Friday, March 07, 2014

Ah... Patagonia!

For the most part, I've moved my hiking discussion to my hiking blog, so I don't clog up this blog with posts that are off topic, but I hope I can be indulged to make a generic one today.  I love hiking.  I love backpacking.  Because I have a typical cubicle job and a family, including older kids who are going to graduate from High School sooner than I'd like to think, I don't get to get out hiking and backpacking as much as I'd like.  My wife tries to be supportive, but since she has no interest in doing this herself, that leaves me on my own, and honestly; there is some psychological toll on leaving the family behind to go indulge a hobby that's exclusively my own for a week or two at a time.  Luckily, my younger boys are expressing a keen interest in the activity.  Although they're not (quite) big enough to carry a serious backpacking backpack into the wilderness yet, they're only a year or two away from it.  In fact, Little DARK•HERITAGE No. 3, who is twelve and about 5' tall right now (although I'd be surprised if he weighs more than 80 lbs.) thinks he's ready this summer, and I'm inclined to agree.  Although he'll have an even easier time of it in the next few years to come.

Luckily for me, I live in the US, which is blessed with some of the most beautiful, scenic, dramatic and amazing terrain to be found in the entire world.  I'm quite patriotic about the landscapes of my homeland, in fact--I've often said that I have no need to go abroad to go backpacking.  With all of the myriad destinations in the Rockies and the deserts of the Southwest, I'm probably good for most of the rest of my life, in fact--and that says nothing of the lands of the Great Lakes, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades, the Appalachians, etc.

However, the season in which to enjoy mountains in North America is fairly short.  It varies somewhat based on the depth and lateness of winter-time snow, but it is reliably July, August and September in the high country... and sometimes June and portions of October if you get lucky with your weather, or don't get too high in your elevation.

The southwest deserts, on the contrary, are best avoided during the height of summer; their hiking season is (mostly) the shoulders of that--March, April and May, September, October and November.  They're even doable in the winter sometimes.  And the far southern deserts, as found in places like Saguaro National Park or Big Bend National Park, can even reliably be hiked in December, January and February.

But, let's face it--while I can find options here, what I love the most are the mountains, and the season is too short.  I'm not reliably going to be available every year to hit the kinds of mountains I want to see in the northern hemisphere.  This has got me looking at other potential destinations in the southern hemisphere, where the reliable hiking season is January, February and March.

Thanks in part to the Tolkien movies filmed in New Zealand, the scenic appeal of that country has reached worldwide consciousness, but for my money, I've always been drawn to Patagonia.  I actually lived in Argentina for two years many years ago (over twenty, now) although I was in Buenos Aires province, on the Atlantic side.  Too far north (by a small margin) to be in Patagonia proper, and certainly too far east to benefit from any of the scenic grandeur of the Andes.  I am, however, despite the rustiness of my Spanish (or castellano, maybe I should say) quite comfortable with the notion of traveling in Argentina and Chile, and the Andes portion of them have been a source of backpacking destinations for some time, albeit somewhat quietly.  Patagonia is a wide, wild region--over 400,000 square miles.  Roughly equivalent in size to Ontario, or two and a half times that of California (about half again as large as Texas, although notably smaller than Alaska.) 

There's some great advantages, in fact, to backpacking in the Andes.  There's a notable lack of dangerous wildlife (no grizzlies, or even black bears!) and compared to many of the big destinations in the US, they are fairly undeveloped and still remote and relatively inaccessible... which keeps the crowds down.  Way down.

Here's a few of the destinations I'd like to add to my "to-do" list in the Patagonian Andes:
  • Parque Nacional Los Glaciares [The Glaciers National Park] in Argentina.  Famous as the site of Monte FitzRoy and Cerro Torre, this wide, wild open area has relatively well-developed lodges/resorts and a trail system, and is wide open.  You just show up and start hiking in some of the most spectacular, glacially carved mountains in the world.  Then, when you're done with that, you take a bus to the southern portion of the park and watch calving glaciers coming down off of the Southern Patagonian Ice field (the largest continental ice other than the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps) into massive Lake Argentino.
  • Future Pagagonia National Park, which is today, Reserva Nacional Jeinimini and Reserva Nacional Tamango, with Estancia Valle Chacabuco in between them, private land that is being developed to be donated to the park service of Chile.  It's open now to the public to enjoy as if it were a Wilderness Area or National Park in the US.  Beautiful scenery, called "The Yellowstone of Patagonia", this is one to watch.  I'd like to see it while it's still on "the ground floor" so to speak.
  • Parque Nacional Torres del Paine [Paine Towers National Park] includes some of the most iconic mountainscapes in all of South America, if not the world.  Curiously, however, it's Monte FitzRoy from nearby Glaciares that was used for the old Patagonia clothing label.  But this is one of the best hikes in the world, according to connoisseurs of such things.
  • Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo -- a very lightly traveled, yet stunningly beautiful portion of the Andes.
  • Lagos district -- I haven't really nailed down any specifics here, but the Bariloche disctrict was justly famous when I was in Argentina.  I'd love to climb up to Lago Frey, which is a famous rock-climbing destination.  I'm not really a technical rock-climber, but I appreciate the same kinds of formations that rock-climbers do, because they tend to be beautiful and dramatic.
  • The Lonquimay and Tolhuaca volcanos--Andean Shastas or Rainiers, draped in monkey-puzzle tree forests.  Tons of other Araucanía volcanic sites, actually.  This is where they love to go to film the landscape portions of CGI dinosaur movies like Walking With Dinosaurs or Chased By Dinosaurs.  The black volcanic soil, dramatic mountains and ridges, and ancient-looking monkey puzzle trees make for a truly unique landscape.
  • The Navarino circuit, around Navarino island, with the famous "Dientes" [Teeth of Navarino] mountain range down in the Tierra del Fuego area.

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