Els Ports, Costa Dorada, Spain
From Mont Blanc, through the Alps, to and along the Med, we’ve been hiking since mid-June, 2012. This has been our Endless Summer. The classic film of that title follows surfers on their quest for primo waves rolling toward exotic beaches. Our quest has been for fascinating trails probing sensational mountains. We’re still finding them.
It’s now January, 2013. We’re in Spain. A cloudless sky allowed the sun to be our masseuse. It was 19°C while we hiked in T-shirts and shorts, above the Costa Dorada, in Els Ports.
Few have heard of this compact mountain range near Tortosa. Spain declared Els Ports a nature reserve in 2001. There was no English-language hiking guidebook on it until late 2010. Yet the range is laced with hiking routes, many of historic origin: some discernible only to experienced, determined route-finders, others revived and maintained.
We’ve been hiking here every day for three weeks, and we’re still rapt by the plummeting canyons, bristling pinnacles, complex escarpments, and improbable routes. Mostly we’ve followed distinct, cairned and blazed trails. We’ve encountered perhaps a dozen hikers, all locals. We’ve seen more ibex than people.
Could Els Ports be the northern hemisphere’s premier, winter-hiking destination? That’s what we’ve been thinking. It certainly deserves to be a serious possibility for any keen hiker contemplating a December, January or February vacation.
We urge you to buy the Cicerone guidebook: Mountain Walking in Southern Cataluynya, by Vivien and Philip Freakley (http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/582/title/mountain-walking-in-southern-catalunya). They’ve explored El Ports passionately, and it shows. Their detailed advice and directions, plus the topo maps they recommend you buy once you’re in the area, will enable you to approach this otherwise mysterious range with confidence. The Freakleys are also diligent about posting updates to their guidebook on the Cicerone website.
From many Els Ports viewpoints, the Mediterranean Sea is visible. The drive from beach to barrancs (canyons) takes only about 45 minutes if you’re familiar with the route. And the seaside, mid-winter climate is so mild, it’s possible to camp or rent a campground bungalow. If that appeals to you, we recommend Camping Estanyet, at Les Cases d’Alcanar (www.estanyet.com). The management is five-star friendly. The grounds are manicured. The facilities are comfortable and clean. You can sleep within a frisbee-toss of the shore, so the lapping waves are audible. And the winter prices are a bargain. We stayed there in our campervan for 15 Euros per night. Only about ten other campsites were occupied while we were there, so we enjoyed luxurious privacy.
The drawback to Camping Estanyet is the time you’ll spend driving to and from Els Ports each morning and evening. So here’s the ideal accommodation: Finca Margarita (http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/spain/S3029.htm). It’s a renovated farmhouse in the hills near the village of Bitem. Though Margarita is a mere eight-minute drive from Tortosa, and grants easy access to all the hiking in the area, it’s tucked away in a beautiful, secluded, quiet vale. Perched just above the orange and tangerine groves lining the Ebre River, Margarita affords a sweeping, inspiring view of Els Ports. Steph and Ian, the finca’s British owners, live nearby. They’re exemplary hosts: relaxed, warm, fun. They love the life they’ve created here, and they enjoy having mountain-minded guests who genuinely appreciate the local geography.
Staying at Margarita, you’ll no doubt be grocery shopping in Tortosa and cooking for yourself most of the time. You’ll also be dining on the finca terrace while gazing at the mountains you’re here to hike. But vigourous hiking kindles big appetites, so plan on detouring to the Amposta Wok Buffet Restaurant. It’s a Chinese-run, all-you-can-eat affair offering an astonishing selection of seafood and Spanish-influenced Asian cuisine at a bargain price. Amposta is a 20-minute, seaward drive from Tortosa. The restaurant address is 19 Avenida Catalunya. The phone number is 977 70 84 58.
While there’s no need to look beyond the Freakleys’ guidebook for Els Ports hiking suggestions, if you’re here for several weeks, and you scrutinize the topo maps, you’ll recognize other intriguing possibilities. We hiked the following trails not in the book and enjoyed them immensely. Bear in mind, our blog-post descriptions are much less detailed than those we provide in our guidebooks.
Font de Pallerols to Plan de Valldebous
From what we’ve learned of Els Ports, this hike is unique, because it allows you to maintain elevation while cruising a long ridgecrest. The trail is excellent: well defined throughout, posing no routefinding quandaries. Views are nearly constant. Distant scenery includes the Mediterranean and la Montsia (a seaside massif described in the Freakley’s guidebook), but you’ll mostly be gazing into the deep barrancs on both sides of the ridge.
Round trip: 18 km. Elevation gain: 281 m. Hiking time: 4.5 to 5 hours. Map: El Port SUD, Mapa Excursionista 1:30.000, published by Piolet.
From Tortosa, drive TV-3421 generally SW to la Senia. This scenic road winds through olive groves beneath Els Ports. Just before entering la Senia, look right (NNE) to glimpse the road ascending steeply to the trailhead.
Enter la Senia on Barcelona Street. Pass a plaza (left) and the tourist office (left). Proceed straight (NW) on Tarragona Street, signed for Embassament d’Ulldecona (a reservoir).
The 5th cross street is Passeig de la Clotada. If you want to buy topo maps, turn right (NE) here. The Els Ports office is 2.5 blocks farther NE. It’s the large, colourful building (left). Office hours were restricted to Friday mornings and Saturdays the winter we were there.
