Is there value in hiking what, on the face of it, is an overly-popularised trail?
Don’t answer this yet.
The hike up to Laguna de los Tres is one of the classics of Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia.
Starting from the village of El Chaltén, the out-and-back trip to the lagoon can be hiked in a day.
Indeed, many people do.
The hiking guidebook I purchased locally states “This is the trail of choice if you only plan to stay in the area for one day.”
It’s a long way to come for only a day. But that’s a different matter.
Don’t be fooled though, even if some people are only in the area for a day, this hike is not a quick walk in the park.
An average walker should factor in 9 hours of walking, before breaks, photography stops and so on.
It’s definitely a FULL day’s walk.
However long your stay, though, you can’t help but be impacted by the scenery. It’s stunning.
Valleys cloaked with verdant forests of Southern Beech are fed by the azure glacial melt water. The highest peaks are seemingly infeasible blades and shards of granite cutting the sky. If you can see them, that is.
Sitting in the middle of this massif is the iconic Fitz Roy, known as the “smoking mountain” due to the regularity of it being shrouded by cloud. Below the precipitous peaks, on the less extreme gradients, the slopes hold snow, which feeds the glaciers. Here, after all, is the edge of the Southern Patagonian icefield.
The snow and glaciers ultimately feed lagoons such as Laguna de los Tres and rivers such as the Rio Blanco.
Hiking amongst this terrain and visiting its remarkable features is one of draws of the area.
El Chaltén is a relatively young village, only originating in the 1980s. It exists now as a centre for hiking and serving tourists. There is a range of accommodation, shops, bakeries, bars and some good eateries. It’s a colourful and openly-spaced village in which many people who visit the area stay.
Getting Out Of El Chaltén – Camping At Poincenot
Not everyone wants to base themselves amongst bricks and mortar, though.
Backpackers can hike a few hours out of town to the shady, wooded grounds of Poincenot campsite, through which the El Chalten to Laguna de Los Tres route runs. This leaves a relatively short (but steep) remainder of the route do hike out from the campsite.
Camping at Poincenot also allows further exploration of the area, particularly along the Rio Blanco and alongside the Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija, through to the trail leading to Laguna Torre and the glaciers which feed it.
Hiking The Rio Blanco – An Alternative
An alternative to hiking the well-trodden El Chaltén-Laguna de Los Tres axis, is to hike to Poincenot campsite along the Rio Blanco from Hosteria El Pilar. This is a remote hostelry, 17km along the gravel road that continues alongside the Rio de las Vueltas Northwards up the valley past El Chaltén, which marks the end of tarmac.
If you are staying in El Chaltén taxis and transports are available to take you up to the Rio Blanco to start your hike. Organised groups also congregate and meet with their guides in town before being taken to the start by minibus.
This has several advantages. First, if you hike out from El Chaltén, once you reach Laguna de los Tres, you basically retrace your steps all the way back to town. By contrast, being dropped at El Pilar, then walking up the Rio Blanco to Poincenot means that from Laguna de los Tres, you are only retracing your steps back down to the campsite before heading from Poincenot down the trail to El Chaltén. This makes for a more linear and varied walk.
The second advantage is that in hiking to Poincenot this way, it’s a quicker walk from your starting point at El Pilar than it is to Poincenot from El Chaltén. This means as long as you factor in the transport time from El Chaltén to El Pilar you can also get ahead of the hiking hordes spilling out of El Chaltén.
The third and not insignificant advantage of this route is that you pass by Mirador Piedras Blancas, a viewpoint with a fantastic vista across the valley to the Piedras Blancas glacier.
Indeed quite a few hikers take this route option and it’s easy to see why, particularly since other classic hikes in the area such as El Chaltén to Laguna Torre are unavoidably out-and-back trips. It’s nice to have some variation on a theme.
We Planned Something Different – Rio Blanco Circuit
You don’t have to head very far off the beaten track here to feel like you’ve stepped into a parallel, much less populated universe. Some of the trails here are the busiest I’ve seen in any mountainous region I’ve visited bar maybe Snowdon in June.
We saw very few people on our various hikes in the area carrying a map. Most were following a few major routes, which are well signposted at trail junctions and waymarked along their route.
That means, that the vast majority of visitors are magnetically attached to the main routes. They can’t deviate. Once you leave the few main hiking trails in the area there aren’t many people around.
Our intention for our day hike was different again. In common with the route described above, we planned to start at El Pilar, walk up to Poincenot then across the Rio Blanco and up the steep gradient to Laguna de los Tres. After lunching there, we’d descend back to the Rio Blanco but rather than walk to El Chaltén or retrace our steps down the eastern side of the Rio Blanco, we would take the trail which runs along the western side of the river (sometimes in the river bed as it turned out – see below) all the way down to the Rio Electrico to meet the trail that runs out to Piedra del Fraile. We’d take that track out to the gravel road then back across the Rio Electrico.
