Patagonia National Park Trek – Guide to a New World Class Trek

Chile’s new Patagonia National Park has it all — the high glaciated peaks of the Andes, wide valleys with ice cold glacial rivers, forests of southern beech hanging with moss, & startlingly green glacial lakes. It may soon be the “Yellowstone of South America”

2018/19 Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek – Quick and Easy Guide to Essential Trip Planning

These are two of the most spectacular treks in the world, but are neither strenuous nor difficult to access. This is the best guide to the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. Here is the information gathered from our recent Circuit Trek in Torres de Paine.

Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Torres del Paine Trek

IMPORTANT – Latest and Best Information for Trekking in Torres de Paine

CONAF continues to make logistical changes to this trek over time. Check this grey box for the latest important changes. Below are the top informational items to note for your trek for the 2018-2019 season.

Campamento Torres (área de acampar Torres) will be closed for the 2018-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek, As a backup until this resolves, you could consider booking Campamento Chileno (Área de acampar Chileno) with Fantastico Sur. It’s plus an hour or a bit longer hike up to the Torres de Paine (vs. C. Torres), but still doable. Because they have the monopoly, last year they only booked hikers who paid for full meals. Expect the same for the 2018-2019 season.

In January, 2017 CONAF instituted quotas which will continue in 2018-2019 for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek

  1. Advance Reservations are Required for All Your Campsites (W and Circuit)

You need to have all your campsite reservations in place before you enter the park. “You need to show reservations at each campsite in order to stay. This is being enforced. There are limited campsites so making your reservation is essential. (Overcrowding last year caused camp latrines to collapse and many people got sick. Due to this, multiple campsites are now permanently closed.)”

  1. There is an 80 Person Per Day Limit on the Circuit Trek (and it can only be done counterclockwise).

There is a 80 person per day limit for the “Backside” (non-W portion) of the Circuit Trek. This is passively regulated by the campsite reservation system (that is, if you have all your campsite reservations you are part of the 80 people per day allowed). This is being strictly enforced! There is a guard house (Guardería Coirón) on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed. Note: We have received reports of trekkers without reservations being sent back. [see Official 2017 Park Trekking Map]

  1. Reservations for the free Park (CONAF) Campsites Fill up Well in Advance
    Note: As of Sept 2018 CONAF is now charging the entrance fee when you book their free campsites. In addition, the process is now more complicated. Below we give you detailed guidance on how to best book your reservations.

Per CONAF:If you are unable to book in all the camps you want to visit, you must adapt your itinerary according to the camps you could get. Consider that there are two other camping and shelter providers where you can book:Fantastico Sur* and Vertice*. We remind you that if you do not have the corresponding reservations you will not be able to access the mountain trails and you should plan other visit options, as there will be control points where you must show the voucher or confirmation email of your reservation.

*Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.

  1. There are now cutoff/closing times for most trails

The back page of the Official 2017 Park Trekking Map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. This map will still get you everything you need for the trek.

WHEN CAN I BOOK MY RESERVATIONS?

Fantastico Sur:  is now open for 2018/2019 reservations and their rates are online.  Use this button for their website FIRST

Below are three additional buttons—one has the rates for the 2018/2019 season, one is the booking form (you can email the form to make a reservation — may take a while), and the last is their policies including cancellation info. For the 2018-2019 season, their refugios in the W are open Sept 2-April 30, and in the Circuit November 1-March 31.

    

Vertice: Has their 2018-2019 dates posted already and it looks like they are booking reservations . Their W refugios are open September 1-April 30, Circuit November 1-March 30. Check their website for latest prices. 

CONAF: ****IS NOW OPEN**** But you still cannot book more than six months in advance (180 days before you go) for their sites of Italiano (open October-April) and Paso (open November-April). 

NEW INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CONAF SITE: Scroll down to the “RESERVAR CAMPING CONAF” click on that link; next, you will see the entrance fees for the park. The campsites are still free. However, CONAF is now charging you the entrance fee when you book these free campsites so get ready to pay. Click on “comprar entradas.”  Now you will need to set up an account with CONAF. Use the “pasaporte” user access  (‘RUT’ is for Chilean residents). Once registered, follow the instructions to book the dates you need for each of the campsites (Italiano and/or Paso). CONAF will automatically charge you the $21,000 CLP entrance fee in addition to booking your sites when you check out.

Note: this is a trip guide. We are not a booking agency and have no special access to Vertice, Fantastico Sur & CONAF. As such, your best strategy is to deal directly with V, FS & CONAF yourself. Wishing you a great trek and we will continue to post information as we receive it. Warmest, -Alan and Alison

WHEN DOES THE PARK REALLY OPEN? Over the years we have received reports of some confusion and disarray in TdP, particularly around opening dates. So, keep in mind that the required booking system is still somewhat new to the park and clearly causing a lot more work for Fantastico and Vertice employees. As such, there is bound to be a difficult transition from the older, more free flowing system to this new stricter one. Our advice would be to continue to try and keep the communication lines open by contacting all parties, CONAF, Fantastico, and Vertice using all email addresses, Facebook, and phone. Also keep in mind that all three of these agencies are distinct and most likely do not communicate amongst themselves. You are the only thing they have in common which puts the burden on you to figure out what is going on.

“OFF SEASON” April 30 to sometime in November: Most Refugios and Private Campamentos close during the off season. Backside of O/Circuit guided only.

As of April 30 Most, most Refugios/Private Campamentos (Fantastico Sur and Vertice) are closed for the season. You can still camp on the W but obviously there will be far fewer resources. The “Backside” of the O or Circuit Trek (Serón, Dickson, Los Perros, Paso John Garner, etc.) is closed unless with an official guide. They will re-open to general use/travel at the start of the High Season, usually sometime in November.


Two Alternative World Class Treks in Patagonia

Looking for Something to do after Torres del Paine? Or are you finding reservations difficult and/or campsites booked? Then checkout out our guides to these two incredible off the beaten path Patagonia Treks  — Chile’s exciting New Patagonia National Park Trek Guide and the Cerro Castillo Trek Guide. No reservations required and you’ll see far fewer people.

Chile’s New Patagonia National Park may well become the “Yellowstone of South America” due to its rich diversity. The new Park has it all — the high glaciated peaks of the Southern Andes, wide valleys with ice cold glacial rivers, forests of southern beech hanging with moss, and startlingly green glacial lakes. Fairly unique to the park is its expansive grasslands supporting a vast array of wildlife. It’s easy to see herds of guanacos, condors, flamingos, armadillos and much more…

Cerro Castillo Trek Guide

The Cerro Castillo Trek is nearby and equally stunning. When, combined with the New Patagonia National Park Trek you have almost two weeks of fantastic trekking in a much less traveled but exciting region of Patagonia.

 

Overview of Torres de Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek

The Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek (or ‘O’ Trek) have a well deserved reputation as world class backpacking trips. The Torres del Paine Park has the goods, with stunning views at every turn. Massive glaciers, including the vast Heilo Sur (Southern Ice Shelf) the second largest non-polar ice field on the planet. There are immense towers of rock, rushing mountain streams and waterfalls, huge azure lakes, and sublime fields of wildflowers—Andean Condors with a wingspan of over 10 feet soar overhead. Finally, you’ll meet interesting people from all over the world. The Torres del Paine provides true global trekking.

The Torres del Paine W Trek the Circuit Trek are more accessible and more manageable than other world-renowned treks like the John Muir trail or Tour de Mont Blanc. The Torres del Paine treks are shorter and less strenuous. The classic W trek can be done in as little as 3 days. And we comfortably did the Circuit Trek in 4.5 hiking days with plenty of time to gawk and take photos. The treks do not have a lot of elevation gain or loss. All the hiking is near sea level so there’s no altitude to deal with. The park has excellent trails with good signage. It is almost impossible to get off route or lost. Water is plentiful and in the campsites can be drunk without treatment. You are never far from help. There are ranger stations and/or campgrounds about every four hiking hours. In fact, the Torres del Paine would be a trek in the park if it weren’t for periods of nasty Patagonian weather and strong winds—very strong winds. Even so, the Torres is an entry level trip for many backpackers and trekkers. It is also a great way to start trekking in South America which has almost endless opportunities for more fantastic treks!

Torres del Paine W Trek

Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (this Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the second largest non-polar ice shelf). Glacier Grey’s origin from the Heilo Sur is at the upper right of the photo between the snow covered mountains of the Southern Andes. If you only do the W you will miss this view. It was our favorite part of the trek. Alan’s HyperLite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack is carrying less than 12 pounds (6 kg) at this point in the trip.

Current and Accurate Information for Torres del Paine

This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were plain wrong. We hope to correct this with current and accurate information from our recent completion of Torres del Paine Circuit Trek (which includes the full W Trek). Much of this information is especially needed in high season when some park facilities (especially on the W Trek) are full, or near capacity and camping reservations well advised.

  • The top ranked Amazon guide and map for Torres del Paine are seriously out of date. The Cicerone Guide (updated 2013) & Standard large map of TdP (Zaiger) both have out of date trail and campground info. e.g. recommending camping in closed campgrounds. Listing nonexistent campgrounds and suggesting hiking on trails that are now closed to travel.
    • We provide a current park map with correct campground & trail information (jump to Park map)
  • Hiking times in most guides and park maps are too conservative. If you are a moderately fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow (since you need to reserve your campsites ahead of time). The major complaint that we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon (and it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00 pm in the summer!). That is they could have easily hiked to another stage that day to the next campsite. (Here is a listing of our less conservative hiking times and distances for Torres del Paine)
  • Gear – Almost all guides will have you ridiculously over pack gear. Yes, the weather can be rough at times in Patagonia. Fear of this causes many (most) folks and even so-called “experts” and guide books to recommend massively over packing gear.  But there’s no need to stagger around with a heavy pack to deal with Patagonian weather. Rest assured, you can pack much lighter and still be warm and safe.
    • Alison’s pack with food was under 15 pounds (under 7 kilos) and Alan’s pack with food was under 17 pounds (under 8 kilos). Our gear easily handled the rain and strong Patagonian wind. (Here is a detailed list of gear we took.

We loved the backside of the Circuit Trek. Less people. More varied terrain. Idyllic valleys. Superb vistas. Pictured are wildflowers in full bloom in Valle Encantado (enchanted valley). We walked though fields of them for miles. They started as we dropped into the valley on our way to Campamento Serón and continued to Refugio Dickson. Along they way you get great views of the Patagonian Andes and even peeks at Heilo Sur, the vast Southern Ice shelf. Alison’s ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack is probably carrying less than 11 lb (5 kg) at this point in the trip.

Planning Your Torres del Paine Trip

Torres del Paine W Trek

Fair warning, not all days are sunny in Patagonia, but that doesn’t mean the Torres del Paine is any less beautiful. Clouds and mists swirling around the high peaks are every bit as stunning as a sunny day. Glacier Frances (a hanging glacier) from near Mirador Frances. The summit of Paine Grande the highest mountain in the park at 3,050 m (10,000 ft) is already obscured by clouds mid-afternoon. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in later in the day, even in good weather. Early starts are best if you want unobstructed views of the peaks.

Step 1 – Pick your trip: W Trek, Circuit Trek or ‘Q’

  • The W Trek is by far the most popular. Most people do it in a relaxed 5 days but it can be done in 3 days. It covers the standard highlights: Glacier Grey, Valle Frances and Glacier Frances, and of course the Torres de Paine, the gem of the Park. There are a lot of trekkers on the W Trek in high season. In addition to a many backpackers, the W Trek can be swarmed by day hikers going to the same key miradors (viewpoints) as the backpackers. W Trek campsites can be filled to capacity. On the bright side you’ll meet a lot of fun and interesting people from around the world.
  • The Circuit Trek or ‘O’ Trek does all of the W Trek, then continues around the back of the Torres del Paine to complete a full loop. We believe many backpackers could easily do it in 5 to 6 days. (We comfortably did it in 4.5 hiking days). We prefer the Circuit Trek. The “backside,” non-W part of the Circuit Trek, is every bit as beautiful as the W Trek but with fewer people (since its limited to 80 people per day). And you see a lot more of the park, which is more varied than just the W Trek. For instance, you walk for miles above Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest non-polar ice shelf). This was our favorite part of the trek. And finally, the Circuit Trek gives you more time to enjoy this stunning park! [The tricky part of the Circuit is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]
  • The ‘Q’ Trek is the ‘O’ plus the section between the Serano Visitors Center (see park map here for details) and Refugio Paine Grande. This section forms the tail of the ‘Q’ and adds a bit more hiking and sight seeing for those so inclined.

Torres de Paine W Trek

Our GPX map nicely shows the trek options: the two main Torres de Paine treks–the W Trek is in red and covers Glacier Grey, Valle Frances, Glacier Frances, and of course the Torres de Paine themselves. The Circuit Trek is the W Trek plus the ‘Backside’ which is in blue. It includes the Valle Encantado, Lago & Glacier Dickson, Paso John Garner, and walks along the incredible Glacier Grey–note this map shows Campamento Torres which is now closed. [click on image to enlarge]

 

Torres de Paine W Trek

Hiking along the shores of Lago Norgenskjold. (W Trek)

GPX File for Torres del Paine W and O Treks

Link to the .GPX File for the routes and waypoints for the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks. It is arranged for the Circuit Trek but includes all tracks and waypoints the W Trek.

The Park’s official 2017 Map (note important changes!)

This is the standard map handed out (for free) when you get your permit at the Park Entrance. It is accurate and more than adequate to plan and safely navigate the route.

  • Trekking Map – Torres del Paine (main map)  will open in Google PDF viewer which will only display it in low resolution. But the full file can be dowloaded and viewed in full resolution with Acrobat or other PDF readers. IMPORTANT!  The ‘Circuit’ or ‘O’ Trek can now only be done counterclockwise from Hotel/Camping Las Torres to Campamento Paso. And as stated earlier, you’ll need proof of reservations for each night. (This is strictly enforced at Coirón Ranger Station and you will be sent back to Serón if you do not have reservations!).
  • (rear side of) Trekking Map – Torres del Paine (backside)  will open in Google PDF viewer same as above. IMPORTANT! Note that of the map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced.  

The Park’s official 2017 Map is all you need to safely hike Torres del Paine. Note: Most if not all other maps and guidebooks are out of date with incorrect listings of campgrounds no longer in use, and trails and miradors (viewpoints) that are now closed to travel. [click on map to enlarge a bit]

The Park’s official 2017 Map is all you need to safely hike Torres del Paine. Note: Most if not all other maps and guidebooks are out of date with incorrect listings of campgrounds no longer in use, and trails and miradors (viewpoints) that are now closed to travel. [click on map to enlarge in a PDF viewer]

2017_TdP_Map_back-ed

[Click on image to enlarge in a PDF viewer] Note that of the back of the map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. Look at the table “Horarias de Cierre de Senderos” (Trail Closing times). E.g. “Refugio Paine Grande — Area acampar Italiano – 18:30,” means that if you are hiking from Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano, you must be hiking by 3:30 pm.

Step 2 – Plan your Day by Day Itinerary – how fast you’ll hike & where you’ll camp

Determining where you’ll camp each night is a critical first step to planning your trip since, during high season, you will need advance reservations. Note that the Park now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. See table above.

We give suggested itineraries for the W Trek and Circuit or ‘O’ Trek.  But we also give the table below which lists distances and hiking times for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek. With it you can modify those itineraries or make your own new itinerary.

There is no wild camping in the Torres del Paine (not in a designated campground). You must camp at one of the designated park locations. They are serious about this. They threw someone out the park for wild camping the week we were there. Thus you need to camp at a specific campsite each night. Reservations can be made ahead of time (see references below in Step 3).

Special Note about a contingency for a layover day(s):  You may want a contingency plan to spend at least one extra day on the your trek*. Weather conditions are notoriously difficult to predict in Patagonia. Localized, glacier and mountain influenced microclimates along with moisture flow from the Straits of Magellan, and generally strong circumpolar summer winds can interact to create strong weather of all sorts. Be prepared for high winds, rain and even snow, along with sunshine and calm. Many times in the same day. You may be forced to take layover a day by high winds*. Plan your route itinerary accordingly. Refer to Step 3, Reservations for how to include this in your itinerary. [*This is especially true for the Circuit Trek. The tricky part of the Circuit Trek is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]

C= campamento (camp)   R= refugio (more facilities, meals and beds in addition to camping)

  • This table is a just starting point for planning. You will need to estimate your own hiking pace based on your abilities and pack weight.
  • Times in above table are for Alison and I on our recent trek which we averaged about 2 miles per hour (3.4 km/hr). We are reasonably fit and experienced hikers and carried packs under 18 pounds (under 8 kilos) . See our gear list for details. But we are both over 50 years old and by no means speed hikers. And during our trek, Alison was recovering from influenza.
  • Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. Our hiking times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, snapping a quick photo, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. They do not include stoppage or breaks longer than 2-3 minutes. We averaged 2 miles/hour the entire trek.
  • Hiking faster than expected can be just as problematic as slower. See below…
  • Hiking times on Park Maps and in most guide books are conservative (based on an “average” hiker traveling with a heavy pack and not intending on setting any speed records). If you are reasonably fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. We believe with an early start and decent to OK weather, most backpackers could probably do two stages in a day. You have 17 hours of daylight in January!
  • So chances are that you’ll take less time to get from place to place than their estimates. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow. The major complaint we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon. e.g. they could have easily hiked another stage that day to the next campamento/refugio.
  • We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip. There is a lot of daylight in the summer hiking season. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.
end-valle-encantado

A peek at the Southern Andes and the Vast Southern Ice Field. Nearing the end of Valle Encantado on the backside of the Circuit Trek. The day from Campamento Seron to Campamento Los Perros was one of our favorite days.

Step 3 – Reserve Your Campsite, Tent, Bed, Meals, etc.

There are four types of “campsites”: Park camps (public), private run camps, Refugios (all private), and one Hotel.  Only the four park Campamentos (campgrounds) are free. All others have varying fees based on the facilities they provide.

  • Park Campamentos are the most basic campsites. There are three free ones run by the park: Campamentos Italiano, Paso & Los Carretas. In high season, you need to reserve early as they are often full. They are reserved at CONAF (Park) offices in P Natales or at the Park entrances. These campamentos have designated dirt tent sites, an assumedly clean water supply, a common cooking area (which you are required to use when cooking with a stove), and a pit toilet quality bathroom. These are in the woods with no views–but advantageous for protecting your tent from being flattened by strong Patagonian winds.
  • Private Campamentos charge a small fee for use. They usually have a few more amenities. Often a small store, a cold or hot shower, tent rentals, and some even serve dinner (which you can reserve ahead or some times get seated day of). They do not have bed lodging. One of the best meals of our trip (in town restaurants included) was at Campamento Serón!
  • Refugios have beds (and, in at least one, cabins for rent) in addition to camping. They have nicer (sometimes substantially nicer) shower and toilet facilities than campamentos. Note: camping at a Refugio entitles you to use the nicer shower and toilet facilities, same as the folks sleeping in beds. This makes them an attractive alternate to camping at nearby Campamentos (e.g. camping at Refugio Frances vs. Campamento Italiano).
  • There is one Full-service Hotel (Las Torres) on the route, conveniently located on the W within day hiking distance to the actual Torres del Paine.

Four organizations handle reservations (with links to make reservations):

  • Park Campamentos: The Park now offers a way to reserve their free campsites online. The website is here, Reservas De Campamentos (free campsite reservations) and appears to only be in Spanish. If you can’t reserve online, then try going in-person to CONAF (Park) offices in Puerto Natales or lastly, to the Park entrances. If you can’t reserve in Puerto Natales, make sure you are first off the bus at the park entrance to get the best shot as W Campamentos Italiano, and Campamento Torres. This may not be possible in Puerto Natales or the Park entrance. With the online reservation system, it appears that the CONAF campamentos may be booked six months in advance although they are now charging the entrance fee when you book their free campsites.
  • Fantastico Sur* handles reservations for: Refugio Las Torres, Camping Las Torres (not the same as the closed Campamento Torres), Refugio Los Cuernos, Camping Los Cuernos, Domo Los Cuernos, Cabañas Los Cuernos, Refugio El Chileno, Camping El Chileno, Camping Serón, Domo Serón, Camping Francés, Domo Francés, and Refugio Torre Norte
  • Vertice Patagonia* handles reservations for: Refugio Paine Grande (camping, meals & beds), R. Grey (camping, meals & beds), R. Dickson (camping, meals & beds), and Camping Los Perros (camping only).
  • Hotel Las Torres (a full service hotel at one end of the ‘W’)
  • *Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.
Logo Dickson from near Refugio Dickson (backside of the Circuit Trek).

