Climbers and cyclists flock to Mallorca. But away from the built-up resorts this rugged island also deserves to be better known for hillwalking, says local resident Paul Harrison. Here's his guide to Mallorca's 1000m peaks, a uniquely Mediterranean ticklist.
While the international hiking community has long been aware of the GR221, Mallorca's "Dry Stone Way" which winds for 150km through the mountainous interior, few people even among the island's nearly 1 million residents have heard of the 54 'miles'.
Named for the word mil, Spanish for one thousand, these peaks above 1000m elevation form a logical tick list. A number are a short detour from the GR221 and can be completed in as little as a one hour side trip. Others require long days of hiking in their own right. All offer unique and spectacular days out in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Sierra de Tramuntana mountain range.
The visitor who is prepared to walk can forget everything they've ever heard about Mallorca, and start afresh by making new discoveries every day, around every corner
I came to the infamous list of 54 'official' 1000m+ peaks entirely by accident a few years ago, whilst using walking as a key part of physical recovery from back surgery. 'Los 54 miles' have since fascinated me. I've scaled 33 of them at the time of writing and have plans to tick off many more through this autumn, winter and spring.
For those of us who respect and enjoy the Sierra de Tramuntana, its value and its beauty, scaling those 54 peaks, through fair weather and bad, is a continual pleasure and challenge. The rock, at altitude, is primarily karstic limestone and dolomite. This place is hell on hiking boots. A pair lasts one busy season, two at best with light use. Rubber toe guards are peeled and grazed within hours and knife-edged karst formations slice into soles. Trail runners are becoming a frequent sight on the main paths here but few actually head 'off-piste' as the routes up to peaks are rarely clear paths and cross scree slopes, bare slabs and weathered scrambles which destroy trainers, and hands, of any kind. Equally, the bare rock is gripped best by rubber ferrules on trekking poles and happily destroys one pair per day, often also eating the tungsten-carbide tips beneath.
On the lower slopes Mediterranean pines provide much-needed shade before giving way to forests of Balearic Holm-Oak which characterise the middle slopes. Emerging above the tree line we are treated to displays by ospreys, kites, falcons and the magnificent 'buitre negro' or black vulture (voltor negre in the local language of Mallorquin) which was finally declared as rescued from extinction on the island just last year. Around 1990 there was only one nesting pair on the island, laying eggs only every two years. Due to concerted conservation efforts, there are now over 35 known nesting pairs. On the highest, rockiest slopes sceptical goats watch hikers from afar and munch on wild thyme and juniper berries.
Some of the Sierra de Tramuntana's 54 highest peaks are distinctly alpine in nature. Above the 800m mark there is usually little vegetation, no shade or natural shelter; just the wind and rain shaped limestone teeth and the almost inevitable final scramble to the peak. A couple of key examples, such as Agulla des Frare, require full on rock climbing to complete the final 15 to 20 metres and should absolutely not be attempted without appropriate equipment and experience. On so many of the lesser-known peaks the challenge is navigation, with no path to follow and sporadic, intermittent cairns. GPS is highly recommended unless very familiar with the local terrain and landmarks.
Mallorca's warm, sunny bridge seasons are the perfect time for hiking here, in between the 35ºC of summer afternoons and the mild winter day time temperatures of 10-12ºC. Summer hiking brings hot weather challenges but is balanced by almost guaranteed good weather throughout the season and the temperatures 'up top' can be 10 degrees cooler than on the sweltering beaches at sea level. Winter usually gives us a scattering of snow above 600m and mild temperatures but can be unpredictable; I've experienced first-hand making the final push to the summit when a snow storm appears out of a clear sky and its sideways blizzard leaves visibility at less than 5 metres.
The stunning views from the dramatic peaks are the reward for all that uphill struggle and here the weather is good enough that those views are often accompanied by sunshine and picture-postcard blue skies. Even on cloudy days the altitude means I have had days of sitting on peaks above the cloud layer with clear skies overhead. However, be careful never to underestimate the speed the weather can change at elevation on an island in the middle of the sea, even a sea as benign-looking as the Mediterranean.
Visible across the island, the dominant peak of Puig Major (1445m) has its own strange quirk, in that it now actually measures 1436m. The 'golf ball' which sits atop the peak is a radar station, whose construction was completed in 1959 as part of a Cold War agreement between Spain and the USA, with the aim of having total control over the airspace of the Western Mediterranean. In order to create a flat plateau on which to build, American military engineers removed the top nine metres of the peak. The current radar station is under the command of the Spanish Air Force and the domed radar is a newer construction completed in 2005. I recently read that the station was the first place on earth to receive communication from the 1969 moon landing.
