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.
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.
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.
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.