This seemed the best of all options – not only did we not have to retrace our steps at all, other than the steep section up to Laguna de los Tres from the river and back, we also would complete circular walk taking in both sides of the Rio Blanco valley, with all the variety this would hold.
It turned out to be better than expected.
El Pilar To Campamento Poincenot
At 08:30 we set out from El Pilar looking forward to the day. The weather was set to be dry and relatively cloud free, with the potential for a good amount of sunshine. We’d been walking for only a matter of minutes when we were treated to a clear view of Fitz Roy, the notoriously smoky mountain. Our luck was in.
As the trail turns South, contouring around the hillside, it diverges from the river. After a while the trail starts to cross contours, rising up gradually into a typically unkempt Southern Beech, Nothofagus, woodland. After a while you cross into the national park (in travelling out to El Pilar from El Chaltén, you leave the park). Just inside the park boundary was a large sign with an overview map of the trail and the adjoining trail network as well as some symbols reiterating the rules of the park, on which we were briefed on our first entry to the park.
The trail climbs faster than the gradient of the river bed, which you find is an increasing distance below the trail as you head South along the valley. The forest is quite dense here and at times quite dark. Other times it is quite open and airy. On some sections you find yourself jumping across boggy sections from log to log and others standing in sunshine or being able to snatch a view, looking out over the wider valley.
There are some areas along this trail that have been overused, notably some viewpoints as well as where the trail has braided or people have cut a corner. The park authorities have made great efforts to keep people off these areas but doing so in a natural way without resorting to fencing, which I’ve seen in other similar situations elsewhere in the World. Here, rather, they’ve thrown down a hotch-potch of brances that would be a pain to walk across. This combined with a discreet sign seems to be enough to deter walkers.
It was around this point of the hike that people started to catch up with us, presumably having been dropped at El Pilar to start their walk. To an extent we’d been bimbling along rather than walking purposefully. We’d been taking in the environment, watching woodpeckers, taking photographs, looking at the views. Several noisy groups of European hikers closed up to us, silencing the birdsong, seemingly oblivious to their effect on their surroundings. We let them pass.
There were supposedly Huemuls in the area. As the minibus groups power-hiked into the distance ahead of us, their voices echoing around the trees, I suspected we wouldn’t see any…
The view from the Mirador Piedras Blancas was definitely worth the hour or so it had taken to hike thus far. The viewpoint provided a great vista across the valley to the Glaciar Piedras Blancas (see photo above in the section on hiking the Rio Blanco).
As we continued along the trail, we occasionally gained a glimpse across to Fitz Roy. Some cloud had descended and was now obscuring the massive jagged ridges. A little while later, there was a good gap in the trees. From here you could just make out the meandering beige scar of the trail leading up from the valley bottom towards the peaks. Up there, somewhere in between was Laguna de los Tres.
As you reach the top of the valley, it widens out. Here, the forest gave way to an area of scrub, which really reminded me of some places I’ve been in the Scottish Highlands. The plant species were different but the character of the place was similar.
We wandered through Campemento Poincenot and out the other side. There were various signs about fire hazards, maintaining the standard of the water in the streams, where to toilet and so on, again all reiterating points from the ten-minute briefing we’d had a few days before.
The Sun was still strong and we blinked and squinted as we left the woods and walked down to the Rio Blanco. There was a small footbridge cross one part of the stream where there was some flow but otherwise all we had to do is walk across a largely dry riverbed.
Rio Blanco To Laguna De los Tres – The Steep Bit
From the Rio Blanco, the nature of the walk changes. There’s a short connecting trail up to the Rio Blanco hut, the forward base for climbing trips, where climbers wait for weather windows to make a bid for Fitz Roy. There are no shortage of signs on these trails and here there a couple which guide you both in action and direction…
The trail heads off through the woods again, starting to get a little steeper and crossing the odd stream. These footpaths are well maintained with functional if rudimentary bridges and sets of steps where necessary. We stopped at one stream to fill up our water bottles. It was proving to be a warm day.
As we continued up the footpath it was heading up onto the shoulder on which we could see the trail from the opposite side of the valley. Just before we broke out of the trees into more scrubby ground, yet another sign requested our cooperation with minimising further erosion. It states “This is the most damaged trail of the area. Help us to prevent soil erosion: follow the yellow sticks.”
From the top of the broad, eroded section of the trail, the track reaches it’s steepest gradient. It is something of a slog but nothing worse than climbing a big hill in the UK, something like the steepness of an ascent of Skiddaw. El Pilar, where we started our hike, is around 500m (1,650 ft) above sea level.