Unfortunately, the area at the top of Puig Major, and the impressive feat of engineering that is the road leading to it, is a restricted military zone and therefore inaccessible to hikers without special permission. Once I've done the other 53, I think I'll ask if they'll let me up that last one! The service road, though off limits, has been used by many a walker, this one included, as an escape route when the weather turns. One very, very windy day (70kmph+) we were literally lying flat on the ground and holding on to bare rock to avoid being blown off the mountain, when we decided we had to abandon an attempt to summit Penyal des Migdia's double peak (1382m & 1398m), on the south west ridge of the Puig Major massif, and bail out down the military road. We were very glad to have thick cloud cover filling the valley into which we descended as the visibility of less than 10m made exiting through the dry streambed around the guard house and past the barracks rather harder to detect and easier to excuse if challenged!
Despite the altitude, most of the 54 miles are hikers' peaks. They are sheer and dramatic throughout and collapse spectacularly into the sea along the north coast but they are, almost all, accessible to day walkers of ranging ability, age and fitness. I recall my first 'mil', a tame ascent of which I was inordinately proud at the time, of Puig de Galatzo's 1027m. Upon reaching the summit, congratulating each other and taking many selfies in appropriate Goretex-clad alpine poses, we were joined by a French couple wearing sandals and carrying a picnic basket, with their six-year-old son sauntering behind.
Similarly, Puig de Massanella (1365m) is considered Mallorca's second highest peak and the highest accessible independent peak due to the restrictions on Puig Major. Yet, most Sunday afternoons, in the fair weather months, enough people visit the peak to fill a couple of coaches. Getting any solo time on that peak requires a mid-week visit in winter. Why so busy if it's so high? The classic start point is from Coll de sa Batalla where the mountain road that cyclists so adore reaches 600m above sea level and pauses at a petrol station and car park. Half the altitude has already been covered on the drive up and the hike from there, up the southern slopes to the top, whilst by no means easy, takes 3 to 4 hours of continuous but steady uphill walking. Any reasonably fit regular walker can complete it. There's no technicality and the entire route is either signposted or following clear cairns and paint marks.
Of course, there's access too from the northern face – one of the most fun routes on the island - which requires over 100m of very steep scrambling on well-worn rock faces. This is my number one recommendation for GR221 hikers: stop at Coll des Prat, around 1200m above sea level. Drop your heavy pack, grab your water bottle and follow the two wooden arrows which direct you onto a small but distinct switch back towards the sheer cliff face looming over you. The hands-and-feet scrambling section is demanding after slogging your way up the valley all morning from the previous night's refuge or campsite but it adds at most 90 minutes to your day and delivers some of the most stunning views.
The very accessibility of the Tramuntana mountains, along with the frequent good weather, can easily lead the inexperienced to over-stretch themselves. You still need to remember your mountaincraft up here. GREIM, the national body for mountain rescue in Spain, recently published their 2018 statistics. They launched around 1100 rescue missions during the calendar year, of which 10% were to recover bodies. They claim that half of all the rescues they carried out were to bring down hikers who were ill-prepared, poorly informed, improperly equipped, unable to navigate (lost) and/or inexperienced. The Balearic Islands to which Mallorca belongs has been the area of Spain with the highest number of mountain rescue call outs every year for the last ten years – 220 last year; four each week. With 123 rescues, that's more than one in every ten across the country, almost all in Mallorca, more even than any single Pyrenean area. One famous incident in February of 2017 saw a helicopter called out to 'rescue' a couple who had decided to celebrate Saint Valentine's Day with a romantic picnic at the top of Puig de Massanella, only to find they were too tired to walk back down and wanted a lift back to their car. No doubt that resulted in the most expensive taxi they've ever called.
It's that summit view, though. Not simply in its rugged, dramatic, vertiginous splendour and scale. Not simply in its position next to the sparkling azure Mediterranean over 1000m below. Not simply in its near perpetual clear, blue, sunny skies. No, the enjoyment of the view is also the sense of having earned it. The rarity, on a busy, tourist-ridden island, of finding a vista so few others have enjoyed. The solitude of sitting on top of one of those imposing 54, knowing I've long-since conquered the easiest and on each new attempt overcome a greater challenge and a harder peak, earning the increasingly unseen panoramas that await me. Mallorca has so much to offer to so many and the Sierra de Tramuntana is its imposing mountain playground with hidden bite. For me, and all those who know, the '54 miles' are the keys to the island's most exclusive club.
