Epic Adventures Los Glaciares

Trekking deep into the wilderness of Los Glaciares

There are few moments I’m happier than when I’m hiking far off the beaten track, communing with Mother Nature and testing myself against the elements. Patagonia offers plenty of scope for just that, not least among the wilds of Los Glaciares National Park. One of the most extreme hikes it’s possible to do there is Swoop’s Los Glaciares Wilderness Trek. But when I signed up even I didn’t quite appreciate just how remote it would get. Or how tiny it’s possible to feel in the face of such an epic landscape.

Patagonia’s remotest trails

There are plenty of great treks in Los Glaciares where the trailhead starts in the town of El Chaltén and you keep walking until the day hikers start to fall away and you have the mountains to yourself. This trek is not one of those. Instead, the trail begins at Estancia Helsingfors, an old ranch perched on the shores of Lake Viedma. It’s a four hour drive here from El Calafate, much of which is on dirt roads. Even getting this far felt like the bounds of civilization had dropped away as the mountains began to rise up around us. 

Day 1 of the trek: heading out into the wilderness

From here I was due to spend six days walking and wild camping on a lake to lake traverse to another ranch, Estancia Cristina, near Upsala Glacier on Lago Argentina. 

As I readied my rucksack with the three other hikers who made up our group, our guide Diego laid out our proposed route on a map. As he did so, the key thing to note was that this really was just a proposed route. The trail, he explained, is not marked out as it is on busier treks. Instead, he would search out the route every day. We’d need patience as he found the best trail to get us to our destination, or a good spot to wade across a river. Improvisation and flexibility would be our watchwords. In return, we were promised a classic backcountry expedition-style trek.

Hikers along Seno Moyano in Los Glaciares
Day 1: Hiking along Seno Moyano

We were also promised the vastness of the mountains entirely to ourselves. Even on some of the other most challenging treks you can do in Los Glaciares, like the Southern Patagonian Ice Field Expedition I did last year, you know that there are going to be a few hikers ahead or behind you, even if they’re a day’s walk away. Not with this wilderness trek. Permits are only given out for one group to transit this section of the national park at any one time, so we’d be the only people on the entire traverse. It was an exciting prospect. 

Heading into the wilderness

The first day of walking certainly lived up to the billing of a proper adventure. We followed the Seno Moyano, one of Lake Viedma’s long sounds, edged with mountains. There was a lot of bushwhacking, and as it always does on the first day of a trek, my pack felt its heaviest. In total we probably walked around ten miles (16 km) to the creek where we made camp, and with the final downhill towards the campsite we could feel ourselves getting deeper and more remote with each step. 

Hikers on a boulder field in Los Glaciares
Day 2: The boulder field on the way to North Pass

Day two saw us tackle two mountain passes and make another discovery about the trek. The landscape was constantly changing. We left the calafate bush-covered scrub and climbed up through boulder fields, across great granite slabs and then down over rough moraine. As the condor flies, we had covered less ground than the day before, but the terrain was extremely challenging, with hard and slow moving ascents and descents. 

Hiking along a riverbed in Los Glaciares
Day 3: Hiking along the riverbed

We woke up to a snowy and windy morning at our second campsite. It was three hours to Glacier Norte where we would make a decision about pressing on or making camp for the night. This was typical of how the trek would unfold: Diego presenting us with the best options, knowing that there was enough space in the itinerary to adapt our schedule. 

Of course, it was Patagonia’s weather that had the final say. After an hour of jumping boulders in a giant moraine field, crossing sandy riverbeds and an area of marsh where old tree trucks lay like so many forgotten toothpicks, the weather closed in and we decided to call it a short day and rest up for a long day ahead. 

Campsite at Glacier Norte in Los Glaciares
Day 3: Our impromptu campsite at Glacier Norte

World class campsites

We put up our tents right at the foot of Glacier Norte: one of the best campsites I’ve ever been in. It felt like no compromise at all to stay here, even if the rain hadn’t arrived we would have been tempted to stay put. It was such a treat to sit in my tent and look out across the lake to the tongue of the glacier spilling down from the mountains – and to still find it there the next morning when I woke up.

View from the tent at Glacier Norte
Day 3: A tent with a view

Perhaps it was a start like this that meant our third day of hiking was probably my favourite on the trail. We left the glacier behind to walk through a mosaic of lenga forest. We hadn’t really seen forest up until this point, so it was really magical to silently hike through it and to breathe in its cool clean air. It was the sort of landscape where you wouldn’t be surprised if a gnome popped up from behind a tree trunk.

Slab waterfalls in Los Glaciares
Day 4: Slabs and waterfalls

There were more creek crossings, and startlingly unreal views of Cerro Norte that made me think of Paine Grande in Torres del Paine. We ate lunch by an incredible waterfall and then made our way down a pavement of slabs to camp by another river. In poor weather this might have been slippery, but the sun blessed us throughout the afternoon. After we had made camp, we each took it in turns to walk out to a secluded spot to strip off and dunk ourselves in the river. 

Canyons and glaciers

Day four on the trail was just as varied. We had the biggest river crossing of the hike, wading up to our waists (in truth, I’m pretty short) and thankful that Diego had been able to find a calm spot of water for us to cross.

Hiker on slabs in Los Glaciares
Day 4: Descending the slabs

From here it was on to yet another unexpected landscape, the Fossil Canyon, hemmed in by prehistoric cliffs where the rocks were painted with vibrant reds, rusty oranges, shining gold and cool grey. It was such an extravagant contrast to the previous day, and a great reminder of why you should always pack a spare camera battery. We were all shooting photos like crazy!

Trekkers in the Fossil Canyon in Los glaciares
Day 5: Traversing the Fossil Canyon

But there was still one more treat for the day. We all dropped our packs and walked up to a viewpoint to see Glacier Upsala in the distance. After carrying them for so many days it was a delight to be able to explore freely. The glacier itself is tremendous. It’s very nearly on the scale of Perito Moreno, but is normally only accessible by taking a boat trip of several hours. Or walking for several days as we had. We had the entire scene to ourselves, from the enamelled waters of the lake and the delicate blues of the ice cliffs, to the hazy peaks in the distance. And we really felt like we had earned it!

Glacier Upsala in Los Glaciares
Day 5: The epic view of Glacier Upsala after a night in the refugio

Our last night on the trail was spent in a simple refugio near the glacier. It was a first reminder that other people had been here before us – something it was easy to forget on the trail. The next morning we found the trail to Estancia Cristina and started to slowly acclimatise to the thought of seeing other people again. It was probably the easiest single trail we’d followed in all the time we’d been walking, but freed from having to concentrate on where we were putting our feet, we bubbled over with conversation, starting to process what we’d experienced. 

Reflections on the trail

The Los Glaciares Wilderness Trek was one of the most challenging treks I’ve done. But it was also one of the most rewarding. If you’re new to wilderness hikes, this might not be the trip to start with. For experienced trekkers who are comfortable with being deep in the backcountry, don’t mind a degree of uncertainty over the day’s itinerary and are happy with a heavy pack on their back as they clamber up a boulder field, it’s possible that this corner of Patagonia might offer no better adventure. 


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Sarah Schneider

Swoop Patagonia Specialist

Born and raised in the United States, Sarah came to Chile in 2011 for 'one year'. Almost 10 years later, she has travelled extensively throughout South America and Chile, is now fluent in Spanish and has found her home in Chilean Patagonia.