Patagonia National Park Guide - Hiking in the Unspoiled Chilean Nature
Here is our guide to the Patagonia National Park near Cochrane, Chile. The newest Patagonia's national park lies on Carretera Austral, and offers several scenic day hiking trails, multi-day treks, and stunning views.
PATAGONIA NATIONAL PARK
Hands down is there a better idea how to name a national park in the heart of Chilean Patagonia than simply Patagonia National Park? Probably not.
We still shake our heads in disbelief that none of several national parks along Carretera Austral had not carried this name until now. Although Patagonia National Park is fairly new as it officially got the stamp at the beginning of 2018, the park already attracts travelers and hikers from all around the world for many good reasons, such as pristine and rough landscape including wast grasslands, snow-capped mountains, rivers, and lakes.
Another impressive thing is the fact that from its foundation Patagonia National Park belongs among world's largest national parks whatsoever covering more than 260 000 hectares, but we also cannot omit the unique story of how the park was established.
HISTORY OF PATAGONIA NATIONAL PARK
The story of the creation of Patagonia National Park has similar bases as one of our favorite national parks we've visited when road tripping along Carretera Austral, Pumalin National Park as it is tightly connected with the name Dough Tomkins, a controversial American billionaire and founder of the worldwide known outdoor brand The North Face, who fell in love with Patagonia and dedicated the big part of his life to protecting the fragile landscape which at the end proved to have fateful consequences for him as he died when kayaking on General Carrera Lake, near Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Patagonia National Park consists of former Lago Jeinimeni National Reserve to the norths, Lago Cochrane National Reserve which is also known as Tamango National Reserve to the south and Chacabuco Valley which lies in between and unites both national reserves.
At first, the journey of creating the national park was definitely not an easy one.
No wonder when we realize that from the beginning of the 20th century until 2004 when Tompkins bought the valley was this area devoted to farming and ranching, and everything was about to change. Local people felt threatened, especially when the part of the region now belonged to a white man or gringo as they called him.
Fortunately, it did not take long for them to see positive results.
The main idea to establish a newly protected land was not only to open this area to the public. We think it was a secondary thought. The primary idea was to restore the fragile ecosystem: improve the odds for Patagonian grasslands, remove all the fences and get rid of cattle in order to recover flora and repopulate the wildlife.
Simply put, to bring back the natural balance.
A lot changed since 2004, but in case your adventures will take you near Cochrane, do not forget to stop by in Patagonia National Park. You will enjoy an unforgettable day in nature plus you will witness how tourists, local people, and our environment can profit from sustainable and carefully planned tourism.
Nowadays, the national park belongs to the Chilean government as the Tompkins Conservation donated the land back.
HOW TO GET TO PATAGONIA NATIONAL PARK
To get to Patagonia National Park, you will most likely have to arrive in Cochrane first, as Cochrane is the nearest village to the park, only 17 kilometers away.
We arrived in Cochrane from Puerto Rio Tranquilo where we visited famous Marble Caves located on General Carrera Lake. The daily bus from Puerto Rio Tranquilo takes almost 3 hours and cost CLP 10 000.
Unfortunately, as of 2019, there is no sufficient infrastructure, and if you want to visit the park, you must do it on your own (unless you don't want to take a hiking tour from Cochrane, which we don't think is necessary, especially if you plan on visiting just for a day).
The easiest way how to get to the park is, of course, by car. From Cochrane, drive 17 kilometers back in the direction to Chile Chico and once you reach a place called El Cruce Entrada Baker, turn right.
Although you are already in the park, you still have to continue 11 kilometers on a dirt road to get to the park office and hike trailhead.
When traveling by public transport, take a bus leaving every day from Cochrane to Coyhaique at 6:30 AM or 7 AM (confirm departure time one day ahead) and ask the driver to drop you off at El Cruce Entrada Baker.
From here, you must either hitchhike (it is much easier in the summer from November to late February), or walk two hours to the park's office. To get back, you must retrace your steps to the main road (by walking or hitchhiking) and here hitchhike again to Cochrane or wait for the everyday bus from Puerto Rio Tranquilo passing by between 4 PM or 5 PM.
Another way is to hitchhike all the way from Cochrane or visit the Patagonia National Park the (alternative) way we did it.
THE WAY WE DID IT
The most common (and easiest) way how to visit Patagonia National Park is to get there by rental car. Since we didn't rent a car in order to keep our budget low, and traveled Carretera Austral by combining public transport and hitchhiking, we were left with those two options to get to Patagonia National Park.
The only problem was, that we were not sure if the park is heavily visited or not (for example it was easy to get to Queulat National Park with Hanging Glacier because it is one of the best-known places along Carretera Austral) and because we had only one free day before an infrequent bus to Villa O'Higgins, we wanted to make sure we will get to the park and more importantly that we won't get stuck there.
By looking at the map, we found out that there might be another way, how to reach the park, and in the evening during dinner, when we checked the promising weather forecast (no heavy rain at least), we decided to give it a try.
Our plan was to walk about 4 kilometers to the Tamango National Reserve (which is nowadays part of Patagonia National Park), then walk 14 kilometers through the park to get to the most popular viewpoint over the lakes, and then either return the same way we came or continue around the lakes and finish the trail at the parking lot on the other side of the mountains and from there, hitchhike back to Cochrane.
Early in the morning, we left our warm and cozy homestay and started walking toward the Tamango National Reserve.
It was a quiet morning (more than usual as it was Sunday), the village was empty, and we had 4 kilometers long walk ahead of us to the beginning of the hike.
