Sierra Norte de Sevilla Natural Park
The central section of the immense Sierra Morena is made up of the extensive and sparsely populated Sierra Norte de Sevilla Natural Park, a landscape of gently rolling hills clad in dense evergreen oaks. It's similar to the adjacent natural parks of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche and Hornachuelos, in the provinces of Huelva and Cordoba respectively. Few foreign tourists make it up here, although it's popular with Sevillanos who travel the 90 km north from the city at weekends and holidays. It is one of Andalucia's largest protected areas, covering 177,484 ha.
Villages and towns are few, but pretty, with a distinctively Moorish feel about their steep, cobbled streets that often lead up to a hilltop castle or Mudéjar church.
The village names indicate the region's mining history, like Villanueva del Río y Las Minas just south of the park where the mines (minas) consisted of a large coalfield. In Almadén de la Plata the Romans extracted silver (plata) and in the Cerro del Hierro there was an iron (hierro) mine.
Visit the tourist office in Seville on Avenida de la Constitución, or the park's visitors' centres.
El Robledo Botanical Garden, at Km 1 on the A-452 between Constantina and El Pedroso, (Open 10.00 to 14.00 Tue to Sun 955 889 593. In the grounds of the visitors' centre is a botanical garden, which has many of the plant species found in the park.
Cortijo Berrocal, Finca Las Navas in Berroca, visitors' centre is on the western edge of the park, 5km SE of Almadén de la Plata (leave village from Calle Palacios) and follow signs along country roads to GPS 37.8457536, -6.046328. (Open 10.00 to 15.00 Thur to Sunday in winter. Tel 955 952 049. There is also a picnic area, restaurant and the starting point of three walks. The centre has an exhibition on the park and can provide maps and details of walks and activities, like horse riding, trout fishing, bike hire and watersports, such as canoeing on El Pintado reservoir.
The park is in the north of Seville province and is easy to access. Within the park there is a network of minor roads, dirt tracks and footpaths, giving access by car and/or on foot.
It's worth travelling by train from Santa Justa station in Seville to enjoy the journey up to and through the Sierra Norte. The train stops at El Pedroso, Cazalla de la Sierra, Constantina and Guadalcanal.
The park's hotels are mainly in Cazalla de la Sierra and Constantina, although there are a few rural hotels in beautiful settings as well, like the Molino del Corcho, a former water mill on the banks of the Huéznar river. There is a youth hostel in Constantina.
Camping Batán de las Monjas is at Km 7 on the SE168 road between San Nicolás del Puerto and Cazalla and is near the Huéznar river.
Camping La Fundición is on the banks of the Huéznar river, 2km from the Cazalla-Constantina railway station. It has a swimming pool and restaurant-bar.
El Real de la Jara to Alanis
El Real de la Jara marks the beginning of the park, on its westernmost edge, with little to detain you except a restored castle and a curious natural science museum featuring stuffed animals.
From El Real de la Jara, the SE-177 heads south towards Almadén de la Plata. Turn left on to the SE-179, which zigszags up over some of the park's highest ground, past Padrona peak (910m), and through one of the wildest, most remote areas on the park's northern flank.
Stop at the Mirador La Padrona y Puerto Quejigo and Mirador Bajos de Jadraga on the way to soak up the view of adjacent Extremadura and the Embalse el Pintado, which straddles the border. It's worth stopping at the Pintado reservoir for a picnic and a swim, before heading 20km southeast along the river valley, through some spectacular landscape, to Cazalla de la Sierra.
Once past Cazalla, the landscape becomes more isolated and there is only the village of Alanis, with great views from its Medieval castle, to go through before Cordoba province.
El Pedroso-San Nicolás del Puerto-Cazalla de la Sierra-El Pedroso This circular route passes the Sierra's main towns and best known sights and natural features.