Lago Dickson with Glacier Dickson pouring down from the Southern Ice Field. This is at Refugio Dickson, backside of the Circuit Trek.

Some notes:

  • Breakfast is 8’ish. You’ll get a late start if you choose to eat one from a Refugio. Lunch is around 12:30. Dinner is 7’ish.
  • Fanstastico Sur was responsive and very easy to work with. We easily changed campsite reservations, and dinner reservations when our schedule varied from planned (hiked faster than anticipated).
  • Vertice Patagonia was harder to work with. Credit card payments online didn’t work. Their office in Puerto Natales had limited hours (closed on weekend). People report having the best results via email.
mirador-britanico-2

Mirador Britanico in Valley Frances. Not all days are sunny in Patagonia, especially later in the day when the mountains are likely to cloud in. A waterproof pack like this HMG 2400 Southwest is nice on days that are threatening rain.

Step 4 – Plan your Gear and Food

  • Alan’s pack was under 17 pounds (under 8 kilos) with food
  • Alison’s pack was under 15 pounds (under 7 kilos) with food
  • We carried about 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) of shared food for the trip. We supplemented this with purchased food along the way.

Gear

Note that we have reports of bugs from Serón to Grey. We use the following on areas not protected by clothing: DEET (or the newer  Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics). We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field.  Alternatively, for around $6 USD you can get spray at Cruz Verde Pharmacies in Puerto Natales.

You can also a wear long sleeved shirt and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing  treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer)  which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).

Below is a comprehensive list of our Torres del Paine gear.You can scroll in the list below to see the entire list.

Our Gear List is best viewed here: (World-wide Trekking Gear List (link to original table). We took this gear on our Torres del Paine Trek except as noted:

feathered-friends-eos-mens-ultralight-down-jacket_1-1

 

 

 

x

Alison’s ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack

      • For hiking shoes we prefer light trainers/trail runners around 10-12 oz per shoe (280-340 g). For a variety of reasons we do not take Goretex/waterproof shoes.
      • Camp footwear: Trails can be wet and it’s just faster and easier to walk thru the mud and muck than waste time hopping and skirting around. We brought very light flipflops (2.5 oz, 80g) and Injinji socks for camp. The flipflops do double duty as shower shoes and camp footwear when worn with the Injinjis. Beware packing heavier camp footwear. A pair of Crocks is around 1 pound, and a pair of light running shoes can approach 2 lbs!
      • We did not take bear canisters. No bears in Patagonia.

 

 

I carried very light digital camera readily accessible on the shoulder strap of my pack

I carried a Very Light but high quality Digital Camera readily accessible on the shoulder strap of my pack.

  • Camera: for camera gear we take see Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras. I took a very light 16 oz (450 g), but very high quality digital camera readily accessible on the shoulder strap of my pack. I could get it out for a shot in just a few seconds.

Note that trekking/camping gear can be rented in Puerto Natales at outfitters like the Base Camp of Erratic Rock. Another option to save both weight and time is to rent a tent at one of the campsites. To be assured of one you’d need to reserve one ahead of time, but we saw plenty of rental tents empty on our trek in high season.

Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see the entire Gear List

Cooking, Stoves & Fires

Campamento Los Perros had the nicest cooking are of the trip.

Campamento Los Perros had the nicest cooking area of the trip. Some campgrounds only have a three sided cooking shelter with a roof or designated picnic tables.

Cooking stoves & Fires

See my information on Cooking and Lightweight Backpacking Stoves

  • The park is crazy strict about no fires whatsoever*. You can only cook with a stove in a designated area of the campground. Canister and Alcohol stoves are fine. *This is due to two devastating camper started fires in 2005 – 155 km2 (60 sq mi); and again in 2011 – 176 km2 (68 sq mi).
  • Fuel canisters are everywhere in Punta Arenas and P. Natales. Hardware stores, hiking stores, and many other locations. Even some of the small stores at Refugios along the route have canisters. There are many options in town (hostels, hiking stores) to leave your partially used canisters for others to use.
  • Alcohol fuel is available at Cruz Verde pharmacies in plastic bottles.
Burned trees at the start of the W Trek are a reminder of how devastating fires can be in windy Patagonia. It will take hundreds of year s for this area to fully recover.

Burned trees at the start of the W Trek are a reminder of how devastating fires can be in windy Patagonia. It will take hundreds of years for this area to fully recover.

Food

food

Pringles, Pro Bars, Snickers, Milky Way, Pasta, M&Ms, Powdered Milk, Batteries, Fuel Canisters. The Alimentacion (food store) at Refugio Dickson. Fuel canisters (lower right corner). Pasta is the red and white checkered bag above the canisters. (click on photo to enlarge a bit)

Food for Torres de Paine

  • We brought 5 lb (2.3 kg) of food per person to do the Circuit for an expected 6 days on the route. This consisted of:
    • Breakfast and coffee for every trail day (we like an early start)
    • The majority of our lunches and daily snack food
    • Two dinners to cook on trail
    • Our dinner strategy was to cook two of our own backpacking meals; buy pasta, cheese and sauce on the trail for two meals; and have two sit-down meals along the way as the spirit and circumstances moved us.
    • We supplemented this with a modest amount of food purchased along the route
  • You can bring as much or as little food as you want. You can carry almost no food if you are willing to pay top $ for it on the trail (about 1.5 to 2+ times town retail cost).

Here is a piece I wrote on Backpacking Food: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly

  • Follow all regulations (click for link)  (unfortunately, only in Spanish) regarding bringing food into the country, including declaring what you bring in! My best understanding from reading the reg’s and from reports from other trekkers as of Jan 2017, is that fruit, vegetable, meat and milk products cannot come into the country—including dried and dehydrated versions. They will check at customs when you enter Chile. According to other trekkers, sealed backpacking meals are OK. As such, you will likely need to at least partially provision in Punta Arenas (best/more options) or Puerto Natales to complete your food for the trip. We bought our cheese, dried fruit, and dried meats once we were in Chile.
  • Alimentacions (small food stores) are at all refugios and most private campgrounds. They have limited non-perishable supplies. Usually Coke, beer and sometimes wine, cookies, candy bars, and a few have basic camping supplies like fuel canisters. And many have pasta, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese packets (which can be combined for simple but filling dinners).
  • There are sit-down style meals at the Refugios and at Campamento Serón if you want to pay for them. We ate two dinners while there, one was just OK at Frances, but the meal at Serón was fantastic. (Dinner seating is usually at 7:00 or 7:30 pm).
bus-fernadez

Bus Fernandez Terminal in Punta Arenas. Almost everybody is taking the bus to Puerto Natales to trek in the Park. In the foreground a large amount of the luggage is backpacks.

Transportation

Most folks will end up flying into the Punta Arenas Airport. From the Punta Arenas Airport: All the guidebooks (and the buses themselves) say that the buses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales stop at the airport. However, we did not find that to be the case during the high season.

    • We had to take a white/grey bus from the Airport to the Buses Fernández terminal in Punta Arenas, around 5,000 chilean Pesos per person. From there, we got on the next bus to P. Natales.
    • Or you can take a taxi from the Airport to town for around 10,000 chilean Pesos (approx. $16 USD in 2016)
  • Buses, during high season, in general run every hour (see schedules). While making reservations from a town was easy enough, we found making a reservation from the US difficult and, in the end, not needed.
  • Buses Fernández (the bus we took) Runs buses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (the usual town to stage from for Torres del Paine Treks). While they do get crowded, the bus companies worked together to make sure all customers were accommodated.
  • Buses Gomez (the bus we took) Runs buses from Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine Park (start of W Trek and Circuit Trek). Again, the buses work together to accommodate all who are going. The other bus company we saw actively operating in the park was “Buses María José” although we didn’t use them.
  • Update Aug, 2016: Bus-Sur also runs Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine Park, and has a 7:00am bus. With a very early bus there is a possibility of catching the 9:30’ish ferry from Pudeto (see below).
  • Catamaran on Lago Pehoé (Site with transportation and park information) and the Actual Helios Patagonicos Site (in Spanish) – this is the ferry that gets you across Lago Pehoé from Pudeto (the bus drop-off) to Refugio Paine Grande, start of the W Trek going west to east. Note that in high season the ferry may operate more frequently than their schedule indicates—adding extra ferries as passenger demand increases. You pay on the ferry.

Bus service from Puerto Natales Chile to El Calafate Argentina (El Chalten)

The other high profile (fantastic!) destination in Patagonia is the Cerro Torre, Fitzroy area outside of El Chalten in Argentine Patagonia. Alison and I trekked in this area in 2005. To do that you’ll need to take a Bus (unless you have a rental car). We have not taken the bus between Puerto Natales and El Calafate but there is a fairly large bus terminal in Puerto Natales with a lot of bus traffic during the day. Bus-Sur and Turismo Zaahj offer service between Puerto Natales and El Calafate (gateway to El Chalten). We cannot personally vouch for the buses, having not taken them across the border to Argentina.

I have been advised that during high season, Dec to Feb that busses can fill up so it may be best to book well in advance (possibly before you arrive). Some readers have used a third party to book the bus. They report “we used Patagonia Extrema/Southroad to book – we paid a 35-40% premium on tickets, but it was worth it, as our Calafate-PN, PN-Park roundtrip, and PN to PA buses were all sold-out.

Also from El Calafate you can easily see one of the great natural wonders of Argentina, the Perito Moreno Glacier (scroll a fair amount down to see the pictures). It’s one of the few advancing glaciers in the world—it moves about 7cm each day. Because it is constantly moving, vast blocks of ice fall off the face of the glacier into the lake, calving icebergs with an explosive detonation that sounds like a bomb going off.

Chile’s Atacama Desert

The other incredible destination is to fly to the Atacama Desert. This is where Alison and I went last year post TdP. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world. Amazing salt lakes and wildlife! We saw 3 of the 6 world’s flamingo species while there. Amazing star watching, possibly the premier astronomical research location on the planet. There is El Tatio an immense caldera with its many geysers is in the Atacama Desert at over 14,000 feet (4320m). Its name comes from the Quechua word for oven. It is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. El Tatio has over 80 active geysers, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world.

General Notes and FAQs

  • In high season, all portions of the W Trek are crowded with both backpackers and novice day hikers. You’ll have tons of company on the trail (we had some issues getting around groups of hikers). Many W campgrounds will be filled to capacity. But then solitude is not really the point of the W. We met a lot of fun people from all over the world on the trek.
  • You will see fewer people on the backside than the W Trek but don’t expect it all to yourself as 80 people are allowed in every day. In high season you’ll meet fellow trekkers on the Backside.  You’ll still share the camp with other trekkers but in calmer conditions.
  • The backside of the Circuit Trek is every bit as beautiful as the W Trek and it has more varied terrain.
  • You have 17 hours of daylight in January! That’s a lot of hiking and/or exploring time. Most trekkers should be able to hike two “stages” in a day.
  • We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip or even later in the day. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.
  • Keep eyes out for birds and wildlife. We saw Andean Condors quite close when hiking between R Frances and R Chileno. And Magellenic Woodpeckers in the woods between Dickson and Perros.

Water

  • Water is everywhere. Usually you are 30 minutes or less from a stream or some other source. And according to local guides, and our guide book the water can be drunk without treatment. We filtered water on trail (a conservative option), but drank water untreated from our campground’s designated water sources.

Closed areas

  • Hiking is only allowed on designated trails. Off trail travel (even on marked routes that say guides only) is strictly forbidden.
  • The is no wild camping (camping anywhere in the park that is not a designated campground). They threw someone out the park for doing this the week we were there. (see Campsite Reservation Section)
  • Valle Frances area: Campamento Britanico is currently closed for camping. You can hike as far as Mirador Britanico but not further. The Mirador further up from M. Britanico (located at the base of Fortelezza) is closed.
  • Valle del Silencio area: Campamento Japones is closed to camping unless you are with a guide. And Valle Silencio and its mirador are closed to hiking (unless you are with a guide).
  • Campamento Torres is also closed. The closest to the Torres you can get is Refugio Chileno.
Park Tails are well signed. It is almost impossible to get off-route or lost.

Park Tails are well signed. It is almost impossible to get off-route or lost. I wish many US parks were as well signed as Torres del Paine.

Trail conditions 

  • Torres de Paine trails are well marked by an obvious and well trodden footpath and with orange blazes, and orange posts that mark the route. It’s almost impossible to get off route or lost
  • Torres del Paine trails are well maintained with good footing (with the exception of boggy areas). You can hike quite fast.
  • In boggy, muddy areas it’s just faster and easier to walk thru the mud and muck than waste time hopping and skirting around. And less risk of fall and injury.
  • Camp footwear: Trails can be wet and you shoes are likely to get wet too. We brought very light flipflops (2.5 oz, 80g) and Injinji socks for camp. The flipflops do double duty as shower shoes and camp footwear when worn with the Injinjis. Beware packing heavier camp footwear. A pair of Crocks is around 1 pound, and a pair of light running shoes can approach 2 lbs!
While

While beautiful, camping in the open is not a great idea due to very strong Patagonia winds. You are better off camping in the woods protected from the wind.

Weather and Tents

See my information on Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

  • Weather conditions are notoriously difficult to predict. Localized, glacier and mountain influenced microclimates along with moisture flow from the Straits of Magellan can interact to create strong weather of all sorts. Be prepared for high winds, rain and even snow, along with sunshine and calm. Many times in the same day. You may be forced to take a layover day by high winds. Plan your route itinerary accordingly.
  • Alison and I have had days in Patagonia where the wind was so strong we were unable to walk forward when not protected in the woods. Thankfully not on this trip.
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The legendary Patagonia wind is rough on tents in the open. Alison and I watched this tent be crushed and its poles snapped by a strong gust–only 100 feet from our more protected campsite.

  • Always pitch your tent/shelter in the woods or with some other strong windbreak—not in the open! We saw a tent in the open a 100 feet from us crushed by strong wind gust, snapping its poles.
  • Tent rental is an option worth consideration. You save the weight of carrying a tent and the time and hassle of setting up and taking it down. They usually come with ground pads. Many times the rental tents are already pitched in the most desirable campsites. [Even tho we had our own shelter, we opted to rent a large, clean, and very nice tent at Campmento Los Perros to speed our pre-dawn preparation for going over Paso John Garner. It only cost around $12.]

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While not as sexy as an open meadow, camping in the woods makes a lot more sense in windy Patagonia. Pictured: a tent platform well protected in the woods at Refugio Frances. A minimal camping fee entitles you to the full Refugio facilities including the nicest hot showers and best bathrooms of our trip.

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It's typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed

This Guide to the AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, is an installment of our no-car-needed, low carbon AT hiking Guides.  This beautiful section has the infamous roller coaster, along with great vistas like Raven Rock and Sky Meadows Park. It connects two popular AT trailheads—Shenandoah National Park (Front Royal, VA); and historic Harpers Ferry, WV. When combined with our Low Carbon Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry to Harrisburg PA , you have ~180 great miles of the AT easily accessible by public transportation. Hike green!

(lead photo: late afternoon at Raven Rocks overlook. Fall colors just starting)

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike ends in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

A Series of Guides to Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

We are big fans of leaving the car at home when we go hiking. Because the AT goes through or near urban areas, it’s not difficult to section hike portions of the AT using only public transportation. Many of these are among the nicer sections of the AT. This guide is for an AT section hike that you can undertake solely using public transportation from Washington, DC. This 54 mile AT section could be done in one long weekend (3-4 days, e.g. an extended Memorial, or Labor Day weekend). It would also be a great hike for fall color viewing as it has somewhat less foot traffic than the adjacent Shenandoah Park.

Installment 1: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
Installment 2: This post – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

“[You] MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE!”
The start of The Roller Coaster, an infamous section of the AT with over 10,000 feet of elevation change in only 13.5 miles! And that was only part of our FUN for the day. Alison’s face says it all.

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. Blue Ridge Vistas: This section of the AT is just gorgeous. There are numerous overlooks including the famous Raven Rocks, and the endless ridge top vistas from Sky Meadows Park. Because of the wonderful overlooks and clearings on this section, it would be a great hike for fall leaf viewing.
  2. Blackburn Trail Center: When you arrive at the Blackburn Trail Center, you are greeted by the trail boss and his wife. More often than not, trail magic will appear making the end of the roller coaster that much sweeter.
  3. Bears Den Hostel: This rustic stone building from the 1930’s is a gem on the AT. The hiker deal for $30 includes: bunk, shower, laundry, soda, pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Our trip didn’t allow us to overnight there, but we did stop for the $0.50 Cokes out of the fridge and a lovely break on the lawn for a snack and rest at a covered picnic table.
  4. Ride the Roller Coaster: The world renown roller coaster is a 13.5 mile section of trail that closely resembles a roller coaster. Ok, not really. It’s really about 10,000 ft of elevation change in a very short distance that will keep you fully entertained.
  5. Harpers Ferry Overnight: Any hike that includes an overnight in Harper’s Ferry is a good hike. The town is so lovely, it is always a highlight.
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Overview map of the 54 mile route.

Quick Trip Stats

  • The trip takes between 3-5 days
  • 0 mile – trip start, Shenandoah Park N Boundary near Front Royal, VA
  • 54 mile – trip end, Harpers Ferry, WV

Transportation Time

  • START: 2.5-3.0 hrs downtown Washington DC to trip start near Front Royal, VA (via commuter bus and Uber),
    • NEW OPTION: Megabus has a new Washington to Front Royal direct run (2.2 hours)
  • END: 2 hrs from trip end in Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington Union Station (via train)
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Beautiful mountain meadows and views: Alison hiking up to one of the many great vistas at Sky Meadows Park.


Overview – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train and bus from much of Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The GEAR (link) and  FOOD (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

What’s in this Trip Guide

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following AT  Pocket Profile Map(s):
Appalachian Trail Map AT-11 Front Royal VA – Harpers Ferry WV AT

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: From tip end at Harpers Ferry, WV, it’s only an hour and $13 via train to our front door in Washington DC!

Logistics – Getting to and From the Hike

Trip Start

This hike begins at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. You don’t need to enter the park, just begin on the outskirts of it on the more easily accessed AT crossing of US 522. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there was no public transportation directly to Front Royal from Washington DC. So we had to string together two transportation modes to get to the trip start at around 6:00 pm.

AFTERNOON OPTION

  • A Omniride commuter bus leaves from multiple locations in downtown DC and goes directly to a commuter parking lot in Gainesville, VA. Cost was $6.50 using SmarTrip card or $8.75 with cash. Heading out of the city, commuter buses only leave in the afternoon “after work.” First bus leaves DC at 3:30pm ish (depending on where you pick it up) putting you in Gainsville around 5:20pm.
  • From there, you can Uber (about 30 min) to the start of our trek (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead). This Uber trip costs about $50. Not cheap, but worth not having to shuttle, thus allowing us to do a one-way trek while still going low carbon. And the train ride back is only $13.
  • Using public transportation, the earliest you can expect to arrive at the hike start will be around 6:00pm. You should still be able to reach the Jim & Molly denton shelter by dark. (See more options in description below.)

NEW MORNING OPTION

  • Megabus has one trip a day from Washington Union Station, leaving at 9:20am arriving Front Royal Crooked Run Park & Ride at 11:40am (cost $30).
  • From there, you can Uber (about 15 minutes, $20) to the start of the trek (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead).

NOTE: The combination of Uber/Lyft with the train (or bus) is a game changer for low carbon hikers. The ability to hook into a scheduled train or Greyhound route makes what used to be a “close-but-no-cigar” hike, into something quite doable.

