Travel

This Mind-Blowing South American Park Route Is 3x Bigger Than Switzerland

Glaciers, fjords, mountain lakes, and all the deer.

Torres Del Paine National Park
Torres Del Paine National Park | Houda Chaloun/EyeEm/Getty
Torres Del Paine National Park | Houda Chaloun/EyeEm/Getty
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To call the Chilean wilderness bucket list-worthy for adventurers is the epitome of an understatement. But the otherworldly mountain peaks, azure glaciers, and mirror lakes aren’t nearly as out-of-reach as you’d expect. In fact, they’re more accessible than ever. 

Chile recently debuted the epic Route of Parks. Stretching 1,700 miles from Northern Patagonia down to remote Cape Horn, it’s a network of paved and gravel roads, trails, and gorgeous ferry crossings that can be explored by car, horse, kayak, foot, or bike. All told, the route packs 17 national parks into a landmass three times the size of Switzerland. 

The route is the work of the Tompkins Conservation,  formed by the late Douglas Tompkins of North Face and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, who privately bought massive amounts of land in Patagonia to preserve it. After Doug died, the foundation, led by Kristine, donated more than a million acres in a historic agreement with the Chilean government to create five new national parks and expand three others already in existence. The government, in turn, contributed nearly 2.5 million acres and reclassified 5.4 million acres of reserves as national parks. 

While exploring each of the 17 parks along the route would take, at minimum, a six-month commitment, we’ve identified just a few of the must-see sights along the way, listed here from north to south. 

Alerce Andino National Park
Alerce Andino National Park | Mauricio Arriagada/Flickr

Alerce Andino National Park

The northernmost park on the route and just an hour from the city of Puerto Montt, this easily accessed 97,000-acre playground is made up of verdant forests, mountains, and more than 50 lakes (such as the serene Laguna Sargazo), making it an ideal place to start your journey.  Alerce Andino National Park is named after the alerce tree, a relative of the redwood that’s among the oldest trees on the planet. In addition to walking among 3,000-year-old specimens of these endangered conifers on the Alerce Milenario trail, guests can hike, kayak, canoe, and keep an eye out for the pudú, the world’s tiniest deer.

While most visitors opt to drive an hour back to busy (and honestly, not very pretty) Puerto Montt for the night, it’s worth considering heading an hour extra north to the Reloncavi estuary to rest in the rustic cabins at Ralun Patagonia.
MORE:  When among those trees, try to get a little forest bathing in

Cerro Castillo National Park
Cerro Castillo National Park | Weston Boyles

Cerro Castillo National Park

Forty miles from Aysen’s regional capital of Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo National Park offers one of Chile’s best multi-day treks. The highlight is a stunning view of mountains of snow, ice, and rock with the vibrantly turquoise Laguna Castillo at its base.  If you can, go in the autumn when the blood-red leaves of the Lena trees contrast with that turquoise.  Huemul (South Andean deer) are often spotted by the Ibáñez park entrance, and in November the endemic wild orchids start to come out. It’s not uncommon to see massive condors soaring overhead with their giant wingspan. While some choose to take on the four- to five-day trek, others explore parts of the park on horseback and rock climbers play around on little-known ascents.

If you’re not taking on the backcountry trek, return to Coyhaique at night to crash at the equestrian-themed Nomades Boutique Hotel or the Coyhaique River Lodge for a bit of pampering and a good night’s sleep. 

Patagonia National Park
Patagonia National Park | Steve Fleming/Moment/Getty

Patagonia National Park

In Patagonia National Park adventurers can explore Chacabuco Valley by foot, mountain, bike, or boat. This is pure Patagonian steppe -- picture rivers with footbridges (the Baker and the Chacabuco converge here), mountains, jewel-toned lakes, southern beech-tree forests, and volcanic rock formations. The valley used to be made up of overgrazed cattle ranches, but it has since regenerated and now has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Aysén region, including native wildlife like guanaco, pumas, huemul, Andean condors, and Darwin’s rhea. 

First purchased in 2004 by Douglas and Kris Tompkins and then combined with the preexisting Jeinimeni and Tamango National Reserves as part of the history-making million-acres land donation in 2019, this is the poster child for Patagonian conservation efforts. Patagonia National Park has some of the best infrastructure of the Route, with campsites, bathrooms, and an information center. The park has 20 trails to choose from -- recommended is the Mirador Lago Jeinimeni trail which overlooks Jeinimeni Lake. And if you aren’t planning on camping, the park’s Lodge at Valle Chacabuco offers a comfy place to crash. For something a bit more modern and private, reserve a cabin at BordeBaker Lodge in nearby Cochrane.

