Visiting La Leona Petrified Forest: El Calafate’s Hidden Gem

Visiting La Leona Petrified Forest is one of the best things to do in El Calafate
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When people think of Patagonia, they tend to think of the towering mountains, wild scenery, and giant glaciers. The thought of lunar landscapes, petrified trees, and dinosaur fossils doesn’t exactly spring to mind. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in La Leona Petrified Forest (or Bosque Petrificado La Leona).

La Leona Petrified Forest is a unique spot close to El Calafate and El Chalten. Honestly, I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about this. It was one of the best things I did in Patagonia.

The area is beautiful and completely different from the nearby mountains of El Chalten or Torres Del Paine. In addition to the spectacular landscape, you’ll also find petrified trees (ancient trees that have turned to stone), dinosaur fossils, and unique rock formations.

Visiting La Leona Petrified Forest, one of the best things to do in El Calafate

If you’re looking for one of the best things to do in El Calafate, I really can’t recommend visiting La Leona Petrified Forest enough.

In the post below, I’ve shared everything you need to know about visiting this unique spot. This includes how to book your tour to La Leona Petrified Forest, an overview of the tour, and my honest review.

Note: the Spanish name for the forest is Bosque Petrificado La Leona. For the sake of this article, I’ll use the English name.

What is La Leona Petrified Forest?

La Leona Petrified Forest (or Bosque Petrificado La Leona) is a desert area near Los Glaciares National Park.

Believe it or not, millions of years ago, Patagonia was once full of lush vegetation. Due to various events such as the ice age and volcanic eruptions, the entire landscape of Patagonia changed.

Many of these fossils and petrified trees were washed away by giant rivers and glaciers and ended up in La Leona Petrified Forest. Each year, scientists make discoveries in the area. Our guide told us that they had only recently discovered another giant dinosaur fossil in La Leona.

The landscape of La Leona Petrified Forest is truly unique. It’s often described as like being on the moon. Many of the rocks in the area are clay or limestone creating some truly unique rock formations.

The forest is about 75 miles (120km) from El Calafate on the way to El Chalten making it a fantastic day trip from El Calafate and one of the best things to do in the area.

Petrified Tree in La Leona
Petrified Tree in La Leona

Why visit La Leona Petrified Forest?

The landscape. The landscape in the Petrified Forest is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. This lunar-like landscape is truly spectacular. It’s beautiful and completely different to anything else in that area of Patagonia. The scenery took my breath away.

The petrified trees. Seeing the petrified trees is a unique experience. They still look like trees but have turned to stone. This process happens over millions of years as minerals replace the decaying wood. The area is filled with petrified trees which you can touch.  

The dinosaur fossils. The La Leona area is known for its dinosaur fossils. On the Petrified Forest tour, you’ll have the chance to see fossils still buried in the ground, as well as pick up smaller pieces. Palaeontologists often visit the area and they are constantly making discoveries.

It’s unique. If you want to experience a different side of Patagonia and find somewhere truly unique, La Leona Petrified Forest is the answer. I’ve never visited anywhere else like it.

It’s away from the crowds. Only one tour company offers this experience. On my tour, we didn’t see another soul during the entire hike. Let’s be honest, the El Calafate area is amazing, but it’s busy and crowded. Most people head to El Calafate to witness the Perito Moreno Glacier. This is the perfect activity to get off the beaten track and avoid the crowds. It’s without a doubt one of the best and most unique things to do in El Calafate.

Related read: for more surreal landscapes, consider a trip to Utah.

Spectacular landscape in La Leona Petrified Forest
Spectacular landscape in La Leona Petrified Forest

How do you visit the Petrified Forest?

The only way to visit La Leona Petrified Forest is to join a tour group from El Calafate (or meet the group at the La Leona Hotel if you have your own car). The area is on private land so you can’t visit it by yourself.

I had heard about the tour through someone I met in a hostel. When I arrived in El Calafate, I struggled to find anywhere selling it. In the end, I was directed to an agency called Gigantes Patagones, which sells the tour. You’ll find them in the main town of El Calafate.

You can also book the exact tour I did here.

As of February 2024, the cost of the tour is USD 150. If you pay in cash at the agency, you can get it a little bit cheaper. I paid 115,000 ARS. However, I got the last spot on my tour. If it’s something you want to do, I’d recommend paying the extra few bucks and securing your spot in advance.

The cost of the activity might seem high, but Patagonia is an expensive destination. I personally think it is worth the cost. Everything is included in the price of the tour, including lunch, transfers, and an informative guide.

