Monte León National Park

The Monte León National Park (in Spanish: Parque Nacional Monte León), a true natural treasure on the Patagonian coast of Argentina, provides visitors with a unique combination of marine fauna, stunning coastal landscapes, and an immersion into the history of the Patagonian steppe. Both adventurers and nature enthusiasts will find an unparalleled refuge here.

National Park Information

Monte León National Park

Location

Located about 210 km south of the city of Río Gallegos, in the province of Santa Cruz, the park can be accessed via National Route No. 3. It is an essential detour on any journey along the legendary Route 40. Its geographical coordinates are approximately: 50°14′00″S 69°00′00″W / -50.23333333, -69.

Historical Background of Monte León

Ten millennia ago, groups of hunting and gathering societies utilized coastal resources in the area of Monte León National Park. The Tehuelche people, descendants of these initial inhabitants, expanded their use of the territory. However, the arrival of European settlers brought significant changes to the original populations. Dependency on trade goods and territorial loss led to migration westward within the province and engagement in rural tasks.

In 1876, during the presidency of Nicolás Avellaneda, authorizations were granted for the exploitation of guano in the region, located south of the Santa Cruz River. Francisco P. Moreno, a promoter of the national park system in Argentina, visited the area in the late 19th century, as did Carlos Ameghino and Father Alberto De Agostini.

The Monte León estate, which belonged to The Southern Patagonia Sheep Farming Company Limited, was sold to the Braun family in 1920. They continued sheep farming until 2006, and guano extraction remained significant until 1930.

History and Establishment of the Park

Established on October 20, 2004 (Law No. 25,945/04), Monte León National Park is Argentina’s first coastal national park, safeguarding 62,169 hectares of biodiversity and marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

In 1996, the inclusion of Monte León in Argentina’s National System of Protected Areas was proposed. The Santa Cruz legislature enacted Law No. 2445 on September 26, 1996, creating the provincial reserve of Isla de Monte León.

Francisco Erize, former director of the National Parks Administration, recommended the project to Douglas Tompkins, an American ecologist and entrepreneur, who acquired the lands through the Conservation Patagonica NGO in 2000. Later, they were transferred to the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina through a trust agreement signed in April 2001, with the condition that the ownership title would be transferred to the National Parks Administration to integrate Argentina’s federal system of protected areas. In 2002, the lands were donated to the National State by the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina.

Provincial Law No. 2671 of the province of Santa Cruz, enacted in March 2004, ceded to the National State the domain and jurisdiction of the area, except for the provincial reserve of Isla de Monte León, in order to create a national park. On October 20, 2004, National Law No. 25,945 was enacted, accepting the cession of domain and jurisdiction and creating Monte León National Park, becoming Argentina’s first continental marine park at that time.

The law established the national park within an area of national domain and the provincial reserve within an area of private domain. Subsequently, by Law No. 3285 in June 2012, the provincial government was authorized to enter into an agreement with the National Parks Administration for the creation of the interjurisdictional marine park Monte León, which would include the maritime surface. However, the establishment of this park has not yet been carried out.

Meaning of the Name

The name Monte León is derived from a large hill located on the estate facing the sea, which from a distance resembles a resting lion.

Geology and Climate

Geology and Topography

The park features diverse geological landscapes within the Patagonian Steppe ecoregion, ranging from expansive beaches to cliffs dating back over 600 million years. The rock formations in the area bear witness to a fascinating geological past.

Climate of Monte León

The region is characterized by a cold, arid to semi-arid climate. The average annual temperature is 6.8°C, with winters experiencing sub-zero temperatures and summers with highs above 30°C. The annual precipitation is approximately 250 mm, concentrated in autumn and winter. Predominant winds come from the west-southwest, with an average speed of 15 to 20 km/h and gusts of up to 100 km/h.

Biodiversity in the Park

Iconic Species

The emblematic species of Monte León National Park is the Magellanic or Patagonian penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus). These birds measure approximately 45 cm in height and have distinctive black and white plumage. Their body is adapted for swimming, with feathers resembling scales, wings transformed into flippers, and backward-facing legs that act as a rudder. Within the protected area, a colony of around 46,000 breeding pairs can be found, making it one of the most important colonies in the country.
The Patagonian pepper tree (Schinus polygama) is another notable shrub in the park. It has small, hard, slightly oval leaves that emit a pleasant aroma when crushed. Its flowers are yellowish, and it produces violet-colored fruits.

