Ever wanted to walk on the “Stairway to Heaven”? Then you should hike from Pico do Areiro to Pico Ruivo. If it’s sunny, you can enjoy an amazing view of the entire island of Madeira. If it’s cloudy – even better: You will be able to climb a steep stairway that arises from the clouds. You’ll literally feel like you’re walking on clouds. What a breathtaking and unique experience!
Hike from Pico do Areiro to Pico Ruivo
Pico do Areiro and Pico Ruivo are two of the highest mountains on Madeira. They are connected by a 6km long, well-maintained path. The route covers an altitude distance of 450m. However, since the altitude is more or less evenly distributed in several small ascents and descents, it doesn’t feel that much.
Please bear in mind that this route is not a roundway. You’ll either have to walk back the entire way or walk another 4km to Achado do Teixeira, and then take a taxi or bus from there. My fiance and I decided to walk back, and we’re happy we did! The weather changed a bit and gave the way back such a different atmosphere that it didn’t feel like we had been there already a couple of hours before.
Some other travel blogs warned that the route should only be taken by hikers with “alpine experience, a sure foot and a complete absence of a fear of heights”. I can’t second that. I do mildly suffer from vertigo, and I didn’t have any problems. The path is well secured by ropes, stairs, and handrails and can be climbed by anyone with an average level of fitness. We even encountered several hikers who carried their children in a “baby backpack”. If it’s safe for them, it’s safe for the average hiker as well.
However, I would not advise to take the hike when it’s rainy or extremely windy. After all, it’s still mountainous terrain.
Part 1: from the radar station through the tunnels
The starting point of the hike is the NATO radar station on top of the Pico do Areiro. You can get there with a taxi or a rental car. When we walked the trail on a Monday in November, we first had the company of quite a lot of tourists who went up with shuttle busses. However, most of them only hiked 300m to a viewpoint and then went back, so that the rest of the trail wasn’t crowded.
After you pass the viewpoint, turn left to walk around a side peak of the Pico do Areiro. Now walk on a 1m-wide stairway on the crest of the mountain. There’s steep abysses to the left and the right, and if you don’t suffer from vertigo you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the island.
At the bottom of the stairs, we were welcomed by three tame Red-Legged Partridges. In other parts of the world, they’d be fair game for hunters – here they didn’t mind us at all and enthousiastically approached us with the hope of getting some breadcrumbs.
You’ll now descend a steep stone staircase until the path splits into the “Eastern” and “Western” walkway. Unfortunately, the Western way is currently (Nov. 2017) closed due to a landslide, so we had to take the Eastern path. It passes three long tunnels, so be sure to bring a torchlight (or a smartphone with torchlight function).
Part 2: on the hillsides of the Ghost Forest
The path now becomes a bit narrower. It’s literally carved into the flank of the mountain, with a massive stone wall to your right and a steep abyss on your left. Fortunately, most of the path is secured by a handrail.
You’ll then climb a set of long, steep metal staircases to exhaustedly reach a mountain pass. Good time for a break!
The other side of the mountain looks so different that we sometimes wondered if we really were in the same area. The mountain flanks are not covered with semi-arid fauna anymore, but with the remains of a thick forest that burned down a long time ago. Pale tree trunks cover the mountainside, while ferns and plants claim the ground back for nature. The path traverses in narrow serpentines and provides enough opportunities to marvel at the forest graveyard full of twisted, white tree skeletons.
Part 3: ascent to Pico Ruivo
The forest opens the view into a wide meadow, where the path to Achado do Teixeira joins. Shortly afterwards, you reach a mountain hut (that also features a public toilet). Turn steep left to climb further to the top of Pico Ruivo. From the top, you have a fantastic overview of the mountains – a good selfie spot! Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to share the view with lots of other tourists who walked from Achado to Teixeira.
Part 4: the way Back to Pico do Areiro
When you’ve had enough of the busy mountain top of Pico Ruivo, you can either walk on to Achado do Teixeira or back to Pico do Areiro. Since our rental car was parked at Pico do Areiro’s radar station, we decided to take the same way back. Meanwhile, the sunny sky had quickly been covered by clouds. Judging from TripAdvisor reviews, this commonly happens in the afternoon.
However, the clouds didn’t make the trip less appealing. Quite contrary, they turned it into a whole another experience! Especially the “ghost forest” now reached its full atmospheric potential. Thick fog made it impossible to see further than the next serpentine corner, and provided an eerie atmosphere, like straight out of a horror or fantasy movie. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we encountered a group of Hobbits carrying a ring to Mordor…
Anyhow, we walked through the forest without meeting any Hobbits; crossed the pass and the tunnels and then ascended back to the radar station. Just below the narrow stone staircase, we broke through the clouds. You remember Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven”? This must have been what they had in mind. Clouds embedded both sides of the mountain crest, while the stairway emerged in the middle. Following the path truly felt like walking on clouds!
Blessed with this amazing experience, we reached the radar station shortly afterwards. In total, the tour took us about 5 hours, breaks included. We usually walk relatively fast, so if you want to take it slow or stop for a selfie at every corner, better plan more time. But be sure not to miss this hike! We have been hiking in a lot of awesome places, but this one definitely is one of our favorites.