While you can't climb Arenal Volcano, there are many other ways to experience Costa Rica's favorite volcano. To get ideal views of the beloved stratovolcano (a symmetrical cone-shaped volcano), you can hike, go horseback riding, or traverse Costa Rica's famous hanging bridges.
After almost 400 years of dormancy, Arenal Volcano began erupting in 1968 and buried nearly 5 square miles (15 km²) of land under lava, ash, and rock, dramatically impacting the surrounding environment and leaving large swaths of lava fields. Learn about this volcano and its infamous eruption with our recommended activities below.
Hiking Near Arenal Volcano
Although the Arenal Volcano has entered an indefinite resting phase, you can’t get too close for safety reasons (toxic gas and hot steam). Still, numerous hikes lead you around the volcano’s base, through its lava fields, and into the surrounding rainforest. Three main venues offer this bucket-list experience:
- Arenal Volcano National Park
- Arenal 1968 Private Reserve
- Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa
(Note that it’s illegal to hike Cerro Chato; more on that below.)
We recommend a guided hike, which can elevate the experience. Local and knowledgeable guides are trained to spot native wildlife, detail the 1968 eruption, highlight the regional flora and fauna, and lead the way through the trails. Plus, many guided experiences include transportation to and from the trailhead.
Arenal 1968 Private Reserve Hikes
The Arenal 1968 Private Reserve is an excellent option if you’re seeking longer hikes—and if the lava flows pique your interest the most. Set just north of Arenal Volcano National Park, you can enjoy exceptional views of the volcano and its lava fields. You’ll have your pick between two trails, The Colada 1968 Trail (Lava Flow Trail) and The Bosque 1968 Trail (Forest Trail). If you have time, it's possible to complete both in one day—together, they're a little less than 4.5 miles (7 km) in total.
The Colada 1968 Trail: The Colada Trail is the shorter and easier of the two. Although a little difficult at times, this moderate 2.4-mile (4-km) trek offers some of the best views of Arenal Volcano and the lava flows from the 1968 eruption. The route starts fairly flat, then gradually gains elevation as you make your way to the viewpoint.
- The Bosque 1968 Trail: At 3 miles (4.7 km) long, the Bosque Trail leads you through meadows and dense forest before reaching the lava fields and volcanic viewpoints. You’ll pass Lago Los Patos (Duck Lake), which was created by the eruptions, plus enjoy some wildlife viewing. This trek is moderate-to-difficult with a few steep parts and is much less traveled.
Both trails meet near an incredible viewpoint of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal, so either route is a great option for experiencing this unique scenery. You’ll also view the old lava flows hardened into rock, plus several volcanic boulders created from the 1968 eruption.
How to visit: Tours include roundtrip transportation from your accommodation, plus a bilingual naturalist guide. We recommend guided tours, as there’s limited trail information along the routes. Plus, a guide can offer expertise and a local’s insight into the area’s history, flora, and fauna.
How to get there: From La Fortuna, head west on Route 142 until it intersects with Calle Real de Castillo. Turn left on this road and you’ll see the entrance to Arenal 1968 on the left. The journey is 10 miles (16 km) and takes about 20 minutes.
- Opening hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last admission: 4:00 p.m.)
- Unguided and guided options are available
- Guided tours leave at 8:00 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. and last approximately 3 hours
- Views of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal
- Viewing platform
- Two hiking trails
- Trails range from moderate to difficult
- Onsite cafeteria
- Reservations recommended
Let kimkim help organize your hiking experience in Arenal 1968 Private Reserve.
Arenal Volcano National Park Hikes
Arenal Volcano National Park offers several hiking routes through secondary forest and former lava fields. There are two hiking areas within the park: the Main Sector and the La Peninsula Sector (opened in 2017 and sits about 1.25 miles [2 km] west of the Main Sector).
The Main Sector hosts the most popular trails with volcano views, whereas the La Peninsula Sector borders Lake Arenal and features paved trails—perfect for younger children and hikers with mobility issues. All in all, hikes in Arenal Volcano National Park are the best for young families, as you don’t need to walk far or tackle difficult routes to enjoy the sweeping views of Arenal Volcano. In addition, the park offers a diverse range of hiking options, so families can enjoy volcano views, dense forests, the lake, lava flows, wildlife, and more.
