Hiking Patagonia’s Fitz Roy Trail: El Chalten Day Hikes
Whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s quite likely that you’ve seen Mt. Fitz Roy, arguably the most recognized peak in the Andes and the center of one of the world’s most spectacular mountain landscapes. As the focal point of the Patagonia sportswear logo, you may have even worn it.
For mountaineers it’s part of one of the most alluring massifs on the planet. It wasn’t climbed until 1952 and remains, even by today’s standards, among the most technically challenging peaks on earth. For those of us who prefer to do our exploring with both feet firmly planted on the ground, we have the Fitz Roy Trail, its eponymous hiking trail where you’re afforded enough views of the peak to last a lifetime.
Fitz Roy Trail
Trailhead: El Chalten, Argentina Duration: Approximately four hours to Camp Poincenot, one way; distance about 9.5km (6.mi), one way Difficulty: Easy to Moderate Elevation gain: about 350m (1,148ft) Updated: 22-Jan-2016
The Tehuelche called the 3,405m (11,171ft) high spire Cerro Chalten, which means ‘smoking mountain’ or ‘peak of fire’. It’s an apt name as most of the time it rests at least partially shrouded by clouds and mist. The indigenous name was dropped in 1877 in favor of Fitz Roy, the captain of Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle who came within 50 kilometers of the range in 1834.
The range sits on the Chilean-Argentinean border in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Los Glaciares National Park. Most hikers exploring the areas start and end the journey in the village of El Chalten, in Argentina’s southern Santa Cruz Province, these days known as the country’s trekking capital. (El Chalten wears its designation well; more on the village next week.)
I got off to a somewhat late start so my initial plan, a roughly 10-hour round trip to Laguna de los Tres, which sits almost at the base of the massif, had to curtailed. I settled for a hike as far as Camp Poincenot, roughly 10 kilometers from town one way.
The trail head is located just to the north of town, where the main Avenida San Martin splits with Ruta Provinicial (RT) 23. The dirt and gravel road to the trail head veers to the left of the split; it’s well marked.
The total elevation gain to Laguna Capri is 200m (656ft); most of that is covered in this initial and very windy ascent from town. About 25 minutes into the hike you reach the first of several stunning vistas: this view, below, towards the de las Vueltas River Valley. The winds died down considerably about 10 minutes later.
At a casual clip, you’ll reach Laguna Capri and its campsite after about 90 minutes. The views are sensational, but if you walk just 15 minutes further you’ll reach the Mirador Fitz Roy, where you’ll also be treated to excellent views of both the range and the Piedras Blancas glacier.
From here, Camp Poincenot, named for the granite spire that stands to Fitz Roy’s left and stabs the sky at 3,002m (9,849ft), is another 90 minutes away. Largely flat, it’s a easy walk that leads you over a variety of landscapes where numerous wide-sweeping photo ops will present themselves.
I was tempted to continue onwards to Laguna de los Tres, but opted instead to head back slowly while ample daylight remained to chase some birds instead. It was a wise decision.
Magellanic Woodpeckers galore
Other highlights? Besides the peaks, it’s the birds with the Magellanic Woodpecker topping the list. At 36 to 45 centimeters (14 to 18 inches) in length, campephilus magellanicus is the largest woodpecker in the Americas and found only in Patagonian forests of southern Argentina and Chile. Fortunately, they’re not as shy as many birds and I was able to get relatively close to leave with a few decent shots. A few more shots, of both the male and female, are in a previous post here.
Here’s a four-minute video notebook of the hike, heavy on Fitz Roy imagery; as the cover shows, he even made a brief cloud-free appearance, for my birthday, no doubt.
And below that, a 17-second time lapse I shot from the Poincenot campground with my GoPro. Fitz Roy, hiding in the cloud throughout, is in the center.