We recently spent a week day hiking Torres del Paine National Park.
Day 1: Puerto Natales to Rio Serrano
We arrive in Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile, rent a car and then discover from the Oficina de Turismo that the most direct road to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is closed for repair between 10.30 and 21.00. So we’ve six hours to kill. We have a wonderful meal of Patagonian lamb, the best lamb we have ever had hands down, no contest.
We start our 80 KM drive down the remote, gravel road. On the way to the road closure, we are told: the road is closed but will open at 21.00, the road is closed and you will need to back track on a 140 KM detour, and the road is open. Sean is stressed by the thought of beginning a 140 KM detour on gravel roads as darkness approaches. Miraculously the road is open. As we drive toward the park we understand why the rental car company required that we read closely and sign the section of the contract describing liability if we flip the car.
The drive toward Torres del Paine is spectacular and we stop at overlooks above Lago del Toro for our first views into the park. We can see from Glacier Grey to los Cuernos del Paine (the Horns of Paine). We get to Hotel Rio Serrano by 9.20 PM, after 30 hours of continuous travel.
Immediately we appreciate Chileans. They are patient, welcoming, extremely helpful and a very handsome nation. Before retiring, we view the Horns again as twilight descends.
Day 2: Rio Serrano to Lago Grey
After a sleep-like-the-dead, we awake to blue skies, a cowgirl driving a herd of horses and brilliant views of the Horns. We depart Hotel Rio Serrano and enter the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
First stop, a hike toward Lago Verde along a scree with views of Lago del Toro, the Tyndall Glacier and glaciers in the distant Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. A rockslide has taken out a huge swath of the trail and instead of bushwhacking on our first hike, we return happily to the trail head.
A short way down the road at the Puente Weber we have a spectacular view of the Horns up the Rio Paine. We head to Hotel Lago Grey where we check in early. The Navigacion to the Glaciar Grey is booked for the day so we hike toward the Mirador Ferrier. We do not get to the 700 meter summit, as we are just warming up our 60-year-old knees.
We then hike to the Mirador Lago Grey which requires crossing a suspension bridge over the raging Rio Pingo. On the sand bar with winds almost knocking us over, we get a view of Glacier Grey. Dinner at Hotel Lago Grey is interrupted as an iceberg floats by.
Day 3: Legendary Patagonia winds
Global warming and legendary Patagonian winds conspire to cancel our boat ride to the Grey Glacier. We hike to the Mirador Condor for spectacular views of the Horns, the Valle del Frances, Glacier del Frances, Paine Grande and across Lagos Pehoe and Nordensskjold. At Mirador Cuernos, hurricane force winds – with gusts reaching 118 KM/hr – batter us as we look up most intimately at all of the above.
Day 4: a massive glacial melt
Our final chance at a boat ride to Glacier Grey is cancelled. The warm weather has resulted in substantial glacial melt and runoff that has raised the Rio Pingo 6 meters filling Lago Grey like a bathtub and submerging the spit you must walk across to the ferry boat.
On a tip from the Hotel Lago Grey guide, we hike the Miscellany Trail, which is not on maps, has a prohibito warning but which the rangers tell us to hike anyway. Near the CONAF welcome center, it’s a beautiful trail – our favorite so far – through varied landscapes with views of Lago del Toro (south), the massive Tyndall & Geikie Glaciers (west), Bernardo O’Higgins National Park (southwest) & Torres del Paine – the Paine Massif, the Cuernos and two towers (north).
We check in to Hosteria Pehoe just before the skies open up to deposit heavy rain.
Day 5: hiking to the first mirador in the Valle del Frances
We take the Pudento Ferry to Refugio Paine Grande and head straight to Campo Italiano where we hang a left up the Valle del Frances. We reach our goal, the Mirador Frances, where we hear glaciers calving and have spectacular and intimate views of the Glaciar del Frances, the backside of the Torres, the Cuernos and off in the distance Lago del Tore. We are starting to get a good feel for the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third most expansive on earth after Antarctica’s and Greenland’s.
This hike is right up there with the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibob Trail to Phantom Ranch and Haleakalā National Park’s Sliding Sands trail through the dormant volcano’s “crater” and by the colossal, 700′ high cinder cones.
The Mirador Frances is worth every step of the 20 KM there and back. We huff it to make sure we are back in time for the 18.35 ferry.
Day 6: a Puma killing field and pre-historic rock art
On our way to the east side of the park, we stop at Laguna Los Cisnes and watch a flock of flamingos feeding. Then on to Laguna Amarga where we hike the Sendero Observation Fauna trail toward Lago Sarmiento. Instead, we hang a right toward Laguna los Flamengos above which we view indigenous rock art on a dramatic rock face. Sean’s favorite was the puma.
Speaking of puma…While there are live puma warnings we see no puma, but plenty of evidence of their presence. The whole Sendero Observation Fauna trail is a killing field. There are guanaco bones everywhere. Pumas thrive here. Indeed, even the picture the young ranger captured on her iPhone shows a very healthy puma with intimidating hind quarters.
The glacial runoff takes out the bridge to the Hotel Los Torres Patagonia. This means we need to be ferried in high clearance vehicles; it also means the 800-1000 folks usually crossing the bridge for the hike to the Mirador Torres Base (the overlook at the base of the towers) cannot get to the trailhead. Their loss; our gain.
Day 7: Mirador Torres Base in a snow storm
We depart for Mirador Torres Base (the overlook at the base of the Towers) at 8.20 am and return nearly nine hours later. It’s a very challenging 9 miler. 7.5 KM one way with 750 meter elevation gain, 300 meters of which occur over the last KM of glacial moraine. And then repeat all the way back.
When we get to the top of the moraine, we see that the Towers are obscured by a snow storm. A Chilean leaving as we approach the mirador announces cheerfully in broken English, “The Towers didn’t make it to work today.”
Turns out, he leaves too soon. We settle in for lunch and wait as long as we can stand the cold and wind. Our reward: the snow lifts enough for us to get a view of the Towers silhouetted by the snow clouds.
It’s a kick-ass nine-miler. My knees are screaming and my feet barking in the final KM. However, that’s nothing a few cerveza artesanals and a bowl of traditional Chilean lamb soup can’t cure.
Day 8: Torres del Paine to Puerto Natales to El Calafate, Argentina
Our journey continues to Argentina’s Glacier National Park here.