Located in southwestern Europe, the Pyrenees encompasses southern France, northern Spain, and Andorra. While neither as tall nor as popular as its eastern neighbour, the Alps, the Pyrenees is still worth a visit. We’re here to tell you exactly why. Do you love hiking, winter sports, or simply spending time in nature? This extraordinary mountain range has just the thing for you!
What are the Pyrenees?
The Pyrenees mountains separate the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. They mark the border between France and Spain, and entirely surround the microstate of Andorra. Approximately 430 kilometres in length, they stretch from the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast to the Bay of Roses on the Mediterranean coast. The highest mountain peaks are around 3,400 metres.
Being relatively modest in height, newbies and experts alike can enjoy the vast network of hiking trails throughout the Pyrenees. The national parks in this mountain range are an ideal playground for all nature lovers. If winter sports are more your thing, why not consider the Pyrenees for your next skiing trip? The highest peak in the region, Aneto, sits on the Spanish side of the range at a height of 3,404 metres. Glaciers can be found on the peaks of the higher mountains – including Aneto – but these have sadly been reducing in size due to climate change.
Division of the Pyrenees by Country
The Pyrenees forms a natural border between France and Spain. Andorra lies nestled in the eastern part of the range. Similar to the Alps, the Pyrenees isn’t usually divided by country. This could get quite confusing and complicated, since some mountains are part of both France and Spain. Instead, the range is divided into three sections.
The main sections are the Western, Central, and Eastern Pyrenees. The Central Pyrenees are further split up into several smaller groups. For now, let’s look at the three main regions.
Sections of the Pyrenees
The Western Pyrenees
Also known as the Atlantic Pyrenees, the Western Pyrenees runs from the Atlantic coast to Somport – one of the oldest mountain passes in the entire range. Somport is also one of the best-known border crossings between France and Spain. In 2003, however, the Somport road tunnel bypassed this mountain pass. The Western Pyrenees mainly consists of limestone, and the mountains in this section gradually become flatter towards the Atlantic. It’s due to this decrease in elevation that the Western Pyrenees is considered a relatively low mountain range.
The Western Pyrenees boasts several hiking trails through magnificent natural landscapes. You’ll pass Neolithic monuments, such as dolmens and stone circles, along the way. You’re also sure to spot some grazing cows, sheep, and wild pottok ponies. This section is where you’ll find the 900-metre-high La Rhune – the most famous mountain in the Basque Country, between France and Spain. La Rhune is ideal for seasoned climbers. If you don’t fancy the trek, a vintage cog railway is available and will take you right to the summit. Breathtaking views of the surrounding Basque Country await. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see right up to the Atlantic coast. Keep in mind, the railway only operates during the summer months, and you’ll need to book your tickets in advance.
The Foz de Arbayún is another natural sight to behold in the Western Pyrenees. This spectacular gorge, formed by the river Salazar, lies in the Spanish province of Navarre. At six kilometres long, and almost 400 metres deep, the Arbayún is the largest gorge in the region. Look out for the various birds of prey that inhabit the area, such as griffon vultures. Hike through the Arbayún to see the fascinating rock formations and native flora and fauna up close, or head to the viewing platform for a picture-perfect panorama of the gorge.
Navarre is home to another impressive gorge, namely Foz de Lumbier. Only 1.3 kilometres long and 150 metres deep, the Lumbier is quite a bit smaller than the Arbayún. A hike through this gorge is still well worth adding to your itinerary. The diversity of the flora and fauna have earned this site the status of nature reserve. Foxes, badgers, wild boars, and various species of vultures are just some of the animals you’ll see here. Remember to bring a torch, as the official hiking trails lead through some dark tunnels.
Spain’s Yesa Reservoir is an artificial lake formed by damming the river Aragón. The reservoir not only looks stunning, but also serves as a water supply and prevents flooding. Often referred to as the Sea of the Pyrenees, this area is especially popular with campers. You can also explore the abandoned towns on the riverbanks. These have been ghost towns since the construction of the dam in the 1960s.
The Central Pyrenees
The Central Pyrenees extends eastward from the Somport pass to the Aran Valley. Some refer to this section as the High Pyrenees, since it hosts some of the tallest summits in the entire mountain range, including more than 200 peaks that are over 3,000 metres – some of which are glaciated. The Pyrenees is a relatively small range. The low altitudes coupled with rising temperatures due to global warming mean that the glaciers of the Central Pyrenees are melting at an accelerating rate. While the Western Pyrenees mainly consists of limestone, the central section consists largely of granite rocks.
