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M onfragüe National Park is one of Spain’s most impressive national parks. The park is home to some of the world’s largest breeding populations of vultures, including the Eurasian black vulture, griffon vulture, and the endangered Egyptian vulture. The park is also known for its unique geology, with an iconic jagged mountain set as the backdrop for the soaring vultures. You’ll also find plenty of hiking for all levels and even some castle ruins and prehistoric rock paintings.
Monfragüe National Park is one of the more accessible national parks in Spain. There are plenty of things to do in Monfragüe to enjoy nature. You can hop out of the car for a quick look at the birds with your binoculars, hike through the Mediterranean shrubland, enjoy a scenic drive, stroll, visit a nature center, or even see a castle ruin. This guide to visiting Monfragüe National Park has you covered to plan a great few days enjoying birding and nature.
We visited one of the hottest parts of the year, and while hiking in Monfragüe was hot AF, it was so rewarding. Seeing the soaring vultures and learning about this fascinating family of raptors was incredible. Trekking through the Mediterranean shrubland, we spotted birds, flowers, and plants we had never seen before. It was a highlight of our month-long Spanish campervan road trip, where we saw incredible nature that changed how I felt about one of my favorite countries. Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura is a must-visit for a slow Spanish road trip or an added extension to your Madrid city break.
WHAT WE’RE COVERING
- Monfragüe is both a Spanish National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
- It preserves Mediterranean shrubland and some of Spain’s most unique wildlife.
- It’s one of the best places for birding – like viewing rare raptors, such as Black and Griffon Vultures and Spanish Imperial Eagles.
- It is also home to amphibians and mammals like the Iberian Lynx.
- Three hiking trails and an accessible walk provide outdoor activity for all fitness levels.
- You’ll even find cave paintings and castle ruins
- There are multiple visitor centers and educational facilities to enhance your experience.
Monfragüe National Park History
During the 1900s, terracing and expansion of eucalyptus plantations were causing rapid loss of native scrub and forest, home to many of Spain’s threatened species like vultures and lynx. After a battle to secure a protected area for native biodiversity, Monfragüe was declared a natural park, one step below a national park. Once protected, the land and wildlife began to thrive, becoming a bastion and haven for some of the world’s most incredible, threatened and rare bird species.
With the native habitat thriving, more people visited to appreciate this pocket of nature in Spain. If you are a fellow birder, you know we can’t resist a good opportunity to peep at some great tits (or, in this case, black vultures). Bird jokes for the win, am I right?
In the 90s and 2000s, it was also awarded UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, designated a Special Protection Area for Birds, and was finally recognized as a National Park of Spain. All these protections were a testament to Mongfragüe as a unique place teaming with landscapes, wildlife, and history of utmost value to Spain and the world. AKA, it is incredible. Today, Monfragüe is the most extensive and best-preserved Mediterranean mountain landscapes worldwide!
You are right if you think the park’s name doesn’t quite sound Spanish! The name originates from the Latin word “Mons Fragorum,” which means fragmented mountain. The human history in the park dates back to prehistoric times, but the Romans also had a significant presence using the mountains for defense and giving the park its name. The fragmented mountains refer to what the Spanish now call Salto del Gianto or the largest mountain in the park.
Monfragüe Ecology and Nature
At the Mirador del Salto, you’ll notice this iconic mountain fragmented by the vivid Tagus River. The river cuts through the cliffside, where hundreds of birds roost and soar. The park is best known for these large birds of prey or raptors. Perhaps the most fantastic raptor you’ll encounter is the Eurasian Black vulture, one of the world’s largest birds of prey. The park has nearly 700 breeding pairs, thanks to conservation efforts.
It shares the skies with the less common Spanish Imperial Eagle, with only about a dozen breeding pairs. There are also Egyptian and Griffon Vulture, Red and Black Kites, and even the Northern Goshawk. Some of the smaller birds include Black Redstart, Rock Sparrow, Red-billed Chough, Thekla Lark, Warblers, and many more.
For the mammals, the park is home to the endangered Iberian lynx, otters, badgers, foxes, deer, mongoose, and Europe’s only species of genet.
