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Favorite hiking spots near Madrid
The hikes start at the little town of Cercedilla, which can be reached by bus from Madrid's Moncloa station or by train from Atocha station. Both take about an hour. If you want to stay overnight, several hostels and pensions offer cheap accommodation and the little local restaurants serve up traditional food at small-town prices.
First stop should be the visitors' center just 2km (1.2 miles) uphill from the station. Here you can get a free map (in Spanish, but easy to understand without any linguistic knowledge) and advice on current conditions. There are also the usual nature exhibits to tell you a bit about the land you're about to see.
From here you can branch off onto one of many trails. Cercedilla is at the head of the dead-end valley of Fuenfría, surrounded on three sides by the Guadarramas. Unlike many trails in Spain, the ones here are actually well marked with color-coded spots on trees and rocks. Various hikes go up the sides of the valley to viewpoints on the surrounding mountains. There's also a dirt road that loops around the valley high enough to give excellent views and easy access to the peaks. The sides of the valley are sheltered by pine forest, but once you get up towards the peaks you'll be exposed to the elements. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and if the weather is at all cool don't forget some warm clothing. Wet weather gear is necessary sometimes too!
Beau Macksoud of the English-language hiking group Hiking in the Community of Madrid recommends Los Miradores, marked as the orange trail on the map.
"It's not super difficult but has great views. It's about 9 km (5.5 miles). Also, if you want to change your path for something more challenging, it crosses with other routes."
Gallery: Hiking Cercedilla
The Sierra de Guadarrama played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The forces of the Second Republic, an uneasy coalition of liberal, socialist, communist, and anarchist parties, defended Madrid in a long siege against the fascist and Catholic forces of General Franco. The mountains were the city's northern bulwark, and you can still see a string of concrete bunkers that protected the passes and valleys of the Guadarramas. Most aren't fenced off and are safe to explore.
The Guadarramas are the scene for most of the action in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, considered by many to be the classic book on the war, although George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia gives a more realistic view of what the war was really like.
So if you're headed to Madrid, set aside the wine and art museums for a day and head to the mountains!