Note: The lava flows you can view in the National Park are different and smaller than those in Arenal 1968 Private Reserve.
Arenal National Park Main Sector
The two main trails of this sector combine into a pleasant 2.5-mile (4-km) loop, so if you have the time, we recommend completing the entire route. If you’re low on time, you can opt for one leg or the other. There’s also a third hiking option.
Coladas de Lava: Also known as the Lava Flow Trail, this easy one-mile (1.7-km) trek is a great option if you’d like to experience the old lava flows and see how the forests have recovered since the eruptions. Following a relatively flat trail, you’ll walk out of the forest and into the hardened lava fields. A slightly steep climb up rocky stairs takes you to a clearing with spectacular views of both Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal.
El Ceibo Trail: Eventually, the Lava Flow Trail intersects with the El Ceibo Trail, right where the climb to the viewpoint begins. This flat, easy, and short route (1.5 miles [0.8 km]) leads you to a large Ceiba tree known as Sendero El Ceibo.
- Heliconias Trail: Creating its own loop is the Heliconias Trail, which doesn’t attract as many hikers as the other two options. This is the park’s shortest route and only takes about 30 minutes to complete. Flat and easy, this trek takes you through the forest but doesn’t offer any volcano or lake views on its own.
Arenal National Park La Peninsula Sector
If you’re more interested in Lake Arenal or bird watching while still enjoying volcanic views (and want to avoid the crowds), you might consider focusing your time in the La Peninsular Sector, which offers two main routes. (Note that swimming is prohibited in the lake, as its shores are home to many crocodiles!)
- Miradores Trail: La Peninsula Sector offers an accessible trail, a flat and paved route that takes less than one mile (1.3 km) to complete. Although it’s paved, you’ll still feel like you’re in the wild, as the trail is immersed in forest greenery. About halfway into the hike, you have the option to climb to the top of a viewing tower, which offers incredible scenery of Lake Arenal and the volcano. Continue a bit further to reach the shore of the lake and use the benches for a little rest. Although Miradores is mostly flat, it’s steep in some places; you must walk downhill to reach the lake, so be prepared for a bit of an incline on the way back.
- Tororoi Trail: While Miradores starts to the right of the La Peninsula entrance, Tororoi starts to the left. This route offers a bit of a challenge, as it begins with a steep decline. You'll walk down into the forest for about one-third of a mile (0.5 km) before meeting the Miradores Trail. Although you can still reach the tip of the Peninsula and climb the viewing tower from Tororoi, you’ll miss the viewpoints of the lake.
How to visit: Guided tours include transportation to the park, plus the national park entrance fees and a bilingual naturalist.
How to get there: From La Fortuna, head west on Route 142 and turn left onto Calle Real de Castillo. The entrance to the Main Sector will be on your left; the entrance to La Peninsula Sector will be on your right. The journey takes about 30 minutes and covers 11 miles (18.1 km). If you don’t have your own car, the best way to access the park is with a guided tour.
- National Park hours: Open 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (last admission: 2:30 p.m.)
- Unguided and guided options are available
- Views of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal
- Viewing tower
- Two hiking areas totaling five route options
- One accessible, paved route
- Trails range from easy to moderate
- Reservations recommended
Let kimkim help organize your hiking experience in Arenal Volcano National Park.
Arenal Observatory Lodge Hikes
The Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa is not just a place to stay, but also offers seven miles (11 km) of hiking trails within its private reserve. Along these routes, you’ll enjoy access to two observation towers and two hanging bridges (set within Arenal Volcano National Park). Although the hotel is a lovely property, you don’t have to be a guest to hike through the nearly 1,000 acres (350 hectares) of its nature reserve.
You have your choice of five different hiking trails within the reserve:
La Catarata (Waterfall Trail): As the name suggests, this trail leads to a beautiful waterfall at 20 feet (6 m) tall. The route is moderate and just over 0.5 miles (1 km) long. To get to the base of the waterfall, keep in mind that you’ll need to walk down about 50 steps.
Saino Trail (Peccary Trail): This easy trail is paved, flat, and accessible, taking you through the rainforest to the lodge’s picturesque gardens. The route is just under 0.5 miles (650 m) and an excellent option for wildlife viewing and bird watching.
