Distance: 64 kilometers (40 miles)
Best Time to Hike: December-March
Typical Weather: High wind, rain
Hiker Traffic: Mild-Moderate
Resupply Options: None
Cell Service: None
My Rating: 9.5/10
Profound Patagonian winds tear into my tent as I slowly realize that sleep is a fleeting possibility. Rest, however, is of little concern. Because I will soon be watching the sun rise over a pastel-blue bay of untainted water. The mountains at my back will burn orange as the crack of calving glaciers echo softly in the distance.
The Huemul Circuit is one of Patagonia’s hidden trekking gems, but it won’t stay hidden forever.
It is just too devastatingly beautiful to remain a secret.
This four day, 64 kilometer (40 mile) circuit will take you over intensely windy mountain passes and reward you with remarkable views of the vast South Patagonian Ice Fields. Its unmarked trails will lead you across sprawling glaciers, over roaring icy rivers, and bring you to the shore of a glacial bay full of impressive icebergs.
The trail is only a short walk from the transient backpacker town of El Chaltén Argentina, where most hikers flock to experience the majestic Fitz Roy and it’s neighboring trails and lakes. Because of this, the Huemul Circuit and its undeniable beauty are often overlooked.
Each day will be physically grueling and mentally taxing. The weather can be erratic and relentless. Naturally, this trek is going to take a bit of preparation, but it is completely worth it.
I completed this trail alone and unguided from February 25th – 28th, 2018. If you choose to hike solo, study the trail and prepare thoroughly. Anyone hiking this trail should be physically fit and an experienced trekker.
Preparing for the Huemul Circuit
Getting to El Chaltén
El Chaltén is a long journey from any major cities or travel hubs. The best way to get there is to take a three hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. From there, take a scenic three hour bus ride to reach El Chaltén. I recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time, as buses tend to fill up. I used BusBud.com to buy mine.
There are dozens of hostels, hotels, and campgrounds in El Chaltén. I stayed in La Comarca Hostel, which is only a few blocks from the bus station. They let me lock up my excess travel gear while I was out on the trail. The hostel was a bit rustic, but it was affordable and had comfortable beds. That’s all I’m lookin’ for.
Weather in El Chaltén
Keep an eye on that unpredictable Patagonian weather and try to find a decent window to start your hike. The Huemul Circuit is notorious for it’s ridiculous wind speeds, which can wreck your trek in a hurry. I always used WindGuru to keep track of the weather before my hikes in Patagonia.
Having a GPS map is essential if you are hiking the Huemul Circuit. Since much of the trail is unmarked and quite difficult to follow, I would highly encourage you to get the Maps.me app (for free) onto your smartphone and download the region surrounding El Chaltén.
The whole trail is available and easy to follow. Turn airplane mode on and leave location services enabled to save your battery as you navigate. You won’t need cell service to use the maps. Drop a few waypoints before you start the hike so you know where the destinations and landmarks will be.
Also, don’t forget to bring an external battery bank to keep your phone charged so you won’t be S.O.L. if your phone dies.
Gear Rental in El Chaltén
You can rent this gear at any number of stores in town. Get to the stores early, especially if the weather is nice. The day before my hike I visited five stores (two times each!) and nobody had a harness. Luckily, I woke up early the day of my hike and found the gear I needed immediately.
Huemul Circuit Essentials
You will need a backpack full of quality gear that will sustain you in the windy, rainy, and ruthless Patagonian wilderness for four days.
Here’s a list of what I bring on all my multi-day treks. Pay close attention to bringing quality essential gear listed below.
You need to pack all of your food, as there is nowhere to resupply along the trail. I usually ration myself about 2500 calories a day.
There are plenty of places to purchase food in El Chaltén. I flew all my food out from the U.S. so I could plan out every meal ahead of time. On a given day on the trail, I’ll consume some combination of the following:
- Protein and energy bars
- Assorted nuts
Always bring an extra day’s worth of food in case the weather delays you.
There is plentiful clean drinking water available along the trail. Most water you encounter on the trail can be consumed safely without any treatment. I brought my filter along to purify still water along the trail. 90% of the water I drank was unfiltered and I never had any issues.
