Last week, in mid-January, we were hiking a long, slender ridge in Spain’s Costa Blanca Mountains. Spiny bushes clawed at our calves. We saw ancient villages far below, each looking as if it were pinned to the earth by its dominating church tower. And in contrast to the corrugated topography, the horizon was a straight line formed by the Mediterranean Sea. It all seemed so exotic we wondered how we got there.
But we knew the answer. It’s because we share a passion for mountains that runs deeper than conscious thought. We each felt it long before we met. These independent forces within us grew stronger when we and they merged. Our honeymoon backpacking trip in the Colorado Rockies inaugurated a shared life of wilderness exploration. Ever since, we’ve been researching and traveling to the world’s most spectacular vertical terrain. Gradually our work and our passion also merged. Recently this has allowed us the flexibility to seek mountains we can hike in winter, when our home range, the Canadian Rockies, is frigid and laden with snow.
So here we are, among peaks and canyons appreciated only as the backdrop for Europe’s most popular beach-resort cities. We’re convinced they deserve to be equally famous as a refuge for hikers fleeing winter. We realize that probing the Costa Blanca Mountains has been an essential leg in our endless journey: a devotional practice we think of as “the way of the hiker.”
For five weeks, we’ve confined our forays to an 80-square-km (31-square-mi) radius. It’s rare for us to be content on such a short tether. But the Costa Blanca Mountain scenery continually surprises and engages us. Beautifully engineered, smoothly paved roads easing into the barrancos (canyons) and switchbacking up the tossals and puigs (summits) grant vehicle access everywhere we want to hike. And hiking is nearly always possible thanks to a profusion of routes, paths, ancient trails and unpaved roads.
In a range topping out at 1559 m (5115 ft), the trailheads are remarkably high, often between 400 and 800 m (1312 and 2625 ft) And the trails themselves are marvels. They enable us to stride where we’re astounded not only by what we see but by the fact we’re able to walk there. In North America, negotiating terrain this steep and rugged usually necessitates skill and courage and makes us yearn for James Bond jetpacks. Here—miraculously—we’re simply walking.
Compared to North American ranges, another distinguishing trait of Spain’s Costa Blanca Mountains is that civilization is always evident, which enriches the hiking experience. Stone terraces and walls, ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 years old, are everywhere. We often pass the ruins of ancient, stone fincas (farmhouses) and walk through groves of olives or almonds. Occasionally we skirt 20th century homes built in traditional style, perched on promontories commanding telescope-worthy views.
The Costa Blanca Mountains, as the name implies, rise sharply from the shore. They’re on a blunt peninsula, about two hours’ drive south of Valencia, inland from Denia and Benidorm. The latter is a characterless mass of high-rise apartments and hotels that makes Las Vegas seem charming. But if you can do what for most people is unthinkable—turn your back on the sea, the sand, and all that cement—you’ll soon be driving among vast citrus farms and through quaint villages.
In January, the tangerines, oranges, lemons and grapefruit are ripe. Yes, we became fruit banditos. But in our defense, we were careful not to prey on only one farmer. We stopped here and there, picking only enough to fill our pockets. According to local custom, we spat seeds and tossed peels out the windows while we drove. The fragrance of a fresh, Spanish tangerine is sublime. The taste is euphoria inducing. And flinging organic refuse feels liberating.
Winter, by the way, is the only time to hike here. In summer, the 40°C (104°F) heat makes hiking not just uncomfortable but muy peligroso (very dangerous). In winter, you can expect daytime temperatures to range from 6 to 22°C (43 to 72°F). Cloudy days are common, but rain is scarce. This winter was Europe’s harshest in decades. Snowfall in Great Britain was so heavy and widespread, on satellite maps the country appeared solid white. Yet we hiked nearly every day in the Costa Blanca Mountains. Twice we did it in shorts. Once we encountered a patina of snow. Occasionally we were buffeted by strong, gusty winds. Mostly the ground was dry underfoot, the weather agreeably warm.
Never are the Costa Blanca Mountains crowded, but in winter you’ll feel they’re your private reserve. Usually we encountered no one. The tranquility was glorious. On weekends and holidays, we shared the popular trails with others: some locals, several expat Brits, a few Germans or Dutch. We met one Canadian couple who’ve been coming here to hike every winter for years. We were the second and third Canadians they’d ever crossed paths with in the Costa Blanca Mountains.