After about 20 minutes, we saw a van passing on the main road but did not make any effort to stop it. But suddenly the car came to a halt, waited for us and a young guy who even spoke English told us to get on the car, and he took us to the entry point because he lived nearby. At the entrance he said goodbye to us, gave us some advice regarding the hike, and we started climbing the path up.
The first part zigzags steeply, but the advantage is that this section offers beautiful views from the very beginning. After about an hour later we emerged in a flat area with a wooden Refugio where hikers can stay overnight or only take a rest.
We continued right away, and there was another steep climb waiting for us.
Luckily the sun popped out and warmed up the air, though there were dark clouds coming from the other side of the valley.
After another sweaty ascent, which was harder than the first one, we once again reached a flat area with a magical forest with beech trees covered by beards, and later a plateau with freezing cold wetlands and a black lake. This section was very cold, and it was not a good idea to have lunch here as we were freezing (also when we take into consideration that it started to snow lightly).
At the lake, we turned left, walked around it and carried on into the last forested and steep part.
Then we emerged in an open area where a very strong wind was blowing. We continued for about an hour until we reached the viewpoint overlooking several lakes of Patagonia National Park. Because in almost four hours of hiking we did not meet a single person, it made us rethink our original plan to hitchhike back to Cochrane, and we decided to walk the same way back.
If you want to do this beautiful hike, prepare to walk at least 28 kilometers (plus an additional four kilometers in case you won't get a ride from Cochrane to the start of this trail). We walked 32 kilometers that day, and it overall took us 8 hours.
WHAT TO DO IN PATAGONIA NATIONAL PARK
The best way how to get the most of Patagonia National Park is a hike through it. There are several treks you can do on your own, but the most popular one is Lagunas Altas Trail which we did only in a bit changed and personalized version.
You can see all the available trails here.
But hiking is not the only activity you can enjoy here. You can try fly fishing, mountain biking or bird watching, and for those looking for a more comfortable way how to enjoy an unforgettable views, there is also a scenic drive passing through the park.
WHERE TO STAY IN PATAGONIA NATIONAL PARK
In case you want to stay in the heart of Patagonia National Park, there are several strategically allocated campgrounds you can stay at such as West Winds Campground, Stone House Campground and Alto Valle Campground. All camps work on first come first served basis and cost CLP 8000.
The most luxurious option where you can stay in the park is Lodge at Valle Chacabuco. It is pricey, but nothing can beat the location and the service.
Both campgrounds and lodge are closed from late autumn throughout winter, so always check availability and opening dates when traveling out of the main season.
The good news is that the entrance to Patagonia National Park is free and you can explore the park for as many days as you like.
It was not common to find parks along Carretera Austral or overall in Chile where we did not have to pay admission (usually international visitors pay at least 50% more than local visitors on top of that).
Among other places where we could enjoy nature without paying high fees were, for example, our favorite Pumalin National Park or Cerro Castillo Natural Reserve where we did the one day hike to Laguna Cerro Castillo.
Cochrane is a medium-size village close to the end of Carretera Austal, and the truth is that not many travelers make it that far south when roadtripping Chilean most famous road as it is more convenient to visit Chile Chico and then cross borders to Argentina.
But when planning on visiting this part of Patagonia, make a stop here not only to visit Patagonia National Park but also to have a rest as Cochrane has the much-needed tourist infrastructure. From the very beginning, we were surprised how Cochrane looks.
Clean, modern, all buildings newly renovated and all streets neat and welcoming.
You will find several hotels and restaurants here, altogether with a couple of grocery stores (do not expect fresh fruits or vegetables in good shape), pharmacy, tourist information center, a few travel offices and even a bank with an ATM.
HOW TO GET OUT FROM COCHRANE
You can also travel to Tortel from where you can take a multi-day ferry either to Puerto Montt to the north or Puerto Natales to the south. Another way is to travel to Chile Chico and cross here borders to Argentina (in case you have a car), or you must drive all the way up to Coyhaique (where is the airport) or to Puerto Montt.
WHAT TO PACK FOR PATAGONIA NP
We've written an in-depth Patagonia packing list about what to pack when planning on traveling to Patagonia, but if we should pick ultimate things you need to pack for one-day hikes in this area, we would have chosen the following items.
Hiking Boots for Him & for Her | Wearing quality and waterproof hiking boots will make your hikes much easier as your feet will stay dry for the most of the day, and the correct boots will prevent blister.
Daypack for Him & for Her | When hiking in Patagonia, you need to pack not only snack and water, but also rain poncho and extra layers of clothes to stay warm, so opt for a backpack with a good back support and waist strap.
Hiking Poles | They are great not only for multi-day treks but also for day hikes.
Water Bottle | Patagonia was the only place in South America where we drank water from the streems and taps. Pack water bottle so you won't need to by single use plastic bottles.
WHERE TO STAY IN COCHRANE
Cochrane has several nice campgrounds, local hospedajes aka homestays (which are not bookable online and work on first come first served basis), but also plenty of basic hostels and some luxurious lodges.
Budget: Hostal Rojitas | This hostel has a place for those traveling on a budget and looking either for a private room or a bed in a dormitory. Equipped kitchen, barbecue and garden are here free to use for all guests.
Mid-range: Hotel Lejana Patagonia | Nice and heated rooms (you will understand this is an important feature when in Patagonia) are the reasons to stay in this hotel.
Luxury: Hotel Ultimo Paraiso | The best pick in Cochrane! Beautifully decorated and cozy rooms with free wifi, exceptional breakfast, and garden view.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
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