Related read: minitrekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier is another popular tour in El Calafate

What to expect on your trip to La Leona Petrified Forest

Once you’ve been collected from your hotel, the minibus will drive everyone to La Leona Hotel. This is a popular spot between El Calafate and El Chalten. The rest stop has bathrooms, a café, and a gift shop.

After a quick break, you’re back on the road and this is when the real adventure begins! The road here can get very bumpy and windy.

I was lucky enough to visit on a clear day and had incredible views of Fitz Roy from a distance. After another thirty minutes of driving, we arrived at La Leona Petrified Forest.

Views of Mount Fitz Roy from La Leona
Views of Mount Fitz Roy from La Leona

This is when the hike begins. After admiring the panoramic views, you’ll set off on a 3-hour trek. I’m not sure of the exact hiking distance, but I wouldn’t say it’s more than 2 or 3 miles (3-5 km). The reason it takes so long is because there are regular stops to learn more about the area.

I had a great guide, Paul, who was full of fascinating information about the area including the petrified trees and fossils. We made lots of stops for photos and to admire the fossils.

After two hours, we had a quick stop for lunch before completing the hike.

The hike is fairly easy, but the last twenty minutes are tough. You need to walk up a cliff face and it certainly gets the heart pumping. I’d suggest wearing sensible shoes with good grip and ankle support.

My group included people of all ages and abilities, even children. The hike is doable if you’re happy to be on your feet for three hours.

After the hike, the tour bus returns to La Leona Hotel once more. From here, it’s an hour’s drive back to El Calafate. I was picked up at 9 a.m. and returned around 5 p.m.  

La Leona Petrified Forest
La Leona Petrified Forest

Things to know about visiting La Leona Petrified Forest

You must be with a tour group. La Leona Petrified Forest is on private land. You can only access the area with an organised tour. Only one company operate the tour making it a personalised experience. There were only nine people in my group and we didn’t see anyone else while in the area.

It’s a bumpy road. Once you’ve visited La Leona Hotel, the road gets very bumpy and windy. If you’re prone to motion sickness, perhaps consider taking some preventatives.

It’s an easy hike, but be prepared. Overall, we spent 3 hours hiking, including a break for lunch. A lot of the time was spent listening to our fantastic guide, Paul, and taking photos. The hike isn’t too difficult, but it’s steep in parts (especially at the end). The ground is also a bit loose and slippery in places, so wear sensible shoes.

Lunch is included. I was given a small lunch box which included a sandwich, empanada, fruit, and cake. It’s a long day so consider taking some extra snacks.

Take sun protection (and warm clothes). The whole hike is very exposed to the elements. We went on a beautiful day and had fantastic weather. This did mean the sun was very strong and it felt a bit like I was cooking at one point! Take a sun hat and SPF. It can also be very windy in the area so consider packing some layers just in case.

There are no toilets. The only toilets on the trip are at the hotel. This means you’ll only have two opportunities to use the bathroom.

Leave everything as it is. You’re not allowed to take anything from the area. This includes rocks, fossils, and pieces of petrified trees. As tempting as it is to take a keepsake, it’s really important to leave everything as it is.

Bring water. You’ll get a bottle of water in your lunch box, but it won’t be enough for a full day. Other than the La Leona Hotel, there’s nowhere to fill your bottle so go prepared.

Related reach: check out the ultimate packing list for Patagonia

Steps in La Leona Petrified Forest
Steps in La Leona Petrified Forest

Summary: is visiting La Leona Petrified Forest worth it? (My honest opinion)

Yes, yes and 100% yes! I am shocked that more people aren’t talking about this magnificent place. It’s beautiful and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. It’s by far one of the best things to do in El Calafate.

La Leona Petrified Forest shows a completely different side to Patagonia, one that I don’t think many people know exists. Walking through the area is like walking on another planet. The tour also allows you to see petrified trees and even dinosaur fossils.

By visiting the area, you’ll get to experience a unique part of Patagonia that few people know about. The walk is fairly easy, and you’re rewarded with an incredible lunar landscape and breathtaking scenery.

It’s one of the most unique things to do in El Calafate. It’s a fantastic way to escape the crowds and experience a place like no other.

I highly recommend visiting La Leona Petrified Forest. It was one of my highlights from Patagonia and my backpacking trip to Argentina.

Next up: plan your visit to the STUNNING town of El Chalten

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