Affordable accommodation is another winter advantage. Summer is when Costa Blanca rentals are booked out and rates soar. Of course, the closer you are to the water, the higher the price. Inland is undesirable to most people but superior if you’re here to hike. You’ll be in or near an authentic Spanish village, far from the crowds, traffic, and commercial onslaught, and much closer to the trailheads. Keep elevation in mind, however. You want to stay where the nights are not too chilly. That means at or below about 200 m (656 ft).
We rented the lower portion of a home in Orbeta, a neighbourhood on the edge of Orba. We hesitate to recommend it, however, because we want it to be available when we return, because we’re definitely returning.
Oh, alright. Here you go. The owners are Lesley and Ron Griffin. Their email address is <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Their phone number is 34 965 583 494. They’re kind, gracious hosts. Their modern, immaculate apartment is ideal for two people: a fully equipped kitchen, a spacious living room with a mountain view, one bedroom, an elegant bathroom, and a private terrace above an almond grove. Visit http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/spain/s10840.htm for photos and details.
So, precisely where in the Costa Blanca Mountains should you point your boots? We used three hiking guidebooks. All were exasperating. Not just bad, but horrific. We would have flung them off a cliff in a screaming rage if we didn’t have the ability, born of experience, to read mountains and maps. The criminally inadequate books we urge you not to purchase are Costa Blanca Mountain Walks by Bob Stansfield (Cicerone); Costa Blanca: 50 Walks by Gill Round (Rother); and Costa Blanca by John and Christine Oldfield (Sunflower). They’re outdated. The writing is awkward, ambiguous, full of assumptions that readers cannot decipher. They give no compass directions, relying instead on “left” and “right,” and rarely state elevations. They’re detailed about frivolous matters, and vague when detail is critical. None gives complete, precise directions to the trailheads.
Europe is a bird’s nest of roads and tracks. So the primary reason you need a hiking guidebook here is to help you find the trailheads. Using the Cicerone, Rother, or Sunflower books, each time we arrived within 500 m (547 yd) of where they seemed to say a hike should begin, we’d have to play Sherlock for another 30 minutes to determine the most efficient way to strike out toward our objective. A guidebook should save you from having to ferret out this essential information. Actually, a guidebook should go beyond accurate detail. It should inspire you. But the Cicerone, Rother, and Sunflower books are not guides. They’re suggestion books. Buy maps instead.
Petrol stations, including the one in Orba, sell 1: 20 000 topo maps. You’ll want “Terra Ferma: Marina Baixa Serra d’Aitana” for the west half of the Costa Blanca Mountains, and “Marina Alta Serra de Bernia” for the east. With a compass, the patience and confidence to occasionally suss out a meager trail, and the ability to recognize landforms and stay oriented, you’ll have a great time here.
If you’re a keen hiker, plan a three-week trip to the Costa Blanca Mountains. We were there five weeks and would gladly have stayed longer. Below are the hikes we enjoyed most and enthusiastically recommend. For now, all we can offer is a brief summary of each. Use this info to locate the trails on the topo maps mentioned above. (You might also find maps online.) To see photos of these hikes, go to the Photos/Videos section of our website and click on Spain.
Mozarabic trail – Val de Laguart
4.5-hr loop / 14 km (8.4 mi) / gain 800 m (2625 ft) / highpoint 600 m (1968 ft)
West of Orba, drive CV 721 to Fleix (438 m / 1437 ft). Find the trailhead sign in front of the school. A Moorish trail constructed 500 years ago switchbacks gently into the canyons 250 m (820 ft) below. The loop, which also crosses Barranco del Infierno, entails three sharp descents and ascents.
4-hr loop / 8.5 km (5.3 mi) / gain 315 m (1033 ft) / highpoint 850 m (2790 ft)
From CV 750 north of Jalon, take the first right onto CV 749 (signed for Pinos). Drive the fascinating, serpentine road 8 km to Pinos. Continue ascending to Casas de Bernia (625 m / 2050 ft). A good trail circles the ridge, contouring just below the sheer cliffs of this massif. Like Montgo, Bernia is frequently visible and recognizable throughout the Costa Blanca region.
