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Los Coloraos and Gorafe, a journey through prehistory

Dirt tracks, blue sky, wild areas, extreme weather, and endless adventures. We discover three desert areas in Spain through a series of articles written by cycling enthusiasts. These avid explorers show us their favorite routes through their local desert.

A collaboration between Volata and Strava.

Desert Stories, part 2 : Los Coloraos y Gorafe

When you first see the desert of Los Coloraos and Gorafe it is hard not to think of the Grand Canyon. This semi-desert and arid area in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, located between the town of Gorafe and Villanueva de las Torres in Granada, covers an area of about 1,400 square kilometers and owes its name to the red hues of the clay that forms it’s canyons and gully. Known as the “badlands” because its soil is so bad for farming, the area looks disturbing but also inspires awe in anyone who dares to traverse it. For us and our gravel bikes, this arid land is a paradise filled with steep slopes and dust. With the Strava Route Builder, we plan a 171 km circular route with more than 3,000 m of accumulated gradient that we will aim to complete in two days. A gravel route from beginning to end.

Our adventure starts in southern Spain, northeast of the city of Granada. Only 70 km from the city of the Alhambra is the town of Guadix. It is one of the oldest human settlements in Spain and was an important Roman colony known as Julia Gemella Acci before later being renamed Wadi-Ash under Muslim rule. This will be the point where Rocío, Javi, Virginia, Rafa, and Juanan, behind the camera, will start the route. All of us are members of the cyclist community of Granada. We set off to discover a natural gem a few kilometers from our very home.

Day 1: a day of “badlands”

It's 8 a.m. and the sun is starting to rise. We expected it to be a bit cool, but not very cold: the thermometers read 3°C, but the wind chill in the shade makes it feel even colder. The desire and need to warm up makes us want to start pedaling as soon as possible. We grab some warm clothing items, adjust the bags, fill the water bottles, stuff the pockets with food, and connect the track. Off we go on our bikes!

Shortly after leaving behind the asphalt of Guadix, we find our first difficulty: a short, yet tough incline. We have to get off our bikes and continue our ascent on foot. “This was a trap," we hear Javi say. For Rocío, who has been Spanish CX and MTB champion, and has participated in several world championships, these “traps”, getting off the bike and climbing impossible ramps, is nothing new, and she does it nonchalantly.

14 kilometers from our departure, and almost without realizing it, we get to a flatland known as “Face Retama.” According to tradition, this is the sacred place where San Torcuato was martyred and buried. The hermitage and tomb of this saint are located here. It is the only vestige of an underground Mudejar religious complex in the Iberian Peninsula, and it consists of 25 excavated rooms.

Next, we descend a very fun track filled with turns and creases until we get to another ravine. Virginia has a big smile on her face. She hasn’t been riding for long and this is the first time she’s given gravel a try. She says she is loving it. She's caught the bug. The sun is now higher and it’s warmth beats down on us. We have reached one of the most notable climbs of the day: up to the Tower of Guájar. It is 2.61 km long and it has a 4.2% gradient. It is smooth but it allows us to warm up.

Near this tower, a small cylindrical watchtower of Arab origin is still standing, the views are spectacular and the experience takes on another dimension as we discover that it is located over the prehistoric site of La Solana de Zamborino. In fact, the whole area oozes history and it is not unusual to find fossils along the way.

We stop to drink some water and enjoy the views but it’s not long until we’re back on our bikes. We leave the dirt track behind and get on the GR-6101 road towards the health resort of Alicún de las Torres. From there, we continue to Villanueva de las Torres, where we take a break to eat something before tackling the most difficult part of this leg: crossing the "badlands" of the Los Coloraos desert. In no time, the table is filled with cold drinks and sandwiches. From inside the bar, we can hear the locals laugh and talk about the land and olive trees.

Back on our bikes with happy stomacheswe go back to where the village starts, and take a path surrounded by fruit trees. Ten kilometers ahead, and after climbing a hill, we stumble upon some incredibly beautiful views.We are entering the “badland”. Water erosion has been shaping the landscape for millions of years. These are unprotected lands with scarce vegetation made of easily eroded and permeable rock. When it rains, which happens very rarely, it does so for a short time and in a torrential way. The result is what we see, miles and miles of desert gullys, ravines, and canyons.

It is incredibly quiet and the landscape is overwhelming. This is Quaternary and Pleistocene land. Five million years ago, this area was under the water of a great landlocked lake fed only by the rivers, which made it perfect for the deposit of sediments. When the water found a natural outlet to the sea, the lake gradually emptied, revealing the landscape that we can see today.

It is already noon and the heat is beginning to feel suffocating. The bicycles want to speed up and so do we. We take the track of “Campos Mones y la Loma de las Yeguas” before making a turn and entering the path to the ravine of “Barranco del Caballo”. Rocío is leading the way, and I am right behind her. This is the terrain we were looking forward to. There are slopes, steps, sand, and potholes. This is the time to show off our technique repertoire so that we don’t get stuck. Javi and Virginia are behind us. It seems they are not having as much fun. We can hear them cursing in the distance. But in the end, with an extra dose of effort and concentration, they complete the section with flying colors.

We regroup in the “Anchurones” ravine to talk and laugh about that stretch. However, the track soon begins to ascend again and everybody falls quiet. We pedal upwards along the Bácor path until we reach the top of Loma de los Pinos. In the distance, on the edge of the road, we can see the chimney of one of the Gorafe cave-houses. These are typical homes of this area built inside the rock. Here is where we will spend the night. We have reached our destination.

Day 2: at 2000 m above sea level

We feel reenergized after a good night’s rest in the cave-house, and we resume our adventure a few minutes after 8:30 AM. We take a track that runs through a plain where the largest concentration of dolmens – a type of stone monument made of two or more upright stones with a single stone lying across them – in Europe can be found, the plains of El Cocón. The view is breathtaking. In fact, these first hours of the day are spectacular. The golden light that shines through the trees of the pasture will not be easily forgotten. Today, the "badlands" are a thing of the past, and in the distance we can see the enormous mountain range that we will be facing today.

We get to the Olivares estate. The path is stony here. We descend to a ravine and start to climb the slope on the other side. After cycling for 22 km, we have arrived at the foot of Sierra de Baza, our biggest obstacle today. Ahead of us, there is a long climb to Prados del Rey, a botanical gem within this mountain range. This will test us. No doubt about it.

A large part of the track runs between oaks and pine trees. This time, Virginia and Javi feel comfortable with this tough climb. We are 2000m above sea level and from here we can admire the Gorafe desert through the gaps between the trees. A final push and we will reach the summit. It's time to refuel and put on something warm. Although it’s sunny, the wind is very cold, which is normal at this altitude.

We start the descent on the south side of the mountain range. Rocío and I say to ourselves, "Now it's our turn!” We take the lead and enjoy the descent as we laugh and shout to the others, who are trying to catch up with us. The route feels fast and comfortable. We come across many wild goats, and we see vultures circling in the air. Perhaps, they were waiting for us. But today will not be their big day.

As we cross the town of Charches, the landscape becomes dusty and stony. This is a land of shepherds. We come across some cattle farms in the area as we cycle on rolling hills. This terrain is very tiring for cyclists. We are close to Guadix, and we find the “trap” of the day, which cannot be seen in the route profiles – the slope of the Eagle (cuesta del Águila). It is short but very hard, and we needed all the strength we had left.

We get on the N-324 road, which is our access to Guadix. We are only 2 kilometers away from completing our journey. We’re returning with huge smiles on our faces and the feeling that we’ve discovered a long-hidden treasure.