Trip End

The easiest thing is to overnight in Harper’s Ferry and catch an early morning MARC train (Brunswick Line) back into Washington DC’s Union Station (or a few Suburban Maryland stops before DC). The MARC trains are super early, but that’s OK as you’ll get back into DC in time to catch many of the early trains and commuter buses to your final destination.

Backpacking Skirt

A crisp fall morning on Day 2, perfect for some hiking on the AT!


Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

The section between Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry is a rather popular section hike. The multiple overlooks and great overnight camping options make it a very nice section the AT. It follows the Appalachian Ridge for 54 miles through the State of Virginia culminating in a breathtaking walk across the Shenandoah River Bridge into West Virginia and the city of Harper’s Ferry. There is only one park you walk thru, Sky Meadows State Park (which has its own stunning overlook). Otherwise, this section is a nicely challenging walk on the AT.

Relaxing at the recently constructed Jim and Molly Denton Shelter. It has a picnic pavilion and

Relaxing on an Adirondack “Bench” at the recently renovated Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It has a covered picnic pavilion and a solar shower!

If you start hiking in the late afternoon/early evening, you will likely stay at the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It’s a straight 5 mile shot from the trip start at US 522. You’ll be rewarded with a newish shelter, a lovely picnic pavilion, and a solar shower! Overnighting in Front Royal is another option and there are several hostel/hotel options there as well. (Front Royal hotel owners are well acquainted with AT trekkers and often provide a ride to/from the trail.)

First Full Day

Your first full day (if you started hiking the nite before) will be lovely. Keep an eye out for great overlooks because you come upon them very quickly. Sky Meadows State Park, really does have superb mountain top meadows and views. It’s a great lunch spot. After that, you also get to cross the not-so-lovely, first of two death-defying major highways on this section (no bridge, no stop signs, just put your big boy pants on and run for your life) at John Marshall Highway (VA55). We ended our day at Rod Hollow Shelter in prep for roller coaster day. Several nice campsites and hammock hanging areas are available at this shelter.

hammock_dawn_at_blueridge_va-1200

Sunrise above our hammocks at the Blackburn Center.

Day 2

First thing up the next day is riding the roller coaster! As the AWOL in The A.T. Guide notes, it’s really “13.5 miles of tightly packed ascents and descents.” Besides an amusement park aspect, this day also contains the Bears Den Hostel (an overnight option). The Bears Den Hostel was our lunch spot and we enjoyed a covered picnic table, a few cokes, and some shade from the sun. Shortly after the Bears Den you cross your second death-defying major highway, Pine Grove Road (VA 7).

Lunch and snack at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den.

Lunch and a feet-up rest at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den. We grabbed a couple of 50 cent Cokes out of the fridge!

If you live after crossing VA7, you get the privilege of hiking up to see the spectacular Raven Rocks overlook (lead photo of the guide). If it’s a weekend get ready for invasion of the day-hikers. The good news is that you drop the day hikers with your first step past the Raven Rocks. We ended our day at Blackburn AT Center which was quite a treat. They have tent sites, and a smallish cabin for hikers to stay in (no shelter tho), picnic tables, and fresh water from a tap. The AT Center is the meeting place for trail workers so there is a lot of activity surrounding the facility. As a result, trail magic often happens here. (Note: the Blackburn Center is a significant drop down and ascent back up to the AT.)

Trail Magic! at the Blackburn Center.

Cold beer and chocolate cake trail magic at the Blackburn Center. Who knew these two food groups tasted so good together?

Into Harpers Ferry – The Final Day

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry.

Our last day was a walk into Harper’s Ferry. We wanted to enjoy some time in Harper’s Ferry so organized our section hike to do so. After Blackburn AT Center, the last section is fairly flat and offered up a nice stretch for your legs post-roller coaster. Coming into Harper’s Ferry is quite majestic as you cross the Shenandoah River Bridge to enter into the city.

Rough Greensnake

We saw a number of these beautiful, and delicate Rough Greensnakes as we approached Harpers Ferry.

In Harpers Ferry we stayed overnight at the Econolodge as we had heard good things about it. We liked the location. Excellent WiFi and a box of trail magic available for the taking. Breakfast is always welcome and although they said it started at 6:30am, a full breakfast was out for the taking at 6:00am which helped us make our train. (If you arrive earlier or can stay a bit later in the morning, the nearby Guide Shack Cafe has the best coffee in town and serves light breakfast food.)

What to do in Harpers Ferry: Here’s a link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in Harpers Ferry

guide-shack-cafe-1200

Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources its coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens early for coffee/breakfast.

World’s Newest Long Trail: Cuba’s Ruta de la Revolución

See a Cuba tourists never see. Hike la Ruta de la Revolución trek which follows the historic route of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that started the Cuban Revolution—from landing in Cuba in a foundering boat to their famous hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Walk for days on wooded trails and mountain roads—see no cars, only the occasional mule cart. Eat dinner by oil lamp with campesino families in remote rural villages. And finally, be one of the very first to do the La Ruta de la Revolución while it’s “undiscovered” and unspoiled. We didn’t see a non-Cuban until we reached Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

The following includes:

  1. A Trip Guide to La Ruta de la Revolución Trek (the only online or in print guide, even in Cuba)
  2. Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay since few non-Cubans have visited this area. It documents the people and places and should give you a good feel for what La Ruta is all about.
  3. Some Travel Tips for the Ruta including info on Cuban Visa
  4. And a List of the Gear we took, including some Insect and Disease Prevention Clothing and Tips
Ruta de la Revolución

View of the Sierra Maestra Mountains from near Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout and command center.

La Ruta de la Revolución Trek Highlights

  1. La Ruta de la Revolución is a new long trail for the world. As far we know, only four people have completed it in the last few years (and Alison, our guide and I are three). This is an exciting chance to do a trail while it’s undiscovered and unspoiled. [At writing, only one travel agency guides it.]
  2. It has history because it follows the trail that started the Cuban revolution. It follows the treacherous path that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took from their secret boat landing on the coast (2 dec 1956) to the famous mountain hideout (La Comandancia de La Plata) where they planned/orchestrated the revolution. (Only 21 of the original 82 men made it.)
  3. You’ll see a Cuba that other tourists don’t see. This is not the touristy beaches, antique cars, and clubs of Havana. Instead you’ll walk woodland/jungle trails and remote rural roads often times accompanied by campesinos on foot or horseback as they go between small villages and the farms they work.
  4. Experience the people and homes of a remote and rural Cuba. You’ll stay with campesino families each night in their palm thatch roofed casas. Dinner is cooked over an open wood fire in an earth floored kitchen. You’ll share simple peasant food and conversation with the family in the light of an oil lamp. (For us, this was our favorite part of the trek.)
  5. Finally, you’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and walk through small villages into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and on the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon.
overview-map-790

La Ruta de la Revolución (red rectangle) is located in a remote part of Cuba seldom visited by tourists. It goes through two huge National Parks comprising most of Cuba’s southernmost coast.

detail-map-1400

[click on map to enlarge] La Ruta de la Revolución (BLUE line) starts in far western Granma Province in the small coastal village of Playa de Las Coloradas. It is here that Fidel Castro’s boat the Granma landed in 1956. The Ruta follows through Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It then climbs into the vast Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, home to the highest mountains in Cuba and ends at Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

Top Things You Need to Know about La Ruta de la Revolución

LocationCuba’s Southwest Coast
ReferenceThis is the only guide online or in-print for La Ruta de la Revolución. For a good general Cuba guide we recommend Lonely Planet Cuba
SeasonAll year, but the weather is coolest in “winter,” November to February
Duration 6 to 8 days (it’s best to take more time, you’ll get more out of the trip)
Distance~150 kilometers on a combination of trails and rural roads.
(There is an option to split the route into half each about 3-4 days)
Navigation and mapsA far as we know, you are only allowed to do this trek with an “official” guide. And even if it was allowed un-guided, you’d be crazy to try it—even with excellent Spanish and good travel skills. This route is not mapped. And even Cuban maps of the area do not have some of the roads and trails you’ll use. [See Guiding Section in next table]
Physical intensityYou need moderate hiking fitness. The first half is mostly rolling terrain—rural roads and farm trails. At times it can be hot and humid with full sun (you are hiking in the Caribbean). The second half is cooler but on steeper mountain roads, ending up on very steep mountain trails.
GearTravel light! This is a List of the Gear that worked well for us. Given the warm climate and that you’re not carrying food, you might even get by with a daypack or  just about any 20 to 30 liter pack you have, e.g. REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack.
CameraBring a good one! Alan used a Sony a7R II with a Sony 28-70 F3.5-5.6 lens
Alison a Sony a6000 with a 18-105 f/4 lens.
See more about Selecting a Travel/Backpacking Camera here.
SleepingYou’ll stay most nights with campesino families. This will mean a rural home with very basic facilities—but lovely families and people! See more in our Detailed Section on Sleeping.
FoodThere are essentially no stores, and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. Mostly you’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. See more in our Detailed Section on Food.
WaterWe chemically treated all water on the trip. We like these simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets—best travel water treatment going!  See more in our Detailed Section on Water.

 

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Rural Cuba is social. If people are going your direction, they will walk beside you and companionably chat. Along with locals we walked beside this mule team carrying coffee in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Arranging for Your Trek

Cost$1,280 USD for 2 people to do the trek in 8 days. Includes: transport from the airport to trek start, guiding, food and lodging along the route, and transport from the end of the trek back to the airport.
GuidingBayamo Travel Agent, based in Bayamo, Cuba offers the only guiding. The Ruta de la Revolución Trek is not listed on their site. You will need to email them to make arrangements. As of this writing, the only guiding language was Spanish, although Anley Rosales Benitez, the owner of Bayamo Travel speaks excellent English and could probably arrange for a translator.
Getting thereIts easiest and fastest to fly into the town of Holguin, Cuba. There are direct flights to the Holguin Airport (HOG) from the US. Your travel agent/driver will meet you there and transport you to the trip start. Flying into Bayamo would also be an option. Flying into Santiago de Cuba is your third option although it will take longer to get to the trek start.

 

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Trail to Che Guavara’s radio station (Radio Rebelde) the communications center for La Comendancia de la Plata. They would get warned by campesinsos when enemy planes were flying over the area and quickly pull the radio tower down. (Batista’s forces never found the Comendancia).

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm building.

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm buildings.

Shorter Route Options

This trip can be broken into two parts, each about 3-4 days:

  1. Option one, the first half is from Playa de Las Coloradas (in Desembarco del Granma) to the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries re-grouped after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.
  2. Alternatively, option two, if you are interested in a cooler (though more hilly) trek, you can start in Cinco Palmas and hike to the Comandancia de la Plata (Fidel’s hideout).
RouteDayskmele. gain metersele. loss mtotal ele. change
 Total Route6 to 8 1504200 3700 7900
 1st Half to Cinco Palmas3 to 4 7010009001900
 2nd Half Cinco Palmas to Comandancia3 to 4* 80320028006000

* Note: Given the 6000 m (20,000 ft) of elevation change, some hikers might consider 5 days for this half

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted and gave us directions and information about upcoming villages.

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted, gave us directions and information about upcoming villages, and where to get food.


Sleeping, Food, and Water

"The

Sleeping

You’ll stay most nights with a campesino family. Usually this is a rural home where three generations share two or three bedrooms. There will be a tiled floor family/eating room, and a dirt floor kitchen with an open fire. These homes, while extremely compact, are quite clean. They are inspected by the health department regularly (check the back of the front door for their last health inspection date). The dirt-floor in the kitchen is because there is open-fire cooking. They will probably throw a mattress on the floor in the common room for you to sleep on. [Your guide will take care of all sleeping arrangements and pay the family generously for your stay!]

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The casa we stayed in the first night. It’s a typical rural village home— plain wood walls, a corrugated steel roof, and glassless windows. There’s a tiled floor main room in the front with 2-3 bedrooms partitioned off to the left. In the back is a dirt floored room (man standing in it) that serves as a kitchen and storage room. This was the only home we saw with a television. In most homes, electricity is just a few fluorescent bulbs used from 7 to 10 pm.

An outhouse on the property will handle biological needs.  There is no running water in the homes so you’ll bathe in an outdoor area with a barrel and a dipper. We found it glorious after a long hot, sweaty day of hiking. We hand-washed our clothes in a laundry tub and hung them up to dry overnight.

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Most homes have 3 generations and up to 10 people. This girl is sleeping on the floor of the main room as there isn’t a bedroom for her.

Until the route becomes more established with set/pre-arranged places to stay each night there is a small possibility you’ll sleep outside in a tent or hammock. Either because you stop hiking for the day before you reach a suitable village, or because with three generations of people in their home there isn’t enough room for you to sleep. But you still will get dinner, breakfast and to bathe. We brought our own hammocks, but most people will likely be more comfortable with a a light backpacking see the List of the Gear we took.

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Food and Water

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We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water (left in photo) that would last us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. Picture is the start of the trek through the wooded trails of Desembarco del Granma National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is one of the longest sections of the trek without water. It’s also one of the hottest sections.

Food

As of this writing, buying your own food along the route is not an option. There are essentially no stores, no towns and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. You’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. We had two meat dinners and one vegetarian dinner, based entirely on what our hosts had in their homes the day we arrived (unannounced and unplanned). We always ate a big dinner, and had some bread/butter for breakfast. For us, lunch was a catch as catch can. (But you should request with your travel agent/guide what meals you want.) Your final option, although a heavy one, is to buy food in a grocery store in Cuba before the trip and carry it with you. We did not do this, rather we carried about 5 energy bars each.

Ruta de la Revolución

Oil lamp lit dinner with a campesino host family. They moved the table to make room for our drying laundry which you can make out in the background. Simple food of rice, beans, yuca, yami (a type of sweet potato), bananas and a small amount of extremely cooked meat. In the morning, they refused payment from us saying that it was what they were supposed to do as good people. (They finally relented when we insisted they take the money, if not for themselves, then for their daughter.)

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This was the only bodega (small store) we saw on the route. It’s few goods are artfully arranged on the shelves to semi-disguise the reality that there’s little inventory. There’s no refrigeration and no perishable food. [That’s a working scale on the counter since most stuff rice, beans, sugar etc. are all weighed and sold in bulk.] There was nothing we wanted.

"We

Water

This route is in rural Cuba with lots of farm animals living around every home. We chemically treated all water on the trip. The “best” water you find (if not all) will be trucked into the village. With the number of farm animals everywhere, we stayed away from water in the streams. And in the hot weather, during the dry season, many streams may not be running. We also carefully treated all our water and ended up carrying more than we would of liked. Don’t assume water will be plentiful while hiking.

water-tablets

This route is usually hot and water sources are far apart so you’ll carry a fair amount of water. We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water that lasted us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. We like these fast, simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets. You can also use these Aquamira Water Treatment Drops which are more economical but a bit more fussy to use.


Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay

Part 1 – Overview of the Route – A Walk Through Culture and History

Be sure to soak up all the history on this route. Every day has points of the interest from Fidel, Che and the revolutionaries long and dangerous trek to their final mountain retreat. So keep an eye out for markers, monuments, plaques, etc. We saw cleared farm areas (makeshift camp sites for the fighters), markers for various events and battles, and even Che’s command center in Minas Frias. Our guide was great at pointing these out to us and explaining as we went along. By the end of our trek, we found that we knew more about this historic trek than most Cubans.

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There are some strange historical markers/sites like this preserved section of a culvert marking the place where Fidel Castro crossed under a road to go undetected by Batista’s forces!

You’ll also walk though farmland and small villages, some with historical context, but all worth exploring. For us, the highlight was visiting and staying with the campesinos (rural farmworkers). We saw a way of life from almost hundred years ago in the U.S. They still use ox carts!

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Coffee is still carried from the mountains by mule.

The first half of the Ruta de la Revolución is mostly flat. It can be hot and humid as you have yet to climb into the cooler mountains. The trek starts by walking the length of Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a unique coastal karst (limestone) habitat. Much of the trail is lined by trees and there are numerous markers explaining the historical events that occurred the first three days of the revolutionaries trek. The first half of the trek ends in Cinco Palmas where it is possible to take a road out. The small village of Cinco Palmas is where the remaining revolutionaries re-grouped after their disastrous first battle scattered them into 27 separate groups. Here you’ll find a bronze statue of the local campesinos who helped the revolutionaries.

The gate into Minas del Frio.

The gate into Minas del Frio. This where Che Guevara had his secret command/training center during the revolution. Now it’s a mostly decommissioned military base deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. At this point, we are getting near la Comandancia de la Plata and our guide is asking military personnel about directions.

After Cinco Palmas the trek gets hillier but also a bit cooler. Expect plenty of ascending and descending each day. You’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and go through small villages up into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon. On your last day, you’ll culminate at the Comandancia de la Plata. The only way to get there is literally trekking through the jungle just like Fidel and the revolutionaries. Our last day on the trek had 3000 m (10,000 ft) of elevation change!

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Fidel Castro's house in La Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Fidel Castro’s house in la Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Note: Playa Los Coloradas is worth a day to explore before your trip. The Desembarco del Granma National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and worth investigating for it’s unique ecosystem, its hiking trails, and even a few archeological sites. There is also the Desembarco del Granma museum which has a full-sized replica of the Granma, the boat that carried 82 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba (the original boat is in Havana). There’s even a walkway through the mangroves to the very place the Granma ran aground.


Part 2 – Detailed Route Description

In our usual “get ‘er done in a hurry” style, we had only allowed 4, possibly 5 days to do the trek. Since the trek hadn’t been done in years, and the last person to do it took 8 days, we were unsure that we’d get done in time. We were even sure if we be able to follow the path correctly. As such we were in “hair on fire” mode from the get go. Most sane people will take longer to do the trek. Among other things you’ll want more time to visit with people along the way, explore the small farms and villages, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs.

Note: Our route description is for the 4 days it took us to do the route. Most trekkers will want to take 6-8 day to fully enjoy the Ruta.

Our Day 1

We had a 5:00 start in the dark to 1) get as many miles we could for the day, and 2) to get the most hiking time in the cool of the morning.

"Our

Day one is filled with Ruta markers highlighting various points of interest along the first three days of the rebels march inland.  The trek begins at Playa Los Coloradas, the beach where Fidel and his revolutionaries landed in Cuba. The boat, the Granma was a US built boat that sailed from Mexico. It was designed to carry 20 men but had 82. As such it was very slow, arriving two days late, and was at risk of sinking by the time it reached the Cuban shore.

ruta-marker-1200

One of the may concrete route markers and explanatory plaques along the first 18 km of the route.

"The

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Monument at Alegria del Pio, the site of the first battle of the revolution. Batista troops ambushed Castro’s rebel forces 3 days after landing. It was disastrous for the rebels with about 1/3 killed, 1/3 lost and the rest dispersed into 27 groups. Only 21 of the original 82 made it to the Comandancia de la Plata. [this site is about 18 km from the trek start]

heilado-1200

We saw children eating helado (frozen treats on a sugar-cane stick) and followed it to the source. This woman on the right had a chest freezer and was running a small side business making popsicles in the bottoms of soda cans using sugar cane syrup.

Our Day 2

Day two begins with some rollers and by mid morning you are walking roads. You pass by the small town of Manteca pretty quickly, and just the other side is another camp where Fidel and the revolutionaries stayed (so you know you are still on the Ruta).

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small store had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find maltados, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt.

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small “Cafeteria” had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find Bucanero Maltas, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt. It was just OK, but something cold! the extra hydration was welcome.

Continuing on, you acquire a fairly major carretera (road) and walk it until the cut off to Cinco Palmas. Along the major road is a marker where Fidel crossed the road (see photo earlier in post).

The afternoon of the second day we arrived at the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries finally managed to re-group after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle at Alegria Del Pio. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.

"Cuba’s

From here on the hiking gets progressively hillier and steeper for the rest of the Ruta.  Coffee plantations start as soon after you leave Cinco Palmas. Keep an eye out for coffee beans carried by mule, drying plants, and seedling coffee plants on the side of the road waiting to be planted.

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

Mother and daughter of our host family. Daughter is in school uniform and ready to head out.

Mother and daughter of our host family the second nite. Daughter is in her school uniform and ready to head out on mule, to her school.

