The Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park is Andalucia's largest coastal protected area. It covers over 34,000 hectares on land plus a 12,000 hectare marine strip of one mile in width. The park is home to Spain’s largest volcanic rock formation. lava flows, volcanic domes, volcanic calderas. The park joined UNESCO's Global Geoparks Network in 2006, and is also a member of the European Geoparks Network.
There are large steep cliffs which plunge to the sea as well as coves which hide beautiful white sandy beaches. The natural park includes several tiny islands located offshore which is home to coral reefs packed with marine life.
The park has: a visitor centre, a botanical garden, an exhibition and conference centre, a maritime classroom, a naturalists classroom , along with 6 information points, 6 view-points, 16 paths, 5 observatories for bird watching. The park is located to the east of the Sierra Nevada National Park.
The Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park has over 20 marked footpaths. You’ll find the park's visitors' centre Los Amoladeras, located between Retamar and San Miguel de Cabo de Gata. There you can obtain plentiful information on the walks and accommodation etc within and around the park.
The Sendero lighthouse-San José walk links the park’s best two beaches:- Monsul and Media Luna (made famous when used for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Sendero Las Amoladeras is an easy circular 5½km walk. This is an ideal bird watchers walk. You may get the chance to see the rare Dupont’s lark along with other types of lark and stone curlews among others.
Agua Amarga is a delightful fishing village, which also has a sandy beach.
At Los Escullos there is a ruined 18th-century castle perched on top of fossilized sand dunes and impressive cliffs. There is also a small pebble beach. There are dramatic cliffs at Las Negras, along with a pretty beach.
The Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park has diverse habitats ranging from dunes, beaches and cliffs to saltpans a large marine area over 12,000 hectares. There are also salt marshes and dry river beds. The park has been extensively mined since antiquity for its agate, jasper, lead, amethyst, silver and gold.
Flamingos flock here in their thousands and can be seen on the salt flats near the headland. As well as many other water based birds such as both grey and purple heron, storks and cranes. During migrating times the park is used by thousands of birds as a stop-over. Seabirds found here are yellow-legged gulls, razorbills, shags and the occasional puffin.
Many species of lark live on the steppe, including the rare Dupont's lark and there are also little bustards and stone curlews. The wealth of animal life provides prey for a number of raptors: ospreys, peregrine falcons, kestrels and eagles.
Reptiles thrive here. The Italian wall lizard is found only in this area. There around 15 species of lizard along with grass snakes and Lataste’s viper.
The maritime reserve is home to various species of crustaceans, molluscs and fishes including the common cuttlefish, the Mediterranean moray, the garfish and the flying gurnard. Seaweed areas hold fish such as bream and grouper.
Among the mammals in the park are common genets, wild boar, the garden dormouse and the least weasel, the smallest terrestrial mammalian carnivore.
There are over one thousand species recorded in the reserve, some of which are endemic to the park, including the pink snapdragon (Antirrhinum charidemi). The area is semi-arid, the average temperature is 18 °C and it has the lowest rainfall in the Iberian peninsula and the whole Europe, its average precipitation being a mere 4 to 7 inches per year. The characteristic vegetation in the terrestrial zone is drought-adapted plants including much low-growing vegetation, dwarf fan palms and a number of xerophytes. The dwarf fan palm (Europe’s only native palm) is found here. There are many native species that are unique to the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, one of which is the pink snapdragon Antirrhinum charidemi. The surrounding scrubland is home to wild olive trees , oaks esparto grass and thyme.
Around the salt flats are colonies of saltworts, common reeds (Phragmites australis) and the glasswort (Salicornia fruticosa). In the coastal waters are extensive beds of seagrass (Posidonia oceanica), which is endemic to the Mediterranean, and 260 species of seaweed.