So I’ll admit it. I went to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba. (18,491 ft.). I barely knew the names of the other two volcanoes on the itinerary.
But shh, here’s a secret. Of the three mountains we climbed, Nevado de Toluca was the best.
This “little” volcano (15,354 ft.) almost fell off our itinerary a few times. We were worried that three high-altitude summits in one week might be too many.
Also, Nevado is located off by itself on the west side of Mexico City. (The other Big Five volcanoes are over to the east.)
But the guide convinced us that climbing Nevado de Toluca would help us acclimatize for the main event. Still, I didn’t get too stoked about it. I didn’t decisively learn its name until we were driving to the trailhead.
So imagine my surprise when this hike was beautiful AF. And it was also a lot of fun. There was scrambling. There was scree skiing. It was my kind of heaven.
If you’re looking for a fun climb near Mexico City, I definitely recommend checking this one out, Here’s how we made this trip happen.
This post is part of a series on the climbing central Mexico’s volcanoes.
Tips for Hikers and Climbers
Nevado de Toluca is located in (wait for it) Nevado de Toluca National Park about 83 mi. (135 km) west of Mexico City.
Because we were on a tour, a guiding company took care of the logistics for us. If you want to DIY, hire a taxi in Toluca or rent a car. The last 7 miles of dirt road leading up to the parking lot are rough but passable by 2WD vehicles.
The trailhead has a refugio, toilets (5 pesos on weekends), and a cafe. Expect a big crowd here on weekends and holidays. Overflow parking is along the road.
Climbing conditions are best from November to March (the dry season). This post describes my climb on Nov. 19, 2017.
Some useful facts for hikers:
- Elevation: 15,354 ft. (No. 4 in Mexico)
- Distance: ~5 mi.
- Elevation Gain: ~2,100 ft.
- Difficulty: Class 3. Standard descent route involves a long “ski” on steep scree.
- Recommended Equipment: Helmet, trekking poles, warm clothes (it’s cold up there!)
- Hike Time: 7–9 hours
Need help packing for your adventure? Subscribe to Miss Adventure Pants, and I’ll send you my Mountaineer’s Packing List for FREE! It’s exactly what I used last year to get ready for climbs in Bolivia, Mexico, and Mt. Rainier.
Climbing Nevado de Toluca
Nevado de Toluca was a sacred site in pre-Columbian times, and many Mexicans still consider it a very spiritual place. This means you shouldn’t expect too much solitude on the first part of the trail, especially on weekends and holidays. Note the abundance of jeans and small children in the photo!
Ten minutes of easy hiking on a dirt road brings you to Paso de Quetzal and the crater rim. Geologists believe Nevado de Toluca was once a much taller volcano (maybe even the biggest volcano). But about 25,000 years ago, a cataclysmic eruption blew off its cone, forming a mile-wide caldera.
But don’t worry. Nevado is now considered extinct.
The last major eruption was so long ago, there are mammoth bones entombed in the debris.
Today the crater is home to two lakes surrounded by towering cliffs. It’s quite a sight. Some locals even carried up lawn chairs so they could relax and enjoy the view.
The lakes (Lago del Sol and Lago del Luna) are important archeological sites. Divers have found evidence that pre-Columbians made offerings and performed rituals here.
Some modern-day parents still bring their babies to the crater and present them to the mountain. During this ritual, the infant is left “alone” for a few minutes with offerings. (Apparently some tourists have seen this and freaked out that they were witnessing a human sacrifice. But our guide reassured us that the parents watch from a distance and then retrieve the baby.)
There are a few routes up the mountain. We took a trail that crossed the crater, passing to the right of Lago de Luna.
After we left the lake behind, the trail quieted down considerably.
Climbing above 14,000 feet is never easy, and the path up the rim was super steep! Here you can see a nice view of the two lakes — and my teammate Paul cheerleading some wind-sucking hikers.
At the rim, there was a distant view of Popocatépetl (17,802 ft., No. 2 in Mexico), an active volcano to the east. If you look at the horizon in the photo, you can see it farting out a little cloud of ash.
We were super impressed with Popo and took a million blurry pictures!
Little did we know, Popo had big plans for us.
But we’d have to wait a few days for that.
The flat summit to the left of Popo is La Malinche (14,636 ft., No. 5 in Mexico).
Once on the ridge, we put on our helmets for some easy class 3 scrambling. The rock was bomber, and the views were stunning.
From a vantage point high on the mountain, the landscape was beautiful but stark. I started to understand why the mountain’s Nahuatl name Xinantecatl is usually translated as the Naked Lord (or Senor Desnudo). Other possible translations include Lord of the Cornstalks, the Mountain of Bats, or Nine Lakes.
After crossing an aggravating number of false summits, the true summit finally came into view. From below, the scrambling looks super steep and gnarly. But relax, it never gets harder than class 3.
And then, pow! Summitville.
The highest point of the crater rim is called Pico de Fraile, or Friar’s Peak (15,354 ft.). I celebrated by breaking out my new Joby Gorillapod and remote. It did a pretty good job clinging to the rocks.
I love this summit pic of our guide, Vicente. A couple of our teammates had to drop out of the trip at the last minute, which was kind of a bummer. The upside was that we were now a group of five climbers with two guides.
Vicente and Ana made climbing Nevado de Toluca so much fun. They also taught us how to ski on scree without dying.
The Nevado de Toluca summit was super pointy and just a tad exposed. When I stepped up on it, I stood up very slowly. A Mexican climber who was hanging out kept telling people, “Look up and close your eyes!” (I think those were the only words he knew in English. Random.)
After taking some pics, we surrendered Pico de Fraile to the next group and had some lunch.
Then it was time to leave the crowd behind and descend.
It’s possible to get down Nevado de Toluca by retracing your steps, but the standard route descends a dry couloir full or scree. Here you see our last blissful moments of walking upright.
And then Vicente took a hard right and started charging down a steep gully. Most of the time, the scree was deep enough to “ski” down. But then I’d hit a bare spot or a rock and fall on my butt.
Note: all three of the Mexican volcanoes we climbed had boo-koo scree.
(Maybe it’s a volcanic thing.)
Come here if you love scree!
After what felt like five hours (but was probably more like 45 minutes), we exited the gully near Lago del Sol. Scree notwithstanding, we loved this loop route. It really gave us a satisfying tour de Nevado.
From the lake, it took about 15 minutes to climb back up to Paso de Quetzal and the crater rim. At this point, we were pretty freakin’ tired (my legs felt like I’d done a two hour wall sit, thanks to the scree), so that part kind of sucked.
But my final view of Nevado de Toluca was sublime!
From there, it was a short hike back to the parking lot, where our third guide was waiting with alphabet soup, quesadillas, and lots of Victoria beer. Talk about a perfect day.
Thank-Yous and Recommendations
If you’re climbing Nevado de Toluca (or any of the Mexican volcanoes), definitely check out Nomada Mexico. They provided us with excellent guides, transport, lodging, and lunches. Oh, and they stock the cooler in the van with beer!
Thanks also to Armaskin. My anti-blister sock liners always keep my feet extra happy on the mountain! (Seriously, I wish there was an easier way to take a photo of them.) At high altitude, my feet tend to swell. The Armaskins give me a bit of compression, which improves my circulation and keeps the inflammation down. You can shop Armaskin socks here.
Got more tips for climbing Nevado de Toluca? Comment below to share!
Originally published Dec. 11, 2017.