This post is part 4 of 16 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

The hiking trails, campgrounds, and natural beauty in Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park offer some of the best outdoor adventures in southern Chile. Use our Pumalin National Park adventure travel guide to explore this top stop on the Carretera Austral that’s wet, wild, and worth it.

Pumalin Douglas Tompkins national park Chile

Welcome to Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park along the Carretera Austral in the Patagonia region of southern Chile.

Exploring Pumalin National Park

It’s fair to say that the monumental habitat and species conservation efforts of Doug and Kris Tompkins began to take shape in what is now Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park.

Doug Tompkins first visited the Pumalin area–and its fjords, volcanoes, rainforests, and waterfalls–in 1989. In 1991, he bought his first chunk of Chilean land when he purchased a parcel that was turned into an organic farm (it still exists in the Caleta Gonzalo area of the park). By 1996, Kris and Doug were a couple and they’d purchased more than 40,000 acres (160,000 hectares) in the region. The former CEO of Patagonia and the founder of The North Face and Esprit (respectively) had the money and the desire to formalize their conservation efforts, so the Conservation Land Trust was born (it became the Tompkins Conservation organization which is now called Rewilding Chile).

Michinmahuida volcano rio amarillo entrance

The Michinmahuida Volcano can be seen from the El Amarillo Entrance at the southern end of Pumalin National Park.

The Tompkins’ original land purchase in the Pumalin area grew as neighboring plots were acquired and, in 2005, Pumalin was made a nature sanctuary (the largest private reserve in Chile). In 2017, two years after Doug’s death in a kayaking accident, Kris donated just shy of 725,000 acres (293,397 hectares) to the Chilean government and, in 2018, that land became Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park (most commonly called Pumalin National Park).

carretera austral leaving pumalin

The iconic Carretera Austral as it skirts along the southern edge of Pumalin National Park.

So far, the Tompkins’ have purchased and protected approximately 15 million acres (6,070,284 hectares) of land in Chile and Argentina through Tompkins Conservation and its partners, most of which has been donated and turned into national parks run by local government.

Getting to Pumalin National Park

Pumalin National Park is open year-round (though some trails and campgrounds may close seasonally), has no entrance fee, and does not require a cumbersome online pre-reservation as some national parks in Chile do. This makes Pumalin National Park a breeze to visit–once you get there. While Pumalin National Park in southern Chile is technically accessible by road and by water, it’s not easy to reach.

chile ferry hornopiren caleta gonzalo

Vehicles and passengers load onto a Somarco ferry for the journey from the town of Hornopirén to the Caleta Gonazalo area of Pumalin National Park.

You can drive into Pumalin National Park from towns south of the park including La Junta, Chaiten, and anywhere else to the south of the park along the Carretera Austral. But there is no road connecting the 1,680 miles (2,720 km) of Chile that lies north of the town of Hornopirén to the 940 miles (1,512 km) of Chile that lie south of Hornopirén. Travel through that region requires ferries or a detour through Argentina.

We were traveling to Pumalin National Park from the north. so we drove to Hornopirén, then drove onto the Somarco passenger and vehicle ferry (we were able to book subsidized fares, which are only offered on certain sailings, and paid 39,400 CLP/about US$46 for Eric and for our truck and another 6,600 CLP/about US$8 for Karen). After reserving our passage online well in advance (this ferry gets fully booked in high season), we lined up behind other vehicles in Hornopirén at 9 am, loaded slowly onto the ferry, and departed right on time at 10 am.

carretera austral ferry

Our truck and many other vehicles on the ferry to Pumalin National Park.

The ferry was roomy and clean with a basic cafeteria and clean bathrooms and relatively comfortable airline-style seating. Sitting areas had TVs and a few tables plus electrical outlets for charging devices (byo adapters). The ferry also had plenty of outdoor space and its engines were not overwhelmingly noisy. This ferry was not completely full when we were on it, but ferry options for this route are limited and ferries often fill up with travelers and locals moving around so reserve well in advance.

hornopiren caleta gonzalo ferry

The ferry from the town of Hornopirén to Pumalin National Park travels through scenic fjords.

Our route took us through picturesque fjords with rock walls coming right down to the mostly calm and protected water. Along the way, we saw a sea lion, some pelicans, a few caracaras, and a lot of commercial fish farming aquaculture operations. After about three hours on that first ferry, everyone got off and convoyed slowly along a gravel road through a remote edge of Pumalin National Park for about 20 minutes before reaching a second ferry and loading onto that (passengers without vehicles were bused over this section).

caleta gonzalo chile fjord

The scenic Reñihué Fjord at the Caleta Gonzalo entrance to Pumalin National Park.