Our Day 3

Day 3 started out with rolling hills, then flattened out a bit until hitting a huge hill. In 1980, the government paved the road on this hill because it was so steep that trucks frequently flipped over on it. It is a stiff climb up to the top at 850 meters.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host of the `night before worked.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host father of the night before worked. This is where we picked up the horseback rider as a walking companion.

Fidel's Comandancia de la Plata is somehwere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Fidel’s Comandancia de la Plata is somewhere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns, housing a pharmacy and a min-restaurant. Patriotic slogan, "you soy la revolución," means I am the revolution.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns—on a dirt road of course. It houses a pharmacy and a mini-restaurant. The patriotic slogan, “yo soy la revolución,” means I am the revolution.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn't ask what was in the bottle.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn’t ask what was in the bottle (but had a good guess).

We stayed the night in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in preparation for making the final ascent the next day into Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Completw rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Complete with rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

The father of the family we stayed with was feeding his sick son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

The father of the family we stayed with feeding his son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

Our Day 4

Our Day 4 started out with a steep climb to la Comandancia de la Plata via Minas Frias. It’s an unrelenting climb up into to la Comandancia de la Plata. Our total elevation change for the day was 3000 meters or around 10,000 feet.

Sunrise start into the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Sunrise starts climbing over the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

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The historic Comandancia of Che Guevara is in Minas del Frio (Minas Frias). It was here he organized rebels while Fidel was in the nearby Comandancia de la Plata. Now the area around Che’s Comandancia is mostly an abandoned military base.

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Every child in Cuba goes to school, even in remote rural villages. This group of students, are from a school in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, not too far from la Comandancia de la Plata.

At some point, you turn off the road into a small side track and head into the mountain jungle. The trail gets difficult here—very steep uphills thru a narrow jungle path followed by steep downhills. This was easily the toughest part of the hike. Early on we acquired a second guide (a local campesino) who guided us through the jungle into the Comandancia. (Like Fidel 60 years earlier had a campesino guide them to the site!)

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At some point the maze of small mountain trails confused even our guide (left in photo). We ended up getting a local campesino from a banana farm (right) to guide us through the mountains to la Comandancia de la Plata. Picture is in front of the old Hospital for the Comandancia, which is now under reconstruction.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike to La Comandancia, or to Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike the short 3k to La Comandancia. Having not trekked the 150 km Ruta from the coast, they miss much of the context of the Comandancia de la Plata.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.


Travel Tips

  • As of this writing, stand-alone GPS units (SPOT and inReach included) and Satellite Phones were not allowed into Cuba. To confirm, Cuban customs did indeed check our luggage with X-ray machines and also asked us if we were bringing a GPS into the Country. Be forewarned. Strangely, cell-phones with a working GPS are fine. Go figure!
  • Our US cell phones don’t work in rural Cuba (but this may change in the future). But your guide’s cell phone will likely work on some sections of the Ruta. In the bigger towns in Cuba, you can buy Internet cards. On the trek, you will not have this option.
  • We were able to recharge our cell phones at two out of the three houses we stayed in. Electricity will be scarce so don’t expect every house to have it.
  • US debit or credit cards don’t work with Cuban ATMs.
  • So for US Citizens, this is a cash-only country. US dollars will cost an extra 10% to exchange so Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds or any other currency is recommended.  That said, you can change US dollars if needed.
  • CUBAN VISA: US Citizens need a Cuban visa to get into Cuba. We went thru the Miami airport. At the boarding gate in Miami, a kiosk sold Cuban visas good for one visit, for $100/person. We assume this is the same at other airports in the US. Alternatively, you can get a visa through the Cuban consulate. It costs only $50/person however: you will need a passport photo, you’ll fill out forms, provide a copy of your passport and must hand it all to them in person (I provided all the same for my spouse, but it cost $75 since they weren’t there in person with me). A week later, you return to pick up your visa. The $100 airport visa is a much better deal.
  • US CATEGORIES (not really a visa): The US government has several categories of reasons allowing you to go to Cuba. The reason that people have started to go now is that in March, 2016, the US Gov’t added the category of “people-to-people” to their list. You can go to the State Department website to read more about what this means (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html) see “support for the Cuban people”. As long as you fall into one of these categories, you do not need a visa from the US to travel (but will still need a Cuban visa). We carried our itinerary with us upon returning to the US to prove we spent time with Cuban people, but were not asked for it or anything else at US customs.
  • Remember, you are in a very rural area. As such, we saw virtually no cars on the trek. Almost all transport is either by foot or by horse/mule. There may be options to rent horses/mules along some sections, but that needs to be well organized beforehand.
"Cuba Ready" kiosk at Miami Airport.

“Cuba Ready” kiosk at Miami Airport where you can get get a visa.

Gear for La Ruta de la Revolución Trek

Note: this is a excerpt from our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List which we use for worldwide trekking, including our recent trek into the Jungles of Columbia to  see La Cuidad Perdita (the Lost City). Depending on the time of year, temperatures on the Ruta can vary from the humid 80-90s °F with intense sun at lower elevations, to temperatures in the 40’s to 50’s°F on cool nights in the mountains. There is always a slight chance of rain even in the lowlands. The chance of rain increases when you get into the mountains as they have their own weather.

ItemDescriptionComments
Backpack for all your gear30 to 40+ liter backpackOsprey Exos 48 PackULAOhm 2.0 Pack great!, or Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400. See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks for other choices.
Day PackJust about any 20+ liter pack
REI Co-op Flash 22
Warm climate and not carrying food so you can also use a daypack. Alison used an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25
TentLight one e.g. Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 TentFor the slight chance you need to sleep outdoors.  REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent or for lighter options see: Recommended Tents and other Shelters
HammockGood for tropical climateTent alternative. Something like an Ultralite Backpacker Asym Zip or Hyperlite Asym Zip
QuiltFleece blanket or Sleeping BagOnly a light one is needed if at all. We didn’t use one.
Ground PadT-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s”Perfect size for most. Warm. Super comfortable!
Dry bags These inexpensive dry bags Keep gear dry — especially, cameras, electronics & docs like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Clothing and insect repellentsSee Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Trek polesCascade Mountain Tech CarbonHelp on muddy/slippery trails. Pers. favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottleSoftBottle Water BottleNeed 2-3 liter capacity per person. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
 Water purify Chemicals light and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua tablets or Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
CameraCamera Equipment You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
EarplugsFoam Earplugs NRR 33If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
ChargingEasyAcc USB Battery (5.4)Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
ElectronicsAn excellent kit for travelSee “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
HeadlampBlack Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paperIn waterproof Ziplock bagTP not always at toilets in camp.
Hand sanitizerTravel Size For use when water/soap not available
SoapDr. Bronners Small 1 oz bottle
TowelPackTowl Personal TowelFast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreensmall plastic tube about 1/2 fullfor face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
SunglassesNeeded!
Lip balmBert’s Bees or similarMinimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid KitMeds, wound/injury, foot careA small personal kit see the one in my 9-lb Gear List
HeadnetSea to Summit Head Net (1.2)
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion is the most effective on the market.
Knife/scissorsWescott blunt tip school scissorsMore useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
KnifeGerber L.S.T. Drop PointCan cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade (not carry on legal)
RepairTenacious patch, duct tape, glueAlso consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit

See our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for a more complete list of gear.

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is tropical Caribbean trekking with possible exposure to bug transmitted and water/food transmitted diseases. The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. We got all our travel vaccines for water/food transmitted diseases. And we chemically treated all water along the route. We at well-cooked food as much as possible along the route. None of of us got sick.

A short list of Clothing and Bug Protection (a cool set that you won’t overheat in)

Note: this excerpted from a more detailed article. Best Ways to Protect Yourself Insect Diseases While Hiking some readers may want to investigate it in more detail.

Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking

ItemDescriptionComments
AHat (repellent)Exofficio Bugsaway HatBug repellent for upper head area
 BShirt hiking*RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s OasisCool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. Lifetime insect repellent.
CPants hiking*ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sAvailable in both Men’s and Women’s.  Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect ShieldRailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E GBug repellent on face neck handsSawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 DPhysical Prot. Tuck pants into socksPrevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
FPhysical Prot. Tuck shirt into PantsPrevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 HGaitersDirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
HGaiter trap shoe
(optional)
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)
Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium IIor inexpensive REI Coop
 Fleece shirt North Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
 UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
 Bra Patagonia Active spots bra Alison’s favorite
Hat regularOutdoor Research Sun Runner HatRemovable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking Lightweight trail running shoesBoots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg. Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg.Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg.Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear Sandals for showering/camp
SocksInexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in hot climate. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]

* You can treat your own clothing with permethrin spray (Amazon) or REI. This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day.

Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had nice clean clothes to change into after washing up. A courtesy to the families we stayed with!

A Very Different High Route – Escalante Overland Route

The Escalante Overland Route is arguably the most exciting high route in the lower-48! It is certainly the most beautiful and challenging trip we’ve done. The beauty of its remote desert canyons and mesas are equal to the best the planet has to offer, Grand Canyon included. Breathtaking views of red rock and the southwestern desert appear around every bend of the Escalante River. 

The Escalante Overland Route (OLR) traverses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, arguably the best, true wilderness in the lower 48. Compared to the millions who visit the Grand Canyon each year, the vast expanse of the Monument below Highway 12 has no trails and few people. Many of the canyons only see a few visitors a year, if any. You are unlikely to see another person on the route. It is the perfect setting for a bona fide adventure filled with jaw dropping beauty.

Just to be clear, this is Steve Allen’s route. He describes an “Overland Route” in a few terse paragraphs at the end of a 1997 guide book. He presents it more of a challenge than a guide. In the ensuing 20 years it’s remained off the radar, with almost no known completions. In this sense, the OLR is closer to a “revived” route than a new one. Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I hope that this trip report will inspire more people to experience the wonders of the Escalante.

Lead photo: Author on dawn climb to Scorpion Bench. Andrew Skurka is next up. (Photo Don Wilson)

Alan’s photos: Sony a6000 with various Sony lenses (more on my camera setup here)
Don’s photos: Canon 5d with Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens


What is the Escalante Overland Route?

Escalante Overland Route

While millions gawk a the Grand Canyon each year, only a fortunate few will see this dawn view from a remote side canyon on the Escalante Overland Route.

The Escalante Overland Route is a stunning,  “desert canyon high route.” In many ways, it is better or equal to the Grand Canyon and it certainly has fewer people. For about 100 miles, the OLR stays high above the Escalante River Canyon, holding close to the rim. And counterintuitively, following the rim above the canyon is far more challenging than walking down the canyon bottom. The upside is the amazing view when perched on the edge of the rim a thousand feet above the canyon.

The Escalante was the last river of its size to be discovered in the lower 48 states and the area was the last to be mapped in the lower 48. (So recent that the maps have a 1000 meter grid and UTM coordinates!) Today, only a few canyons such as Coyote Gulch and Neon Canyon see regular use. And some of the side canyons are so remote and inaccessible, that people only go there about once every 5 to 10 years.

Escalante Overland Route

What’s our next move? Don checking out maps high above the Escalante. Navigation is critical & at times beyond challenging.

Stats and Route Info

Escalante Overland Route

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE: The 100 mile Escalante Overland Route Follows above the Escalante River all the way from the town of Escalante to where it enters Lake Powell. (The traditional OLR is in blue. The new addition is in Red.)

Location:Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in Utah
Season:Spring (April to mid-May) and Fall (mid-Sept thru mid-Nov)
Duration 7 to 12 days.
Distance:100 miles (including the new addition)

  • 80 miles Steve Allen’s traditional route (6 to 10 days)
  • +20 additional miles from town of Escalante to Allen’s route start (1.5 to 2 days)
Navigation:About as hard as it gets. It will confuse the heck out of you unless you are an expert navigating canyon country.  And even then…
Physical:Strenuous. No trails. Long walking on sand, uneven/broken terrain of all sorts, bushwhacking, unavoidable poison ivy, and a lot of scrambling/climbing. Expect low mileage days.
Technical:Semi-technical: For experienced canyoneers that are also rock climbers. Somebody needs to be capable of leading a few of the climbing sections without protection.
Gear:Sand-resistant shoes with tons of grip on rock. Lots of capacity to carry water. Climbing rope, harness, hardware and webbing to form anchors. (Depending on the time of year temperatures can vary from below freezing to 90s °F with intense sun.)
A light pack is key to moving quickly and safely: Here’s a list of the 9 lbs of gear I took
Reference:Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. The Overland Route description starts on page 306.

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The Escalante Overland Route has risk. Some climbing is un-protectable on the smooth slick-rock. Author, free climbing in wet shoes over a pour-off (an overhanging cliff that blocks a canyon). A light pack is critical here! [photo Don Wilson]

Why is this a Trip Report and not a Comprehensive Guide?

While it’s exciting and beautiful, the Escalante Overland Route (OLR) may also be the most demanding high route in the lower-48.  You have to earn the views and the solitude. This challenging terrain demands 100% of your attention. It also requires your absolute best physical, navigational, and scrambling/climbing abilities. It is not a route to be taken lightly.

The original intent was to publish a Guide and Mapset for the Escalante Overland Route. In 2015, Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I did the first half of the OLR. In 2016, Don Wilson and I went back and completed the route (Andrew had a schedule conflict). Don and I also scouted the last difficult sections of the new addition—crossing Sandy Creek and Calf Creek.

But in the end Don, Andrew and I agree with Steve Allen. The route is too challenging and dangerous for us, in clear conscience, to publish a comprehensive guide. In fact, a guide would ruin the intent of the OLR—a challenging and complex route to be relished and puzzled out on your own. So we opted for this Trip Report and Photo Essay.

That being said, we certainly don’t want to deter competent canyoneers from doing all or part of the route. People who are interested should read through the Challenges and Cautions for the Route section to assess whether this is something they want to undertake. If not, consider the easier, Non-technical Canyon Backpacking option below. But by all means get out into the canyons!

An Easy Introduction to the Wonders of Canyoneering

Many beautiful canyons are low risk – One can simply walk in and walk out. So, if you are interested in canyoneering but don’t know how, you might want to read my Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started. There are a number of spectacular, but not difficult canyon systems waiting for you to explore.


Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

History of the Escalante Overland Route

The original “Overland Route” was proposed in 1997 by Steve Allen in a few terse paragraphs in the very back of his Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. He does not say that he’s done the route in any intentional way, although he certainly could have. And it’s almost 100% certain that Steve has done all portions of the OLR at one time or another on various trips.

But I’ve done a bunch of Google Searching and can find only a few mentions of using short sections of the OLR to connect-up a bit of terrain for another trip. As for the the complete OLR, I’ve found no records or trip reports or mentions, let alone a record or mention of someone successfully completing it. The only person I know who has done the complete OLR is Bill Wolverton and that was a number of years back. Bill recently retired, but he worked for the BLM in Escalante for many years. He is something of a local canyoneering expert and legend. According to Bill, he knows a few people who attempted the OLR, but is not aware of anybody completing it. They could have, but never reported back one way or the other.

midday-shade-1200

Water is scarce above the Escalante but sunlight and heat are plentiful. Don taking a break in the shade at a welcome opportunity to resupply our diminished water supply.

Brief Description

Allen’s Traditional Overland Route

The traditional 80 mile OLR (Steve Allen’s) starts on Route 12 near Calf Creek Falls and finally leaves the Escalante River Canyon just before Lake Powell. In between, it aggressively navigates across/around 10 major side canyons (and numerous smaller side canyons) as quickly as possible—many times with difficult-to-locate and challenging technical entrances and exits. It’s certainly the most difficult navigation that we’ve done.

New Extension – Start in the Town of Escalante

I’ve added a 20 mile extension to the traditional OLR. The extension starts on the historic Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) on the outskirts of the town of Escalante, Utah. This trail delivered mail by mule to Boulder, Utah until 1935—one of the last mule mail delivery routes in the US. The extension crosses the famous Box Death Hollow, before leaving the BMT to cross the major canyons of Sandy Creek, and Calf Creek. It joins Allen’s traditional OLR on Rt 12 about 2 miles south of the Calf Creek Falls Viewpoint. (Note: there are some more elegant and challenging ways to cross Box Death Hollow vs. the Boulder Mail Trail!)

Challenges and Cautions for the Route

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Andrew Skurka down climbs a 5th class section of the route. (We had lowered packs using our rope.) [photo Don Wilson]

Steve Allen, the originator of the Overland Route, may have ratings that some consider a bit conservative, but they still bear serious consideration for people contemplating the route. Allen describes the challenges of the “Overland Route” (OLR) as follows:

“It is not intended to be done in one push, although that would be an incredible accomplishment. [The Overland Route is] meant for those looking for remote and seldom-explored country… Most sections of the OLR are appropriate only for hardcore canyoneers that are also experienced rock climbers. Difficult climbing on steep walls, demanding route-finding problems, long distances between known water sources, and other assorted perils await the bold explorer…

The leader must be experienced with belay techniques and capable of leading the climbing sections without protection. Often the route descriptions are brief [or terse and vague to the point confusing and/or downright misleading]. You must be well versed in map reading and not be intimidated by long stretches of complex and convoluted terrain. You will not find the OLR marked on maps in this guide. The dedicated and adventurous will be forced to assemble the puzzle on their own… Warning: Do not take the OLR lightly. It is intricate, at times trying, and without a doubt dangerous.

What We Did

All that being said, we managed the route without a belay. We only used our rope once, and that that was to lower packs so we could do a 5th class down climb without them (photo above). Others might have a very different take on risk and what to do. But Allen is exactly right on on two points:

  1. There are sections where somebody is going to need to climb class 4+ or low 5th class slick-rock without protection. This is usually down climbing which is less pleasant.
  2. The navigation is exceptionally hard.

A Few Parting Photos from the Route

Here are a few more photos to give you an impression of the Escalante Overland Route

overlook-1600

What the world looks like from the rim of the canyon. To give you a sense of scale, those tiny green dots in the canyon bottom are full sized cottonwood trees.

A typical slick rock camp. This is an extermely remote canyon. (We just put quilts down on the slcikrock to sleep.)

Dinner at typical camp in an extremely remote canyon. Practicing leave not trace, we just put down quilts down on the slick rock to sleep. Nobody will ever know if we were there.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable. Don in our final exit canyon from the Escalante River.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable.

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. Don and I only set ours up when there was a chance of rain, otherwise it stayed in the pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante.

Thanks

And of course many thanks and gratitude to Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka for being great partners in this adventure. -alan

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek (Lost City)

It’s like Machu Picchu, but remote and not overrun by tourists. So definitely put La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) near the top of your travel list!  La Ciudad Perdida is a vast, ancient city in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is believed to have been built by the Tairona culture around 800 CE, about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. Researchers estimate it housed between 2,000 to 8,000 people. La Ciudad Perdida can only be accessed via a two-day trek on foot into the coastal jungle of Colombia. As such, it has nowhere near the crowds, and “touristy feel” of Machu Picchu. The following is a Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek, which has all the information to plan a successful and rewarding trip to this incredible site.

Pictures with: Sony a6000 camera, Sony 10-18mm F4 OSS Lens & Sony 18-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens; iPhone 6+.

Top 5 Reasons to Go on Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek

  1. La Ciudad Perdida is on par with Machu Picchu, but without the mass of humanity. Alison and I were on the site for almost an hour before seeing another person.
  2. La Ciudad Perdida Trek is crazy cheap (only $230 USD for four days, food, accommodation, guiding and fees!) and faster/easier to access compared to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. And at only 1200 meters there are no altitude acclimatization issues.
  3. You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. You literally trek through indigenous villages and lands of the descendants who built and lived in the city. It’s far from an overrun tourist trap!
  4. The walk through the jungle is amazing— some of it is virgin jungle. We know of few multi-day treks in the jungle. Swimming in the cool jungle rivers was one of the trip highlights.
  5. A culturally sensitive eco tour. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. The Wiwa fought to protect the Ciudad Perdida historic site from mining and other commercial atrocities. In other words, your tourists dollars go to indigenous guides who contribute to preserving and protecting the Ciudad Perdida historic site and its indigenous communities against climate impacts, vegetation loss, neglect, looting, and unsustainable tourism.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

This is what a section of La Ciudad Perdida looks like in full sunlight. It’s perched at 1150 meters elevation on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above the Buritaca River. (The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world.)

