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 In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong.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.
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.
November 2016. New requirements for reservations and route quotas for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek.
Until I manage to update all the TdP Guide Pages, this information supersedes what’s written in them.
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.)”
2. There is an 80 Person Per Day Limit on the Circuit Trek
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 enforced. There is a guard house on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed.
3. Reservations for the free Park (CONAF) Campsites are Filling up Well in Advance
Now that the CONAF site accepts online registrations, Reservas De Campamentos (free campsite reservations) are filling up much faster — possibly months in advance. As such, it may not be possible to get the campsites you want online and/or in person in Puerto Natales or the Park Entrance. But you can complete the W or O trek without the CONAF sites. Just reserve the closest private camps managed by Fantastico Sur and Vertice
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.“
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.]
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.
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.
- 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).
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
- If you have time (you should) and the Torres are clear of clouds, consider hiking the 45 minutes up the steep trail to Mirador las Torres to see the famous Torres del Paine. It is also beneficial to familiarize yourself with the steep trail if you will hike it in the dark the next morning to catch the Torres at dawn. Round trip – 1.5 to 2.0 hours and 2 km, 1.3 miles.
Day 3 – Dawn photos of Las Torres, hike to Campamento Serón
7 to 9.5 hours and 23.5 km, 15 miles to Campamento Serón. This day is fast hiking on excellent trails. (A pre-dawn hike to the mirador is included)
- (Optional) For those that want the best chance for a photo of Las Torres del Paine: Get up 2.0 hours before sunrise to hike in the dark up to the Mirador to hopefully catch the Torres at first light. You want to be there ready at the mirador with your camera positioned at least 30 minutes before sunrise. This is your best chance to get a clear view of the Torres as they often mist/cloud in later in the day. If you are lucky you may see them in the splendid red light of dawn but it’s not a sure thing. Bring warm clothes for the wait in the dark for photos. After shooting photos hike back down to camp, have breakfast and pack up. [Round trip – 1.5 to 2.0 hours and 2 km, 1.3 miles.]
- From C Torres hit the trail at approx. 8:00 am or earlier. Hike to Hotel Torres. Be prepared for droves of day hikers heading up from the Hotel. The earlier you get down the fewer hikers you’ll have to dodge around on you way to the hotel. Best food store of the trip is the Kiosk in parking lot of Hotel. Also there is a nice cafe at Refugio Torres. Beautiful views from cafe tables. One way stats from C. Torres to the Hotel/Refugio Torres: approx. 2.0 to 3.0 hours,and 8.5 km, 5.5 miles.
- Hike along private wooded pastures and meadows to Campamento Serón. There is some cattle pasturing here and we were careful to treat our water. The hike is superbly beautiful once you drop off the hill and down into the aptly named Valle Encantado (enchanted valley). We arrived in time for fields of wildflowers for miles and miles. 3.5 to 4.5 hours and 13km, 8.1 miles
- Arrive Campamento Serón. Nice cooking on a covered porch. We ate our best sit-down dinner of the trip here. Sketchy hot showers. Decent store with wine and beer. Serón has fairly exposed campsites. (We saw a tent snapped and crushed here by the wind.) If windy, the best tent locations are right up against the fence at the base of the hill. You can even tie a few guylines to the fence.
Day 4 – Campamento Serón to Campamento Los Perros
7.5 to 9.5 hours and 29 km, 18 miles to Campamento Serón. This was one of our favorite hiking days—spectacular scenery. Another day of fast hiking on excellent trails. Beautiful views of the head of Valle Frances, then Lago Dickson and Glacier Dickson, and finally Glacier Perros, and Lago Los Perros.
- Day starts with a long walk through superb alpine meadows to R Dickson. Incredible wildflowers when in bloom! Also, we got our first views of Heilo Sur. One very steep, but short climb in the first hour of hiking. You will need to register at Ranger Station after you leave private land and reenter the park (no payment needed). 4.5 to 5.5 hours and 18 km, 11.2 miles to R. Dickson.
- Refugio Dickson has great views from their camp site (views of Heilo Sur and surrounding mountains in all directions). Lago Dickson is picturesque with Glacier Dickson flowing into it. Campsite has significant mosquitoes if wind is calm. Relatively unprotected cooking area (picnic tables) if wind is strong. Some camping in woods. Camping in field out of woods is quite unprotected. Nice, well stocked store.
- From R. Dickson, it is a very pleasant walk through a lovely forest to Campamento los Perros. Steady but moderate climb on good trail. Keep on the lookout for Magellanic Woodpeckers with their neon red heads. You get an incredible view of Glacier Perros and Lago Perros from top of the terminal moraine just before reaching C. Perros. (You can always drop your pack at camp and come back). 3.0 to 4.0 hours and 11 km, 6.9 miles.
- Register with Rangers at Los Perros. Most hikers leave in groups to go over Paso John Gardner around 7:00 or 8:00 am the next morning. This is encouraged by the Rangers as they feel it is safer for hikers to travel in groups. Rangers have say on go, no-go for attempting Paso John Gardner. Both strong wind and white-out are reasons for them close the pass. PJG is notorious for extremely high winds coming off of Glacier Grey and the Heilo Sur. An earlier start is almost always better.
