The mountain village of Bulnes, nestled in the Picos de Europa.

The mountain village of Bulnes, nestled in the Picos de Europa. Photo: Getty Images

Andrew Bain hikes among the crowd-free, epic spires and gorges of the Spanish Picos.

From the Spanish town of Arenas de Cabrales, the white limestone peaks of the Picos de Europa seem to hover in the sky like clouds. Dawn mist swirls inside the chasm of the Garganta del Cares gorge, its rock walls rising more than a kilometre above my head. I could be in one of the world's great mountain regions rather than a largely overlooked range in northern Spain.

When early sailors travelled across the Atlantic from the Americas, the first bit of European land they sighted was this small mountain range. They named it Picos de Europa - the peaks of Europe - a title that might have suggested greatness, except that few people outside Spain are likely to have heard of them.

Competing for attention with the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites, the Picos are, by European standards, virtually anonymous. And yet much here rivals the experience of the grander ranges. The sharp-tipped limestone range, which resembles a piece of the Dolomites adrift in northern Spain, contains two of the 10-deepest caves in the world. It is split by the Garganta del Cares, a gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. It was Spain's first national park and is pierced by the country's most striking peak, the white column of Naranjo de Bulnes.

I have travelled to the Picos to hike for four days, wandering through its pastured slopes to its bare, rocky heights and into the depths of its gorges. I begin at the mouth of the Garganta del Cares, where the tide of hikers heads in only one direction: upstream, through the gorge.

With its path etched into the cliffs, the Ruta del Cares is said to be the most popular mountain walk in Spain. In August, as many as 3000 people a day file through the gorge. But I want to see the Picos before I see its crowds, so I turn up a side gorge, leaving the lemming march behind as I climb to the mountain village of Bulnes. Accessible by foot or funicular, Bulnes's bare-stone buildings look like exhibits from an outdoor history museum.

Goats wander about the village and bare peaks gleam in the sun in every direction. It feels more like I'm in the mountains of Nepal or India than a couple of hours' drive from the Guggenheim Bilbao. My goal this day is a mountain refuge at the foot of Naranjo de Bulnes, the 2519-metre-high limestone spire that wouldn't look out of place in Patagonia or among the Grandes Jorasses of Mont Blanc. The first view of it comes five minutes above Bulnes, where a lookout point is the busiest section of track I will encounter for three days. There are men in loafers, and women in heels, but few venture beyond this viewpoint and soon I am alone, climbing on an ancient cobbled path. Cowbells chime my progress in this most unusual of national parks, where farmers are subsidised to keep their cows on the land to help maintain the landscape. It's recognition that cattle have shaped the Picos over centuries, holding back the heather and gorse (and beech forest) that might again blanket the slopes. On the saddle of Col de Pandebano, I sit and lunch among the cows, ringed by rock walls reminiscent of Yosemite National Park. I've now climbed 1000 metres and I have 600 metres still to ascend today. I don't linger, though I'm soon stopped for about 10 minutes by a few hundred goats that trundle down the track and pause only to nibble at my backpack.

Through a break in the range I can see the Bay of Biscay just 15 kilometres away. It's an enticing reminder of another advantage of the Picos - the easy possibility of an ocean swim at the end of a day in the mountains.

The trail continues up, all but hanging off the edge of a ridge. The roofs of Bulnes are now like red pebbles below, and Naranjo de Bulnes towers above me like a fist raised in triumph. It's not the highest mountain in the Picos, but it's the one everybody comes to see or climb. Outside the refuge at its base, a small crowd huddles about, watching rock climbers inch to the top of the 500-metre summit rock. The sun sets, but still the silhouettes creep up the rock towards success.

In the morning the hut stirs early, as climbers head out at dawn to Naranjo de Bulnes. I leave them to it, continuing instead across the range, walking through a series of passes and dolines (mountain sinkholes). Each stride is like another step into mountain oblivion. Sharp-tipped peaks rise hundreds of metres above me, and there's not a tree in sight. It's just cliffs, scree and wandering chamois. It's rough, tough country with high-altitude scenes at just 2000 metres above sea level.

For the next two days I simply wander, threading an aimless and wonderful course across the Picos' central and eastern massifs - the range is split into three massifs by glacial activity and the Garganta del Cares. Through the abandoned zinc mines that puncture the eastern massif, adding to its hundreds of caves, I rise almost accidentally onto one of its high passes.

Cloud fills the valleys and blankets the Atlantic Ocean, with the high tips of the Picos peeking through like celestial islands. I've not seen another person for hours, just chamois and sheep. Who knew you could have a mountain to yourself in Europe?

Finally, I can resist the Garganta del Cares no more. I begin back near Arenas de Cabrales again, at the head of the gorge.

Squirming through the mountains for 11 kilometres, the Garganta del Cares is a place of both natural and human marvels. A water race, or channel, feeds through the gorge, high above the blue-green river, powering a hydro scheme for Arenas de Cabrales. There's also evidence of a bold attempt before World War II to carve a road through the gorge. The gorge won.

But it's the geography that's most striking, with mountain tips rising to 1.5 kilometres above the river, which is pinched between white limestone cliffs. The trail is cut into the cliffs, sometimes up to 200 metres above the river, with dynamite scars from its construction still evident in the rock. At times I'm so intent on soaking in the scenery, I almost wander off the edge of the trail and cliffs.

As the Ruta de Cares progresses, the gorge gradually narrows, its rock walls closing. Eventually, the trail is forced inside the cliffs, tunnelling through for several hundred metres - it's said that almost a dozen workers died constructing this final section of track - before spitting out at walk's end in the village of Cain.

In the near-darkness of the tunnel, a stream of hikers flows as reliably as the Cares itself. There are dozens of people in here with me, squeezing past each other, but if there was something as mighty as the Garganta del Cares in the Alps or Dolomites, there would surely be hundreds more.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of UTracks and the Spain Tourism Board.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Madrid from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1826 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Madrid (8hr 10min). See emirates.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another European city. Iberia flies from Madrid to Asturias Airport at Santiago del Monte (about 50 kilometres north-west of Oviedo), for about $320 return, including tax (1hr 15min). The Alsa Bus service runs between the airport and Oviedo, which in turn has a daily service to Arenas de Cabrales, about two hours away. See iberia.com.

Hiking there

UTRACKS runs eight-day walking trips, both guided (from $1150 a person, twin share) and self-guided (from $750 a person, twin share) in the Picos de Europa, beginning and ending in Arenas de Cabrales. Prices include hotel and hut accommodation, route notes, breakfast and dinner each day, and luggage transfers. See utracks.com.