Note that the “Lost” City of the Teyuna was never actually lost. Local indigenous groups, descendants of the Tairona who built the city knew of the city and traveled through it. It was only “lost” to the outside/non-native world. It was “found” in the early 1970s by local treasure hunters/looters and artifacts started showing up on the black market. Since then, there have been great efforts to preserve and protect the site. La Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Archaeological work is still ongoing.

Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Lost City Trek

Quick Links to: A Step by Step Planner for Your La Ciudad Perdida Trek
Basic Trek Info (below)Top 5 Things to KnowPacking List, Gear for the Trek
Clothing for Insects & DiseaseWhat Camps Are Like (sleeping)Food and Water
Quick Links to General Information: Maps, Guides, and Transportation
Map, Daily Itineraries, Distances
(and Elevation Profiles)
Transportation, Getting to Trip StartGuiding Companies

Basic Trek Info

  • Time to go: Colombia is equatorial so you can do this trek year-round. The best time is December to March which is the dry season and a few degrees cooler. Even so, afternoon rain is common in the mountains and should be expected. People from northern climates may appreciate taking a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.
  • Guiding: You can only do the trek with a guiding company (remember: you are an invited guest into sacred tribal lands).
  • Climate: This is a hot and humid trek through tropical jungle, with all that it entails.
  • Difficulty: Moderate intensity hiking with some up and down on sometimes muddy/slippery jungle trails.
  • Distance: About 44 km (28 miles) out and back, with 2,700 m (9,000 ft) of elevation gain and loss.
  • Duration: The Trek is usually done in 4 days (a half-day, two full days, and a final half-day).
  • Altitude: Maximum elevation is at La Ciudad Perdida itself at 1,150 meters, around 3,800 feet. So you will have no altitude issues.
  • Safety: The area has been safe for over 10 years. The Colombian army actively patrols the area and you will be on a guided trip. In 2016, Colombia’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace agreement with leftist rebel groups.
La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Columbia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

Top 5 things to know

  1. Climate and terrain: This is the jungle. It is hot much of the time and humid all the time. It will likely rain. You will get wet and muddy either from the rain and/or your own sweat. Your clothes will not dry overnight. You need to dress and pack appropriately. See our Gear and Packing List…
  2. Accommodations: This is far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal with open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. They have netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks), cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), while other camps have no electricity.
  3. Food: Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.
  4. Water: We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in the camps. And between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!
  5. Insects and disease: This is third world, tropical trekking in the jungle. The US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines and/or medicines you may need. More on Disease Prevention, Insects & Clothing…
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You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. On your trek, you walk through indigenous villages and lands of the decedents of the people that built and lived in La Ciudad Perdida.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

After crossing the the Buritaca River you immediately ascend over 1350 stone stairs to La Ciudad Perdida. They can be quite slippery when wet. It’s a steep climb — about 300 meters vertical in 0.9 km (1000 ft in just 1/2 mile).

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Touring La Ciudad Perdida with our Wiwa guides in traditional white clothing. Our group had almost two hours on site without seeing another group. (There were 4 groups of around 12 people each, the day we went. But the guides coordinated visits so that groups did not overlap. Fantastic!)

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This isolated mountain range separated from the Andes chain that runs through Colombia. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world's highest coastal range.

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. (La Ciudad Perdida is nestled in its foothills at 1,150 meters.)

A boulder with carved markings, believed to be a map of the Tairona world.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike was one of the trip highlights.

Drying laundry on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp and nativle commuinty looks like prayer flags.

Drying clothing on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp looks more like prayer flags than laundry.

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Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).

Abel, our Wiwa guide in traditional all-white, Wiwa clothing, including a white shoulder bag. He’s holding his poporo, a sacred gourd used for carrying lime which activates the cocoa leaves they chew.

Packing List for La Ciudad Perdida

  • A heavy pack will make uphill hiking hot and unpleasant. We recommend a small pack with minimal gear — less than 4 kilos (8 pounds) per person — under 3 kilos is even better.  See our gear packing list below for ideas to save weight.
  • It’s not advertised, but you can have gear carried between camps by mule. [All food and supplies go in and out on mule. So the mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!] It’s around 20,000 Colombia peso (COP) per bag for each leg (about $7 USD). Our strategy was to put most our gear (for the two of us) into a single pack to be carried on the mule. We then shared a single 20-liter pack between us to carry our minimal gear while trekking during the day.
  • A simple and inexpensive 10-20 liter daypack works just fine — you probably own one. A mesh/vented back panel is desirable as you’ll be sweating tons hiking uphill in the heat. While not cheap, we found our Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, with its breathable mesh back and numerous pockets ideal.
  • We strongly recommend a few light dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. And these dry bags should have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing.
  • Trekking poles make it much easier to negotiate sections of muddy/slippery trail and river crossings. They are far lighter and more functional than the single wooden staff most trekkers use. We took these inexpensive but excellent carbon fiber trekking poles. They are ideal for travel as they compact to fit into carry-on luggage.
  • You’ll want a good headlamp. It gets dark at 18:00 and most areas of camp are unlit.

Finally, this is a trip to take pictures!

  • If you are serious about photography, you’ll want to bring a very good camera, and have a strategy that allows you to shoot in light or intermittent rain.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Hiking up the main road/path to the highest point in La Ciudad Perdida.

Gear for La Ciudad Perdida Trek

ItemDescriptionOzComments
Clothing and insect repellentsSee Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Day PackJust about any 10-20 liter packIf you are sending most of your gear on a mule: We shared an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20
Backpack for all your gear30 to 40+ liter backpackIf you are carrying ALL your gear (NO mule): See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks. Since food and bed are provided you can get by with a smaller/lighter pack.
Dry bags  These inexpensive dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Trek polesCascade Mountain Tech Carbon15.2Help on muddy/slippery trails. Pers favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottleSoftBottle Water BottleOne liter is fine. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
CameraCamera Equipment You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
EarplugsFoam Earplugs NRR 33If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
ChargingEasyAcc USB Battery (5.4)Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
ElectronicsAn excellent kit for travelSee “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
HeadlampBlack Diamond Ion (54g)1.9Light and bright. Use around camp and in unlit sleeping areas. It gets dark at 18:00.
HeadlampBlack Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paperIn waterproof Ziplock bagTP not always at toilets in camp.
SanitizerTravel size alcohol sanitizerFor use when water/soap not available
SoapDr. Bronners0.5Dr. Bronner’s – repackaged into small bottle
TowelPackTowl Personal TowelFast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreensmall plastic tube about 1/2 full0.5for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
Sunglassesmostly not needed in shaded jungle
Lip balmBert’s Bees or similar0.2Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid KitMeds, wound/injury, foot care3.0A small personal kit
HeadnetSea to Summit Head Net (1.2)Mosquito netting – don’t take on most trips
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Knife/scissorsWescott blunt tip school scissors0.9More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
KnifeGerber L.S.T. Drop Point (1.2 oz)Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade
RepairTenacious patch, duct tape, glue 0.2Also consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit
All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-dayhiking gear transpoted to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-day-hiking gear transported to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is third world trekking in the tropical jungle with possible exposure to a number of diseases.  The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. As of this writing the CDC was recommending for the La Ciudad Perdida area, vaccinations/medicines for Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Malaria, in addition to “routine travel vaccines.” (Zika is also present in Colombia. As of 2016, it cannot be prevented by medications or vaccines.)

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Our strategy for insect/disease protection: Long sleeve shirt and full-length pants (going down over shoes), both are factory-treated with insect repellent. Then insect repellent applied to the unprotected areas of hands, neck and face. Note that all the natives of the area always wear long sleeve shirt and full-length pants! [I removed my hat for the photo]

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

Your first and best strategy for not contracting insect transmitted diseases is not to get bitten in the first place

Per the CDC’s section for travelers onMaximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:”

  • We chose to wear long sleeve shirts and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing  treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer)  which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
  • You’ll want a change of dry clothing reserved for camp use only*. We recommend long sleeve shirts and full-leg insect treated pants as insects are active in camp.
  • Some may also choose to wear insect repellent treated socks, altho in our case our pants draped sufficiently over our shoes.
  • To complete the insect repellent treatment for 100% of our body, we applied insect repellent to the unprotected areas of our hands, neck and face; DEET (or the newer  Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics).  We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. And as always, follow the product’s directions!
  • Per the CDC apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • Washing clothes: There’s a great swimming hole at camp Wiwah. You don’t really need a swimsuit. Alan swam in his hiking shorts commando. Alison swam in her running bra and underwear (very close to matching). It was a great way to rise out/wash hiking clothes. It’s a great way to rinse sweat and salt off your body and out of your hiking clothes. Otherwise you can wash clothes in the camp in the evening.

* Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had dry camp clothes to change into. Bliss!

Clothing and Insect Protection (a light set that won’t weigh you down)

ItemDescriptionOzComments
Shirt hikingRailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis10.0Our favorite: Light, cool, sun protection AND continuous insect repellent. Nice pockets.
Shirt (camp)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI Continuous insect repellent.
Pants (hiking or camp)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield 10.0RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Continuous insect repellent.
Pants hikingExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s16.0Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Continuous insect repellent.
Insect repellentSawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Insect repellentSawyer Permethrin, treat clothingAllows you to treat your current clothing. Lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
 Rain Jacket*Outdoor Research Helium II
or inexpensive REI Coop
 6.4Great for staying dry when in camp.  Likely too hot to wear hiking except downhill.
 Fleece shirtNorth Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip 7.9 Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
BraPatagonia Active spots braAlison’s favorite
Hat insectExofficio Bugsaway HatSun and additional insect protection for head
Hat regularOutdoor Research Sun Runner Hat2.5Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking Lightweight trail running shoesBoots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg. Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
 18.0 Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg.Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)Another favorite. Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg.Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear Sandals for showering/campPut insect repellent on your feet after showering or use with socks to wear around camp
SocksInexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in the muddy jungle. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz) 1.2Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.
SwimsuitIf you don’t want to swim in your clothes. See washing clothes above.

*Note: You don’t absolutely need a rain jacket. But it’s nice for getting around camp when it’s raining. Or when you are hiking long downhills in torrential rain. Otherwise it’s too hot and the rain is refreshing.

View of the Sierra Nevada. The Lost City is perched on top of a ridge somewhere up “there.”

Guiding Options

As noted earlier we chose to go with an indigenous tour company. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. Other tour companies are below. All tour companies operate out of Santa Marta.

  1. Wiwa Tour
  2. Expotur-Eco
  3. Magic Tours
  4. Guias y Baquianos
  5. Turcol

Note that many of these tours will be in Spanish. You may need to make arrangement for an English language tour or an interpreter

Transportation, Getting to Trip Start

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La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4-hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

  • From the US, it’s easiest to fly into Cartagena.
  • At the airport (as long as it is before about 8:00pm), you can take a taxi to one of several buses that will take you to Santa Marta. The information desk at the airport can assist in getting a taxi to bus services. (Alternatively, stay a few days in Cartagena and get used to the hot weather.)
  • It’s about a 4-hour drive to Santa Marta and the roads can be busy at any time of day. You’ll go through the city of Barranquilla (Colombia’s 4th largest) and will experience heavy traffic there unless it’s off-peak.
  • The most attractive options we found were buses leaving from near the airport: Marsol for COP 30,000/pp and has a set schedule leaving about 5-6 times per day. Last bus at 4pm. Berlinas, which has good WiFi on-board (COP 40,000/pp) and seems to leave about every 30 minutes from 5am ish to 8pm ish–the Marbella Office is 10 minutes from the Airport.
  • If you go to the Main Bus Terminal in Cartagena, you will find the cheapest buses to Santa Marta. But it will take a lot more time to get to Santa Marta.  It’s a long way from the airport to the Main Terminal and the cheapest buses make more stops.
  • The trek starts in Santa Marta. Most treks start between 8-9am from the trekking company’s office.
  • At that point, any unpaid balance is paid and then trekkers are loaded up in the back of a jeep for a 3-hour drive. The jeep’s not very comfortable and packs go on top of the car (our driver covered packs with garbage bags when it started to rain).
  • The jeep then leaves the main road and begins an hour long ascent to El Mamey on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. At El Mamey, after lunch, the hike begins.
  • As noted, at this point if you’d like to use the mules to carry your gear, let the guides know and they can help to organize that for you (it was about $20,000 COP/day).
A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

What Camps Are Like (sleeping)

This far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal. Open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. Netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks). Cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), and other camps have no electricity. See Best Backpacking and Travel electronics Gear to keep your electronics charged and running whether there is electricity or not. Sleeping quarters are tight and you may want to wear earplugs at night.

Note: Although we did not have problems, we did hear a report of insect bites (fleas? bedbugs?) in the bunks at Camp 2 (Wiwa).

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Evening at Adán camp (first night on trek), which is also a small native community. Note the suspension bridge across the river.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common at most camps.

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Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common.

Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting.

Food and Water

Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.

Typical outdoor eating area. And forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations!

Typical outdoor eating area. And please forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations! That is certainly not us.

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A typical plate of food [lunch on day 3].

We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in all the camps housed in large containers (but ask before just to make sure it has been purified!).

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Between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!

Detailed Daily Itinerary and Map (4 Day Tour)

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The Trail

While daily hiking distances are modest, this is not a flat trek with easy trails. The tropical heat and humidity make the days seem longer and harder. Most folks in our group managed fine, but some sections of the trail are steeply up and down. Some sections are deeply eroded, rutted, and wet. There are more than a few muddy, slippery or rocky sections. There are a number of river crossings. And note that wet rocks (and stairs) can be insane slippery!

Note: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

The Map

Overall of Ciudad Perdida Trek. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE AS A PDF.

Daily Itinerary for 4 Day Tour

Note 1: most days we woke before dawn, breakfasted and start hiking around daylight (about 6 am). This was to avoid hiking in the heat of the day and to hopefully arrive in camp before the afternoon/evening rain.

Note 2: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

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Waterfall on Day 2

Day 1 – ½ day hiking to Adán – 7.6 km (4.7 mi) 1,900 ft ascent, 900 ft descent

day1-profile

Text descriptions below are adapted from Wiwa Tour and we’ve left some obvious grammatical errors. Our notes/corrections are in [] brackets.

We start from the oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta at 8:30 am in a heated [I think they mean air conditioned] van to the sector Aguacatera, there perform transshipment to a 4 × 4 vehicle [No transfer. We took a single 4×4 vehicle all the way from Santa Marta to El Mamey. No A/C in the vehicle but not really needed.] that will lead us towards the sector mamey (Machete Pelao) in there we will have lunch. After lunch we start a walk of 7.6 km to the first camp (Adan hut, peasant community) where we spend the night. We will also make a stop in a crystal clear river for a refreshing bath. Some people complete the walk in 3 hours, others in 5, all depends on your physical condition. During the night, the Indian guide will talk about the history and customs of their community and the region.

[It is full sun and can be very hot hiking steeply uphill in the first afternoon. But there is strong sun is only the first ½ day and last ½ day (Mamey to Adan section). Otherwise you are in the jungle and could get by without a hat or sunglasses depending on your preference.]

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

Day 2 – to Paradise Camp – 14.7 km (9.1 mi)  3500 ft ascent, 2000 ft descent

day2-profile-copy

Begin a walk of about 8 hours, halfway visit the indigenous community of Mutanzhi and we interact with them, then get to the cabin 3. (Paradise cabin Teyuna, indigenous community). Located at an altitude of 830 meters above sea level, here we are at the foot of Teizhuna (Teyuna), the holy city of the Tayrona. On this tour we will appreciate much of the fauna and flora of our Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In the afternoon we can relax and take a bath in the river. At night the guide will tell you more about Lost City and its sacred meaning for the natives of the Sierra.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Day 3 – to the Lost City, then return to Wiwa camp – 12 km (7.5 miles) 1800 ft ascent, 3500 ft descent

day3-profile

After breakfast we depart at 7 a.m. to Lost City. To reach the holy city will go up by 1200 steps built by the ancient Tayrona. After about an hour we reach the city and take a journey through the different sacred sites of this. There, the Mamo (Indian spiritual leader) sacred stories tell us and give us advice for life. At 11 a.m. back to the cabin 3 for lunch. After lunch we start down 5 to 6 hours to camp 2 (cabin Mumake, indigenous community [actually Camp Wiwa]) where we spend the night.

Day 4 – ½ day hiking to El Mamey, Return to Santa Marta – 12.7 km (7.9 mi) 2200 ft ascent, 3000 ft descent

day4-profile

In hours of the morning to the Mamey (Machete Pelao), in the way we visit a small natural waterfall to freshen up and take a bath. Arriving at the mamey take lunch, then we collect the vehicle that will take us to the avocado industry [no avocado tour], we will take a heated van that will take us back to Santa Marta. arrival at approximately 4:00 pm.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON SITE MAP TO ENLARGE

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Southern Sierra High Route

Southern Sierra High Route – an alternative to the JMT

The Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) is a superb alternative to the JMT for the adventurous traveler. Compared to the John Muir Trail (JMT), the SoSHR is higher and more remote. It avoids the JMT crowds, the landscape is more spectacular, and the travel more challenging. The increased solitude of the SoSHR intensifies your high-country experience. The SoSHR is significantly higher & more rugged than the JMT with 14 passes over 11,000 ft vs. 4 for the JMT and crosses the Sierra Crest 8 times vs. the JMT’s single crossing.

The SoSHR can be done as an elegant route in its own right—about 100 miles of hiking from end to end. Or it can be appended to the SHR to create a route paralleling the best of the Sierra – a spectacular ~270 mile route stretching from Twin Lakes in the north to Cottonwood Lakes in the south.

Revised in 2016: Includes new/validated route over the Baxter/Acrodectes Ridge. This route:

  • Bypasses an additional 13 miles of the John Muir Trail
  • Avoids the crowded Rae Lakes Basin (via another beautiful lake basin)
  • Keeps the route continuously over 10,000 ft (by avoiding the drop into “Woods Hole”)
  • Most of the 100 miles are off-trail or on unmaintained/decommissioned trails (only 20 mile on JMT)

Lead photo: Dawn view of Mt. Whitney. We summited with Full Packs via the Mountaineer’s route. But rather than exiting at the traditional Whitney Portal we traversed the Whitney Crest and continued south to exit the high peaks near the shoulder of Mt. Langley 14,026′ (4,275 m), the southernmost 14er in the Sierras. [photo Don Wilson]

Overview of the Southern Sierra High Route

by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

To put it plainly, Roper’s Sierra High Route completely misses the highest and grandest part of the Sierra Mountains. This glorious 40 miles of the Southern Sierra Crest includes Mt. Whitney the highest peak in the lower 48 and the traditional finishing point of the JMT. It’s a must for an aficionado of the High Sierra.

In 2014 Don Wilson and I decided to see if we could put a line together that extended the SHR to the south, traversing near the Sierra crest to Mount Whitney and beyond. A good look at the maps revealed a beautiful line that weaves across the Sierra crest numerous times, maintaining the spirit of the SHR, and offers hiking as good or better than any portion of the SHR. Our Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) extends south from Upper Basin, where the SHR turns west and goes toward lower terrain. It traverses the highest part of the range, mixing travel on the JMT with many miles of superb off trail hiking.

Southern Sierra High Route

Don Wilson on Russell Carillon Col en-route to the Mountaineer’s Route for Mt. Whitney.

The SoSHR is a route in keeping with the spirit of the original SHR, and a route we believe would be close to John Muir’s heart. It starts high in the Palisades, the most rugged sub-range in the Sierra, and offers a summit of Mt Sill 14,154′ (4,314 m). According to R.J. Secor in his must-have book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” The route also includes an ascent of the Mountaineer’s Route up Mt. Whitney 14,505′ (4,421 m) and a traverse across its summit, before continuing on to exit the high peaks near the shoulder of Mt. Langley 14,026′ (4,275 m), the southernmost 14er in the Sierra.

Like Roper with the SHR, we do not claim to be the first or even hundredth people to hike any portion of this route. We stand on the shoulders of many generations of rugged and adventurous travelers in the Range of Light. We simply chained together existing high passes, summits, and trails pioneered by others to create a much longer route.

