The formidable barrier of the Pyrenees mountain range is the natural border between France and Spain. 430 km long from the Eastern Cape of Creus on the Mediterranean coast to Western Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic, its maximum width is 150 km. The range comprises more than 200 peaks over 3,000 m. The highest summits are all located on the Spanish side of the range, in the Central Massif, mostly in the province of Huesca, in the Aragón region, and to a lesser extent, in the province of Lérida, in Catalonia. The 3 highest are Aneto (3,404 m/11,168 ft), Posets (3,375 m/11,073 ft) and Monte Perdido (3,352 m/10,997 ft), all 3 located in Huesca.
Most of our Pyrenean hiking, trekking and multi-activity trips take place in the Central section of the range pertaining to the Spanish provinces of Huesca and Lérida, areas of outstanding natural beauty with spectacular scenery, featuring towering summits, deep canyons and glacial cirques and lakes spread among various protected areas, including Spain’s 2 Pyrenean national parks: Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido and Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, as well as the Posets-Maladeta Natural Park that is home to the range’s highest concentration of 3000 meter summits and the canyon-wonderland of the Sierra de Guara Natural Park.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the entire range is Huesca’s Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, established in 1918, being Spain’s second area to received protected status and currently encompasses a surface area of 15,600 hectares.
UNESCO World Heritage Site – This national park, together with France’s Parc National des Pyrénées, constitutes part of a trans-national region designated by UNESCO in 1997 as a World Natural Heritage site, an outstanding mountain landscape, which spans the contemporary national borders of France and Spain, centred around the peak of Monte Perdido. The site, with a total area of 30,639 ha, includes two of Europe’s largest and deepest canyons on the Spanish side (Ordesa and its neighbour, Añisclo) and three major cirque walls on the more abrupt northern slopes with France (including Gavarnie), as well as many smaller ones on the Spanish side, classic presentations of these geological landforms.
The UNESCO World Heritage designation also takes into account that this is a pastoral landscape reflecting an agricultural way of life that was once widespread in the upland regions of Europe but now survives only in this part of the Pyrenees.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve In a separate designation, the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido has been included since 1997 by UNESCO in the Ordesa-Viñamala Biosphere Reserve under its “Man and the Biosphere Programme” to promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science.
The Pyrenees are older than the Alps. The limestone layer covering the central part of the range was lifted from the sea bed 50 million years ago, with landforms later modelled by glaciations creating the dramatic peaks and steep sided U-shaped valleys and left hundreds of characteristic lakes—known in the local argot as Ibones—scattered throughout the area. The limestone massifs also contain labyrinths of caves and galleries opened up by the karstic action of water, the most famous being the sinkholes of Escuaín canyon, considered among the deepest in Europe.
Monte Perdido is Europe’s highest calcareous massif, with the Tres Sorores (Monte Perdido, Cilindro and Soum de Ramond) shaping the valleys of Ordesa, Añisclo, Escuáin and Pineta, which are carved out by the rivers Arazas, Bellos, Yaga and Cinca.
UNESCO Global Geopark
From a geologist’s point of view, the Pyrenees are very interesting. In particular the Sobrarbe región, province of Huesca, has been in its entirety designated by UNESCO as a Global Geopark due to its impressive biodiversity and geodiversity, where the relationship between tectonics and sedimentation are especially visible in many sectors, showing the formation of the Pyrenees and has international relevance.
The Spanish Pyrenees, due to their southern orientation, enjoy not only a better climate, but a much wider variety of ecosystems than the French side, with both Atlantic and Mediterranean influences resulting in a rich and diverse flora and fauna.
Plant diversity is very high and over 2,000 species have been recorded. Above 1,800 to 2,000 meters, alpine vegetation predominates, the abundance of wild flowers is spectacular throughout the summer, a true paradise for wild flower lovers: meadows of edelweiss, gentians, irises, orchids, as well as foxgloves, bellflowers, monkshood, lillies and butterworts are just some species easily observed. There is also an amazing variety of butterflies.
The vegetation is distributed in altitudinal layers ranging from oak groves to mosses and lichens in the highest areas near the perpetual snows. The intermediary layers are covered with a succession of oak, beech, fir and European black pine, mixed with birch, European yew, aspen, ash and willow trees. Plant diversity is very high and over 2,000 species have been recorded.
Local fauna often observed on our trips include Pyrenean chamois, marmots, and a wide variety of raptors (birds of prey) such as golden eagle, short toed and booted eagles, griffon vultures, various hawks and Europe’s biggest population of the continent’s largest and rarest vulture – the lammergeier or bearded vulture – a frequent sighting on our hikes! Other birds you might spot include alpine accentors, choughs, treecreepers, jays, crested and great tits, chaffinches, bullfinches, swifts, martins and swallows as well as red kites and eagle owls. Less likely to be seen but present in the area are creatures such as fox, stone marten, badger, Pyrenean Desman and birds like the rock ptarmigan, western capercaillie, white-backed woodpecker and black woodpecker.
Wikipedia description of the Pyrenees: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrenees
UNESCO Ordesa-Viñamala Biosphere Reserve: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/europe-north-america/spain/ordesa-vinamala/
UNESCO World Heritage Site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/773
UNESCO Sobrarbe-Pirineos Global Geopark: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/earth-sciences/unesco-global-geoparks/list-of-unesco-global-geoparks/spain/sobrarbe-pirineos/
Study on Pyrenean glaciars: http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/p1386e/pyrenees.pdf