The Alcornocales Natural Park provides some of the wildest and most beautiful scenery in Andalucia. It can be enjoyed by anybody from kids to grannies whether you prefer to drive, stroll or walk. This month's article allows you to choose.
Take the A7 to junction 110 signposted Jerez de la Frontera and travel up the new road for about 56 kilometres to the junction signposted Alcala de los Gazules (Oeste). This road takes you through the width of the park that starts just outside Los Barrios. As you drive along it you will see on your right, the massive chain of mountains that make up the heart of the park and through which this article guides you.
Alcala de los Gazules is a working white village wrapped around a buttress of rock with a castle on its summit dating back to the Muslim conquest. As you enter the village follow the signs for Ubrique. The road takes you around the town via a small square in which there are a number of restaurants and cafes. This village is just far enough from the regular tourist areas to give you a flavour of what Andalucia was like in pre-developer days. In 1984 the village was granted Historic Artistic status and it is worth parking near the square and just strolling the streets admiring the baroque and neoclassical architecture mixed with the typical Andalucian style of building.
Leaving Alcala on the Ubrique road you drive up a broad valley that, after a few kilometres, takes you high into the mountains. Expect to meet wandering goats, cattle and donkeys. You may also see, soaring around the peaks that appear ahead of you, Griffon vultures. There are 800 pairs resident in the park. You also stand a chance of seeing rarer birds like Black Kites, Honey Buzzards, Booted Eagles, Short Toed Eagles and Egyptian Vultures.
About 10 kilometres from Alacala you will come to a recreation, picnic area. Ignore the first parking area and drive on for 200 metres to a second, smaller car park. You will see a number of information boards that were lacking at the first. This is where the strollers and walkers start their day.
Continue driving towards Ubrique. The road twists and turns, taking you along ridges and over shoulders between the mountains giving superb views in all directions. After around 10 kilometres you will reach a 'T' junction where you turn right towards Jimena de la Frontera, Ubrique is signposted left. You descend to a small village called Sauceda with views on your right towards El Picacho and Aljibe.
This village was originally a couple of kilometres up the valley, deep in the woods, and depended for its livelihood on milling grain. The only access was via a donkey track, now a footpath. The village is abandoned but the houses have been converted into accommodation where you can enjoy a few nights in basic rooms in a totally unspoilt environment.
A gentle walk up the path takes you to this village where you can see what life was like 200 years ago. The village is complete with a church (ruined) and a series of bread ovens, now converted into barbeques. Further up the valley is the ruined mill that once supplied the flour.
From Sauceda continue along the road as it twists and turns through the valleys in the heart of this Natural Park until you reach Jimena. From there you can either go left to Gaucin and from there to the coast or turn right and rejoin the A7 at San Roque.
Distance: 1 kilometre
Essential Equipment: stout shoes
This is a delightful short stroll through cork oak and mixed deciduous woodland that is teeming with bird life. Though short it gives a good idea of the delights of this park with panoramic views.
From the car take the gate into the woods that was on your right as you entered the car park. A well defined path marked occasionally with concrete bollards and red arrows takes you through the cork oak trees and over a low ridge. You will see ahead of you a small lagoon. Take the time to sit quietly and you will realise it is alive with bird life.
The walk continues around the edge of the lagoon and up a very gentle hill. You will see on your left a bread oven. Milling flour was an important part of the economy. In the Alcornocales area the inhabitants also baked the flour on the spot into loaves weighing 2 or 3 kilograms.
Continue walking until you see a signpost and a track leading off left. Ahead is signposted Aljibe/ El Picacho and is the route followed on the difficult walk. For those on the easy walk follow the path to your left. You will soon come out on the banks of a stream. Across the stream and up is the sandstone peak of El Picacho. The path continues down the stream and then swings left bringing you back to the lagoon. From there retrace your steps back to the car park.
Distance: 6 kilometres
Essential Equipment: boots, waterproofs, warm clothing, food and drinks.
This walk is relatively short but is a continuous ascent of El Picacho, with some very steep sections near the summit. Expect to take four hours there and back. The information boards at the car park supply misleading information about this walk, giving the crow flies distance to the summit.
Take the easy walk route from the car park as far as the path junction. From there go straight ahead. The path is well defined and still marked with the odd bollard. A pleasant gentle uphill walk takes you to a footbridge across the stream on your left. Cross the bridge and continue. The path starts to get steeper and then brings you out at a road. Cross the road and continue up.
As you gain height the cork oaks become fewer and are replaced by pines. You emerge onto a ridge with fantastic views back towards Alcala and beyond to Medina Sidonia. The path continues up the ridge and becomes steeper as the summit of Aljibe starts to open up over your right shoulder. You will emerge from the trees and see a mirador a few metres on your left, an excellent spot to take a break.
At this point check the weather. The path to the Mirador is good enough to follow back in thick cloud but beyond is another matter. If there is any sign of the clouds coming down over the peaks then go no further.
From the mirador regain the main path and continue up as it takes you behind the bare rock ridge of El Picacho, onto a shoulder over which you are looking north east towards Grazalema and eventually up the rock ridge itself to the actual summit. The path becomes fainter and is marked with the occasional cairn. It's what I call a 'proper' mountain. To the east is the top of Aljibe, north east is Ubrique and Grazalema, to the north west is Arcos de la Frontera and to the west the ground falls away to the sea in the vicinity of Barbate, right on the horizon.
Whilst on this peak we were treated to a flying display by the vultures that were actually gliding far below us. We also made a tentative identification of a Merlin hovering over the shoulder we had ascended just before he power dived out of sight. And a little mystery. Every few minutes a Red Admiral would hurtle from below ahead of the wind, whistle past our heads, and disappear over the peak and away. One landed, presumably to get its breath back, and I managed to get this shot. Where did they come from and where were they going? Who knows.
Having regained your own breath retrace your steps, carefully, back to the car park.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.