Location: southern Chile, 40 miles south of Punta Arenas
Distance: 47 miles (75.6 km) round-trip
Time duration: 3-5 days
Terrain: mostly flat, sandy and rocky beaches with some steep forest sections
Difficulty: Although it’s not very strenuous, this hike is dangerous. Route includes six river crossings (three each way) and some slippery and jagged rocks that can be very hazardous when wet. It is also remote and not frequently traveled, with no cell phone reception.
When to go: December – March (Chilean summer)
Down near the southern tip of Chile, along the southeast coast of the Brunswick Peninsula, lays an incredibly beautiful and fairly unknown hike. The trail is mostly on beach and rocky shore, with a few short jaunts into the coastal forest and peatlands (or turbal as it’s called in Chile), and it eventually leads to the southern-most tip of mainland South America: Cape Froward, or Cabo Froward. A rough dirt road (which is currently being upgraded) leads to the trailhead of the hike to Mount Tarn, a small 2,707ft (825m) mountain that Charles Darwin summited during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and where he found the first ammonites discovered by Europeans in South America. This is also where the beach trail begins to Cabo Froward. The hike is fairly dangerous, as it includes multiple river crossings and portions of the trail are along slippery, sharp and sometimes seaweed-covered rocks that can be especially treacherous if it is raining or if there are large waves. After 23 miles (37 km), the trail ends with a short hike uphill leading to a large steel cross, called ‘Cross of the Seas’, which was erected in 1987 for Pope John Paul II’s visit to this beautiful spot.
The trail is fairly easy to follow, but hikers need to keep an eye out for where the trail leads into the forest. If you come to any sections that seem like they would need to be rock climbed, you probably missed one of the forest trail entrances. When I did this trail, I did not have a lot of information and I made each of the river crossings by getting in the water. I have heard that there are areas to cross some of these rivers upriver without actually getting into the water, but I cannot attest to those as I only heard that after doing the hike.
To start off, I would highly recommend getting a map. I was lucky to meet a local who had one when I was departing the trailhead near the base of Mt. Tarn, and he lent me his, which proved to be very helpful. A good map can assist in identifying where the forest sections are, and it also gives you an idea of distance which can be crucial when timing your river crossings for low tides. (You can purchase the helpful weather-resistant SIG Patagon map I ended up borrowing at http://www.omnimap.com/)
The first section of the hike is along a beach with both sand and rocky sections, and the beach has its own wild beauty. You will pass a lighthouse, called Faro San Isidro, before coming up to the first forest section, which includes some topography as the trail ascends through a forest that rests on a section of cliffs. After going up and then back down, the trail spits you out again on the beach. Keep an eye out for fox, various bird species, and offshore marine life as you traverse this section.
After a total of about six hours and another forest section, you come out to a beach and then to the first real river crossing, called Río Yumbel. This was actually my first time crossing a fairly large river with full backpacking gear, and I was alone, which made it a little nerve racking. The water was dark but I could see the sandy bottom in many places, so I paced the bank to look for what seemed to be the shallowest section, near to where the river mouth opened up into the sea. I decided to take off everything so as not get anything but my skin wet and, after a few deep motivational breaths, stepped into the nearly ice-cold river. I took my hiking pole with me and prodded with my steps, and after about 60 feet, I made it to the other side. When I turned back, I noticed that my backpack, which I had placed about 12” higher than the level of the river, was now looking very close to the moving water. I pushed the pole into the soft sand to mark my path and quickly hiked back to save my pack from the rising tide. The water literally was just touching the pack before I hauled it overhead to rest on my neck and shoulders, and I waded back through the rising river. At its deepest, it went up to my mid-chest, but the current was being subdued by the tide. After getting to the other side, the sun was out and I dried happily in the sunshine, thankful that I made it across when I did.
The next section of hike was mostly along the sandy beach and forest again, and it only took about two hours to get to the next river, Río San Nicolás. According to the map, this one seemed as if it was going to be the largest and deepest. And when I got there, I was greeted with pitch black moving water. It looked slightly narrower than the last river, but it definitely looked deeper and more dangerous. The sun had now dipped below some clouds and was on its way out for the day, and the wind had picked up, so I was less confident about crossing this river and drying off comfortably on the other side than the last. I had my Thermarest, which I knew some of the adventure race teams had used as rafts in past races, but I did not want to use it now as I would need to set up camp soon and it probably would not have dried off given the damp air and time of evening. So I decided to try and cross the river like the last one, and if the water went over my head, I would camp on the bank for the night and hope that the tide would be lower in the morning. So once again, I took off my clothes, grabbed my hiking pole, and stepped into the dark water. With my first step, the water went over my knee. With the second, it was past my waist. And when I went to take my third, I no longer felt the bottom and instead was treading water; so I quickly scrambled back up the steep bank.
My decision was made for me, and I set up my tent on the rock beach next to where someone had spelled out “INDEPENDENCIA” using seashells. The evening ended up being a quiet and peaceful one, as I sat on a log and ate one of my dehydrated bag meals. The view was incredible. The sky was a blend of purples and blues, with clouds scattered throughout. Along the other side of the straight was the Cordillera Darwin, pink from the setting sun. I could see and hear blowholes from whales further off the coast, and then a colony of sea lions on a small rocky island in front of me began to make calls. It was one of the most beautiful sights I think I have ever seen. I went to bed happy and hoping that the tide would let me continue the hike next morning.
