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Are you curious about Spain’s amazing national parks? Catalonia’s only national park, “The Winding Streams and St. Maurice Lake,” is easily one of the best national parks in Spain. Standing at the top of a mountain ridge and looking down, you’ll see where this stunning park gets its name. Waterfalls and rivers feed into a deep blue lake surrounded by mountains. As you take a deep breath, your lungs are filled with crisp mountain air laced with hints of the black pine and fir trees that have resided over the park for hundreds of years.
In Catalan, the park is called Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. Resting high in the Pyrenees mountains, the park is teaming with cascading waterfalls, hiking trails, ancient forests, and bashful wildlife. Hiking through these mountains, I discovered a side of Europe I hadn’t encountered before, a tranquil space providing a harbor for wildlife and nature to thrive, yet still accessible for visitors to enjoy recreational activities. My time in this park made me fall in love with a new side of Spain. Outside the bustling cities like Barcelona or even the beach towns like Malaga, Spain has impressive natural landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world.
We spent three nights at a campsite near the park, taking advantage of access to the numerous hiking trails and outdoor adventure activities in the Spanish Pyrenees. Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici is easily one of the most impressive natural wonders in Spain, with extensive hiking trails, Astro tourism opportunities, camping spots, nature-based tourism, and wildlife observation. I hope you fall in love with it as I did.
Make sure you pin this post to your favorite national park or Spain travel inspiration Pinterest boards for reference later. And, in the coming weeks, check back for a full 1-month Spanish road trip itinerary, including my 15 favorite natural wonders in Spain.
WHAT WE’RE COVERING
- Catalonia’s only national park is easily one of Spain’s best natural wonders.
- High in the Pyrenees, the park is full of ancient forests and amazing wildlife.
- The most notable aspects are the extensive water features, from tumbling waterfalls to glittering high alpine lakes.
- Motor vehicles are banned from the park, so hiking is the best way to experience the park.
National Park Rules & Sustainability
With Spain’s natural areas under increasing pressure from over-tourism, made worse by the pandemic as many sought solace in nature, Aigüestortes is a well-regulated national park. But they balance it with accessibility ensuring people can enjoy recreational benefits from the national park. The park is committed extensively to education, conservation, sustainability, and responsible recreation.
You will be handed a brochure with several languages when you first enter. This brochure covers all the park rules, including guidelines for respecting nature.
- No campfires
- No loud music (why? Loud music scares animals and causes them to run. This depletes their fat resources and energy, which can be deadly during times of food scarcity, like winter.)
- No motor vehicles
- No tent camping
- No littering
- No harvesting or collecting of wild plant or animal species
- No feeding wildlife
And other guidelines, which are found here. While these might seem excessive, they enhance your visitor experience and ensure that the wildlife and plant species remain well protected.
As you explore, you’ll notice if you are quiet, the birds will start to come out, and their music will fill your ears. St. Maurice Lake National Park is home to many rare and vulnerable species, so the more we do our part to visit respectfully, the more they welcome us into their home. I honestly have never seen a national park as peaceful and tranquil as this little slice of heaven, which is part of its charm. If you choose to visit, you also consent to follow the park’s rules and guidelines for sustainability, and your experience will be much better for it.
The park boundaries have a buffer zone area of protection, which allows for flexibility in terms of management. There are stringent rules inside the national park and a slightly more flexible but still managed zone around the park. This makes sense, as animals do not care about national park boundaries.
Aside from the rules, the park is known for its innovative approach to sustainability, like worm-powered toilets. These nature-inspired toilets don’t use water or chemicals, but there is no smell or mess. After going 1 or 2, you use your foot to pump a pedal, which separates your waste and the worms, then do their job to compost your business. Don’t worry; you don’t see any of these worms, they are hidden underground. You sit and use it like a normal toilet before using the pedal.
Park Ecology & Nature
With a name that includes winding streams and lakes, Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici national park in the Spanish Pyrenees is known for water. As soon as you enter from the east entrance, you are greeted by the glittering St. Maurice Lake, with jagged mountains looming over its shores. Els Encantats, the jagged rock face, is one of the highest summits in the park and provides a stunning background from almost anywhere in the park. As you hike through the park, there is no shortage of waterfalls, babbling brooks, alpine lakes, and meadow ponds. The national park has over 200 lakes.
