A moderately strenuous but very scenic tour taking in the highest point in mainland Portugal, within the Serra da Estrela National Park. Two separate climbs on lightly-trafficked roads culminate in a thrilling descent back to the start.
Location & Terrain
Portugal is perhaps best known for its beaches, with tourists flocking to the coastal cities of Lisbon and Porto, and the white sands of the Algarve. While there are plenty of hills, for a road biker with a penchant for mountains it all feels a bit … flat. Armed with a map and a list of Portugese sportives, we set out to find a ride worthy of seasoned alpine adventurers.
2 hours south east of Porto, the Serra da Estrela national park has much to offer the mountain-seeker: the eponymous mountain has the highest elevation on mainland Portugal, at 1,993m. Quiet but well-maintained roads surround the park, with challenging but not severe gradients (< 8% in general).
Passing through rugged mountain terrain, this route visits the tower (signed posted ‘Torre’) at the summit. The tower itself is accompanied by two disused radar stations. The area experiences snow during the winter months (indeed, there is a ski centre at the top!), so this is not a route for winter biking. During the summer the weather is warm to hot, and sometimes very hot. We experienced temperatures above 30 Celsius for the duration of our trip in late September (an anomaly, we were told).
The ride takes in barren, quiet climbs, wooded descents, and a long haul up the side of a valley, before a final steep push to the summit.
The start is a 2 h drive from Porto airport, and around 5 h from Madrid. If hiring a car at Porto, take the option to rent the electronic toll device. If travelling from Madrid, you’ll need to register your license plate with a credit card at the border between Spain and Portugal, or avoid the A25 and don’t pay any tolls at all.
A train service connects to the major tourist town of Covilha on the east of the park. Staying there and starting the ride would be an option, at the cost of some extra climbing.
The Warm-up: Sabugueiro – Manteigas
Our route starts in Sabugueiro, on the main road from the town of Seia to the summit. Starting in Seia adds another 12km to the route and a good chunk of (fun) climbing. Sabugueiro was our base, at Abrigo da Montanha, a reasonably new 4 star hotel which proved to be bike friendly. Our bikes were delivered in advance of our arrival by cycling-rentals.com, and the hotel had a storage area for bikes (they don’t allow you to take them to your room).
If driving to the start, there are a number of places in Sabugueiro to park a car by the side of the road, in particular a lay-by to the north-west.
Heading north from the hotel, on the N339, you quickly leave the town behind for a brief, sweeping climb, with a good view of the various tracks and roads which wind their way through the mountains here.
Following a high point, a short descent brings you to a junction, with the road to Manteigas heading to the right (signed Manteigas, ‘turismo rural’). This is a quiet route which leads you on a climb along the steep edge of the mountain, with good views down to the plateau below. Few vehicles use this section, and you’re likely to see more goats than people.
Taking in the impressive boulder fields and occasional smell of pine trees wafting through the air, you’ll arrive at another junction. Turn right, still following signs for Manteigas, to continue the climb.
Be sure to keep an eye out for dogs, goats and goatherders as you climb, and an even closer eye as you descend.
Despite the scorching summer temperatures, the winter snow on these northern slopes ensures the hills are covered with trees, and the occasional sound of water reveals a river system popular for bathing. At 1,440m you’ll reach the high point of this climb, completely unmarked, and begin the descent to a lunch stop. Continue straight through the junction with the 1,420m sign and begin the excellent descent to Manteigas at 760m.
Yes, there’s a lot of height to lose, but the thrill of descending as the road snakes down the mountainside is well worth it. Take care on this descent: while the road is in reasonable condition, the constant cycle of snowy, icy winters followed by scorching summers leaves a dusting of gravel on the surface to catch out the unwary. The trees lining the route give an additional challenge, with gravel hiding in shaded areas, leaf fall on the road, and the constant light-dark-light-dark transitions as you speed along. Looking between the trees, the beauty of the mountain shows itself, just beyond the steep drop to the valley.
This exhilarating descent flings you out into a roundabout in Manteigas. This is a good stop for an early lunch, and the last opportunity before the summit: after this there’s a long, straight climb up an uninhabited valley. To your left at the roundabout is a good place for tapas, or turn right for a pizzeria and a supermarket to top up your water. There are water fountains in the towns and along the route, but we were never really sure about most of them.
Vale Glaciar do Zêzere
With the morning’s entertainment complete, the second stage of the route covers the bulk of the climb to the summit, with a long, straight haul up the glacial valley to the south of Manteigas. The town is lower than the starting point of this route, so there’s some work to do.
Rolling out on the signposted route to Torre, past a couple of other lunch or resupply options, a short sharp climb on an S bend sets you heading south and out towards the highest point on mainland Portugal. The summit itself remains stubbornly hidden as the road climbs up the valley wall, gently baking in the sun. Excellent scenery and a good set of tourists signs greet you, providing a distraction should you choose to take a break and read about the geology of the area, including the formation of the valley along which the route runs. As you climb, look for the hanging valley on the right, formed at the intersection of the Zêzere and Covōes glaciers.