5-hr loop / 15 km (9.3 mi) / gain 560 m (1837 ft) / highpoint 752 m (2467 ft)
From Ondara, drive to Denia. Continue through the commercal zone to Placa Jaume I. Turn right and ascend to the Ermita de San Juan, where the national-park entrance is signed. The sheer walls of the isolated Montgo massif rise directly from the sea. This and Bernia are the area’s most popular hikes.
Serra del Penyal – Caballo Verde Ridge
5- to 6-hr loop / 15 km (9.3 mi) / gain 560 m (1837 ft) / highpoint 847 m (2625 ft)
West of Orba, drive CV 718 to Fleix, then continue to Benimaurell (532 m / 1745 ft). It’s the last and highest village in the beautiful Val de Laguart. A Mozarabic trail ascends through terraced orchards to the ridgecrest. Here, a narrow but easy-to-follow trail follows the crest east to Penya Alt and Penya Roch. Villages are visible below both sides of the ridge. Midway along, you can peer into the Barranco del Infierno and see far up the Mediterranean coast.
5- to 6-hr loop / 15 km (9.3 mi) / gain 560 m (1837 ft) / highpoint 800 m (2625 ft)
Drive CV 720 to Benigembla, between Orba and Parcent. Having tried two access roads, we think the best way to begin the loop is from the Mirabo road, west of the bridge. A trail leads south toward Cocoli summit. From the head of the gorge, pick up a trail leading 5 km along the top edge of Almadich Canyon’s 300-m cliffs. It eventually descends past a communications tower to Benigembla.
Penal Gros – Serra de la Forado
3.5-hr loop + 1 hour viewing ruins / 8 km (5 mi) / gain 220 m (722 ft) / highpoint 854 m
From the village of Alcala de la Jovada, walk east to the 13th century Moorish village of L’Atzuvieta. Continue following the unpaved road through terraces toward desolate Forado ridge. Ascend to, then follow the ridgecrest. Val de Gallinera is visible below. Near the summit of Penal Gros, the ruins of an ancient castle are visible on the mountain’s far slope.
5-hr circuit / 12 km (7.5 mi) / gain 730 m (2395 ft) / highpoint 1181 m (3875 ft)
Start 6 km north of Finestrat (255 m / 837 ft). Initially hike to Collado de Pouet, below the southwest side of 1410-m (4625-ft) Puig Campagna. The gradual ascent of Ponoch continues, affording views of nearby Sanchet and ultimately granting an aerial view of the coast.
3.5- to 5-hr round trip / 14 km (8.7 mi) / gain 207 m (680 ft) / highpoint 1157 m (3796 ft)
From Sella, drive 5 km north on CV 770. Immediately before a bridge, turn right onto a decaying-but-still-paved road. Continue 6.5 km to road’s end at Font Pouet Alemany (950 m / 3117 ft). Pena Divino, a 1-hr round-trip hike, affords a vast panorama. It also allows you to survey three major Costa Blanca peaks at close range: Sanchet, Ponoch, and Puig Campagna. Continue walking the unpaved road 4 km to crest the summit ridge of Mt. Aitana (highest peak in the range) and overlook the Guadalest Valley.
Bocairent – Cami de L’Escaleta
3-hr circuit / 12 km (7.5 mi) / gain 280 m (918 ft) / highpoint 675 m (2215 ft)
This historic mule trail once served the textile factories of Bocairent—a medieval town that in the 13th century had 80 looms working full time. It descends into a ravine, climbs over two minor summits, then returns to the village.
Barranco de Cau
3.5-hour loop / 9 km (5.5 mi) / gain 375 m (1230 ft) / highpoint 600 m (1968 ft)
Just east of Jalon, on CV749, across from the garden center, turn south on Camino Partido Cota. Follow it 0.9 km to an unpaved parking area at 225 m (738 ft). On foot, continue up Camino Partido Cota on what appears to be a driveway. Just beyond the house (right), proceed onto a trail. Near the mouth of Barranco de Cau, the trail ascends past a ruin. It soon becomes a Mozarabic trail climbing to the high plain of Casas del Cau. The first peaklet is an excellent viewpoint and a worthy destination for a short, round trip. The loop continues across the plain to the head of the barranco, then gradually descends it back to where you started.