Alto de Javalambre

Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel


For the 2019 edition of La Vuelta a España, the organizers of the Spanish national tour have pulled a real rabbit out of the hat in the form of the previously-unused climb of el Alto de Javalambre - or el Picón del Buitre, as it is more commonly known -, atop of which sits the spectacular Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory.

A beautiful, little-known climb that La Vuelta has classified as 1st-category, when we visited the area in spring 2019 the first half of the route ran along rough stone and gravel roads. There has been talk that the whole of the climb will be surfaced in time for the Spanish race, although we have been unable to find confirmation of this. As it stands at the time of writing, a sturdy set of wheels and tyres is highly-recommended for those wishing to take on the climb.

Location

Location of Javalambre Observatory, Picón del Buitre, Aragón
Location of Alto de Javalambre/Picón del Buitre

Disclaimer: we have to acknowledge a bit of cheek on our behalf at the inclusion of this climb in a blog about cycling in the Valencian Community, as el Picón del Buitre is actually in the province of Teruel in the neighbouring region of Aragón

However, in our defence, the nature of the weaving border between the two regions, and the existence of independent pockets of Valencian territory within the region of Aragón which enclose the climb means that we've been a little lax about boundaries and delimitations in this case. There is certainly no offence intended towards our Aragonés friends, and we hope they take the inclusion of this great climb in our blog in the spirit in which it is intended.

The village in which the climb begins, Arcos de las Salinas, is located just beyond the border of the Valencian Community, some 100 kilometres north-west of the city of Valencia, and around 90 kilometres by car from the city of Teruel.

About an hour and a half by car away from the Valencian capital, the surrounding area lies approximately halfway up the course of the River Turia, which with its year-round heavy flow of water has quite a different appearance to that seen in the mostly-dry river bed in the regional capital.

If driving from Valencia, we can reach Arcos de las Salinas via either the CV-35 and CV-345 regional roads, passing through Villar del Arzobispo, or the V-21 and A-23 national highway, passing through Sagunto and Venta del Aire.

From Teruel, we follow the A-23 national highway south, turning off at Sarrión, and then following the regional A-1514 road

Profile

Profile of climb to Alto de Javalambre - Picón del Buitre, Teruel
Profile of climb to Alto de Javalambre/Picón del Buitre/Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel

Starting altitude: 1065 metres
Length: 12 kilometres
Average gradient: 8%
Maximum gradient: 14%
Altitude gain: 885 metres
Maximum altitude: 1950 metres
Difficulty: 1st category

Despite being classified as a 1st-category climb, the Vuelta website describes el Alto de Javalambre, which features at the end of the 5th stage of the 2019 edition of the Spanish race, as "not excessively hard".

With an average gradient of around 8% and an altitude gain of nearly 900 metres over its 12 kilometres, a (currently) unsurfaced initial 6 kilometres and a final 5 kilometres of between 10% and 14%,  we are sure you'll draw your own conclusion about the climb's difficulty.

The climb

View of Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel
View of Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel

We've taken the start of the climb from the Turolense village of Arcos de las Salinas, which lies on the regional A-1514 road and is located at an altitude of over 1000 metres.

Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel
Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel

A typical mountain village composed of sturdy houses with characteristic over-hanging eves, Arcos de las Salinas can get quite cold in winter and snow is not at all unusual in the first few months of the year. This is worth bearing in mind as the climb would be difficult, not so say impossible, with snow and ice on the ground.

The start of the climb to the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
The start of the climb to the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

As we pass through Arcos de las Salinas on the A-1514, we take a turn up into the village following the sign indicating "Centro Población", and in 100 metres we find ourselves in front la ermita de San Roque.

Ermita de San Roque, Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel
Ermita de San Roque, Arcos de las Salinas

Taking the left road between the hermitage and the fountain, we follow the road for another 100 metres or so out of the village to the next fork.

Sign to Source of Rio Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas
Sign to source of Rio Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas

We take a left here, following the indication for "Nacimiento Rio Arcos" (Source of River Arcos), continuing along a narrow, gravel/compacted track with the river itself off to our left across some small fields. There used to be a sign here indicating the Observatory, but it was missing at the time of our last visit.

Gravel track following course of Rio Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas
Gravel/compacted track following course of Rio Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas

The road surface here is a little rough, but it isn't too bad, and the gradient is rarely if ever above 5% for the first couple of kilometres.

Trees on gravel track next to course of River Arcos, Teruel
Trees on gravel/compacted track following the course of the River Arcos

Whilst we have already mentioned the drawbacks of tackling the climb in the winter, the summer months too are not without their considerations, as this can be a hot, dry corner of the world when the sun is high, and there is not a great deal of shade on the lower slopes.

Trees on the lower slopes of the climb to Alto de Javalambre, Teruel
A rare spot of shade on the lower slopes of the climb

Once we are about 3 kilometres into the climb we face the first sharp spikes in the gradient of around 10%, and the surface starts to break down noticeably.

Gravel road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory crossing the River Arcos
Gravel road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory crossing the River Arcos

By the time we come to cross the River Arcos at around the 4.5 kilomertre mark, we are starting to get deep into stones and gravel and the gradient picks up to around a constant 10% mark which, with a few exceptions, is where it's going to stay for the majority of the rest of the climb.