Thanks to the park’s regulations keeping the water sources clean and free of pollution and waste, the water here is so fresh you can go and drink it straight from a tap inserted into the mountainside.
Aside from the water, the park is teaming with diverse flora and fauna. Some big mammals are in the park, including the European wildcat and brown bear. The smaller but equally as adorable mammals include the European pine marten, marmot, and short-tailed vole. Keep an eye out for the soaring birds of prey, including the Eurasian eagle-own and the bearded vulture. With so many water sources, there are plenty of water-loving frogs, alpine salamanders, and newts.
Flora fanatics should keep an eye out for the endemic Pyrenean lily and honeysuckle, wild thyme, Alpine pasqueflower, and dwarf juniper.
We were fortunate enough to spot a Pyrenean chamois as it emerged from the forest near a waterfall. It dashed off before we got a close look, but it was a reminder of the wild encounters you can have at this haven for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.
How to Access
You can access Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici from one of two sides, either near the east near Espot or west near Boí. Whether you visit the eastern or western entrance, private motor vehicles are not allowed inside the national park’s boundaries, so you have a few options.
If you are driving, you must leave your car at the designated parking lots at the entrance. Coming from Espot, you can park here. If you park at the east entrance, you can easily walk into the park, which is an accessible 3km walk, and the west entrance, which I did not see, seems to be more difficult.
For the west entrance, you can park at this parking lot.
By 4×4 Taxi
If you want to start your hiking adventures inside the park boundaries, you can reserve a spot in the 4×4 taxi that drives through the area, including the parking lots.
Since our campervan was parked at our campsite, we decided to schedule the 4×4 taxi for a pick up at our campsite. These taxis are shared group vehicles that make several stops for booked reservations. Most hotels, campsites, or other accommodations can help reserve this taxi service for you that will depart from Espot or Boí. You will need to get tickets online to secure your spot as a covid precaution. Make sure you hand your ticket to the driver, pay close attention to the timetable, and keep your return ticket safe.
Things to do in Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici
The national park is known for what we call soft adventure. So, that means there are no motorized adventure sports or big guided activities inside the park. It is a carbon-free, motor-free place ideal for day hikes, multi-day treks, animal watching, and naturalist observations.
There are dozens of hiking trails in the park, and how you plan your day(s) depends on where you enter the park. Since we entered from the east near Espot, our launching point was St. Maurice Lake and Chaple. We used the map covering the Valls d’Àneu Pallars Sobirà.
For those looking for a stroller, or wheelchair, there are a few accessible options at either entrance. If you need assistance accessing the park, you can request this from park services.
Easy/Moderate Day Hikes
Using this brochure, we did a custom combination of 2 and parts of 3 and 4 in one day, looping them together as we went. The trail started on a gentle boardwalk running over small gurgling streams before it began to wind up a mountain trail passing roaring waterfalls. Finally, it opened up to alpine meadow ponds, lakes full of crystal clear water and grasses. We met a cool Israeli couple, so we hiked up with them a bit toward the Refugi they were staying at for the night. We went past Lake Ratera, almost to the Refugi with them, before parting ways, and we turned back.
We veered off at Lake Ratera and went to the Estany de Sant Maurici viewpoint, El Mirador de L’Estany and Portarró. After we ate our packed lunch and soaked in the views, we looped back to St. Maurice Lake to catch the taxi back to our campsite.
If you are short on time, I recommend you head directly to the Estany de Sant Maurici. It is the best viewpoint to get the whole experience of the park.
For easy/moderate hikes on the western entrance, you can view the hiking brochure and plan your day.
Moderate/Challenging Day Hikes:
For lengthier or more challenging day hikes, you can summit El Pic del Portarró. This adds an extra 300 meters and about 45 minutes to summit from Portarró d’Espot.
Through Day Hike
If you plan ahead for the right taxi service so you don’t get stranded, you can certainly do a full-day thorough hike starting at either entrance and trekking through to the other. To plan this route, you combine the two brochures I shared, and they connect at Portarró d’Espot. We chatted with a group who had done this hike, which is doable in a day.
