Huemul Circuit Trekking Guide: Hike Patagonia’s Lesser-Known Trail

Two hikers look out over the South Patagonian Ice Fields on the Huemul Circuit trek

Huemul Circuit Trekking Guide: Patagonia’s Lesser-Known Hike

 

Huemul Circuit Trek Overview

Where: El Chalten, Argentina
Distance: 64 kilometers (40 miles)
Days/Nights: 4/3
Difficulty: Hard
Best Time to Hike: December-March
Typical Weather: High wind, rain

Permit: Free permit required
Hiker Traffic: Mild-Moderate
Resupply Options: None
Huts/Cabins/Hotels: None
Cell Service: None
My Rating: 9.5/10


Profound Patagonian winds tear into my tent as I slowly realize that sleep is a fleeting possibility. Rest, however, is of little concern. Because I will soon be watching the sun rise over a pastel-blue bay of untainted water. The mountains at my back will burn orange as the crack of calving glaciers echo softly in the distance.

The Huemul Circuit Trek is one of Patagonia’s hidden hiking gems, but it won’t stay hidden forever.

It is just too devastatingly beautiful to remain a secret.

This four day, 64 kilometer (40 mile) Huemul Circuit trek will take you over intensely windy mountain passes and reward you with remarkable views of the vast South Patagonian Ice Fields. Its unmarked trails will lead you across sprawling glaciers, over roaring icy rivers, and bring you to the shore of a glacial bay full of impressive icebergs.

The trail is only a short walk from the transient backpacker town of El Chaltén Argentina, where most hikers flock to experience the majestic Fitz Roy and it’s neighboring trails and lakes. Because of this, the Huemul Circuit trek and its undeniable beauty are often overlooked.

Each day will be physically grueling and mentally taxing. The weather can be erratic and relentless. This Huemul Circuit is going to take careful preparation, which is why I’ve created this detailed trekking guide to keep you on track.

I trekked the Huemul Circuit without a guide from February 25th – 28th, 2018. If you choose to hike solo, study the trail and prepare thoroughly. Anyone hiking this trail should be physically fit and an experienced trekker.

Preparing for the Huemul Circuit Trek

Getting to El Chaltén

El Chaltén is a long journey from any major cities or travel hubs. The best way to get there is to take a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. From there, take a scenic three-hour bus ride to reach El Chaltén. I recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time, as buses tend to fill up. I used BusBud.com to buy mine.

El Chaltén sits in the heart of the Patagonia region, near the Argentina-Chile border

 

Cheap Accommodation

There are dozens of hostels, hotels, and campgrounds in El Chaltén. I stayed in La Comarca Hostel, which is only a few blocks from the bus station. They let me lock up my excess travel gear while I was out on the trail. The hostel was a bit rustic, but it was affordable and had comfortable beds. That’s all I’m looking for.

Weather in El Chaltén

Keep an eye on that unpredictable Patagonian weather and try to find a decent window to start your hike. The Huemul Circuit is notorious for its ridiculous wind speeds, which can wreck your trek in a hurry. I always used WindGuru to keep track of the weather before my hikes in Patagonia.

My Maps.me route of the Huemul Circuit, with waypoints that I dropped ahead of time

My Maps.me route of the Huemul Circuit, with waypoints that I dropped ahead of time

 

Maps.me

Having a GPS map is essential if you are trekking the Huemul Circuit. Since much of the trail is unmarked and quite difficult to follow, I would highly encourage you to get the Maps.me app (for free) onto your smartphone and download the region surrounding El Chaltén.

The entire Huemul Circuit trail is available and easy to follow. Turn airplane mode on and leave location services enabled to save your battery as you navigate. You won’t need cell service to use the maps. Drop a few waypoints before you start the hike so you know where the destinations and landmarks will be.

Also, don’t forget to bring an external battery bank to keep your phone charged so you won’t be S.O.L. if your phone dies.

Mandatory Gear Alert

To start the Huemul Circuit trek you must have:

    • A harness
    • Two carabiners (one aluminum, one steel)
    • A map of the hike
    • 20 meters of thin rope or paracord
    • A camping stove (no open fires allowed)

The park rangers will not give you a permit without this gear.

    Gear Rental in El Chaltén

    You can rent this gear at any number of stores in town. Get to the stores early, especially if the weather is nice. The day before I planned to trek the Huemul Circuit I visited five stores (two times each!) and nobody had a harness. Luckily, I woke up early on the day of my hike and found the gear I needed immediately.

