Patagonia is world renowned for its vast wilderness and rugged landscapes. There are plenty of well-known treks like the O circuit or Fitz Roy Trek that can take you out into the windy abyss to experience some of these dramatic environments, but despite being avid hikers, Hiking the Huemul Circuit wasn’t something that we had considered or even heard about before arriving in Patagonia. Hiking the Huemul Circuit or Vuelta al Huemul takes 4 days and starts in the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in El Chalten, Argentina. Park entry, the hike and all of the campgrounds are free. There is also no permit or bookings required.
Hiking the Huemul Circuit is remote and challenging. It requires prior knowledge of how to use a harness and zip-line to be able to cross two rivers along the route. In all honesty, we were probably a little under prepared for this when we left.
Before leaving for the hike you need to register yourself at the park information centre and watch a short safety video regarding the hike.
The rangers will check that you have all of the necessary gear for the zip-line crossings:
- 1 x harness per person
- 2 x Carabiners (1 of these must be steel) per person
- 1 x safety line / cows’ tail per person
- 30 meters of cord / rope for the group
- + A topographical map of the park
**Optional – Second 30 meter cord / rope (see day 4)
We rented all of our gear for a very reasonable price from one of the many outdoor shops in town.
Hiking the Huemul Circuit
El Chalten -> Laguna Toro
Day One of hiking the Huemul circuit is an easy 16 km to Laguna Toro. So easy, it almost gave us a false sense of security of what was to come. From the visitors centre it was a beautiful, steady climb up the ridge to the top where we were treated to fantastic views of the valley. From the top it’s all down hill to the Tunel River, which after a couple of small river crossings, you follow for the remaining 4.5km to camp.
The Laguna Toro Campsite was the busiest on the hike. We were lucky to arrive reasonably early to secure a spot with some wind protection.
Hiking the Huemul Circuit
Laguna Toro -> Campamento Paso del viento
Day two was only 12kms but it was an exhausting full days hike. Only a few kilometres from camp was the first zip-line crossing. A few people avoided this by crossing the river on foot. The zip-line is a basic, easy to understand set-up that really is a lot of fun.
From here the trail goes up and along the moraine above Viedma Glacier. It is very loose underfoot and extremely dangerous. About one third of the way along a boulder the size of a large car fell and landed directly on the track in front of us! After this, we scrambled down to hike along the glaciers edge. Although a little slow and slippery it was easy enough to cross with only regular hiking boots and we felt much safer here.
paso del viento
We began the climb up Paso Del Viento (windy pass) from the end of the glacier. As the name suggests, it can get extremely windy. The views were spectacular, but we spent little time enjoying them. On the way up we felt very exposed and at times like the wind was almost going to blow us over.
Once at the top and safely out of the strong wind gusts, we had time to really soak in the amazing views. Just over the other side of the pass was the astonishing vista of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. The 3rd largest icefield in the world.
From here it wasn’t much longer until we were enjoying a cuppa in camp. Campamento Paso del viento lived up to its name during the night and it was a wild sleepless night for us.
Hiking the Huemul Circuit
Campamento Paso Del Viento -> Campamento Bahia de los Tempanos
This was another short but long day. We didn’t get much sleep the night before and were awoken early by strong gusts of wind blowing on our near collapsed tent. We packed up in the dark and set off early to avoid the stronger winds that were forecast for later in the day. As these strong winds can make crossing Paso Huemul quite dangerous.
The first part of the morning was easy walking and incredibly beautiful as we continued to skirt the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Once we veered away from the icefield, the track up and along the pass was a little exposed at times but not too bad. With stronger winds I could imagine that it could be a different story though. Luckily for us the forecast weather never came.
From to pass, down to the Bahia de los Tempanos campsite it was a ridiculously steep decent – 700 metres over 2 kilometres. For me, this was the toughest part of the entire trek. It took us two of hours of slipping, sliding and swinging off trees to make our way down the very sandy track to the bay below.
Here was our favourite campsite on the hike and quite possibly all of Patagonia.
Falling asleep to the sound of ice chunks falling from a glacier was an incredible experience.
Hiking the Huemul circuit
Campamento Bahia de los Tempanos -> Bahia tunel or el chalten
16 or 23 kms
Our fourth and final day saw us rising with the sun. We enjoyed our coffee as we watched the glacier and icebergs change colour with the morning light.
We set off on the 26km journey back to El Chalten in perfect weather. But it wasn’t long before it completely changed in typical Patagonian style.
Just before Bahia Tunel is the second zip-line crossing. There is no permanent rope attached here so my partner had to traverse across using only a carabiner. This also had to be done with his hiking pack on as we only carried the one rope. It was very physically demanding.
If you are reading this with the intention of doing the hike yourself I would strongly suggest organising to meet another hiking group here or carrying a second rope.
**If we were to do this hike again we would carry a second rope.
There are a few options on where you can finish the hike on the final day. We could have organised a shuttle back to town from Bahia Tunel but we thought we would try our luck hitch hiking. This would have made it only 16kms for the day. But when we arrived the weather was horrible and there wasn’t a car in sight. We had to keep on walking along a track to Estancia La Quinta then follow the road for the final 3 km to town from there.
Once back in town, showered, fed and sharing some beers with friends we made along the way we were able to reflect and look back on what a special place this is. Hiking the Huemul Circuit really is one of the most spectacular things we experinced in all of Patagonia.
We were lucky enough to be able to spend an extra few days in El Chalten doing a few more hikes. Both Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy were stunning. They are really worth seeing if you have the time. You can read more about these hikes and others in El Chalten here.
Josh & Ruby
Two Lost Feet