The Huemel Circuit is a lesser known trek in the El Chalten region of Argentina’s Patagonia for a variety of reasons. It’s more remote, technical, and challenging than others in the area. It’s also one of the most wild and beautiful places I’ve been. The Huemel Circuit takes backpackers through a variety of biomes, from lush forests, to dry plains, to rocky slopes, to beaches, to glaciers. Views unlike any other come as you rise into the alpine, getting a look at the second largest non-polar ice cap in the world. Backpackers will experience river crossings, tyrolean traverses, glacier crossings, and more as they walk in the heart of Patagonia.
Continue reading for what you need to know before attempting the Huemel Circuit.
Know Before You Backpack the Huemel Circuit
Location: El Chalten, Argentina
Trail: The Huemel Circuit
Distance: 43 miles
Elevation Gain: 7867ft
Permit/Fees: Yes, a free permit is needed. You must fill out a google doc before going. This link here makes it easier to do ahead of time. Once you return, you’ll need to shoot a messaged over to the email provided on the form letting the rangers know you are back. It’s stated that 48 hours if you have not returned, they will start looking for you. There is required gear that must be shown for the permit.
Difficulty: Hard. If you aren’t used to backpacking, this trail will test your limits. There are some steeper passes, windy area, Tyrolean crossings, glacier crossings, and some route finding required here.
Season: The trail is best done during summer, from December through February.
Weather: You might encounter rain, wind, and snow on this trail. We were elucky and only had some rain and wind.
Doggos: No. The entire park is in the Las Glacieres National Park, so dogs are not permitted. Occasionally dogs from in town will follow you. Try to chase them off back to town.
Trip Date: Jan 6th – Jan 9th
Getting to El Chalten
Directions: Getting to El Chalten requires a bit of planning and transportation logistics. The nearest airport is out of El Calafate, and most people will be flying in from Buenos Aires (about a three hour flight). From there, you can either take a taxi into town and spend a few days there before taking a bus from town to Chalten, or take the bus directly from the airport. There are quite a few companies that take people between the two towns. Search on Busbud to find a time that works for you.
Some folks may rent a car, but unless you are planning on driving around the south for a while, a car is not really needed in El Chalten. The town in small and can be walked from one end to the other in 15 minutes if you’re hurrying.
Starting: The trail itself starts next to the National Park visitor’s center, which you’ll need to obtain the permit at anyways.
Hostels/Hotels: El Chalten is filled with hostels. While visiting El Chalten, I stayed at the Patagonia Travelers Hostel, the El Rancho Hostel, and Hostel Los Viajeros. There are plenty of others in town though, these just happened to be the ones that had availability.
Backpacking: For those who haven’t spent enough time in the tent, there are more backpacking trails in El Chalten. My three day backpacking itinerary features a couple of these spots, including a stop at the famous Fitz Roy.
Camping: I personally didn’t camp in town, but from my maps and walking through, there are some campsites within town. I really enjoyed a bad and hot shower after a longer trek though.
The Huemel Circuit is not your everyday backpacking journey, and it requires more gear that you would carry on a normal backpacking trip. Rangers will check your gear before heading out to make sure you have the appropriate items for the trail. The required gear can either be rented or purchased in town. There are a few shops that you can talk to.
- 1 harness per person
- 2 locking carabiners per person (1 aluminium, 1 steel)
- 1 PAS (personal anchor system) per person – a climbing sling or webbing.
- 1 thin 35 meter cord per group
- 1 camp stove with fuel per group
- 1 topographic map per group
- 10 essentials
Highly Recommended Gear:
- Rain Jacket
- Rain Pants (or my favorite, trash bag skirt)
- Sturdy hiking boots with traction for glaciers and rocky crosings, but lighter weight and comfortable enough for long, flat days
- Sun Hoody
- Trekking Poles
- 1 extra day’s worth of food
- Garmin Spot Mini (or other personal gps locator device)
- Lightweight water shoes like Tevas
- An extra aluminum carabiner and small sling
- Water filter
Tips for Backpacking the Huemel Circuit
Tyrolean Traverse: Depending on what you read, both, one, or neither of the Tyrolean Traverses are mandatory. From what I saw, the first was not, the second was, but you could probably cross depending how far down the river you are willing to walk. The rangers do not give out instruction on how to do it, so if you happen to get there first, and don’t know how to do it, here is how we did it (and how I would recommend. Some of this is recommend, some it required.) We saw a lot of people unsure about how to use their gear here, so come prepared so you are safe.