From the pretty village of El Pedroso, which has a Mudéjar church with some interesting religious sculpture, take the A452 towards Constantina, but you can make a diversion by taking the right turn to the Embalse de Huéznar. Just before you get to Constantina you can see the visitors' centre El Robledo and botanical garden to find out more about the park. After Constantina, head north on the A455 towards Cazalla and then turn right on the SE163 to San Nicolás del Puerto. Stop off at the El Cerro del Hierro Natural Monument, where there is a walk, the Sendero del Cerro del Hierro, which circles this distinctive so-called iron hill.
The road continues north; a few kilometres before San Nicolás del Puerto is a beautiful shaded area, around the source (nacimiemto) of the Huéznar river. Also near the village are the Cascadas del Huéznar, a series of waterfalls surrounded by a lush river vegetation.
Take the SE-163 south of San Nicolás del Puerto, which meets the A-455. Before turning right towards Cazalla de la Sierra, it's worth taking a minor detour by turning left, to stop at a leafy picnic area, Isla Margarita, with streams and waterfalls.
The A-455 goes north towards Cazalla de la Sierra, alongside an attractive stream. Three kilometres before Cazalla is a road off to the right-hand side, which leads to the impressive Cartuja de la Inmaculada, a former monastery that has been converted into an arts centre and hotel. Sample the renowned aniseed liquor in one of the bars lining the main square, Paseo del Carmen, in Cazalla de la Sierra.
From here take the A-450 south to El Pedroso
. You can take a detour on the edge of the village up a small road to the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora del Monte, a whitewashed hermitage in a beautiful wooded spot with superb views over the Huéznar river valley.
Cuevas de Santiago near Cazalla de la Sierra are a labyrinth of underground tunnels and caverns with six entrances, where prehistoric remains dating from the Paleolithic period have been discovered. A variety of bat species inhabits the caves.
Cueva de los Covaches in Almadén de la Plata are limestone caverns with impressive rock formations and are the second biggest in Sevilla province, located in a region of Roman quarries. It has been declared a site of cultural interest due to its Neolithic cave paintings and the discovery of Bronze Age artefacts.
Cork and holm oaks are the predominant trees, while the lower, shadier slopes are colonised by gall oaks and the only Pyrenean oak woodland in Seville province. Sweet chestnut groves can be found on the higher ground around Cazalla and Constantina. There is an attractive walk, the Sendero de los Castañares, through chestnut woodland near Constantina.
Along the rivers, particularly the Ribera del Huéznar, is some exceptional river woodland, composed of elms, ash, alders, poplars, willows and hazel nut trees.
A third of the park is taken up with dehesas, the traditional mixed pasture-and-woodland areas characteristic of the Sierra Morena, where farmers graze their animals - mainly black and brown Iberian pigs that eat the fallen acorns - and produce cork and charcoal. In recognition of these extensive dehesas, in 2002 the park became part of the Unesco biosphere reserve of Dehesas de la Sierra Morena.
There is a wealth of wild mushrooms in the Sierra, which are sold in bars throughout the area in the autumn.
The Huéznar river is rich in wildlife, such as the numerous otters and trout in its waters and birds nesting in the neighbouring trees.
Overhead you can see most frequently short-toed eagles and griffon vultures, but there is also the endangered black vulture, imperial eagle and black stork. Other birds of prey include red kites, Bonelli's eagles and eagle owls, while in the woodland areas you may see azure-winged magpies, golden orioles and hawfinches.
Wild boars are common, although not always visible since they tend to hide themselves in the most dense thickets; you're more likely to see deer. Other game hunted here are partridge and rabbit. Foxes, genets, Egyptian mongooses, badgers, polecats and wild cats all inhabit the Sierra, but the chances of seeing these are not great.
Bats inhabit the Cuevas de Santiago near Cazalla, while a rare and endangered species of bat, mehelys' horseshoe bat, can be found in the caves in the Cerro del Hierro.
There is a significant population of butterflies in the park, some of which are endangered.
The Huéznar river is the park's most important water course, with outstanding woodland on its banks. It is the only river in the Sierra Morena and Seville province with trout.
