Natural parks and protected environments

The beautiful Los Alcornocales natural park in the province of Cadiz. © Michelle Chaplow
The beautiful Los Alcornocales natural park in the province of Cadiz.

Natural parks and Protected Environments in Andalucia

Nearly a fifth of Andalucia is protected, the largest proportion of an autonomous region in Spain, reflecting the unspoilt nature of its countryside and the high ecological importance of its territory.

The environment department, the Consejería de Medio Ambiente, of the regional Andalucian government is in charge of overseeing the protected areas and has an office in each provincial capital which you can contact about obtaining permits to visit areas with restricted access or for free camping. Alternatively, national and natural parks also have a local headquarters, called the Oficina del Parque, based in the protected area that can also give advice.



National Parks

These are locations of outstanding importance for their wildlife and geology, with ecosystems that have been little altered by human activity. They have the highest degree of protection, sometimes with restricted access to certain areas within them.

There are three national parks in Andalucia: Doñana, Sierra Nevada and Sierra de las Nieves. Access to the practically all of the Doñana National Park is strictly by guided tour only; trips run from the main visitors' centre in El Acebuche (Huelva) and the tourist office in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, (Cadiz province). However, between El Rocío and Villamanrique de la Condesa there is a drovers' track (vía pecuaria) called the Raya Real, which gives access to the northern part of the park by non-motorised transport (horses, bicycles or on foot) only.

The entire Sierra Nevada National Park is open to the public, but many routes are for those on foot or bicycle only. Roads and tracks closed off by a chain or other barrier must only be used by hikers or cyclists and not motor vehicles. Cyclists are allowed to use all but the most narrow footpaths.

The Sierra de las Nieves National Park was declared 2021 having been upgraded froma natural park. Motorised access is permitted from the San Pedro-Ronda road and the perimiter villages (Tolox, El Burgo,Istán) as far as designated areas. .

Natural Parks

These make up the bulk of Andalucia's protected areas and demonstrate an enormous range of geology, climate and habitats, such as coastal dunes, beaches, semi-desert steppe, mountain forests, Mediterranean woodland, saltmarshes and marine zones. Park legislation is aimed at protected cultural and architectural traditions as well as the natural environment. Virtually all of the parks have unrestricted access, but a few may have areas where you need to obtain special permission before visiting them due to the risk of forest fire or disturbing nesting birds, as is the case with the reserve zone in the Sierra de Grazalema.


Natural Areas
These are areas, known technically in Andalucia as parajes naturales, that are protected due to their unique wildlife and landscape. Like natural parks, these vary greatly in geology, climate and habitats.

Nature Reserves
These are small enclaves aimed at conserving a fragile localised ecosystem, often within wetland habitats. They are called reservas naturales in Spanish. To enter a natural reserve special permission is usually required; contact the Junta de Andalucia Medio Ambiente (environment) office, which are based in each provincial capital.

Natural Monuments
These are a more recent addition to Andalucia's network of protected areas and are often a singular exceptional natural feature, such as a centuries-old tree, a distinctive rock formation or coastal feature.

World protected status

World Heritage Sites
Andalucia is home to six World Heritage Sites. Nature lovers shouldn't miss Doñana National Park (see above), a birdwatcher's paradise, while some outstanding examples of prehistoric cave art can be found in various locations around Granada, Almeria and Jaen provinces. Other unmissable attractions include the magnificent Moorish delights of Granada and Cordoba, Seville's cathedral, and Renaissance gems Ubeda and Baeza.

Unesco Biosphere
In addition to being a national or natural park, certain areas have been designated biospheres by the Unesco. Their ecosystems, landscapes or natural resources have an internationally recognised importance and require conservation measures and sustainable development to safeguard their exceptional biodiversity.  They  are meant to demonstrate a balanced relationship between man and nature (e.g. encourage sustainable development.The first one in Andalucia was the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, which was declared a biosphere in 1977. In 2010 there were 564 biosphere reserves in 109 countries. In Andalucia there are eight namely.

