Last Updated on December 1, 2020
Huemul Circuit Hike Overview
Distance: 40 miles (64 kilometers)
Best Time to Hike: December-March
Typical Weather: High wind, rain
Hiker Traffic: Mild-Moderate
Resupply Options: None
Cell Service: None
Noel’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Profound Patagonian winds tear into my tent as I begin to realize that sleep is a fleeting possibility. Rest, however, is of little concern. Because I will soon be watching the sunrise over a pastel-blue bay of untainted water. The mountains at my back will burn orange as calving glaciers crack softly in the distance.
The Huemul Circuit hike is one of Patagonia’s best-hidden gems, but it won’t stay hidden forever.
It is just too devastatingly beautiful to remain a secret.
The four day 40-mile (64 kilometer) trek snakes through intense mountain passes and rewards hikers 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 majestic icebergs.
The trailhead is but a short walk from the backpacker town of El Chaltén Argentina, where most hikers flock to experience the majestic Fitz Roy and its neighboring trails. Because of this, the Huemul Circuit trek and its undeniable beauty are often overlooked.
Each day on the trail will present physically grueling and mentally taxing challenges. The weather on the Huemul Circuit can be erratic and relentless, and the route doesn’t always follow a trail. This backcountry adventure takes careful preparation, which is why I’ve created this detailed guide to get you on track.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Getting to El Chaltén
A. Where to Stay in El Chaltén
2. Recommended Backpacking Gear
A. Recommended Backpacking Gear
B. Renting Gear in El Chaltén
3. Food & Water
5. Physical & Mental Preparation
6. Day 1: Trailhead to Laguna Toro
7. Day 2: Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento
8. Day 3: Paso del Viento to Lago Viedma
9. Day 4: Lago Viedma to BahÍa Tunel Dock
10. Finishing & Getting Back to El Chaltén
11. Hiking & Backpacking Resources
Disclaimer: I hiked the Huemul Circuit alone and without a guide. If you choose to hike solo as I did, study the trail, and prepare yourself thoroughly. Anyone attempting to hike the this hike should be physically fit and an experienced backpacker.
El Chaltén is a long journey from any major cities or travel hubs. The most common way to get there is to take a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. From there, El Chaltén is a scenic three-hour bus ride north. Purchase your tickets ahead of time, as buses tend to fill up. I used BusBud.com to buy mine.
If you’re traveling to El Chaltén from Puerto Natales, Chile, you’ll need to take a bus to El Calafate, then transfer to El Chaltén from the main bus station. The first bus ride will involve a border crossing into Argentina, where everyone must disembark and run their belongings through customs. The entire process can take an hour or two per bus, so prepare to spend some time waiting if you’re entering from Chile.
There are dozens of hostels, hotels, and campgrounds in El Chaltén. I stayed in Rancho Aparte Refugio de Montaña, which is tucked away in a quiet corner of town. They let me lock up my excess travel gear while I was out on the trail. The hostel was comfortable, affordable, and extremely accommodating.
In case you’re searching for a different style of accommodation, here are a few other highly-reviewed recommendations for accommodation in El Chaltén.
To safely hike the Huemul Circuit, you’ll need a backpack full of quality equipment to stand up to the windy, rainy, and ruthless Patagonian wilderness for four days.
Below is a carousel of the exact gear I used to hike the Huemul Circuit. Scroll through to see the type of backpacking gear I recommend for a multi-day hiking trip within Patagonia. To view my current backpacking gear list, click here.
Because this trek is so remote and technical, in order to start your hike you must pack:
- 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 check for these items when you’re at the visitor center. They won’t issue you a permit for the Huemul Circuit without this gear.
You can rent this gear at any number of outdoor stores in El Chaltén. Get to the stores early, especially if the weather window is favorable. The day before I planned to start my hike, I visited five stores (two times each!) and nobody had a harness. Luckily, I woke up early the next morning and found the gear I needed without trouble.
You need to pack all of your food for the four-day Huemul Circuit, as there is nowhere to resupply along the trail. I usually ration myself about 2,700 calories per day of backpacking and bring an extra day of food in case of emergency.