As you explore the park, you’ll also see native oak forests, wild olive trees, and Mediterranean shrubs. We hiked through the park and saw beautiful wildflowers, wild rose bushes, and many unique plants.
We hiked through the park during a hot and dry period and saw many dry river beds. In spring, these rivers flow with water creating wetland-like forests. These river banks and marshy areas are a haven for frogs, salamanders, the Spanish ribbed newt, and many more amphibians found only in this region. Water-loving birds such as Black Storks and cranes migrate through the area to feast on these tasty snacks.
Wild About Vultures
With so much incredible wildlife in the park, why is the focus on the vultures and raptors?
For starters, the global population of vultures has been in a freefall since the 1990s. Eurasian populations declined by 99% in some areas; yes, that is an almost total loss of some species.
Why the decline?
Vultures are highly specialized and the only bird to rely solely on scavenging. To process everything they eat, they have stomachs of steel. Their stomach acid is pH1, so they can digest carcasses infested with nasty toxins and bacteria, such as botulinum, hog cholera, and anthrax, that would kill other scavengers and pollute water and soil. By doing this heroic job, they keep us, other animals, and our water and soil healthy from bacteria deadly to humans. Thanks, friends.
Unfortunately, since they consume dead animals, such as livestock, they can die from medications used to treat livestock. Some things acid can’t protect them from, like human-introduced pharmaceuticals. One example was the frequent use of new veterinary drugs in the 90s. As vultures feasted on previously medicated livestock, they died within days. Since hundreds of vultures gather to eat one carcass at a time, all it takes is one treated dead animal to kill hundreds.
Another reason for their decline is habitat loss for their prey, like foxes, lynxes, rabbits, and badgers. As agricultural development and urbanization destroy the homes of these species, the vultures lose critical food sources.
As the population of raptors declines, areas like Monfragüe are critical. The park protects the species and provides a safe place for their favorite meals, such as the mammals I mentioned earlier. That means they almost have a healthy supply carcass sans pharmaceuticals – sounds like a win for everyone!
You don’t have to be a birder to fall in love with these massive birds of prey soaring high above on the heat waves.
Park Rules and Sustainability
Considering how special this place is historically and ecologically, naturally, there are some guidelines to follow when in the park. Tourists play a considerable role in protecting and conservating places like Monfragüe National Park. But they can also have a negative impact. As cities in Spain grapple with overtourism, many seek alternative nature-based and ecotourism experiences. While that is generally good, it means increasing human pressure in some of Spain’s most vulnerable destinations. To help alleviate the negative impacts of tourism in national parks, learn about the park-specific rules at the visitor center and follow these general guidelines.
- No campfires
- No loud music (why? Loud music scares animals and causes them to run, depleting their fat resources and energy, which can be deadly during food and water scarcity).
- No tent camping
- No littering – that includes food scraps
- No harvesting or collecting of wild plant or animal species
- No feeding, touching, or harming wildlife
- No drones
- No defacing rock art ofrdisturbing the natural geology
- If you are traveling with a dog, check local rules. Most national parks, especially with endangered wildlife, have restrictions regarding dogs.
- Don’t use the outdoors as a toilet – use the facilities at the visitor center.
- Do not go off the marked trail
If you want more information regarding sustainable ecotourism, check out my primer, or take a deep dive into responsible tourism at UNESCO World Heritage sites.
How to Get to Monfragüe
Unlike the roadless and carbon-free national park in the Catalan Pyrenees, you can drive to and through Mongfragüe, making it a slightly more accessible park if you have a car.
There are three entrances. You will likely use the north or south entrance of EX-208, which is the main highway. Most of the hikes and main sights are off EX-208, making navigating easy. The less common entrance would be the rural road coming from the NE.
Make sure you rent a car from Madrid, another nearby city, or add this national park to a larger road trip itinerary. No reliable public transportation takes you to the park. There was a train stop near our campground called Monfragüe, but from there, I think your option for getting into the actual park is limited. There might be a shuttle bus, but I would contact the local tourism board if you cannot drive, as I can not find any information about a park shuttle.