- Put on your harness and thread your PAS through the two tie in points on your harness where a rope would attach and girth hitch it.
- Attach your locking aluminum carabiner to the weight rated loop (the belay loop) at the front of your harness (next to where you have the PAS girth hitched), and the steel one to your PAS. Your PAS is your backup, and is there to catch you should the pulley fail.
- Clip the steel carabiner to the steel cable. ***Do not put the aluminum on the wire! The steel carabiner should be the one getting pulled across the steel. *** Attach yourself to the pulley using the aluminum carabiner on your belay loop.
- Some people wore their backpacks on their back for the crossing. I don’t recommend this. It is heavy and will be difficult to move on the line. Attach your backpack to the steel carabiner that is on your safety line. Try to use both your haul loop and a shoulder strap. This is so if there is failure on your backpack loop, there’s still something holding it to the line and it’s not floating down the river.
- Cross! You’ll pull yourself across upside down to the otherside. Just breathe. Once you get to the other side, detach your backpack, and set it aside aside carefully, before detaching yourself. Anchor yourself in with your PAS as you downclimb to anchor point as good practice.
Glacier Crossing: Everything I read said the glacier was safe to walk on. That being said don’t go out too far onto it. While the crevasses seem to be pretty uncovered, a glacier is active and things can change. We stayed pretty close to the side of it.
River Crossings: If you don’t cross the Tyrolesas, you’ll need to ford the rivers, which can be quite a dangerous endeavor if not done properly. If the river is low enough, they can be forded, but be sure to wear shoes for this and take your time. A good pair of trekking poles helps for fording rivers.
Water Filter: Everyone says the water is potable on the Huemel Circuit and you don’t need to filter. That being said, on day one and four, these water sources are very close to cow pastures. We chose to not filter the second and third day sections and filter the first and fourth. If not filtering water, get it from a moving source. I try to get it near a quicker moving area of the stream after a rockier section, as this helps to naturally filter the water.
Fires: Campfires are not permitted on this trail. You must use an approved stove. High winds here are dangerous and fire can catch easily. When I was here, a fire started in Camp 3 from this.
Backpacking the Huemel Circuit
Day One: El Chalten to Laguna Toro
Length: 10 miles
Highlights: River crossings, beautiful valley views
You’ll start the Huemel Circuit at the visitor’s center in El Chalten. The rangers there will check in with you to make sure the document is signed and you have the necessary gear required for the trek. Finding the trail is pretty easy. One trail will go left, the other right. Follow the right with the signs to Laguna Toro.
It starts off as a fairly mellow day with cow pasture crossings, some marshlands where your water shoes may come in handy depending how wet it is. Continue heading up the trail through older forests. A few miles in you’ll come to another fork, this time take the left path and continue onward.
As you get closer to camp and down in the valley, there may be a few river crossings depending on how much rain the area has seen. The river crossing can go up past the knees, so get prepared to get a little wet on this section and take it slow.
The trail is well cairned and the Campamento Laguna Toro will be on your right in a smaller cluster of trees. Camps are first come first serve. Be sure to pack in and out all trash. There is a river nearby that you can filter water from.
Day Two: Laguna Toro to Refugio Paso Del Viento
Length: 9.5 miles
Highlights: Tyrolean traverse, glacier walk, ice field views
Day two is filled with adventure. After packing up camp, follow the trail out to the right. It’s a good idea to get an earlier start on this day, as the Tyrolean traverse can see a lot of crowds. We arrived first, but talking to others at camp, there were wait times of over an hour to cross later.
The trails hugs the mountain, before crossing onto the beach. From here, if the water is low enough, you can continue further and ford it, or go right up following the cairns to the Tyrol. The Tyrol is high, at least 30 feet above the river, so folks with a fear of heights may not enjoy this section. Getting off of this one can be a little tricky with a pack, so take it slow to not tumble into the raging river below.
