Nevado de Toluca hiking guide: best volcano climbs in Mexico
Situated within easy driving of Mexico City yet a world away from the bustle of the capital, Nevado de Toluca is the country’s 4th highest volcano and an absolutely spectacular Class 2-3 scramble. Of the “easier” climbs in this region, this is by far the most exciting, delivering scenery, intrigue, and plenty of challenge for those looking to discover Mexico beyond the beaches and taco stands (though I’m a fan of those, too!).
The route up Nevado de Toluca also wins major points for uniqueness, ascending a rough ridgeline and then maintaining high elevation over multiple summits as it circumnavigates the volcanic caldera and two beautiful alpine lakes in a large loop. This post describes everything you need to know about climbing Nevado de Toluca without a guide, including difficulty, entrance fees, a detailed route description, essential gear & more!
For a complete Mexican volcano itinerary that includes the acclimatisation my friends and I followed to successfully summit Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccíhuatl, Nevado de Toluca & La Malinche (Mexico’s 1st, 3rd, 4th & 6th highest mountains), check out this post: COMING SOON
What's in this travel guide
Nevado de Toluca hiking stats
- Summit elevation: 4,680m (15,350ft)
- Estimated hike time: 6-7hrs
- Distance: 8km (5mi)
- Elevation gain: 750m (2,461ft)
- Difficulty: moderately difficult
How hard is Nevado de Toluca?
Nevado de Toluca is a moderately difficult hike with sections of Class 2-3 scrambling along the ridgeline that require careful footwork and comfort with exposure. Helmets are essential to protect against rockfall and, depending on conditions, micro-spikes or crampons may also be required to safely ascend snow patches near the summit (see the recommended packing list below for all essential gear).
There’s also a need for route-finding (often without the help of cairns) around each of the summits on the ridge, plus the not-insignificant challenge of high elevation! Without a guide, Nevado de Toluca is only suitable for those with experience hiking and scrambling off trail on rough terrain and who’ve done some prior acclimatisation.
Nevado de Toluca elevation
From trailhead to summit, the entirety of the Nevado de Toluca hike is above 4,000m and this poses one of the most significant challenges to a successful summit.
Regardless of your fitness, age, or previous experience with high-elevation climbing, there is absolutely no substitute for acclimatisation! Camping at the trailhead (4,000m) prior to the climb is helpful, as are days spent just walking around Mexico City (2,240m) or ascending one of the region’s other volcanoes— at 4,461m, but without the sustained time at elevation, La Malinche to the west of CDMX (in Tlaxcala) is an ideal warm-up.
I put my PhD to good use by writing a super detailed post about high-altitude mountaineering that will help you understand the difference between normal adaptations to altitude vs altitude sickness, ways you can prevent serious complications, acclimatisation strategies & more: High-altitude: a climber’s guide to preventing & treating altitude sickness
When to hike Nevado de Toluca
Although somewhat counterintuitive, the main hiking and climbing season in central Mexico is during the winter, specifically November, December, January, or February — this is the dry season and the time of year most likely to have bright, clear days without precipitation.
Due to the terrain on Nevado de Toluca, you definitely don’t want to hike after rain (which will quickly freeze into ice) or heavy snow. When we were there in December, the park closed for a few days due to a massive storm, so there’s no guarantee of good conditions, but the end of the year is generally considered to be the best bet! Be sure to check the weather on the mountain before setting off on your hike.
Getting to Nevado de Toluca
The Nevado de Toluca trailhead is located about 1.5hrs (45km) from the town of Toluca in Estado de Mexico (the State of Mexico), west of CDMX.
Driving from Mexico City, allow 4hrs to reach Nevado de Toluca. The majority of this journey is on paved highways, but the final half-hour ascends steeply on a rough dirt road to reach the park entrance— the drive is manageable in any car (we did it in a compact sedan), but prepare to drive very slowly and carefully without high clearance!
Travelling without a car? There are a few public transport options to reach Nevado de Toluca and the easiest among these is to catch one of the frequent buses from CDMX to Toluca and then pay a taxi to take you the remainder of the way to Nevado de Toluca. There are buses that cover part of this latter journey, but they will only take you to the lower car park (and add several hours to your hike), so it’s worth finding some friends to split the cost of a taxi from Toluca!