Your first stop once inside the park should be the central hub of Villarreal de San Carlos – even if you have to pass a few viewpoints – you can always return to them later. Villareal de San Carlos is the heart of the park. You will find a parking lot, restaurant, and the start of all three major hiking trails in the park.
Things to do in Monfragüe National Park
Learn at the Visitor Centers and Educational Centers
Before entering the park, you should stop at one (or both) educational visitor centers. They provide excellent wildlife and park ecology context. They are called the North or South Monfragüe Visitor Center or Centro de Visitantes Norte/Sur Parque Nacional de Monfragüe in Spanish.
The North Center has four exhibits that guide you through the different seasons in the park. We learned about nature, wildlife, and birds with educational exhibits, audio-visual components, and tactile displays. We spent over an hour at this center and visited the day before entering the park. I suggest you do the same.
The south center is a new complex and has four different tourist facilities. There is a tourist office to help you plan your Monfragüe itinerary. The Astronomical Observatory has a telescope and information about the night sky. You can learn about Extremadura and Monfragüe’s incredible bird life at the Bird Center. There is also an exhibit of rock art in the area and mountain biking trails.
I use the word downtown loosely, butt Villarreal de San Carlos is the park’s central hub. You can start most of the hikes or take a little break from here. Rustic brick buildings house a bar, restaurant, cafe, and some apartments surrounding the tourist center. You can park your car, visit a small chapel, and admire the cobblestone streets here.
Enjoy a Relaxed, Accessible Walk
For those who want a light, easy walk to enjoy nature, have a stroller, wheelchair, or mobility concerns, there is a lovely accessible walk. The Ruta del Arroyo Malvecino accessible route follows a babbling brook through the shaded forest and shrubland. During our longer hike, we joined this trail at the tail end. The path is wide, packed dirt, and paved in some areas. There is a slight include toward the end of the path, but you can turn around at any time.
Take Moderate Half/Day Hikes
There are three moderate hiking routes in Monfragüe. Each offers something slightly different, from a steep scenic climb, bushwalking through the shrubland, to forested traversing. However, if you are visiting in the summer and are not used to hiking in the bush in extreme heat, I suggest you stick to the accessible walks and accessible viewpoints.
We did a longer hike and, unfortunately, came across a group suffering from heat stroke who didn’t pack enough water. After giving them half our water and bringing them into the shade, we hiked back to the park ranger station to inform someone of their position. I don’t mean to scare you, but if hiking in foreign countries under challenging situations doesn’t sound like something you would enjoy, don’t stress. There are plenty of other things to do in Monfragüe.
Red Route – Castillo
The red route is the park’s longest and hike with the most elevation gain. The entire circuit clocks in at 16km, reaching an elevation of 513 meters. But, since it passes some of the most iconic viewpoints and ruins, it is an excellent option if you are physically fit and packed enough food, water, and sun protection. Starting at Villareal de San Carlos, you’ll cross and follow the river and the highway. You’ll pass the park’s most famous viewpoint Salto de Gitamo for excellent views of vultures and the striking river below. The climb continues to the summit of Monfragüe peak, where you’ll see the castle ruins.
While the hike might be the longest and highest, it is well maintained. Along the path are picnic areas and fountains to replenish your water and take a break to eat. We only did part of this route, parking at a lot near the castle and hiking up, which you can do as well.
Green Route – Cerro Gimio
The green route is the shortest at 8 km, reaching an elevation of 372 meters, but it has fewer break areas and no fountains. So, you need to prepare for a different challenge. We chose this hike because it reached over 100 degrees F by mid-day, and selecting a shorter hike with less elevation allowed us to finish before noon. After the green hike, we then had time to drive to the viewpoints along the red route.
We loved the green route, though. As we traversed through the shrubland, we found quiet and solace away from the highway and crowds at the famous viewpoints. Most of the hike was just Ganesh and me, some birds and wildlife.
