As the U.S. battles over the fate of public lands, the Chilean government and Kristine Tompkins are doing something extraordinary down in Patagonia—setting aside millions of acres for stunning new national parks. And they aren't done yet.
“No hay sinónimo para Dios más perfecto que la Belleza.” John Muir’s dictum, originally published 80 years ago, rolls nicely off the tongue in Spanish. (Translation: No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.) The words are carved on the back of a wooden sign hanging at the entrance to Cementerio Valle Chacabuco, a small graveyard surrounded by a stone fence and a dozen guanacos grazing the brown steppe of 764,655-acre Patagonia National Park.
This civilized plot in Chile’s wild Aysén region holds the remains of Doug Tompkins. Doug, a cofounder of The North Face and Esprit, and his wife, Kristine, former CEO of Patagonia, are legendary conservationists who began buying hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Chile and Argentina in the 1990s. In 2015, Doug died in a kayaking accident on General Carrera, a massive turquoise lake nearby. But the philanthropist’s spirit is everywhere, from his Husky bush plane on the grass runway to the black-chested buzzard eagle that swoops over the park’s headquarters. Doug’s radio handle was Águila, Spanish for eagle. It’s as if he shape-shifted into the actual bird.
I pay my respects to Doug, cross a dirt road, and hike a network of trails that climb 3,000 feet to a chain of high-alpine lakes. As I gain elevation, the stone structures and organic gardens of park headquarters disappear into the expanse of the vast Valle Chacabuco, which appears to have been folded and kneaded like bread by a giant hand. In the distance, the jagged white peaks of the Andes jut into the sky.
Muir would’ve liked this view. Call it God or Beauty, but the panorama is overwhelming. So is Chile’s “crazy geography,” the phrase writer Benjamín Subercaseaux aptly used, in 1941, to describe the powerful natural forces that have shaped his country. A protected landscape like this is a sight for a sagging spirit to behold given the heated battles threatening public lands in the U.S.
In Chile, the opposite is happening. In January, outgoing president Michelle Bachelet and Kristine Tompkins signed a decree designating ten million new acres of national parklands. As part of that decision, the Chilean government set aside nine million acres of federal land, and Kristine donated one million acres of private land to help create Pumalín National Park–Douglas R. Tompkins and the one I’m standing in now. The decree protects an area three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone combined. Ultimately, the grand plan is to create a Route of Parks, connecting 17 national parks, a joint vision of Tompkins Conservation, the umbrella organization that encompasses all the Tompkinses’ nonprofits, and the Chilean government.
I reach the first glacial lake on the northern flank of 4,875-foot Cerro Tamanguito and try to make out Picaflor y Águila, a picnic spot on the edge of a lagoon where Kristine and Doug first camped in the early 1990s. (Kristine’s radio handle was Picaflor, or hummingbird.) They were so enamored by Valle Chacabuco, then a 170,500-acre estancia, that they returned frequently. Later they brought along Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and his wife, Malinda, who’ve donated generously to Tompkins Conservation and advised on land acquisitions over the years.
“When we first saw Chacabuco,” Chouinard told me, “there was just this pristine valley. We were camping out on a little site right by a stand of poplar trees. That’s when we decided to buy the estancia from the de Smets, the Belgian family who owned the sheep ranch. They were trying to make it by selling manchego cheese. It wasn’t manchego. It had a funky barnyard flavor that made it unsellable.” The de Smets eventually sold to a Tompkins nonprofit in 2004.
From my heady vantage point, it’s easy to get carried away by the rugged expanse and romance of the place. But that would be forgetting years of hard work, including negotiating land transactions, creating park boundaries, and pulling down thousands of fence posts, in order to restore an ecosystem that now attracts guanacos, Darwin’s rheas (a relative of the ostrich), and at least 30 pumas.
“I love starting things at zero,” Kristine says when I speak with her after my trip. She was supposed to be at the park while I was visiting but had been delayed in the States tending to her 99-year-old mother, who died a few months ago. “It’s a tough thing to pull off, but this is the front end of what will be one of the great national park routes of the world.”
