At an altitude of 1,993 metres stands the largest mountain on mainland Portugal: Serra da Estrela, a Natural Park since 1976. The distinction of being the first natural park in the country reflects not only the status of this region of the Central Mountain Range as a “refuge” for wildlife and flora of national importance, but also its scenic and human value as a whole.
Together with the Serra do Açor and Serra da Lousã mountains, this terrain composes the western end of the Central Mountain Range and forms an integral part of three of the most important river basin developments: Douro, Tagus and Mondego (the latter, the longest Portuguese river, the source of which is located in Gouveia).
Serra da Estrela may be divided into five landscape units: the central plateau, adjacent peaks and ridges, plateaus at lower altitude, slopes and valleys accompanied by water lines. In its upper part, the Estrela is notable for its peculiar morphology resulting from the strong influence of the Quaternary glaciation, the U-shaped Zêzere Glacier being the most outstanding example from this period.
In the winter, its altitude, the most characteristic and distinctive feature of this territory, favours snowfall and is also responsible for the creation of conditions favourable to the occurrence of exclusive natural values. Accordingly, three tiers of vegetation may be described: the basal tier (up to 900 metres), where the holm oak (Quercus rotundifolia) and the Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitannica) predominate; the intermediate tier (up to 1,600 metres) consisting of Pyrenean oaks (Quercus pyrenaica), sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) and scrub forest; and the upper tier, characterised by creeping juniper (Lycopodio-Juniperetum alpina), grasslands, clearings and rock vegetation.
This Natural Park is composed of diverse habitats, where elements representative of diverse zones of biodiversity may be found. In this area, 250 species of vertebrates and 2,100 species of invertebrates have been identified, some of which are unique, such as the longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae). It has the most diverse fauna of amphibians and reptiles in the country, in particular the Iberian rock lizard (Iberolacerta monticola) and the golden-striped salamander (Chioglossa lusitanica).