Western Valleys Natural Park, Aragon

Camille used to walk the Western Valleys Natural Park alone. She rarely kept still through the summer, plodding through the beech and fir forests, blossoming subalpine meadows, toothy peaks, river valleys and mountain lakes of this north-eastern corner of the Spanish Pyrenees – a route now immortalised in the Sende de Camille hiking trail. Camille died in 2010. She was the last of the native female Pyrenean bears.

The case of the vanishing Pyrenean bears kicked off a much-protested reintroduction programme that saw bears airlifted into the Spanish Pyrenees from Slovenia. Thanks to conservationists, you’ve still got a (slim, granted) chance of seeing signs of some of the few remaining brown bears in Spain when you go on a vacation to the Western Valleys Natural Park.

Mountain, forest & meadow

Those 40-50 brown bears aren’t the only oddities you can glimpse in the Western Valleys Natural Park (El Parque Natural de los Valle Occidentales). Bearded vultures hide out on inaccessible jags of rock. They’re a rare sighting elsewhere in Europe, but when you go walking here, you’ll see these bone-crunching vultures with man-sized wingspans wheeling above. Red-billed choughs and snow finches also flit through the forests, while chamoises (izards to Pyreneans) teeter on cliff faces.
It’s not a very well-known national park, but it has diversity: valleys, forests and high mountains.
– Julio Escribano, Estarrun Travels
This landscape is a biodiverse capsule of the Pyrenees as they were a thousand or more years ago. Glaciers carved out mountain peaks and narrow valleys, dumping giant rocks as they moved. River sources pool in unusually high mountain lakes (ibons) particular to this part of the world. Endemic Aragonese forests of black pine, beech and spruce pave the Iguer and Riguelo valleys. Meadows are coated in wildflowers in summer.

This unique landscape is what Julio Escribano, from our Western Valleys Natural Park specialist Estarrun Travels, loves about this part of the Pyrenees. He says: “It’s a very interesting region because here the Pyrenees are higher than the Pyrenees in nearby Navarra. You find a different climate, from Atlantic to Mediterranean… You find that you can climb big mountains around 3,000m but you can also walk around very nice forests – beeches, oaks, pines – and it’s very varied… It’s not a very well-known national park, but it has diversity: valleys, forests and high mountains.”

Walking the Western Valleys

Perhaps the most striking thing is that these forests and mountains are largely left alone. That’s down to its isolation. The Western Valleys Natural Park is one of the most inaccessible national parks in Spain. The lack of access (footpaths can be poorly waymarked; big hotels are rare; you’re more likely to see a unicorn than a bus) makes it one of the least-visited spots in the Pyrenees – a far cry from walkers’ wonderchild, the Alps.

Julio says that it’s the quiet of the valleys that holds the charm for travelers willing to come: “Guests love that quietness, that peacefulness. They find few people compared to the Alps. It’s completely different.”
You’ve got an area about half the size of – and even hillier than – San Francisco to explore.
Hikers, mountain bikers and bird watchers are the main visitors to this region. Faja footpaths thread through the forests, alongside rushing streams, and up to summits. The intrepid can head for the highest peak, Bisaurin (2,668m) or the Table of the Three Kings (2,444m; once the crossroads of three kingdoms). The Castle of Acher presents a serrated ridge that might as well be castle fortifications. And there’s a little-trod branch of the Camino de Santiago that comes from Jaca and dips over the border to France.

Culture as well as vultures

The natural isolation of the Western Valleys Natural Park has also preserved culture in this part of the Spanish Pyrenees. “We have nature,” says Julio, “but we also have very good heritage. Monasteries like San Juan de la Pena are very interesting… All the valleys have these small towns; you find farmers living here – both on the French and Spanish side.”
Traditional culture remains in what was once the medieval Kingdom of Aragon. Monasteries like San Juan de la Pena – down the road, but technically just over the border of San Juan de la Pena and Monte Oriel Park – is built so seamlessly into bulging rock that it’s as though it’s holding a whole mountainside up. The Pyrenean villages are clusters of stone cottages clasped by small farms. These are small-scale farms that move their sheep flocks and cow herds from pasture to pasture, giving the landscape time to recover. Even the dialect is different out here: the high mountain lakes are ibons, footpaths are fajas and chamois goats are izards.

Approach with caution

“I think walking is the best way to see the area,” says Julio. “You can reach some higher parts of the valley, where you have very good views of the Pyrenees.” In many cases, it’s the only way to see the Pyrenees, as roads only take you so far in these dense forested mountains. Walkers and mountain bikers have the chance to burrow much deeper into the countryside.

Julio also believes that walking vacations are key to keeping Western Valleys Natural Park just the way it is. “Our vacations are all small groups (6-8 people),” he says. “We try to show them the best of these valleys; to show them places that few people can reach. We work with local guides that know this area very well, and we walk through the valleys and forests that few people walk around.”

Julio and his wife Natalia also run the B&B included in their vacations. It’s also their family home, shared with their son Dario and faithful hound Argos. Staying in a place like Julio’s is a protective measure in itself. No land was damaged in the making of the guesthouse, as it occupies an existing cottage built out of local stone. They’re also passionate about sourcing food from surrounding farms, so you might end up eating ternasco (Aragonese lamb), stews with buttery green beans from Navarra, or homemade ricotta with red fruit jus. Breakfast is omelettes and bread baked in a wood fire oven traditionally used in this part of Jacetania.

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Best time to go to Western Valleys Natural Park

Another perk of going somewhere lesser-visited is that there isn’t a defined tourist season. It’s naturally busier in late spring and summer, when the snow has receded and the days are longer. But the more popular months aren’t necessarily the best time to visit Western Valleys Natural Park.
Julio has a definitive answer for his favourite seasons: “Autumn and spring. In spring, you find all the valleys full of flowers; you find snow in the mountains. It’s a very lively season. And in autumn there’s the colours of the forests.”
That’s why he offers vacations that give you the chance to explore the Western Valleys Natural Park in autumn or on snow shoes in winter. “When you see these mountains in winter, with the snow, it’s very different than from the summer,” says Julio. “But you can reach some lakes and forests that in other parts of the Pyrenees you’d need a bit of knowledge for. Here, with snowshoes, it’s easy to get the tourists there and show them some parts that are very, very nice.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Julio Escribano - Estarrún Travels] [All article photos: Julio Escribano - Estarrún Travels]