The route of parks is still a rough concept at this point. Most have been designated, and Tompkins Conservation has contributed land to eight of them. The route will eventually be loosely connected via 1,500 miles of roads and ferries, combining Chile’s notoriously rugged 770-mile Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) with water passages and roads farther south. It starts just south of the city of Puerto Montt at Alerce Andino National Park and ends at Cabo de Hornos National Park, a series of islands and waterways in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost point of South America. Once the parks are all decreed, which is estimated to happen as early as this fall, the route will create the largest string of national parks in the world, featuring jagged peaks, aquamarine glaciers, symmetrical volcanoes, milky rivers, steep-sided fjords, and old-growth forests.
I’m traveling with my boyfriend, Brian Hayden, and we’re on a somewhat ludicrous mission to explore as many Chilean national parks as we can in just under a month. Starting in Puerto Montt, where the Carretera Austral begins, our plan is to drive most of the highway, hop a ferry in the village of Puerto Yungay, ride 44 hours south to Puerto Natales, near iconic Torres del Paine National Park, and end up in Tierra del Fuego’s Yendegaia National Park, a 372,170-acre wilderness about a quarter of which a Tompkins nonprofit bought from a jailed drug dealer in 1998 and handed over to the government in 2014.
As Chileans like to say, Patagonia “está en pañales” (is in diapers) when it comes to development, which makes the recreation potential along the Route of Parks unlimited. Travelers can hike to hanging glaciers, mountain-bike singletrack few others have ridden, kayak and fly-fish pristine rivers, backpack through empty public lands, rock-climb hundreds of unnamed routes, horsepack into wilderness areas seen only by gauchos, or make the first ascent of a peak for the right to name it—like Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard did with 7,500-foot Cerro Kristine in 2009.
Our plan has a few pitfalls, namely that we’re driving south in late fall into potential snow and ice, and we have a tight schedule to keep to arrive in time for the once-a-week ferry in Puerto Yungay. Planning to be anywhere on time on the Carretera Austral is wishful thinking. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet began constructing the famous highway in 1976, using 10,000 soldiers to dynamite mountainsides, fortify berms around cliffs, and hack through dense rainforest. It took 24 years to build the road, which is alternately paved, gravel, or dirt, and there remain four impenetrable sections that require a ferry bypass.
We wouldn’t be the first Patagonia road-trippers in need of a backup plan. In 1968, the now famous Fun Hogs—Doug Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard, Dick Dorworth, and Lito Tejada-Flores—drove from California to Argentina, picking up Chris Jones in Peru. Their journey included a spectacular summit of Fitz Roy, one of the world’s most technical peaks. The Carretera Austral didn’t exist back then, so the men had to cross from Chile into Argentina, which required thousands of dollars in bond money—much more than the Fun Hogs had—to travel south on Route 40.
“Tompkins, who was kind of a juvenile delinquent, said, ‘We’ll figure it out,’ ” Chouinard recalls. “We got to Puerto Montt and bought a rubber stamp that blotted out the part that said our car wasn’t guaranteed for Argentina or Brazil. For three dollars, we got into Argentina.”
The Fun Hogs inspired my first trip to Chile in 2000. I spent a week in the off-season hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, which felt rugged, remote, and empty. Then I flew to northern Patagonia and discovered what empty really looks like. I borrowed a bike to ride along the Carretera Austral, singing at the top of my lungs while surrounded by utter wildness.
In October 2015, I returned to Puerto Varas, a city in Chile’s Lakes District, where I met Doug Tompkins at a conference. “We hope to make 12 national parks before we keel over,” he told me then. He was wearing a black turtleneck, had a white mane of hair, and reminded me a little of a more animated Andy Warhol. “We’ll have to see if we can do that. Conservation faces opposition wherever it is. The use of territory is the most politically sensitive, emotional issue there is. Look at Grand Teton National Park. My God, there was an armed uprising there! You have to spend years, pay dues, win respect, and make as few mistakes as possible.”
