- 1 National Park Information
- 2 Physical Features and Climate
- 3 Biodiversity in El Leoncito
- 4 Main Activities in the Park
- 5 Services and Facilities
- 6 Regulations and Tips for Visitors
- 7 Conservation and Management
- 8 Photo Gallery
Immerse yourself in the captivating beauty of El Leoncito National Park, a protected area in Argentina where the natural splendor merges with the mightiness of the night sky. Located in the province of San Juan, this park offers a unique blend of biodiversity, towering vistas, and dark, clear skies that turn each visit into an unforgettable experience.
National Park Information
Anchored in the heart of San Juan Province, Argentina, within the High Andes, Puna, and Sierras y Bolsones ecoregion, El Leoncito stands as an oasis of tranquility and natural beauty. It is situated approximately 240 kilometers from the provincial capital city and about 35 kilometers from the town of Barreal. You can pinpoint its location at 31°48′00″S 69°22′00″W.
How to Get to the Park
There are various ways to reach the park, including by car, bus, or organized tours. Access is available from Calingasta via Provincial Route 412, a route filled with incredible panoramas.
By Car or Private Vehicle
To reach El Leoncito National Park by car, you can take different routes depending on your starting point. From the city of San Juan, the provincial capital, the distance is approximately 245 kilometers. From Barreal, the nearest town to the park, it’s about 35 kilometers away. If you’re starting from the city of Mendoza, the distance is around 210 kilometers, and from Uspallata, it’s about 100 kilometers.
The car journey to the park offers beautiful landscapes and the opportunity to enjoy different sensations in each season of the year. It’s advisable to consider the weather conditions and prepare adequately for the trip. Additionally, in the town of Barreal, which is close to the park, you can find a variety of accommodation options, restaurants, and services for visitors.
Access from San Juan
To get to El Leoncito from the city of San Juan, you should take National Route 40 towards the towns of Albardón and Jáchal. After traveling approximately 55 kilometers, in Talacasto, you should turn left and take Provincial Route 149 that leads to Iglesia and Rodeo. Then, continue on the same route towards Calingasta and Barreal.
From the town of Barreal, take Provincial Route 149 to the south, heading towards Uspallata. After covering about 20 kilometers, you’ll see the extensive landscape of Barreal Blanco or Pampa del Leoncito on your right, and on your left, there will be a paved turnoff leading to El Leoncito National Park. From that point, there are 12 kilometers left to reach the park’s Visitor Center.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, another option to reach El Leoncito National Park is by public bus transportation.
From the city of San Juan, you can take a bus from the company "El Triunfo" to reach Barreal, the nearest town to the park. This company offers daily services with the following schedules:
- San Juan to Barreal: 08:30 and 20:30 hours.
- Barreal to San Juan: 02:30 and 14:30 hours.
It’s important to note that there are no public transportation options that directly reach El Leoncito National Park. Once in Barreal, you can choose to take a taxi or hire a private transportation service to get to the park, which is approximately 35 kilometers away.
It’s advisable to verify the schedules and availability of transportation services before planning your trip, as they may be subject to changes.
Opening and Closing Hours
The Park is open to the public year-round. Trail hours may vary depending on the season.
- Summer: 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM
- Winter: 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
El Leoncito was established as a national park on October 15, 2002 (Law No. 25.656/02) under the name "Parque Nacional El Leoncito" in Spanish, with the objective of preserving the rich biodiversity of the region as well as its valuable geological and scenic resources.
Historical Names and Origin of the Current Name
The name "El Leoncito" is derived from one of the rivers that flows through the park, which in turn gets its name from the abundance of pumas in the region.
Physical Features and Climate
Geography and Geology of the Park
The park is renowned for its volcanic rock formations and expansive plains across an area of 89,706 hectares, about 7,793 m². The colorful landscapes are a result of erosion and the passage of time.
Climate and Best Times to Visit
The climate in El Leoncito National Park varies from dry cold at higher altitudes to dry subtropical in the lower regions. Average temperatures hover around 26°C in summer (with highs of 35°C) and 10°C in winter (with lows of -10°C). There’s a significant temperature range and high solar radiation, with up to 200 mm of rainfall per year, mainly in summer. It’s recommended to visit at any time, with spring standing out for its flowers and potential temporary closures due to summer rains.
Thanks to its dry climate with sunny days and cool nights, the weather conditions make it one of the country’s best locations for astronomical observation.
Biodiversity in El Leoncito
Flora and Endemic Species
The park hosts a variety of vegetation adapted to different altitudes. In the lower valleys, at around 1,600 meters above sea level, you’ll find resinous jarillas and retamo, an endangered species historically used for its sturdy wood and the wax that covers its young branches.
As you ascend through the foothills and ridges of the mountains, up to 4,300 meters above sea level, you can observe the distinct characteristics of the Puna and the High Andes. Here, hard-leaved grasses like coirones dominate, as well as yaretas, whose branches and leaves spread along the ground without reaching great heights, only reaching a few centimeters. Two plants exclusive to this area are Mulinum echegarayi and Trichocline cinerea.