    Huemul Circuit Trekking Essentials

    You will need a backpack full of quality gear that will sustain you in the windy, rainy, and ruthless Patagonian wilderness for four days.

    Here’s a list of what I bring on all my multi-day treks. Pay close attention to bringing quality essential gear listed below.


    Read: Trekking Gear — The Essentials


    Food

    You need to pack all of your food for the circuit, as there is nowhere to resupply along the trail. I usually ration myself about 2700 calories a day.

    There are plenty of places to purchase food in El Chaltén. I flew all my food out from the U.S. so I could plan out every meal ahead of time. On a given day hiking on the trail, I’ll consume some combination of the following:

    Always bring an extra day’s worth of food in case the weather delays you.

    Water

    There is plentiful clean drinking water available along the Huemul Circuit trek. Most water you encounter on the trail can be consumed safely without any treatment. I brought my filter along to purify still water along the trail. 90% of the water I drank was unfiltered and I never had any issues.

    Physical and Mental Preparation

    It is very important that your body and mind are prepared for 64 brutal kilometers (40 miles) in the Patagonian expanse. Do a few shorter hikes to train if you are concerned that you’re not ready for the tough terrain and distance of the Huemul Circuit. Set yourself up for success!

    The Huemul Circuit, incidentally, was my warm-up for the breathtaking 140 kilometer (85 mile) trek of the ‘O’ Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.

    Your trek can go sideways in a hurry if you are unprepared in any way. Take it from me, I’ve learned the hard way.

    Leave No Trace

    ALWAYS, pack out everything you pack in!

    Please leave the pristine hiking trail on the Huemul Circuit clean and untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy. There are no excuses to leave waste behind for others to deal with.

    If you feel like being a legend, fill a small adventure bag to help keep the trails trash-free. 

    Day One: Trailhead to Laguna Toro Campground


    Distance: 15 kilometers (9.9 miles)
    Elevation gain/loss: 762 meters (2500 feet)/610 meters (2000 feet)


    First stop: El Chaltén Visitor Center. You must get a free permit before starting the trek. A ranger will check for your required gear: a harness, two carabiners: one aluminum and one steel, a map, 20 meters of thin rope, and a camping stove.

    El Chaltén Visitor Center

    Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. September-April, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May-August
    Phone: +54-02962-493004 or +54-02962-493024
    Location: From town, cross the bridge over Rio Fitz Roy and walk for three minutes. The building will be on the right side of the road.

    Slideshow at the visitor's center showing slides of the Huemul Circuit trek

    Slideshow at the visitor’s center displaying very important information

     

    You will need to watch a 10-minute slideshow about the hike. Take pictures of the slides to help guide you along the Huemul Circuit’s more challenging sections. They will be extremely helpful later on.

    When getting your permit, the ranger will ask what day you plan on returning from the trek. If you fail to return within 48 hours of that date they will send a search and rescue team out to find you. It’s that kind of hike.

    Keep this in mind: if you want to start your hike before the visitors center opens, you must get your permit the day before. Leaving early might allow you to get the best campsite for night one.

    The trailhead for the Huemul Circuit with the Fitz Roy mountain range in the distance

    The scenic trailhead

     

    The trailhead is a short walk from the visitors center. Strap on your backpack, its time to trek.

    The start of the Huemul Circuit hike is quick to offer stunning views of Fitz Roy (which are pretty hard to avoid in El Chaltén). It is clear from the get-go that this you are in for something special.

    Day one will serve as a nice warm-up for the more grueling and technical segments of the hike. There aren’t any glacier crossings, rock scrambles, unmarked trails, zip-lines, crazy inclines or knee-busting descents. You’ll have to wait for those.

    Two 1.5 liter water bottles full of blue grey glacial water

    The best water I’ve ever tasted

     

    Drinking Fresh Glacial Water

    Fresh blue-grey glacier water runs through abundant creeks and rivers along the trail. No need to purify the water, it is clean and ready to drink. I did bring a filter and ended up using it to clean water from Lago Viedma. I have one simple rule: if the water is not moving, filter it.

    The Huemul Circuit starts with a calm, windy incline through a lush forest, which occasionally guides hikers through wide-open meadows. Initially, this trek reminded me of a blend of Colorado, Alaska, and Iceland, but I soon came to realize that I was somewhere uniquely its own.