Resources for the SoSHR

First light approach to climb the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt Whitney.

Southern Sierra High Route Overview Map

Southern Sierra High Route

Where the Sierra High Route goes low and ends in Kings Canyon, the SoSHR continues south along the highest part of the Sierra for another 80 miles. [Click on overview map image to enlarge]

SoSHR vs. JMT — Basic stats from LeConte Canyon to Whitney Portal

2016-soshr-stats

From LeConte Canyon to its the southern terminus, the SoSHR stays closer to the Sierra crest and significantly higher than the JMT.

Don explores the shoreline of beautiful Golden Bear Lake. The lake lies at 11,171 feet in pristine Center Basin, on the way to Junction Pass. Lots of solitude here as it is on a portion of the old JMT that has been “decommissioned” for years.

Permits, Logistics and Other Particulars

Permits
Hiking this route requires a wilderness permit from Inyo National Forest. The entry point at South Lake trailhead is quite popular, so it is best to reserve your permit in advance. As of 2014, permits can be reserved up to 6 months in advance.

When you apply for your permit, it is crucial that you indicate that you will be traveling cross country through the Mount Whitney Zone, which will require an extra fee. After applying online, you will receive a confirmation of your reservation, but you must still pick up your actual permit on the day before your trip begins.  Permits can be picked up at the forest service offices in either Lone Pine or Bishop.  You can arrange to pick up your permit after hours, or on the day your trip begins by calling the forest service office.

Be aware that travel near Mount Whitney is regulated more tightly than in other areas of the range. By entering the area near from the north, you will not need to compete via the lottery for a permit, and your permit from South Lake will be all you need (be sure to choose the option to travel through the Whitney Zone!). Once you enter the area known as the Mount Whitney Zone, special regulations apply. Most notable among these regulations is the requirement to pack out your human waste. Numerous options are available for wag bags that are made for this purpose.

Alan on the upper part of the talus approach, below the steep class 3 section, on the climb to 13,300 foot Russell-Carillon Col. Tulainyo Lake lies below. Tulainyo Lake is the highest lake of its size in North America. The route enters near the upper left corner of the photo, crosses the snow field and traverses along the shore before starting up the talus. [photo Don Wilson]

Entry
The obvious point to access the northern start of SoSHR is Bishop Pass via the South Lake Trailhead. This popular trailhead is just outside of the town of Bishop California. Some may choose to stay overnight in either Bishop or Lone Pine to get an early morning start.

Another option, and one that we used, is to start in late in the day, hike a few miles to a convenient place, such as Long Lake, and make camp for the night. This allows you one night to acclimatize at over 10,000 feet, and gives you a dawn jumpstart the next morning, with a few miles and a thousand feet of climbing under your belt—advantageous if you plan on making it to Palisade Lakes that day. This also saves a vacation day as you can fly, even from the East Coast, and be hiking in the Sierras the same day. I.e. you can do what Alan did and fly to LAS or LAX early in the morning, rent a car, dive to Lone Pine, meet your shuttle and be at the South Lake trailhead by mid-late afternoon. There is no taxi or public bus service from the town of Bishop to the South Lake Trailhead. You’ll need to arrange a private shuttle or hitch from town.

Exit
The route terminates at Cottonwood Lakes trailhead near Horseshoe Meadows. If you opt to leave your car in the town of Lone Pine, you can easily hitch back to town from Cottonwood Lakes. By leaving your car in Lone Pine the logistics are also easier should you end up leaving the route at an earlier trailhead (Whitney Portal, for example) due to weather, slow progress or other reasons. We arranged to leave our car at the Comfort Inn, at the southern end of town.

Duration
We spent about 5½  days on the route. We had 5 full days of hiking, plus very short days on entry and exit.  This included a half day of rest at Upper Boy Scout Lake, where we arrived about noon and spent the rest of the day exploring and relaxing. We did not take the option to climb Mount Sill on this trip, since we had climbed it on a previous trip. Climbing Mount Sill would add between a half and full day to the trip, depending on your climbing speed and the arrival time to start the route.

Airports
The Eastern Sierra trailheads and entry towns of Lone Pine and Bishop are approximately equidistant from the airports in Las Vegas (LAS) and Los Angeles (LAX) —LAS is four hours to Lone Pine (but a stunning drive through Death Valley National Park!), and LAX about three-and-quarter hours to Lone Pine (but susceptible to traffic problems).

From the airports you can either rent a car to get to Lone Pine, or get a shuttle bus from LAX (see East Side Sierra Shuttle). The shuttle from LAX is a bit pricey and might best be a shared expense when traveling with others. There are other private shuttle options from LAX to Lone Pine.

Shuttles
The following shuttle and bus services are available in the area. We opted to leave our car in the town of Lone Pine and take a shuttle straight to the trailhead at South Lake.

  • East Side Sierra Shuttle http://www.eastsidesierrashuttle.com/
    This operates in the southern end of the Sierras out of Independence. You can get shuttled between Bishop and Lone Pine trailheads, or get picked up at LAX and driven to trailhead.
  • Mammoth Shuttle http://originalmammothshuttle.com/
    A bit further from SoSHR trailheads (i.e. a bit more expensive) this operates in the more northern portion of the Sierras out of Mammoth Lakes CA.
  • Eastern Sierra Transit  http://www.estransit.com/CMS/content/395-routes
    A bus service that operates along Highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierras and connecting the towns of Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes

Bear Canisters
No way around it, a bear canister is required for this trip. The trip passes through Dusy Basin and Rae Lakes, well known hot spots for bear activity as well as the Mt. Whitney area which also requires bear canisters.

Depending on how fast you travel it may be a challenge to fit all your food into a single canister. We just barely fit our food into a Bear Vault BV500 (Don) and a Bearikade Weekender (Alan). There are no easy re-supply points for this trip, so you may need to be creative (but obviously comply with all regulations) if you have more than a canister’s worth of food—possibly sharing a smaller third canister (~300 to 400 in3) with a partner. Here’s another useful reference for bear canisters

Snow Conditions
As a high country route, snow conditions play a significant role in how quickly and safely the route can be completed. While almost all of the route will hold snow early in the season, portions of the route that are most susceptible to holding late snow include Mather Pass, Grasshopper Pass, some parts of the Wallace Creek Valley, Tulainyo Lake, Russell-Carillon Col and the upper part of the Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney. It is up to you to determine the proper gear based on the time of year, snow levels, and your own experience. The route is most easily done when it is nearly snow free. On our trip, it had recently snowed on Mt. Whitney with an ensuing melt and freeze cycle, leaving the final 300 ft of the Mountaineer’s Route icy and more challenging.

ROUTE DESCRIPTION

We describe the SoSHR from north to south, but it can obviously be hiked in either direction. By hiking from north to south you will save the highest and best parts of the route for the last days, when your pack is lighter and your body more acclimatized to the altitude. The route enters at Bishop Pass, joins the SHR in Dusy Basin, and then winds through lovely and complex Palisade Basin. Once over Mather Pass the SoSHR and SHR part ways. The SoSHR heads south toward the high peaks of the Southern Sierra while the SHR heads away from the Sierra Crest towards the lower terrain of the Monarch Divide and Kings Canyon. From Mather Pass, the SoSHR follows the JMT for about 11 miles to the far side of Pinchot Pass. There the SoSHR leaves the JMT and stays mostly off-trail and off of the JMT for the next 60 miles.

SECTION 1: SOUTH LAKE TO UPPER BASIN

The Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) starts at the South Lake trailhead, west of Bishop, CA. This popular trailhead allows fast access to the beautiful high country terrain that we seek. In this section we cross the Sierra crest for the first time, and then descend to join Roper’s Sierra High Route (SHR) near Dusy Basin. We will follow the Sierra High Route to Upper Basin, just south of Mather Pass, where our route will head south to higher country as Roper’s route heads west, toward King’s Canyon and lower terrain.

The route stays on trail for its initial miles and climbs over popular Bishop Pass. From Bishop Pass you will see rugged Mount Agassiz (13,899 feet), with its summit less than a mile to the east. Mount Agassiz is the northernmost peak in the Palisades – a fitting place to enter the high country. The Palisades are generally considered the most rugged sub-range in the Sierra, and we will get a close up view of numerous peaks as we traverse just west of the crest all the way to Upper Basin.

Leaving Bishop Pass, head south on the trail for about a mile and a half. The trail descends gradually towards lush Dusy Basin. Just below 11,000 feet the trail makes an abrupt right turn to the west. Leave the trail here and descend cross country to the south, and slightly east. It is only about 5 miles of cross country terrain from this point until you reach the John Muir Trail (JMT) at Lower Palisade Lake. While not technically difficult, much of the terrain in this section is complex and the travel is slow. Expect to spend 5 to 8 hours working your way from Dusy Basin to Lower Palisade Lake.

Your first goal is to traverse toward the head of Dusy Basin at the bottom of Knapsack Pass. Travel is mostly easy through this section and you may pick up an occasional use trail. Upon reaching the head of the canyon, look for a weakness and small gully system below the pass. Ascend this gully system past occasional cairns up to the pass. From the top of the pass you will not drop directly down, but instead head left (east) toward Barrett Lakes. You can drop diagonally down and left, or you can stay high (nearly the height of the pass) along a use trail for some distance before dropping. Either way, your objective is to reach the outlet of the westernmost of the Barrett Lakes (Lake 11428 on your map). Traverse along the south side of this lake and then along a use trail on the north side of the larger Barrett Lake. Your next objective is to climb up to a non-obvious saddle located just northeast of point 12,085. After reaching this saddle, an obvious and easy half mile traverse will take you to Potluck Pass.

Alan hops across rocks near Barrett Lakes, in Palisade Basin. Crossing Palisade Basin involves climbing three passes and some complex terrain. [photo Don Wilson]

From the top of Potluck Pass you need to connect to ramps off to the right (south). Head directly right, looking for ramps that go further right, then slightly down, then right again. Follow these to where the ramps end and you join a steep scree slope. Descend this slope via obvious use trails. Continue southeast to reach the outlet of the large lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass.

At this point you have the option (highly recommended) to summit Mount Sill. Mount Sill (14,162 feet) is a classic climb and one of the most beautiful peaks in the Sierra. According to R.J. Secor in his highly recommended book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” Head to the north end of the lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass. Then continue north up slabs and talus into the cirque between Polemonium Peak and Mount Sill. Stay north of the snowfields in this cirque if possible and head to the obvious west ridge of Mount Sill. Once on the ridge, the rock improves dramatically. Ascend steep but good rock to the summit. We encountered several class 3+ boulders on the west ridge below the summit. With careful route finding you may be able to keep the difficulty at the class 2-3 grade reported by Secor. For more route information, see the description of the Southwest Slope route (The High Sierra, page 245, 3rd edition). You can expect to spend about 5-6 hours to ascend and descend this climb. By taking the option to climb Mount Sill, you will have climbed a superb 3rd class 14K peak at the beginning of the trip to match another great 3rd class 14K summit at the southern end of the trip; Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route.

We highly recommend summiting Mount Sill. At (14,162 feet) it is a classic climb and one of the most beautiful peaks in the Sierra. According to R.J. Secor in his highly recommended book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” [photo Don Wilson]

Mount Sill, in the center of the photo, taken from the outlet of Lake 11,680, between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass.

Ascending a late season snowfield en-route to summiting Mt. Sill. [photo Don Wilson]

Descending from the summit of Mt. Sill. The route to the summit is the ridge behind Alan and continues up and to the right in this photo. [photo Don Wilson]

Looking north back at Potluck Pass from the vicinity of Cirque Pass. North Palisade and Thunderbolt peak in the background. Unnamed lake at 11,680 spreads out below. Mt Sill is out of the picture to the right.

From the outlet of the large lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass, head southeast up slabs, then turn left when you hit obvious ramps that head up toward the pass. Follow the ramps up to an obvious narrow slot about 6 feet wide. Hike up through this slot and then head left up more ramps and ledges to the summit.

Once on Cirque Pass you have only one more descent remaining before you reach the comfort of the JMT for a number of miles. Expect the terrain to slow you down, as many ledges and slab systems complicate the initial part of the descent. Stay right as you start to hike down, connecting ramp systems and grassy small meadows. The terrain eases up after several hundred feet of descent. As Lower Palisade Lake comes into view, do not head directly toward its outlet. Instead, stay more right heading almost directly south and carefully looking for ledge systems that will connect you to the Palisade Lakes basin below. The further left you go in this final section of the descent, the steeper the terrain will be. You should reach the John Muir Trail in nearly flat terrain west of Lower Palisade Lake. There are popular campsites at the lake’s outlet, but even better sites near the trail about a mile farther along toward Mather Pass. The route ascends the John Muir Trail over 12,100 foot Mather Pass, and then drops into pristine Upper Basin. As the trail levels off and reaches the uppermost lakes in Upper Basin, we reach the end of our first section. Here Roper’s SHR heads to the southwest and Frozen Lake Pass. Our route continues south along the JMT, heading for Pinchot Pass and the highest peaks in the Sierra.

Mount Bolton Brown at sunset, taken from near Palisade Lakes.

SECTION 2: UPPER BASIN TO VIDETTE MEADOW

New for 2016: There are two options for the route between Pinchot Pass and Glen Pass

Note: The new B route is courtesy of our friends Jim Yurchenco and Amy Lauterbach who traversed/scouted it in September 2016 (see their Baxter Pass article). Thanks a million!

  1. This version follows the JMT all the way from Pinchot Pass to Glen Pass. It has the advantage of being on-trail, easy to follow and with little risk. It’s disadvantages are the usual hiker traffic on the JMT and especially in the Rae Lakes Basin. Also, it is the only point on the route that drops below 10,000 feet into “Woods Hole,” at 8,500 ft. (if you take Option B the entire SoSHR will be over 10K.)
  2. *This version leaves the JMT and takes a higher off-trail route. After going over Pinchot Pass it goes off-trail to the Woods Lake Basin. Then summits Mt. Baxter to gain access to Baxter Lakes Basin. From there the route briefly regains the JMT before going southwest at Arrowhead Lake to bypass Rae Lakes via 60 Lakes Basin. It regains the JMT at the base of Glen Pass. The advantages of this route is that it avoids some of the highest JMT traffic areas including Rae Lakes. It it is a much higher route (keeping your entire SoSHR hike above 10,000 feet), with superb views. There’s the option of an easy and fine summit of Mt. Cotter from 60 Lakes Basin. Downsides are challenging navigation, strenuous hiking, and some risk crossing between Woods Lake and Baxter Lakes.

SECTION 2: The Start (for both Options A and B) – Upper Basin and over Pinchot Pass

From Upper Basin the route follows the John Muir Trail for about 11 miles to the 3400m contour on the far (east) side of Pinchot Pass. The first few miles through Upper Basin are some of the most beautiful miles of the JMT, filled with alpine grasses, many small creeks and surrounded by the 14,000 foot crest containing Split Mountain and Cardinal mountain to the east, and the clean granite spires of Vennacher Needle and Mount Ruskin to the west. Descend gradually through Upper Basin, crossing many small creeklets and an infinite selection of beautiful campsites. After about 5 miles the trail reaches the valley bottom, where four creeks come together to form the South Fork of the Kings River. The crossing here can be exciting in early season, but there are frequently good log crossings. Look both upstream and downstream if the water is high. From the crossing, stay on the John Muir Trail, climbing rapidly out of the forest and into the basin below Pinchot Pass. Follow the trail up to 12,100 foot Pinchot Pass, passing several large lakes in cirques below the pass. From the top of the pass there is a beautiful view to the south. Here one can spot Grasshopper Pass in an obvious notch a little less than 6 miles distant as the crow flies. Grasshopper Pass lies at a bearing of 155 degrees (true) from Pinchot Pass. Just to the left of Grasshopper Pass is Mt. Baxter which is the route from Woods Lake Basin into Baxter Lakes basin for Route Option B.

SECTION 2: Option A – Take the JMT from Pinchot Pass to Glen Pass

Red markers on map: Stay on the JMT to the Sawmill Pass Trail junction. [Note: that there is an option to take the Sawmill Pass Trail and join the Option B route].  Go past the SPT Junction and continue on the JMT dropping gradually and following Woods Creek on its west side. After descending all the way to 8,500 feet, you reach a junction where the JMT turns southeast and crosses Woods Creek on an impressive suspension bridge. A heavily used campsite with bear boxes lies on the far side of the bridge. From this low point on the trail the route climbs steadily to the beautiful Rae Lakes which has many campsites, some with bear boxes. Note: The Option A and Option B Routes converge on the JMT above Rae Lakes at el. 3460; just before the main switchbacks at the base of Glen Pass (west of “Painted Lady”).

If you opt for the higher, non-JMT alternate route (SECTION 2: Option B) you’ll enter the beautiful Woods Lake Basin. Here due to the long closure for bighorn sheep, and now low-use as an “unmaintained” trail, we found an abundance of wildlife in this basin. It is highly recommended as an overnight (side trip, 3-4 miles total, out and back) off of the JMT even if you decide not to go over Mt Baxter and into Baxter Lakes Basin.

SECTION 2: Option B – Leave the JMT and take a higher route over Mt Baxter

Purple markers on the map: A mostly non-JMT route exists between Pinchot and Glen Passes.  In no place does the route exceed class 2 in difficulty, although some short sections are quite loose and require caution to cross safely.  It is assumed that the hiker has previous off-trail experience, good navigational skills and appropriate judgment.

Southern Sierra High Route

Picture [click on image to enlarge] showing the key points for the ascent of the north ridge of Mt. Baxter (from near Stocking Lake). A more detailed route description is below. [Photo Jim Yurchenco]

Go over Pinchot Pass and leave the JMT around the 3400m contour and head southeast into the drainage east of Twin Lakes. Contour south and climb to the saddle between Mt. Cedric Wright and Coliseum Mtn. This is Coliseum Col. (From here it is an easy class 1 ascent of Coliseum Mountain.)

Drop down the south side of the Col to the old Sawmill Pass Trail. Cross the trail and continue cross-country to Lake 3331. [Note: see below for an alternate route to here using the Sawmill Pass Trail – green markers on map.]  Skirt the lake on its right side, cross the inlet creek and ascend a series of ramps and benches on the east side of the Stocking Lake drainage. Heading south, your target is a large scree slope and low point east of the mid point of Stocking Lake. South of this low point is the prominent north ridge of Mt. Baxter.

To gain the scree slopes below the crest of the ridge, a prominent chute at the 3700-meter level is climbed. This chute shows as a distinct notch on the USGS topo immediately west of the word CO in “FRESNO CO” on the map. The chute is maybe 40 to 60 meters in length and is loose but not horrible. Ascend the chute and continue up the scree to the Baxter north ridge.

The ridge is solid and easy to ascend. On ridge’s west side and at its top will be another short chute leading to just west of the Baxter summit. Once on top of Baxter, descend southwest to the lake at 3600 (see note below*) and then to the larger Baxter Lake at 3390. Here you will find remnants of the old Baxter Pass Trail. This trail heads west and appears, disappears, and reappears again as it travels down canyon. Follow this trail for something over 3.6 miles to its junction with the JMT near Dollar Lake.

Take the JMT south for a short distance to where it crosses the main drainage from the Rae Lakes. From here, head southwest cross-country to Basin Notch. Climb Basin Notch and enter the 60 Lakes Basin. Use paths and an old trail lead to the lakes at 3300. Here the trail heads east towards Rae Lakes. Leave the trail near the north end of Lake 3304 if you want to climb Mt. Cotter via the south ridge (blue markers on map – Class 2/3, Secor 3rd ed., pg. 166). This is a very pleasant climb to a peak with fine views.

Otherwise, continue on the old trail for another half mile or so and then head south off-trail to lake 3353. From here continue south cross-country over the pass at 3560 and descend the other side to the lakes just west of the JMT. Regain the JMT just below the switchbacks leading to Glen Pass. [Note there is also the option to continue on the 60LB trail to meet the JMT a bit sooner at Rae Lake “3213.” green markers on map]

* Note: Some travelers have advised to be careful when descending to the lake at 3600 as a number of the chutes to the lake have loose rock and debris. Pay close attention to the route on the map, and pick your route carefully. Note that the route holds the ridge/county line until almost reaching “PARK” before descending SW towards the lake. Be sure to take your time to find the best and most solid footing on the way down.