This second ferry took us the remaining distance through more open water. We arrived at the Caleta Gonzalo entrance to Pumalin National Park on the Reñihué Fjord around 3:30 pm after about 5.5 hours of travel (plus an hour in line in Hornopirén).

Hiking in Pumalin National Park

Efforts to get to Pumalin National Park are rewarded with beautiful scenery, few people, and diverse hiking trails. Like all of the parklands gifted to Chile by the Tomkins, Pumalin National Park features US national park-style facilities including scenic and serene campgrounds with flat tent sites, covered tables, shared modern bathroom facilities, and well-built and well-maintained hiking trails.

Hiking the Cascadas Escondidas Trail in Pumalin National Park

cascadas escondidas trail Pumalin National Park

Waterfall views along the Cascadas Escondidas Trail in Pumalin National Park.

The Cascadas Escondidas in-and-out trail–which includes a lower waterfall viewpoint, a mirador at a second waterfall viewpoint, and a view of upper falls–travels 2 miles (3 km) each way gaining 800 feet (243 meters) in elevation in that short distance, so you know this is a steep hike (allow at least two hours round trip). The trail is also muddy in places and has many sections where tree roots make the going tricky. Rough wooden stairs have been put in over particularly steep and slippery sections. Allow at least an hour each way and add in a touch more time if you walk the short spur trail to see the lower falls viewpoint which is accessed via an offshoot trail.

Hiking the Los Alerces Trail in Pumalin National Park

Alerces Trail Pumalin National Park

Rare alerces trees, which are often compared to redwoods, abound along the Alerces Trail in Pumalin National Park.

The aptly named Los Alerces Trail is a pleasant short stroll (just 0.8 miles/1,200 meters round trip, allow about an hour) along a gently undulating path that’s dotted with benches where you can sit and take in the star attraction of this trail: groves of giant alerces trees.

Alerces trees Pumalin National Park

Some estimate that 25% of the world’s population of alerces trees live in Pumalin National Park.

Alerces trees, often compared to redwood trees, are ancient and rare. By some estimates, about 25% of the world’s population of alerces trees lives in Pumalin National Park.

Hiking the Volcan Chaiten Trail in Pumalin National Park

Chaiten Volcano 2008 eruption destruction

You can still see the lingering effects of damage done to the park during the 2008 eruption of the Chaiten Volcano.

Another iconic feature of Pumalin National Park is the Chaiten Volcano. In 2008, after being dormant for more than 350 years, the Chaiten Volcano erupted in ash plumes and pyroclastic flows that poisoned waterways, leveled trees, coated everything in inches of ash (including the town of Futaleufú, 50 miles/80 km away and parts of neighboring Argentina), caused massive damage to the volcanic cone, and flattened towns and killed people for miles around. So much damage was done and the area remained so unstable that the park was closed for two years after the eruption and park infrastructure wasn’t fully repaired until 2012.

Chaiten Volcano campground view Pumalin National Park

We could watch the Chaiten Volcano puffing away from our campsite in Pumalin National Park.

During our first visit to Pumalin National Park, rain nixed our plans to hike the Volcan Chaiten Trail, so we drove 130 miles (209 km) out of our way in order to return to Pumalin National Park so we could hike up the Chaiten Volcano a month later. On the day of our hike, it was raining again. This should come as no surprise. After all, The word pumalin means “watery place” in the language of the Indigenous Huilliche people and this park does get a tremendous amount of rain–around 20 feet (6 meters) per year–and much of the park is Valdivian rainforest. But we headed up anyway.

The popular Volcan Chaiten Trail is 3.7 miles (6 km) round trip gaining a total of 2,053 feet (625 meters) up to the top of the volcano. The most famous trail in Pumalin National Park starts off gently undulating through wooded areas where we saw a pygmy owl perched on a tree branch just off the trail.

Chaiten Volcano Trail stairs

Karen on the Volcan Chaiten Trail in Pumalin National Park.

Then the trail quickly turns quite vertical with uneven wooden stairs notched into the earth for much of the way. Thankfully, this trail does not get too muddy or slippery and there are no tree roots to negotiate. However, there is one rocky section near the top where the already steep trail gets even steeper.

