One way, the Enchanted Forest Trail covers less than two kilometers of southern Chile’s pristine Queulat National Park. But between its trailhead, set in a lush dense evergreen forest and its terminus on a cliff above a clear and clean turquoise-tinted glacier-fed lagoon, it packs a lot into those 1.1 miles. Its name fits.
Located about 35 kilometers south of Puyuhuapi on the Carretera Austral, Chile’s remote southern Patagonian highway, Queulat National Park is an easy day trip and worth the effort it’ll take in securing transportation.
Even the ride there, across an entertaining and photogenic stretch of gravel road that includes more than thirty hairpin turns that climb and descend through the park’s various altitudinal zones, is memorable for both the bumpy ride and its dynamic scenery.
It’s not a strenuous hike, but there is some steep climbing involved. Be sure to get an early start (more on this below); portions of the path have been washed out by floods so expect to get a little muddy, particularly if you arrive later in the morning or early afternoon when temperatures rise and more visitors arrive.
That said, you won’t come across that many people. This part of Chile is still quite remote with parts of the park still largely unexplored. We –my travel companion for a week Inbal and I— left Puyuhuapi just before 8 and arrived at the trailhead just under an hour later. We crossed paths with less than a handful of others on the way in and at the lagoon, but upwards of a couple dozen were heading in as we were making our way back.
I’ve heard from visitors who’ve been there since and they report more or less the same: arrive at the trailhead by 9 and you shouldn’t come across too many others.
The first half of the trail is through a damp mostly evergreen forest, much of it virgin. You’ll walk and wade through a wealth of botanical diversity –various lichens, moss, ferns and fungi.
I couldn’t tire of the wide swaths of chilco (fuchsia magellanica), or Hummingbird or Hardy fuchsia, that was in fiery bloom everywhere –in the forest, at its edges, in open spaces. [More about Chilco and a couple photos snapped further south in both Chile and Argentina, is here.] Chilean holly, or desfontainia spinosa, was another favorite.
Once out of the forest, the path takes you above the tree line and continues to traverse and climb across the Cascada River valley. As we climbed, so did the morning mist that blanketed the area, revealing sensational views.
I turned to take a photo of one such vista down towards the valley from the top of the trail. When I turned around again, I watched a clifftop glacier being unveiled before my eyes. Steadily, the sheer rock face and sparkling surface of the Los Gnomos Lagoon below it came into view. That natural curtain-raising was one of the most serenely beautiful moments I experienced during my six-month jaunt through South America.
The lagoon is the source of the Cascada River; it in turn is fed by snow melt and the glacier through dozens of waterfalls that give the park its name. Queulat, or Queolat as a native Chonos called it, means ‘sound of waterfalls’. Those sounds still echo from time to time.
You’ll have to make your own arrangements. A travel companion and I got a lift there from the daughter and son-in-law of our rooming house owners in Puyuhuapi. For the return we managed to hitch a ride fairly quickly — but don’t count on that.
What to Bring
As always, drinking water and a camera. And even if the forecast calls for sunny skies dress for rain and chill. The park receives from 3500 to 4000mm (138 to 157in) of rainfall per year with the average annual temperatures ranging from 4° and 9°C (39° and 48°F). The warmest and driest time is during the southern hemisphere’s summer, between November and March.