El Hierro, the smallest, newest and westernmost of the Canary Islands is far off from Europe and yet a part of Spain: We had seen pictures of the spectacular cloud forest of El Hierro at the Tourism Fair in Berlin (ITB) and wanted to explore it ever since. The island has only about 10,000 inhabitants and very little tourism and is famous for its falling fogs, people had assured us, but we didn't really know what to expect.
Day 1: La Caleta – somewhere behind San Andres, 17,2 km, 1300 m up
We have started our hike on the coast in La Caleta, not far from the harbour. The long distance trail GR 131 crosses the whole island, so we climb up into the highland between cacti, huge agaves and dry stone walls.
Up on the mountains, clouds are closing in, and the higher we get we see them move quickly over the slopes. Near Tinor we meet an elderly German hiker who tells us she has been on El Hierro for a few days and so far only seen the clouds drift, but not been hit by rain and fog. That evening above the high plateau, the Meseta de Nisdafe, fog comes with the darkness, but it is not cold. And by sunrise the air is clear again and we have a splendid view of Spain's highest mountain Mt Teide on Tenerife.
Day 2: Behind San Andres to Faro de Orchilla, 28,2 km, 570 m up, 1640 m down
The GR 131 trail is doubling as a pilgrimage route now and therefore well-maintained, but above 1300 m we have run out of cacti and meadows and enter the pine forest. On the top of Mt Malpaso, at 1501 m El Hierro's highest peak, we have an uninspiring break beneath the tall antenna tower. And then we follow the mountain ridge on the dry South side, with volcanic desert and occasional spill-overs of rain and cloud forest: The clouds always linger on the steep northern side of the ridge (actually the remains of an enormous landslide a few thousand years ago).
The pilgrimage path ends at the hermitage church Virgen de los Reyes, the start of the island's grand pilgrimage that takes place only every four years. After a brief stop we load up on water and continue to the Orchilla lighthouse down at the western coast: More cacti, strange-looking spurge, and volcanic rocks.
Day 3: Faro de Orchilla to Sabinosa, 14,3 km, 900 m up, 790 m down
We spend the night near the lighthouse on soft volcanic ash between sparse shrubs and in the morning go to visit the classical ferro meridian as set by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD: the westernmost point of the known world back then. It is not quite at the coast, however – Ptolemy himself was never here and defined his zero meridian for the mapping of the world at 20° west of Paris. It was used by cartographers until the late 19th century when the Greenwich meridian became standard.
A very important abstract concept for centuries – the "zero" line on all maps – one might think, but there's not much to see except a nice view of the nearby Atlantic coast. A lame memorial has been built to mark the "westernmost point of Spain", but you have to bring your knowledge about the historical significance from home.
From the coast we hike up in ferocious heat and with only a litre of water remaining between the two of us. 5 sips every 200 meters of height, we decree. At one of those stops, we notice a beautiful storm out above the ocean: All shades of black and blue, flirring with some sunlight. A few minutes later we notice the clouds come up after us. 12:15. "How long do you think it will take to catch up with us?" "Not long, maybe 10 minutes?" And at 12:18, the first raindrops hit. At 12:22 we continue our hike clad in full raingear. By the time we walk away from our break at the hermitage church, the weather has improved again and we get a splendid hike through the still wet and glistening cloud forest on the northern side of the ridge, toward the cute village of Sabinosa.
Day 4: Sabinosa to Virgen de los Reyes, 21,7 km, 970 m up, 500 m down
The next day brings us in a loop along the north-western coast to two of the most spectacular landscapes of the island: The basaltic lava cliffs at Punta La Dehesa and Veronal are breath-taking, with numerous natural arches that create whole choreographies of immense waves.
600 m higher we pass not only good viewpoints but also the weather-beaten juniper trees of El Sabinar, growing horizontally in the strong westerly winds. At the end of the day we reach the church of the Virgen de los Reyes for the third time, fill up our water bottles at the well and look for a good camp site nearby.
Day 5: Virgen de los Reyes to El Pinar, 20,5 km, 770 m up, 630 m down
So far, we have been blessed with more or less fine and sunny weather, but on the fourth day the weather finally changes. Starting out from the hermitage church in a grey and cool day, we hike above the Southern coast on the El Julan trail on the edge of a dense pine forest. When the trail winds down into rocky terrain only visited by occasional sheep and rabbits, the rain starts. The fog is often too dense to see next trail marker on the stones, and hiking with luggage on the slippery rocks becomes very slow. To our disappointment, the bar at the El Julan visitor centre is closed – but the staffer at the ticket desk takes pity on us and makes us coffee before we continue (on the road) to El Pinar.
Day 6: El Pinar to Isora, 8,8 km, 390 m up, 350 m down
We skip our planned excursion down to the coast and up again on steep traditional stone-paved trails as it is still heavily raining the next day. Instead we have a late start and an easy day walk amid gardens and almond plantations over to the village of Isora, where we have rented a cottage for one night.
Day 7 Isora to the ferry harbour Puerto de la Estaca, 8,8 km, 170 m up, 1030 m down
From Isora it is just another half-day's walk to the harbour, where we catch the ferry back to the touristy island of Tenerife.
*** Our hiking tour was self-organised, paid for by ourselves, and not sponsored in any way ***
If you are looking for a hike through very diverse nature with few other hikers, El Hierro might be a destination for you. We have GPS tracks of our hike (email us if you are interested) and the tourist offices on El Hierro hand out a free hiking map that we used for planning. We had also brought the German "Rother" hiking guide, which was only partially useful, as it covered mainly day hikes from parking areas (but with GPS tracks for all hikes).
Would you like to hike on El Hierro? Or did you hike on any other of the Canary Islands – let us know!
If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our post about "Climbing Mount Teide", Spains' highest mountain on the neighbor island Tenerife.