Fountain by the side of the River Arcos, Teruel
Fountain by the side of Rio Arcos

As we've said, there is virtually no shade at this point, and it can get quite hot and dusty indeed.

View looking down River Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel
View looking down the River Arcos

Thankfully, we don't have too much further to go on this stretch, as at around the 6-kilometre mark lies the source of the River Arcos and the fork where the asphalted road leading up to the Observatory (currently) begins.

Fork at the beginning of tarmac road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
Fork at the beginning of tarmac road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

The gradient in the final half-kilometre or so to the fork is much gentler and offers some respite, which is just as well considering that the steepest part of the climb is yet to come.

Source of Rio de Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas, Teruel
Source of Rio de Arcos, Arcos de las Salinas


With the source of the river bubbling up to the surface from underground to our left, there is a barrier at the start of the asphalt section of the road to the summit on our right. We have to say at this point that we have never seen the barrier lowered, although it is obviously there for a reason. 

There is also a sign which, in addition to warning of the steep gradient and the lack of road markings, indicates that the road ahead is for authorised personnel only... . Again, we've never encountered any problems when climbing to the Observatory, or indeed at the Observatory itself. Neither have we heard of anyone experiencing problems whilst climbing the mountain although, once again, the sign is obviously there for a reason. 

Taking this information into account, and while we understand the sign is a formality, should you decide to continue to the summit you do so entirely of your own accord.
Tarmac road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
Tarmac road heading into the trees on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

If you do decide to continue, you will notice straight away that road from here on is both in excellent condition and is quite steep, hovering around and above 10% for the rest of the climb. Furthermore, we are about to enter a tree-lined section, which is always welcome.

Hairpin on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel
First of the hairpins on tarmac section of climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

If the rumoured intention to surface the initial section of the climb becomes reality, we can assume that the entire ascent from Arcos de las Salinas will be similar to this section, thus changing the nature of the climb considerably. Time will tell, and we'd love to hear updates from anybody riding the climb between now and August.

Tree-lined hairpin on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
Trees lining the road and providing shade on the climb to Javalambre

The climbing here is both tough and beautiful, as we can be almost sure to have the road more or less to ourselves and, with the exception of the road we are on, the mountainside is completely unspoiled.

Left-hand switchback on climb to Pico del Buitre, Teruel
Freshly-surfaced switchback on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

Indeed, the argument could be made that this section represents the "perfect" climb, given that the absence of traffic, the perfect road surface and the spectacular suroundings mean that there is very little to distract us from the business of riding our bike. It's tough, it's true, but climbing these slopes really is a pleasure.

Straight stretch of tree-lined road on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
The gradient is relentless as the road continues through the trees

Around the 9-kilometre mark we pass through the last of the trees that we will encounter during the ascent. The gradient here continues to hover around the 10%-12% mark.

Luna landscape on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel
The trees give way to a spectacular luna landscape on the upper reaches of the climb

No sooner are we out of the trees than the gradient drops off a little, giving us the opportunity to contemplate our frankly unsual, other-worldy surroundings.

Final switchback on climb to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
Final hairpin beyond the trees

We tackle a final hairpin before the gradient notches back up a couple of degrees as we head off towards the final two kilometres.

View towards Valencian Community from Sierra de Javalambre, Teruel
The rarefied atmosphere is noticeable as we approach the summit

We are riding at around 1800 m.a.s.l. at this point, and the altitude can be felt not only in the reduced amount of oxygen in the air, but also in the dream-like quality of the light and the uninterrupted views across the distant mountain ranges of the neighbouring region of Valencia.

Snow poles on the climb to the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory
Roadside snow poles

The roadside poles serving as snow markers remind us that the climb is all but imposible by bike during the winter months

First sight of Javalambre Observatory, Teruel
First sight of the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

Just before we reach a brief respite in the climbing, and by now completely out in the open on the mottled mountainside, we get our first glimpse of the Javalambre Observatory off to our right. From this point we have less than a kilometre to the summit.

View of Pico del Buitre and Javalambre Observatory, Teruel
A setting fit for a Bond villain

As we bear off to the right to take in the final, windswept slope, the Observatory sits before us looking for all the world like a hideaway for a Bond villain.

Final metres of road to Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel
The excellent road surface continues right to the top of the climb

The final few hundred metres, at around 8%, really do take the breath away as we begin to enjoy the uninterrupted 360º vision of the surrounding countryside.

Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory, Teruel, Spain
Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory

As we said at the beginning, the organizers of La Vuelta have pulled off something of a coup with the inclusion of this beautiful, curious climb in the 2019 version of the race. 

At almost 2000 m.a.s.l. and with considerable stretches at around 10% or over, it's a climb for fit cyclists, but those who do take it on will be rewarded by the spectacular landscapes and almost complete silence on the way up, and the breath-taking sight of Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory and the immense views they'll enjoy once they reach the summit.

Links


GALÁCTICA Centre for Astronomy, Education and Outreach

Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey

Stage 5 2019 Vuelta a España - L'Eliana - Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory



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