Entry fees for Nevado de Toluca
As of early 2024, entry to the Nevado de Toluca Wildlife Protection Area is 58p ($3.5USD) per person, payable at the little office as you drive up to the trailhead and the camping area. You do not need any advance reservations or permits to climb Malinche!
*We were stopped by some locals in official-looking vests at the lower carpark before driving up the dirt road to Nevado de Toluca and asked to pay 100p/person, which we assumed to be entrance fees. After reaching the trailhead and paying the official entrance fee, it seems more likely that this was either a community fee OR just a scam, so be aware! If anyone has a similar experience, I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments below this post.
Camping at Nevado de Toluca
There is very basic camping available just below the Nevado de Toluca trailhead at 4,000m and it is highly advisable to stay here before the climb just to get some additional time at elevation (and possibly also after the climb, since it’s a long drive out). In addition to the entrance fees mentioned above, it costs 150p ($8USD) per tent or van/camper to stay overnight at Nevado de Toluca.
The camping area is just off the dirt road in a flat area that the staff will direct you to— we were the only people here both nights that we stayed! Be warned that it is extremely cold at this elevation and there’s no shelter or cooking area, so you may well be boiling water in your tent vestibule. There are bathrooms at the entrance about 5min up the road, as well as 24/7 medics, but no other amenities to speak of. Come prepared!
*Nevado de Toluca: route description
Setting off from the Nevado de Toluca trailhead to the right of the Visitor Centre, the route begins with a breathless 800m ascent to Paso del Quetzal on the edge of the crater rim, which takes about 10min and offers the first glimpses of the sparkling alpine lakes around which you’ll spend the next several hours parading.
Nevado de Toluca has been dormant for more than 25,000 years, but given the 2km-wide crater left from its last eruption, geologists believe this was once the largest volcano in all of Mexico!
For a majority of the tourists who arrive to Nevado de Toluca, the view from Paso del Quetzal is as much of the volcano as they will discover; but for the eager hiker, it is only the beginning.
You can circle the crater rim in either direction, but I would recommend anti-clockwise, as this leads past the most spectacular scenery and tackles the most challenging terrain in the first half of the hike.
It’s difficult to know exactly where to look— the glittering shores of Laguna del Sol unfurling beneath you, the silhouettes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl (Mexico’s 2nd and 3rd highest volcanos) visible behind you, or perhaps even the glowing hillside of crisp Rosas de las Nieves (Snow Roses) blooming around you. Within minutes, this is a spectacularly beautiful and all-engrossing climb!
The incredible Snow Rose grows only at heights greater than 3,000m and is able to withstand temperatures far below zero and winds above 60km/hr— I was totally consumed taking photos of their serrated petals in the sunlight, a resilient and surprisingly feminine beauty in the most inhospitable of environments.
Following high above the right side of Laguna del Sol, the route ascends steeply at first, but after about 3km, a majority of the elevation has been gained and the next several hours are spent scrambling up and down along the ridgeline.
The route leads over several summits: Pico Noreste, Pico del Águila, Pico de Ezequiel Ordoñez, Pico del Fraile (the highpoint at 4,680m), and Picos del Campanario. Just before you reach the first of these summits, the trail disappears and you are left to find your own way over and around the rocky features of the ridgeline with the occasional help of cairns.
Strong navigational skills are essential here, as is solid footwork and a head for heights— the terrain is very rough, picking a route through boulders, up snowy slopes, through loose scree, and venturing into Class 2-3 scrambling on each of the summits. There is typically an easier route to be found around the front or back, but up and over will get you the most exhilaration!
It takes about 3-3.5hrs from the trailhead to arrive at the true summit, Pico del Fraile (4,680m), a rocky outcropping slightly more than halfway around the caldera.
I read several trip reports where people just reversed their route from here, but I absolutely love the perspective of circling the entire crater on this long loop— always scrambling forward into new terrain, remaining high on the ridgeline for hours, constantly rotating around the incredible interior scenery of Lagunas del Sol & de la Luna and the 360° panorama beyond. Forge ahead!
From the summit of Pico del Fraile, the route descends over the rocky ridgeline through some additional and very fun Class 2-3 scrambling that requires careful wayfinding— down-climbing always poses an additional challenge, but there are several viable routes here with varying exposure and difficulty, so poke around until you find something comfortable!