Two multi-day treks are circulating the park.
The Camins Vius follows a trail through the villages surrounding the national park, which can take 8 days. You would book accommodation in advance in the towns and villages along the way. The concept behind this walk is to encourage slow, meaningful cultural tourism while alleviating stress on the delicate ecosystem inside the park.
The second route, Carros de Foc, follows the mountain hut system in the park and can take 4 days. You MUST book these huts in advance, registering your intent to complete the Carros de Foc route. This is a technical route with snow, even in summer. Experienced trekkers or groups only.
The park is a notable place designated for its dark sky viewing. If you stay overnight, make sure you get out and look up at the stars! With minimal light pollution, you are in for a treat! We had a great view from our campsite even.
The park is open year-round, and you can visit in the snowy months to snowshoe or observe the frozen waterfalls. Make sure you have the proper winter gear.
Outside the park, there are plenty of ski resorts, such as La Peülla. This is a dangerous mountain road and even more dangerous in winter.
Els Encantats, is one of the most impressive mountains inside the park. If you are an experienced mountain climber, this peak, known for climbing, might be worth adding to your climbing list.
Outside the national park, there are plenty of outdoor adventures, from white water rating out of llavorsí to canyoneering out of Esterri d’Aneu.
What to Pack
Most of the recommended hikes in the park are day hikes. We visited in July, so it was hot at lower elevations but cool at higher elevations. So, we packed for a full day out, including lunch, water, snacks, sun hat and cream, hiking boots, poles, and clothing.
- Day bag – I only ever use Osprey bags. They last me 10+ years, making them a sustainable long-term investment. My Osprey is 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 of 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 – I use the 2L for day trips and 3L when it is extra hot.
- Snacks – I always pack my snacks in reusable bags or bee’s wax wraps.
- 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 or watch – keep an eye on the taxi timetable
- Camera or phone
- Binoculars – you’ll want these to see all the wildlife
- Telescope if you are into astrotourism
Multi-day bag – if you are doing a multi-day hike like the Carros de Foc, you’ll need a larger bag. I have and use the Kyte for my multi-day treks. It fits so much but distributes the weight so well that I hardly notice anything on my back. Of course, you’ll need to fill this with adequate gear for a multi-day trek, like extra wool socks, a change of clothes, extra snacks, and the essentials.
If you visit during winter, you’ll need different gear, including hats, gloves, technical outerwear, snowshoes, and snow pants.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the most amazing campground just right outside the park. Voraparc Camping is at the mountain’s foothills and is surrounded by nature, including impressive waterfalls. We had our campervan with us, so we booked a sport for our van with plenty of room to spare to hang our hammock.
They have glamping pods and even actual cabins if you don’t have a tent or campervan. There is a pool, a common seating area with a cafe, a little mini grocer, ping pong tables, sitting areas in the forest, picnic spots, and more. This is the whole package.
If camping is not your thing, you’ll want to stay in Espot, which has modern hotels like Els Encantats or rustic options like Hotel Roya.
There are other hotels near the western entrance Boí, but we did not pass through there.
If you want to stay in the park on a hike in, hike out the situation. You can book spots at any of the Refugi mountain huts. We often book this type of accommodation when we travel through European national parks and would have done it, if we didn’t have our campervan. The couple we met hiking were staying at Amitges, which looks amazing!
What to Eat
We ate all our meals at our campsite, cooking pasta, eggs, and couscous salads right at our campsite.
I recommend visiting a grocery store before you venture into the park. Make yourself packed lunches for a picnic out in nature. Make sure you grab some local Spanish cheese and olives for your packed lunch!
Espot has a few restaurants if you need more of a sit-down meal. We grabbed a cheese pizza one of the days we were in the area.
Discuss and Share
I hope you are inspired to visit one of Spain’s most amazing national parks, Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. It is surely one of the best preserved natural spaces in western Europe. Hiking through the tranquil landscape will surely change your mind about Spain and the wild places in Europe. I hope this guide helps you get the most out of your stay while visiting the impressive St. Maurice Lake in the Spanish Pyrenees.
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