Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series, where we aim to inspire you to get outdoors and explore the world's greatest trails for yourself! For us, reading about a great hike is enough to make us want to experience it in person.
This week's hike, the O Circuit, takes us to the southern reaches of South America to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
Featured Photo: Quiet Moment (photo by Claudio Sepúlveda Geoffroy)
Why this Hike?
Touted as one of the premier hikes in the Patagonia region of southern Chile and Argentina, the O Circuit will not disappoint if it's beautiful scenery you seek. This area is known for its dramatic mountain peaks, stunning glaciers and fjords, and gorgeous alpine lakes in the Chilean region of Patagonia. This extension of the popular W trail is an adventure of a lifetime at 81-miles long, but is surprisingly rated as moderate. Read on for some more relevant information on this amazing hike!
- 7-day trip
- 130 km (81 miles)
- 13,290 feet of elevation gain
- Although a long hike, the most physically challenging part is the John Gardner Pass.
- Best time to go: The trail is generally open from November to April. This is dependent on when CONAF opens it, so be sure to check before you plan your visit. With that being said, reservations for refugios and campgrounds fill up months in advance, so plan accordingly!
- The backside is much less traveled, which also means there are not as many “luxuries”, such as ranger stations, huts (known as refugios), snack shops, etc.
- Speaking of refugios, there are numerous ones available on the W portion of the circuit. If you're unfamiliar with the term, they are like a cross between backcountry huts and dorms, with shared showers, 6 beds to a room (3 bunks), and a communal dining area. You also have the option of staying at campgrounds, the majority of which have fees.
- Some other sights you can look forward to include Magellanic forests, wildlife including pumas and guanacos (similar to llamas), Cuernos del Paine, John Gardener Pass, Glacier Grey, and the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.
- A limited number of hikers are allowed on the trail each day.
- Itinerary options are virtually endless and are dependent on where you begin and your normal hiking pace.
- Clean and plentiful water sources along the route make filling up easy.
- In case you're curious, Torres del Paine translates to “towers of pain”.
Before you pack your bags, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Cell phone service is spotty, at best, throughout the park.
- Bus travel from the airport is the most common (and cost-effective) form of transportation in the area.
- Some refugios are more crowded than others. As such, they may run out of hot water when you would love nothing more than a refreshing shower.
- You must stay at a refugio or campground. No backcountry camping is allowed. While these do cost money, the CONAF campgrounds are free to stay at provided you have your own equipment.
- Notoriously unpredictable weather
- Campfires are not allowed
How do I get there?
Getting to the park can be a bit of an adventure in and of itself. Punta Arenas is the closest airport, which is still 5 hours south of the park. Many hikers take a bus from the airport to Puerto Natales (3 hours) and from there hop on another bus to the park (2 hours). You can also arrange private transportation if you plan on staying at one of the high-end hotels in Puerto Natales.
The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.
We recommend a 7-day, 6-night trip to enjoy all that the area has to offer.
- Day 1: Hotel Las Torres to Seron Campground (13 km)
- Day 2: Seron Campground to Dickson Campground (18 km)
- Day 3: Dickson Campground to Paso Campground (20 km)
- Day 4: Paso Campground to Paine Grande Campground (18 km)
- Day 5: Paine Grande Campground to Italiano Campground (20 km)
- Day 6: Italiano Campground to Chileno Campground (21 km)
- Day 7: Chileno Campground to Hotel Las Torres (13 km)
The easiest way to start your hike is through the Laguna Armaga ranger station. For logistical reasons, we've started this hike at the Hotel Las Torres. From here, you'll travel in a mostly northerly direction (again, you must hike counter-clockwise on the O) towards Seron Campground. Enjoy the relatively flat path, trees, and the rushing sounds of the Rio Paine for a large portion of your journey this day.
Start with more easy hiking along the Rio Paine towards Lago Paine. Headlands and mountain views await you past the lake as you continue west along the Rio Paine until it meets up with Lago Dickson, where you will be staying for the night. Be sure to head north of camp to check out the glaciers hanging over the lake!
Although a long day of hiking awaits you, the various views along the way will be totally worth it! From camp, you'll head up and into the woods, which opens up to great views of Lago Dickson behind you and the John Gardner Pass ahead of you. You'll also pass by Laguna Los Perros and Glacier before heading up the pass. This rocky area may take you a few hours to traverse, but the views of the Southern Patagonia Icefield and Glacier Grey make it worthwhile!
Set out early from Paso Campground for another long day. Enjoy some relatively easy downhill hiking with views of Glacier Grey peeking through the forest for a bit before encountering some ravines. You'll also pass over a couple of dizzying bridges before reaching the spur trail to Mirador Grey (a lookout point for the glacier). Luckily, the rest of your day is mostly downhill with several more viewpoints of the glacier on your way down to Paine Grande for the night.
Day 5 will feel a bit liberating, especially after hiking for so many days in a row. Once you reach the ranger station at the Italiano Campground, where you'll be staying for the night anyway, you'll leave your pack there before heading up the Frances Valley. After making your way over the rocky trail, head to Mirador Frances for a nice view of the glacier itself. Head even farther up the trail to Mirador Britanico, where you will find one of the park's most popular sites: Cuernos del Paine (horns of pain). Head back the way you came, collect your pack, and set up camp for the evening.
Day 6 starts off moderately enough, winding up and down gentle slopes, until you reach the valley. From here you can expect an all uphill trek. However, the views of Lago Nordernskjold and the surrounding mountains helps make today's hike more pleasant. Be sure to turn in early at Chileno if you plan on seeing the sunrise on the Torres the next day!
Your last day on the trail will be relatively short, but you'll want to get an early start. Take what you need and leave your pack at camp. The trail to the mirador for the Torres is pretty rocky, so take care in the dark. (And, of course, make sure you check what time sunrise is beforehand!) After you've taken in one of the most spectacular sites in the park and its namesake, head down, pack your bag, and return to Hotel Las Torres.
What will I need?
Although not particularly grueling, you'll want a durable, lightweight tent due to the sheer length of this hike.
The average summertime temperature in this area is around 55°F, so you'll want a nice, toasty sleeping bag to keep you warm at night. (Not to mention it can be very windy too!) A lightweight, but comfortable, sleeping pad is a must too.
Whether you're using them with your tent set-up, to help you cross over the John Gardner Pass, or both, trekking poles can come in handy too.
It goes without saying that you'll want some quality cooking gear for this length of trip. That doesn't mean it has to be heavy, though! Invest in a lightweight, long-lasting titanium cooking pot and silverware if you haven't already. Don't forget your cooking stove and fuel as well. (Reminder: You can't travel with fuel, so you will have to purchase it once you reach your destination.)
There is no shortage of rain in this area, so you should definitely consider some rain gear for yourself as well as your backpack (i.e. a dry bag for the inside and rain cover for the outside).
Titanium cooking pots are great for a long backpacking trek like the O Circuit. They're ultralight, but extremely durable.
For a comprehensive list of what to pack for your trip, be sure to check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I need a permit?
There are several fees and reservations you will need to make in advance for your trip.
- A ticket to stay more than 3 days is $35
- The park entrance fee is $25
- Reservations are required for refugio and campsite stays. Campsites range between $9 and $21 per night
- Renting a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag at the campgrounds is also an option for an additional price of about $50 per night.
Although plenty of careful planning is involved, this Patagonia hike is well worth it and will be remembered for years to come. Have you hiked the O Circuit or W trail in Torres del Paine NP? We'd love to hear about your experience!