La Hormiga (Ant): Although the shortest hike in the reserve, this trail is the most difficult. Just about 0.25 miles (450 m), the route traverses both primary and secondary forests. It’s also a great trek for wildlife viewing.
Los Cangrejos Trail (The Crabs): About 0.3 miles (500 m) long, this easy-to-moderate trek is great for tree lovers. Some of the tree species you can see are guava, cecropia, naked Indian, and pilon.
- Lava Vieja (Old Lava) Trail: What makes this trail a little challenging is its uneven ground, plus the trek down to the Agua Caliente River. At the river, you’ll reach the volcanic zone’s high-risk area that leads to the base of the Arenal Volcano, so you won't be able to go any further. However, you can observe how the surrounding flora has recovered since the eruptions.
To make the most out of your time at Arenal Observatory Lodge, whether you’re staying at this boutique hotel or not, consider joining a free guided morning hike that covers a portion of all trails—leaving each day at 8:30 a.m. You’ll cross hanging bridges, view wildlife, enjoy the waterfall, and walk down to the river. Instead of backtracking, a bus will return you to the lodge.
How to visit: Get complimentary access to the property’s nature reserve included in your room rate if you opt to stay overnight. Otherwise, a day pass includes the hiking trails and other onsite facilities.
How to get there: From La Fortuna, head west on Route 142 and turn left onto Calle Real de Castillo. You’ll pass the entrance to the National Park and curve around the southern side of Arenal Volcano via Calle Arenal Observatory Lodge. The entrance to the lodge will be on your left after about 14 miles (23 km) and 35 minutes.
- Opening hours: 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
- $12 - $35 for a day pass
- Five trails, hanging bridges, and observation towers
- One accessible trail
- Onsite visitor’s center and museum
- Onsite hotel
- Onsite restaurant, bar, coffee shop, and spa
- Treks range from easy to difficult
There are two volcanoes in Arenal Volcano National Park, and the other is called Cerro Chato, which means “flat hill.” Although once open for hiking, it’s now illegal to climb Cerro Chato, as it’s quite dangerous and trekking has caused environmental damage to the area. For your safety and the sake of the natural environment around Cerro Chato, please don’t ignore the “Do Not Enter” signs. And even if a tour advertises hiking here, keep in mind that it's illegal.
Horseback Riding near Arenal Volcano
For a different type of experience around Arenal Volcano, consider horseback riding through the lush scenery to the base of the volcano. You’ll spend your time in a natural reserve covering more than 500 acres. This type of activity is a great way to see more of the area’s unique terrain, as you’ll ride through the rainforest, across streams, and into fields and valleys. Just as with some of the hiking routes above, you’ll be able to see a giant Ceiba tree and reach panoramic viewpoints.
Horseback riding excursions are guided, and you can count on your leader to offer plenty of stops to enjoy the views, learn more about the area and its history, and bond with your horse. You’ll observe where the old town of Tabacan once stood before the volcano erupted and where many onlookers watched the lava flowing into the valleys. The terrain isn't difficult—though a bit hilly at times—so even beginners can take part in a horseback riding excursion. Still, your guides can adjust the ride to fit those with more experience and/or advanced skills.
You'll start with a safety briefing, where you'll meet your guides and get acquainted with your horse. You'll also learn a bit about what the ride will be like and what you'll enjoy along the way. Guides will ride with you and are always available to answer questions, adjust equipment, offer riding advice, and will provide free riding opportunities for advanced riders.
How to visit: Tours depart at 7:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 3:00 p.m., and last about two hours in total. You’ll receive transportation from your accommodation, plus a friendly horse, a riding helmet, and bilingual guides.
How to get there: Transportation from your accommodation to the horseback riding site is included in all booked tours.
- Tours last two hours
- Tour departing times are 7:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 3:00 p.m.
- $75 - $150 for a tour
- Age range recommendation is 8 to 65 years old
- The minimum age is 6 years
- The maximum weight is 260 lbs (118 kg)
- Reservations required
Let kimkim help you organize your horseback riding experience in Arenal/La Fortuna.