    A landscape shot of Mt. Huemul outside of El Chalten, Argentina against a blue sky

    The majestic Mt. Huemul

     

    The whole day you will be treated to views of Mt. Huemul as you work towards Lago Toro. As you decline towards camp you will come across many shallow streams and marshy valleys that you must cross by foot. I decided not to pack my trusty hiking sandals and was too lazy to remove my boots, so I spent the rest of the day with water sloshing around my feet. Lesson learned.

    The campgrounds at Lago Toro have plenty of space to make yourself comfortable for the evening. Fortresses built from curvy weathered sticks are plentiful and great for wind protection. I set up camp, giddy with excitement knowing that the real challenge was about to begin.

    Day Two: Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento Campground


    Distance: 15 kilometers (9.3 miles)
    Elevation gain/loss: 914 meters (3000 feet)/671 meters (2200 feet)


    Day two centers around confronting the first big challenge of the Huemul Circuit trek: Paso del Viento (‘Pass of the Wind’ in Spanish). This section of the hike presents the longest incline, highest altitude, and strongest wind (usually) of the journey. Have fun!

    Feet and trekking poles standing in blue-grey glacial water

    Preparing for the ice cold slog across the river

     

    Crossing Rio Tunel on Foot

    I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to use the harness to cross the raging Rio Tunel. I was unfamiliar with the gear and had never done anything similar before. So, when I reached the Tyrolean river crossing and found a line of eight people waiting to cross, I decided to cross the river on foot.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have much information on the first Tyrolean crossing (I did do the second), but there are plenty of thrilling videos to watch on YouTube.

    If you decide to forego the Tyrolean, take any electronics out of your pockets and use trekking poles to help stabilize yourself as you cross the river. The water levels I experienced were halfway between my knee and waist. Wear strap on sandals or go barefoot, but don’t wear flip flops. They’ll get swept away in the strong current.

    A hiker crossing the blue-grey Tunel River with his trekking poles and a large backpack

    A painful river crossing along the Huemul Circuit trek

     

    The water is downright frigid and the current is strong! My legs were completely numb by the time I finished crossing the river. Take it very slowly, falling over would make you extremely wet, cold, and cranky at the very least.

    Hiking Across Glacier Tunel Inferior

    After crossing the river, you will begin to approach Glacier Tunel Inferior. Hiking across the glacier is an absolute highlight of the Huemul Circuit, but the paths leading onto and off of the glacier are extremely loose and slippery. Be ready to slip and fall on your ass a time or two, as I did.

    A trekker crossing Glacier Tunel Inferior wearing crampons, a backpack, and using trekking poles

    Glacier Tunel Inferior is just better with crampons

     

    How long or how little you hike on the glacier is up to you. My advice is to stay on the glacier as long as possible. It’s a surreal and exhilarating experience.

    Crampons

    Bringing lightweight crampons will make the hike across the glacier much more enjoyable. Aside from having stable footing, you will have the freedom to explore further (just don’t do so alone). When will you get this chance again?

    Eventually, you will have to return back up the slippery scree to more stable ground. What I witnessed was mayhem: hikers scrambling up steep hills of slippery rock only to slide back down, cursing and dejected. Do yourself a favor and choose the path of least resistance. If one exists.

    Steep ridges of scree leading down to Glacier Tunel Inferior

    Looking back on Glacier Tunel Inferior and the slippery rock ridges you must climb to exit

     

    Paso del Viento

    Almost as quickly as you finish slipping and sliding up the rock, a new challenge will present itself: Paso del Viento. There should be some semblance of a trail to follow as you climb towards the pass. The ascent isn’t overly technical, it’s just steep and relentless.

    And windy.

    A large field of rocks leading up to Paso del Viento with a blue sky backdrop

    Looking up towards the surprisingly calm Paso del Viento

     

    I got lucky with an extremely calm day, but I have heard horror stories of brutal winds approaching 100 mph/160 kmph that can knock you off your feet. Be prepared to wait out the pass’ overbearing winds and be willing to turn back and wait an extra night to hike the pass if the weather is especially cruel.

    The path leading up to Paso del Viento is a relentless uphill battle full of false passes and brittle but stable rock. Use your trekking poles religiously, enjoy well-timed breaks, and take care of your knees. This is where proper training will really pay off.