Among the distinctive formations of the coastal cliffs, the feature known as Cabeza de León (Lion’s Head) stands out due to its distinctive shape in the area.

Flora

In the desert steppe of Monte León National Park, the dominant plant is the mata negra (Mulguraea tridens), a shrub with dark and resinous foliage. Alongside it are coirones, grasses with hard leaves, and other plants that are always visible in the area.

Fauna

The park is home to diverse fauna species, including herds of guanacos and choiques (rheas), as well as skunks, armadillos (piches), foxes, and pumas.
However, it’s along the coasts and in the sea where life thrives. The beaches and rocky shores provide refuge for kelp gulls, seagulls, and cormorants, which rest and nest in these locations. The park hosts one of the main colonies of Magellanic penguins in the country, with over 40,000 breeding pairs. Migratory birds like the two-banded plover, white-rumped sandpiper, and giant petrel can also be observed. Southern sea lion haul-out sites (Otaria flavescens) are found in this area.

In the intertidal zones, which are exposed during low tide, there are octopuses, mussels, snails, small shrimp, anemones, sea urchins, starfish, and crabs, all of which have developed unique survival strategies. Many birds, such as plovers, oystercatchers, and Antarctic pigeons, visit these areas to feed.

The marine waters near the park are inhabited by a wide variety of fish species found in the Argentine Sea. Many of them reproduce among the cachiyuyos, which are large algae forming true underwater forests. It’s also possible to spot dolphins such as the Peale’s dolphin and the Commerson’s dolphin in these marine waters.

Activities, Attractions, and Points of Interest

The sections for driving, trekking trails, and viewpoints within Monte León National Park provide the opportunity to observe the characteristic fauna of the southern Patagonian steppe and the coast of the Argentine Sea in the South Atlantic. In this rich ecosystem, 134 bird species, 28 mammals, as well as various reptiles and fish can be found.
Notable for their ease of observation are guanacos, choiques, variable hawks, fork-tailed flycatchers, and foxes. Along the coast and sea, kelp gulls, cormorants, petrels, and southern sea lions can be observed, along with a colony of over 40,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins. This provides an opportunity to see these charming birds up close.

The Magellanic Penguin Colony

Observing the Magellanic penguins is one of the park’s main attractions. Visitors can walk on trails specially designed to avoid disturbing these fascinating animals.

Hiking and Trekking

For hiking and trekking activities in Monte León National Park, it’s necessary to register in advance at the Visitor Center, located at the former Monte León estate, at kilometer 2400 on National Route 3. This is because weather conditions, such as rain and strong winds, can affect road accessibility and trail openings.
Most of the trails are combined with driving routes, as mentioned in the "Driving Routes" section. These routes include short stretches of trails.

Additionally, during pronounced low tide periods, known as intertidal zones, it’s possible to hike on the public-use beach located in the Juan Quiñonez recreational area.

Cabeza del León and Lobería Trail

This pedestrian trail, located on Cabeza del León hill, has low difficulty. It spans approximately 400 meters until reaching the viewpoint, from which you can observe a haul-out site of southern sea lions and enjoy the breathtaking landscape of the maritime coast.

The Lobería Trail is suitable for people with reduced mobility, provided they have assistance.

Penguin Trail

The Penguin Trail has a medium difficulty level and starts at kilometer 15 of Provincial Route 63. After a 2.5 km walk through the steppe, you’ll reach the viewpoint overlooking one of the largest colonies of Magellanic penguins in Argentina. These penguins choose this location to nest and molt their feathers between October and April. The trail is marked with interpretive signs providing information about the fauna and environment.

Colony visiting hours:

  • From October to April: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (not suitable for people with reduced mobility)
  • From May to September: 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM

Sport Fishing

From January 1st to April 30th of each year, from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, the beach at the Juan Quiñonez recreational area is open for environmentally conscious sport fishing.

Fishermen can use fishing rods (varied, spinning, fly) or tin can-style containers to catch species such as snook, silverside, and palometa over 30 cm in size.

It is mandatory to obtain an exclusive fishing permit for Monte León National Park at the Visitor Center when registering. This process is individual and free of charge.

