives in humid, rocky areas.
The many rivers and streams and their banks are havens for wildlife, like rainbow and common trout, carp, barbel, black perch, otters, frogs, toads and various species of duck, dippers and kingfishers. Riverside woods are inhabited by nightingales and golden orioles. On the park's reservoirs are coots, moorhens, mallards, grey herons and grebes.
Look out for butterflies in spring and early summer, particularly the Spanish Argus and the mother-of-pearl blue. Many species are endemic, like the rare zygaena ignifera.
With two of Spain's most important rivers, the Guadalquivir, which carries its water 700km from the sierras to the Atlantic, and the Segura, which leads to the Mediterranean, the park constitutes one of the country's most significant hydrological areas.
Virtually all the water courses rush to join the Guadalquivir (except the waters of the nascent Río Guadalentin which eventually flows into the Guadiana Menor). Beside the main valley of the Gudalquivir, the park comprises several adjacent valleys, such as that of Guadalentin and the gorges of Borosa and Aguamala; dramatic narrow cuts in the landscape with steep slopes covered in bushes and pine trees, and high mountain meadows full of succulent grasses and wild flowers - rich pastureland for herds of sheep.
From the Guadalquivir's source in the Cañada de las Fuentes the resulting stream flows confidently north and east, as if it were going to make its way to the Mediterranean. But the mountains will not let it pass; it meets the Sierra de Segura head on and is forced to make a dramatic change of course, curving suddenly westward to begin its long run down to the Atlantic and the marismas of the Coto Doñana.
At the start of its long march to the sea, the Guadalquivir gives its name to a valley bounded by the sierras of Cazorla, Segura del Pozo and de la Cabrilla; it goes on widening its V-shape towards the south east, confined by a series of peaks that are over 2,000m high.
Things to see
Museo de Caza is a museum devoted to hunting, one of the most popular activities here. Located next door to the Torre de Vinagre visitors' centre, it displays stuffed examples of the park's wildlife as well as an array of antlers.
Jardín Botánico is a botanical garden next to the Torre de Vinagre visitors' centre showing the park's plant life grouped according to the altitude at which they are found, with a section of flora endemic to the park. A impressive total of 300 species are represented here. The park's second, and smaller, botanical garden is in Siles in the north.
Parque Cinegético Collado del Almendral is a game park where you can try and spot mouflon, Spanish ibex, wild boar and deer from the viewpoints on the circular footpath that leads from the car park. The park is on the A319 around 7km north of Coto Ríos.
Embalse de Tranco is a long reservoir in the park's centre, where you can do a variety of (non-motorised) watersports and have a swim or a picnic. There is a small village, Tranco, on its shores with several bars, restaurants and places to stay, some with good views over the reservoir.
Castles in the area include the remains of the Castillo de San Miguel de Bujaraiza, which you can see on the island in the middle of the Tranco reservoir and the castles in Cazorla and Tíscar. Segura de la Sierra is the most dramatically positioned village, its whitewashed houses huddled around a hill, topped by a heavily restored castle.
Hornos counts as one of the park's most spectacularly sited villages, along with Segura de la Sierra. It is perched on a rocky crag with a ruined castle and has some superb views over the Tranco reservoir.
The park is superb hiking country with a myriad of tracks and footpaths over a wide variety of landscape but only seven walks are signposted. So make sure you have a detailed map with you before you set off; maps and details of walks (some in English) are available from the Cazorla tourist office or the visitors' centres. Remember that in winter it may be very cold and snowy and that in summer it can get uncomfortably hot to walk after midday.
Sendero Río Borosa is the park's most well-known route through a spectacular gorge hewn out by the Borosa river, passing waterfalls on the way upstream to two mountain lakes. It starts at the Torre de Vinagre visitors' centre and takes around seven hours to do the 19km round trip.
From the centre follow the signs to the Central Eléctrica, the electricity station, cross the river and park just before the trout farm (piscifactoría). Walk past the fish farm and you'll see the signpost marking the beginning of the walk. Go over the bridge to reach the riverside path, which crosses the river at several points via bridges. Where the path forks, take the right turn signposted Cerrada de Elías, which leads into a narrow gorge (cerrada) and includes a boardwalk section above the river.
Then you come to the Central Eléctrica and a bit further along, the path goes through a few tunnels leading to two small reservoirs, the Laguna de Aguas Negras and the Laguna de Valdeazores.
Sendero Cerrada de Utrero, one of the park's most popular routes, is an easy 2km circular walk through a gorge to a beautiful waterfall. It starts at the Cruce del Vadillo east of Cazorla, where you can park. Head to the bridge and before crossing it, take a left to follow the river gorge, the Cerrada de Utrero. At the end of the gorge is a small dam and reservoir, along with a hydroelectric power station, which provides electricity for the local population. After the reservoir is a waterfall, the Cascada de Linarejos.
See also Guy Hunter-Watts' description of the Walk of the Thirsty Bear, which starts at the Puente de las Herrarias and ends in Cazorla village.
Santiago de la Espada
Segura de la Sierra
Torres de Albánchez