Via Verde - Sierra Nevada
On the edge of the Sierra Nevada National Park is a 6km-long vía verde (greenway) that follows an old railway line along the lush valley of the Genil river, between Güéjar-Sierra, 15km southeast of Granada city, and the Barranco de San Juan to the east.
Walkers can use the entire length, but horseriders and cyclists can only use the last 3km, between Maitena and San Juan. The route is unsuitable for wheelchair users. Apart from 1km between Maitena and El Charcón that is surfaced, the route consists of a dirt track. Take a swimsuit if it's hot weather, since you can take a dip in the river Genil that runs alongside the greenway.
South of Güéjar-Sierra is a reservoir, the Embalse de Canales, whose creation unfortunately submerged a significant section of the railway, a stretch that used to be one of the most spectacular in Spain. The railway used to begin in Granada city, passing through Pinos Genil, where there is now a restored station.
The tracks then followed the Genil river, parallel to the road that today runs to an abandoned hydroelectric power station in Canales. From the power station you can see the old route of the railway line, carved out dramatically of a near-vertical hillside and going through tunnels and over bridges. A few kilometres later the tracks - and more impressive tunnels and bridges, as well as Canales village and its station - are submerged underwater for the 5km stretch of reservoir.
When engineers were constructing this part of the track, they discovered a magnificent cave, known as the Cueva del Diablo, full of stalagtites and stalagmites. This saved them from digging a tunnel in this section and incredibly, the train passed through the cave. Sadly, this was also submerged by the reservoir. So that the water would not flood the cave, concrete was used to block the entrances and today there is only photographic evidence of the cave's existence.
The vía verde begins in Güéjar-Sierra, a pretty mountain village with an incredible profusion of plant-filled balconies and flower beds, which are made from the railway sleepers salvaged from the old train track. Follow the signposts from the village down a steep track to the vía verde, next to the river. The right-hand track leads to the reservoir; turn left on to the greenway to the Barranco de San Juan.
The first part of the route is beautifully shaded, as the track goes through a tunnel of trees that grow on either side of the river. The river with its numerous pools is great for a swim if it's warm enough. A little further on the greenway starts to rise above the river and the valley narrows, with some dramatically steep drops down to the Genil in places. You can see retaining walls of slate below and some of the rails still on the ground.
At Km 1 is the first viaduct, which crosses a tributary of the Genil. Like the bridges that were submerged by the reservoir, this one is extremely narrow at only around 1m wide. Soon after is the first, short tunnel and then the route continues through the narrow, steep-sided valley until the Maitena station at Km 2.5. With its bar and shady terrace, this is an excellent stopping place and you can also climb down to the river to cool off in the water.
From here onwards the route is still narrow but in much better condition. However, this also means that there are more vehicles using it, especially at weekends and in holiday periods when people come to the restaurants along the rest of the route. So look out for cars, particularly in the five remaining tunnels on the route.
Leaving the station behind, you cross a bridge that dates from the 1940s, constructed after the first bridges on the route since this part was added later on, when the line was extended to the Barranco de San Juan.
Just in front of the tunnel at Km 4 the main surfaced road turns off to the right. If you follow this road - from which there are superb views across to the Sierra Nevada - you arrive at the park information office around 2km further on.
After the tunnel is the small station of El Charcón and a new restaurant, while opposite is another restaurant, which was built around the same time as the station. Another tunnel leads you away from El Charcón and into an increasingly rugged landscape. There are more restaurants along this stretch and at Km 5 you cross the Puente de los Romeros over the river.
At Km 5.3 is another bridge, from where you can see on the opposite bank an old mule track to what used to be the mines at Barranco de San Juan and Barranco de la Estrella where serpentine was extracted. Along the next stretch there are increasing numbers of sweet chestnut and walnut trees as the valley narrows again, through steep-sided cuttings hewn out of the rock.
At Km 6 is the site of the Barranco de San Juan station but there is nothing left of the building.