The Rio Blanco where we crossed it is around 700m (2,300 ft) above sea level and we were ascending to 1,150m (3,770 ft) at Laguna de los Tres. This last section, a climb of 450m (1,475 ft) is over just less than 2km (1.25 miles) of horizontal distance, so it is quite steep but not horrendous. Some zig-zags in the trail also take some of the sting out of it.
That said, in the warm sun of the Patagonian spring, it was quite a sweaty climb. There were a few other hikers around, some of whom were bounding up the hillside. Others were struggling. This seems to be one of these trails that attracts all sorts, from seasoned hikers and trekkers, to general tourists ticking off something in the guidebook.
At the top of the steepest section of trail is a false summit. But it’s not a terribly demoralising false summit. The gradient from then on is quite relaxed with increasingly fantastic views as you head towards Fitz Roy.
The final rise takes you onto a moraine, overlooking the laguna, with the glaciers, snowfields and rock faces of Fitz Roy beyond.
This was where we had planned to have lunch. Our timing was good. Plus the clouds were clearing. There were a good number of hikers ahead of us but after we sat down with our sandwiches and coffee, more hikers continued to stream up the hillside behind us.
The fact it was lunchtime, the weather was good and we were likely to get sight of the summit of the peaks in front of us, meant that everyone was lingering, just soaking up their surroundings. It really is an incredible place. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.
Descent Into Chaos
The stream of hikers arriving onto the moraine was increasing further as we started our descent. There were definitely more people coming up than when we arrived nearly an hour before. As we dropped off the false summit back onto the steepest section of the trail, it was a log-jam in places. With so many people trying to come up the narrow trail there were small queues forming in each direction. Sometimes we waited for a group to pant past us on their way upwards, other times people took the opportunity for a breather as they beckoned us to carry on down past them.
It was slow going. It seemed we were meeting the main wave of hikers coming from El Chaltén. As I mentioned earlier in the article, it’s longer from El Chalten to the foot of this climb than it is from El Pilar where we started, by around an hour and a quarter. We’d been up at the lagoon for a bit less than an hour so it stands to reason that if we all left our respective starting points around the same time, we’d meet the bulk of the El Chaltén hikers on our way down.
Most people heading down were going at a similar pace and were clearly conscious of the need to be patient in places. At one point, however, I became aware of a rapid scrambling further up the hill behind us, getting closer, with small rocks and stones being displaced. A guy was coming down the slope with some urgency and cutting the corners of the zig zags, disturbing rocks and trampling vegetation as he cut across the no-mans-land between sections of track that everyone else was on. Then I recognised him as one of a pair of noisy Europeans who had past us in the morning on the Sendra El Pilar section of our hike. I was about to call him out for completely ignoring the yellow sticks on this section of the trail, the section on which we had been specifically requested to observe and follow these markers and stick to the track. But a local guide coming up the hill with a group stopped him, telling him exactly what she thought of his behaviour. Swift justice indeed.
I was looking forwards to getting away from the busy-ness of this steep narrow trail. It was like Striding Edge at rush hour but far less exhilarating. As we continued down, I focused on the inviting green woods below and wondered about the route we had yet to hike, along the western side of the Rio Blanco. This was the least well documented of the trails on our planned route. My topographical map had a trail marked on it though…
I didn’t take any pictures of the chaos on the way down. If I’m honest, I think I just wanted to shut it out. I don’t go walking for crowds. It’s not that I’m being elitist and saying all those people shouldn’t have been there. They have as much right to be there as anyone else. No, at that point, I’d rather not have been there myself. I know that sounds misanthropic and grumpy. I just like my own space – mentally, more than physically – and all that noise and distraction isn’t what I enjoy.
Interestingly it bothers me more on a trail like this, than on a city street. I think this comes down to expectations. I really had not expected it to be as busy as it was, even though I knew it was one of the most popular trails in the area. I regularly have much quieter days in the hills of the Lake District.
Following The Rio Blanco
We headed past the Rio Blanco camp to the Rio Blanco crossing point. Not long before the main trail drops down to the river, there was a vague trail off to the left that I initially walked past until I realised it was the trail we wanted. This section of trail is marked on the map with a dotted line, which basically means it’s a bit sketchy.
We followed the apparent route through the trees, then through some bushes before it opened out and the trail formed into a little gravel track through the alpine undergrowth. This was definitely our trail.
So, we embarked on what we later both agreed was the most enjoyable part of the day. Not just because we didn’t see another soul for the next 4 hours but because it was a very varied hike underfoot and in terms of our surroundings. The trail went from definite and neatly delineated in some places to very vague in other places. It often dropped onto the boulder-strewn dried river bed of the Rio Blanco and we had some fun negotiating our way along the route.
