Potes: 114km (71 miles) W of Santander, 398km (247 miles) N of Madrid. Cangas de Onís: 147km (91 miles) W of Santander, 419km (260 miles) N of Madrid
These mountains are technically part of the Cordillera Cantábrica, which runs parallel to the northern coastline of Spain. In the narrow and vertiginous band known as Los Picos de Europa, they are by far at their most dramatic.
These "European Peaks" are the most famous and most legend-riddled mountains in Spain. Rising more than 2,590m (8,500 ft.), they are not high by alpine standards, but their proximity to the sea makes their height especially awesome. During the Middle Ages, they were passable only with great difficulty. (The ancient Romans constructed a north-south road whose stones are still visible in some places.) An abundance of wildlife, the medieval battles that occurred here, and dramatically rocky heights have all contributed to the legends that are an essential part of the principality of Asturias.
Covering a distance of only 39km (24 miles) at their longest point, Los Picos are geologically and botanically different from anything else in the region. Thousands of years ago, glaciers created massive and forbidding limestone cliffs, which today challenge the most dedicated and intrepid rock climbers in Europe.
As you tour the majestic Picos de Europa, be on the lookout for some of the rarest wildlife remaining in Europe. On the beech-covered slopes of these mountains and in gorges laden with jasmine, you might spot the increasingly rare Asturcon, a shaggy, rather chubby wild horse so small it first looks like a toy pony. Another endangered species is the Iberian brown bear -- but if you see one, keep your distance. The park is also home to the sure-footed chamois goat, rare butterflies, peregrine falcons, buzzards, and golden eagles. All wildlife is strictly protected by the government.
If you hike in this region, make sure you're well prepared. Many of the slopes are covered with loosely compacted shale, making good treads on hiking boots a must. Inexperienced hikers should stick to well-established paths. In summer, temperatures can get hot and humid, and sudden downpours sweeping in from the coastline are common in any season. Hiking is not recommended between October and May.
By far the best way to see this region is by car. Most drivers arrive in the region on the N-621 highway, heading southwest from Santander, or on the same highway northeast from the cities of north-central Spain (especially León and Valladolid). This highway connects many of the region's best vistas in a straight line. It also defines the region's eastern boundary. If you're driving east from Oviedo, you'll take the N-632, in which case the first town of any importance will be Cangas de Onís.
Travel by bus is much less convenient but possible if you have lots of time. The region's touristic hubs are the towns of Panes and Potes; both have bus service (two buses per day in summer, one per day in winter) from Santander and León (one bus per day in summer). The same buses come to Panes and Potes from the coastal town of Unquera. From Oviedo, there are two buses daily to the district's easternmost town of Cangas; they continue a short distance farther southeast to Covadonga. Within the region, a small local bus runs once a day, according to an erratic schedule, along the northern rim of the Picos, connecting Cangas de Onís with Las Arenas.