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9 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Patagonia

Feb 28, 2017

Few places on planet Earth are as remote and untouched as Patagonia. This sparsely populated region, which spans the southernmost tips of both Argentina and Chile, is rightfully famous for its soaring Andean peaks, windswept steppes, crackling glaciers, and distinct gaucho culture. It's also a mecca for adventure enthusiasts, with incredible hiking and multi-day trekking routes through some of the world's most rugged and unforgiving landscapes. In general, the Patagonia trekking season runs from October to April. Some trails can get downright overcrowded in the height of summer (January and February), when the weather is at its most ideal, and local Chileans and Argentineans take their holidays. If you're planning to travel during this time, it may be a good idea to book campgrounds and lodgings in advance.

1 The W Trek

The W Trek
The W Trek
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Looking for a hike that will offer you the highlights reel of Patagonia? The five-day W Trek through Torres Del Paine National Park is, perhaps, the most quintessential experience in the south of South America and a rite of passage for any avid hiker. It's also the best trail in Patagonia for solo travelers (or female hikers) as you're guaranteed to meet others along the way to share the journey. You can make this once-in-a-lifetime experience as rustic or luxurious as you like by carting all of your own camping gear on your back and sleeping at the campgrounds or bunking-up in refugios, where bedding is provided and cooks can set you up with three meals a day.

Most visitors enter Torres Del Paine on a bus from the regional hub of Puerto Natales and begin the 71-kilometer W Trek at Refugio Las Torres. Head north from there to hike to the base of Las Torres before swinging back around and heading into the French Valley. Continue onward into the second U of the W and over to the massive Grey Glacier, part of the Patagonian Ice Field. Once you finish the five-day, four-night trek, you can catch a boat out at either Refugio Paine Grande or Refugio Grey. Keep in mind that, in Torres Del Paine, it's not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day. In fact, plan on it!

2 The O Circuit

The O Circuit
The O Circuit
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If the W Trek was just enough to whet your appetite for the Patagonian backcountry, you can continue onward along the edge of Grey Glacier to complete the nine-day circuit trail, known as The O. This will add an additional 50 kilometers to your hike, and it begins with a bang in the form of 750 meters in elevation change as you climb up Paso John Gardner to a panoramic lookout near Campamento Los Perros. You'll then descend into the far side of the park and follow the contours of Rio Paine through classic Patagonian steppe back to where you began at Refugio Las Torres

3 The Lago del Desierto Border Crossing

Panoramic view of the Fitz Roy mountain range in El Chaltén
Panoramic view of the Fitz Roy mountain range in El Chaltén
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The Carretera Austral is the only artery through Northern Patagonia on the Chilean side of the Andes, but this infamous highway (popular with road-trippers and cyclists alike) peters out in the remote gaucho town of Villa O'Higgins. Not far away as the condor flies is the popular Argentinean resort town of El Chaltén. So how do you get between the two? First, you'll need to catch a four-hour ferry across the turquoise Lago O'Higgins, stopping to see the impressive O'Higgins Glacier before continuing to the remote Chilean outpost of Candelario Mansilla (home to a police station, campground, and little else). Get your passport stamped out of Chile and continue onward by foot 20 kilometers to the next border post at Lago del Desierto, where you can get an entry stamp for Argentina and camp for the evening. Continue along the edge of Lago del Desierto the following day for 15 kilometers until you reach the southern shores of the lake, where regular buses shuttle tourists to El Chaltén 37 kilometers away. The entire journey works more or less the same in reverse. You should also keep in mind that it's not uncommon for boats across Lago O'Higgins to be delayed for days due to strong winds that make the crossing unsafe.

4 The Laguna Torre Trek

The Laguna Torre Trek
The Laguna Torre Trek
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The wind-whipped village of El Chaltén is Argentina's premier trekking capital, with some of the most scenic hikes in South America. The most popular day hike from town, which can be extended into a multi-day hike for more adventurous travelers, is Laguna Torre. This 20-kilometer in-and-out route takes you to several miradores (lookouts) with views of the icy spires of Cerro Torre (3,128 meters). Much of the path follows the edge of Rio Fitz Roy until you reach the glacial lake of Laguna Torre, where you'll find a small campground. You'll then traverse the edge of the lake to the most stunning lookout of them all, Mirador Maestri, where the icy folds of Glacier Torre fade into the horizon.

