Desierto de los Leones National Park: The Complete Guide

archways in the Desierto de los Leones
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Desierto de los Leones

Address
Álvaro Obregón, 05800 CDMX, Mexico

The name of this park, which means “Desert of the Lions,” is deceiving: it’s not a desert but rather a coniferous forest, and you won’t find any lions here. The word desert in this case is meant to refer to a wild place away from civilization. There are two different theories as to the lions: either the forest was inhabited by pumas at one time which were referred to as lions, or perhaps León was the surname of two brothers who once owned the land and were patrons of the Carmelite order who had a monastery here. Regardless of any confusion the name may cause, this national park makes for a great getaway from Mexico City.

It’s hard to believe you’re still in Mexico City in this forested National Park with an early 17th-century monastery at its center. While the monastery is the main showpiece, its lovely gardens and surrounding forested area offer plenty of opportunities for diversion along with the forest's many ravines, brooks, streams, and waterfalls.

The climate in the park is cool and humid with rains and fog much of the year due to its altitude (2,500 feet higher than most of Mexico City), The park covers 4,610 acres and its highest peak, Cerro San Miguel, rises to 12,434 feet above sea level.

Things to Do

On a visit to Desierto de Los Leones, you can take part in a variety of activities including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping. Tour the former Carmelite monastery at the center of the park, or enjoy one of the occasional Sunday concerts hosted on the historical site. You can have a meal at one of the many on-site eateries or bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds. There are cultural events held regularly, many of which are free and open to the public. There are also occasional organized sports activities such as 100-mile wild races, or the “Meta Desierto de Los Leones” race.

Historical Buildings and Museum

Visitors can explore the Carmelite monastery which was in use for around 200 years between 1611 to 1845. It was home to some 25 monks of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, who lived a very austere life, mostly in silence and contemplation. Explore the monks' cells, the kitchen, dining area, library, guesthouse, laundry, orchard, and stables. Don't miss the"Garden of Secrets," a beautiful garden area surrounded by vestiges of the wall that once surrounded the entire property. As you explore the surrounding woods, you'll come across hermitages where the monks could go to spend time in complete isolation.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are many paths and trails to hike or bike throughout the park, just be aware that most are not marked and cell phone coverage can be spotty, so if you’re following a trail you’ve found online, download it to your phone so you can access if you have no data. 

  • An easy trail is the Camino al Convento, which is a lightly trafficked loop of about 6 miles and takes you by a river. This trail offers a number of activity options and you may see cyclists and dog walkers here (dogs are allowed on leashes inside the park).
  • If you’re looking for a slightly more challenging hike, the Desierto Leones a Manantiales Rincón San Miguel is a 5-mile trail in a hilly forest setting and is rated as moderate - it’s best to go on this trail during the dry season as when there’s been a lot of rain it can be treacherous, or even unpassable at certain sections. 
  • Those looking for a difficult trail with a great view may choose to climb Cerro San Miguel. This is a 15.5-mile hike which is quite steep. Be sure to take sufficient water with you if you choose to do this one.

Where to Camp

There are campgrounds near the park where you can pitch a tent, and there are also places with cabins to rent. 

  • EcoCamp Ajusco offers rustic but comfortable cabins to rent and they also organize ecotourism activities and provide guides for hiking and climbing.
  • Parque San Bernabé Ocotepec offers camping with rentals of tents and cabins and also has hiking trails.
  • Campamentos Mexico Paidos has facilities for camping as well as offering adventure activities like climbing, rappel and hiking.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you’d like to stay at a hotel near the park, you can look at hotels on the south side of Mexico City in areas such as Coyoacan, San Angel, or Santa Fe from which you can expect a 25 to 30-minute drive to Desierto de Los Leones. 

  • The Fiesta Inn Periferico Sur is a large hotel that is popular among business travelers, and conveniently located on one of the city’s main arteries. Large windows provide plenty of daylight into the expansive guest rooms. 
  • Stara San Angel Inn is a modern hotel with minimalistic furnishings contrasting with the traditional San Angel neighborhood in which it’s located. Guest rooms are equipped with kitchenettes if you’d like to prepare your own food.
  • Hyatt House Mexico City / Santa Fe is in Mexico City’s ultra-modern business district. The spacious guest rooms feature separate living and sleeping areas.

How to Get There

Desierto de los Leones is located about 14 miles southwest of the center of Mexico City, within the borough of Cuajimalpa de Morelos. Just a one hour drive will get you there. If coming by public transportation, take the metro to Barranca del Muerto station (line 7) and take a bus to Santa Rosa. Or you can get to San Angel and take a registered taxi or Uber from there. Just make sure to arrange a time for your driver to pick you up at the end of the day.

Alternatively, you can go on an organized tour. Most visit Desierto de Los Leones as a stop in a day trip that includes a tour of another location such as the Malinalco archaeological site in Morelos state.

Accessibility

There is no designated parking for people with disabilities and the parking lot is uneven cobblestone. The former monastery has some ramps for wheelchair access but not all spaces are accessible for people in wheelchairs. The ramps that are there may not meet guidelines as to width and angle. There are no designated restrooms for people with disabilities.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The former monastery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The admission fee is 20 pesos per person and allows access to the building and its outer grounds.
  • There are food stands and family-run restaurants at various spots in the park. The most popular foods you’ll find are quesadillas and tacos, but some local specialties such as trout and rabbit are also on the menu at some of the eateries. 
  • Bring warm clothes as it can get quite chilly, misty, and humid due to the elevation and the forest's microclimate. 
  • Watch your step while walking in the forest during the summer months, as you may come across rattlesnakes. 
  • Don’t risk trying any of the mushrooms you may find in the forest, as many are toxic.
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Complete guide to Mexico City's Desierto de los Leones National Park