There are plenty of supermarkets and outdoor stores where you can purchase food in El Chaltén. I flew 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:
Water Along the Huemul Circuit
Park rangers will tell you there is no need to filter water because the streams and rivers on the Huemul Circuit are so clean. Almost all water you encounter on the trail can be consumed safely without any treatment. I still brought my Sawyer Squeeze water filter along to be safe but didn’t end up filtering any water, and never had any issues.
A GPS map is more or less essential for this trip since much of the trail is unmarked and quite difficult to follow. Get the Maps.me app for your smartphone and download the region surrounding El Chaltén before your trek.
The entire Huemul Circuit trail is available on Maps.me and easy to follow. Put your phone in airplane mode during your hike and leave location services enabled, as you won’t need cell service to use the maps. Drop a few waypoints onto your offline map while you have internet access so you know where your campsites and landmarks will be.
Pack an external battery bank to keep your phone charged while navigating your way through the wild Patagonian backcountry.
It’s very important that your body and mind are prepared for 64 brutal kilometers (40 miles) in the Patagonian expanse. Go on a few shorter hikes to train if you’re concerned that you’re not ready for the tough terrain and substantial daily distances. Set your body up for success!
The Huemul Circuit was my warm-up for the breathtaking 85-mile (140 kilometer) trek of the ‘O’ Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.
The Huemul Circuit is notorious for its wild wind and relentless rain, so give yourself a few days of wiggle room and start the trek when the weather looks favorable. Use WindGuru to keep track of the forecast.
Your trek can go sideways in a hurry if you are unprepared for the weather ahead. Take it from me, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Leave No Trace
Practice the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and always pack out everything you pack in. Do your very best to leave the Huemul Circuit clean and untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy.
Distance: 9.9 miles (15 km)
Elevation gain/loss: 2500 feet (762 meters)/2000 feet (610 meters)
First stop: the El Chaltén Visitor Center. You must get your free permit the day you can start hiking. A park 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.
You’ll need to watch a 10-minute slideshow about the hike. Take pictures of the slides to help guide you through the trek’s more challenging sections. They will be extremely helpful later on.
When issuing your permit, the ranger will ask what day you plan on finishing the Huemul Circuit. If you fail to return within 48 hours of that date, they’ll send a search and rescue team out to find you. It’s that kind of hike.
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 is a short walk from the visitor’s center. Strap on your backpack, it’s time to trek.
The start of the 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 you’re 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.
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’s clean and ready to drink. I brought a filter and ended up using it to purify water from Lago Viedma on night three. I have one simple rule: if the water isn’t 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.
As you work towards Lago Toro, you’ll be treated to views of Cerro Huemul. As you decline towards camp you’ll come across many shallow streams and marshy valleys that you must cross by foot. I didn’t 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. You’ll find a plentiful array of fortresses built from curvy weathered sticks, which are great for wind protection. I set up camp, giddy with excitement knowing that the real challenge was about to begin.
Distance: 9.3 miles (15 kilometers)
Elevation gain/loss: 3,000 feet (914 meters )/2,200 feet (671 meters )
Day two centers around confronting the first big challenge of the trek: Paso del Viento, or ‘Windy Pass’ in Spanish. This section of the hike presents the longest incline, highest altitude, and strongest wind (usually) of the journey. Have fun!
Crossing Rio Tunel (on Foot)
Because I was unfamiliar with my harness, I was quite apprehensive to use the harness to cross the raging Rio Tunel. So, when I reached the zip line (aka. Tyrolean Traverse) river crossing and found a line of eight Huemul Circuit hikers waiting to cross, I decided to ford the river on foot.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much information on the first zip line crossing, but there are plenty of thrilling videos to watch on YouTube.
If you decide to forego the Huemul Circuit’s zip line, take 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 my waist. Wear strap on sandals or go barefoot, but don’t wear flip flops. They’ll get swept away in the strong current.
Rio Tunel 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, though, because 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 one of the many highlights, 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.
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.
