The hike to the summit of Popocatépetl, the active volcano located in central Mexico, can vary greatly in length depending on the starting point and route taken. However, most hiking routes are quite long, taking experienced hikers 10-14 hours roundtrip to complete.
What is Popocatépetl?
Popocatépetl is the second highest volcano in North America, reaching an elevation of 17,802 feet (5,426 meters). It is located about 43 miles southeast of Mexico City and is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Along with the nearby Iztaccíhuatl volcano, Popocatépetl forms part of the backdrop to Mexico City and is an iconic part of the landscape.
Popocatépetl is an active volcano, with its most recent eruption occurring in 2022. However, it has had frequent milder eruptions over the past few decades. The name Popocatépetl comes from the Nahuatl language meaning “smoking mountain” – an apt description of this dramatic peak. Due to its potential dangers, climbing to Popocatépetl’s summit requires a permit issued by the National Park.
Where do most hikes to Popocatépetl start?
Most hiking routes up Popocatépetl start from one of two places:
- The Paso de Cortés trailhead – Located at an elevation of 13,800 feet, this trailhead can be accessed from the Popocatépetl National Park entrance near the town of Amecameca. It is the closest driving access point to the volcano’s summit.
- The Tlamacas trailhead – Starting at around 12,000 feet elevation, this trailhead is northeast of the main peak, accessed from the village of Tlamacas.
These two trailheads provide the shortest and most direct routes up the mountain. Other longer approaches are also possible from various towns and villages on the slopes of Popocatépetl.
How long is the hike from Paso de Cortés?
The standard hiking route from Paso de Cortés to the summit of Popocatépetl is about 7 miles (11 km) each way with around 4,400 feet (1,340 meters) of elevation gain. The trailhead already starts at a very high elevation, which helps shorten the hike.
For most hikers, it takes between 7-9 hours to hike from Paso de Cortés to the top of Popocatépetl and back. Setting out very early in the morning is recommended to be able to make it down before nightfall.
The hike follows a gradual ascent up the volcano’s slopes before a final steeper push to the crater rim. Loose volcanic gravel, potential ice and snow, and the effects of altitude make this a challenging hike.
Elevation gain from Paso de Cortés
- Starting elevation: 13,800 feet
- Popocatépetl summit: 17,802 feet
- Total elevation gain: ~4,400 feet
Paso de Cortés to Summit hike details
- Distance: ~7 miles (11 km) each way
- Elevation gain: ~4,400 feet
- Estimated time: 7-9 hours roundtrip for most hikers
- Difficulty: Very strenuous – high elevation, steep sections near the top
How about from the Tlamacas trailhead?
The hike from the Tlamacas trailhead, while still steep and strenuous, is about 2 miles shorter than from Paso de Cortés. However it starts at a lower elevation of around 12,000 feet, so it actually involves more total elevation gain.
From Tlamacas, most hikers report taking 10-14 hours to complete the roundtrip hike to Popocatépetl’s summit and back. An overnight hike with camping on the upper mountain is also a popular option.
Elevation gain from Tlamacas
- Starting elevation: ~12,000 feet
- Popocatépetl summit: 17,802 feet
- Total elevation gain: ~5,800 feet
Tlamacas trailhead details
- Distance: ~9 miles (14 km) roundtrip
- Elevation gain: ~5,800 feet
- Time: 10-14 hours roundtrip for most hikers
- Difficulty: Extremely strenuous – long distance, high elevation
Hiking essentials for Popocatépetl
Due to the altitude, length, and challenging terrain, tackling the hike up Popocatépetl requires coming well-prepared with proper hiking gear and supplies:
- Warm layers & outerwear – Temperatures are often below freezing near the summit
- Sturdy hiking boots – For traction on gravel slopes and firm footing
- Trekking poles – Helpful for ascending & descending with less knee impact
- Crampons & ice axe – May be needed in icy conditions near the top
- Sun protection – Strong sun & UV rays at high elevation
- Headlamp – For starting in the dark & late descents
- Enough food & water – Stay fueled and stay hydrated!
- Emergency supplies – First aid kit, shelter, navigation aids
The high elevation of Popocatépetl means that proper acclimatization is extremely important before attempting the summit hike. Without allowing the body to adjust to the lower oxygen levels gradually, you risk developing dangerous altitude sickness.
Ideally, hikers should spend 1-3 days ahead of time at moderate elevations like Mexico City (7,350 feet) before moving up to stay a night or two at Paso de Cortés (.13,800 feet). This will let the body acclimatize and make for a safer, more enjoyable hike.
Considering the challenging terrain and need for proper acclimatization, hiring a qualified guide is highly recommended for Popocatépetl. Reputable guiding companies and individual guides can be found in towns like Amecameca at the park entrance.
An experienced guide provides several benefits:
- Knowledge of the best routes and current conditions
- Safety if the weather turns or altitude sickness strikes
- Gear like ice axe and crampons if conditions warrant it
- Logistical support – no need to worry about permits, transportation, etc.
While more expensive than doing a self-guided hike, a guide may be worth the cost for less experienced hikers or those unable to acclimatize properly beforehand.
When to hike Popocatépetl
Due to the volcanic conditions, some times of year are better than others for summiting Popocatépetl:
- November to March – The winter dry season provides the most stable weather window.
- April to May – Increasing instability, but often still climbable before the summer rains.
- June to September – High rainfall makes the mountain very prone to avalanches during the summer wet season.
- October – Mid-autumn provides a short second window of more favorable conditions.
Volcanic activity can sometimes disrupt plans as well. Check current conditions with guides and be prepared to change plans if the volcano is unusually active.
Other climbing routes
While most attempt Popocatépetl from the standard Paso de Cortés and Tlamacas routes, there are also some other longer and more challenging climbing options:
- North Face – Ice climb up steep snow and ice fields (advanced mountaineering skills required)
- West Face – A long 12+ mile route with over 6,500 feet of elevation gain
- South Face – Requires the most distance and elevation gain of any route
These all require proper rock climbing & mountaineering experience and gear. Guides are especially critical for these more technical routes to the top of Popocatépetl.
If climbing the full summit is beyond your technical skills or fitness level, there are some shorter hiking options on Popocatépetl that still provide great views:
- Hike about 2 miles and 1,000 feet up from Paso de Cortés to the Ventorrillo hut at 14,900 feet. Great views from here with less distance and elevation gain.
- Do a moderate 5 mile (8km) roundtrip hike to la Cualique crater at 15,400 feet from Paso de Cortés.
- Hike from Tlamacas to the Piedra Grande hut at 14,000 feet instead of all the way to the top.
There are also many hikes on the lower slopes of Popocatépetl through the forests and volcanic landscapes surrounding this iconic peak.
A hike up the slopes of Popocatépetl offers an incredible adventure and views for those willing to take on the challenge. While not a technical climb, its length, elevation gain, and volcanic terrain make for a demanding hike. Coming prepared with proper gear, having adequate fitness, and taking the time to acclimatize are key for a safe and successful summit bid.
For experienced high-elevation hikers willing to put in a long, tough day of hiking, standing on the rim of one of North America’s tallest volcanoes offers an unforgettable experience! Just be sure to check current conditions and plan your attempt during the optimal winter or mid-autumn seasons.