Monte León Beaches

In the recreational area of Monte León National Park, there is a 1 km stretch of pebbly beach. Visitors can enjoy walks and take a break to rest while contemplating the sea.

It’s important to note that the waters are deep, have low temperatures, and lack lifeguard presence. It’s also necessary to pay attention to the tides, as there are significant differences between high tide and low tide. It is recommended to check tide schedules at the Visitor Center or the Park’s Administration office.

Intertidal Zone

When the tide recedes, a unique world is revealed: the intertidal environment and its marine life become tangible and present for visitors.

Anemones, small crustaceans, starfish, algae, and mollusks that inhabit the substrate and tidal pools of the beach and coast are exposed. Waterfowl such as oystercatchers and seagulls take advantage of this moment to feed, as some animals are trapped without escape options.

During extraordinary tides, it’s possible to walk to the base of Monte León Island.

To enjoy this environment safely, it’s crucial to consult the intertidal days and hours at the Park’s Administration office or the Visitor Center when registering at the Operations Center, located at the former Monte León estate.

Interpretation Center in the Old Shearing Shed

Located in the former Monte León estate, within what used to be a significant shearing shed, you’ll find the Interpretation Center. Here, visitors can explore an exhibition that summarizes the three environments present in Monte León National Park: the steppe, the coast, and the sea.

In addition to learning about the natural environments, visitors can also learn about the infrastructure and layout of the shearing circuit that was part of one of the most important livestock establishments in Patagonia between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. The Interpretation Center offers a unique opportunity to understand the history and significance of Estancia Monte León in the region.

The Cliffs and Caves

The cliffs that descend into the sea offer unparalleled panoramic views, while the caves in the area hold geological secrets waiting to be discovered.

Estancia Monte León

This historic estate, now in ruins, provides a glimpse into the region’s past. Visitors can see the old sheep pens and workers’ houses.

Boat and Kayak Excursions

Boat and kayak excursions are an excellent way to get close to marine fauna and enjoy the beauty of the cliffs from a different perspective.

Activities to Do by Car

Vehicle traffic is only allowed on RP 63, which starts at RN 3 and ends at the Juan Quiñónez coastal recreational area, covering a distance of 19 km within Monte León National Park. This route provides access to trails and viewpoints.

The maximum allowed speed is 40 km/h.

Cabeza del León Viewpoint

At 13.5 km along the road to the coast, there is a 25-meter trail (10 minutes) leading to the Cabeza del León Viewpoint. From this panoramic point, visitors can observe and photograph the geological formation resembling the head of a reclining lion, which gives the national park its name. The trail is suitable for people with reduced mobility, provided they have assistance.

Monte León Island

After driving 18.8 km on RP 63, you’ll reach the Monte León Island viewpoint, from which you can appreciate the Monte León Island Provincial Reserve.

Here, visitors can observe the imperial cormorant colony and identify other species such as the neotropic cormorant, gray gulls, and kelp gulls. The viewpoint offers a privileged view of avian life in the area.

Recommendations for Your Visit

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit the park is from mid-December to February. During rainy days, the road to the coastal area can become impassable.

Entry Points to the Park

To enter Monte León National Park, it’s necessary to complete mandatory registration at the Park’s Operations Center, located at the former Monte León estate, at kilometer 2400 on National Route 3. This is the official entry point where visitors must register before beginning their exploration of the park.

Prices

Entry to Monte León National Park is free of charge.

Park Access Hours

Opening and Closing Hours

  • From October to April: 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM
  • From May to September: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Penguin Trail Hours

  • From October to April: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM
  • From May to September: 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM

Phone

  • Phone: +54 2962 40-6115

How to Get There

By Car

To access Monte León National Park by car, from the North, you need to take kilometer 2400 of National Route 3, located 35 km from the town of Comandante Luis Piedrabuena.

From the South, it’s approximately 200 km from Río Gallegos and 50 km from Puerto Santa Cruz.

Within the park, you can access the main points of visit and the beaches by using your private vehicle through RP 63, which connects National Route 3 with these locations.

For information about the condition of RP 63 (entrance to the coastal sector), it’s recommended to contact the Park’s Intendancy or Operations Center.

