La Palma is one of the youngest Islands of the Islas Canarias Archipelago and certainly the most active one in terms of volcanism. The whole southern half of the island is one huge volcanic mountain range, the Cumbre Vieja, which rises almost 2000m from the sea level. If you consider that with about 4000m depth the strait between La Palma and Tenerife is one of the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean you get truly impressive dimensions for the mountain that happens to be the Island of La Palma. Moreover the base is very narrow so that the island is much higher than it is wide.
Within the last 500 years, i.e. from when historic recordings were made, seven eruptions took place on the Cumbre Vieja Range, the most violent of which happened in 1949, when three volcanoes erupted simultaneously. One of these 49ers was Montaña del Fraile or rather its crater, which is called Cratér del Duraznero. The other two were Volcán de San Juan and Pico Nambroque with its huge Cratér del Hoyo Negro. Together they achieved that the western part of the Island slipped by up to 4m downwards and it is this rift, which has caused so much concern in recent years. In 2001 Steven Ward and Simon Day published a scientific paper which describes the worst case scenario for what could happen if one of the volcanoes in the central Cumbre Vieja would erupt as violently as the 49ers did back then. To make it short, huge megatsunami would race across the Atlantic towards the American coast and wreak havoc everywhere they came by. Read the paper (which has been found by rbi for a scientific overview or read the abstract in the next section if you are interested. It has to be said that the theory is heavily contested.
Nowhere is the recent volcanic activity more apparent than in the central Cumbre Vieja Range. Here you find the highest mountains and Pico Nambroque as well as Montaña del Fraile are among the highest. Though this page is named after the mountain I have to admit that the real star of the page is Cratér del Duraznero, a giant and very colourful 100m deep hole in the ground. Even today sulphur abounds in the air and on the ground but with the fierce winds which usually race across the Cumbre Vieja Ridge it doesn't get too smelly.
If there is one feature which can draw your attention from Cratér del Duraznero it is the black plain of Lavas del Malforada to the north of Montaña del Fraile. Here during the 1949 eruption a basin was filled with lavas and now forms a pitch black perfect plain above which the cinder cone of Montaña del Fraile towers. But don't be fooled - look closely and you see that this plain is not plain at all. Crossing it aside from the one trail that exists is certainly not recommended.
Geography of La Palma and the Mega-Tsunami TheoryFirst of all let me state that I will post this section to all Cumbre Vieja pages which I intend to post here. Both topics, the geography of the island as well as the Mega-Tsunami Theory are far too interesting to be left out. So if you have read it somewhere before, just skip this section.
Click the names to be directed to the mountain pages or pictures.
La Palma, like said above and like all the other Canarian Islands is of volcanic origin. Actually you can draw a pretty accurate comparison to the Hawaiian Islands since both groups are similar in many respects. The Canarias have been formed 25 - 2 million years ago with La Palma one of the youngest islands together with tiny El Hierro. What strikes us most today is that the ocean floor around and between the islands is about 4000m deep, which makes mighty Teide (3718m) on Tenerife a truly impressive mountain if you consider the elevation from the ocean floor.
La Palma is not quite as impressive but it is the second highest of the Canarias with its highpoint, Roque de los Muchachos at 2426m. On the other hand it is the third smallest of the islands and thus the ratio of overall material to island area is the largest you will find for any island on earth. This makes it the prime candidate for causing the next mega-tsunami (see below).
The Island can be divided in three mountainous regions:
- the Caldera de Taburiente in the north, the world's largest erosion crater with a diameter of 29km and with caldera walls up to 2000m deep! The caldera is the leftover of a huge volcano which used to exist ages ago and which collapsed by sliding to the west of the island 550.000 years ago.
- the Cumbre Nueva, also the leftover of an even larger volcano. If you look at the little map you will see the Cumbre Nueva in the centre of the island. If you take the curvature of the cumbre and prolong it you will see just how large it really was. This Volcano also dropped away to the west of the island.
- the Cumbre Vieja. Though viejo means old, this is the youngest part of the island by far. Here you can find 120 volcanoes, all very close to each other on this mountain range, which reaches 1945m in height. It is here that the next landslide to the west of the island is expected which is supposed to cause a devastating mega-tsunami.
The Mega Tsunami Theory
To make it short: in 1949, three of the volcanoes of the Cumbre Vieja erupted simultaneously. Large lava flows covered the western parts of the island and there were a lot of heavy earthquakes. During the eruption a large crack developed and the western part of the Cumbre Vieja slipped by 4m (12ft). Since deep chimneys have been found in the higher regions of the range, which all consist of porous, water-filled rocks, it is expected that the next eruption in this central region of the Cumbre Vieja will be so explosive, that the crack of 1949 widens and eventually the western part of the Cumbre Vieja would tumble into the sea. With huge amounts of material rushing to the sea huge waves would be created, which finally will hit the US and the Gulf of Mexico with devastating effects.
Since La Palma and neighbouring El Hierro have a history of these massive landslides a scenario likes this seems feasible. But nobody knows when - or even if - this will happen. Heavy eruptions occur every 200 years on La Palma and it is far from clear that the crack, which developed in 1949 actually is deep enough to split the island in two.
La Palma, like all the other Canarian Islands can easily be reached from almost all major European airports. The airport is rather small and compared to Tenerife or Gran Canaria air traffic is rather low. There are almost no regular flights but all year round you'll be able to book charter flights.