Starting at Villarreal de San Carlos, this hike takes you west in a loop. We followed counterclockwise to ensure we had shade for most of the day. Once we reached the summit of Gimio, we had a picnic lunch and pulled out the binoculars. We spent some time viewing the soaring vultures and taking in the view before we began our descent. The trail eventually connects with the accessible route and finishes in the cool shade along a small river, where you might be able to spot amphibians.
While this trail is shorter, it is difficult, especially in summer. On our way back, we ran into a group having a heat stroke, and they needed to prepare for hiking 8km in the heat. Ganesh and I had about 5L of water and water-filled snacks like bell peppers to keep our hydration levels high.
Yellow Route – Tajadilla
Finally, at 9km, the yellow route has the least climbing elevation and might be the “easiest” of the three. Heading east from Villareal de San Carlos, the yellow trail is an out-and-back traverse following a river channel. For a good portion of the tail, you’ll pass the Oak forest, which offers an entirely different experience from the shrubland of the green route. A few fountains, picnic areas, and viewpoints along the trail make it an excellent moderate walk. The trail officially ends at the La Tajadilla viewpoint, where you will turn around and return to the starting point.
In addition to the three hikes in the national park boundary, three additional hikes start outside the park and take you into the borders. The Serradilla is 14km from the west. The Torrejon el Rubio climbs over the Sierra de Monfragüe in a 13 km trek starting from the town of its name’s sake, and the Malpartida de Plasencia is 19 km and enters from the north. Ensure you are properly outfitted for more extended tours in this challenging terrain.
Monfragüe is one of the world’s top birding destinations. Take a minute and download a bird ID app. I use Merlin from Cornell University – and they just launched in Western Europe! Don’t forget your monoculars and a zoom lens if you have one. The national park has a variety of ecosystems, each with a lively collection of unique birds. Of course, what you can see depends on the season.
From most miradors or viewpoints, you can spot the raptors and birds of prey soaring high above or nesting on the rocky cliffsides. We spotted a variety of vultures and other raptors at Cerro Gimio on the green hiking trail and Salto del Gitamo on the red hiking trail. You might see kites and eagles soaring over the fields and agricultural lands along the yellow route.
While we traversed the green trail, we spent most of our time in the Mediterranean scrubland. Birds such as the Black-eared Wheater and various warblers would appear flittering about if we stopped and stood still for a moment.
You can see species such as the Woodchat Shrikes, Bee-eaters, Hoopie, Rock Sparrow, and more in the oak forest regions.
You might spot the black stork slowly hunting along the river banks. Golden Oriole, short-toed Treecreeper, and more warblers are other species along the waterways, which can dry up during the summer months.
The smaller birds are tough to spot, and even the larger ones can be hard to ID. You’ll enjoy yourself as a recreational birder no matter what, but I suggest you book a guided excursion if you are a serious birder.
Some tours you can book are reasonably priced half or full-day tours that leave from Villareal de San Carlos inside the park. Another option is to book a multi-day tour around Extremadura that departs from Madrid.
Take in the View
Mongragüe is full of epic Miradors or viewpoints. The three hiking trails will have a few views of the beautiful landscape, but plenty more are around the park. After you finish your chosen hike, or if you prefer not to hike, I recommend driving to the other scenic vistas. Most of them have convenient parking spots. You can visit Salta del Gitamo, Tres Caños, La Tajadilla, La Malavuelta, and more by car.
Enjoy a Picnic
The park is full of picnic spots immersed in the natural landscape. I suggest skipping the restaurant and packing lunch. We enjoyed our sandwiches at a scenic place for picnics. The local Spanish word for the picnic table is “Merendero,” so look for these Ms on the map, and you’ll know where to find an excellent spot for a picnic.
Go Back in Time at Monfragüe’s Castle
You will come across the Castillo ruins if you complete the red trail. Otherwise, you can park at this location and hike to the castle ruins.
Since Pre-Roman times, the castle’s strategic location has been used for defense. The Romans built the first fortress on the mountain. The castle was used almost continuously throughout the centuries until it was left to ruin in the 18th century. Restoration and excavation began in the 1980s. Today, you can visit the castle and stand in a space with incredible views and important historical context.
