Make it Your Own: A GR247-Inspired Adventure
Tristan Bogaard and Belén Castelló recently pedaled the rugged GR247 route in Spain, which they tailored to their liking when the going got too rough, leading to some unexpected animal encounters and serendipitous interactions with locals. Read their story with a photo gallery and a 17-minute companion video here…
Words and photos by Tristan Bogaard
The deep, cavernous sound of profoundly open-mouthed snoring makes me open my eyes as three red lights seem to dance quietly around the room. I hear the movement of fabrics and folding of wooden slabs as I make out the silhouettes of three more hikers, who’ve only just entered the refugio. “Did they just hike through the night?” I ask Belén, who lies next to me, wide awake. Her answer is muffled, but her gesture clear. “Let’s pack up.”
Every bikepacking route can be lived a thousand ways. The seasons, your bike, the weather, people you meet along the way, and simple, unpredictable events that play out at will, leaving the rider with a guaranteed unique experience. Of course, there’s such a thing as preference, but that’s why bikepacking routes are such a great way of being outside: they don’t have to be ridden in any particular way or direction, and nobody is expecting you to stick to a digital red line. They’re more like a manual to a board game. Here’s the rules for a successful game, but it’s up to you to follow them.
For Belén and me, this year has been the perfect example of this theory. In January, we set out to ride the Baja Divide in Mexico, and six weeks later, burned out and beaten, we ended the trip with having only ridden about a third of the original route. During our following ride at the Border Bash in Aragon, all riders were given the possibility of choosing from a selection of routes and difficulties. We chose the shortest one and ended up having a blast with those who did the same. And this fall, Belén and I started exploring our Spanish backyard with the GR247, a journey that ended up defining the lessons of the past 10 months and churning out a whole new rulebook in the process.
We started out late one afternoon in Siles and chugged along on forest singletrack with views over ample olive groves blanketing the hills as far we could see. This region is known for olive production, and seeing the trees’ branches hang by the weight of their bounty made it look like they’ll probably have a great harvest this year. The singletrack wound between pine trees and the groves with ease, with only a few gnarly downhill sections until dusk. Finding a pitch was easy, but adjusting to that first night of wild camping took a minute to feel familiar. It never fails to amaze me that a single night out in nature is all you need to disconnect from the normality of a bath and bedroom. Like the trees full of olives, the sky was filled to the brim with stars that night.
Following a smooth start to our trip, we explored the western side of the route with a constant weighing of the dotted digital line on our screens and our intentions for pedaling there. When Logan, the founder of this site, came through the Sierra de Cazorla natural park years ago, he used the GR247, which is originally a hiking trail, as the backbone for a Spanish journey he and his wife were on. But where they followed it rigorously, we opted to give it our own twist. Where we imagined Logan and Virginia whizzing by on their way up and down significant hike-a- bike territory, we cruised the lower latitudes and valleys, often choosing compact gravel roads and sometimes even completely veering off-route to connect again later on.
As a result, we saw a side of Spain I’d never seen before. One with ample wildlife at pretty close distance, sometimes even so close you’d wonder how they could be so easygoing around humans. One night out on a “Zona de Acampada” (yes, a designated wild camping plot), we zipped up our tent flaps and said goodnight, only to hear the unnerving noise of something crunching leaves around our tent. I turned on my headlamp, stepped outside, and beamed the bright light around the plot. The hairs on my neck stood up at the sight of two twinkling eyes staring back at me between the trees, then turning away and disappearing into the darkness. As I zipped into my sleeping bag again, it only took a minute or two for the crunching to return. Before I knew it, a needy fox had slipped my sole out of my shoe and hidden it behind the toilet stalls, only to return to the tent and look me in the eyes from only a meter or two away. Perhaps you have better stories of standing in your underwear by your tent at night, preoccupied by something, but this one’s high on my list!