There is no real close trailhead to Montaña del Fraile as it is located in the dead centre of Cumbre Vieja. There are four locations from which you can start, each time a hike of 4 - 5 hours.
The Rifugio is located to the north of Cumbre Vieja and can be reached from the airport by heading out northwards on LP-1. At a roundabout, turn off west on LP-2, which leads up to the Cumbre Nueva Ridge and crosses it through the long Cumbre Tunnel. Right after the tunnel turn south on LP-203 which wind upwards to Rifugio del Pilar.
Jedey is a village to the west of Cumbre Vieja. Follow the instructions for Rifugio del Pilar but stay on LP-2 after the tunnel. As you enter the town of El Paso turn south onto LP- 117, which will take you to San Nicholas and Jedey. From Jedey, hike out PR LP-15 to the Cumbre Vieja Ridge and climb across its highpoint, Volcán de la Deseada.
From the airport head out south on LP-1322, which soon turns west in the direction of Monte. You soon meet LP-132, on which you turn in southward direction Los Canarios. Near the village of Tigalate LP-132 meets with LP-1 which you drive onto, again in turning south. You'll have to drive through Monte di Luna (also a possible, though faraway trailhead) until you reach km 25.5. Here turn west onto a forest road which runs up through the pine forests to Fuente de los Roques. There are signs at each turn, the Zona Recreativa can't be missed.
Like Fuente de los Roques until you get to the intersection LP-132 / LP-1 south of Tigalate. Turn north onto LP-1 and go through Tigalate. Right behind the village PR LP-15 turns of west. Hike to the Cumbre Vieja Ridge where you turn north and need to climb across Volcán de la Deseada to reach Montaña del Fraile.
The whole Cumbre Vieja Range is part of a natural park, the Parque Natural de Cumbre Vieja. Here leaving the trails is strictly forbidden. On the ridge leaving trails actually can become very dangerous if clouds start racing across the range. Much of the area is featureless and you can easily get lost in these conditions. In fog try to head for GR-131, Ruta de los Volcanes, one of La Palma's two trekking trails. The trail is marked well and easily distinguishable. It runs along to the west of the crest for most of the time.
Also Camping is not allowed in the natural park. There are a couple of campgrounds near Rifugio del Pilar which you can book at the Rifugio and the Zona Recreativa de Fuente de los Roques where pitching your tent is tolerated.
When To ClimbAll of La Palma's mountains can be climbed all year round. You will always encounter low temperatures on the ridge but snow is very rare, even in the freak winter of 2004/2005.
AccommodationThere are two camping zones near Rifugio del Pilar near Montaña de la Venta. For reservations ask at the rifugio. As said above camping is also allowed near the Zona Recreativa Fuente de los Roques.
Other accommodations are no problem. Every European travel office will be able to book hotels, rooms and apartments for you. I won't include any links here because all of them definitely are commercial. Another option is to rent a finca (rural house) from the owners directly. You'll have to google for these but sometimes prices are low enough for the scheme to be worthwhile.
Weather ConditionsUsually all year round the Canarias have the same weather with little alterations: north-eastern trade winds which deposit fog and dew on the north-eastern slopes of the islands. The western and southern parts usually are very dry and there you'll get some hours of sunshine each day. Especially on the higher islands like La Palma you usually don't have to worry about weather too much. The mountaintops will stick out of the clouds.
Now here's the problem: when we were on our vacation to La Palma in late February 2005 we had a week of fierce western winds which were loaded with moisture. We had veritable downpours for ours on end and several times couldn't even drive by car because the roads were flooded. I'm quite sure that this was a freak phenomenon. The western side of La Palma usually gets 28cm (19 inches) of rain per year!
There are no reliable weather forecasts for the mountain regions of La Palma. Often a cloudless day turns into a foggy one within half an hour. Especially the Cumbre Vieja Range is prone to these fogs and here orientation among the lava and scree fields gets very difficult. This is the main reason why you should never leave the trails there.
Forecasts for the coastal regions, however are available. You have to subtract 1°C for every 100m of altitude so that Roque de los Muchachos will still be near freezing when the coasts have already fine and sunny beach weather. The following table gives a little overview about the average weather data of the capital of Santa Cruz:
|Avg. day temp.[°C / °F]||21 / 70||21 / 70||22 / 72||22 / 72||22 / 72||24 / 75||25 / 77||26 / 79||26 / 79||26 / 79||24 / 75||22 / 72|
|Avg. night temp.[°C / °F]||15 / 59||14 / 57||15 / 59||16 / 61||17 / 63||18 / 64||19 / 66||21 / 70||21 / 70||19 / 66||18 / 64||16 / 61|
|Water temp.[°C / °F]||19 / 66||18 / 64||19 / 66||19 / 66||19 / 66||20 / 68||22 / 72||23 / 73||22 / 72||22 / 72||21 / 70||20 / 68|
|Sunny Hours / Day||5||6||6||7||8||9||10||9||8||6||5||5|
Maps 'n' BooksPlease excuse me if I only post German maps and books. I know there are editions in all European languages but I'm not aware of them. Any help is very welcome!
I have used a fantastic map by Freytag & Berndt which shows all of the many hiking and biking trails of the island. With its scale of 1:30000 it is still large enough to be useful for car tours as well. Moreover here you will find all the new designations and acronyms (which were changed some few years back).
- La Palma
Edition Freytag & Berndt
The guidebook I used is every bit as good as the map with excellent tour descriptions. It is available in English as well but I am not sure about the quality of the translation.
- La Palma
A. and W. Wolfsperger