As we crested the rise of John Gardner Pass, our breath was taken away — and not just from Patagonia’s famous fierce wind. Below us lay the eight-mile expanse of Grey Glacier spread out like an icy sea. Its great toe trailed icebergs into Grey Lake, its head disappeared up the valley in a wash of light, and a rainbow graced its far side. We were, quite literally, struck with wonder.
It was day three of an eight-day trek on the O Circuit in Torres Del Paine, the Chilean national park famous for its iconic skyline. It’s also quickly becoming known for its multi-day O Circuit (and shorter front-side of the Circuit called the W Trek) as a way for more adventurous tourists to see the park.
At first glance, it may be intimidating for the average traveler to plan a trek around the Circuit. In response to increasing popularity of the area, the park now requires advance reservations for all campsites and refugios, the backcountry lodges along the trail, and limits the number of people in each. Two separate companies as well as CONAF (the Chilean version of the park service) run the various campsites, and each has its own booking system in Spanish.
The W Trek may get all the glory for being the shorter version of the full Circuit and thus easier to plan and access — but with campsites set in storybook-beautiful locations, cozy refugios where you can buy a bottle of wine and a three-course meal, and a double dose of drool-worthy scenery, hiking the full Circuit is far and away worth the extra effort to plan.
To make your trip planning easy, here is everything you need to know. The biggest tip: Start now for planning a trip from December–March to ensure you get the reservations you want. Alternatively, aim for the quieter shoulder months of November or April, when the weather is still good and the park is relatively empty.
Fly into Punta Arenas and take a bus to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine. There’s a tiny airport in Puerto Natales that’s worth the extra cost to fly into if your flights line up. This charming port village has several small hotels to choose from. Consider Hostal Natales, a cozy refuge a block from the water with an indoor courtyard and breakfast included.
Plan Your Trek
Day 1: Park Entrance – Seron
Distance: 8 miles/13 kilometers
While this is probably the least scenic stretch of the Circuit, the easy walking is a great way to ease into this multi-day trek, especially if you’re getting a later start due to traveling from Puerto Natales. The Seron campsite is surrounded by the rolling hills and wildflower fields that border the Paine River. There’s no refugio at Seron, but there are beds for rent inside two geodesic domes, as well as a small store and restaurant.
Reserve: Fatastico Sur
Day 2: Seron – Dickson
Distance: 11 miles/18 kilometers
Hike up a small pass where you get the first glimpse of the glacial lakes and impressive peaks Patagonia is known for. Even the backside of the famous towers make an appearance from behind the jagged ridgeline at one point.
Refugio Dickson is one of the smallest refugios on the Circuit. It and the campsite are stunningly situated on Dickson Lake, which is bounded by a spired glacier at the far end of the water that lights up pink with the sunrise.
Day 3: Dickson – Los Perros
Distance: 7.3 miles/11.8 kilometers
This site is at the highest altitude of any on the Circuit, and there’s no refugio here. So if it’s cold, windy, or rainy, it’s a good idea to spend a mellow morning at Dickson before setting out for Perros. The Perros Glacier is unique and worth spending some time taking in from the lookout around the corner from the moraine if the weather’s good. The campsite is well-protected in the trees, with a large cooking shelter and a small store for snacks and beer.
Day 4: Los Perros – Paso – Grey
Distance: 4.9 miles/8 kilometers to Paso, plus another 4.3 miles/7 kilometers to Grey.
This section of trail takes hikers over John Gardner Pass, ducking in and out of the trees before leaving the trees behind altogether for the dramatic alpine. Cresting the Pass offers the first view of Glacier Grey, one of the most amazing sights on the entire Circuit.
The downhill section of this stretch is a leg-burner, descending into the forest to the campsite at Paso. This site is lackluster, but a good option for those who might need to break up a long day. Otherwise, it’s worth pushing on to Grey for ridgetop walking with views of icebergs and a series of long swing-bridges over gorges. Refugio Grey and the campsite have gorgeous views of snow-covered ridgeline.
This is the last stop on the back side of the Circuit. There’s an option to take a boat across Grey Lake and out to the park entrance, making Grey a good starting or stopping point.
Day 5: Grey – Paine Grande
Distance: 6.8 miles/11 kilometers
This is the start of the W Trek, as well as the first stretch of the Circuit accessible to day hikers, so be prepared for a busier trail. Most of the path winds along a ridge above Grey Lake with intermittent views back to the glacier.
Paine Refugio is the biggest on the Circuit, boasting a full cafeteria, bar, and warming rooms with wood-fired stoves. Its picture windows look out at the massif of the Cuernos (Horns) del Paine, making it the perfect place to post up for a well-deserved hot drink. The campsite is a vast grassy field with the same killer view. There’s also a boat option here across Pehoe Lake to exit the Circuit, or for hikers to start the W Trek.
Day 6: Paine Grande – Camp Italiano – Brittanico Lookout – Camp Italiano
Distance: 4.6 miles/7.5 kilometers to Camp Italiano, plus another 3.3 miles/5.4 kilometers one way to the Britanico lookout.
It’s a quick and easy hike to Camp Italiano. From here, drop heavy packs and then day-hike up the French Valley for some of the most incredible scenery of the entire trek along the base of the Cuernos, the French Glacier, the Shark Fin, and other dramatic alpine features.
There’s no refugio at Camp Italiano, which is a basic site nestled into the trees. The French campsite a half hour further down the trail is also a good option, or hike another 3 miles/5 kilometers to Los Cuernos Lodge and campsite.
Day 7: Cuernos – Las Torres or Chileno
Distance: 7.2 miles/11.6 kilometers
This mellow section runs along the base of the massif, making for some incredible views above. The Las Torres campsite and refugio are nestled against a hillside with a view of the massif. The Chileno campsite and refugio are further up the trail, allowing for a shorter hike the next day to the Base of the Torres. However, Chileno is passed through by everyone hiking the Base of the Torres, so may not be the quietest option.
Reserve: Fatastico Sur for Las Torres or Chileno
Day 8: Las Torres – Base of the Torres – Finish
Distance: 11.6 miles/18.8 kilometers round trip
This is the jewel in the crown of the park: the famous towers that Torres del Paine are named for, rising from a deep blue glacial lake. That also makes it the most popular section of the trek, so be prepared for streams of people or wake up early to catch the view with a bit of solitude — although local guides will tell you that the towers usually emerge from the clouds in the early to late afternoon.
For the tail end of your trip, consider treating yourself to a night or two at EcoCamp Patagonia. This sustainable hotel composed of geodesic domes is located in the heart of Torres del Paine right off the Circuit, making it feel like you’re still in the heart of the wild — especially in its serene courtyard where you can relax and watch the sun set over the Torres. With yoga, massage, three-course meals, and a lively bar, EcoCamp is a glorious way to end your hike. EcoCamp also offers guided day trips to most of the popular sections along the W Trek, so this is a great option if you want to experience the hikes in Torres del Paine but don’t want to backpack.
Consider a Tour Company
If you want to trek in Torres del Paine but would rather not juggle reservations and planning, consider booking through Cascada Expediciones. Many tour companies are popping up as the Circuit and the W Trek gain in popularity, but not all are created equal in terms of delivery and professionalism. Cascada has been on the scene for 25 years, and helps tourists book multi-days and day hikes in Torres Del Paine, and other adventures around Patagonia, complete with reputable guides.