In the middle of the night, probably around 3 or 4 in the morning, I had to pee. I exited the tent to a star-filled sky. The light from the stars and moon let me see the beach, which had grown considerably since I had gone to sleep. I walked along the drying sand, and the flatness of it made it likely that the river crossing would not be too deep. I went back to my tent and set my alarm to cross at first light. The next morning, I could see the extent of the newly exposed sand. I packed up and made a long flat crossing in an area that was underwater the night before, and that only went passed my knees. The sun was out again, and I sat on a log near the bank as I waited for my feet to dry.
After another short section and the crossing of Río Nodales (which was similar to Yumbel in size and depth), I was on the final stretch of hike. By this time, a fog had rolled in and the weather grew slightly drizzly. Much of this section of the trail was along slippery and jagged rocks, and with the full backpack, a fall on these could have been serious. I had originally planned on a four-night, five-day hike, but at the rate I was going I thought I might shave off at least a day, or maybe two. In order to do the last portion at a faster pace, I decided to find a place to camp, set up my tent, and hike the remainder throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening, only bringing essentials.
I found a tiny entrance into the forest that quickly opened up to a small clearing just big enough for my tent. It was very close to the beach, as well as to a tiny stream from which I could fill my water. The place was ideal and I felt lucky to find it. After getting everything set up, I put on my daypack and went south at a fast pace.
The final portion included some interesting rock formations and sections of beach, and near the end the trail comes to the bottom of a steep section that leads up the side of a 1,200ft (365m) hill. Along this route, several wooden images of Jesus are mounted in glass and metal frames. Some were missing, but most were intact, with rust from the frames running down the white posts on which they were mounted.
At the top of the hill, you arrive at the cross, which is a 79ft (24m) tall steel lattice structure. Erected in 1987, this is actually the third cross built here; the first two were erected in 1913 and 1944 but collapsed due to the strong winds and earth tremors. It’s possible to climb up the ladder inside to get a full 360-degree view from the cape. To the west lies the impressive Darwin Range and Dawson Island, and to the south and east are additional mountains from the Alberto de Agostini National Park.
It was a windy day when I was inside the cross, and being alone in that wind on the cape without seeing another human since the previous morning gave me a strong feeling of isolation. The wind and cold metal numbed my hands, and with the sun beginning to set behind clouds, I quickly got back down. I could see that much of my hike back to the tent would be with a headlamp.
About an hour after the remainder of the dusk light had disappeared, I arrived back to the safety of my small forest campsite. My legs were tired, but I felt that I could possibly make the return trip back in one day. I had brought along a satellite phone for emergencies and used it to call my friend who said he could pick me up at the trailhead. I said that it might be possible for me to arrive back at Mt. Tarn the next evening, and that I would aim for that unless I called again. Thankfully, because of my now-wife Andreea, he replied with the low tide time for the next morning. This allowed me to plan the three river crossings all within a five-hour stretch of low tide.
I got up early the next morning to pack away my campsite and begin the return trek, stopping occasionally to eat Calafate berries wherever I found them. The river crossings went smoothly given that I now knew where and when to cross, and I noticed the tide beginning to make its rise. A couple of hours after crossing Yumbel, I came up to a small stream that was ankle-deep when I crossed it two days prior. This time, I walked into it quickly without thinking and fell into the stream just up to my chest and, because of how narrow it was, got immediately out on the other side. Despite no one being around, I felt embarrassed, and continued on. After arriving back to the gravel road near the base of Mt. Tarn, my friend and his 4WD pickup truck arrived to bring me back to Punta Arenas, and to Andreea who was waiting for me with the best fettuccini Alfredo I have ever eaten.
The hike to Cabo Froward proved to be more beautiful and more dangerous than I had expected. I did not find much detailed information about the hike online or in guidebooks prior to it, so I hope this information helps plan your adventure should you decide to go.
If you do go, I would consider the following items as essential:
- Trail map
- Rain gear
- Means of crossing rivers if they are too high, e.g. thick Thermarest or pack raft. To cross a deep river with an air mattress, it works best to wrap your pack in two garbage bags and make them as watertight as possible, place them on the air mattress, put one arm around the pack and air mattress, and then paddle and kick with your other limbs to get across. Be careful of underwater obstacles and strong currents. Luckily there are no species in Patagonia rivers that are dangerous (at least that I know of).
- Satellite phone (when I did the hike, cell phone signals would not work). If you break a leg on the rocks near the end, it would be very difficult to make the hike out on your own.
- Extra set of dry clothes in case yours get too wet. Fleece stays warm when wet and it tends to dry fast. Wool also stays warm when wet, but takes a long time to dry.
- Dry bags to keep your stuff dry if your pack falls into the river.
- Sturdy, treaded boots for slippery and jagged rocks. (Tennis shoes will likely get cut up on the sharp rock edges).
- Tent, air mattress, and warm sleeping bag.
- Food for one extra day than you’re planning in case rivers are too high to cross. For water, I used streams to fill up, but that is up to you.
And here is a rough estimate of the mileage assuming you start at the base of Mount Tarn:
1. Mount Tarn to Faro San Isidro: 4.3 miles
2. Faro San Isidro to Río Yumbel: 4.1 miles (8.4 miles cumulative)
3. Río Yumbel to Río San Nicolás: 4.9 miles (13.3 cumulative)
4. Río San Nicolás to Río Nodales: 4.7 miles (18 miles cumulative)
5. Río Nodales to Cabo Froward: 5.5 miles (23.5 miles cumulative)