5 The Huemul Circuit

The Huemul Circuit
The Huemul Circuit
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This four-day circuit trek into the heart of Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park takes in native beech forests, high-altitude meadows, and the frozen wonders of the Patagonian Ice Field. Begin in El Chaltén for a 15-kilometer hike to Laguna Toro to camp on day one, before wading across Túnel River and skirting the edge of a sweeping glacier field on day two to camp at Refugio Paso del Viento 12 kilometers later. Continue circling the jagged peaks of Cerro Huemul on day three for 18 kilometers to camp at Bahía Cabo de Hornos on Lago Viedma, a massive lake formed from the melting ice of Argentina's largest glacier. The final push on day four is a relatively flat 18 kilometers through the Patagonian steppe.

6 The Hut-to-Hut Hike through Nahuel Huapi

The Hut-to-Hut Hike through Nahuel Huapi
The Hut-to-Hut Hike through Nahuel Huapi
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One of the most stunning and well-planned paths through northern Patagonia lies in Argentina's Nahuel Huapi National Park, which surrounds the four-seasons resort town of Bariloche. This four-day hike traverses a number of mountain ridges and lake-carved valleys along the Andean frontier with Chile, and includes overnight stays in shared rooms (with mattresses) at three well-equipped mountain huts. Though they don't have showers, they do have simple bathrooms, and you can take a dip in the cool waters of the lagoons along the way. Start trekking from the foot of the Cerro Catedral ski area up to Refugio Frey (12 kilometers) for night one. The next morning, you'll walk between the granite towers known as Los Catedrales and on to Refugio Jakob at the edge of Laguna San Martin (9.5 kilometers). Spend night three in Refugio Laguna Negra, 10 kilometers away, before wrapping up the hike 16 kilometers later on day four in Colonia Suiza, a town on the outskirts of Bariloche with chalets that recall the area's early Swiss colonists.

7 The Cerro Castillo Circuit

The Cerro Castillo Circuit
The Cerro Castillo Circuit
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Looking for a lesser-known multi-day hike through Chilean Patagonia? The 43-kilometer Cerro Castillo Circuit offers the same wow factor of the W Trek (above) without the crowds. In four arduous days, you'll circumnavigate the castle-like spires of Cerro Castillo, passing glistening glaciers, turquoise lagoons, and endangered huemul deer along the way. This circuit trail doesn't see a whole lot of traffic throughout the year and is best appreciated on a guided tour for inexperienced backpackers due to some tricky stream crossings and technical mountain passes. Find guides in the service village of Villa Cerro Castillo or the regional capital of Coyhaique 1.5 hours away. Experienced hikers with prior backcountry experience should be fine on their own with a good map.

8 The Ice Hike on Perito Moreno

The Ice Hike on Perito Moreno
The Ice Hike on Perito Moreno
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Though not the biggest glacier in Patagonia, Perito Moreno is easily the most famous as it creeps forward up to two meters per day, resulting in thundering roars of cascading ice as it calves truck-sized icebergs into Canal de los Tempanos. This 30-kilometer-long, five-kilometer-wide glacier is the photogenic star of many a postcard and one of Argentina's top attractions luring visitors from near and far. One of the best ways to experience it is on an ice hike through its frozen contours. Four-hour guided treks onto the ice can be arranged in nearby El Calafate, the main hub for lodgings and tourist services in the southern sector of Los Glaciares National Park. Most tours involve a boat ride from Puerto Bajo de las Sombras and a walk through a lenga forest before you strap on some crampons and take to the ice.

9 The Cabo Froward Trek

The Cabo Froward Trek
The Cabo Froward Trek
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Known as "the trek to the end of the world," this 45-kilometer route skirts the edge of the Strait of Magellan and will take you to the southernmost tip of continental South America. The four-day journey traverses an uninhabited stretch of Chile's Brunswick Peninsula, with incredible views of Tierra del Fuego and Isla Dawson along the way. There's also a high probability that you'll stumble across penguins or see dolphins swimming along the shore, offering an intimate connection to the Patagonian countryside. You can reach the trailhead in Rio Santa Maria by bus from the regional capital of Punta Arenas, but the hike is extremely challenging, not well-marked, and best done with a proper guide. Try the team at Erratic Rock Expeditions, who helped pioneer this route.

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