    Landscape view of the South Patagonian Ice Fields with a backdrop of a distant mountain range

    The stunning South Patagonian Ice Fields

     

    Endless Ice: the South Patagonian Ice Fields

    I was left speechless when I arrived at the viewpoint for the South Patagonian Ice Fields. A small group of us gathered quietly to cook lunch and gaze in amazement at the seemingly endless expanse of glaciers. Even when lunch was over, nobody was ready to leave. The Huemul Circuit has a tendency to guide you to some eye-opening vistas.

    Another steep, rocky descent will draw you closer to your next camp. Once the path levels out a bit, you will be treated to a blissful moss-filled, waterfall-abundant wonderland. Again there is no definitive trail, but that simply makes your connection with the land more seamless.

    It was on this stretch where it hit me: I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I put my headphones in and turned listened to Miles Davis as I hiked through a daydream. I’ll admit it: I got a little emotional. My first trek in Patagonia was exceeding every expectation.

    When I reached Paso del Viento campground I braced my tent for the worst, cautious of the notorious winds that had passed through countless times before. Instead, I ate lasagna and chocolate and watched a full moon rise over the mountains on a calm and quiet night.

    Day Three: Paso del Viento to Lago Viedma Campground


    Distance: 11.2 miles/18 kilometers
    Elevation gain/loss: 640 meters (2100 feet)/1342 meters (4400 feet)


    Day three presents arguably the most frustrating challenge of the Huemul Circuit trek: the brutal downhill decline after Paso Huemul. Any frustrations will eventually vanish, however, as the spectacular beauty of an iceberg filled Lago Viedma will serve as a reward at the end of the day.

    From Paso del Viento campground the route will gradually descend until you are nearly level with the South Patagonian Ice Field. The incredible views continue as you climb slowly towards Paso Huemul. Although hiking the pass doesn’t present the same challenges of Paso del Viento, it is building up to something big.

    A trail leading towards the South Patagonian Ice Fields with snow-capped mountains in the backdrop

    Saying goodbye to the South Patagonian Ice Fields

     

    I was blessed with great weather for the third consecutive day, but I have heard that winds on Paso Huemul can be just as strong as on Paso del Viento. I wouldn’t know though. The weather was suspiciously tranquil for me.

    Atop Paso Huemul I was rewarded with views of the massive Lago Viedma dotted with icebergs in the distance. From up top, the decline doesn’t look too daunting, but it’s the rate at which you descend that presents the real challenge — 700 vertical meters (2300 feet) over 1189 meters (3900 feet) of trail.

    A hiker repelling on a rope down a steep portion of rock with Viedma Bay in the distance

    A fellow hiker uses a rope to descend the 2300 feet of agony

     

    The Descent from Hell

    Take it nice and slow on the way down.

    Your body (especially your knees) will thank you later. This section of the Huemul Circuit is where your trekking poles will save your ass. This is far and away the steepest decline I have ever experienced on a hiking trail. My creaky knees held up and eventually I was on flat ground again. Damn, that was rough.

     Trekking Poles

    Doing the Huemul Circuit without trekking poles is just asking for trouble. Having a sturdy set of sticks will save your knees, help you cross rivers, distribute your pack weight, and prevent you from falling on your face.

    Once you reach the bottom, you will have two options for camping: Bahía de los Témpanos and Bahía de los Hornos (you will see both on Maps.me). Most people end up camping at Témpanos because it is the closest option, but I elected to continue on to Hornos, which was another hour down the trail.

    A Zpacks Triplex tent pitched in front of a mountain range on the Huemul Circuit Trek in El Chalten, Argentina

    The sturdy Zpacks Triplex: ready for anything

     

    I think I made the right choice.

    I’m glad I chose to camp at Bahía de Hornos for three reasons:

    1. Bahía de los Témpanos was packed.
    2. The next morning I got an hour head start the on the hikers that chose to camp at Témpanos.
    3. Bahía de los Hornos was a short hike to the east side of the peninsula, which gave incredible views of Viedma Glacier and its icebergs right at sunset.
    Viedma Bay, full of icebergs, with glowing clouds as the sun sets over the mountains

    Hard to beat Viedma Bay at sunset

     

    Infamous Patagonian Winds

    As I lay down to sleep, the wind started to whisper as my weary legs twitched from exhaustion. I was out in no time.

    Sleep didn’t last long, however, as the powerful Patagonian wind finally arrived! The aggressive drafts shook my tent with every gust. I could hear fellow campers starting to panic as the wind howled through the campgrounds for hours. My tent faced the challenge and stood strong the whole night (even if it made a little noise doing so).

