Calar Alto Observatory & the Sierra Nevada - Car Touring the Sierra's of Almeria

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Friday 16 January 2015

Calar Alto Observatory & the Sierra Nevada - Car Touring the Sierra's of Almeria

Although having a home that moves is one of the most exciting parts of motorhome life, throughout our adventure we have tried wherever possible not to use our motorhome as a 'run around' vehicle. We much prefer to park on an aire or campsite for a while then explore an area by foot, bike or public transport both reducing our motorhome mileage, carbon footprint and, we feel, really getting to know our surroundings better than whizzing past at 90 kph. However, with temporary access to a hire car courtesy of Esther's parents staying with us, it was a rare and exciting treat on Friday (16/01) to take to the road in a much smaller, quicker and fuel efficient Citroen C4 to get a closer look at some of the spectacular mountains and scenery just beyond the Cabo de Gata natural park.

Our planned car tour would be a large loop through the Province of Almeria that promised spectacular views over some of the most amazing mountains in Spain, including the Sierra Nevada. This famous mountain range is the highest in Spain and contains the most southerly ski resort in Europe. The highest peak is Mulhacen at 3478m plus another 22 peaks over 3000m attracting summer and winter tourist from all over the world. However, with a central ridgeline that runs for hundreds of kilometres, the Sierra Nevada and most of the highest peaks sit primarily within the Province of Granada and we would be looking at these from afar. In fact, the highest mountain peak within the Province of Almeria (Calar Alto, 2168m) actually lies to the north-east of the Sierra Nevada in an entirely seperate mountain range, the Sierra de los Filabres that our loop would also be including. Plus, if visiting these two incredibly beautiful high mountain ranges wasn't enough, we'd also be cruising past the Sierra Almahillas (which we had visited just a few days beforehand). With so much natural beauty concentrated in just one area we were very excited about our car tour day!

Setting off mid morning with Esther, her mum and myself we cruised north out of the park towards Nijar before joining the A7 motorway which carried us on swiftly westwards towards the rolling hills beyond Almeria and the snow capped peaks on our horizon. Just north of Almeria we switched roads to the AL92 which carried us north into the Tabernas Desert, an awesome landscape of badlands that so closely resemble the deserts of North America that movie makers have been filming westerns here for decades. We even caught a glimpse of a movie set with a complete wild west town and a collection of wig wams nearby! Millions of years ago this entire area was covered by a deep ocean from which this remarkable landscape would emerge, with deep rolling basins, interrupted by the mountain ranges all around us. Passing through this wild, forbidding landscape it was easy to imagine we were on another planet, when in fact we were racing across an ancient sea bed!

At exit 376 we left the AL92 and began a winding climb into the Sierra de los Filabres and towards the observatory at the summit of Calar Alto (2186m). It was a novel experience for Esther and I to be climbing so high without having to hike or pedal our way upwards and we marvelled at the expansive views as we rose quickly above the desert landscape behind us. Soon we were looking south, right across the rolling desert plains all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and the Almeria coastline, with the Sierra Almahillas and Cabo de Gata natural park clearly visible. Pausing only once at a viewpoint looking south, the surprisingly good road soon had as at the very top and we parked in the freezing air ready to stretch our legs (the car said -2°C but with the howling wind it must have been closer to -10°C).

The air was certainly bracing as we ventured out, bundled in our winter jackets, and we set off south across the rocky terrain adjacent to the observatory in search of a better view (from the road the top is so flat it masks much of the horizon). Our faces soon froze, but after just a couple of hundred metres we reached a ridge where the land fell away more sharply and treated us to hundreds of miles of Andalusia beauty in one gaze.  In addition to the southerly outlook across the plains to the Mediterranean coast at Almeria, we could look east across the Sierra Almahillas and Cabo de Gata, and look west to the snow capped summits of the Sierra Nevada extending in a giant white ridge and surrounded by countless lower peaks with just a dusting of white. We could see for more than 100km in all directions. It was breathtaking and made us feel both tiny and enormous at the same instant, dwarfed by the scale of the landscape but also part of this beautiful world extending as far as our eyes could see.

We scrambled about the rocky plateau for as long as we could bear, taking in different viewpoints from rocks and boulders and fighting the urge to hide from the cold as our mouths lost the ability to frame words in the freezing air until finally retreating to the warmth of our hire car. Stopping frequently on the descent, as each corner revealed a new and unique perspective of the high mountains across the whole of Andalusia, we were in no hurry at all. All we wanted to do was make sure we never forgot this majestic perspective spread out beneath the winter blue sky above. 

Driving into Abla, having completed the winding descent, we did consider briefly stopping for a drink but our appetite for high places and beautiful panoramas was too impatient. So, leaving the Sierra de los Filabres, we drove south into the easternmost foothills of the Sierra Nevada, taking the ALP503 that would carry us over 1500m altitude en route to the adjacent valley at Almocita. Stopping frequently to enjoy the far reaching views of the windmill dotted landscape and looking back towards Calar Alto on the ascent, in late afternoon we crested the pass to be greeted by the sight of step terraces carved into the mountain sides all around us. 

We paused at a viewpoint that looked eastwards right over the awesome rolling badlands of the Tabernas Desert to the sea beyond, and every mountain flank in view bore the unmistakable saw-tooth contours of farming terraces. It was just incredible to contemplate the amount of labour that must have gone into crafting those terraces down thousands of metres of mountain side, from summit to valley bottom. It was as though the entire landscape surrounding us had been pixelated, with every bump and dip in the countours chipped into squared off form. 

Driving on we continued to marvel at the ingenuity of generations of farmers who must have built and cherished this land, forging a tenuous existence in such a harsh climate and offering such a stark contrast to the acres of plastic polytunnels that now line the valley floors. It was a sad sight to notice that so many of the terraces today looked dry and abandoned and we wondered how many families had been tempted down into the valleys by the lure of higher yields through intensification and chemical based agriculture.

After a somewhat nervewracking descent into Almocita on singletrack road, we rejoined a major carriageway (A348) and began the 50 mile drive back into the city of Almeria (where we had a brief stop at the port of Almeria and took the opportunity to restock our food supplies) before completing our return to Camping Los Escullos. In total we'd been gone for 8 hours and it was dark when we returned, having covered close to 300km but the distance had seemed insignificant against the vastness of nature that we'd basked in the entire journey.

It had certainly been a new experience for us to be exploring in a car and covering so much distance and seeing such a variety of different landscapes in one day. Also, as it had been during their hike into the Caldera de Majada Redonda, seeing the enjoyment and exhilaration experienced by Esther's mum and sharing that connection with her made the experience that much more vivid for us two as well.

Almeria, which before had just been the name of a coastal city to us, was forever more going to be a province of beauty in our memories.

Related Posts:
10 Reasons to Visit the Cabo de Gata -Nijar Natural Park - Andalucia, Spain
12 Places to Visit and Things To Do in Cabo de Gata Natural Park
10 Hiking and Walking Routes in the Cabo de Gata - Nijar Natural Park

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