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Hiking Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit

Trek through the earth's wildest mountain range.
chile, lake pehoe, torres del paine, classic treksStop at Lake Pehoe for this view of Torres del Paine. (Tom Bol)

The Perfect Circle: Hiking the Annapurna Circuit | Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit | Corsica’s GR 20 | Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu | Italy’s Alta Via 1 | New Zealand’s Milford Track | England’s Pennine Way | Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro | Everest Base Camp, Tibet | Tour du Mont Blanc

Classic cred  With apologies to Grand Canyon’s Grandview Point, Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver, and Mt. Whitney’s summit, the Torres del Paine circuit will give your eyeballs a whole new gauge for "the best view you’ve ever seen." Here, blue glaciers saw into the earth, exotic animals–like the llama-esque guanacos–dot the hillsides, and the mountains themselves take on wild, seemingly impossible shapes. The 52-mile, 10-day loop, which sits 1,500 miles south of Santiago, encircles the Torres del Paine–8,000- to 10,000-foot granite monoliths that twist and curl like frozen waves of rock above glacial lakes studded with icebergs. Go ahead, linger at each pretty spot: The sun doesn’t set until 10 p.m. in summer.

Beta  Fly into Punta Arenas, on the Straights of Magellan, the world’s southernmost city. Then bus it three hours north to Puerto Natales, the park’s gateway town. Forgo the crowded huts in favor of camping (sites are next to each hut) and follow the trail’s orange markers counterclockwise to conquer the biggest climbs early. From the trailhead, you’ll follow the Rio Paine to Lago Dickson, and see spiky peaks coming into view as the trail skirts Dickson and Los Perros Glaciers. The descent from 4,000-foot John Gardner Pass, the circuit’s highpoint, deposits you at the edge of Grey Glacier; camp here to watch crumbling ice thunder into the water. Cold winds blow all year, but December through March offers your best weather window, with highs in the upper 50s and the lowest chance of precip all year.

Local’s tip  Pre-hike, crash at the Erratic Rock Hostel (erraticrock.com) in Puerto Natales, where $14 buys you a bed, shower, and a Trekker’s Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and nuclear-strength coffee. It’s three blocks from the park information center.

Plan It  Get Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Lonely Planet, $20) for trail descriptions and insider advice. Guides and permits aren’t required, but for the comfort of an outfitted trip, go with BikeHike Adventures (bikehike.com). It offers nine-day treks with an overnight at the new EcoCamp, where the geodesic lodges and dining hall are all carbon-neutral. Pick up a free trekker’s map at the park entrance.

Cost  DIY: $ // Guided: $$$$

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