The fox’s tale continued with another up-close sighting on our way to stitch back to the route, as well as the following night at a fenced refugio. Luckily for me, we slept inside the stone shed that night, securing my soles a peaceful night’s sleep. We saw mountain goats, ample squirrels, birds of pray, and heard rumors of, but never saw, families of bores. The way people protect yet savor Sierra de Cazorla really surprised us.
Once we reached the southernmost section of the route, just north of Pozo Alcón, we briefly doubted the upcoming eastern side of the loop, which was pure GR247, no way out until resupply in Pontón Bajo. It looked a little rough on the elevation profile, and we didn’t have a clue about the quality of the terrain. On the map, it looked like a large mountain plateau, the pictures of which we’d seen on the route page—a truly unmissable stretch. But when there’s a lack of information on an upcoming segment, say, longer than 75 kilometers, we usually chicken out toward guaranteed ridable roads. This one, though, felt too promising to not take the risk in trying.
I’m glad we took our chances, as after a few goat tracks, some spicy singletrack gradients and a long, delightful ride up the side of a lush valley, the promised mountain plateau opened up just as the weather began changing. By this point, we’d been given a week under the sun while turning what was once a route far too tough for us into some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever done on the European continent. Spanish culture had secured open bars, a variety of toasted tostadas, fragrant coffee blends, and public fountains whenever we’d felt thirsty, all while the natural environment was busy shrouding itself in a blend of autumn colors to give one last show ahead of a long winter’s hibernation. By this point, a hazy sky felt refreshing.
A huge perk of passing this plateau, which is called Campos de Hernan Perea, is that you get to choose between several refugios to sleep in, as wild camping is forbidden. Nearly all of them are refurbished and offer sleeping space for about 11 people. We opted for the last of four along the route and found it completely empty upon our arrival. Peacefully, we unfolded and inflated our sleeping gear, cooked a meal in silence, and watched the sun bathe in a plethora of warm colors before fizzling out into a dark orange sliver. Just before it sunk completely, two hikers arrived, then three more, unloading their heavy backpacks with sighs of relief. Feeling a little thrown off by the sudden noise and activity, we quietly ate our meal outside, chatted a little, then headed for bed whilst the group conversed into the night. In a heartbeat, I woke up, nearly feeling the snoring vibrations through the wooden structure, seeing those red headlamps of yet more hikers. Let’s pack up, indeed.
Raindrops were still trying to seep into the creases of our bike bags when we finally sat down in the only open bar in Pontón Bajo. It was filled to the brim with what appeared to be all the men of the village, most of which were either hunters or olive farmers. Over heaps of whisky-infused coffee and jamon serrano, they chatted about the start of hunting season, a surplus of bores, and a lack of olives. The bartender asksed us if we’d like more olive oil with our tostadas. Belén carefully listened as the man across from us told the entire crowd about how it’s just not been wet enough this year, and the olives are falling too early, their size too small.
Just that morning, we’d wished for less rain on our way down, yet to these people, it was but a drop compared to the bucketload they needed. And as if these two hours in the deepest bar in the depths of Spain hadn’t been uncanny enough, things got even more bedazzling. Just as we paid the bill, a man dressed in summery attire appeared on the doorstep, selling tickets for Spain’s famous Christmas lottery. He roamed the crowd, sold a ticket or two, then offered one to us. Still in doubt, the bartender tuned into the conversation, and said, “You know what? If you buy a ticket from him, I’ll do too, but I’ll give mine to you and in case you win, you let me know.” Hold on, you’re giving us a ticket you’ve paid for, trusting that we come back to share? I like to believe this was Sierra de Cazorla personified, whispering us in the ear that we’re not done just yet.
To say that this journey was an education is perhaps an understatement. In just six days, we found a cadence we love and are proud of on a route that seemingly wasn’t for us, with experiences we couldn’t have possibly predicted or even imagined. It still gives me happy chills writing all this, and I truly hope we get to come back to that wonderful world in the deepest of Spain.
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