Doñana National Park

Essential Park Info

Established: 1969
Area under protection: 550 sq km
Climate: Mediterranean
Best Time to Visit: Oct/Nov or Feb/Mar
Closest Airport or Train Station: Sevilla (1 hr by road) has both an international airport and highspeed train connections
Can you drive yourself? No

Doñana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Andalusia, Spain, is unique among European national parks. It has tremendous biodiversity and an unparalleled collection of ecosystems. The Park comprises a blend of marshes, shallow streams, sand dunes and Mediterranean scrublands, a patchwork of habitats rarely seen elsewhere.

The Doñana wetlands, set at the delta of the Guadalquivir River are a unique blend of nature and human activity. The age-old farming traditions of the people who live around Doñana, including rice production, goat grazing and fishing have shaped the natural environment.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) can be found. all year round in the wetwands of Donana National Park
Licensed from Shutterstock
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) can be found. all year round in the wetwands of Donana National Park

Wildlife in Doñana National Park

Doñana National Park, an hour south of Seville, is a wildlife haven known for its rich flora and fauna.

The star of Doñana’s biodiversity is the Iberian lynx, often referred to as the world’s most endangered cat species. Indeed, Doñana National Park serves as one of the last refuges for these elusive and striking cats. Efforts toward their conservation within the Park have been integral to the species recovery from a low point of barely 100 individuals in the 1980s.

The National Park is also famous as a prime birdwatching site. It offers suitable habitat for numerous migratory birds and acts as a critical stopover point for countless species journeying between Africa and Europe. Over 300 bird species can be found in the Park during various periods of the year.

Doñana is a true ornithologist’s paradise, offering sightings of birds that are difficult to spot elsewhere. Among the more sought-after are flamingos, impressive Spanish Imperial Eagles, elusive Northern Bald Ibises, and swift European Spoonbills. During the summer and breeding season, many species are spread out across much of Europe. These might not be globally rare birds, but in any one area, their numbers are somewhat thin.

However, during the autumn and spring migrations, they come together in the bottleneck, the Straits of Gibraltar, heading towards Africa. Southern Spain is good for birding from October to February, but Doñana National Park is the jewel in the crown.

There is more to the park than just Iberian lynx and birds. The rich and protected delta of the Guadalquivir River provides a home for plenty of deer, both red and roe, and wild boar. There are also significant numbers of smaller mammals, including rabbits, the main prey of the Iberian Lynx.

For reptile lovers, there are the Iberian wall lizard and spur-thighed Tortoises to be found.

Iberian lynx footprints in the sand in Donana National Park a nature reserve in el Rocio, Andalusia, Spain
Licensed from Shutterstock
Iberian lynx footprints in the sand in Donana National Park a nature reserve in el Rocio, Andalusia, Spain

Description

The park’s main habitat is its extensive marshland, which makes up a significant portion of its layout. Situated at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, the area is a mix of fresh and tidal water. Donaña National Park is situated at the coming together of multiple habitat types.

Among these are the previously mentioned marshlands, which fill during the rainy season from October to March and then dry out in the warmer months, transforming the landscape and the types of species they support.

The park also boasts beautiful, ever-moving coastal dunes that resemble constantly changing natural sculptures. Amid these dunes, pockets of Mediterranean woodland flourish with pine, oak and juniper trees. It is here that you will find the majority of the deer and wild boar.

The park is about an hour’s drive south of Seville. Multiple tours of the park start in Seville, and most wildlife guides will pick you up there. The center of the park and its headquarters, though, are in the town of El Rocío on the west side of the park.

Matalascañas, on the south side of the park, is something of a small beach resort with good accommodation options. It is along this side of the National Park that one finds the shifting sand dunes of the coastal habitat. These dunes and their grasses provide an important refuge to smaller birds and help in protecting the marshes from inundation by Atlantic storms.

As the tide changes, so does the water level in the lagoon leaveing more of the marches exposed to other wildlife.
Licensed from Shutterstock
As the tide changes, so does the water level in the lagoon leaveing more of the marches exposed to other wildlife.

Getting to Doñana National Park

The easiest and most convenient method of getting to Doñana National Park is by car. If you are traveling from Seville, it should take you approximately an hour, heading towards El Rocío on the west side of the park. For those not traveling with a vehicle, you can always take a bus or even a train to El Rocío from Seville. El Rocío is effectively in the National Park, parts of the park and buffer zones surround the town.

You should note that driving personal vehicles within the park is not allowed. One way to see the park is by participating in one of the organized tours facilitated by Doñana Reservas. The tours are conducted in off-road vehicles driven by local guides knowledgeable about the park’s geography and biodiversity. They provide a basic exploration of the park. However, they generally offer a large bus type of vehicle, which isn’t exactly suitable for wildlife viewing.

There are a couple of licensed guides operating within the park in regular 4x4s (Toyota Landcruisers or similar). These provide the opportunity to get closer to nature and avoid having a crowd scare away any wildlife you might spot. They often pick you up in Seville as well, avoiding the need to be based near the park.

You don’t have to be a cycling nut to enjoy renting bicycles for a self-guided tour. There are several well-marked trails for cyclists, and bikes can be rented from places near the park entrance. The bike paths and walking paths are well signposted and provide a more sustainable way of seeing the park. Also, bikes get you up close with nature, hearing the birdsong and rustling undergrowth as you cycle along.

