AFTER THE FIRST AUTUMNAL RAINS
After the long, hot and dry Andalucian summer the first autumn rains mark the beginning of a new and invigorating seasonal cycle. Within days the ochre-brown hillsides of the sierra take on a light green hue as the fresh young shoots of grasses and myriad wildflowers begin their quest for light and moisture. Walking once more becomes a joy rather than an ordeal whilst a number of the inner sanctums of the Grazalema Natural Park – they are off bounds from June to October because of the heightened risk of fire – once more become accessible.
This is the time to explore the mysteriously beautiful pinsapo forest that lies between Grazalema and El Bosque. The extensive stand of Spanish firs or pinsapos (Abies pinsapo) is the botanical jewel of the Grazalema Natural Park and even in autumn you’ll need a special permit, issued by the Park office in El Bosque, if you plan to explore the forest.
The trees were first catalogued by the Swiss botanist Pierre Edmond Boissier in 1838. Smaller stands of the trees are to be found in the Sierra de las Nieves, the Sierra de Bermeja and in the Moroccan Rif though none compares to that of Grazalema in number or extension.
When in their infancy the trees look remarkably like a child’s drawing of a Christmas tree, describing a perfect triangle of needled branches. It’s only once the trees reach some 30 or 40 years of age that their trunks begin to divide, twist and buckle, creating forms of astonishing sculptural beauty. The forest was long a source of timber before the trees became a protected species even though Spanish fir is a notoriously difficult wood for a carpenter to work, whence the local saying ‘Más malo que la madera del pinsapo’ – worse than the wood of the pinsapo.
The trailhead to the path that leads through the forest from east to west lies to one side of the Grazalema to Zahara road, some 4kms along the road that leads up to the Puerto de las Palomas. After following a steep, zigzagging path up to the Puerto de las Cumbres (1257m) the walk levels out as the footpath contours around the northern flank of the Sierra de las Cumbres before passing beneath the jagged, Paramount-like peak of San Cristobál. It’s here that the pinsapo forest comes into view, like an army of green warriors on the march from the lower reaches of the Sierra del Pinar down towards the Zahara reservoir.
The trees only grow altitudes between 900m and 1300m, on north-facing slopes where temperatures are mild yet rainfall abundant. Here they are, quite literally, in their element.
Entering the forest the walk takes on a different tempo as the dense sotobosque blocks out light whilst muffling the sound of your footsteps on the loose, limestone scree. The fantastic forms of the trees and the dappled light give the forest an eerie, fairy tale-like feel and your voice – when in company –instinctively takes on a lower tone. It feels quite magical and the path runs on for more than two kilometres before you break out into open ground as you reach the Puerto del Pinar. From here you can follow a broad forestry track down to Benamahoma or retrace your footsteps back to your point of departure.
The nitty gritty:
Distance 11.5km (there and back)
Time Allow 4 hours with a break for a picnic
The walk through the Pinsapo forest is described in Guy Hunter-Watts’s book The Mountains of Ronda & Grazalema (www.cicerone.co.uk).