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Backpack the Huemul Circuit in Los Glaciares NP

El Chalten, Argentina



40 miles

Elevation Gain

9000 ft

Route Type



Added by Leah Slaten

Don’t let two Tyrolean ziplines scare you away from this rare opportunity to see the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Get here before the crowds follow.

Begin this hike from the ranger station in El Chalten. You will need to register (they will send out search and rescue if you do not return within 48 hours of the anticipated date) and show the park ranger your mandatory gear (more details in packing list). If you do not have these items already, all the gear can easily be rented from any of the outdoors shops in town. The hike is typically completed in 4 days.

Make sure to bring a gps (or download maps.me) to attempt this hike. Many sections of the trail are unmarked or poorly maintained, so this will be critical in staying on track.

Day #1: Ranger Station to Laguna Toro (10 miles)

The first day is pretty easy — the whole hike takes about 6 hours. For the first half, you will ascend to reach a plateau. Careful — the plateau is marshy! After the plateau, you will descend once again into another valley. At this point, follow the riverbed until reaching the Laguna Toro campground. There are a couple shallow river crossings during this portion. There is not much trail to follow during this section — cairns mark the way but it is easy to lose them. The important thing is to keep the river to your left until just before arriving at the lake. The campground is hidden in a copse of trees just before the lake.

Day #2: Laguna Toro to Refugio Paso del Viento (8 miles)

Days 2 and 3 are the most challenging of the hike. Although you are only going 8 miles today, the hike will take you most of the day. After walking around the lake (~30 minutes), you will face the first challenge of the hike: crossing the river. The recommended way to ford is via zipline, but it’s possible to walk across the river as well. If using the zipline, the safest option is to pass your bags across separately (assuming you are hiking with a partner). Careful getting off the zipline, as you dismount on a steep part of the rocks. Make sure you are on stable ground before unclipping yourself. If walking across, simply walk upstream a little further. I discovered afterwards that the water is only shin deep, and the current is not too strong.

After successfully managing the zipline, you will come to the next challenge: navigating the glacial morain to circumnavigate the lake. This part of the trail is poorly marked and for much of it you will be scrambling along loose rocks. The closer you stay to the glacier, the less distance you will slide if you slip or start a rockfall. You can also walk on the glacier for some of the time — this might be safer and faster than scrambling on the rocks. The key is finding the right spot to exit the glacier and begin the climb up the pass. This is where maps.me is indispensable.

The third challenge of the day: climbing up to Paso del Viento. The beginning is the worst part, as you will scramble up Class 3 rocks with a heavy pack. This part only lasts about 20 feet though, and then you will be on a pretty well maintained trail until reaching the top of the pass. The biggest danger here and for the rest of the day is the weather. Winds at the top of the pass often exceed 60 miles / hour (Viento means wind in Spanish).

Despite all these challenges, the views when you reach the top are worth every ounce of suffering. You will get panoramic views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field (and store of fresh water) in the world. Few hikers reach this point, so you will get the views mostly to yourself.

There are options to trek on the glacier itself, but this is recommended for people with experience on ice. You can also hike down to get closer to the ice, but the traditional route follows a path to the left to reach the Paso del Viento campsite, sheltered from the winds blowing off the field by a small hill. If the weather turns sour, you can take shelter in the Refugio.

Day #3: Paso del Viento to Lago Viedma (11 miles)

The morning will be lovely: a simple jaunt with views of the ice field to your right. As long as you don’t fall off the narrow path to your death on the ice, this part is easy.

Don’t let the downhill elevation profile of the afternoon give you a false sense of security. After climbing over another pass, you will descend over 2000 feet in less than 4000 feet of hiking. Why use switchbacks if you can just walk straight down? Trekking poles didn’t help me much, and I found myself spending much of my time sliding down on my butt to preempt falling accidentally (you can’t fall if you’re already down!). 

There are several camping opportunities on the side of the lake. You can camp right at the bottom of the mountain, with a view of icebergs. Or you can continue a little farther to some other spots in the field. Nothing is very well marked, but anywhere with water access is a fine spot to pitch a tent.

Day #4: Lago Viedma to El Chalten (11 miles)

Today should be easy, but it is very easy to get lost. Careful with maps.me, as it seems to mark as trail what is little more than animal paths. The trail is mostly flat with some rolling hills.

Before reaching the end of the path, you will arrive at the final challenge: another zipline. Again, you can either zipline or ford the river. If fording, walk downstream a couple hundred meters to find a shallower spot with a weaker current. The river breaks into several smaller streams, so you will have to find spots to cross each of these streams.

The hike ends at a ferry terminal about 6 miles from El Chalten. If you arrive at the proper time, you can catch a ride with the bus that shuttles people to the ferry. These leave every few hours, with the last one at 5. Alternatively, you can walk 2.5 miles to the La Quinta hotel and order a taxi from there. The ferry terminal is quite remote, and it is risky to attempt to hitch a ride once the last bus has left. 

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