Laguna San Rafael National Park

Declared a Biosphere Reserve, this is the third-largest national park in Chile. It’s filled with fjords, channels, islands, inlets, and glaciers like the impressive namesake San Rafael Glacier. Visitors can get to the icy, 230-foot-tall monolith by boat or kayak through spectacular iceberg-dotted fjords and channels. Laguna San Rafael National Park also happens to encompass an entire 1,600-square-mile icefield.  Visitors also come to trot through in the forested valley of Los Leones on horseback and ice-hike the Exploradores glacier near Monte San Valentine, Patagonia’s highest peak at 12,830 feet.  And for a big finale, end your trip here on General Carrera Lake, the site of the fabulously photographable Marble Caves.

Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park | DoraDalton/E+/Getty

Torres del Paine National Park

Said to be the Eighth Wonder of the World and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the (admittedly sometimes overcrowded) Torres del Paine National Park is home to some of the most recognizable mountain treks on Earth. The park’s O Circuit (58 miles of hiking over eight days) and W Trek (47 miles of hiking over five days) are challenging bucket-list hikes that take you by glacial lakes; through old-growth forests; and into grasslands that are home to the puma, huemul, ñandú, and guanaco. On mild weather days you can photograph the Torres reflected in the water, but don’t come with any expectations: Weather shifts rapidly here, and after a day of sunny blue skies you could end up at the Torres only to be met by heavy fog, snow, or winds so harsh you just want to start heading back down the trail.  Consider it all part of the adventure. 

If you are through-hiking you will need to reserve your spot at the park's mountain refuges well in advance (a year ahead of time would be ideal). If your budget allows, this park would be the place to spend some cash to pamper yourself. It doesn’t get any more luxurious than the Relais & Chateaux Awasi Patagonia, but Tierra Patagonia and EcoCamp are also great options to look into. 
MORE:  Torres del Paine just got way more luxurious

Kawesqar National Park
Kawesqar National Park | Antonio Vizcaíno

Kawesqar National Park

Reminiscing over 25 years of philanthropic work, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins has said her proudest achievement was the creation of Kawésqar National Park. The Tompkins owned a large part of this land and used it as leverage to convince the Chilean government to give enough land to create the second-largest national park in Chile (after the 8 million-acre Bernardo O’Higgins). About 26,000 square kilometers of surrounding water is also protected.

Named after the local Kawesqar tribe, this remote national park has fjords, islands, glacier-riddled cordilleras, Magellanic subpolar forests, and coastal archipelagos, making it primarily boat-accessible.  Although not the southernmost park on the Route, Kawesqar is the easiest option to explore this region. Some of the more southern parks are logistically difficult to reach. 

Entering the park with an expert guide is obligatory (book one through the Patagonian Fjords boating expedition company).  Trips will conveniently start from Puerto Natales (the gateway town to Torres del Paine), and Patagonian Fjords offers trips for as short as two nights and for as long as a month. Camping on your own is not allowed, and there is no hotel or cabin infrastructure within the park. 

Cape Horn Albatross Monumen
Cape Horn Albatross Monumen | Ruben Earth/Moment/Getty

Cape Horn National Park

There is remote and then there is remote. Cabo de Hornos National Park is a 12-hour boat voyage from Puerto Williams, on Isla Navarino off the coast of Ushuaia. The archipelago has two authorized ports (Puerto Maxwell in the Hermite Islands and Caleta Martial on Isla Herschel), and only certain types of boats are permitted to dock. This is the sole place in the world where the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans converge, and is home to a large diversity of marine birds like the Albatross and the weirdly cool Southern Giant Petrel. Here you will see short and squat sub-Antarctic forests that have adapted to the gale-force winds that often reach close to 100 miles an hour, and over 400 species of Moss and 300 species of Liverworts. This plant world in miniature means you should bring a macro lens or microscope to be able to delve into its hidden beauty. 

Comfortable cruises are also available from Punta Arenas in a round-trip visit that lasts 5 days, during which you’ll visit part of the park. Book with Australis -- they’ve been navigating these waters safely for years. 
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Cathy Brown moved from Michigan suburbia to an organic farm in northern Patagonia in 2009. She splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.