After a rainy second day in El Chalten we were very happy when our third day dawned bright and clear. As we sat enjoying breakfast in the lobby of Hotel Poincenot (named after the mountain flanking Fitz Roy on the left when viewed from the east), we saw many hikers that we would eventually pass throughout the long day on the trail. After mixing up some Tailwind in my pack and stashing the sandwiches we had from our bagged lunch at Patagonia Eco Domes, we strapped on our Ultimate Direction Fastpacks and headed to the trailhead. One amazing thing about El Chalten, all of the popular trails are easily accessible from downtown. We didn’t use our car at all once we parked it at Hotel Poincenot except for when we drove out to capture a photo of the crescent moon over Fitz Roy.
After walking for about 0.3 miles down the main street of El Chalten, we arrived at the trailhead and began the climb up. Like the hike to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, and all the other hikes in El Chalten, this one immediately began with a steep climb. In fact the trail climbs about 1100 feet in a little less than 2 miles. The first part of the climb is in the trees with a couple of “pull off” areas if you need to take a rest without blocking the trail. At about the 0.5 mile mark, there is a great mirador overlooking the Rio de Las Vueltas valley. If you have time during your stay, I recommend driving or hiking back there. The Chorrillo del Salto trail is less than a mile roundtrip and affords you a great view of a waterfall. The drive is also nice, windy along the river and at about the midpoint opens up to views of the “other side” of Fitz Roy.
After the tree section, the climb continues, alternating between shaded and exposed sections, all with sweeping views of Rio de Las Vueltas valley. We stopped a couple times to appreciate the view even though our legs were feeling good and ready to climb! At the very top of the climb (around mile 2.2) the trail splits, with one trail going to Laguna Capri and the other going to Mirador Fitz Roy. We choose the mirador at both opportunities because we heard it was an amazing view. Either way, the trail reconnects a little over a mile later (at around mile 3.3 if you take the route to the mirador). The trail seems to wind around a little bit during this section but if you look at the map it does take a pretty straight course to Laguna de Los Tres. It also alternates between rocky open sections with views of Fitz Roy and sections with thick forests and narrow sections between willow-type plants. Be careful if you aren’t wearing pants: the plants in Patagonia are all prickly! I have scratches all up and down my legs to prove it!
At around mile 4.5 the trail starts on the section that I like to refer to as the meadows. At first the trail crosses a marshy section, but never fear about getting your feet wet! The trail designers have laid out boardwalks to keep people off the sensitive marshland. There are a couple of bridges to cross, and make sure to obey the signs about one or two people only. Some of the bridges sway significantly with one person on it, and it can make you seasick with more than one! During this section you will also pass the campsite that many people use if they want to capture sunrise at Laguna de Los Tres. We didn’t do that, but this google link will show you what it looks like at sunrise. As you get closer and closer to Fitz Roy, you can begin to see the trail that you will have to conquer to reach Laguna de Los Tres.
The 3.7 mile section of trail between the split for Mirador Fitz Roy and Laguna Capri and the start of the climb is almost entirely flat. According to my watch, we actually lost 92 feet of elevation gain in that section. The following 1.2 miles climbs over 1500 feet to the lake. We started our hike at 10 am and were hiking up the steep final climb around 12. It was a relatively cool day with a high of around 60F, we hiked fast and barely stopped at all along the way. Even still, it was HOT on the climb. There were many people who were stopped along the side of the trail, seeking whatever tiny relief they could find from the sun. We passed a lot of people who were unprepared for this final section of the hike. Do yourself a favor and carry some water, maybe with some sports drink or food with you on this section. Also, please wear appropriate footwear. We saw so many people in their “fashion sneakers” who were struggling trying to find a grip on the slippery, steep rocks.
We made it to the top and were confronted with an amazing view. It was crowded, which took away from the experience slightly, but it was beautiful. The rock spires of Fitz Roy and it’s guardians tower above the glaciers which melt into the blue-grey waters of Laguna de Los Tres. There is a reason this is a famous view. And despite it’s fame, we were shocked at the number of Americans that we talked to that had no idea there was a mountain town north of El Calafate in Argentina! We found some shade on the side of a rock to eat our sandwiches (ham and cheese for Jason, grilled veggies for me) and drink some water. After refueling, we gathered the clothing we had carelessly discarded from our overheating bodies and went to explore.
The ridge where the trail “ends” continues on for a little bit north and offers better views than the one that you are first greeted with. We also found it to be much quieter by just walking 0.1 mile from the crowds. While exploring we saw the outlines of two people with climbing packs up on the ridge of the mountain behind us. I tried scrambling up the rocks to get a view from the ridge that is immediately obvious to the right of the lake, but the rocks were slick with ice so I turned around. Instead we started scrambling up towards where we had seem the outlines of the climbers. The views kept getting better and better until we found ourselves on a nice little perch above the lake. We briefly thought about continuing upwards, but we were out of food and still had a long way to hike before reaching other food options. Later that night in the hotel I did some research and found out that we were on the flanks of Cerro Madsen, which offers an unbelievable view of Fitz Roy if you don’t mind some class III scrambling (which we wouldn’t have minded if we had FOOD). You can read about it and see some other photos here.
We scrambled back down to the lake level, taking a small detour to see Laguna Sucia and the waterfall that flows from Laguna de Los Tres to Laguna Sucia from above. The descent down the “steep section” was still steep going down. If there weren’t so many other people climbing up and down the trail, most of which looked terrified, it would have been really fun to run down. Instead we quickly picked our way down the rocks and before we knew we were drinking water from Rio Blanco. During the flat section our energy really started to lag and I was counting down the kilometers until we were back to town (they have markers along the popular trails at 1 km intervals). Despite our lagging energy, the climb back up to the Mirador Fitz Roy was pretty easy and soon we found ourselves run-walking down the last 1000 feet to town.
We quickly walked back to our hotel to drop off some of our stuff and beelined it for B&B for burgers and beer. The perfect post-hike food to satiate our growling bellies. Although the trail was crowded, and I imagine it is 100 times worse in the peak season, the hike was completely worth it. The entire hike is beautiful, offering different angles to a moody, historic mountain. If you aren’t up for the tradition route, you can take the bus from town to Rio Blanco to avoid the initial 1000 foot climb. Then you can either take the trail back to town or arrange for someone to pick you up if you return the way you came.
Hike Stats (roundtrip): 14.2 miles to the lake (plus 1.6 miles that we added during our explorations), 3800 feet of elevation (plus 355 feet during our scrambling), 7:36 total time (5:03 moving time), details on Strava