Physical and Mental Preparation
It is very important that your body and mind are prepared for 64 brutal kilometers (40 miles) in the Patagonian expanse. Do a few shorter hikes to train if you are concerned that you’re not ready for the tough terrain and distances ahead. Set yourself up for success!
Your trek can go sideways in a hurry if you are unprepared in any way. Take it from me, I’ve learned the hard way.
Leave No Trace
ALWAYS, pack out everything you pack in!
Please leave this beautiful trail clean and untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy. There are no excuses to leave waste behind for others to deal with.
If you feel like being a legend, fill a small adventure bag to help keep the trails clean.
Day One: Trailhead to Laguna Toro Campground
Distance: 15 kilometers (9.9 miles)
Elevation gain/loss: 762 meters (2500 feet)/610 meters (2000 feet)
First stop: El Chaltén Visitor Center. You must get a free permit before starting the trek. A ranger will check for your required gear: a harness, two carabiners: one aluminum and one steel, a map, 20 meters of thin rope, and a camping stove.
You will need to watch a 10 minute slideshow about the hike. Take pictures of the slides to reference on the trail. They will be extremely helpful later on.
When getting your permit, the ranger will ask what day you plan on returning from the trek. If you fail to return within 48 hours of that date they will send a search and rescue team out to find you. It’s that kind of hike.
Keep this in mind: if you want to start your hike before the visitors center opens, you must get your permit the day before. Leaving early might allow you to get the best campsite for night one.
The trailhead is a short walk from the visitors center. Strap on your backpack, its time to trek.
The start of the trail will instantly offer stunning views of Fitz Roy (which are pretty hard to avoid in El Chaltén). It is clear from the get-go that this you are in for something special.
Day one will serve as a nice warm up for the more grueling and technical segments of the hike. There aren’t any glacier crossings, rock scrambles, unmarked trails, zip-lines, crazy inclines or knee-busting descents. You’ll have to wait for those.
Drinking Fresh Glacial Water
Fresh blue-grey glacier water runs through abundant creeks and rivers along the trail. No need to purify the water, it is pure and ready to drink. I did bring a filter and ended up using it to clean water from Lago Viedma. I have one simple rule: if the water is not moving, filter it.
The trail starts with a calm, windy incline through a lush forest, occasionally passing through wide-open meadows. Initially, this trek reminded me of a blend of Colorado, Alaska, and Iceland, but I soon came to realize that the Huemul Circuit is uniquely its own.
The whole day you will be treated to views of views of Mt. Huemul as you work towards Lago Toro. As you decline towards camp you will come across many shallow streams and marshy valleys that you must cross by foot. I decided not to pack my trusty hiking sandals and was too lazy to remove my boots, so I spent the rest of the day with water sloshing around my feet. Lesson learned.
The campgrounds at Lago Toro have plenty of space to make yourself comfortable for the evening. Fortresses built from curvy weathered sticks are plentiful and great for wind protection. I set up camp, giddy with excitement knowing that the real challenge was about to begin.
Day Two: Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento Campground
Distance: 15 kilometers (9.3 miles)
Elevation gain/loss: 914 meters (3000 feet)/671 meters (2200 feet)
Day two centers around confronting the first big challenge of the hike: Paso del Viento (‘Pass of the Wind’ in Spanish). This section of the trek presents the longest incline, highest altitude, and strongest wind (usually) of the journey. Have fun!
Crossing Rio Tunel on Foot
I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to use the harness to cross the raging Rio Tunel. I was unfamiliar with the gear and had never done anything similar before. So, when I reached the Tyrolean river crossing and found a line of eight people waiting to cross, I decided to cross the river on foot.
Unfortunately I don’t have much information on the first Tyrolean crossing (I did do the second), but there are plenty of thrilling videos to watch on YouTube.
If you decide to forego the Tyrolean, take any electronics out of your pockets and use trekking poles to help stabilize yourself as you cross the river. The water levels I experienced were halfway between my knee and waist. Wear strap on sandals or go barefoot, but don’t wear flip flops. They’ll get swept away in the strong current.
