Basque Bikepacking: Vuelta de Vasco

Contributed By

Lars Henning - Tour In Tune

Lars Henning

Tour In Tune
This loop in the Basque Country - an autonomous community in Northern Spain - connects three major parks by way of backroads and trails. It takes in coastal views, delicious local cuisine, sections of the Camino Del Norte, and rugged riding in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There is some steep climbing balanced with railroad grade greenways, and gently rolling road sections between the parks.
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Starting from Bilbao, the route quickly joins a section of El Camino de Santiago del Norte on the way towards the north coast where it then passes through a series of fishing villages between Lekeitio and Zarautz. From the picturesque harbour of San Sebastian, the route steadily climbs on La Plazaola passing through many tunnels.

The village of Lekunberri provides a good opportunity for supplies before a climb into Aralar Natural Park, where there are plenty of alternate route options for extending the journey. After the singletrack descent through Aralar to Lizarrusti, it’s a switchback road climb up to Urbasa, where a new landscape unfolds on the plateau. An undulating gravel road leads to the top of El Nacedero del Urederra where the route continues west on backroads before descending to join the GR-25 and Via Verde Ferrocarril Vasco Navarro en route to the medieval city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the old capital of the Basque Country.

The final and highest climb crawls up the south side of Mount Gorbea with a bit of hike-a-bike to the summit, before a long descent to finish the loop in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo.

  • Distance

    267 Mi.

    (430 KM)
  • Days

    8

  • % Unpaved

    50%

  • % Singletrack

    20%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    5

  • % Rideable (time)

    90%

  • Total Ascent

    33,691'

    (10,269 M)
  • High Point

    4,808'

    (1,465 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Trail Notes
  • Nice ocean views along the coastal section between Lekuitio and San Sebastian.
  • The michelin star cuisine in San Sebastian definitely trickles down to the more affordable pintxos and street food. Check out La Cuchara de San Telmo in the old town.
  • La Plazaola via verde (greenway) is a repurposed old railroads, providing traffic free gravel travel.
  • Aralar Park offers stunning panoramic views, good singletrack and easy wild camping.
  • Urbasa-Andia Park known for its Neolithic remains and an incredible gorge called Nacedero de Urederra, it also hosts a good network of trails and backroads.
  • The medieval centre of Vitoria-Gasteiz contains impressive buildings and lots of parks.
  • Gorbea Park is perhaps the most rugged and vast of the three parks, featuring a 360 degree view and plenty of options for detours with nearby GR-25.
  • Flights into Bilbao are probably the most cost effective way to arrive from within the EU. If travelling from farther afield, you may need a connecting flight to London or Paris.
  • If you are incorporating this into a longer cycling tour, you could approach from the Pyrenees and join the loop in clockwise fashion.
  • The bells of the livestock are charming during the daytime, but they can be pretty noisy when you are trying to sleep, so earplugs are recommended in case this bothers you.
  • There is a frequent Basque drizzle throughout the year, but August-Sept tend to receive less precipitation and the land will have had more chance to dry out. Waterproof clothing and shelter are strongly recommended. The drizzle is more frequent near the coast whilst Aralar and Urbasa tend to be more dry.
  • Be careful to stock up on supplies on Saturday, because supermarkets and shops are closed on Sundays without exception.
  • As with the rest of Spain, most shops will close in the afternoon between 2-4pm for lunch, but they tend to stay open later in the evening.
  • The colourful trail markings on trees and posts are well organised and easy to follow. Look for signs saying BTT (meaning ‘bici total terrain’, basically the same as MTB for ‘mountain bike’).
  • Single night wild camping is tolerated in the larger parks (Aralar, Urbasa and Gorbea) as long as you set up late and strike early and stay out of sight of the main roads.
  • Pay campsites are common throughout the region, but the prices are unreasonably high and they are often crowded with families in camper vans.
  • There are many Warm Showers hosts, with some especially friendly mountain bikers in San Sebastian.
  • The Hostal Catedral in Vitoria is exceptional for the price. It features gorgeous double rooms for €40 with a view of the Cathedral and perfectly located for exploring this old medieval city.
  • Drinking water is plentiful and safe throughout this route. Ask locals for public fountains in towns in villages. Some of the rural fountains on El Camino and the greenways will have a small drinking cup for walkers. These are probably safe to drink, but you may want to purify if you have a sensitive disposition.
  • The local Idiazabal cheese and membrillo (quince) with walnuts is a great cycling super food; you will find this traditional Basque snack throughout the region. You can buy this locally made cheese in most shops and supermarkets.
  • The tasty Basque pintxos are not to be missed. You will find them served daily at bars in most towns. San Sebastian has some of the very best pintxos, though it helps to get a local recommendation to avoid the tourist traps. Try La Cuchara de San Telmo in the old town of San Sebastian.
  • If you find the pintxos don’t satisfy your massive cyclist appetite, then ask for el menu del dia or porciones grandes in the restaurants.
  • Chorizo and salchichón are dense with high energy and they last a long time at room temperature making them perfect for the bikepacking kitchen.
  • This route is formed from select sections of various trails and backroads. As such, it is not well marked and would be difficult to follow without a GPS.
  • Most of this route is very rideable, but there are a few sections which may require some hike-a-bike; for example, the coastal section between Deba and Zumaia and the climb up Mount Gorbea.
  • This circular route provides a good way of linking together the three parks (Aralar-Urbasa-Gorbea), but there are also plenty of alternate routes if you prefer to stay in one area, for example: The G20 loop around Aralar Park would be an excellent extension for that area; The GR-25 offers a challenging sidecar loop around Vitoria, albeit with some hike-a-bike sections; There are 100 MTB routes near Vitoria posted by a local rider known as Gabirel BTT; The Bidasoaka Pedalak is 190km loop between San Sebastian and the foot hills to the Pyrenees.; The Euskadi Extrem 2015 is 100km local MTB race loop starting and ending in Vitoria.