Draining the park along with the Huéznar are the Viar and the Retortillo rivers, all of which are tributaries of the Guadalqivir. These rivers have been dammed to create reservoirs in the park; the largest being the Embalse El Pintado, followed by the Embalse de Huéznar and the Embalse de Retortillo.
Things to see
Cazalla de la Sierra is a pretty town and the main centre of the park.
Constantina is the Sierra's largest town and has a ruined castle and Moorish narrow streets.
Huéznar waterfalls, near San Nicolás del Puerto, have been declared a natural monument, the Cascadas de Huéznar. The source of the Río Huéznar is also here; the river runs underground from Guadalcanal, before emerging at this point. The whole area around the source and the waterfalls is shaded by attractive woodland of poplars, ash trees and willows, so it's a relatively cool place for a picnic in summer.
La Travesia Necropolis dating from the Bronze Age has been recognized for its archaeological value and is located in Almadén de la Plata.
Cerro del Hierro is a rugged crest whose mines have been exploited for iron for centuries, hence its name, Iron Mountain. It has been designated a natural monument for its geological and historical value.
Cartuja de la Inmaculada is a restored 15th-century Carthusian monastery in a beautiful, tranquil setting about 4km northeast of Cazalla de la Sierra. It now houses a hotel, a contemporary art gallery and studios for resident artists.
Guadalcanal is a former mining settlement, with medieval walls, Mudéjar churches and a castle.
With its gentle gradients, ancient mule tracks and sense of away-from-it-all, the Sierra Norte is fine walking country. Visit the park's visitors' centres for maps and details of footpaths. Many routes are well-marked.
The 18km-long Vía Verde of the Huéznar River is a footpath and cycleway that was once a railway line used for transporting minerals from the iron mine of Cerro del Hierro to the Cazalla-Constantina train station.
Sendero de El Cerro del Hierro is a signposted 2½km walk that loops around a former iron mining area, through disused tunnels and a limestone landscape with some interesting rock formations. It is located just off the SE163 north of Constantina; the track off this road to the hill passes some houses, Las Casas de los Ingleses, which belonged to the British mining employees, where you can park. The start of the walk is signposted here.
Sendero Los Castañares is a two-hour easy circular walk of 7½km from Constantina through sweet chestnut groves (castañares) to a hilltop viewpoint before looping back to Constantina. This walk is especially beautiful in the autumn when the leaves change colour.
It starts at the end of Calle Venero (reached via the Alameda square in the town centre). Called Las Erillas after the farm to which it leads, the shady track climbs between stone walls, past woodland of elms, then groves of sweet chestnuts and olive tree. After the turning to Finca Las Erillas is an outstanding area of Pyrenean oaks, a protected tree species.
The path then goes through a sweet chestnut wood. After the Finca Cerro Gordo, it climbs again; this time to the highest point on the walk with magnificent panoramic views over the Sierra. The path then descends through more olive and sweet chestnuts plantations until it reaches the foot of the castle hill in Constantina. Here is a convenient fountain, where you can drink from before attempting the next ascent, up to the castle, which is worth the effort for the great views over the Sierra and Constantina.
Sendero Molino del Corcho is an easy 7km walk along the beautiful river valley of the Huéznar. The best time of year to appreciate the exceptional woodland on the river banks is autumn, when the colours of the leaves are spectacular, particularly against a background of bright blue sky. Take a picnic and, if it's warm enough, a swimming costume.
The walk starts in the Isla Margarita picnic area, 1km from the Cazalla-Constantina railway station, on the SE168. Walk along the road to Constantina then follow the path signposted 'Molino del Corcho', which leads to the river. Another pretty river walk is heading north from the railway station towards San Nicolás del Puerto.
Sendero La Capitana is one of the park's more challenging walks, of around 10km, which climbs the Sierra's highest peak of La Capitana, at 959m. It starts just outside Guadalcanal near the Ermita del Cristo. Look out for a forestry track leading to the left off the A447 to Llerena in Extremadura. The magnificent panoramic views are well worth the climb; you can see for miles around over the Sierra Morena and Extremadura.