- Dirt campsites at Los Perros but well protected. Super nice tents can be rented for around $12, allowing for a fast start in the morning. Nice store. Best cooking area of trip. Large room with lots of windows and lighted at night.
Day 5 – Over Paso John Gardner and down to R. Paine Grande – catamaran and bus to P. Natales
9 to 12 hours and 29 km, 18.1 miles to catch the last catamaran from R. Paine Grande. This is admittedly a very long day. Many may chose to break this into a full day into Refugio Grey with a following short day to Refugio Paine Grande. [The tricky part is is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]
- 2 to 3 hours and 4 km, 2.5 miles to Paso John Gardner
- On our trip Alison and I left Campamento Los Perros around 6:30 am as wind was already blowing 25-30 mph in camp. It’s a boggy and rocky hike up to the pass, but well marked. About half the hike is in the woods protected from wind. Other portions are rocky, exposed and can be quite windy. We had to hike through a few small snowfields at the top, which were a bit slippery in the early morning. Final 100m vertical to the actual pass was quite windy. We were buffeted by the wind and weaving a bit as we crossed the actual summit. Fortunately, the trail quickly descends (down and to the left) into protected woods on other side.
- The most incredible views of the trip unfold as you go over the pass. Glacier Grey, a 4.5 mile wide river of ice flowing down from Heilo Sur (the great Southern Ice Shelf) and the Southern Andes completely covered in ice and snow. The tip of Glacier Grey many miles below you is calving icebergs into Lago Grey.
- 1.5 to 2 hours and 4 km, 2.5 miles to Campamento Paso
- It is a very steep descent in woods on a decent well-maintained trail with many stairs and even some handrails. In short, you are descending from the pass along the ice river until you reach R. Grey. The views are incredible the whole way down. It doesn’t take long to reach Campamento Paso. This not the best campsite on the circuit by a long shot. It is small, unattractive and offers virtually no amenities. C Paso’s redeeming features are that it is well protected in the woods, and is in a key location in relation to Paso John Garner.
- 3.0 to 3.5 hours and 10 km, 6.5 miles to Refugio Grey
- More steep downward trail hiking takes you to R. Grey. (The closer you get the Refugio the more crowded the day hiker scene becomes. These are mostly W trekkers making the hike up from the Refugio Grey to miradors of the Glacier.) There are two new Indiana Jones worthy suspension bridges (not for acrophobes) that span nasty gullies. These bridges are tons of fun! There is also one sketchy steel ladder (ala Indiana Jones—sections tied together with cord).
- Make sure you stop at the Mirador about ½ mile above R Gray (well marked). Great views of the glacier as it goes into Lago Grey. You are right above the tip of the glacier as it feeds into the lake.
- R Grey has tons of services meals, food stores. Dirt camping in woods and in a grassy meadow.
- 2.5 to 3.5 hours and 11 km, 6.3 miles to Refugio Paine Grande
- From R. Grey, its a non-trivial hike to Paine Grande with a fair amount of up and down along the shore of Lago Grey (or it could be that we were getting tired at this point). It can be very windy. Lots of hikers with both W Trek backpackers and hordes of day hikers coming from Refugio Paine Grande to miradors of Glacier Grey. We found it difficult at times to get around groups of hikers.
- Paine Grande is a stopping point for day hikers (those staying overnight at RPG, and day trippers from the ferry). Pretty big campsite in back (but very unprotected from wind) and nice Refugio with all services including mini-mart and cafeteria. Nice bathrooms/showers for the campsite. This Refugio gets a lot of traffic since it is the stopping point for the Catamaran so people coming/going all day long.
- We caught the 5:00pm catamaran back to Pudeto. Last boat of the day leaves at 6:00pm. Buses leave Pudeto (last stop at end of day), at 7:00pm or when the last catamaran gets in. So there’s no premium to getting to the catamaran stop early. Although there’s a decent cafe with sandwiches and good views of the Lago if you do get to Pudeto early.
We realize that day 5 may be a bit longer than some hikers prefer. In this version, Day 6 is a very short day—approx. 3 hours hiking time. This gives you almost a full day (3/4 of a day or more) of contingency hiking time in case of bad weather on the trip and to still make the last catamaran of the day out of R Paine Grande on Day 6.
- Shorten day 5 and hike only to Refugio Grey. There’s a nice campground here and plenty of amenities. Better yet, there’s a very nice Mirador of Glacier Grey where you can watch icebergs calve into Lago Grey. 6.5 to 8.5 hours and 18 km, 11.5 miles
- On day 6 hike to Refugio Paine Grande in time to catch the catamaran to Pudeto where you can catch the bus to Puerto Natales. 2.5 to 3.5 hours and 11 km, 6.3 miles.
Hiking Times and Distances for Torres del Paine
C= campamento (camp) R= refugio (more facilities, meals and beds in addition to camping)
- This table is just a 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 in main post 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.