Alternate route into Woods Lake basin to connect with SECTION 2: Option B

Green markers on the map: From the 3400m contour hike the JMT about 1.5 mils to the Sawmill Pass Trail Junction. Take the SPT southeast and immediately cross Woods Creek. The sometimes faint trail then climbs slowly and turns east, traversing along the northern boundary of several lakes. To the south, you will get occasional views of enormous Woods Lake. Your objective is to leave the trail about two miles after the Sawmill Pass junction and head to an L shaped lake at 10,930 feet. This lake is labelled as Lake 3331T on the USGS Quad. You will now join the “SECTION 2: Option B” route and headed over Mt. Baxter.

Southern Sierra High Route

View of Acrodectes Peak from the summit of Mt. Baxter. Grasshopper “pass” is hidden behind the near pile of talus. [Photo Jim Yurchenco]

SECTION 2: The End (for both Options A and B) – Glen Pass to Vedette Meadow

The Option A and Option B Routes converge on the JMT above Rae Lakes at el. 3460; just before the main switchbacks at the base of Glen Pass (west of “Painted Lady”). From here the JMT climbs steeply via switchbacks to 11,930 foot Glen Pass. Follow the trail down from the pass for several miles, where you will encounter several junctions with trails heading down from Kearsarge Pass. Look at your map carefully. After crossing a sandy flat basin below the trail junctions, you will drop more steeply toward Vidette Meadow. Finally reaching the valley floor near Bubbs Creek, you come upon a junction where you will turn east and traverse along the nearly level Lower Vidette Meadow. There is little that resembles a meadow here. The terrain is heavily forested, with a few small glimpses of grass. There is reason to celebrate your arrival here. You’ve completed a long section on the SoSHR, and the route ahead gets much more challenging. It contains some of the best and highest cross country travel in the Sierra.

SECTION 3: VIDETTE MEADOW TO UPPER BOY SCOUT LAKE

Leaving the junction at 9500 feet, you travel east on the JMT through thick pines and past numerous campsites. The trail stays fairly level for a little over a mile, then begins a gradual climb. Just before reaching 10,000 feet the trail enters a sandy flat section with open forest. For the next mile and a half the trail stays close along the east side of Bubbs Creek. Good campsites abound again from about 9900 feet to 10,200 feet.

Finally departing slightly from Bubbs Creek, the trail climbs more steeply. When you reach 10,650 feet, a faint trail cuts off to your left, heading east where the JMT turns south. This junction is difficult to find. There is no sign and not much evidence of travel (there has obviously been a dedicated effort to conceal the turn-off to this “decommissioned” trail). After the hard to find junction, the trail will level off and drop slightly to a small creek at 10,600 feet. If you missed the trail junction (we missed it), leave the JMT at this creek and begin a gradual climb to the east through the forest. When you encounter steeper rocky terrain ahead, bear diagonally left and you will eventually cross the faint trail heading up to Golden Bear Lake. Stay on the trail, winding around some meadows and boggy terrain, reaching sublime Golden Bear Lake at 11,175 feet. Continue on this faint trail, which is the former route of the JMT, heading upward toward Junction Pass. You will pass above two lakes and climb onto a ridge at 12,600 feet. From this ridge a great view of Forester Pass and the JMT opens up before you as the JMT climbs toward the dramatic notch of Forester Pass. You can be a voyeur here and watch tiny backpacker ants slowly toil up to the pass. Continue up to the Sierra crest at 13,320 foot Junction Pass and admire the view of Junction Peak, just to your south. Get a good rest here, as the route ahead will require your full attention.

Early morning reflections on Golden Bear Lake. [photo Don Wilson]

to-junction pass

Alan hikes along the 12,600 foot ridge approaching Junction Pass. This ridge has spectacular views of Junction Peak, Forrester Pass and the JMT. You can be a voyeur here and watch tiny backpacker ants slowly toil up Forester pass. [photo Don Wilson]

When you drop off Junction Pass you will likely find footprints and a faint sign of a trail that heads southeast from the pass. The terrain here is not too steep and the sandy footing makes for easy walking and obvious footprints. At about 12,900 feet, the route turns back to the southwest and begins a drop into the drainage that lies south of Junction Pass. Your objective is to reach the head of this canyon at about 12,400 feet. On the drop into this canyon, the trail will disappear and you will descend on loose, nasty talus and all manner of crud all the way down. Proceed slowly and with caution. The footing is loose and perilous. We both had a couple of slips on this section and we were being careful. Many routes down the slope are possible. When in doubt, stay right and head towards the upper end of the canyon bottom. About 150 vertical feet above the canyon floor, you may see some evidence of the old JMT. Only a few small sections remain. Nearly all the old trail has been obliterated by the loose crumbing terrain above–possibly a reason the trail was abandoned.

The descent from Junction Pass starts with easy walking and then degrades into steep, loose talus. Here Alan looks back uphill part way down the loose descent. [photo Don Wilson]

As you get near the bottom, turn again to the southeast and begin a mile long traverse across a seemingly infinite slope of scree and talus. At some point you will drop to the bottom of the canyon and continue on the almost flat canyon bottom on more scree and huge talus. After a long mile, you will reach terrain which becomes more easily walkable, and a few sections of grass appear. A small stream emerges from the talus here too. At this point, stay south of the stream and look for evidence of a faint trail turning south and down across a hillside. Follow this past several switchbacks as it drops toward The Pothole, which can be seen below. The much more heavily used trail up to Shepherd Pass can be seen to the south and east, coming up from the canyon below. At approximately 11,200 feet, the trail levels out and continues across a flatish basin. The trail is difficult to follow in this basin. We decided to leave the trail here and traverse directly south at approximately 11,100 feet, heading toward the visible Shepherd Pass trail a half mile away. This traverse is fairly easy, and avoids a further drop of 300 vertical feet into The Pothole. Once on the Shepherd Pass trail, take a break and rest up for the steep climb above.

The climb up to Shepherd Pass is steep, but the trail is fairly good and the climb goes easily. Once on Shepherd Pass (just over 12,000 feet), you enter a long section of excellent travel across high basins and passes. Follow the trail down from Shepherd Pass for about 1.5 miles on mostly low angle terrain. At about 11,500 feet, turn directly south, heading for an obvious notch, which we call Wright Lakes Pass. Easy class 2 hiking leads up to the 12,040 foot pass. Descend south toward Wright Lakes on easy terrain and begin a beautiful 2.5 mile long walk past Wright Lakes across a high basin dotted with ancient dead pines. South of Wright Lakes, you will begin to pass through some trees and meadows, heading toward Wallace Creek.


Alan on the approach to Wright Lakes Pass. Shepherd Pass lies in the notch at the right side of the photo. [photo Don Wilson]

pines-wallace basin

Ancient pines dot the 11,500 foot plateau south of Wright Lakes. Easy walking and great views abound along the two miles south of Wright Lakes Pass, heading toward Wallace Creek.

As you near Wallace Creek you will encounter increasingly rocky terrain. Depending on your location, you will likely need to climb slightly up, and then drop several hundred feet before encountering the faint trail that lies north of the creek. You should aim to hit the trail following Wallace Creek at about 10,800 feet, crossing the ridge north of Wallace Creek at around 11,000 feet or a bit lower. (Note: don’t succumb to the urge to cross too soon and too directly into Wallace Creek. The ridge north of the creek is rocky, and there are a steep sets of cliff bands descending into Wallace creek that are hard to navigate).

The southern shore of Wallace Lake makes for easy walking on the approach to Russell-Carillon Col. The lake lies on the left of the photo. Mount Russell is the furthest peak that can be seen on the right. [photo Don Wilson]

Once on Wallace Creek, turn east when you hit the trail and begin the climb up toward Wallace Lake. The faint trail up to the lake is unmaintained and fades out in places. You can expect to lose it now and again. Beyond the lake, all signs of a trail quickly disappear. At 11,480 feet, Wallace Lake is a huge azure gem, with spectacular walls to its north and inviting flat terrain along its south side. Continue past the lake to a steep looking headwall southeast of the lake. The best way up this headwall is to directly attack its center, where the drainage from the basin above empties down the slope heading for Wallace Lake. This 500 foot climb involves a lot of large talus and some class 2 scrambling.

Above the headwall, a welcome and inviting walk of just over a mile leads toward Tulainyo Lake. This lake is the highest lake of its size in the lower 48 states. It has no inlet or outlet, instead it is tucked away in a bowl just below 13,000 feet, where few people get the pleasure of seeing it. Take another rest at the lake and get your bearings. Your next objective is the Russell-Carillon Col. This pass will be located far off to your right as you initially encounter the lake, and is not fully visible when you first see the lake. Drop down to the lakeshore, probably crossing large snowfields that are nearly permanent, and traverse along the southwest shore. The Russell-Carillon Col will now become obvious and somewhat intimidating. It is easier than it appears. As you near the southern tip of the lake, begin the climb up on the talus, heading for a point directly below the low point of the pass. At the top of the talus you will encounter a point where the rock suddenly gets steeper and scrambling is required. This climb of about 250 feet is moderate class 3, and is broken up by numerous large ledges. Some hikers may want a hand in a few places, or may want to pass up their packs for a move or two. The ledges make this climb quite safe, with the most significant danger being loose rock dislodged by your own party. We suggest you alternate climbing and use the large ledges to keep your party clear of the fall line from your highest members at all times. In a few fun minutes you will emerge again onto the Sierra crest at 13,300 feet on the Russell-Carillon Col.

Don checks out the blue depths of Tulainyo Lake from the top of Russell-Carillon Col.

Alan begins the descent from Russell-Carillon Col down to Upper Boy Scout Lake. The col is at far right, Mount Russell is directly behind Alan. Mount Whitney is the highest (rightmost) peak of the three peaks on the left. [photo Don Wilson]

From the col, the famous east ridge of Mount Russell lies to the west. This steep and airy climb is known as one of the best class 3 climbs in North America (and would make a spectacular side-trip/peak bag). Because of the popularity of this climb, there is a use trail that heads up to the col from Upper Boy Scout Lake. You will follow this use trail down to the lake. The terrain down to the lake is mostly loose sand and scree. While this makes for some fun walking, you can expect to fill up your shoes with plenty of souvenirs. As you begin the descent, follow obvious paths to the southeast, eventually turning more east and traveling through a vague notch. Continue east, following a mesh of paths and occasional cairns. As you approach steeper terrain, several large cairns may appear, marking potential points to drop onto steeper terrain. There are numerous options that will become clear when you can see onto the steeper terrain below. Work your way down these quite slippery and steep slopes, heading towards the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. When several hundred feet above the creek, at about 11500 feet, a use trail will fork off to the right and head directly toward Upper Boy Scout Lake (which is not visible from above). If you miss this fork, you can descend to the creek and then climb back toward Upper Boy Scout Lake. The lake lies at nearly 11,400 feet and will be a welcome site to your dusty feet and rock filled shoes. This is a good place to bivy prior to ascending Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. (Or if you have time, you could hump up to Iceberg Lake and save yourself a bit of distance and elevation when climbing Whitney the next day.)

SECTION 4: UPPER BOY SCOUT LAKE TO HORSESHOE MEADOWS

It just keeps getting better. This section is the highest bit of off trail hiking that either of us has done in the US. It contains a full traverse of Mount Whitney, a walk along the highest mountain ridge in the lower 48, an enormous and fun scree slope, challenging and intricate navigation, and several large and lonely alpine lakes. It’s worth a reminder that you will be in the Mount Whitney Zone, with its regulations regarding human waste, from the time you cross the Russell-Carillon Col until you summit Mount Whitney.

Our first downtime of the trip. Don reading some Rilke at Upper Boy Scout Lake. We arrived here mid-afternoon and had a relaxing and restorative afternoon before climbing Mt. Whitney the next morning.

Alan at our bivy site along the shores of Upper Boy Scout Lake. [photo Don Wilson]

Morning light on the east face of Mount Whitney. Keeler Needle rises in the center of the photo, left of Mount Whitney.

Leaving Upper Boy Scout Lake, head south across its outlet and scramble up slabs until you join the informal climber’s trail that heads east up and over a headwall. If you hike this section in the early morning you will be granted spectacular views of the east face of Mount Whitney as the sun lights up the peaks. Continue east up fairly easy to follow trails until you begin to traverse along a south facing slope which is south of Iceberg Lake. There are many possible routes to reach Iceberg Lake, all of them requiring an eventual turn to the north up steep slopes. There are numerous seeps in this area which can make the slabs slippery, especially if temperatures are near or below freezing. At 12,700 feet you will climb over a final rise and come to the south shore of Iceberg Lake. Isolated and cold, the lake is nestled snugly in a steep cirque between Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. There are numerous bivy sites along the south shore, most with level camping and stone walls to provide some protection on windy nights. This is a good place to rest, get a drink and refill your water supplies. There is no water, other than possible snowmelt, for the next 5 hours or so of hiking (until you reach the uppermost Crabtree Lake, below Crabtree Pass).

Your next objective is an ascent of Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. This route is not at all difficult in good conditions, but if the route holds significant snow or ice it can quickly become more serious, requiring a rope and crampons for most people. It’s a popular route, so a little searching on the internet can usually provide good info on current route conditions before you leave home. In most years the route is in good shape by early July and remains so until mid September.

to-whitney-2

Alan slogs his way of steep, loose scree on the Mountaineer’s Route. The climb of Whitney and traverse across its southern ridge is a highlight of the SoSHR.

From Iceberg Lake, head almost directly east up slabs and boulders, aiming for the north side of the east buttress. The notch that is your eventual objective is obvious on the skyline at 14,000 feet, some 1,300 feet above Iceberg Lake. By staying left of the scree you can hike and scramble to the base of the east buttress on mostly good rock. As you reach the base of the east buttress you will be forced to the right into the main gully of the Mountaineer’s Route. Continue up the gully, staying on the most stable rock you can find (usually on the left). Eventually you will be forced to head directly up a long section of loose scree. This can be a lot of work, as you climb up and slide down with each step. But it is not difficult, and your position alongside the east buttress is simply spectacular. Clean, golden granite surrounds you, and the vistas to the north and east more than make up for the loose conditions of the climb. After a long grunt, you arrive at the notch, just above 14,000 feet. From here you will climb the most technical section of the route in the final push to the summit.

to-whitney-final-300

The final Class 3 portion of the Mountaineer’s Route to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It had snowed on Mt. Whitney the week before with an ensuing melt and freeze cycle. This left the final 300 ft of the Mountaineer’s Route quite icy and a bit more entertaining. The easier route up the notch (to the left of Alan in the photo) is completely covered in a sheet of ice (verglas). This forced us up on steeper and more difficult rock. Fortunately we were able to find non-icy rock and did not need any traction devices. [photo Don Wilson]

Drop down onto the west side of the notch, losing only 20 or 30 vertical feet. After this very short drop, to your left (north) an obvious gully will head directly north towards the summit. This first gully on the west side of the ridge is your route. The gully lies well above 14,000 feet and is nearly always in the shade. It may be cold, and will hold snow or ice when other parts of the route are balmy. The very first move up this gully is generally considered the most difficult obstacle between you and the summit. Scramble up and left from the base, then wander up the gully past rolling ledges and slabs over class 3 terrain. On our ascent a recent storm had left considerable ice in the gully, and it limited our options on the way up. But we were still able for the most part to stay on good, ice-free rock all the way up. As you near the top of the gully you may be able to head right (into the warm sun!) to easier terrain. After about 400 feet of climbing, you emerge rather suddenly onto the summit plateau of Mount Whitney. Wander over to the summit and enjoy the perfect flat slabs that are abundant on the highest point in the continental US.

Alan looks off to the northeast from the summit of Mount Whitney. [photo Don Wilson]

From the summit you will join the Mount Whitney trail that heads initially west and then south from the summit. For the next 2.5 miles you will stay on this trail, walking just west of the spectacular ridge that heads south of Whitney, past Keeler Needle and Mount Muir, both 14,000+ summits. Although this trail is crowded with Mount Whitney hikers, the position is spectacular and the walking and views are thoroughly enjoyable. After about two miles you will reach a trail junction where the JMT comes up from the west. Stay left here, and climb up to the crest. Cross the crest (this location is known at Trail Crest) on the trail and staying on the trail, begin a traverse to the east, the start of the drop toward Whitney Portal. About a quarter mile past Trail Crest, you reach the first switchback, where the trail turns left and continues a long series of switchbacks down a steep slope.

Look back uphill at this switchback and you will see a very faint use trail that heads directly up on talus and scree, back towards the crest. Leave the trail here knowing you are heading into a challenging section of hiking. Head south, climbing directly uphill until you reach the crest and a low angle plateau at 13,600 feet. Once on the crest, begin dropping to the south, slowly at first, and then with an ever increasing angle on sandy scree. Your objective is to reach the upper end of the lake that lies just west of Crabtree Pass. As you drop, look for ledge systems that allow you to traverse east toward relatively flat terrain above the upper end of the lake. Then turn south to reach a small grassy haven on the east shore. This is the first reliable water since you left Iceberg Lake.

Taking a rest at the uppermost Crabtree Lake, just west of Crabtree Pass. At 12,119 feet, this isolated lake is the first water source since Iceberg Lake (i.e. summiting Mt. Whitney and traversing the Whitney Crest). It has a small patch of grass on its eastern shore. The lake is a welcome respite after the dusty 1500 foot descent from the crest. [photo Don Wilson]

From the lake, head directly up class 2 scrambling to the lowest point on Crabtree Pass. Here you enter a section of complicated terrain and navigation that will occupy you until you arrive at Sky Blue Lake. Along this entire section the terrain will force you to make many small detours. Sky Blue Lake will not be visible until you are nearly upon it and past all the difficulties.

sky-blue-lake-crabtree pass

Sky Blue Lake, looking north towards Crabtree Pass from near the lake’s outlet. (Pass not visible in the photo but in the vicinity of the larger of the two white cloulds on the right horizon.) The obvious cliff bands above and right of the lake force a roundabout descent to the west (on the left in the photo) from Crabtree Pass. Neither the cliff bands nor the lake can be seen for most of the descent.

Drop down from the pass, heading slightly right (south) of the direct fall line, aiming for the northwest corner of Lake 3697. Upon nearly reaching the shore of this lake, turn more west and go over a rise and through a faint notch, heading toward the smaller lake west of Lake 3697. You may be able to follow occasional cairns along this section (although not all are to be trusted). Continue traversing to the southeast shore of this lake, then turning south down slabs. About a half mile directly south of this lake the terrain flattens out. Head toward these flat sections and turn east, joining inlet streams that head down to Sky Blue Lake (still not visible). Hike east along these streams through narrow valleys, finally emerging onto slopes that provide a grand view of awesome Sky Blue Lake. Hike directly toward the north shore of the lake, where you can pick up use trails that circle the lake on its north and east sides. Cross the lakes’ outlet stream and scramble down slopes on the west side of the stream toward an obvious flatter valley below. Once on the valley floor, head south along Rock Creek, staying on the west side of the creek most of the way down. Intermittent use trails may appear, but much of the upper valley is devoid of trails. High, steep granite walls rise on both sides of the upper canyon. Use trails become more obvious as you get near 11,000 feet in elevation, and eventually the route becomes a good trail which you can follow all the way to a junction at 10,460 feet. Here you come upon a large meadow with a good trail that runs nearly perpendicular to your line of travel. There is good camping here. You have completed all the off trail travel and only pleasant trails separate you from the trailhead near Horseshoe Meadows.