Paul's top five 'miles' (so far)
Puig Roig 1003m
Great because: Where the mountains meet the Med. Dramatic views throughout the hike. Looking back along the Sierra from its most northerly 'mil' adds a new perspective which is amplified by seeing the northern faces of peaks like Puig Major plunge over a kilometre into the deep blue sea. Just squeaks on to the list in 54th place yet offers some of the most impressive views.
Good to know: Only accessible on Sundays. Access requires crossing a private finca (country estate) which is usually closed to the public. Technical descent - a long, steep downward scramble onto an even longer, extreme scree slope which is only loosely held together by thigh-high grasses. Great care required.
Puig de n'Ali 1038m
Great because: A half day hike with a short drive to the start point, before the winding mountain roads begin. All the splendour of a high peak but home in time for lunch. Spectacular summit scramble to a peak comprised of three boulders the size of buses.
Good to know: Puig de Massanella (Mallorca's second highest mountain) looms over the northern approach to this peak and the two can be combined to make a longer but rewarding full day hike.
Puig Tomir 1104m
Great because: This has everything the Sierra de Tramuntana offers in one unique hike. Spectacular summit views, forested valleys, alpine meadows, long, steep scree slopes and even vertiginous scrambles, parts of which have permanent chains and metal rungs hammered into the rock like mini via ferrata.
Good to know: The full day circular route from Lluc goes up and over Tomir, requiring a long return hike around the mountain sides through gradually descending eastern and southern valleys – a total of around 20km on tough terrain. It's well worth the effort for such a diverse day's hiking, but it is demanding.
Puig de Galatzo 1027m
Great because: A new take on an old favourite. The classic route is a 2 to 3 hour hike which is entertaining without being overly taxing. The southern approach, though, follows a long, airy and increasingly exposed ridge. Lots of scrambling required - highly recommended!
Good to know: Make a circular by taking the classic route down to enjoy the best of both worlds. Can also be extended to a long day out by starting in the village of Puigpunyent on the valley floor.
Penyal des Migdia 1398m
Great because: The highest publicly accessible point on the island. Stand on the top and jump to get your head above 1400m! Stunning views from the top of the Sierra, seen in all its glory.
Good to know: A short but very technical route with challenging navigation at times, lots of scrambling, long scree descent and an exposed summit ridge walk. Not for the faint hearted or the casual walker. The weather can be very dramatic here on the Puig Major massif.
- You'll have to fly, unfortunately, but you can always offset the CO2. See carbonfootprint.com
Palma de Mallorca's International airport (PMI) is Spain's third biggest airport and sees nearly 30 million passengers per year. In summer there are several flights per day from the UK's biggest airports, such as Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Glasgow, and near daily flights from other UK airports including Belfast, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Doncaster Sheffield, Cardiff, Bristol and Bournemouth.
Generally speaking, a return ticket (hand luggage only, no reserved seat or speedy boarding) can be had for under £100. However, in peak season, such as the school holiday times of late July and the whole of August, the prices can be much higher. Luckily, these are also the hottest times and therefore best avoided for hiking if possible. Airlines include all the usual suspects of Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2, Thomas Cook, TUI and FlyBe. In winter there are fewer flights but London airports operate daily and Manchester, Glasgow and others large airports have several flights per week. There may not be availability from smaller airports during the winter season.
Getting Around - hire car
A popularly reported statistic is that the island of Mallorca is home to more hire cars than permanent residents. Whilst these massive fleets are currently being subjected to very close scrutiny by the Balearic government, who aim to ensure they are all hybrid or electric by 2025, there is little sign of their numbers diminishing. Mallorca's size, at around 100km across at its widest point, and geographical diversity are the reason it attracts so many for such different reasons but can also make driving your own vehicle the most logical way to get around.
All the big players have depots here: Sixt, Europcar and Goldcar amongst others. It is worth shopping around or using a broker, though, as deals can run as low as £5 per day in low season. Of course, summer brings premium pricing but availability is rarely an issue. I'd recommend shelling out extra for the extended insurance – cars here don't tend to be treated carefully and dents and scratches appear nearly every time a car is left parked. Equally, many hiking routes start from unpaved tracks or laybys and so paying the waiver for tyre and window damage is advisable.
