Exploring the Terrain of the Camino del Norte: A Guide to Its Hills


The Camino del Norte, also known as the Northern Way, is a stunning pilgrimage route that traces the northern coast of Spain before heading inland towards Santiago de Compostela. Renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, the route offers a unique blend of coastal beauty, lush greenery, and historical sites.

However, one of the most common queries from prospective pilgrims is: “How hard is the Camino del Norte?” Let’s delve into the terrain of this beautiful route, highlighting key stops along the way and what walkers can expect in terms of elevation.

The Nature of the Northern Way

Unlike the relatively flat Camino Francés, the Camino del Norte offers a more challenging terrain, characterised by its undulating hills and occasional steep sections. The route’s proximity to the Cantabrian Mountains means that pilgrims will encounter a variety of elevations, especially in the initial stages. However, the beauty and tranquillity of the coastal paths and inland routes provide a rewarding experience for those willing to tackle its inclines.

Key Stops and Their Terrain

Irun to San Sebastián

The journey begins in Irun, situated on the border with France. The first day’s walk to San Sebastián introduces pilgrims to the route’s hilly nature, with a notable ascent as they leave Irun. However, the reward is the stunning views over the Bay of Biscay and the descent into the culinary haven of San Sebastián.


San Sebastián to Bilbao

Continuing westward, the path to Bilbao encompasses a mix of coastal cliffs, forested paths, and urban stretches. This section includes several ascents and descents, particularly as pilgrims navigate the rugged coastline. The approach to Zarautz and the climb to Getaria offer challenging yet scenic walking conditions. By the time pilgrims reach Bilbao, they will have experienced a good representation of the Northern Way’s varied terrain.

The Full Camino del Norte from San Sebastian to Santiago or the Northern Way, is a fantastic Camino de Santiago route along the Northern coast of ‘Green Spain’ from San Sebastián in the Basque Country.

Alternatively, pilgrims can opt to walk the first section of the Camino del Norte which also begins in chic and elegant San Sebastián, a gastronomic mecca, home to several Michelin-starred restaurants. From San Sebastián (or Donosti in Basque), the Camino del Norte travels West along the green coastline and countryside of the Basque Country for 127 km. This is the Camino del Norte San Sebastian to Bilbao and it is perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about Spanish food, art, and culture while also exploring some very scenic coastline and countryside.

Bilbao, Camino del Norte
Bilbao, Camino del Norte

Bilbao to Santander

Leaving Bilbao, the Camino del Norte gradually moves away from the coast, introducing pilgrims to the green, hilly landscapes of Cantabria. This section is less strenuous than the earlier coastal paths but still features rolling hills and a few steep climbs, especially as walkers approach the medieval town of Castro Urdiales and later, Laredo.

Santander to Gijón

From Santander, the Camino del Norte offers a blend of coastal scenery and inland roads. The stretch towards Santillana del Mar is relatively flat, but beyond this, pilgrims will encounter more significant elevation changes as they head towards Ribadesella and then on to the vibrant city of Gijón. This section is marked by its rural charm and the occasional challenging hill.

Gijón, Camino del Norte
Gijón, Camino del Norte

Gijón to Vilalba

Departing from Gijón towards Vilalba, the path presents a series of elevations, starting with a significant rise near Avilés, leading into undulating rural landscapes. The journey to Luarca includes a challenging ascent, offering pilgrims breathtaking views of the coast as a reward for their efforts. This stretch tests the pilgrims’ stamina, culminating in their arrival at the charming town of Vilalba, nestled at the gateway between Asturias and Galicia.

Vilalba, Camino del Norte
Vilalba, Camino del Norte

Vilalba to Santiago

Embarking from Vilalba, the final leg of the Camino del Norte weaves through Galicia’s verdant farmlands and serene countryside to Santiago de Compostela. This tranquil journey is adorned with lush forests, historic monuments, and the majestic 10th-century Sobrado dos Monxes monastery. The route offers a blend of solitude and heritage before merging with the bustling Camino Francés in Arzúa, providing a unique pilgrimage experience that combines the tranquillity of the Norte with the camaraderie of the Francés.

Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela
Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela

The Camino del Norte’s terrain is as varied as its scenery, offering a unique challenge to those who embark on this coastal pilgrimage. While it is undeniably hilly, especially in its early stages, the route’s natural beauty, combined with its rich cultural and historical landmarks, makes every step worthwhile. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a casual walker looking for a spiritual journey, the Northern Way invites you with open arms, promising an unforgettable experience amidst Spain’s stunning northern landscape.

For more information about the Camino del Norte or any other Camino de Santiago routes or to book your Camino trip, contact us.

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