Over the last few decades, a major effort has been in the works to create one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: a connected system of national parks through one of the planet’s great wildernesses. Chile’s Route of Parks, or Ruta de los Parques, will create a chain of 17 national parks, crossing 1,500 miles of Chile, from the northern Valdivian temperate rainforests of Patagonia, to the windswept southern reaches of the continent on Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn.
Alerce Andino National Park
The first national park in the northern part of Chile is the Alerce Andino National Park. It stretches over an impressive surface of 151 square kilometers, of which almost half of the territory is intended to protect the “Fitzroya cupressoides” trees – they are on the verge of extinction. These are spectacular species of trees whose height can exceed 200 meters, being also among the oldest trees in the world.
The park is closed to the main motorway, which facilitates the access.
Hornopirén National Park
I’ll continue with the Hornopiren National Park. It dates back to 1988 and is a protected place that stretches over an area of 186 square meters. The park’s structure is represented by lush tropical forests, mountains, but also numerous glaciers, volcanoes, lakes, and rivers.
Over 18 species of trees with a potential for extinction are protected by the park. Once you reach the entrance of the park, continue the route to Lago Pinto Concha, then another 2.2 miles to the Yates Volcano. Unfortunately, the access can sometimes be hampered by the rapidity of the tropical forest’s growth.
National Pumalín Park
The Pumalin Park is set to become one of the largest parks in Chile. Located in the southern part of Hornopiren, the park has an area of 1,115 square meters and is the first Tompkins project of this kind. It harbors tropical lawns, glacial volcanoes, and spectacular waterfalls.
The access to the park can be reached from Caleta Gonzalo or Chaiten. Both of them offer public transport services to and from Pumalin Park.
In terms of accommodation, you can stay overnight in the city Chaiten, which also offers a ferry service. The park is equipped with numerous camping sites, but expect to find a wet environment.
Corcovado National Park
The route continues with the Corcovado National Park. It can be found south of Pumalin Park and is also one of the successful projects realized in the partnership with Tompkins Conservation.
The highlight of the park is the Corcovado Volcano, while a large part of the territory is covered by tropical rain forests. It also protects over 18 species of mammals, 64 bird species and 133 species of flora. One of the riches of the flora preserved by this park is the largest Chilean Guaitecas tree.
Unfortunately, the park is not equipped with sightseeing trails on the entire surface of the park. However, tourists can ask the travel agencies based in the area to take a boat ride on the park’s coast.
Nationa Park: Melimoyu
Melimoyu National Park is another Tompkins Conservation project, consisting of canals, fiords and islands, also in Chile’s temperate rainforest region. Above the forest sits the active Melimoyu stratovolcano, with an 8-km-wide ice-filled caldera, which rises 8,010 feet above sea level. The park lies 25 miles northwest of the town of Puyuhuapi, and 82 miles south of the town of Chaitén.
Nationa Park: Queulat
A short drive south from Puyuhuapi, or a few hours north from Coyhaique lies the impressive 958 mi² Queulat National Park. There are not a lot of trails here, but the ones that do exist deserve a visit. The Sendero Bosque Encantado, or Enchanted Forest Trail (~2 hours roundtrip, though you’ll want to spend some time in the valley) and the Sendero Ventisquero Colgante, or Hanging Glacier Trail (~3 hours, 6km roundtrip) are arguably some of Patagonia’s best day hikes. The forest truly seems enchanted, and the pristine valleys with waterfalls and hanging glaciers will bring out the inner kid in anyone that has the opportunity to visit this impressive national park.
Nationa Park: Isla Magdalena
The remote Isla Magdalena National Park is located on an island off the coast of Puerto Cisnes, and protects 609 mi² of this wild Patagonian island and its smaller surrounding islands. It became a national park in 1983 and protects several species, including otters, pudus, sea lions, petrels, and a colony of thousands of Magellanic penguins. The highest point of the island is Mentolat Volcano, at 5,453 ft. There is currently no infrastructure in the national park, but it can be visited via tours from Puerto Cisnes or Puerto Puyuhuapi.
Nationa Park: Laguna San Rafael
Another large protected area in Chile, the Laguna San Rafael National Park protects 6,726 mi², including the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. The park was established in 1959 and became an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979. Rugged and mountainous, this park is home to glaciers, lakes, rivers, and some of Chilean Patagonia’s tallest peaks, including its tallest, Monte San Valentin, at 13,314 ft. The park can be accessed from Coyhaique and Puerto Rio Tranquilo, and it offers backpacking, mountaineering, mountain climbing, kayaking, and skiing.
