Patagonia awes all who visit — whether they’ve come for the famous Torres del Paine route or another wild trek, to stay at an estancia and ride horses or explore the region’s glacier-fed lakes. Now, Chile has taken the Patagonia experience to the next level with the opening of a new route of epic proportions. Officially named La Ruta de los Parques, the Route of the Parks blazes a trail through the pristine and remote landscapes of Chilean Patagonia that have never been accessible before. Whether you tackle it on foot or by car, here’s why it’s hands down the best way to see Patagonia.
Joining 17 stunning national parks
The Route of the Parks was opened at the end of 2018. It loops through 1,700 miles and 17 national parks, with roads and hiking trails that take explorers on a previously unprecedented trip through the towering Andes down to the southern tip of the continent. Until recently, these expanses were only accessible to hardcore offroaders and extreme trekking enthusiasts. But now, anyone with the will for remote travel can reach places where selfies have never been taken before.
Included in the 17 national parks is a staggering range of long-standing parks like the Los Alerces National Park, with its ancient 3,000-year-old forest and brand-spanking-new parks like Pumalin Park and Patagonia Park. Accessibility to the parks varies, though. Roadways run straight through the middle of some parks while parks like Corcovado National Park can only be reached on foot. Torres del Paine is likely one of the most recognizable park names while Laguna San Rafael National Park is one you may have never heard of.
How it happened
What some are calling the most beautiful scenic route in the world is part of a vision for Chile to become the top eco-destination on the planet. The project has come together over several decades in large part thanks to the not-for-profit Tompkins Conservation. Tompkins Conversation is the hand-nurtured project of the late Douglas Tompkins (founder of The North Face) and his wife, Kris.
Their passion for restoring and preserving the landscapes of Patagonia has resulted in the expansion and creation of eight national parks. These national parks are the links that allow each of the 17 parks to be seamlessly connected from Puerto Montt at the foot of the Andes all the way down to the islands of Cape Horn, which are at Chile’s southern tip and are the closest islands to Antarctica.
Driving the Route of the Parks
The route traverses one of the most remote places on the planet with over 11.5 million acres encompassing 24 protected ecosystems, including mountains and forests, fjords and glaciers, lakes and rivers. The Chilean roadways — a mix of dirt roads, gravel paths, paved highways, and ferry transfers — trace the path closely, allowing for land roamers to navigate the route by road while having easy access to many trailheads and campsites within the network of national parks. Driving this route by land could take anywhere from several weeks to several months to complete.
Hiking the Route of the Parks
Inside this new route, three pre-existing hiking trails — the Southern Way, the End of the World Route, and the Patagonian Channels — have now been bridged together to make the journey passable as a single long-distance hiking excursion. Adventure trekkers can tackle this feat with the help of detailed information on the website, including 50 GPS mapped routes. The route is making quite the stir, being compared to other legendary long-distance treks like the Appalachian Trail and the Great Himalayan Trail.
See wild animals and stunning vistas
The Route of the Parks offers the unique opportunity to glimpse dozens of regionally endemic plants and animals, many of which are endangered. Hidden in the impossibly blue glacial waterways, beneath the cover of temperate rainforests, and from the tops of snowy pine-covered mountains, explorers have the chance to see at least 46 animal and 140 bird species. Among those that call the Patagonian habitat their home are pumas, deer, whales, penguins, otters, flamingos, elephant seals, and so many more.
From every corner, each sight is more stunning the last, leaving travelers transfixed by the scenery. Expect to see blue icebergs jutting out of glacial lakes, seafoam green rivers with rapids as clear as glass, cold weather rainforests full of pine trees and ferns, and hanging glaciers dripping into gushing waterfalls.
Beyond hiking, camping, and mountaineering, other ways to appreciate the breathtaking scenery include river rafting, kayaking, and ice trekking. You can take boat rides through berg-filled lakes, as well as jet boat tours, helicopter, or biplane rides.
When to go
Depending on a traveler’s level of expertise, the route can be navigated year round. To go in Chile’s winter months of June through August, though, requires the skill and knowledge to navigate snow, extreme cold, and wind. Also, the winter seasons lack a lot of the tourism infrastructure that exists in the high season, as some of the parks and many hotels are closed then.
The most ideal time to travel in Patagonia is during the late spring, summer, and early fall — essentially between October to May. During this part of the year, the snowfall is usually only found above tree level, and daytime temperatures average between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Considering going in the spring or fall seasons, which offer relief from the heavy flow of tourists that travel in the high summer between December and February. The spring season in October and November offers a dazzling scene of blooming trees and shrubs against vibrant green foliage. Meanwhile, fall in Patagonia, from March to May, showcases one of the most stunning displays of autumn foliage in the Americas.