March 5, 2011

The Sierra de las Nieves, Andalucia, Spain

Distance: 14.3 km (8.8 mi) or 19.4 km (12 mi) with optional summit of Torrecilla
Elevation: 1191 - 1919 m (3906 - 6294 feet)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: March - November

A view of the summit basin of the Sierra de las Nieves

Located in southern Andalucia, near the city of Malaga, are the Sierra de las Nieves (mountains of the snows). This range rises from near sea level to over 6,000 feet in elevation. This range contains one of the last stands of the rare Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo) left in the world. Just above the forests of pine and fir is an alpine ecosystem unlike any I have seen in North America. This rocky landscape contains a "meadow" of spiky hedgehog brooms (Erinacea anthyllis) and large ancient gall oaks (Quercus lusitanica)

Village of Tolox at the base of the Sierra de las Nieves
From the summit area of these mountains, impressive views of the landscape of Andalucia unfold in a dramatic panorama. To get there, head to the small village of Yunquera on road A366 northwest of Malaga. From Yunquera, look for the sign for Puerto Saucillo to the left and follow this road up to the picnic area/viewpoint about 6 km above the town.

At the parking area, you will see a park map for the Parque Natural Sierra de Las Nieves
A young Spanish fir in the forest

The trail starts out in a forest of black pines (Pinus nigra). But, soon you will encounter those rare Spanish firs that sit in a protected drainage, particularly on the cooler north-facing slopes. These firs are relicts of the Ice Age and exist in only a handful of spots in Andalucia and two locations in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco.

As you move higher up in elevation and deeper into the basin, the forest becomes a dense stand of these medium-sized whitish-blue firs. Their needles are stiff and pointed and could be mistaken for spruces, except that the upright cones are unmistakable.

The last of the firs eeke out a living near treeline

It does not take long however, for the forest to disappear into an arid alpine scrub ecosystem. As you approach the back of the basin and begin to ascend to the saddle above, the forest thins, the views expand, and the landscape changes dramatically. The firs have been under assault for centuries by feral goats, frequent fires, timber harvests (particularly in the middle ages), and more recently global warming. Thus, their remaining range is small and at risk for elimination, even in this protected park.

As you rise above the treeline, other mountain ranges of Andalucia begin to poke out across the landscape. Soon you are in a landscape of dwarf hedgehog brooms, with their spiky balls defending themselves from the ever-present teeth of hungry goats.

Feral goats graze amongst a restoration project

While the park has been working on trying to restore the ecosystems of the Sierra de las Nieves, the presence of goats remains a major inhibitor since they will eat just about anything, can survive the heat and aridity of the Andalucian summer, and cause erosion to the already thin soils of this rocky environment. I don't know if they have done anything to try and remove these goats, but we saw lots of them in the area.

Four ancient gall oaks in a line. Did they grow on a nurse log?

Once you climb over the top of the ridge, you will come across a central basin at the summit area. This sheltered basin contains some small meadows of low-cut grass and wildflowers with scattered ancient gall oaks. These trees are native only to Iberia and Morocco and have been commercially harvested for their nutgalls for thousands of years. These nutgalls are created by an infection of gall wasps and are  used to produce brown and grey dyes for textiles.

Gall oaks with Torrecilla summit (1919 m) in the distance
About 1 km up from the trailhead in the fir forest and again in the summit basin are large stone pits called Pozo de Nieve. These are snow catchment basins and have been used for hundreds of years to collect and store winter snow. In the spring, people would come up to collect the snow, put it into backpacks and baskets and carry it down to underground ice rooms in the local villages called nevero artificial for storage of meat and summer treats like early forms of ice cream.

A pozo de nieve near the summit
As you walk along the northern edge of the summit basin, you will encounter a trail intersection. Heading off to the south is the trail to the summit of Torrecilla, which is the highest peak in the range. This adds approximately 2.5 km each way to the hike if you decided to go there.

A view to the north from the summit ridge (above the pollution line)

You can also continue straight until arriving at the west edge of the ridge. Here the trail will drop dramatically down toward the village of Quejigales. This overview spot would be an excellent place to turn around and head back to your car at Puerto Saucillo.

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