Turn east (left) when you hit the trail and climb several hundred feet to another junction at 10,800 feet. Here you can take a short walk to Soldier Lake (not named on the map). Your route turns south (right) at this junction and begins a gradual climb toward New Army Pass. At 10,950 feet pass another junction where you turn east (left) toward New Army Pass. Hike up your final climb through alpine terrain. The climb up to New Army Pass does not cross the crest at its low point (huge cliffs on the far side), and instead the pass lies south of the low point, much higher up the crest at 12,300 feet. From the top of the pass you leave the Sierra crest for the last time and head down a series of impressive switchbacks past High Lake and Long Lake, and on popular trails along Cottonwood Creek. About 7 miles beyond New Army Pass you arrive at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, where a thrilling car ride down the steep and exposed road leads to the town of Lone Pine. This is a very popular trailhead – hitching a ride down to Lone Pine should be a simple affair.

Surveying the vast and trailess expanse of the Wrights Lake Basin. [photo Don Wilson]

Other Published References (books, maps, etc.)

john-muir-wilderness-mapset
John Muir Wilderness/SEKI map set” Forest Service Publication; 3 map set at 1:63k
Long Name: A Guide to the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. Inyo and Sierra National Forests, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks ISBN: 978-1-59351-417-4   (Possibly no longer in print?) and very hard to find. It may still be in stock at above link.

This large 3 map set shows the entire Sierra south of Mammoth Lakes. Three very large maps not really suitable for use in the field, but the ultimate reference for planning off trail trips. We used this mapset to lay out the initial line of the SoSHR. Published by the Forest Service and difficult to find online. Available in outdoor shops and ranger stations in Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Lone Pine.

Death Valley

If you get the chance, it’s certianly worth tagging on a trip to Death Valley to either end of this trip. After climbing Mt. Whitney the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet you can go to Badwater, the lowest point in North America, −282 feet (−86 m). If you are traveling from Las Vegas, you will literally drive through Death Valley on your way to and from the Trip.


Badwater, the lowest point in North America, −282 feet (−86 m).

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Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA

Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.

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Route Overview Map: click image for larger view

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. The variety of hiking:  A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
  2. Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
  3. Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
  4. Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock  Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
  5. Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike starts in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration before hiking. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

Overview

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The gear (link) and  food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

Make your trip even more enjoyable…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.

 

What’s in this Trip Guide

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After many miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley. Alison is carrying less than 10 pounds on her back. Using this Gear our light packs made hiking a breeze.


Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

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Mountain laurels along the trail near Raven Rock, the highest point of the AT in Maryland.


Guide Resources

Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

The trip takes between 5 to 9 days

  • 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
  • 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
  • 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA

Transportation Time

  • 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
  • 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
    and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps

The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It's a one hour train ride form here to the trip start in Harpers Ferry WV.

Trip Start: The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It’s a one hour train ride from here to Harpers Ferry WV. [We just walked on to the train in our hiking clothes and with our backpacks on.]

Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV

  1. You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
  2. Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
  3. If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
  4. If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
  5. For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).

The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.

On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.

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John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP) is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).

Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)

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Footpath along the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry WV into Maryland and to the towpath on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park)

Make it a 4 state trip!

Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.

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Turtles in the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal goes 184 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland Maryland.

After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park

Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).

Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.

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Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park: The War Correspondents Memorial Arch, constructed in 1896, is a National historic monument. Photo by By Antony-22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.

View from the White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain – mile 11 – between Crampton Gap and Rock Run Shelters.

Washington Monument State Park

Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.

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Washington Monument State Park: The original 1827 tower was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. The more famous Washington Monument in the District of Columbia was not completed until 1885, over 50 years later!

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the cumberland valley and the Potomac River.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the Cumberland Valley and the Potomac River.

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The impressive and functional, if not aesthetic footbridge across I-70. It gets the job done!

Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters

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The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it.

The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).

Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.

If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.

“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge problem, will definitely slow your walking pace to a crawl in sections.

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge safety issue, will definitely slow your walking pace in sections.

This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.

Raven Rock Shelter

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The new 2-story Raven Rock shelter replaces the old Devil’s Racecourse shelter (many guides still refer to the older shelter). The flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. Photo: HIKERS OF TWC

Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).

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Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line

Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.

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The AT where it crossed the Mason Dixon line.

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The AT crosses a few farm fields before ascending back up to the Appalachian ridge in the distance.

Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).

Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park

This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.

The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.

Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.

From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.

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In season, make sure you take a sublimely cooling dip in the vast outdoor public pool at Caledonia State Park. [also in season, there’s food and ice cream at the pool’s concession]

Quarry Run Shelters

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Rhododendron tunnel on the way to Quarry Run Shelters.

Birch Run Shelter

Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.

Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)

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The historic or traditional mid-point on the AT is just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace.

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The exact mid-point of the AT varies from year to year due to re-routing and other trail changes. You need to pay attention to not miss this much smaller sign. (It’s generally south of the historic marker in the photo above.)

Pine Grove Furnace

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It’s in a 200 year old grist mill.

Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:

  • The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
  • The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
  • Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
  • A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
  • A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
  • Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
  • The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.

James Fry Shelter

Cozily hanging in out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. Waiting for the full force tropical storm Bonnie to hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning.=!

The James Fry Shelter located between Pine Grove Furnace and the Cumberland Valley: Cozily hanging out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. The full force of tropical storm Bonnie would hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning

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The start of two fun “rock mazes” along the ridges just before you drop into the Cumberland Valley.

Entering the Cumberland Valley

Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.

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After after almost 100 miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley.

Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train

Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.

There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).

The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.

The AT goes over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

The AT crosses over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

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The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is a great place to stop and rest on their shaded porch. There’s water and a nice store inside.

Crossing the Cumberland Valley

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The fertile farmlands of the Cumberland Valley run along both sides of the AT.

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There are a number of fun fence stiles like this in the Cumberland Valley.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Pre-civil war graveyard alongside the AT in the Cumberland Valley. Many where buried 20-30 years before the Gettysburg campaign.

Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA

This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.

  • From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
  • There is no camping along the AT for this section.
  • Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
  • Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.

Hawk Rock

This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area.  It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Duncannon PA – the end of the trip

Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.

Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge.  The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era.  From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.


Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end

Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC

Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.

Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?

Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.

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Rail yard at Washington DC Union Station

Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC

Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)

To Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It's a xx hour ride to the NE train hub of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It’s a short 1.5 hour ride to the Northeast train hub of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.


Lodging in Harpers Ferry

If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).

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The lower, historic section of Harpers Ferry. The upper portion of the town is up and to the right of the train station (lower right of the photo at the end of the train trestle). This view is from Maryland Heights. The hike up here is highly recommended.

The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry

The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town's Inn, in the historic lower section of Harper's Ferry.

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town’s Inn, in the historic lower section of Harpers Ferry.

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The Town’s Inn (featured on Hotel Hell) in Harpers Ferry has a good supply of food for hiker re-supply, a few camping supplies, and a cafe.

Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper xx

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper section of town.


Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park

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Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources it’s coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast.

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Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is a fun place to stop. There’s a great relief map of the entire AT, a well stocked bookstore, some camping supplies, an AT hiker lounge where you can check Web/email. There’s friendly and helpful staff and of course, AT hikers milling around.

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek Guide 5 to 6 days

We believe this is the best guide to the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for trekking in Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. Here is the information gathered from our recent Circuit Trek in Torres de Paine.

June 2018: It appears that C. Torres (área de acampar Torres) is closed for the 18-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek (and some for the Circuit Trek as well), but there is a hack. See more below…

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (this Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the second largest non-polar ice shelf). Glacier Grey’s origin from the Heilo Sur is at the upper right of the photo between the snow covered mountains of the Southern Andes. If you only do the W Trek you’ll miss walking along this incredible river of ice. It was our favorite part of the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek. Alison’s ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack is probably carrying less than 11 lb (5 kg) at this point in the trip.

This is a companion piece to an overall guide to Trekking the Torres de Paine. The main post: Torres del Paine Trekking – Quick and Easy Guide to Essential Trip Planning has gear lists, food lists, information on campsite reservations, busses and ferries, park maps, GPX files, and other essential information to plan your trip.

IMPORTANT – Latest and Best Information for Trekking in Torres de Paine

CONAF continues to make logistical changes to this trek over time. Check this grey box for the latest important changes. Below are the top informational items to note for your trek for the 2018-2019 season.

Campamento Torres (área de acampar Torres) will be closed for the 2018-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek, As a backup until this resolves, you could consider booking Campamento Chileno (Área de acampar Chileno) with Fantastico Sur. It’s plus an hour or a bit longer hike up to the Torres de Paine (vs. C. Torres), but still doable. Because they have the monopoly, last year they only booked hikers who paid for full meals. Expect the same for the 2018-2019 season.

In January, 2017 CONAF instituted quotas which will continue in 2018-2019 for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek

  1. Advance Reservations are Required for All Your Campsites (W and Circuit)

You need to have all your campsite reservations in place before you enter the park. “You need to show reservations at each campsite in order to stay. This is being enforced. There are limited campsites so making your reservation is essential. (Overcrowding last year caused camp latrines to collapse and many people got sick. Due to this, multiple campsites are now permanently closed.)”

  1. There is an 80 Person Per Day Limit on the Circuit Trek (and it can only be done counterclockwise).

There is a 80 person per day limit for the “Backside” (non-W portion) of the Circuit Trek. This is passively regulated by the campsite reservation system (that is, if you have all your campsite reservations you are part of the 80 people per day allowed). This is being strictly enforced! There is a guard house (Guardería Coirón) on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed. Note: We have received reports of trekkers without reservations being sent back. [see Official 2017 Park Trekking Map]

  1. Reservations for the free Park (CONAF) Campsites Fill up Well in Advance
    Note: As of Sept 2018 CONAF is now charging the entrance fee when you book their free campsites. In addition, the process is now more complicated. Below we give you detailed guidance on how to best book your reservations.

Per CONAF:If you are unable to book in all the camps you want to visit, you must adapt your itinerary according to the camps you could get. Consider that there are two other camping and shelter providers where you can book:Fantastico Sur* and Vertice*. We remind you that if you do not have the corresponding reservations you will not be able to access the mountain trails and you should plan other visit options, as there will be control points where you must show the voucher or confirmation email of your reservation.

*Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.

  1. There are now cutoff/closing times for most trails

The back page of the Official 2017 Park Trekking Map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. This map will still get you everything you need for the trek.

WHEN CAN I BOOK MY RESERVATIONS?

Fantastico Sur:  is now open for 2018/2019 reservations and their rates are online.  Use this button for their website FIRST

Below are three additional buttons—one has the rates for the 2018/2019 season, one is the booking form (you can email the form to make a reservation — may take a while), and the last is their policies including cancellation info. For the 2018-2019 season, their refugios in the W are open Sept 2-April 30, and in the Circuit November 1-March 31.

    

Vertice: Has their 2018-2019 dates posted already and it looks like they are booking reservations . Their W refugios are open September 1-April 30, Circuit November 1-March 30. Check their website for latest prices. 

CONAF: ****IS NOW OPEN**** But you still cannot book more than six months in advance (180 days before you go) for their sites of Italiano (open October-April) and Paso (open November-April). 

NEW INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CONAF SITE: Scroll down to the “RESERVAR CAMPING CONAF” click on that link; next, you will see the entrance fees for the park. The campsites are still free. However, CONAF is now charging you the entrance fee when you book these free campsites so get ready to pay. Click on “comprar entradas.”  Now you will need to set up an account with CONAF. Use the “pasaporte” user access  (‘RUT’ is for Chilean residents). Once registered, follow the instructions to book the dates you need for each of the campsites (Italiano and/or Paso). CONAF will automatically charge you the $21,000 CLP entrance fee in addition to booking your sites when you check out.

Note: this is a trip guide. We are not a booking agency and have no special access to Vertice, Fantastico Sur & CONAF. As such, your best strategy is to deal directly with V, FS & CONAF yourself. Wishing you a great trek and we will continue to post information as we receive it. Warmest, -Alan and Alison

WHEN DOES THE PARK REALLY OPEN? Over the years we have received reports of some confusion and disarray in TdP, particularly around opening dates. So, keep in mind that the required booking system is still somewhat new to the park and clearly causing a lot more work for Fantastico and Vertice employees. As such, there is bound to be a difficult transition from the older, more free flowing system to this new stricter one. Our advice would be to continue to try and keep the communication lines open by contacting all parties, CONAF, Fantastico, and Vertice using all email addresses, Facebook, and phone. Also keep in mind that all three of these agencies are distinct and most likely do not communicate amongst themselves. You are the only thing they have in common which puts the burden on you to figure out what is going on.

“OFF SEASON” April 30 to sometime in November: Most Refugios and Private Campamentos close during the off season. Backside of O/Circuit guided only.

As of April 30 Most, most Refugios/Private Campamentos (Fantastico Sur and Vertice) are closed for the season. You can still camp on the W but obviously there will be far fewer resources. The “Backside” of the O or Circuit Trek (Serón, Dickson, Los Perros, Paso John Garner, etc.) is closed unless with an official guide. They will re-open to general use/travel at the start of the High Season, usually sometime in November.


Two Alternative World Class Treks in Patagonia

Looking for Something to do after Torres del Paine? Or are you finding reservations difficult and/or campsites booked? Then checkout out our guides to these two incredible off the beaten path Patagonia Treks  — Chile’s exciting New Patagonia National Park Trek Guide and the Cerro Castillo Trek Guide. No reservations required and you’ll see far fewer people.

Chile’s New Patagonia National Park may well become the “Yellowstone of South America” due to its rich diversity. The new Park has it all — the high glaciated peaks of the Southern Andes, wide valleys with ice cold glacial rivers, forests of southern beech hanging with moss, and startlingly green glacial lakes. Fairly unique to the park is its expansive grasslands supporting a vast array of wildlife. It’s easy to see herds of guanacos, condors, flamingos, armadillos and much more…

Cerro Castillo Trek Guide

The Cerro Castillo Trek is nearby and equally stunning. When, combined with the New Patagonia National Park Trek you have almost two weeks of fantastic trekking in a much less traveled but exciting region of Patagonia.

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek in 5 to 6 days from Puerto Natales and Back

The Torres del Paine Circuit Trek or ‘O’ Trek does all of the W Trek, then continues around the back of the Torres del Paine to complete a full loop. We believe many backpackers can easily do the Circuit in 5 to 6 days. (We comfortably did it in 4.5 hiking days). We prefer the Circuit Trek. The “backside,” non-W part of the Circuit Trek ias every bit as beautiful as the W Trek but with fewer people and you see a lot more of the park, which is more varied than just the W Trek. For instance, you walk for miles above Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest non-polar ice shelf). This was our favorite part of the trek. And finally, the Circuit Trek gives you more time to enjoy this stunning park! [The tricky part of the Circuit is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It's typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Day 0 – Prep day before the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek
Our recommendation is to start at Refugio Paine Grande, head east (counterclockwise) to end at Refugio Paine Grande. See Hiking Times and Distances for Torres del Paine

  • Same as for the W Trek with the following exceptions
    • You will be taking the catamaran both to and from Refugio Paine Grande, so buy a round trip ticket on your ferry ride out to Refugio Paine Grande.
    • You will be taking the bus back from Pudeto on Lago Pehoé (not the Hotel) to return to Puerto Natales
  • Check the bus and ferry schedules to get the most current info (see Transportation).
  • It makes sense to stay overnight in Puerto Natales so you can easily catch the morning’s 7:30 am Bus Gomez (or potentially another bus co.) to the Park. (Make your bus reservation and buy a round-trip ticket to the Park the night before. This is easiest to do when you get off the bus from Punta Arenas.)
  • When you get to P. Natales go directly to CONAF (Park) office (Closed Sat & Sunday) and make campsite reservations for free campamentos (Italiano and Torres fill quickly).
  • Check in at Basecamp/Erratic Rock for 3:00 talk. (Worth listening to!) You can rent gear at Basecamp and they make a decent pizza.
  • Provision food at the Unimarc in Puerto Natales. Long lines! (Better to provision in Punta Arenas if you have the chance. Way more options including a natural foods store, Patachmama, with lots of nuts & dried fruit.)
  • Outdoors stores, hardware stores are well supplied with hiking items. Fuel canisters are everywhere in Punta Arenas and P. Natales
  • Alcohol fuel is available at Cruz Verde pharmacias in plastic bottles.
Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Floor of Valle Encantado with wildflowers in full bloom (at least when we were there). One of the highlights of the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek.

Day 1 – Getting to trek start (Refugio Paine Grande) via bus, catamaran – Valle Frances and Campamento Italiano

4 to 5 hours and 12 km, 7.5 miles (to Mirador Frances). This is a half day starting around noon. Hiking on good trails (and with just a daypack to Miradors [viewpoints] in Valle Frances).

Get to the bus station early for the 7:30 am bus. First come first serve and the bus fills quickly. [Late comers for our bus did not get on the exact bus they had reserved. e.g. a ticket and reservation does not guarantee you a seat. No worries tho. They will put you on the next bus.]

  • Be first off the bus at Laguna Amarga Entrance stop (around 9:30 am). Pay entrance fee & get permit. If you didn’t make campsite reservations for free campamentos do it now. The free campsites on the W like Campamento Italiano & Torres fill fast. If you can’t get a reservation at C. Italiano, for a small fee camping at R. Frances is quieter and nicer.
  • Get back on bus to and arrive approx. 10:30a the Pudeto ferry dock (Catamaran on Lago Pehoé). Ferry leaves at 12:00 or 6:00 for Paine Grande. (Realistically in high season it may be going back and forth almost hourly). We got a “10:45” ferry and got to R. Paine Grande around 11:15 am. You pay your fee on the ferry–no advance reservations taken. Buy a round trip ticket since you’ll be taking the ferry back at the end of the Circuit.
  • Pickup your pack and head off to the free camping at Campamento Italiano (if you have a reservation) or possibly camping at Refugio Frances. One way stats to C. Italiano: approx. 7.5 km, 4.8 miles and 2.0 hours from RPG.
  • No matter where you are camping, drop your pack at Campamento Italiano (very safe everybody does it) and kit yourself out for day-hiking. Hike to at least Mirador Frances for a stunning view of the hanging Glacier Frances. We were less inspired by the hike up Valle Frances to the Mirador Britanico which is a lot more trekking for a nice view of a high cirque. If you are short on time and energy M. Frances is the bigger bang for the buck. Round trip stats for M. Frances: approx. 4 km, 2.6 miles and 2.0 to 2.5 hours. Round trip to M. Britanico 11 km, 6.9 miles and 4.0 hours.
  • 2017 update: Please note that the trail to Mirador Britanico now closes at 3.00pm/15.00 and is strictly enforced. As such, it’s tight to make it to C. Italiano off of the 10.45am Catamaran (arrives at Paine Grande around 11.40am) in time to trek to M. Frances. To make it work: be the first off the ferry, don’t stop long or at all at R. Paine Grande, and instead hike quickly to C. Italiano. Once there, drop your packs and hike briskly up to M. Frances to beat the closing time.
  • Once back down, get packs and if you have a reservation pitch your tent at C. Italiano. We camped 1/2 hour further down the trail from C. Italiano at the new and nice R Frances. Good tent platforms. Best hot showers and bathrooms of the trip by far. Small store and they serve meals if you have reservations (we managed to talk them into seating us for dinner day-0f but it was very tight).

Mirador Britanico in Valley Frances. Not all days are sunny in Patagonia, especially later in the day when the mountains are likely to cloud in. A waterproof pack like this HMG 2400 Southwest is nice on days that are threatening rain. (Early starts are best, especially if you want to see the mountains unobstructed by clouds.)

Day 2 – C. Italiano to Campamento Torres (with an evening peek at the Torres themselves)

7.5 to 9 hours and 28 km, 17.5 miles to Campamento Torres and a trip up to M Torres. This is a very pleasant alpine walk along the shore of Lago Nordenskjöld to R. Cuernos. After R. Cuernos take the cutoff trail (well marked) to R. Chileno (very nice store!). And then hike up to C. Torres. This camp has minimal facilities (dirt sites, no showers, basic cooking shelter, no tables). Not so great bathrooms. Your alternative is to camp at R. Chileno but that adds an extra hour each way for the hike to the Mirador las Torres, making it a 3.5 hour round trip hike vs. the 1.5 hours from C. las Torres.

  • C. Italiano to R Los Curenos – 1.5 to 2.0 hours, and 5 km, 3.1 miles.
  • R. Los Cuernos to C Torres – 2.5 to 3.0 hours