5 of the Best National Parks Along Chile’s Route of Parks
Chile, already legendary in the adventure travel world for its rugged Andean wilderness, sweeping views, abundant wildlife and world-class trekking, has opened the Route of Parks, a one-of-a-kind trail that stretches 1,700 miles from Puerto Montt in Northern Patagonia all the way south to Cape Horn.
The route was the dream of the Tompkins Conservation, a foundation set up by late millionaire Douglas Tompkins of North Face fame and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. While still alive, Doug and Kristine had privately bought huge chunks of land in Patagonia in order to preserve it. After his passing, the foundation, led by Kristine, donated more than one million acres in an historic agreement with the government to create five brand new national parks in Patagonia and expand three others already in existence. This donation was the largest land donation in history from a private entity to a country.
To see the Route of Parks become a reality, the Chilean government did its part by contributing nearly 2.5 million acres and reclassifying 5.4 million acres of nature reserves as national parks. The result is a network of 17 national parks—encompassing an area that’s three times the size of Switzerland or more than twice the size of Costa Rica—now linked together by one epic route that includes paved and gravel roads, trails, and ferry crossings. The Route of Parks also interlinks three famed scenic routes: the Southern Way, the Patagonian Channels and the End of the World Route.
“We want Chile to be internationally recognized for having the most spectacular scenic route in the world, and thus become a benchmark for economic development based on conservation,” said Carolina Morgado, executive director at Tompkins Conservation on the foundation’s site.
Most travelers won’t be able to commit to the six months it’s estimated you’ll need to fully explore the Route of Parks. But if you only have one or two weeks, here are five not-to-be-missed national parks that will give you a taste of this spectacular region…
Chile’s Route of Parks Top Five
1) Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo
Along the famed Carretera Austral (or Southern Highway), the massive Cerro Castillo peak this park is named for lies 7,605 ft. above the nearby city of Coyhaique and Río Ibáñez. There’s a well-thought-out trekking circuit in Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo that has been named one of the most beautiful in all of Chile, especially in the autumn when the blood red leaves of the Lena trees contrast with the turquoise of the glacial lagoon. Huemul (South Andean deer) are easily spotted near the Ibáñez park entrance, and in November the endemic wild orchids start to come out. Even if you do not consider yourself a bird lover, watching the primitive beast-like condors soar with their giant wingspan over the stunning Andean landscape can have pretty much anyone mesmerized.
2) Patagonia National Park
In Patagonia National Park adventurers can explore Chacabuco Valley—the centerpiece of the park which was donated by the Tompkins Conservation—and soak up a wide range of scenery. This is pure Patagonian steppe—think rivers with picturesque footbridges (the Baker and the Chacabuco converge here), mountains, lagoons, lakes, old-growth forest and volcanic rock formations. And while the valley used to be the site of overgrazed cattle ranches, it’s since recovered and now has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Aysén region, including native wildlife like guanaco (a llama relative), pumas, huemul, Andean condors and Darwin’s rhea (or lesser rhea). Make sure to watch for wildlife and take in the view of Lake Cochrane from the Douglas Tompkins Lookout Point.
3) Alerce Andino National Park
Alerce Andino National Park is all about its ancient trees, which were isolated from the glaciers that covered the area 12 thousand years ago and now support several species that are not found anywhere else on the planet. Vertical walls of granite surround the park’s more than fifty lagoons (Sargazo, Chaiquenes, Triángulo, Chilco, Fría, and Gaviota can be reached on foot from the trail network) and Alerce (Fitzroya) trees grow over more than half of the park’s surface. The ancient Alerce trees in the Sargazo sector of the park are estimated to be around 2,500 years old and in the Las Chaicas sector they’re nearly 3,000 years old. Keep your eyes open for the tiny pudú deer, the gray fox, the Chingue (Molina’s hog-nosed skunk), the black-necked swan, Magellanic woodpecker and the Cachaña (Austral parakeet), which are just a few examples of the native wildlife that call this park home.
4) Laguna San Rafael National Park
Declared a Biosphere Reserve, this is the second-largest national park in Chile and is filled with fjords, channels, islands, inlets, and glaciers like the impressive San Rafael Glacier for which the park is named. Laguna San Rafael National Park is also the main entry point to the Northern Icefields and has a storied past with visitors including Charles Darwin. There are many ways to explore the park, from walking over the Exploradores Glacier, driving the Ruta X-78 to Monte San Valentin (the highest peak in Patagonia at 12,830 ft.), or seeing Laguna San Rafael up close from a boat.
5) Torres del Paine National Park
Said to be the Eighth Wonder of the World and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Paine Massif within Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most stunning and recognizable mountains on Earth. It’s also a place that needs no introduction for serious trekkers. The park’s challenging O Circuit (58 miles of hiking over 8 days) and W Trek (47 miles of hiking over 5 days) are undeniable bucket list hikes that take you by turquoise lakes, pristine glaciers, old growth forests and grasslands home to the puma, huemul, ñandú, and guanaco. Definitely plan a sunrise or sunset at Laguna Amarga or Laguna Azul. On calm, clear days it’s possible to photograph the Torres reflected in the water.
Photos: Patagonia National Park – Linde Waidhofer; Cerro Castillo – Rafael-Pérez; Alerce Andino National Park – Augusto Dominguez; Torres del Paine – Cascada Expediciones