Doug’s love affair with Chile ran deep. He began exploring the country when he was 18, and later spent as much time there as possible while running two corporations. By 1991, he had amassed a fortune and soured on consumerism. He cashed out and bought a run-down, 42,000-acre farm south of Puerto Montt at the end of a Chilean fjord. Most of the farm is now part of Pumalín–Douglas R. Tompkins park. In 1994, he married Kristine, and over the years the two have invested more than $500 million—from their personal finances, Tompkins Conservation, and like-minded partners—to protect 1.3 million acres in Chile and 1.2 million in Argentina, and to fund other environmental projects. The Tompkinses weren’t always been viewed favorably by Chileans, some of whom considered them neocolonialists and circulated rumors—that they were starting a cult or populating their land with American bison. But over the years, the pair earned the trust of locals and government officials. Two months after I met Doug, he died.
“Doug was the start of the environmental movement in Chile,” Chouinard says. “When he started down there, especially during Pinochet, if you opposed the government you were a dead man. There were no environmental orgs—zero. But Kristine has probably accomplished more than Doug would have had he been alive. He was pretty abrasive. Kris is more of a diplomat. She’s done a phenomenal job of handing over those parks.”
And she isn’t done yet. In Argentina, Tompkins Conservation is working with the government to create several national parks, including the flagship 341,205-acre Iberá. There, in June, two jaguar cubs were born for the first time in almost half a century.
The beauty of the Route of Parks is how vastly different each area is. Some have glaciers, others have temperate rainforests, and still others have both. Some are roadless; others have exquisite luxury lodges. Even more diverse than the parks are the people who visit them. We meet a Chilean who slung a guitar over his shoulder in southern Patagonia and is hitchhiking all the way to Machu Picchu. A South African couple bought a Chevy van in California and are driving down in full-on Fun Hog mode. One American took his Salsa Mukluk fat bike on a test ride through Alaska and has now turned it loose on the Carretera Austral. And a time-strapped German CEO jetted in to an upscale lodge in Torres del Paine and is knocking off as many hikes as possible in a week.
These travelers are all awestruck by the volume of wilderness here. Case in point: Queulat National Park. About 13 miles south of Puyuhuapi village, Queulat’s one-lane dirt-road entrance looks like a driveway. The 380,772-acre park, which opened in 1983 during the Pinochet regime, was named in the language of the extinct nomadic Chono people for the sound made by waterfalls. Given that Queulat receives as much as 157 inches of rainfall per year, there are quite a few of them, like the 2,100-foot cascade that plummets from Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier. It’s best experienced by crossing a rope bridge that sways over the Rio Ventisquero, then hiking three miles and 1,300 feet up through a rainforest to a lookout that captures the glacier, waterfall, surrounding peaks, and milky blue lake below.
We are equally awed 230 miles south of Queulat under the basalt peaks of Cerro Castillo National Park, a 341,411-acre former natural reserve. We arrive in the village of Cerro Castillo just in time to pitch our tent at the campground behind Senderos Patagonia, a hostel and outfitter. It was established in 2011 by Cristian Vidal, a renowned horse trainer whose family settled in this valley in the 1930s, and his American wife, Mary Brys. The two met in Chile in 2007, when Brys was finishing her master’s degree in sustainable tourism. Vidal was her horseback guide.
Brian and I set up camp, Jetboil some noodles, and wash them down with Chilean Carmenère from a box as we soak up the orange sunset over 8,776-foot Cerro Castillo, the park’s namesake.
“Wow, that looks far away,” says Brian, referring to tomorrow’s objective, a smaller peak covered in dark clouds. Snow is in the forecast, and we’re preparing for a cold night. The hostel glows yellow below us and is at full capacity with mostly millennial hitchhikers.
Senderos Patagonia specializes in long-distance horseback expeditions. But Vidal and Brys just became the official trail administrators for the new national park and will work closely with Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), which manages the country’s parks, to oversee trail building, search and rescue missions, guide certification, and the first studies on the park’s capacity. The area is a magnet for rock climbers (there are more than 200 routes), backcountry skiers, and trekkers who camp along the five-day, 31-mile Las Horquetas circuit. According to Brys, the attention has dramatically increased real estate prices in the village of Cerro Castillo in the past couple of years.