    I slept sparingly, content with the chaos that surrounded me.

    Day Four: Lago Viedma to Bahía Tunel Ferry Dock


    Distance: 18 kilometers (11.2 miles)
    Elevation gain/loss: 427 meters (1400 feet)/427 meters (1400 feet)


    I awoke to watch the sunrise over Lago Viedma as I cooked breakfast. The sun cast a pale orange glow over the horizon as I prepared for my final day on the trail.

    I set off with a friend I met along the way, excited about our early start to the day. Our goal was to arrive at the final Tyrolean as early as possible to avoid waiting to cross in a queue of hikers. Nobody likes standing around.

    Cow skull sitting atop a rock with Viedma Bay against blue skies in the background

    A sign of impending danger? Or just a cow skull?

     

    Seeing as the Huemul Circuit rarely presented a clear path, we ignored Maps.me and guided our hike in our own direction. That was a bad idea. We were met with long fields of thick prickly bushes and mucky swamp. Instead of retreating back to where we started, we got stubborn and attempted to continue.

    Again, bad idea.

    Viedma Bay and Viedma Glacier against a backdrop of a distant mountain range

    Looking back at Viedma Glacier

     

    Eventually, after about 30 minutes of soul-crushing attempts to cross the swamp of awful bushes, we turned back and started over. So much for that early start.

    Learn from our mistakes and stay as close to the coast as you can as you hike away from camp. There will probably be some creek crossings, but that’s inevitable. Just don’t get stuck in the terrible field of swampy pain. Trust me.

    A Dry and Hilly Hike to the Finish

    The hike continues on over arid, treeless tundra. Water is more scarce and the terrain is a bit less eventful than previous days. Lago Viedma will gradually fade into the distance behind you and you will be left wandering rolling hills of dry earth.

    A red trail marker propped up by rocks on the Huemul Circuit Trek outside of El Chalten, Argentina

    Red trail markers lead the way

     

    The occasional red stick will let you know that you’re headed the right direction. So will Maps.me.

    The wind and sun were relentless on the final day.

    Don’t forget your sunscreen.

    The Patagonian sun is fierce and long-lasting during the summer. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face simply won’t protect you. Just ask me, the careless Huemul Circuit hiker who tried to cut weight by not bringing sunscreen on his trek.

    A hiker using the Tyrolean Traverse zipline to cross the Tunel River on the Huemul Circuit trek

    Tyrolean Traverse towards the finish line

     

    Tyrolean Traverse Across Rio Tunel

    Eventually, we arrived at the zip-line to cross the Rio Tunel one last time. Luckily, there were only a few people in front of us. We strapped on our harnesses and got ready. This zip-line is able to support the weight of a hiker and their backpack, so things went fairly quickly.

    How to Use the Tyrolean Traverse

    • Put your harness on and make sure both carabiners are attached securely
    • Attach the aluminum carabiner to the pulley
    • Attach the steel carabiner to the cable (it will catch you if the pulley breaks)
    • Slowly pull yourself to the other side

    It is possible to ford the river if the pulley if necessary, but remember to find a shallow spot and cross slowly and cautiously. In my experience, using the tyrolean is way better than wading across ice cold water. Plus, you paid the money to rent the harness, so use it!

    Hitching Back to El Chaltén

    After the river crossing, it is a short walk to the ferry dock. You’ve completed the Huemul Circuit trek! You have a few different options to get back to town.

    • Find someone in the parking lot to hitchhike back to town with
    • Wait for a ferry to arrive and ask the bus driver if you can hitch a ride back to town on the bus (it’ll probably cost money). Boat tours leave at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
    • Walk the remaining 8 kilometers (5 miles) back to El Chaltén (via Maps.me route)

    My friend and I found a nice Argentinean couple sipping mate and asked them for a ride back to town. They happily obliged and drove us back the rest of the way.

    Limping and sunburnt, we resurfaced in El Chaltén. We laughed and reminisced about our incredible journey over fresh pizza and cold beers. I smiled and ached and I felt like I could eat forever.

    More Helpful Patagonia Trekking Resources

    PIN THIS POST!

    Man hiking across glacier with word overlay saying "Huemul Circuit Hiking Patagonia's Underrated Ass-Kicker"


    Have you gone on a trek that’s as wild and beautiful as the Huemul Circuit? Do you have any questions about the Huemul Circuit that this guide didn’t answer? Give me some feedback and drop a comment below!

    Post a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.