Whilst a vehicle is easiest, there are plenty of public transport options too. This can often negate the need to always plan circular routes to get back to where you left your car and will almost certainly work out cheaper for individuals or couples. But it will require some planning and patience. Trains run from Palma to several of the big towns, the most useful of which for accessing the mountains is Inca.
Buses, coloured red and yellow, then run routes through the mountain roads. These services are fairly regular and reliable and tickets usually cost under 10€ for a return trip. Intermodal T20 or T40 tickets are available for a block of 20 or 40 trips across train and bus at a significant discount (price depends on zone and number of 'hops' between vehicles), valid for one year from first use. Tickets can be bought onboard buses, at ticket machines in train stations or at manned booths in the major hub stations. Transports des les Illes Balears operate a consortium to unite the trains and buses into a single service and have a very useful and informative website (including in English), with routes, timetables and ticket prices - see here
What to Bring
Late May through to mid-September are hot here and hiking requires awareness of the heat. Water sources dry up fast at altitude and so hikers must bring plenty with them for the whole day; isotonic drinks are also advisable to combat dehydration. There is also very little shade at altitude so those wishing to bag any of the 54 peaks need plenty of sunscreen and a decent hat.
The weather can change suddenly, even on sunny summer days, so pack a wind breaker for exposed areas and check the forecast for summer thunderstorms.
In the depths of winter, from December through to early March, temperatures are rarely sub zero but warm base layers and good quality waterproof shell layers are a must.
The shoulder seasons of March to May and September to November are the best weather times for hiking here and normally offer clear skies and shorts-and t-shirt hiking even on cold days but be prepared for sudden changes to wet, cold and windy. If heading off to any of the peaks, I'd recommend decent quality, sturdy but well-ventilated boots. Anything lightweight won't last long but your old mud-plodders will be overkill here almost every day of the year. Weather forecasts abound online. I use the official Spanish met office and even Google can give you a report from the weather station atop Puig de Massanella.
Guides and Maps
I highly recommend Paddy Dillon's Mountain Walking in Mallorca (Cicerone) as a great introduction to hikers of any level. Combine it with Editorial Alpina's 'Serra de Traumuntana' 1:25,000 scale maps which are highly detailed and regularly updated in four maps (two, actually, double-sided, and available on waterproof paper).
Most Spanish hikers exchange route information and GPX trails online using Wikiloc. I found this a great resource for finding routes to some of the more obscure peaks which don't feature in many, or even any, guidebooks. A list of the 54 official 'miles' can be found here.
Where to Stay
Mallorca is a large, tourist-centric island, with a huge range of available accommodation, and the Sierra de Tramuntana is accessible in under an hour of driving from any point on the island. Those who wish to combine a few days of hiking with some of Mallorca's other offerings should not restrict themselves to staying in mountain towns. However, those coming here specifically to hike and climb are best heading away from Palma and the resort towns and choosing to stay within the Tramuntana itself.
Soller is the biggest town in the Sierra and is very central as a base for exploring the mountains. To the north, Pollensa (the town, not to be confused with the further away resort of Port de Pollensa) is close to many of the 54 'miles' and is the terminus for the GR221. In the south, Andratx (again, not the port) is a good base to explore both mountain and coast. Be aware, though, that few hikes begin in any of these towns. Transport will still be needed to start points.
Smaller villages such as Biniaraix or Fornalutx are closer to the centre of the mountains and the hike start points but the only way to be right in the heart of the peaks and be able to walk from bed to summit is to forego the hotels and head to more basic accommodation. The tiny hamlet of Lluc is the spiritual centre of these mountains - literally, there's a huge monastery in which hikers can book to sleep in a former monk's cell – and is also home to the island's largest official campsite which costs just 5€ per night. Facilities are basic, with only cold water showers, and there are no supply points at all – bring everything you'll need or eat exclusively in the two restaurants. More info here.
Please be aware that wild camping is strictly illegal here and large fines are issued. The island has suffered greatly from wildfires, often caused by carelessness, and tracts of the Tramuntana show the scars for decades after. Also, much of the land is privately owned and campaign groups have to work tirelessly to keep rights of way open for hikers. A small number of irresponsible wild campers can set this process back by years. Other options in the high mountains include refuges, ranging from one room stone huts limited to one night per booking or more fully featured hostal-style offerings such as Tossals Verds or Casa Son Amer, bookable here.