Continuing to the trailhead, proceed NW on Tarragona Street. Fork right (NNW) on Argentina Street following signs for Font Pallerols.
Bear right (NE), passing a cement wall (left). Arrive at a junction of four roads (left is unpaved, the others are paved). Take the left, paved road signed for Font Pallerols. Begin ascending and enjoy rapidly improving views.
Stay on this paved road, following signs for Font Pallerols. Just shy of the trailhead, the road steepens, narrows, and the pavement is deteriorating. Reach a spacious, level parking lot at road’s end. The elevation here is 780 m.
Go ENE toward the shrine and font. Continue NE on a gravel track that narrows to trail.
To summarize, this trail leads generally NNE to the ridgecrest. From there, the trail leads NW along the ridgecrest. The trail then follows the ridgecrest N. The trail gently descends before rising slightly to a signed junction (the first you’ll encounter) at 9 km, 1010 m. This is where we turned around and where we believe most hikers will want to do the same, though it’s certainly possible to hike farther.
At this signed junction, left (NNW) leads to Raco Tabaco and Barranc Fou. Straight (ENE) crosses Plans de Valldebous and leads Pouets dels Plans.
Between the trailhead and the signed junction where we suggest turning around, these are prominent waypoints:
• Crest the ridge at 905 m, near the ruins of Casa Bernarda, about 0h30 after leaving the trailhead. The huge barranc NE of the ridge is now visible below.
• About 0h7 after first cresting the ridge, the trail leads beneath the E-side cliffs of 1024-m la Gotellera.
• At 0h50, 1050 m, ascend hewn-rock steps labeled l’Escaleta on the map.
• At 1h5, 1070 m, enter forest. At a clearing, encounter a short, chest-high band of rock. It’s blazed (yellow and white) and topped with a cairn. Pass a sign: Reserva National de Caca. Here the trail is intentionally blocked with brush. You’re shunted left onto a newer, higher, traversing trail. Within a couple minutes, the two trails rejoin.
• At 1h25 the trail bends right (N) at a mud hole. Soon follow cairns where the trail is briefly obscured by profuse pine needles. Just beyond, the view is again expansive.
• The trail is again on a narrow (50-m wide) crest, with barrancs visible below both sides. Pass left (W) of Punta de l’Avenc (a short peninsula jutting into the barranc) at 1090 m. If you prefer to forego the 15-minute, 150-m descent ahead, turn around here. Ahead the trails drops NNE between the upper reaches of two barrancs.
• At 3h0, 940 m, knee-high, white posts indicate the way forward through open terrain.
• After dipping into a ravine, the trail rises to our suggested turn-around junction (described above) at 9 km, 1010 m.
A short, easy, out-and-back jaunt through an impressively steep-walled canyon to the small, charming village of Ballestar. After a brief descent on a paved road, you’ll wind through the canyon on an old, unpaved, little-used road. You’ll then ascend out of the canyon on an ancient trail leading to Ballestar.
Round trip: 10 km. Elevation gain: 351 m. Hiking time: 2.5 to 3 hours. Map: El Port SUD, Mapa Excursionista 1:30.000, published by Piolet.
From Tortosa, drive W to La Senia. Continue NW on CV 3102 through La Senia, following signs for Embassament d’Ulldecona (a reservoir). Near the Moli l’Abad campground and restaurant, reset your trip odometer to 0 when crossing the bridge over Senia River. Pass the dam at 2.5 km. Pass a picnic area (left / S side of the road, above the lake’s W arm) at 3.8 km. Park in the small, unpaved pullout on the right at 4.6 km. This pullout is opposite a paved, descending, left fork signed for Vivers Forestals Forn del Vidre (a forestry nursery) and closed to public traffic. The elevation here is 520 m.
Descend the paved, left fork. In a couple minutes reach the forestry buildings. Cross the bed of the Senia River (probably dry in winter). Elevation: 480 m. Bear left through metal gates. Turn right (W) past the ruins of a large mill. Cross the riverbed again and pass a wild-animal rehabilitation center (right). We saw vultures in cages here. We later saw many vultures soaring above the canyon cliffs. Their 3-m wingspans give them the appearance of small aircraft. Their ability to glide is astonishing.
At 0h15 cross the riverbed yet again, this time to the true right bank. At 0h37 pass Font Canaleta (a spring where water is retrained in a cement trough). The canyon walls rise steeply on both sides. Just ahead, the old road passes beneath orange-grey cliffs. We encountered ibex here.
At 0h47, 550 m, again cross the riverbed. On the far bank, ascend left (SSW), following yellow-and-white blazes. Ignore the narrow, overgrown trail ascending right (N).
At 0h57 reach a fork. Both options are marked with yellow-and-white blazes. Left (W) descends among trees to the canyon floor and continues SW, reaching Pobla de Benifassa in about one hour. Go right, ascending NW beneath the canyon wall. Note the ancient cobbles underfoot. Imagine the effort required to place the huge stones forming the outside (downslope) edge of the trail.
At 0h61 bear right on the main path. Ascend among terraces and beside a stout wall. Ballestar, crowning a knoll, is soon visible ahead (NNW). Proceed up the grassy path between walls to reach the village at 5 km, 711 m.
Many of Ballestar’s buildings are made of golden-hued stone, which make it visually appealing. Note the variety of artistic door hardware in the village. The restaurant Mason Ballestar was open the December day we were there, so you might find it’s possible to partake of their menu del dia (1:30 to 4 p.m.) before retracing your steps down-canyon to your vehicle.