Additional Resources

  • Basque BTT Centres – a list of the trail centres including Izki and Ametzia
  • Ametzia Centro – a popular trail centre southeast of San Sebastian, connected with the Basque MTB crew
  • Izki Centro – a collection of longer day rides near the south border of the Basque region (GPX files available for each route)

Tags

  • viajero en bici

    This looks outstanding. Great people, delicious food, and lovely scenery. This is the prettiest part of Spain, in my opinion, and there is so much to do off the bike there. What’s cool about this route, also, is that you can experience both traditional Spanish culture and more modern European cities (for example, Bilbao and San Sebastián) in close proximity to each other. Thanks for sharing!

  • Craig S Frame

    What time of year did you visit?

  • Jon Lasa
  • Ugaitz Etxebarria

    If you want to do this route I would visit in summer. It rains quite a lot here

  • Ugaitz Etxebarria

    This is a great route, you will really get to see some of the most amazing places in the Basque Country. Anyway, if you travel to this corner of the earth it would really be worth visiting some of the neighbouring regions, Navarre and French Basque Country. This region is called “Euskalherria”, roughly translated as the land of the Basques. Including those two other regions means that you will be riding in desert gravel roads AND the Pyrenées on the same trip.

    There are truly AMAZING and FREE topographic resources for free in a government sponsored website, you even have a planned gps track called “Trans Euskal Herria” that crosses some of the best places in this area. You can find the maps, track and other info here:

    http://mugibili.euskadi.eus/blog/mapa/?lang=es

    http://mugibili.euskadi.eus/blog/trans-euskal-herria/?lang=es

    The information is either in Spanish or Basque, feel free to contact me for help.

  • Coen van den Berg

    Hey! we did this route from 8 til 13 august 2016 and I just want to say it was really great. my first bikepacking trip and what a nice route to start with! thanks a lot for posting it!

  • AnniceQuentin

    I am going to do this route with my daughter in July. We are going to drive from London. Do you know if there is anywhere to park the car for a week? We are thinking of starting in San Sebastian.

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Annice, sorry I don’t really know about parking in San Sebastian, but I think the must have some long term paid parking somewhere around there (possibly at the airport?). Alternatively, sometimes people rent out their own residential parking spots to visitors. You could look into something like that. It’s a long drive from London, have you considering the ferry or plane?

  • Lars Henning

    Great shot, so pleased that you enjoyed the route and your introduction to bikepacking! Looks like you were fortunate with the weather!

  • Lars Henning

    Excellent, thanks for posting these additional resources.

  • Lars Henning

    We visited in September. It is lovely time of year for avoiding crowds, but is still warm enough and generally weather is lovely. Note that the region does receive a fair amount of rain all year round, but summer and early autumn are a bit drier.

  • AnniceQuentin

    At this point we are considering all options. It might be cheaper to fly into Bilbao. I hadn’t considered a ferry. Thanks for the reply!

  • Lars Henning

    Yes, we flew into Bilbao from Heathrow and it was easy to start the ride from there. Flights on BA were the best option for us considering they fly bikes for free and I had some BA air miles.

  • Coen van den Berg

    Thanks! We had great weather for all but one day. I moved to bilbao last summer and did this trip one week after I arrived. the introduction to the Basque Country could not have been better. It really kindled a fire too because I’ve signed up for the Tuscany trail in June. I like your blog by the way!

  • AnniceQuentin

    Thanks! I will consider that option more closely!

  • Miguel Angel Sesma Peinado

    Hi Annice. I live in Pamplona wich is pretty close and know the area. You probably have cheap flights to Bilbao. But if you decide to drive. I think leaving a car in San Sebastian suburbs could´t be a bad idea. Just don´t leave valuable things and make sure you don´t park in what they call OTA (wich is the limited parking area there).
    you will visit Urbasa and Aralar wich i usually do very often.
    Enjoy!

  • AnniceQuentin

    Thanks, Miguel! We are leaning towards driving into Bilbao, as the trail is flatter at the beginning. It looks like we can park at the airport for the week, which seems safer. After our bikepacking trip, we will drive to San Sebastian for a few days and enjoy the beaches there.

    I have another question, though, Miguel. We are coming during the running of the bulls, which I am not interested in seeing, but I am now concerned about not being able to get a campsite during our bikepacking trip. Will that be a problem, with so many people descending on Pamplona? We, of course, only have a small tent and could wild camp, but a shower would be nice …