As previously mentioned, the Central Pyrenees can be divided into several smaller areas.
In addition to the highest peaks in the range, the central section also boasts mountain lakes, national parks, and historic man-made structures – such as the former Canfranc Estación – that are sure to impress.
Two lakes that we’d recommend visiting are Gaube Lake and Lac du Tech. Gaube Lake is accessible either by chairlift or on foot. It lies at the bottom of the Vignemale mountain, the highest of the French Pyrenean summits at an astounding height of 3,298 metres. The mountain slopes surround the lake’s turquoise waters, roughly 2,000 metres above sea level. While the area is very popular for hiking, it’s also a nice little spot to relax. The lesser-known Lac du Tech is slightly smaller than Gaube Lake, though it still offers plenty of opportunities for both hiking and soaking up the pristine nature of the Pyrenees. If you’re after something slightly more off the beaten track, Lac du Tech is definitely worth a visit.
Two large national parks are among the areas of great beauty in the Central Pyrenees. Located in France, the Pyrenees National Park has mountain lakes, countless hiking trails, an exceptionally diverse flora and fauna, and sensational views from some of the highest peaks in the range. You’ll also find plenty of campsites here if you want to spend a night in the park.
The Gavarnie Falls, situated in the immense Cirque de Gavarnie, is one of the most popular spots in the area – and for good reason! Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park is on the other side of the border in Spain. Similar to the Pyrenees National Park, Ordesa Park features a rich flora and fauna, as well as several scenic hiking trails to enjoy. You certainly won’t be able to miss Monte Perdido, which rises to a height of 3,355 metres and has a huge glacier on its north facing slope. You can climb this majestic mountain or simply admire it from afar.
The Central Pyrenees is home to Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees at 3,404 metres. This mountain is in Spain and part of the Maladeta massif. Just like Monte Perdido, Aneto features a glacier on its northern side. This climb is for more experienced mountaineers, though Aneto is also suitable for winter sports and particularly popular for skiing. The views on the hike and from the summit make the effort worthwhile!
The Eastern Pyrenees
The Eastern Pyrenees, stretching down from the Aran Valley to the Mediterranean, forms the end of the mountain range. This section is similar to the Western Pyrenees, in that the rocks in this area are predominantly limestone and the mountains become flatter towards the sea. This is where Andorra lies.
As the only national park in the Eastern Pyrenees, the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is absolutely worth a visit! Located in Spain, this park is famous for its lakes, waterfalls, and rivers, and is no different from the rest of the Pyrenees in terms of the incredible flora and fauna that flourish here. The variety of ecosystems is largely due to the wide range of altitudes, which causes some areas – such as valleys – to have a very different climate than others. The park offers outdoor activities for all abilities, including accessible walking routes for those with limited mobility. Since this area borders the Central Pyrenees, you’ll also be able to catch a glimpse of some of the mountains that are over 3,000 metres tall.
The tiny principality of Andorra is well worth a stop, particularly its capital, Andorra la Vella. This charming city is brimming with shopping opportunities, which is one of the things Andorra is best known for. The traditional architecture is well-preserved and the natural landscape as spectacular as it is unique. How often do you see a city that’s completely surrounded by mountains? The Estanys de Tristaina hike takes you through Andorra’s trio of mountain lakes: Estany Primer, Estany del Mig, and Estany de Més Amut.
For contrast from the soaring peaks, head down to the gorges of Galamus and the Gorges de la Fou in France. Much like the mountains, these two sites are true natural wonders. Both gorges provide ample opportunities for hiking, canyoning, and simply immersing yourself in spectacular nature. Additionally, the gorges of Galamus are ideal for mountain biking. You can drive through the gorges, but we recommend exploring them on foot or by bike.
The Pyrenees is a wonderfully diverse mountain range that stretches across a huge area. Each section allows you to experience breathtaking natural beauty and is incredibly unique in what it has to offer. Discover the region hiking, climbing, cycling, driving, or camping – the choice is yours. We hope that our tips have inspired you to get out and explore. Enjoy your next mountain getaway!