Nationa Park: Cerro Castillo
The current Cerro Castillo National Reserve at 639 mi² will change to national park status, continuing its protection of the rugged mountains between Coyhaique and Lago General Carrera. This incredible mountainous landscape offers adventurers limitless possibilities for backpacking, rock climbing, and mountaineering. Its peaks include Cerro Iglesia (5,741 ft) and Cerro Castillo (7,612 ft), and there are several well-built trails throughout the area, including the 34-mile Cerro Castillo Circuit (estimate 3-4 days, and bring a map). Easily accessible from the city of Coyhaique, this future national park will surely grow on the radars of many, and its picturesque peaks are a magical place to visit.
Nationa Park: Bernardo O´Higgins
At 13,614 mi², Bernardo O’Higgins National Park is the largest national park in Chile. Yet, despite its size, it is almost inaccessible. There is a small trail that leads to a glacier that one can reach by ferry tours from Puerto Natales, or one can take the long ferry services from Puerto Natales to Caleta Tortel or Puerto Montt, which winds through the wild fiords of Bernardo O’Higgins. Much of it is covered by a giant mass of ice: the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, with the rest being mostly wild and pristine forests, mountains and coastline. This is great for the wildlife of the region, including the endangered huemul, or south Andean deer, as this national park is one of its last remaining refuges. For wilder excursions, there are options to visit the park from the village of O’Higgins, all the way at the southern end of the Carretera Austral.
Nationa Park: Alacalufes
Currently an 8,934 mi² national reserve, this large area of fiords and islands will get an upgrade to national park status in the near future. The future Alacalufes National Park includes large swaths of wild Patagonia coastal grasslands, thickets, peat moss, and Coihue forests. Although difficult to access, one great option for viewing the fiords and channels of Alacalufes is from the ferry service that travels between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, or between Caleta Tortel and Puerto Natales.
Nacional Torres del Paine
The 700 mi² Torres del Paine National Park probably does not need an introduction. This is one of the most visited national parks in all South America, which will likely turn off many, but the crowds are there for a reason. The Paine Massif at the center of the park seems to represent wild Patagonia and all its moods as the weather changes from perfect blue skies and sunshine to foreboding gray clouds and sideways rain. In 2016, limits were put in place for the quantity of people that can enter the park at a time, and one must now apply for permits well ahead of time. This is for the best, given the number of daily visitors that come, especially throughout the Austral summers. For a more secluded experience of Torres del Paine, consider coming in the winter – the snow and the cold will make for a different type of experience, plus it's usually less windy there in the winter. The park is accessible from the city of Puerto Natales, and the famous backpacking hikes are the “W” and the “Circuit”.
Nationa Park: Pali-Aike
Created in 1970, Pali-Aike National Park is a small conservation area, at 12,416 acres, and is a three-hour drive from Punta Arenas, or 4.5 hours from Puerto Natales. It lies on the border with Argentina and protects an archeological area with prehistoric remains. The landscape is other-worldly with its wildlife and volcanic craters mixed in with its relatively flat landscape. There are some trails with day hiking opportunities, and the park can be visited in one day.
Nationa Park: Alberto de Agostini
Alberto de Agostini is a huge, wild expanse in Tierra del Fuego and nearby islands, protecting 5,637 mi² of land. Its rugged snow-capped Cordillera Darwin can be seen on clear days from the Peninsula of Brunswick. This park, along with Cape Horn National Park, was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005. Several marine mammals call the numerous fiords found throughout this protected area home, including southern elephant seals, leopard seals, toninas, Burmeister's porpoise, Peale's dolphin, and humpback whale. Although only 80 nautical miles from Punta Arenas, there are no roads to get to the park. Ferries to and from Puerto Williams and Punta Arenas cross through its many wild fiords, passing its glaciers and mountains.
Nationa Park: Yendegaia
One of Chile’s newest national parks is Yendegaia, which protects a 5,823 mi² conservation bridge between Chile’s Alberto de Agostini National Park and Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park. This land was donated by Tompkins Conservation and became a national park in 2013. Currently a road is being built through the heart of the park, which will allow visitors to see much of this wild terrain via their vehicle, but there are adventures to be had throughout this large expanse of snow-capped mountains and river valleys. The surrounding seas are incredibly biodiverse, but know that the weather down here can be treacherous. It is not uncommon to see wind speeds in excess of 80 km/h, and backpackers should enter with caution. Also, if you plan to visit, check the current park status, as road construction activities have limited public access.
Nationa Park: Cabo de Hornos
Cape Horn National Park is the southern-most national park in the world, created in 1945, and protects 244 mi². It is accessible via a 12-hour boat ride from Puerto Williams. This windy, remote group of islands is notorious for its weather and harsh conditions, reportedly receiving upwards of 278 days of rainfall per annum. For a sample of some of the flora that can be found here, consider visiting Omora Ethnobotanical Park just outside of Puerto Williams, and bring your macro lens. See the video below for some beautiful imagery of Cape Horn produced by National Geographic and their Pristine Seas initiative: