Earlier this year, I joined the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund and Conservation Volunteers International Program on a trail project in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in southern Chile. Over the course of 10 days, a group of Chilean and American volunteers joined forces with CONAF (Chile’s national forest and parks administrator) rangers to construct part of a new trail.
When I learned the new trail wrapped around Lago Sköttsberg between Refugio Paine Grande and Campamento Italiano, I’ll admit I was skeptical. Who would opt to veer away from the already-defined, world-renowned W circuit I asked myself.
My question was answered the very next day when I stepped onto the new trail — an addition to the existing W and O circuits — and began hiking two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) to the furthest point of construction. The skeptic in me was silenced. From that moment on, I’ve been singing a much different tune.
Everyone will want to hike this trail.
The yet-to-be-named trail may very well be the best in the park — not only because of its top-notch, sustainable construction, but also for the sweeping views it affords of Paine Grande, Valle del Francés, and Los Cuernos. On the current trail, you skirt the base of Torres del Paine’s famous peaks, and while you do have views of the mountains, it’s not possible to breathe them in all at once. Stepping away from the foot of Paine Grande and Los Cuernos, as the new trail does, allows you to do just that.
Why is this trail needed?
Inspiring vistas are great, but the motivation for the trail isn’t rooted in postcard imagery. Every year, around 260,000 people traverse Torres del Paine, and while the park spans roughly 700 square miles (1,810 square kilometers), 60 percent of visitors exclusively hike the W or O circuits. That’s a large amount of traffic on just 68 miles (110 kilometers) of trail.
In partnership with CONAF, the Legacy Fund and Conservation VIP undertook this project to help diversify hiking options in the park and improve trail sustainability. Once complete, the new trail should alleviate congestion on this highly trafficked segment of the W. Its construction — which, unlike other trails in the park, is designed to shed water and minimize erosion — will also help ensure minimal future impacts, both weather- and human-induced, to the surrounding habitat. The costs of erosion and hiker encroachment on existing trails are immediately evident and affect visitor experience and safety.
While decisions are still being made, it’s likely that traffic flowing from Paine Grande to Italiano will use the new trail while traffic heading in the opposite direction will use the existing one that runs along the base of the mountains. This will create a uni-directional loop between Paine Grande and Italiano that, in addition to the benefits mentioned above, will make for less human interaction on the trail. Hikers will likely only encounter visitors headed in the same direction — which, in theory, will provide more time and space for everyone to enjoy the park’s natural beauty.
When will this new trail be ready for use?
Since construction began in 2017, the Legacy Fund, Conservation VIP, and CONAF have completed two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) of the trail, which is roughly two-thirds of the planned length. They’re aiming to complete the full span by the end of the 2018–19 season — making it accessible for the 2019–20 season.
How can you travel with a purpose in southern Patagonia?
If you’re keen to visit Torres del Paine, experience this trail before it’s complete, and contribute to its construction, check out the Legacy Fund and Conservation VIP for information on volunteer and donation opportunities.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most unique opportunities within the park. For 10 days, you’ll get to explore a world-famous national park in southern Patagonia, while volunteering alongside and forming friendships with other American and Chilean adventurers. In the process, you’ll leave nothing but a positive trace in Torres del Paine. In assisting with trail work and other conservation projects, you’ll contribute to a more sustainable future for the park and the communities that surround it — ensuring subsequent generations can responsibly enjoy its wild beauty for years to come.
What else does the Legacy Fund do?
This is one of many conservation projects led by the Legacy Fund, which was established in 2014 by Sustainable Travel International, The Fink Family Foundation, and interested stakeholders in Torres del Paine and Puerto Natales. As visitation to the park increased dramatically, these parties grew concerned about the impact that traffic was having on the area. The Legacy Fund was created to bring the various sectors — public, private, residents, and visitors — together to support and implement local sustainability initiatives that advance the long-term health of the region.
For more information on the Legacy Fund, visit supporttdp.org. Or, if you’ve visited or are visiting the park and want to give back, you can make a monetary donation to the Legacy Fund at supporttdp.org/donate.