Chaiten Volcano Trail viewpoint

Rain clouds dashed any hope of views from the top of the Chaiten Volcano.

Once at the top, you’ll find a roomy flatish area from which to enjoy the view of the surrounding terrain and take a peek into the volcano’s caldera which is 2 miles (3 km) in diameter. Unless it’s raining.

We didn’t see any of those vistas since rain clouds descended obscuring any chance of a view. Wet, cold, and thwarted by the weather again, we returned back down the trail the way we came. We did this trail in about 1:15 up and about 1:00 down, but we were moving pretty quickly because of the weather. We highly recommend good hiking boots and hiking poles. There are clean bathrooms off the parking lot at the trailhead.

Note that when we were in Pumalin National Park, the Cascada Caleta Gonzalo Trail was closed for construction and there was also a lot of work going on to improve the gravel road that travels through the park. Also, at least one of the park’s campgrounds was closed.

Hotels and camping in Pumalin National Park

Because we visited Pumalin National Park twice, we were able to experience the park’s two very different accommodation options.

cabanas caleta gonzalo

Lovely Lodge Caleta Gonzalo in Pumalin National Park.

During our first visit, we stayed at Lodge Caleta Gonzalo, a collection of seven shingled cottage-style rooms and a restaurant located just a few yards from where the ferry docks.

caleta gonzalo lodge

Book the Cisne room, the cabin at the end, for the very best views from Lodge Caleta Gonzalo.

The setting is stunning with accommodations built along a raised boardwalk right on the Reñihué Fjord (the Cisne room has the very best views). All cottages are named for species found in the park and each has a slightly different layout and feel. All, however, feature rustic wool blankets, lots of wood, black and white photos of flora and fauna, brass fixtures, and very small bathrooms. Most rooms have a bed downstairs plus a sleeping loft above which makes ceilings low, adding to the overall tightness of these charming, but quite small, accommodations.

caleta gonzalo cabins

Rooms are small but cozy and hand-crafted at Lodge Caleta Gonzalo.

The lodge restaurant, where seasonal, organic, and local products from their onsite garden and from area producers are used as much as possible, is a welcoming space with a large fireplace, open kitchen, and country-chic ambiance. Breakfast, included in room rates, featured fresh juice, fruit salad, sliced meats and cheeses, homemade bread, good coffee, tea, homemade granola, yogurt, eggs to order, and crepes with dulce de leche. Our set menu dinner included rich squash soup, tender slow-cooked beef on pesto rice with a nicely dressed salad of cabbage, cucumber, and tomato, followed by cheesecake with mango or pannacotta topped with fruit. When we were there, there was no ala carte dinner menu. Note that the restaurant at Lodge Caleta Gonzalo is open to non-guests on a limited basis in the afternoon only when they offer a cafe menu.

The Caleta Gonzalo facilities also include a beautiful riverside campground abutting the organic farm that was Doug Tompkin’s first land purchase in Chile.

 camping el volcan pumalin

Camping in well-appointed campgrounds is also a good option inside Pumalin National Park.

During our second visit to Pumalin National Park, we camped in the Volcan Chaiten Campground which is about 4 miles (6.4 km) from the trailhead for the Volcan Chaiten Trail. The campground’s small ranger station is accessed via a very long “driveway” off the Carretera Austral that runs through the park. This is where we learned about the camping options offered here which include a large and grassy communal area where you can pitch your tent with others for 6,000 CLP (about US$7) per person per night or one of a dozen or so private campsites with covered cooking areas and picnic tables, garbage cans, and flat tent sites for 16,000 CLP (about US$19) flat rate per night for up to four people (many of the private sites had enough room to pitch two tents).

Michinmahuida volcano view Pumalin National Park

We chose the Zorzal campsite in part because of this view of the Michinmahuida Volcano view from our tent.

We splurged on privacy and were soon pitching our tent in the Zorzal campsite which is tucked behind a stand of trees and has a view of the Michinmahuida Volcano, as well as smoking Chaiten Volcano. The Zorzal site also had a running water tap. All campers share two clean and modern buildings with flushing toilets, sinks, and cold water showers. Pro tip: We arrived around 6 pm and the ranger told us that the camping fees cover a 24-hour period, so we were entitled to stay in the campsite until 6 pm the following day. This meant we could hike the Volcan Chaiten Trail in the morning without rushing around to break down camp first.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

Here’s more about National Parks in the Americas

Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the Americas

 


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