After a week of being in Patagonia with zero hikes (unless you consider our jaunt along the boardwalks of Perito Moreno glacier we were more than ready for some quality time with dirt under our soles. El Chalten, a little town in the shadow of mountaineering giants Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, is colloquially known as the “trekking capital of the world” and we intended to find out how it earned that nickname. After I finish with the hike review from El Chalten I’ll post a “best of” that includes where to stay, what to eat, and what to see.
We woke up early and left El Calafate before sunrise with every intention of squeezing in a hike before we checked in to our first hotel in El Chalten. We did waste a little time trying to the quintessential “road to El Chalten” photo (see my version above). We later learned that the most common location for the photograph is on the road right before town (not 10 km out where we were). After snapping some pics, we headed in to town to pick up sandwiches and a galleta (cookie) before heading back out of town (past tons of hitchhikers) to the Visitor Center parking lot. We picked up a map, strapped on our Ultimate Direction Fastpacks, and headed out on our first hike in Patagonia!
The trail starts with a climb, and continues to climb until you get to the top. If you don’t like trails that go seemingly straight uphill (or straight downhill) then El Chalten probably isn’t the hiking town for you. If you’re like us though, you’ll love this trail. The hike isn’t one of the two main “miradors” (lookouts), so the crowds are less intense than on other trails out of El Chalten. In fact we only saw four other people on the hike up! The first couple we saw was at the very beginning of the trail and they asked to take my picture. Thanks to some translation issues we thought they were asking if we wanted them to take a picture of us with their camera. They did take one for us, but they were looking for photos of hikers on the trail for a project they were working on.
Less than one mile into the hike (at about 1km) you get your first view of Fitz Roy and you begin to understand what grand mountain it is. The views only get better the higher you climb so don’t turn around yet! The trail is also steep and loose at this point, so make sure to watch your footing in between sneaking glances up at Fitz Roy. It is also exposed so make sure to take advantage of the few shaded sections if you need a break.
At about 2.4 miles into the hike (3.9 km) the trail flattens a bit as it enters a section that could be swampy in the spring or after a heavy rainstorm. We were there in the fall so there were only a couple small mud sections to navigate, almost all of which had bridges made out of sticks to help you over the longer mud sections. Take a moment to celebrate here. You’ve climbed about 1/3 of the way up to the top of the loma (which is about 1200 ft or 365 m).
After the swampy/muddy section the trail enters a magical forest. I’m not kidding the forest is seriously magical. From a distance I assumed we would be hiking through something similar to willows. As we approached I realized it was trees! At first they start out like normal trees but soon they become very short. As in, if Jason and I were any taller we would have a hard time walking through there without stooping (and we’re only 5’3″ and 5’7″). The trees almost envelope the trail and it’s easy to imagine mythical creatures wandering amongst them. Soon you leave the short trees behind and come to a section of towering trees (Lenga trees if I understand my trees correctly). Although it seems opposite to every forest I’ve been to in North America, the tallest trees are the ones closest to treeline, and that was the case everywhere we visited in Patagonia. During the last section of trees two guys passed us like we were standing still (the only people to pass us on any of our hikes in South America).
The forest ends abruptly and the trail starts the final push to the top. If you are going to the mirador, congratulations, you only have about 300 more feet to climb. If you’re planning on going all the way to the top of the loma, you still have about 1100 feet to climb. Near the beginning of the rocky scree section you’ll cross a stream. It was barely trickling when we were there, but in spring or after a hard rain I imagine it is a little more intense. Either way it’s a nice place to grab a drink – you can drink the water without treating it here – or splash some cool water on the back of your neck. Also, since the trail is now entirely on rock, the trail builders had strategically placed yellow stakes to guide the way. During this section, clouds were starting to roll in and cover Fitz Roy (a common occurrence here). We were lucky though and they clouds parted long enough for us to enjoy the view at the top before they closed in again while we were descending back to town.
Once you reach the top of the first rocky climb and the trail starts to level out, look for twin cairns (rock stackings) that mark the trail to the top of the loma. If you continue to follow the yellow stakes no worries, they will take you to the mirador. Once you start between the two cairns you are in for a climb. The trail climbs about 625 feet in about 0.3 miles! As you go up, make sure to take the views all around you, including looking up and/or downhill at the rest of your group climbing up the hill. I have been doing a lot of uphill/downhill run training so I was in front of Jason and was able to capture this picture of him climbing the final section.
At the top of the climb, we took in the views and quickly found a place to sit down and eat our sandwiches. Our tiny lunch and lack of coffee combined with 6 miles and 3500 feet of climbing was starting to take it’s toll and we were starving! After refueling we really began to look around and explore the “summit” area. Although we had seem quite a few groups heading down the last climb when we were climbing up, there were only a handful of people on the summit. We spent about 30 minutes up there, which is long for us, before heading back down. Usually I’m antsy to bomb the downhill since that’s my favorite part of steep hikes and runs. Since we weren’t going to run and risk damaging Jason’s brand new camera, I was more willing to relax a little bit.
Don’t underestimate the downhill. If you aren’t prepared for it, through either lots of downhill hiking/running or trekking poles that you know how to use, it will probably hurt your quads and knees a little bit. We took it relatively slow and enjoyed the views that we missed when were facing the other direction going uphill. Once back to the car we hightailed it to Patagonia Eco Domes for the first truly romantic hotel experience of our honeymoon. We definitely felt like we earned all three (very large and delicious) courses at dinner that night!
Hike Stats (roundtrip): 12 miles, 3,842 ft of elevation, 5:30 total time (3:50 moving time), details on Strava