The water is downright frigid and the current is strong! My legs were completely numb by the time I finished crossing the river. Take it very slow, falling over would make you extremely wet, cold, and cranky at the very least.
Walking Across Glacier Tunel Inferior
After crossing the river, you will begin to approach Glacier Tunel Inferior. Walking across the glacier was an absolute highlight for me, however, the paths leading onto and off of the glacier were extremely loose and slippery. Be ready to slip and fall on your ass a time or two.
How long or how little you hike on the glacier is up to you. My advice is to stay on the glacier as long as possible. It’s a surreal and exhilarating experience.
Eventually you will have to return back up the slippery scree to more stable ground. What I witnessed was mayhem: trekkers scrambling up steep hills of slippery rock only to slide back down, cursing and dejected. Do yourself a favor and choose the path of least resistance. If one exists.
Paso del Viento
Almost as quickly as you finish slipping and sliding up the rock, a new challenge will present itself: Paso del Viento. There should be some semblance of a trail to follow as you climb towards the pass. The ascent isn’t overly technical, it’s just steep and relentless.
I got lucky with an extremely calm day, but I have heard horror stories of brutal winds approaching 100 mph/160 kmph that can knock you off your feet. Be prepared to wait out overbearing winds and be willing to turn back and wait an extra night to hike the pass if the weather is especially cruel.
The path leading up to Paso del Viento is a relentless uphill battle full of false passes and brittle but stable rock. Use your trekking poles religiously, enjoy well-timed breaks, and take care of your knees. This is where proper training will really pay off.
Endless Ice: the South Patagonian Ice Fields
I was left speechless when I arrived at the viewpoint for the South Patagonian Ice Fields. A small group of us gathered quietly to cook lunch and gaze in amazement at the seemingly endless expanse of glaciers. Even when lunch was over, nobody was ready to leave.
Another steep, rocky descent will draw you closer to your next camp. Once the path levels out a bit, you will be treated to a blissful moss-filled, waterfall-abundant wonderland. Again there is no definitive trail, but that simply makes your connection with the land more seamless.
It was on this stretch where it hit me: I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I put my headphones in and turned listened to Miles Davis as I hiked through a daydream. I’ll admit it: I got a little emotional. My first trek in Patagonia was exceeding every expectation.
When I reached Paso del Viento campground I braced my tent for the worst, cautious of the notorious winds that had passed through countless times before. Instead I ate lasagna and chocolate and watched a full moon rise over the mountains on a calm and quiet night.
Day Three: Paso del Viento to Lago Viedma Campground
Distance: 11.2 miles/18 kilometers
Elevation gain/loss: 640 meters (2100 feet)/1342 meters (4400 feet)
Day three presents arguably most frustrating challenge of the trek: the brutal downhill decline after Paso Huemul. Any frustrations will eventually vanish, however, as the spectacular beauty of an iceberg filled Lago Viedma will serve as a reward at the end of the day.
From Paso del Viento campground the route will gradually descend until you are nearly level with the South Patagonian Ice Field. The incredible views continue as you climb slowly towards Paso Huemul. Although hiking the pass doesn’t present the same challenges of Paso del Viento, it is building up to something big…
I was blessed with great weather for the third consecutive day, but I have heard that winds on Paso Huemul can be just as strong as on Paso del Viento. I wouldn’t know though. The weather had been suspiciously tranquil for me…
Atop Paso Huemul you will be greeted with views of the massive Lago Viedma dotted with icebergs in the distance. From up top, the decline doesn’t look too daunting, but it’s the rate at which you descend that presents the real challenge — 700 vertical meters (2300 feet) over 1189 meters (3900 feet) of trail.
The Descent from Hell
Take it nice and slow on the way down.
Your body (especially your knees) will thank you later. This section of the hike is where your trekking poles will save your ass. This is far and away the steepest decline I have ever experienced on a hiking trail. My creaky knees held up and eventually I was on flat ground again. Damn, that was rough.