“It’s becoming a world-class destination, but so much infrastructure is lacking that it’s a little scary,” says Brys, handing off the couple’s five-month-old baby, Antonio, to Vidal as she points out tomorrow’s hiking route on a map. “It’s super exciting when you think about what the government and Tompkins Conservation are doing. We’re witnessing history. But there are a lot of unanswered questions for local people about how it is going to affect their culture.”
It’s a legitimate concern, as I learn the next day. We shake a thin layer of ice off our tent and head into the park with Francisco Ponce, a Senderos Patagonia guide. Our ten-mile round-trip trek feels more classically alpine, hopping over streams, passing the base camp for climbing Cerro Castillo, and ending in a wide, snow-filled valley at the foot of the peak’s intimidating serrated crown. The hike is fantastic, but to access this area of the park we had to hop a fence and walk a mile or so through private farmland. It’s legal, Ponce tells us, because Senderos Patagonia pays a fee to the landowner, but it’s not an ideal entry point to a national park, especially for a trail that’s now receiving about 25 trekkers per day and, due to CONAF budget constraints, has only a few rangers to monitor it.
Creating national parks has always been a priority in Chile. Every president who has served a full term since 1926 has expanded the system, which now totals 21.2 percent of the country. Everywhere I visit, I ask locals what they think of the new parks. Most are tentatively excited, adding the caveat that “es complicado.” Many express concerns about how the parks will involve local communities and how the country will manage ten million additional acres.
While most parks won’t get close to the quarter-million annual visitors that Torres del Paine sees, even that park has a limited budget of $2.1 million a year, with only 30 full-time rangers to oversee 700 square miles. The final Route of Parks details—exact boundaries, staffing needs, budgets—are still being ironed out. “The financing of protected areas worldwide is a great challenge, and in Chile the scenario is similar,” Richard Torres Pinilla, the manager of protected wild areas for CONAF, told me in an e-mail. He explained that in addition to federal funding, money to manage and maintain the parks will come from local and regional governments and various other national and international organizations.
CONAF plans to begin managing the new parks by April 2019. Tompkins Conservation will collaborate with CONAF for at least the next decade, especially on the extensive rewilding and wildlife-rehabilitation programs the nonprofit has instituted in Pumalín–Douglas R. Tompkins and Patagonia National Parks. And a new international organization called Corporación de Amigos de los Parques, launched in June by Tompkins Conservation, will raise money and advocate for policies to help maintain the parks.
Kristine, who splits her time between projects in Chile and Argentina and fundraising in the U.S., is confident that Chile will do right by her gift. “The Chilean government is going to take good care of these parks, because they’re excited about having a world-class national park system,” she says. “These are gorgeous places that people will want to come visit. The people and landscapes of southern Chile are extraordinary.”
Rule number one when traveling in southern Chile: have a plan B. Parts of the Carretera Austral are paved smooth as butter; others are so potholed, eroded, or narrow that one jerky move could launch us off a cliff, roll us into a ditch, or turn us into grill decorations on an incoming semi. Distractions are constant—a fortress of snowcapped peaks, a hitchhiker in need of a ride, a gaucho in wool-lined chaps leading his cattle down the road.
The distances between parks aren’t large, but Mother Nature can make travel tricky. Last December, a river of mud flowed four miles down a mountainside in Corcovado National Park, a 726,455-acre coastal swath roughly 125 miles south of Puerto Montt. It buried the small village of Santa Lucia, killing at least 15 people, crushing 28 houses, and destroying miles of the Carretera Austral. Reconstruction of the road is slow going. Our two-hour delay outside Santa Lucia is brief according to our new friends, a group of Santiago businessmen in the SUV in front of us. They’ve come prepared with a case of wine and are tailgating out of the back of their car.
Despite construction stops, the days go fast as we hike, camp, soak in searing hot springs, sip Chilean wines, and eat lamb asado. Early on in our trip, in the bathroom of our cabin at Caleta Gonzalo in Pumalín National Park–Douglas R. Tompkins, I laugh when I see the beechwood toilet-paper holders intricately carved with flowers and recall what Chouinard had told me about Doug in an interview just after his friend’s death.
“He was a micromanager,” Chouinard said. “We used to joke that he would even choose the type of toilet paper if you let him. If you look at the infrastructure of Pumalín and Patagonia, it’s over the top. He was a frustrated interior designer.”
