Sierra Negra’s name means ‘black mountain’ or ‘black peak'. Sierra Negra or 'tliltepetl' as it is also known rises from the saddle (Valle del Encuentro) it shares with El Pico de Orizaba and because it eternally abides in the shadow of the granddaddy of Mexican volcanoes it has been widely looked past…. after all, whose eyes aren’t immediately drawn to its northern neighbor which rises a full 1000 meters above her slopes. Sierra Negra is widely regarded as the fifth highest peak in Mexico and there are some that even consider it to be Mexico’s fourth highest as they believe its true altitude is 4700 meters.
There is an observatory located on the summit that is operated in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica or INAOE in Mexico. It is a newly built solar neutron millimeter telescope that capitalizes on the altitude and the relatively dry warm weather throughout the winter months for observations.
Sierra Negra is infrequently climbed for the reasons already provided, but it is a beautiful peak in its own right and the views it offers of El Pico are unmatched. From the southern side or approach to Ruta Sur on Orizaba it is no more than a steep 3-4 hour climb winding through Sierra Negra’s lightly treed eastern slopes and then up onto the scree that dominates its upper slopes. This trail only requires that you climb about 700meters or 2300 feet of the mountain proper.
The other way to climb Sierra Negra is on her Western slopes which would require that you climb between 17-1800 meters of the mountain and pretty much pick your own route up to the top. It is a beautiful climb and because it is dotted with scrub pines and all trails lead to the top there are no really unsafe paths as long as one is a competent climber and knows how to pick trails through scree.
There is a road up to the top of the peak where the observatory is located and many consider it to be the highest road on the continent. Sierra Negra’s other claim to fame is that it is believed to have the highest tree in North America. Well above the tree line there is a stunted little tree on the side of the road at around 4500 meters, not far beneath the summit at all.
Other than the observatory Sierra Negra is a beautiful, quiet mountain that you could have almost completely to yourself to really soak up your surroundings and appreciate the Mexican landscape.
The road up to Sierra Negra's summit is closed to travel, one needs special permission to use it... though as far as I know the same strict measures aren't in place when it comes to climbing the mountain or hiking on her forested slopes.
The approach to climbing Sierra Negra has the same starting point as for climbing Ruta Sur on Orizaba. So you can start in either El Ciudad Serdan or Atzitzintla. From Atzitzintla you will pass through Texmalaquilla on your way. The road up to the observatory is on the left just before you reach the saddle. You can probably pull any car you have rented over onto the shoulder and park there or head up to the parking area beneath the refugio on Orizaba and then hike back for forty five minutes or so to the base of Sierra Negra.
The drive from Mexico City takes anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5 hours depending on the amount of traffic you encounter along the way. The route follows the toll highway (190 I believe) down to the Yucatan and it is fairly costly, but is a beautiful well maintained highway that will take you down past Puebla where you get off and start heading through the mountains towards Perote before heading more southeasterly on the roads up to Serdan... From Puebla it is a 2 hour trip and the directions to Serdan are straightforward.
The road up to the western side of the mountain where the saddle route starts requires a truck or SUV with 4x4 capacity as the road is very rough in many places. When I made the drive up we made it in a Tracker, we had to get out and push on numerous occasions and even put stones underneath the wheels for greater traction. I wouldn’t recommend this at all as my driver was exceptionally experienced and is far and away the most competent driver I have ever seen… stick with a 4x4.
The Saddle trail starts at the far northern edge of the mountain (the edge that is closest to Orizaba) and winds its way up along the side of Sierra Negra. The roundtrip should take between 5-7 hours. If you were to try and scale Sierra Negra from its western side I would suggest leaving an entire day open and maybe even come prepared to stay the night to provide for any eventualities.
There are no set fees to pay and no permits required to camp near or climb Sierra Negra. The only difficulty is arranging transport from El Ciudad Serdan or from Atzitzintla which could prove costly, in the neighbourhood of 2-400 pesos (probably less if there was a larger group).
The best time to climb Sierra Negra is in the dry winter months from November to March. The mountain can be climbed year-round but if you are seeking to climb this mountain in the wetter months come prepared for snow, sleet or rain; because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico storms blow in rapidly and Negra can throw all manner of weather at you. I climbed Orizaba in July, so there are windows to climb this mountain year-round.
You can camp anywhere on the open plain of Orizaba’s saddle. There are no rules with regards to camping and thusly no fees as well. The key again is to pack out what you pack in. Simply because you see trash doesn’t mean it needs to be added to. The area around Sierra Negra is a clean beautiful area and I am sure that the majority of Mexicans would like it to stay that way.
Even if you found a sheltered spot on the side of the mountain I can’t see there being any problems as long as all fires are closely watched and you leave no trace behind. I would simply advise against camping on the summit, because of the observatory located there.
Another option for people is that you could probably bunk down for the night in the Fausto Gonzales refuge at 4660m (on the lower slopes of Orizba) if you didn't want to camp on the floor of the valley. It's around an hour's hike back down to the base of Sierra Negra the next day.
The best way to check the weather is to go to www.xpmexico .com or you could check www.mapsofmexico.com and click on weather information for Puebla, Tehuacan, Perote or Cordoba (closest cities of any size) and that should give you relatively accurate details and a good idea of what to expect when you climb. Also remember that it is usually clear in the morning and clouds over in the afternoon so its best to get an early, even an alpine start if you want to enjoy the tremendous views afforded by the summit and avoid the worst of the weather.