Eventually, you’ll connect to a trail that brings you along the left shores of little Laguna de la Luna and uphill to Paso del Quetzal on the crater rim.
Including lunch breaks and lots of photos, our group took 7.5hrs from trailhead to trailhead, a beautiful if somewhat breathless introduction to central Mexico’s many volcanoes and a spectacular way to prepare for some of our larger objectives next week: Iztaccíhuatl and Pico de Orizaba!
Complete Mexico volcano itinerary
Climbing Nevado de Toluca was part of a larger itinerary through central Mexico that included an intentional acclimatisation program to summit Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccíhuatl, Nevado de Toluca & La Malinche (Mexico’s 1st, 3rd, 4th & 6th highest mountains). I wrote a super-detailed post with all my recommendations, but here’s a quick look at the itinerary we followed!
- day 0++: fly into Mexico City & spend a couple days exploring (at 2,240m, even eating tacos in the city is acclimatisation!)
- day 1: drive 3.5hrs from Mexico City to Nevado de Toluca & camp ~4,000m at the trailhead
- day 2: climb Nevado de Toluca [7hrs; 4,680m summit] & camp a 2nd night
- day 3: drive 5hrs to Centro Vacacional Malintzi & camp ~3,100m
- day 4: climb La Malinche [7hrs; 4,461m summit] & camp a 2nd night
- day 5: drive 3hrs to Izta-Popo National Park & camp ~4,000m at La Joya
- day 6: climb Iztaccíhuatl [12hrs; 5,230m summit] & drive to Puebla City
- day 7: drive 2hrs to Tlachichuca, rest & packing day
- day 8: 4WD transport with Orizaba Glacier Climbers 2hrs up to Piedra Grande base camp & sleep in the free hut ~4,260m
- day 9: midnight wake-up to climb Pico de Orizaba [9hrs; 5,636m summit]
Essential gear for Nevado de Toluca
Not including camping gear, here’s a quick packing list of essential items for hiking Nevado de Toluca!
trekking poles: Black Diamond Trail Trekking Poles women’s or men’s
For all the rough terrain you’ll encounter on Nevado de Toluca (and particularly when there’s snow on the trail), trekking poles are incredibly helpful and a lightweight addition to your kit.
You’ll want a lightweight wool or brushed fleece layer that provides some warmth without considerable bulk for the sunny but chilly conditions you’re likely to encounter on Nevado de Toluca. I particularly like having a hood that can be worn (even under my helmet) for added warmth and/or sun protection.
liner socks: Injinji Liner Crew Socks
I swear by these toe socks as the ultimate blister prevention, worn under my wool socks as a sweat-wicking liner!
I absolutely love the support of lightweight mountaineering boots for scrambling and traversing snowy slopes. They are a little less comfortable than trail shoes when you’re walking on flat ground, but so much of Nevado de Toluca is over rough, rocky terrain that it’s certainly worth the trade-off!
Even on the sunniest of days, there’s likely to be some snow around the summit of Nevado de Toluca. I didn’t wear spikes because my mountaineering boots were stiff enough to handle the slippery terrain, but for those with trail shoes or less snow experience, you’ll definitely want to pack spikes!
sun glasses: Julbo Vermont
From glacier travel to rocky scrambles, these are my favourite outdoor sunglasses.
beanie: Arc’teryx Mallow Toque
For high wind and added warmth at the summit, toss a beanie into your pack.
water bottle: Nalgene Wide-Mouth Water Bottle 32 fl. oz.
For ease of filtering and filling up water, I find wide-mouth water bottles much easier to use than hydration bladders. Be sure to pack all the water you intend to drink on your hike, as there is no opportunity to fill up along the trail.
Pack enough snacks for 6-8hrs on the trail!
first aid kit: Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series
A well-stocked first aid kit is absolutely essential on any hike; Adventure Medical Kits has conveniently assembled a range of bandages and common emergency medications into a compact kit that I use on all my adventures. I personally add KT tape (my go-to blister protection), Naproxen for joint swelling, and a pair of spare contacts; make your own personal additions!
PLB: Garmin In-Reach Mini
Never hit ANY trail without a satellite communicator— whether you’re sending check-in messages back home, receiving weather updates, or communicating with emergency services, this small device can literally save your life.
Read more about climbing Mexico’s volcanoes