Once you reach the bottom, you will have two options for camping: Bahía de los Témpanos and Bahía de los Hornos (you will see both on Maps.me). Most people end up camping at Témpanos because it is the closest option, but I elected to continue on to Hornos, which was another hour down the trail.
I think I made the right choice.
I’m glad I chose to camp at Bahía de Hornos for three reasons:
- Bahía de los Témpanos was packed.
- The next morning I got an hour head start the on the hikers that chose to camp at Témpanos.
- Bahía de los Hornos was a short walk to the east side of the peninsula, which gave incredible views of Viedma Glacier and its icebergs right at sunset.
Infamous Patagonian Winds
As I lay down to sleep, the wind started to whisper as my weary legs twitched from exhaustion. I was out in no time.
Sleep didn’t last long, however, as the powerful Patagonian wind finally arrived! The aggressive drafts shook my tent with every gust. I could hear fellow campers starting to panic as the wind howled through the campgrounds for hours. My tent faced the challenge and stood strong the whole night (even if it made a little noise doing so).
I slept sparingly, content with the chaos that surrounded me.
Day Four: Lago Viedma to Bahía Tunel Ferry Dock
Distance: 18 kilometers (11.2 miles)
Elevation gain/loss: 427 meters (1400 feet)/427 meters (1400 feet)
I awoke to watch sunrise over Lago Viedma as I cooked breakfast. The sun cast a pale orange glow over the horizon as I prepared for my final day on the trail.
I set off with a friend I met along the way, excited about our early start to the day. Our goal was to arrive at the final Tyrolean as early as possible to avoid waiting to cross in a queue of hikers. Nobody likes standing around.
Seeing as the Huemul Circuit rarely presented a clear path, we ignored Maps.me and started walking our own direction. That was a bad idea. We were met with long fields of thick prickly bushes (see that beautiful greenery up above?) and mucky swamp. Instead of retreating back to where we started, we got stubborn and attempted to continue.
Again, bad idea.
Eventually, after about 30 minutes of soul-crushing attempts to cross the swamp of awful bushes, we turned back and started over. So much for that early start.
Learn from our mistakes and stay as close to the coast as you can as you hike away from camp. There will probably be some creek crossings, but that’s inevitable. Just don’t get stuck in the terrible field of swampy pain. Trust me.
A Dry and Hilly Race to the Finish
The hike continues on over arid, treeless tundra. Water is more scarce and the terrain is a bit less eventful than previous days. Lago Videma will gradually fade into the distance behind you and you will be left wandering rolling hills of dry earth.
The occasional red stick will let you know that you’re headed the right direction. So will Maps.me.
The wind and sun were relentless on the final day.
Don’t forget your sunscreen.
Patagonian sun is fierce and long-lasting during the summer. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face simply won’t protect you. Just ask me, the careless trekker who tried to cut weight by not bringing sunscreen.
Tyrolean Traverse Across Rio Tunel
Eventually we arrived at the zip-line to cross the Rio Tunel one last time. Luckily, there were only a few people in front of us. We strapped on our harnesses and got ready. This zip-line is able to support the weight of a hiker and their backpack, so things went fairly quickly.
It is possible to ford the river if the pulley if necessary, but remember to find a shallow spot and cross slowly and cautiously. In my experience, using the tyrolean is way better than wading across ice cold water. Plus, you paid the money to rent the harness, so use it!
Hitching Back to El Chaltén
After the river crossing, it is a short walk to the ferry dock. You made it! You have a few different options to get back to town.
- Find someone in the parking lot to hitchhike back to town with
- Wait for a ferry to arrive and ask the bus driver if you can hitch a ride back to town on the bus (it’ll probably cost money). Boat tours leave at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- Walk the remaining 8 kilometers (5 miles) back to El Chaltén (via Maps.me route)
My friend and I found a nice Argentinean couple sipping mate and asked them for a ride back to town. They happily obliged and drove us back the rest of the way.
Limping and sunburnt, we resurfaced in El Chaltén. We laughed and reminisced about our incredible journey over fresh pizza and cold beers. I smiled and ached and I felt like I could eat forever.