Parking Areas and Vehicle Parking Zones

Parking is available at the Operations Center (Information Office) and at the starting points of trails and viewpoints:

  • Cabeza de León Viewpoint (parking is allowed on the side of RP 63).
  • Penguin Trail.
  • Lobería and Cabeza del León Trails.
  • Isla Monte León Viewpoint.
  • Juan Quiñonez Recreational Area Beach.

Visitors can safely park their vehicles in these designated areas while exploring the park and enjoying its various attractions.

By Plane

Flights to Monte León National Park can arrive at either the Río Gallegos City Airport, located 200 km away, or the El Calafate Airport, located 455 km away.

From these airports, visitors can take a bus to the towns of Puerto Santa Cruz or Comandante Luis Piedra Buena. Once there, taxi, remis, or transfer services can be used to reach the national park.

It’s recommended to verify flight availability and frequency through airlines such as Aerolíneas Argentinas, LADE, and Jet Smart.

By Bus

To arrive by bus, you can consider the nearby towns of Comandante Luis Piedrabuena, located 35 km away, and Puerto Santa Cruz, located 50 km away. These towns are connected by direct bus services or through connections to various parts of the country. From Comandante Luis Piedrabuena and Puerto Santa Cruz, you can access the park by taxi or remis.

Some bus transport companies operating in the region that can be considered are TAQSA – MARGA, Vía Tac, TRAMAT (Andesmar), and Sportman. It’s recommended to consult the schedules and available routes with these companies to plan your trip.

By Bicycle

It’s possible to access Monte León National Park by bicycle using designated vehicular roads, while keeping in mind the entrance and exit hours mentioned above.

It’s important to consider the necessary physical condition for this activity, as the terrain can present challenges and the steppe winds can be strong and sudden. It’s recommended to be prepared and take additional precautions when cycling in this area.

Accommodations

There is a free camping area available without services and without enabled showers. To reserve a camping spot in the camping area, you can contact the number +54 2962 406116 every day from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. This lodging option allows visitors to enjoy nature and spend the night in the park. It’s important to note that no additional services or facilities are provided in the camping area.

Outside the park, there are accommodation options in nearby towns:

  1. Puerto Santa Cruz: Accommodation alternatives can be found in this town. It’s recommended to inquire in advance to make reservations.
  2. Comandante Luis Piedrabuena: Accommodation options are also available in this town.

Services

The park’s administration has a list of authorized guides to provide exclusive services within the protected area. For information about available guides, you can contact us at monteleon@apn.gob.ar.

Accessibility

The protected area has accessible restrooms at the Operations Center and in the Juan Quiñonez Recreational Area building. Both the Lobería and Cabeza del León trails and the Cabeza del León and Isla Monte León viewpoints are suitable for people with reduced mobility with assistance.

Picnic Areas or Day Recreational Areas

Daytime recreational areas are located in the coastal sector of the Park, at the end of RP 63 (Juan Quiñonez Recreational Area) and at the Monte León Operations Center.

Fire Pits with Grills

Fire pits with grills are available in the Juan Quiñonez Recreational Area, located in the coastal sector of the Park. However, it’s important to check the fire risk index with the National Park service to verify if lighting fires in the area is allowed.

Cafeteria/Kiosk/Restaurant/Shop

Currently, the Park doesn’t offer cafeteria, kiosk, restaurant, or shop services. It’s recommended to bring food and beverages to consume during your visit to the Park.

Drinking Water

There is no drinking water available in Monte León National Park. It’s recommended to bring sufficient drinking water when visiting the Park.

Public Telephone

The Park does not have public telephone service. However, mobile phone signal can be found in some areas of the Park.

WiFi Signal

WiFi signal is available only at the Information Center.

Public Restrooms

Public restrooms are located at the Operations Center and in the Juan Quiñonez Recreational Area building for visitors’ use.

ATM

In the nearby towns of Puerto Santa Cruz and Comandante Luis Piedrabuena, several ATMs are available for withdrawing Argentine pesos and conducting transactions 24 hours a day. Banks in these towns have opening hours from Monday to Friday from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM. The currency used is the Argentine peso.

Regulations and Conservation Tips for the Park

It’s important to follow the park rules to protect its ecosystem. This includes keeping garbage out of the park, not feeding the animals, and staying on marked trails.

Photo Gallery