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I have always had a mild fascination with mountains and extreme geographies such as remote islands or desolate icy landscapes or infectious rainforests. There is something mystifying about them that captures’ my attention. When planning my Azores trip I scheduled in Pico island for essentially one reason: to scale mount Pico.
The mountain is actually a volcano and it is the highest point in Portugal at 2, 231 meters. In comparison to many others, Pico is not very high. There is something satisfying about climbing your countries highest point though. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll summit Mount Denali in Alaska too, but, until then Pico will be my pride and joy.
Pico Island is accessed like any other Azorian island which is by sea or air. Atlanticoline operates regular ferries between São Jorge, Pico and Faial, twice a day during the summer season. During the off-season ferries may operate less regularly. If arriving by ferry you will dock in either Madalena or São Roque. The airport is located roughly between both these towns and along the coast. For the budget traveler or if you’re looking to stay somewhere historic I recommend the Pousada de Juventude de Pico in São Roque.
The Attraction of Pico is Pico
The main attraction of Pico is undoubtedly the mountain of Pico itself. While there are several paths up the mountain the path that just about everyone starts from is located at Cabeço das Cabras. You can consider this location base camp. The building has a culturally mandatory cafe along with information, safety video and of course a national park entrance fee of €10 that includes a GPS safety phone. The building is staffed 24/7 in the event of any emergency.
The Trail and Aspects of the Climb
Cabaço das Cabras starts you at just over 1,000 meters in elevation. Do not scoff yet because if you think you only have to summit another kilometer your thinking would be very erroneous. The path itself is very well maintained. You will only have to battle some loose rocky sections of trail otherwise it is mostly hard volcanic rock or hardened lava trails. Trail running shoes or hiking boots are highly recommended. Hand holds to move along the trail will absolutely be required. The wind speeds will obviously vary depending on your weather conditions.
During my ascent they were fairly strong so be careful when altering foot positions as to not be blown over by strong gusts. Once reaching the volcanic crater you will dip down into the bowl and be much more protected from the elements. The final section of Pico is Pico Pequeno (Small Pico). This part of the mountain is an almost completely vertical rock protrusion in the crater that takes you up another 70 meters.
Again, be careful, watch your step and mind your hand holds because the volcanic rock is not always a stable hold and may break away. Falling from this section would cause serious injury if not worse. The very peak of Pico may also be subject to even higher wind speed so again, precede with caution.
The majority of hikers will climb back down the mountain the very same day. The trail is well marked with white pillars starting from 1 and ending at 45. During your descent the trail will be very visible. You may have to look around a little more for the pillars as you climb up because they are not placed in a straight line up the mountain but they curve around the volcano slightly. Time up and down the mountain will obviously depend on your fitness level; most people complete the climb in about 3 to 3.5 hours.
The climb down takes about 3-4 hours. Thus, allow yourself a total of 6-8 hours to hike Pico. My fitness tracker indicated the round trip journey to be about 15 miles (24 kilometers). I would also recommend 1-2 liters of water and high energy snacks such as peanuts.
What You Need
I recommend pants or shorts that can be converted to pants. As you climb higher the temperature will drop and the summit is usually about 10 degrees Celsius less than at the base. When we summited in late June we started at 18 Celsius (base camp) and the summit was about 6-8 Celsius.
For this reason you should also have layers. I endured with a wool short sleeve T-shirt and a windbreaker for the majority of the hike. At the peak I layered with a light long sleeve sweater and the jacket and kept this on during the entire descent. You may want a snug fit hat but not anything at will blow away. A light pair of gloves would also be useful.
What You Should Consider Doing for the Climb
I had a tent with me for my trip to the Azores but had only thought about camping in the crater during the climb. In hindsight I wish we had camped at the summit. We met an American that spent the night and the next day he told us it was an amazing experience. He said the stars seemed to be in touching distance. If you camp at the top be sure to bring a sleeping bag rated for the appropriate temperature.
When to Climb
Online sources will tell you to start in the morning because it takes 6-8 hours for the complete trip. Clearly if the day is beautiful this is a great recommendation. However, as we moved through the nearby islands towards Pico we consistently noticed the peak was covered in clouds until 5-6PM (17:00-18:00). The day we climbed the situation looked like it would be the same so we started at 2:30PM (14:30). By the time we reached the top it was fairly clear.
We were the second to last people to start our climb and everyone descending said that fog had completely settled at the top and nothing could be seen. As you could imagine we were very happy it had mostly cleared when we arrived. About 30-60 minutes after our descent we looked up to see the peak completely clear. This occurred closer to 6PM (18:00). To conclude his section, I recommend an early afternoon climb or mid afternoon climb if you plan to camp at the top.
This climb can be some good fun with a friend or for those of you that really love hiking. I saw kids with their parents, people that did not look to be in great, and many fit elderly complete the climb. There should be little reason you cannot unless of weather or injury.
This climb has some absolutely spectacular views and if you are lucky they will be completely unobstructed. By far the most coveted view is the one from which you can see Sao Jorge, Faial, Graciosa, Terceira, and of course, Pico. Legend says that on the clearest of days (and probably with a telescope) you can see all nine islands.
**Special Thanks to the Pousada de Juventude de Pico for my accommodation on the island**