Mike and I have been wanting to run from our village of Alhama de Granada across the Sierras Tejeda y Almijara National Forest to the city of Nerja on the Mediterranean since we arrived in Spain. The Sierras Tejeda y Almijara is 406 km2 of beautiful, rugged, mountainous wilderness. The national park divides Granada province, where we live, and Malaga province to the South. The mountains beckon us, we are drawn to explore the many trails that climb through the canyons under the shade of pine trees and the endless blue skies of Southern Spain. In the past few months we have spent many days exploring the trails on our side of the national park but despite our efforts we have covered only a very small fraction of the routes that are close to Alhama. Whenever we reach points where we can see the Mediterranean in the distance we agree that if we can see it we need to run there!
We consulted guide books, friends in Alhama and our friend Paul’s many maps of the region. We ran from La Resinera near the village of Forne several times scoping out the beginnings of the trek across the mountains.
We knew that we could reach the Puerta de Frigiliana 7 miles up a nice dirt road from La Resinera office.
From the Puerta de Frigiliana we could see the ocean and white villages on the opposite side of the park. How hard could it be to find a route down to the beach if we could see our destination?
We recruited our friend Eric to run with us. He has lived here for a few years and knows many routes on the Granada side of the mountain because he helps organize Al Andalus, ( alandalus-ut.com ) a 5 day, 230km trail stage race based in Alhama every July. This would be a new adventure for Eric since he had never attempted the route. He was excited to join us on the trek so our group became 3.
The road from our side of the mountain was deceptively smooth.
We had run to the Puerta de Frigliana many times and we knew that there was a excellent trail for at least the first 8 miles or so. From the Puerta we could see Lucero (1780meters/5840 feet).
We continued the up the road which became progressively steeper and more rocky until we reached 5100 feet by my Garmin.
From there, the trail plunged downward and became more irregular.
We carefully made our way to what appeared to be the end of the trail. We looked around and found a pile of rocks, a “cairn or duck” left by previous hikers to designate the direction to continue. From there the trail was quite overgrown.
We imagined if there were people leaving rock piles it should really get better soon. We followed the trail squeezing between the various spiky bushes. After about a mile we were considering turning back. Just as I was about to agree that this trail was impassable Mike and Eric spotted El Cortijo de Inman a definite landmark on our map. I had a picture on my phone of a map from my trail guide so we were sure that we were on the right trail.
Surely after the Cortijo the trail would improve. Farmhouses, even in ruins, generally have a road of some kind leading to them. Eric scurried ahead of us and explored the ruins.
While he found plenty of evidence of previous visitors at the Cortijo, cigarette butts, water bottles, (even a pair of pants!), we surveyed our scratches and looked for the next cairn.
The trail leading away from the Cortijo de Inman was no better than the one we arrived on. We had now trudged through more than 3 miles of densely covered terrain and our legs were burning from the scratches (if only we had worn thick pants! ) so turning back was less than appealing. We found another rock pile and followed the trail down the canyon. At this point there were many dwarf palms which look quite pretty but have lethal spines. I accidentally grabbed a branch to move it out of the way and blood oozed through my glove. We started calling the dwarf palms the little palm trees from hell. “Be careful palm tree from hell on the left!” Amongst the various spiky plants were sage and rosemary. We learned quickly that rosemary is soft to touch so we would preferentially grab or lean on the rosemary branches to squeeze past their dangerous neighbors. Although bloody, my gloves smelled lovely at the end. After an eternity of moving very slowly through overgrowth above my head in many places we came upon La Presa, a dam that was clearly marked on our map. The dam was very old and long since abandoned. There was an acequia, an aqueduct, that was for the most part, intact. Our guide book recommended walking along the aqueduct as long as “vertigo is not a problem”. Actually Mike read that part of the book and let us know that for the next few kilometers it would be wise if we just paid attention to our footing. If we wanted to look around it might be best that we all stopped in a wide spot.
Unfortunately we could see the sun slipping more quickly toward the horizon and we started to get really nervous that we were going to be out on an unfamiliar trail well beyond nightfall. As dusk began to fall, we walked as quickly as we could manage safely along the side of the aqueduct which was about 12-18 inches wide and very uneven in places. In many spots there were holes big enough to fall through. As it got darker I would call out irregularities to Mike and Eric behind me. We were needing to stop to eat but were afraid to waste even a moment of daylight not moving forward. Eventually the narrow walkway became very difficult to see and I started to feel panicky. What if one of us slips and falls over the side? At this point we couldn’t even see when it plunged sharply over a cliff. Occasionally there would be a thin wire stretched along the side.
We could no longer see but had to assume if there was a wire railing that it was a more precarious section. We were careful not to put any faith at all in the tiny guide wires. It was unlikely if we fell that that wire would hold any of our weight. I pulled out my Iphone and used it for about 50 meters until Mike suggested that we try his flashlight.