Ramsar is an international agreement that aims to protect wetland areas that have outstanding birdlife, such as the Salinas area in the Cabo de Gata Natural Park and the Laguna de Fuente Piedra Natural Reserve.

Within Spain, an area noted for its exceptional ornithological interest may be declared a special protected zone for birds, known as a Zona Especial de Protección de las Aves (ZEPA).

practical Facilities

Visitors' centres (centros de visitantes) can be found in all national and natural parks (which both often have more than one) and the more important natural areas like the Marismas de Odiel in Huelva province. They offer exhibitions, audio-visual displays and other information on a particular area, along with guidebooks, maps, leaflets and details of walks, accommodation and sports activities. They are run by helpful local staff who are happy to answer specific questions. Some information may be available in English.

Useful leaflets are the guías prácticas (practical guides), which typically consist of a map along wiith specific details of towns and villages and local flora and fauna. These leaflets are often available in English as well as Spanish.

The smaller visitors' centres have more restricted opening hours, often only Friday to Sunday. Centres in the larger or more popular protected areas are more likely to open from Tuesday to Sunday. Most open on public holidays. Generally, they open 10am-2pm and again in the afternoon, from 4pm-6pm in October-April and 6pm-8pm in May-September.

The network of visitors' centres is supplemented in the larger national and natural parks by information points (puntos de información). In some areas (such as those in the Sierra Nevada) these are staffed and open mainly at weekends; in others they are merely noticeboards that outline in some detail walking trails and other aspects of a particular area.

Footpaths (senderos) are frequently follow former drovers' routes that are common throughout Andalucia, are becoming increasingly well marked with information boards marking the beginning of a route and signposts along the way. Traditionally, routes were marked by rings or patches of paint on trees and rocks lining the routes, in colours according to the type of path, and many still have these.

Walks can be GR, gran recorrido or long distance, which can form part of a route that crosses Spain, or even Europe, in the case of the GR7. GR routes are often marked with red paint. PR routes are pequeño recorrido or short distance, and are marked as yellow.

It's well worth investing in a good topographical map before setting out. Visitors' centres can usually provide a general route map for either an entire protected area or for signposted individual walks.

Cycle tracks are specially designated route for cyclists. Known as a carril de cicloturismo, it is clearly signposted. Contact the visitors' centre or local tourist or park office for details. Many senderos (footpaths) can also be used by cyclists, except ones that are particularly narrow. Mountain bikes are increasingly available for hire.

Some protected areas may be traversed by a vía verde, a former railway line that has been converted into a cycleway and footpath, such as the one linking Laguna Honda Natural Reserve and the Laguna del Chinche Natural Reserve in Jaen province.

Recreation areas (áreas recreativas) are popular with city dwellers at weekends and holidays. They are typically in woodland areas or by a stream, river or lake and have picnic tables and benches, barbecue pits and a source of water.

Viewpoints (miradores) are in places noted for their panoramic views. There may be an information board and a seating area.

Observatories are very basic constructions designed for watching wildlife, usually on the banks of a lake or on the seashore.

Campsites are awarded one of three grades, with three-star campsites offering the most facilities. Many also have bungalows, chalets or woodens cabins to rent.

Áreas de acampada libre are places where free camping is permitted. Bring everything you need, like drinking water, food and camping equipment; the area may be near a stream or river for washing. Check with the local visitors' centre before you arrive, since some areas require special permission in advance from the nearest environment office. In certain places camping isn't allowed during the summer months due to the risk of forest fires.

In the Sierra Nevada National Park, you are allowed to camp to wherever you want for one night only, but you must contact the park office in Pinos Genil first, giving them details of when and where you want to camp (acampar) on an hoja de notificación (notification form). You can either ring the office on 958 026 300, or email, [email protected].

Refuges are mountain shelters (refugios) that offer dormitory accommodation with showers, bookable in advance for a small fee. A refugio vivac is a basic stone shelter that you can stay in for free and don't need to reserve in advance. Refuges are common in mountainous areas like the Sierra Nevada and Cazorla Natural Park, but check with the local visitors' centre or park office since not all of those marked on maps are permanently open.