Glaciar Piedras Blancas
One of the highlights of the section of the walk we’d made in the morning, along the Sendra El Pilar, was the great views across to this side of the valley and up to the Piedras Blancas glacier.
We’d read in the guidebook that it was possible to walk up to the lagoon of this glacier too and that it was well worth the effort.
Unfortunately, as we took to this trail there was a sign stating that there was no longer access to the glacier as it was considered too unstable.
As we approached the lower moraine area of the glacier this message was repeated with a second sign, stating “Zona Peligrosa. No Avance.”
Even though it wasn’t considered safe to proceed and hike up to the glacier, we still had to cross over this moraine area. We also had to cross the stream bringing water down from the lagoon to join the Rio Blanco. The blue sky provided a stunning backdrop to the mountains behind and the clear conditions meant we had great views up to the glacier.
The map indicated that the trail diverged from the path of the river and cut into the woodland which bordered the river. I had realised in the preceding kilometers that the position of the trail on the map was not massively accurate. This fact, combined with the vagueness of the trail across the rugged rocks, meant I was keeping a close eye out for evidence of the trail entering the woods. I eventually spotted a small opening in the trees with some disturbance underneath. On a little bit of a investigation, it proved to be the trail.
We now entered the cooler, shady forest, which was pleasant respite from the direct sun and the bright reflection coming from the light-coloured rocks all around us on the river bed.
Initially we headed away from the river at almost right angles. This took us up the gradient of the hillside to the West of the river. This slope contained a few little terraces which all seemed to hold water that made them boggy. After a day of dry, dusty ground under our feet, this was novel.
The woodland we were walking deeper into was, like in the morning’s hike, all Southern Beech. Specifically, the species here is known locally as Lenga, a word from the indigenous Maphuche language. The scientific name for the species is Nothofagus pumililo.
Rio Electrico To El Pilar
As we drew close to the end of this trail cutting across from the Rio Blanco to the Rio Electrico, we grabbed views North up the valley.
We came down to the Piedra Del Fraile trail and took a right, taking us down the route towards the gravel track several kilometers down the valley. As we contoured round the hillside, there were some breaks in the trees which afforded views west up the Rio Electrico, past Piedra Del Fraile towards the Cordon Marconi, a jagged ridge line atop a high mountain wall separating the valley from the ice field beyond.
As we descended gradually through the woods towards the valley bottom to meet the Rio Electrico, there were more key species of plant present near to the trail. Amongst these were Anemone multifada, Pulpy Valerian, Prickly Heath and Lathyrus magellanicus.
As the trail dropped down to the valley bottom, we left the larger lenga trees and entered more scrubby terrain, with Calafate shrubs and Prickly Heath ground plants amongst the pebbly, dusty, arid matter on the ground. We scrunched along a trail reminiscent of an alpine garden until we came to a small river crossing, just before the confluence with the main Rio Electrico and the two-part girder bridge of the gravel track that runs all the way back to El Chalten.
A few hundred metres past the rock promontory that marks the division between the Rio Electrico and the Rio Blanco, we were at the small bridge crossing the Rio Blanco. We looked back and the sky was crystal clear. The summit of Fitz Roy stood proud, surrounded by subsidiary blades of rock. It was not much further to the turning to El Pilar.
We turned and walked up the access road to our starting point, now with the early evening sun on our face. Before long we were back at El Pilar. Our varied Patagonian hike was finished.
The time was approaching 18:30. We had been out for 10 hours but felt relatively fresh. The route had been very varied, from river valleys to cool green Lenga forests to scrub, to alpine rock gardens to glacial moraines. We’d walked smoothly on tidy well-delineated forest tracks, scrunched across alpine pebbles and scrambled over boulder-strewn river beds.
The physical high point of the day at Laguna de los Tres had provided a spectacular vista of incredible mountain scenery, yet the crowded trail leading to it had provided the psychological low point. This was one of the must-do trails of the area but if I could have avoided it I would have.
By contrast the less documented or promoted trail along the west of Rio Blanco had provided quiet adventure and its fair share of incredible scenery. It had led us to a magical, untouched Southern Beech forest full of delicate flowers, spiky Calafate and sensitive lichens.
So, to answer my own question about whether it was worth hiking an overly popularised trail, my answer would be yes. But only because it was good physical exercise and the view at the top was unique. In terms of quality of actual trail, it was poor.
The real delight was exploring off the beaten track. And thankfully, such is the polarisation of trail popularity here, you need take only a few steps of the tourist thoroughfares to get there.