Along the way, we meet mostly Chileans who have heard the buzz about the parks and ventured south to see Patagonia, a once-in-a-lifetime trip for most. After two weeks, we’ve explored five parks, but I’m becoming increasingly agitated about catching the ferry in Puerto Yungay. When we finally reach the village, which consists of the ferry office and a café, we’re five hours early. I’m so happy to be here, I’m not alarmed that neither the boat nor another human is in sight.
“Oh look, we’re the first ones here,” Brian jokes. To assuage my obsession with the ferry departure, he has heroically driven the last particularly steep and gnarly 50-mile stretch of the Carretera Austral through rain and sleet to make sure we arrive in time.
“Why are you here?” asks a kindly woman behind the café counter who declares herself Inés of Puerto Yungay, because she is the town’s only resident.
“We’re here to take the ferry,” I say.
“Haven’t you heard?” she asks. “There’s been an accident. The ferry is broken.”
We have no plan B. After some discussion with Inés, who fortifies us with supersize ham and cheese empanadas, we decide to backtrack 300 miles north to Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén, where we’ll wait for an airline strike to subside before catching a flight to Punta Arenas. From there we’ll drive north to Torres del Paine. If all goes according to plan B, we’ll arrive in three days.
“Awesome! I get to drive the sketchiest part of road twice,” says Brian, hauling ass over gravel at 60 miles per hour. It’s getting dark, and we’re running low on gas. But Brian cheerfully reminds me that missed ferries and looming snowstorms are part of the fun on the Carretera Austral.
When we arrive in Torres del Paine, I run into a friend who happens to be in the park: Euan Wilson, the founder of H&I Adventures, a Scottish company that specializes in exploratory mountain-biking trips.
“The terrain here is un-friggin’-believable,” he excitedly tells us. “It’s like you’re on the moon, with lava flows and rock.” Wilson has received permission to scout new routes on a private estancia within the park’s boundaries and has brought Ernesto Araneda, Chile’s 2010 cross-country mountain-biking champion, along with him.
“Yesterday was one of my best days,” he says. “We had five hours of riding time and only ten minutes off the bike. We were like Beavis and Butt-head—we kept chuckling because it was so hard to stop. The terrain here lends itself to mountain biking, because the soil drains well.”
Brian, a onetime category-two cyclist who now races on gravel, peels off to ride with the guys. I opt to hike to the base of the famous Torres with Sebastian Kusch, a 27-year-old guide for Tierra Patagonia, the architectural wonder of a lodge where we’re staying on the eastern shore of nearby Lake Sarmiento. Chilean Cazú Zegers designed the hotel to almost magically disappear into the grass of the arid Patagonia steppe.
The six-mile trail ascends around 3,000 feet to the base of the granite towers and sees 1,200 people on the busiest summer days. Today we come across only a few dozen hikers, some of whom are wearing flimsy parkas to fend off the biting snow and wind. I wipe back a few tears when we reach a small lake located at the base of the 12-million-year-old monoliths, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief that, in a world moving at hyperspeed, at least these rocks haven’t changed in the 18 years since I last saw them.
When we meet back at the hotel, Brian is equally charged. “I’ve never ridden in such vastness,” he says. “We might have been some of the first people to ride those trails.”
Before we leave Torres del Paine, Basilio Reinike, the head guide at Tierra Patagonia, takes Brian and me to a small house connected to a ranger station to meet Juan Toro Quirilef, the park’s first ranger. Quirilef’s mother was of Mapuche descent, known as the tribe that the Spaniards could never conquer.
Now a cheerful, fit 65 years old, Quirilef still patrols on horseback and says that his biggest problem is too many people. “When the park explodes with visitors, we don’t have the time, resources, or money,” he says, adding that he was recently offered the job of being the sole ranger in Yendegaia National Park. He turned it down.
“That park is huge!” he says. “I built this house 26 years ago. Torres del Paine is my home.”