From here, you continue hiking the Huemel Circuit until views of the glacier come in on the right. Everything we read said to descend to the glacier and walk on it. While everything we read said it was safe, I still felt a little uneasy, having usually roped up for glacier travel. Don’t stray too far onto the glacier though, staying close to the edge. We saw a few crevasses and could hear the glacier shifting at times. Eventually when it starts to get steeper, leave the glacier and get back onto the hillside, following cairned trails up.
Eventually the trail splits in two; you’ll want to follow the path on the left that continues taking you higher and up and over the aptly named Paso del Viento; windy pass. It’s a bit of slog up there, but once you arrive at the pass summit, you are greeted with incredibly views of the Ice Field. We lucked out on this, as the pass can apparently be so windy people cannot continue, but found the summit to be calm.
Follow the path downhill. There are two trails that emerge. You’ll want to follow the trail to the left as it contours around the icefield and peak. The trail will pick up and get lost here a couple times. Generally just follow the terrain and the occasional cairn. Eventually you’ll come across some streams that lead into the next camp, Refugio Paso del Viento. It’s situated next to a small alpine lake. For water filtering, I’d recommend going further up and drinking from the stream. There are no bathrooms here, and people have not properly taken care of their waste.
Day Three: Refugio Paso Del Viento to Lago Viedma
Length: 11 miles
Highlights: Better glacier views, lake views
Day three starts off with a pleasant and easy jaunt through the alpine while providing incredible views of the ice fields. The trail is fairly easy to follow here, though some who are unused to mountain travel may not enjoy how sharply the trail cuts off on the hill. It slowly ascends the second and last pass of the trip, Paso Huemel. Going up is a much smoother event than going down though, so enjoy it while it lasts. Once you reach the pass summit, take in the last views of the ice field, before starting the way down.
Once the ice field disappears, you’ll be treated to the brilliant blue of Lago Viedma. You’ll want your trekking poles for this section. It descends rapidly, and small branches provide only a little grip for the lose, slippery dirt on the way down. A couple sections have ropes to descend. Inspect them a little before weighting them. I don’t know how often they are replaced, but it’s always a good idea to look at the ropes before fully weighting them. A fall here could be dangerous.
Once you are down, there will be a trail that leads on the right to the Lago Vidma camp. There are supposedly campsites all along the lake and at a smaller camp a half mile away.
Note: As of this blog post, I am unsure if the Lago Viedma camp is still able to be used. When I was there, a wild fire was started from this camp and seemed to have burned much of the area. Contact the visitor’s center for more updated information.
Day Four: Lago Viedma to El Chalten
Length: 16 miles
Highlights: Tyrolean crossing
From Lago Viedma, follow the trail along the shoreline. There are a lot of cow trails around, so don’t be fooled by those. Eventually the trail starts heading slightly inland as you hike through more plains. Long pants are recommended for parts of this. The trail stays fairly flat before climbing a bit on the hillside. Eventually it goes down to the second and final Tyrolean crossing. According to some trip reports, this one may be forded, but we didn’t see a place to do that. Though other trip reports said this one was easier, I felt it was harder than the other. It is longer and seems to not have an permanently attached rope to bring the pulley back and forth, so one person in your group will need to get it. We made some other choices here that we don’t recommended (read my full trip report of the Huemel Circuit for why this one sucked so much).
After the crossing, you’ll shortly reaching Bahia Tunel. There is, supposedly, a boat operation that used to run here, though now seems to not run. Some blogs we read said that may be able to hitchhike from here, but from what I saw, I don’t think it is easy to do since no one comes here much anymore.
The next closest option is to walk to the Estancia La Quinta, where you may be able to call a taxi. Follow the trail through the fields to a couple buildings. From here, you can continue on by walking up a hundred feet or so on the road and following the trail on the fence line back to El Chalten. It gets a little weird here, and having a GPS or using an app like Gaia is helpful. It’s a couple miles of flat walking, before you reaching the town, turning left and facing the incredible mountain view of Fitz Roy.