Admire the Prehistoric Cave Paintings
Monfragüe National Park and Biosphere Reserve has at least 107 shelters with prehistoric rock paintings inside. However, you can only visit one location, El Abrigo del Castillo, and you need to book a guided tour to visit. Rock paintings are susceptible to human influence and are of high cultural value. For this reason, you can schedule your tour with a guide at the South Visitor center or the Torrejón el Rubio Office. There are strict capacity limits, so if you have your heart set on seeing these ruins, book in advance by emailing the tourist office.
The cave paintings are estimated to have been created between 9,000 and 2,500 years ago, between the Epipaleolothic to Iron Ages. The images depict both human and animal figures. If you can’t book a tour or don’t have time, I suggest stopping by the Rock Art Center in Torrejón to learn more about the region’s history.
Go Mountain Biking
Monfragüe is home to Extremadura’s only mountain bike center in a protected national park. If you enjoy seeing the national park on two wheels instead of two feet, stop by the Monfragüe BTT Center. At the center, you can rent mountain bikes, get a trail map, and plan your route. The national park has 350 km of trail with 12 marked routes for all levels.
Gaze at the Stars
Monfragüe is a protected national park with minimal light pollution, so it is a great place to view the night sky. Even if you don’t make it to the observatory, you can head out from your accommodation in the evening with a telescope or just a constellation-identifying app and appreciate the beauty of a dark sky reserve.
Tips for Visiting Monfragüe
Where to Stay
You have lots of options when it comes to choosing where to stay in Monfragüe National Park.
If you are like us and on a long-distance campervan road trip, you should book a camp spot at Camping Monfragüe. We found a great little site to set up our campervan. Amenities included a pool, kiosk, restaurant, shower, and laundry. It is also right next to the North Tourist Center. If you don’t have a campervan or tent, but enjoy rustic glamping, they also have on-site bungalows.
You can also book a room at the rural house inside the national park. This is basic accommodation and a bit dated, but you get the luxury of being in the national park at night – Great for astro-toruism. If you want to be up early and start hiking or exploring, you’ll want to book a night or two in the park’s heart.
If you prefer to stay in a more lively area with choices for bars, restaurants, supermarkets, and 14 different hotels, then the tiny urban hub of Torrejón el Rubio is the best option for you. The town is off the EX-208 highway and has the South Visitor Center.
If you are a fan of sustainable agritourism experiences, perhaps a rural house in the mountains where you can see wildlife is right up your alley.
When to Visit
There is always something happening in Monfragüe National Park, so you can’t go wrong, but each season offers a different experience. The iconic vultures hang around most of the year, so your chances of seeing vultures are high no matter the time of year.
The best time to visit would be spring or late autumn regarding the weather and bird-watching opportunities. Spring is the best time to see the incredibly rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. Both seasons have hundreds of species of birds active in the park for migrating, mating, nesting, or emerging from the lull of summer’s extreme heat. The park has more water and wildlife activity, and your chances of heat stroke are seriously reduced.
Winter is probably the next best time to visit, you’ll likely encounter more rain and cool temperatures, and it might be an excellent opportunity to see Monfragüe amphibians and water-loving birds. Winter is still an excellent time for birding. Most of the vultures inhabit the area year-round. You’ll also hopefully spot dozens more bird species.
Summer is some of the least active months for birders. While crowds are low, it comes with extreme heat. If you visit in the summer, you’ll need to do any physical activity at the break of dawn or dusk. July and August are the hottest months, with relatively low animal and human activity. Some summer birds like, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Booted Eagle, and storks should be around along with the vultures.
Best Months for Birders: Late November – End of June
Best Months of Flora: April – May
Offline Maps and Language
Very few people in the park spoke English. Monfragüe, while a tourist destination, is more popular with local tourists. I scraped by with Spanish, which I was thankful to know, considering we had to help a group of hikers in an emergency. Even when reporting the emergency to the park ranger, I had to speak Spanish, and he did not understand English. All the maps and signage are in Spanish. Before visiting the park, download Google Maps and Translate to help you understand maps and signs and communicate in an emergency.
