Beech, larch and towering conifers overhang the River Arazas as it hurries down steps and waterfalls through Ordesa Canyon. Above this looms a monumental backdrop of uncompromising ruggedness – walls of fluted limestone rising sheer from the valley of heights of more than 2000ft (600m). Ordesa Canyon stretches for 10 miles (16km) through the Arazas valley. Upriver, the woodland gives way to boulder-strewn pastures, where the breeze ruffles grass dotted in the summertime with edelweiss, gentians, anemones and orchids.
The Arazas Valley is one of four river valleys in the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, which covers 60 sq miles (156sq km) in the heart of the Pyrenees – the wild and dramatic mountain chain on the borders of Spain and France. Monte Perdido, 11,007 ft (3335m), is the third highest Pyrenean peak and Europe’s highest limestone mountain. All four valleys – the Arazas, Anisclo, Pineta and Escuain – were carved out by glaciers from Perdido and two neighbouring peaks, Cilindro and Ramond, which together are known as the Three Sisters.
At the head of the Arazas valley is the spectacular Circo de Soasa, with the Cascada de Cola de Caballo (Horse’s Tail Waterfall) spilling down its walls. Circo de Soasa is a huge natural amphitheatre – a cirque ground out by a glacier on the slopes of Perdido more than 15,000 years ago. It is the high point of a popular seven-hour trek. More challenging trails lead up the valley walls into even wilder places, and trekkers can negotiate the more precipitous parts utilizing Clavijas – iron pegs driven into the rock.
Aeons of weathering have etched out the narrow limestone ledges known as Fajas that line the crests of some cliffs. The Faja de las Flores stretches for nearly 2 miles (3km) at a dizzying height of 7875ft (2400m) alongside the Arazas. Those who venture onto the Fajas can enjoy an exhilarating panorama of the valleys, which trail like green streamers through the bleached, rocky landscape of the park.
Many nimble chamois, known here as izards, can be seen on the Fajas, sometimes together with darker-hued and much rarer ibex (mountain goats), the males with 3ft (1m) long backwards-curving horns. Ordesa is the last refuge of the Pyrenean ibex, which is on average for colonies of marmots, which burrow into the stony soil, and for foxes, otters, wild boar and brown bears.
Golden angles may be seen soaring above the crags, occasionally joined by the larger and rarer bearded vulture, or lammergeier, with a wingspan of 8ft (2.5m) or more.