He had brought a multi-tool that had a knife and a flashlight. He thought the light would not be strong enough to guide us but as it turned out I think it probably saved our lives or at least prevented us from losing the trail in the dark. He took the lead and held the light so that it shone in front of him but also a bit behind so that we could follow. We moved very slowly and deliberately for another 30 minutes until we started to hear the sound of a waterfall. In the dark the sound of crashing water over a cliff was a bit more terrifying than usual. It was then that I remembered that the guide book recommended bringing a bathing suit for a nice, refreshing dip in the water. In December, in the dark, with the chill of night closing in we did not want to get wet. Mike announced we were stopping and warned us that we were going to need to go through the water. We had reached the end of the acequia and to get past where it plummeted into the darkness were were going to need to walk through the water for about 20 feet. Mike carefully tested the surface under the water with his left foot. We had to walk along the edge of the waterfall. If the cement was slippery this would be very dangerous. Thankfully the water was only up to our knees and the pavement wasn’t slippery. We all held hands and slowly, deliberately, took very small steps until we reached safe ground. I was shivering when we emerged from the water. I wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or from the fear that I was trying to keep under control. We had been worried for at least an hour that we could be going in the wrong direction but at this point we could see the lights of Nerja and we ventured a mini celebration and stopped for a small snack. When we emerged from the acequia there was a narrow, rocky path that switched back and forth down the side of the mountain in the general direction of the lights. We stayed close together and moved slowly through the dark. We finally came to what appeared to be a very old electrical station. Horray, surely there will be a road from there! OK, so no road but there was a sign with an arrow indicating “dirección obligatorio”, obligatory direction. Again, we were really grateful for the flashlight without it we might have missed the sign. We didn’t find out what was in the other direction but if someone went to the trouble to put up a sign like that it wasn’t anything good. The obligatory direction path sent us straight down an even steeper, twisty, rocky path. We had been traversing the side of the mountain on the aqueduct so we were happy to be moving toward sea level but wouldn’t have minded a bit more gentle descent. The rocks were uneven and mobile and we each took at least one slip onto our backsides. Between slips Eric’s phone rang, ahh cell service! Michelle was calling, worried that she would be late meeting us. He assured her that we were OK but it would probably still be awhile before we would meet her in Nerja. We finally reached flat ground and found ourselves at the Rio Chillar which, likely due to the drought was little more than a very wide creek. We could no longer see anything resembling a trail but now that we were out of the trees the moon was shining brightly just over our destination. It seemed to be there just for us to guide us to warmth and safety. The moon was 3/4 full, a gibbous moon, it shone on the white rocks and illuminated the path. Our shoes already wet, we cheerfully bounced over rocks and through the water. We reflected that it was a huge relief to be on solid ground where if we fell it would only be to the ground under our very own feet, not 100’s of feet below. The rio led us to a dirt road that crossed under the freeway and eventually to a road that lead us up to a residential neighborhood in Nerja. I love running in the mountains and I am never happier than when I am in the forest with soft dirt beneath my feet, but let me tell you, I was so happy to see the pavement that night! Mike, Eric and I whooped with joy as we ran down a familiar road to the hotel. We were actually able to RUN and it felt so good after so many hours of tense hiking. It was hard to believe that the first half of the adventure took 2 1/2 hours while the second half took 6! I had reserved a room at the Paradores de Nerja, a very posh spot right on the beach.
Nerja, a beach town, is a ghost town in December so the price was right. We were very dirty, our legs were bleeding and we probably didn’t smell very good but the lovely people at this very fancy hotel welcomed us with curious smiles. Michelle was waiting for us in the lobby with bags of warm clothes. She was calmly working on her computer using the hotel’s “abierto” wifi. She hugged us, ignoring the sweat as we excitedly recounted the past few hours. I am pretty sure we were all talking at once we were so excited and relieved to be standing in the lobby of a a 4 star hotel! We checked in, showered and in no time were in search of food. We had eaten breakfast but that was many hours ago and 8 hours of running/hiking on only energy gels and granola bars left us starving. Amazingly we found a wonderful Indian restaurant. We ordered a bottle of the house wine because the waiter told us that it was special Indian wine from Argentina. What an international day we were having! We talked and laughed and ate and ate. We slept hard at the Parador that night. In the morning I awoke to the sound of the mediterranean outside our window. The Parador is on the beach and the view from our room was breathtaking.
Our original plan was to run back to La Resinera the day after our trek to Nerja but even in the daylight repeating that trail was not on our list of fun adventures. One time past the Cortijo de Inman and along the acequia was enough for us! What luck Michelle had opted to drive to Nerja to meet us!
Eric and Michelle drove us back to our car by way of (of all things!) a McDonalds. How happy Mike looked eating his quarter pounder and french fries. We made it home in time to pick up the girls from school. I hugged them hard and promised myself that our next adventure would include more running and less danger.