Huemul Circuit Essential Gear: Crampons
Pack lightweight crampons and your hike across the glacier will be much more enjoyable. Aside from having stable footing, you’ll have the freedom to explore further. When will you get this chance again?
Eventually, you’ll need to return back up the steep, slippery scree to more stable ground. What I witnessed was complete mayhem: hikers scrambling up 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.
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.
I got very lucky with an extremely calm day, but I have heard horror stories of brutal winds approaching 100 mph (160 kph) 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 furious 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.
Endless Ice: the South Patagonian Ice Fields
I was left speechless when I arrived at the viewpoint of the South Patagonian Ice Fields. A small group of hikers 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 stop you dead in your tracks.
Another steep, rocky descent will draw you closer to your next camp. Once the path levels out a bit, you’ll be treated to a blissful moss-covered, waterfall-filled wonderland. 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: the Huemul Circuit was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever visited.
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 peacefully ate lasagna and chocolate and watched a full moon rise over the mountains on a calm and quiet night.
Distance: 11.2 miles (18 kilometers)
Elevation gain/loss: 2,100 feet (640 meters)/4,400 feet (1342 meters)
Day three presents arguably the most frustrating challenge of the hike: the brutal downhill decline after Paso Huemul. Any frustrations will eventually vanish, however, as the spectacular beauty of an iceberg filled Lago Viedma serves as a reward at the end of the day.
After camping at the Paso del Viento sites, the route gradually descends until you’re 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’s certainly building up to something big.
I’d heard that winds on Paso Huemul can be just as strong as on Paso del Viento, but I was blessed with great weather for the third consecutive day. The weather along the Huemul Circuit had been 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 — 2,300 feet (700 meters) over 3,900 feet (1,189 meters) of the trail. That’s steep.
The Descent from Hell
Do yourself a favor and take it nice and slow on the way down.
This section of the trek is where your trekking poles will be a godsend. Your body, especially your knees, will thank you for using them later. What I experienced was far and away the steepest decline I’ve ever experienced on a hiking trail. My creaky knees held up and eventually I was back on flat ground again.
Huemul Circuit Essential Equipment: Trekking Poles
Attempting this hike without trekking poles is just asking for trouble. Pack a sturdy set of sticks that 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 of the descent, you have two options for camping: Bahía de los Témpanos and Bahía de los Hornos (you’ll see both on Maps.me). Most people end up camping at Bahía de los Témpanos because it is the closest, but I elected to continue on to Bahía de los Hornos, which was another hour down the trail.
I made the right choice for three reasons:
- Bahía de los Témpanos was packed.
- The next morning I got an hour head start the on the hikers that chose to camp at Bahía de los Témpanos.
- 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.
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 made its presence felt. 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.
Distance: 11.2 miles (18 km)
Elevation gain/loss: 1,400 feet (427 meters)/1,400 feet (417 meters)
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 zip line as early as possible to avoid waiting to cross in a queue of hikers. I hate standing around.
Seeing as the Huemul Circuit rarely presented a clear path, we ignored Maps.me and guided the hike in our own direction. That was a bad idea. We were met with long fields of thick prickly bushes and mucky swampland. Instead of retreating back to where we started, we got stubborn and attempted to continue.
Again, bad idea.
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.
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 an 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’ll be left wandering rolling hills of dry earth.
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 hiker who tried to cut weight by not bringing sunscreen on his trek.
Ziplining 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 Huemul Circuit’s Zip Lines
- 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’s possible to ford the river if necessary, but remember to find a shallow spot and cross slowly and cautiously. In my experience, using the zip line is far better than wading across ice-cold water. Plus, you paid the money to rent the harness, so use it!
After the river crossing, it’s a short walk to the ferry dock. You’ve officially 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.
- Trek the remaining 5 miles (8 kilometers) back to El Chaltén via the route on Maps.me.
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 from our trek in El Chaltén. We laughed and reminisced about our incredible journey over fresh pizza and cold beers. I smiled and ached and I felt as if I could eat forever.
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Have you gone on a trek as wild as the Huemul Circuit? Do you have any questions about this hike that this guide didn’t answer? Give me some feedback and drop a comment below!