1. The Scenery
Although not large or particularly high, the volcanic mountain range of the Sierra del Cabo de Gata with its highest peak El Fraile is still Spain's largest volcanic rock formation. The sharp peaks and crags in red/ochre-hues beneath the blue sky and bright sunshine creates a majestic space bounded by the sparkling Mediterranean sea. For anyone interested only in high altitudes, snowfall, glaciers and precipitous roads the park is perhaps not the place to visit, however, for wilderness, isolation and tranquil beauty the scenery is amazing.
2. The Coastline
It's hard to believe that so many picture postcard scenes of idyllic Mediterranean beauty can be crammed into just the 80km or so of coastline in the park. The volcanic history of this area has created a wonderful mixture of flattened volcanic flows sweeping into the sea joined by sections of jagged 100-metre high cliffs, carved with narrow ravines that lead to hidden coves and white sandy beaches. Taking a coastal stroll in any part of the Cabo de Gata natural park, to hear the waves lapping at the shore or crashing on the rocks and protuding volcanic vents below is guaranteed to be a beautiful experience.
3. The Beaches
With unspoiled settings, transparent water, golden sand and secluded locations, the beaches of the Cabo de Gata natural park are captivating. Varying from large sweeping bays such as Playa de los Genoveses to the unnamed and hidden coves between San Jose and Playa del Monsul, it is possible to visit a different beach every day during a fortnight's stay and still not see them all. Very few beaches in the park have anything in the way of facilities so all food and drink has to be carried, but the isolation is part of the allure.
4. The Peace & Quiet
Probably due to the harsh, dry weather making agriculture difficult this national park is still only sparsely populated with just 3500 recorded inhabitants in 1997. The Cabo de Gata natural park sits in stark contrast to those sections of the Spanish coast characterised by tall hotels and bustling beach bars. Instead, dotted around more remote areas of the natural park are abandoned farms, crumbling terraces and homesteads dating back to various periods in time, creating a truly wild atmosphere.
Although not to everyone's taste, the resulting lifestyle in the park is one of peace and tranquility. There are still beach cafes and restaurants in the handful of idyllic villages along the coast but these are connected by swathes of desertscape and winding roads through the rolling landscape. If you want to find some calm away from the crowded resorts, this is a good place to look.
5. The Hiking
It has been written in some guides that the hiking network is not very extensive in the park, but this has not been our experience. With the highest peak in the park standing at less than 500m it is true that compared to other more famous hiking destinations such as the Alps, Pyrenees or Sierra Nevada the hiking in Cabo de Gata is less extreme. However, exploring the collection of inland senderos and coastal tracks reveals some excellent day hikes. There are also options to reach the handful of high peaks, such as El Fraile the tallest in the park, which reveal stunning views thanks to the remote landscape and sparkling Mediterranean sea.
More information about our hikes in Cabo de Gata
6. The Weather
If you want to find warm, dry weather in Europe (especially in winter) then the Cabo de Gata natural park is the place to visit. Its climate is arid, to the extent that the park is the driest location in Europe. It is also Europe's only subtropical or "warm" desert, with rainfall below 200 mm (7.9 in) a year and average yearly temperatures above 18 °C. During our stay in December, Janaury and February the daytime temperature rarely dipped below 12 - 13 °C even on the coldest days, with most afternoons getting closer to 20 °C in the sun. The only thing to watch out for is the wind which varied massively from day to day, from gale force gusts one day to perfect stillness the next.
7. The Geology
The Cabo de Gata natural park contains Europe's most original geological features, characterised by volcanic rock formations - lava flows, volcanic domes, volcanic calderas. Formed in the period between 15 and 16 million years, the volcanoes that were active in this area were driven by an extensive magmatic area that stretches along the Alboran Sea area. For anyone with an interest in geology, Cabo de Gata, a fascinating destination. However, even without any interest or background knowledge, it is still easily possible to marvel at the natural beauty the volcanic history has created quite unlike anywhere else we've visited in Europe.
8. The Flora & Fauna
In 1997 it was the Cabo de Gata natural park was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and in 2001 it was included among the Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance. 1,100 species of fauna have been recorded within the park, the majority of which are birds. In addition to the wealth of sea birds along the coastline, the Las Salinas salt flats are also home to a community of flamingoes. Offshore are numerous tiny rocky islands and underwater extensive coral reefs teeming with marine life.
The plant life of Cape Gata-Níar is characterized by varieties that can withstand the high humidity climate, with fan palms, pitas, agaves and aloes in addition to many other hardy shrubs. There are over 1,000 plants recorded in the reserve some of which have become symbols of the natural park. The scent of fresh rosemary and thyme floating in the breeze is a familiar addition to most hikes in this area.
9. Idyllic towns & villages
With such a low population density the handful of small towns and villages scattered throughout the natural park have remained unspoiled by significant developments. Even the relatively large town of San Jose retains its rustic character with a collection of white buildings clustered the hills hugging the shallow bay. Each town and villages in the Cabo de Gata natural park has its own charm and history. It's also possible to use the network of footpaths to hike between many of the villages.
10. The Surrounding Area
Although this is about the area outside of the natural park, it is important to remember that alongside all of the blissful isolation and rustic beauty of the natural park there are some more Spanish highlights right outside. The Sierra Nevada mountains are just a couple of hours drive away, in addition to other mountains such as the Sierra de los Filabres and the Sierra Almahillas all separated by the impressive Tabernas Desert, which have been the location for many spaghetti western movies. Or, if the isolation is too much, the larger historic city of Almeria is less than an hour away in the car as well.
Read about our afternoon visit to Almeria
Our car tour through the Tabernas desert and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada
So, what are the downsides?
Although the blissful isolation can be desirable for many people (including us), for others it can be frustrating and claustrophobic. For instance, when we mentioned we were planning to come to Cabo de Gata en route south through to Spain, some people said "why, there's nothing there? No bars, restaurants, entertainment" and others said "there's not much in the way of hiking". We've also noticed on our campsite base in Los Escullos that there seem to be 2 distinct types of visitors. Those that arrive and end up staying for several weeks at least and others who arrive and leave the following morning. We noticed there are very few who fall in between.
It is also worth being aware that lying just beyond the fringes of the natural park is an ugly expanse of plastic growing tents, lying between the park boundary and Almeria / Sierra Almahillas. We found the area we had to drive through to reach the park quite off putting and almost turned back, which is something other people have also mentioned to us as well. However, within the park and by the coast there is no sign of them and, in our opinion, it is well worth continuing on.
These are our thoughts and experiences of the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, if you have any questions or thoughts of your own we'd love to hear your comments below ......
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10 Hiking and Walking Routes in the Cabo de Gata - Nijar Natural Park
12 Places to Visit and Things To Do in Cabo de Gata Natural Park