18th August 2021: Hiking the Pyrenees: Ruta de la Cola de Caballo (Ordesa y Monte Perdido) {Spain, summer 2021}

The Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido was the second national park to be formalised in Spain, in 1918, and expanded in 1982. The area has been considered a Unesco World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve since 1997. The park is located in the southern area of the mid-Pyrenees range. The mountain called Monte Perdido, the “Lost Mountain” is the highest calcareous mountain in the world, which also has one of the few glaciers of Spain, and the different mountains around it create the U-shaped Ordesa Valley Valle de Ordesa. It is home to a wide variety of flora – pines, firs and beeches – and fauna – vultures, chamois and stoats among others.

Well, the plan was clear – wake up early, drive to the entrance of the national park Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido and hike the easy route to the final waterfall, Ruta de la Cola de Caballo. For that reason, we chose the hotel which was closest to the entrance of the park.

Then, upon arrival, we learnt that we could not drive, and had to ride the bus. In normal times, urgh, but in Covid-times, even urgh-er. Furthermore, the bus stop at the visitor centre was dead right on the other side of the village, which was not far… But in-between there was a little one-way tunnel that buses had preference for, and zero visibility when you approached from the hotel side.

Anyway, we had been fortunate enough that at least we could buy bus tickets at the hotel (because what is more Spanish than making something compulsory, then charging for it?), we had set the alarm and went to sleep… And the alarm clock did not go off. We got up a little after seven, got ready in a hurry, then drove off to the bus stop, which fortunately had a parking lot to ditch the car. By the time we arrived a few buses had already left, and there was a queue worth almost four buses worth of people before us – well, we got on the fourth bus a bit before eight. That was at least lucky, because there’s supposedly only a bus every half-hour at that time, and we were on our way just before 8 o’clock.

After a short journey we arrived at the start of the route, the valley called Pradera de Ordesa, where we had coffee and a toast to get going. Then we started walking. The problem was that my group did not really realise the difference between a walk and a hike – which ended up being exhausting.

The route Ruta de la Cola de Caballo runs through a Unesco Heritage area. It is an easy, return trail that starts at the Pradera and trails up parallel to the river Río Arazas to the high valley at the feet of Monte Perdido, called Circo del Soaso. You basically walk up and down the same route, around 18 km in six hours. If you remember, I took a bit under two and a half hours to hike the whole Cascada del Aljibe three-hour trail. This… was not like that time. By the time we had been walking for 4.5 hours, we had only reached the two-hour mark. That was the time when my group got cold feet and I continued alone, covered the remaining hour and back, and caught up with them as they walked down, in an hour and a half.

We started off at the Pradera de Ordesa, the area where the bus left us and we had our breakfast. The trail is easy to follow, marked with abundant signs, and, going straight you leave the river Río Arazas to the right. As you walk up the trail, the forest opens around you, and the trail is continuously upwards.

From the trail you can sometimes climb down to the riverbed and even stand on the boulders in the river.

As the sun came up, in the clearings of the way you could look up above the tree line at the peaks, with two distinctive colours: greys – calcites, quartz and slates – and reddish-brown – sandstone and red clays. Both these types of rocks tell that over 250 million years ago, the area was covered by the ocean.

The first milestone we reached was the waterfall Cascada de Arripas from the viewpoint Mirador de los Bucardos.

Around us, the forest stood tall and straight, seemingly holding the ground at points – mostly pines and breeches at this height.

The next spot was a second waterfall, I think Cascada del Estrecho.

As time passed and we walked, the day became brighter and the trees more scarce, giving the area a brighter look.

Eventually we ended up at the tree line for our valley – while there were still trees on other slopes, we were under the sun until we reached the next group of waterfall Gradas del Soaso – the river finds a fracture area and falls in a number of waterfalls that look like stands (gradas).

From here, the route became steeper and more arduous and my group decided to call it a day, at a quarter to one. Given the option to continue and able to do so faster, I went on and we agreed to meet back at the parking lot. I popped my headphones in, then hiked up for about thirty minutes through some stairs half carved, half built into the rocks and I eventually reached the upper valley at the feet of Monte Perdido, the cirque Circo del Soaso. A cirque is a bowl-shaped valley created by ancient glaciers.

The trail there becomes… paved for a while, which was a bit bizarre. The valley opens in front of you with Monte Perdido in front of you towards the left, and the Pyrenees stand all around you.

As I walked into the valley I spotted a small hill and behind it finally stood the end of the trail and the beginning of the valley – the biggest waterfall of the area Cascada de la Cola de Caballo (Horsetail Waterfall), which was packed!

I did not walk to the foot of the waterfall, so after hanging around for a little, I turned back, had something to drink and hiked downwards. I put the camera away as I came down in order to protect it, and picked up the pace. Around half past two I caught up with the group. I am not made for sprints but I am like an ox – once I find my rhythm I can go on forever.

On our return way, we deviated to another route to walk back, and stopped by another waterfall, Cascada de la Cueva.

Once again the pace was slow, and we eventually reached the lower valley to catch a bus around half past four, but I swear the last half hour felt eternal. By the time we reached the hotel we were too tired to explore the village, though I would have liked that. But there was ice-cream, which was nice. In the end the total walked distance clocked at 20.11 km – though the official legth of the trail is around 18 km.