The park’s vegetation reflects species’ adaptations to different altitudes and climatic conditions, offering a unique and varied landscape that complements the natural beauty of the area.
Fauna: Present Animal Species
The biodiversity of species in the park enables the observation of a diverse range of fauna moving between rocky ground and low, shrubby vegetation. Among the present animals are guanacos, suris (ñandúes petisos), cuises, red foxes, and pumas. The park’s clear skies are inhabited by various birds, some with mimetic plumage like the agachona, and others with notable colors like the comesebos with their blue and yellow feathers.
In recent years, a new species was discovered known as the Leoncito catfish (Silvinichthys leoncitensis). This species is believed to have evolved in the area thousands of years ago during a wetter period compared to the current climate. At that time, the El Leoncito stream was connected to the San Juan River or the Barreal Blanco. However, due to decreasing water flow, the stream became isolated from the rest of the basin, resulting in the survival of a Silvinichthys population adapted to that unique microhabitat. Over time, this adaptation led to a distinct species, making the Leoncito catfish the only native fish in the area.
This discovery underscores the importance of preserving and protecting the ecosystems of El Leoncito National Park, as it harbors unique species and provides a vital habitat for local biodiversity.
Iconic Species of the Park
The emblem of El Leoncito National Park is the Cordilleran rhea or ñandú petiso (Rhea pennata). This bird is smaller than its lowland relative, the ñandú, and is perfectly adapted to the conditions of the high-altitude environments of western Argentina. It’s an exceptional runner that moves in relatively small groups across the high Andean steppes, feeding on seeds, fruits, shoots, insects, lizards, and even small rodents. Additionally, the male plays an active role in raising the chicks, building the nest, incubating the eggs, and caring for the offspring.
There are also jarillas (Larrea spp.), shrubs characterized by their striking yellow flowers. These plants belong to the Monte de Sierras y Bolsones, they are low in height, and they have branches emerging from the base. Their small, resinous leaves help reduce water loss through transpiration, enabling them to adapt to the arid conditions of the environment.
Main Activities in the Park
El Manzanar and CESCO Lookouts
These viewpoints offer exclusive panoramic views of the mighty Andes Mountain Range. From here, you can admire the beauty of nature and enjoy stunning landscapes.
Hiking and Exploration
The park offers a series of trails for all levels, allowing visitors to explore its impressive geography and biodiversity.
Trail to Cascada del Rincón
This trail, of low complexity, used to be an ideal option for family enjoyment. However, it is currently temporarily closed. It’s recommended to check with park authorities regarding its availability.
Water Landscape Trail
This trail, also of low complexity, takes you through the history of the local landscape. However, like the previous one, it is temporarily closed. It’s important to verify its availability before planning your visit.
Cerro El Leoncito Trail
This trail is of medium to high complexity and is intended for mountain hiking enthusiasts. It offers a challenging and rewarding experience, with impressive panoramic views from the summit.
The "CESCO" and "CASLEO" Astronomical Observatories
Due to low light pollution and its dry climate, the park hosts two astronomical observatories, the Carlos U. Cesco Observatory (CESCO) and the El Leoncito Astronomical Center (CASLEO), where visitors can marvel at the stars and planets.
In addition to its natural richness, one of the main objectives of creating the national park was to maintain atmospheric conditions without alterations, facilitating sky observation. These two important international-level astronomical observatories, CESCO and CASLEO, are located here, taking advantage of the park’s low light pollution and favorable climate to conduct research and explorations of outer space.
Wildlife Observation and Bird Watching
El Leoncito is an ideal destination for nature lovers. Observe guanacos, foxes, and a variety of birds in their natural habitat.
Supply Store and Restaurant
Inside the park, there’s a supply store and restaurant that opens on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Here, visitors can enjoy San Juan’s cuisine and acquire the necessary supplies for their visit.
Services and Facilities
Visitor Information: Visitor Center, Maps, and Brochures
The visitor center provides useful information, maps, and brochures to ensure a pleasant and safe experience in the park.
Accommodation and Picnic Areas
There are several accommodation options near the park and picnic areas within it, so you can enjoy your visit with all the comforts.
Camping with Bathrooms and Showers
The park has camping areas equipped with bathrooms and showers. These facilities are open from Monday to Sunday and on holidays. However, it’s recommended to inquire about availability for overnight stays, especially if traveling with a camper or motorhome. Currently, overnight stays are temporarily unavailable.
Regulations and Tips for Visitors
Park Safety and Ethics Rules
It’s important to respect the park’s rules to ensure the safety of visitors and the protection of the park’s flora and fauna.
Planning and Preparation for Your Visit
Due to the climatic conditions, it’s advisable to prepare adequately for your visit, including bringing water, sunscreen, and suitable clothing.
Conservation and Management
Threats and Conservation Challenges
The park faces several conservation challenges, including climate change and human impact. Education and respect for nature are fundamental for its protection.
Conservation and Environmental Education Programs
The park has various ongoing programs to preserve its biodiversity and educate visitors about the importance of conservation.