Patagonia Is Home to a Huge Chain of National Parks—And They’re Incredible

Chile’s Route connects 17 national parks full of glaciers, fjords, mountains, and lakes.

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To call the Chilean wilderness bucket list-worthy for adventurers is the epitome of an understatement. The piercing mountain peaks, azure glaciers, and glowing lakes of Patagonia might look like nothing you’ve seen before, but they aren’t nearly as out-of-reach as you might think. In fact, they’re more accessible than ever.

Chile debuted the epic Route of Parks in 2018, which is an unprecedented amount of connected national 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 twice the size of Utah. Keep in mind that’s two times the US state but without any cities in the way—just miles of mountains and lakes.

The route is largely thanks to a collaboration between the Chilean government and the Tompkins Conservation, formed by the late Douglas Tompkins of North Face and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. outdoor store), who privately bought massive amounts of land in Patagonia with the intent of preservation. 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
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. In fact, this part of Chile is known as the lakes region, covered in beautiful greenery and water.

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.

Most visitors opt to drive an hour back to Puerto Montt for the night, where the adorable fishing port of Angelmo is a must-visit. Though it’s worth considering heading an hour extra north to the Reloncavi estuary to rest in the rustic cabins at Ralun Patagonia.

Cerro Castillo
Photo by VGranta/Shutterstock

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.

Photo by Rosario Nieto Chadwick/500px/Getty Images

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 (a type of llama), pumas, huemul, Andean condors, and Darwin’s rhea (a relative to ostriches).

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.

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.

 San Rafael Glacier
Photo by Jorge León Cabello/Moment/Getty

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 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
Photo by Michele Falzone/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Torres del Paine National Park

If you’ve heard of anywhere in Patagonia or seen photos that made you look twice, it was probably Torres del Paine. The park even saw a visit from US President Barack Obama when filming the second episode of Our Great National Parks. The landscape can vary dramatically, with trails winding amid petrified forests, glaciers, dry areas that feel like a desert, and finally the pinnacle of Torres: three sharp rock spires with an otherworldly glacial pool at the base.

Many hikers participate in a multi-day trek ranging from five to eight days, depending on if you do the shorter W route or the longer O route. However, you can do day hikes over a few days if you base yourself from different accommodations throughout the park and just want to see the highlights of Glacier Grey and Mirador Los Torres. Campsites and lodges are scattered along the trails, the latter of which offer hot meals when you’re ready to soothe your tired legs.

Word of advice: Reserve your meal in advance, since you won’t be able to sign up once you show up. It takes a lot of effort to get supplies out into all that wilderness, after all. Also book your spot in refuges well in advance—sometimes as much as full year—since it’s a very popular trek. 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.

Even the summers here can get somewhat cool, this close to Antarctica, and winds can whip up to 75 miles per hour, so come with layers and be prepared for weather.

Photo by Alejandra Javiera Gallo/ Wikimedia

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. After giving it to the Chilean government, it became 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 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
Photo by Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

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. The surrounding sea is the sole place in the world where the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans converge.

The park 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, with plants growing at a sideways angle to the ground. There are also 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 five days, during which you’ll visit part of the park. Book with Australis—they’ve been navigating these waters safely for years.

Ready to hit the park? Check out our tool kit to get started:

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Cathy Brown 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.