In the heat of summer, there’s little shade to be found. The river Zêzere is tantalisingly out of reach from the road: that is the preserve of the hikers on the valley floor. A welcome respite comes near the head of the valley, in the form of the Fonte Paulo Luís Martins. This fountain is a famous stop for tourists and locals, particularly in summer – the water remains cold all year, holding at a constant 6ºC. Having seen some locals fill 10 x 5 litre bottles, we decided it was probably safe to drink and topped up. We suffered no ill effects and the cool water is desperately needed at this point of the climb.
From this point, the remainder of the day becomes entertainingly varied, as the summit starts to come into view. A constant stream of cyclists heads down in the opposite direction – this route would be equally exciting in reverse. We strongly suspect they had been dropped at the summit by one of the many vans and tour buses towing trailers which looked suspiciously like they carried bikes. You can remain smug in the knowledge that, while the cheaters may have had a good time heading down the mountain, you have the satisfaction of climbing it.
After the long straight(ish) climb, the road bumps into the cirque at the head of the valley. A tight hairpin propels the road upwards, doubling back on itself to climb further up the valley wall.
Looking back as you climb, the impenetrable (by bike, at least!) face of the valley wall is clear. Instead, we must take a long detour. A bright line across the mountain on the left reveals the route further up.
The lush vegetation of the valley wall provides some interesting scenery as the route gets steeper, keeping the spirits up as the route climbs in the opposite direction to the summit. Turning into a small section of woodland, the route stings for the first time, topping 10%. A sign warning those descending to try their brakes heralds the end of the climb, and is a welcome indication that it really was as steep as it felt.
The trees clear to reveal the next part of the route, scampering into the distance on the right. A road carving its way across and up the mountain, obviously steep in places, is the target. A tiny chapel can be seen on the right as well. At a junction, we rejoin the N-339, a main route between the large towns of Seia and Covilha.
Turn right, still following signs for Torre. The road is busier now. A shallow descent and gentle climb follows, with views opening out across the whole mountain. The straight road finally swings right, up a ramp then sharply left to avoid the rock face once more.
This ramp and hairpin affords a beautiful view back the way we came. In good visibility it’s possible to trace the route all the way back down the valley.
To the Summit!
With many photo opportunities across the wide, flat ridge, it’s easy not to pay too much attention ahead. But there is still work to do. The road switches back and forth, climbing steeply towards the summit through a small tunnel blasted into the rock.
For the first time the road switches to the southern side of the mountain, opening up a new vista. The first of today’s dams comes into view: the Covão do Ferro dam and glistening lake.
Ahead, around yet another corner, tourists can be seen piling into a parking area at 1,850m. It soon becomes clear why, as the Senhora da Boa Estrela appears to your right. A hiking trail provides closer access to this 7m high statue carved into the rock, with offerings placed on the rocks above.
Leaving the lady behind, with less than 150m climbing to go, the road rounds a hairpin to reveal a great pinnacle: Cântaro Magro sits at the head of the Zêzere. This has been a feature of the ride since we left the valley: indeed, it was one of the reasons for the road’s long detour! This magnificent slab of rock only reveals its true form from up here. The adventurous may choose, instead of the road, to tackle 500m of challenging rock climbing from the valley instead. A small parking area on this turn provides a refuge to pull over and take some photographs of the pinnacle and valley below. Arguably a more worthwhile activity than smashing out Strava segments.
That is it – the last landmark before the summit. Two 90 degree turns bring you left then right, before reaching a junction with some of the most confusing road markings I’ve ever seen. At this junction, turning left joins the access road which climbs to the summit.
Abandoned green radar domes of a former air force base stand guard over the summit area, while a trig point in the middle of a roundabout marks the highest point. The summit itself is not especially scenic, a century of human activity (and the ski resort) scarring the landscape. Indeed, the best views are behind and ahead of us here. There’s a shop where you can buy local cheese and meat produce, a cafe and toilets.
The descent back to Sabugueiro (or Seia) is fast, with wonderful views and sweeping corners. A few short climbs also put in an appearance, particularly in the first section. A fast descent from the summit leads back to the aforementioned confusing junction. Continuing straight here puts you on the route back to the start. The roads here are in good condition with little debris, so enjoy the ride. As with any mountain road, watch out for rockfall, but aside from that, enjoy the atmosphere.
The sweeping corners bring you to a long straight section which drops towards the Lagoa Comprida hydroelectric dam, a feature which dominates the following short climb and the next part of the ride.
Turning away from the dam, the character of the road begins to change. The bare summit and long sweeping corners are replaced with tight hairpins as the mountain falls away, the road rapidly changing direction before a final sweep in Sabugueiro itself. All that remains (if you are doing our loop) is to climb back up to the hotel.
We had so much fun on the descent that there aren’t many pictures, so enjoy the video instead!
There are many options to extend or modify this ride.
Starting in Seia adds extra climbing and what looks like a fun descent back to the start – well worth it if you have the legs for it.
If we’d had an extra day, going in reverse would have been well worth it. In particular, the descent from the summit down to Manteigas looks like it should provide a huge amount of fun.
Extending is also possible by following this route (in either direction), with a detour down towards Vide. On our second day we took this route to skim the outskirts of the park, climbing back up to Loriga. This is a substantial extra distance and height in one day, but there are multiple route options there.