The Sierra Nevada is a dramatic, rugged and extensive mountain range, the highest in Europe after the Alps and the most significant section of the Cordillera Penibética. The protected area encompasses 86,208ha of torrential rivers, sheer-sided gorges, stony scree slopes, glacial lakes between snowy summits and, in the foothills of the Alpujarras, cultivated terraces of almond trees and vegetables.
Designated a national park in 1998, it is one of only two in Andalucia, the other being the Doñana National Park. It retains its status of natural park, which it has been since 1989, and this covers a marginally smaller area, of 85,777ha. It was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1986, in recognition of its exceptionally diverse plant, bird and animal species.
There are over 20 peaks more than 3,000m, which makes it the second highest mountain range in Europe after the Alps. The two highest peaks in the Iberian Peninsula are in the park, the Mulhacén at 3,482m, closely followed by the Pico del Veleta, at 3,396m. On a clear day these mountains can be seen from as far away as Africa.
The park has a rich history, with the Tartessians, Visigoths, Romans and Moors all leaving their legacy in the area, which can be still be seen today; for example, the sophisticated irrigation systems inherited from the Moors and the distinctive architecture of the Alpujarras, with their flat-roofed houses, a design brought from north Africa with the Berbers. The Alpujarras have a long tradition of independence; the last Moorish king, Boabdil, famously sheltered here after the fall of Granada. It became the Moors' last refuge in Spain before their 1568 revolt failed and they were forced to leave Spain.
In the west of the park is Solynieve, Europe's southernmost ski resort, where the ski season generally runs from November to April. Apart from skiers and snowboarders at the resort, the park is popular with hikers, climbers and birdwatchers.
Apart from tourism, the economic mainstay of the Sierra Nevada is agricultural produce, with cereal crops, olives, grapes, almonds, walnuts, apples and cherries cultivated here, mainly in the southern foothills of the Alpujarras. Europe's most important iron mine is at Alquife, continuing a mining tradition in the Sierra that once included the extraction of copper and silver as well. Trevélez is renowned for its cured jamón serrano (mountain ham).
It's essential to bring high-factor sun protection and a hat, to prevent burning at this high altitude.