Brian and I never make it to Yendegaia, either. Before we drive south to Punta Arenas to catch our flight home, we eat lunch in Puerto Natales with Gonzalo Fuenzalida, a Santiago native who guided down here for about 20 years. He owns Chile Nativo, which runs horsepacking and trekking trips to untouched corners of Chile. Fuenzalida is almost giddy as he tells me about the trip he’s scouted in Yendegaia National Park.
“There’s no way you can do a trip like this one on your own,” he says. “The logistics are quite tricky.”
They involve taking a ferry from Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego and driving to the end of a new highway, which is being blasted roughly a mile closer to the park every month; a permit from the government is required to travel around this obstacle. Trekkers then set out to cross the peaks of the Cordillera Darwin. After four days of hiking, they take a boat to Puerto Williams, where they fly in a small plane back to Punta Arenas.
It makes me sick to my stomach that I may never get to set eyes on Yendegaia. But I suppose it’s always good to leave something to the imagination.
“When do you think the road to Yendegaia will be finished?” I ask Fuenzalida.
“Never, I hope.”
Access and Resources
It would take months to travel the entire Route of Parks. Bite off a two-week stretch by driving to any of the seven accessible parks along the Carretera Austral. Or fly farther south to Punta Arenas to trek in Torres del Paine or kayak Bernardo O’Higgins.
When to Go: The weather is unpredictable in Patagonia. September through February is the spring-summer high season. There’s more snow in the fall and winter months (March through August), but the region is far less crowded then.
Getting There: Latam offers daily flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, and Balmaceda—the three airports with the best access to points along the Route of Parks. Aerovias DAP offers flights to Tierra del Fuego’s Puerto Williams.
Getting Around: Some of the major car rental companies operate in Patagonia. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle; if possible, plan your itinerary to avoid a hefty one-way rental fee. On the Carretera Austral, there are four gaps that require ferry passage. Most information on schedules and tickets can be found at Taustral.cl and Tabsa.cl. Cyclists: bring your own tested and trusted bike.
Where to Stay: There are good campsites in most of the road-accessed national parks. The iOverlander app provides invaluable information on campgrounds, backcountry sites, and water stops along the route. The southern third of Chile is not lacking in clean, comfortable, and occasionally luxurious accommodations. Highlights include the new Hotel Awa (from $410) in Puerto Varas, on Llanquihue Lake, with floor-to-ceiling views of the Osorno volcano and on-site kayaks. In Hornopirén, Hotel Oelckers (from $35) offers stout breakfasts timed to catch the early-morning ferry to Pumalín National Park–Douglas R. Tompkins. In the park, the cozy Caleta Gonzalo cabins (from $80), on the edge of Reñihué Fjord, provide a relief from the frequent rain. Getting to the Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa (from $260) requires a ten-minute ferry ride, but the payoff is steaming-hot outdoor springs within view of Queulat National Park. Steps from the Carretera Austral, Senderos Patagonia hostel and campground (hostel from $12.50; camping $8) offers hot showers and easy access to Cerro Castillo National Park. Patagonia National Park has three beautifully maintained campgrounds and the luxurious Lodge at Valle Chacabuco (from $350). A former cold-storage plant, the Singular Patagonia (from $445) near Puerto Natales features Andes views, one of the best restaurants in Chile, and excursions into nearby Torres del Paine and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks. Just outside Torres del Paine, the stunning, sustainable Tierra Patagonia lodge (from $2,300 for three nights, which includes all meals and guided excursions) has in-house trekking guides, a spa, and a restaurant looking out on the Torres. In Punta Arenas, La Yegua Loca (from $150) is a 1929 hilltop estate with eight themed rooms.
Outfitted Adventures: On MT Sobek’s new On the Smuggler’s Trail trip, guests trek for 12 days on an old cattle-smuggling route through Patagonia National Park (from $5,895). Outfitter Chile Nativo offers treks and horseback expeditions in Torres del Paine National Park and points farther south, like its new nine-day Terra Incognita route in Yendegaia National Park (from $4,000). On Outside GO’s Uncharted Chile trip, guests explore Torres del Paine for six days while staying in the luxury domes of EcoCamp Patagonia, followed by three days of exploring the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina ($4,325).
Contributing Editor Stephanie Pearson (@stephanieapears) wrote about touring Lake Superior in 2017.