How Long to Stay
We spent two nights in Monfragüe and could have easily spent more. Two nights gave us time to do one hike, drive to see the viewpoints, visit the castle, and stop by the visitor center. If you want to do two or more walks, try mountain biking, or book a guided tour to see the cave art, you should stay more nights, as you can only do one daily hike or big activity like mountain biking.
Where to Eat
We didn’t try many of the restaurants in the area. As vegetarians visiting with a campervan, we cooked most of the food in our campervan or packed picnic lunches. I suggest you stock up at a supermarket beforehand if you have dietary restrictions or want to eat lunch on a hike.
If you need a restaurant, there is one in Villarreal de San Carlos, one at Camping Monfragüe, and several in Torrejón el Rubio.
Park Safety and What to Pack
Most of the recommended hikes in the park are day hikes. We visited in July, so it was hot AF. We packed for a full day out, including lunch, water, snacks, sun hat and cream, hiking boots, poles, and athletic clothing. Even though there are several fountains in the park, you should not rely on them for all your water intake.
- Day bag – I only ever use Osprey bags. They last me 10+ years, making them a sustainable long-term investment. Most of my Osprey are so old that I’m not sure they are even online anymore, but I have a day bag similar to this with hip support.
- Wool socks – Farm to feet is my favorite sustainable and ethical U.S. brand. These keep you warm, dry, and stink-free!
- Hiking boots – I have a German brand that you can’t find many places outside Germany. Finding a good hiking boot is best done in person at your local recreational store.
- Hiking pants – I am all about those zip-offs
- Hiking shirt
- Camelbak bladder – Ganesh and I had 5L between us for this hike, and we drank every last drop.
- Snacks – I always pack my snacks in reusable bags or bee’s wax wraps. I suggest water-heavy snacks like grapes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and fruit for hikes in hot weather.
- Trekking poles – you might not need these, but I always have them on hand if I get in a sticky situation, get tired, or want to increase my calorie burn with an arm workout. My REI Co-Op poles have lasted me 9 years and are still going!
- Battery charger to make sure your phone has a battery for photos and emergency calls
- Camera or phone
- Binoculars – you’ll want these to see all the wildlife
- Telescope if you are into astro-tourism
Discuss and Share
I hope you can experience the magic of Monfragüe National Park with this comprehensive guide to all the amazing things you can do in this park. Monfragüe is one of Spain’s and the world’s most treasured nature reserves providing a home for a bounty of raptors, birds, amphibians, and mammals. Whether you are interested in hiking, human history, birding, or just enjoying a picnic lunch surrounded by nature, you should add Monfragü National Park and Biosphere reserve to your nature-based Spain itinerary.
Are you looking for more sustainable and nature-based guides to Spain? Then check out these related posts!
I must admit we spent most of our time in Spain in the cities and small towns. So it was great to learn more about Monfragüe National Park and discover some great outdoor sights. Our daughter is an ornithologist and would love a spot like this with so many birds to see. And you know we would be photographing and cataloging them to share with her if we visited. I love that one of the park rules prohibits loud music. Who needs this when you want the quiet of nature?
How cool that your daughter is an ornithologist! She would love all the birds in Monfrague – hopefully, you can visit and show her photos someday. Thanks for your comment!
I’m so impressed with Vultures and learning about how they have stomachs of steel! Monfrague national park is now on my list of must see places in Spain – thanks for sharing so much useful info.
They are the most incredible birds and Monfrgue is such a great place to see them!
Will it be a good time to find vultures and other bird species of we visit the Park in end November or early December?
Hey Karen, you should be able to see most of the vultures year-round, especially the black and griffon vulture! You might even be able to spot a few Eagles. For the smaller birds’ thrushes, wheatears should be around. Purple swamphens and other water-loving birds should be around as well. Of course, what you can see if really always based on luck, but winter is a great time to visit! I hope you have the best time!
Great photos, I especially love the bird close-ups. Monfrague sounds like such a great place to visit. Thanks for putting it on my radar!
I hope you can visit Monfrague – it is such a cool national park in Spain with so many incredible bird species!