La Rocina Bird Observatory in Donana National Park
Licensed from Shutterstock
La Rocina Bird Observatory in Donana National Park

Accommodation in Doñana

There are plenty of accommodation options in and around Doñana National Park. Whether you prefer camping or comfortable lodgings, Doñana has you covered. Or at least the surrounding area has.

Firstly, for those who want to be close to nature, camping is a fantastic option. The Park does not permit camping within its boundaries in order to preserve its fragile ecosystem, but nearby towns such as Almonte, Matalascañas, and Mazagón have well-equipped camping facilities. Campsites such as Camping Doñana Playa and Camping La Aldea offer grassy pitches, electricity, and shared facilities and are located close to beaches and local amenities.

For those seeking a bit more comfort, there are hotels and bed and breakfasts available in most of the nearby towns. Matalascañas has many beach resorts, some with rear-facing views of the park.

Look for a ‘Casa Rural’ if you want to immerse yourself in nature without the camping. These small B&Bs are just rural homes offering simple accommodation. They will probably have a garden, which is a good place to start your bird watching. Often, they offer an evening meal as well.

The unique town of El Rocío offers a different vibe. The sandy streets are not paved to provide comfortable walking for horses. In fact, this unique town has more horses than cars, and while you won’t find drive-throughs, you will find ride-up bars where you can order from horseback. During the Pentecost weekend there is a pilgrimage to the local church (worth a visit at other times of the year), which is booked out months in advance and probably not a great time to visit the National Park.

The sunrise is a great time to see birds and other wildlife. The soft light also improves the chance of lovely photographs
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The sunrise is a great time to see birds and other wildlife. The soft light also improves the chance of lovely photographs

Best time to visit Doñana National Park

As I just said, anytime except the Pentecost weekend at the end of May or the start of June (variable like Easter) is good. Well, maybe not any time. The summers in Andalusia can get extremely hot. Despite that, the coastal winds from the Atlantic make this area somewhat bearable. Why the comparative lack of summer crowds might allow the wildlife to be active, the heat prevents them from doing so.

Birdlife is still present during the heat of the summer, but it is less active during the day. Plenty of migratory birds pass through the region, and so most are in their northern European breeding grounds from April to October. The migratory species are at their peak from October into November and from mid-February to April.

If you have any specific target species, check if they are early or late migrants to improve your chances of seeing them. There is somewhat less bird activity during the short winter, December and January. However, some species overwinter here and don’t go any further south. Check out Discovering Donana’s Bird page to get a full list of species and their times in the region.

Winter is also known as the wet season. Life in the park is at its most vibrant. During the summer, as the waters and wetlands dry up, Iberian lynx are quite likely to come to the smaller water sources to quench their thirst.

When you come is often dependent on your ability to take holidays, and the best time to visit Donana National Park is definitely whenever you have vacation days. However if you are free to decide, then I do recommend the autumn as the birds migrate southwards.

The paths through the forests and scrubland invite to explore and give a glimpse into the variety of habitats and wildlife.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The paths through the forests and scrubland invite to explore and give a glimpse into the variety of habitats and wildlife.

Conservation

Renowned globally for its biodiversity and unique ecosystems, Spain’s Doñana National Park is a treasure trove. It is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Protecting Doñana’s diverse landscapes and wildlife poses multiple challenges.

Guided visit quotas, limitations on tourist access to areas of the park, and promotion of off-season visitation are some techniques employed to control overtourism. Is it irresponsible to recommend visiting the park if there is over-tourism? This is a question that applies to all popular natural areas, but as of the time of writing, I think the need to promote Nature is more important. Over-tourism in the area is minimal compared to Amsterdam or Venice, for example.

For me, visiting in the off-season promotes the protection of the park within the limits of reasonable numbers.

One issue Doñana faces is water extraction for agriculture, which lowers water tables and threatens the park’s wetlands. The Spanish government, therefore, emphasizes sustainable agriculture and water usage in areas adjacent to the park.

Despite occasional setbacks, the government’s priority remains conservation efforts. The Sevilla Government’s recent plans to ban irrigation farming around Doñana Park show this commitment. Also, the expansion of beach dunes to curb coastal erosion reflects a proactive approach, though, of course, this is at odds with tourism development on the coast.

Another difficulty facing the park is, of course, the now regular wildfires in Andalusia. During the hot, dry summers, fires are an existential threat to the wildlife living here.

Effective stewardship of Doñana National Park requires hard work. The difficulty, as always, is finding a balance that permits both human activity and allows wildlife to flourish, simultaneously. Vigilance is needed to ensure the park’s continued survival as a haven for wildlife.

common spoonbill bird in Doñana National Park, ready to land
Licensed from Shutterstock
common spoonbill bird in Doñana National Park, ready to land

Shoud you visit Doñana National Park?

Yes.

Quite simply, put it at the top of your travel list. The Doñana Wetlands are a unique landscape and habitat, both within Spain and internationally.

If your dream is just to see an Iberian Lynx, then maybe head north to the Sierra de Andujar just outside Cordoba. Your chances here aren’t bad but the park doesn’t offer as good an opportunity for this wild cat.

If you are a European Birder then you have no excuse for not having been already. Flights to Seville are easy to get and the park is an hour away. Head there for your next long weekend. (Unless you read this on the day of publication, as the next long weekend is Pentecost – we should make an effort to avoid over-tourism).

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