Hanging Bridges near Arenal Volcano
The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges offer some of the best vistas of Arenal Volcano and its surroundings. Although you won’t get the up-close experience that hiking and horseback riding offer, you will enjoy a more in-depth look at the region’s rainforests. The hanging bridges in Costa Rica are a quintessential experience that may very well be on your bucket list, as the country hosts some of the most beautiful and thrilling aerial treks in the world.
Keep in mind that this experience is best for more adventurous travelers or those looking for a bit of exhilaration while crossing these incredible suspended bridges!
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park covers over 600 acres (250 hectares) of preserved and dense forestland. An easy trek through the jungle, The Hanging Bridges Trail weaves 2 miles (3.2 km) through the rainforest and offers a mostly flat path suitable for all ages. You’ll cross 10 traditional bridges and six hanging bridges. The tallest bridge sits nearly 150 feet (45 m) above ground. There’s also a side trail that leads to a waterfall, a short cave trail, a trail designated for birdwatching (1.6 miles [2.5 km]), and an accessibility trail (1 mile [1.5 km]) paved with non-slip concrete.
One of the most beloved bridges is aptly named the Arenal View Hanging Bridge, as it offers a lookout point with views of Arenal Volcano. In addition, the park provides important wildlife habitat, so you’ll have plenty of chances to observe animals, such as monkeys, sloths, snakes, birds, insects, and more.
Although you can enjoy the Hanging Bridges on your own, we recommend a guided visit. Guides are trained to spot hidden wildlife and highly knowledgeable about the area’s history, including the 1968 volcanic eruption, and its flora and fauna. Additionally, to maintain the park’s serenity, there’s a daily limit for visitors, so booking a tour secures your spot.
How to visit: Reservations are required, as the park limits its daily number of visitors. A guided tour guarantees a spot and includes transportation. If you’d like to see the jungle as the sun goes down, there’s an option for a twilight hike or night hike.
How to get there: From La Fortuna, head west on Route 142. After passing the Lake Arenal Dam, you’ll turn right and follow signs leading to the park. The journey takes about 30 minutes and covers 12 miles (20 km).
- Park opening hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (last admission: 3:50 p.m.)
- Guided and unguided visits are available
- Guided hikes last 2.5 hours
- Onsite restaurant, bathrooms, and gift shop
- Complimentary access to gardens and bee habitat exhibit
- Accessible trail available
- Trails range from easy to moderate
- Maximum slope 8% decline, 6% incline
- Electric scooters available to rent
- Children 10 and under are free
- Reservations required
Let kimkim help you organize your hanging bridges experience in Arenal/La Fortuna.
What to bring and wear
Whether you’re hiking, horseback riding, or crossing hanging bridges, it’s best to wear closed-toed shoes with good traction and support and to bring a rain jacket. If you’re carrying a backpack, a waterproof backpack or rain cover will come in handy, especially if you have sensitive camera equipment. Although you can hike in shorts, long pants are necessary for horseback riding—though, you may prefer long pants and sleeves if hiking, too. Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellant, and water.
When to go
You’ll be in a rainforest, so it’s not uncommon for clouds to cover the views of the Arenal Volcano. This area is most rainy from December to April when the Pacific slope is dry. Perhaps the best time to visit and view the volcano is in the fall (September to October) or spring (February to April). Of course, it can rain (or be sunny) at any time of the year, and conditions are known to change from one minute to the next.
As for the time of day, it’s best to set off on your Arenal Volcano excursion as early as possible, so during the first available tour time or as soon as the park opens. In the morning, the weather is cooler, skies are usually clearer, fewer people are around, and the wildlife is more active.
But, as the locals will tell you, 80 percent of the time, the volcano is shrouded in clouds. The other 20 percent of the time? You just got lucky.
If hiking at the base of the volcano or among the lava fields, you probably won’t encounter a lot of wildlife. The vegetation is still recovering from past eruptions, so birds are the most common species to spot in this area. However, some of the parks and reserves that dip into forests have designated trails for wildlife viewing, and guided visits can increase your chance of seeing local species. Remember that the animals are wild, so don’t offer them any food, stay on the designated trails, and refrain from touching any plants or trees (snakes and insects enjoy hiding there).