Pumalin National Park, Chile

Oct 10, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer


The Chilean fjords region is one of the few remaining wildernesses in the world. Today, our destination was a place where concerned people and visionaries work hard to protect and maintain the beauty and uniqueness of the wilderness, specifically the temperate rainforest in the area. Native to this part of Chile is a tree named for the captain of the ship H.M.S. Beagle, Captain Robert Fitzroy. This impressive tree, commonly called alerce, is being exploited for its fine wood and decay-resistant properties. Throughout the region, builders use the wood of this tree to shingle roofs and even the outside walls of houses and buildings. Unfortunately, the valuable wood was being over-harvested, and it’s disappearing.

In the 1980s, a very successful couple who had become quite wealthy in the business of outdoor equipment and clothing fell in love with Patagonia. Through their passion for protecting this unique environment and their hard-earned wealth, they purchased a large tract of property along the coast of the northern Chilean fjords. At first a private reserve, Pumalin Park was the seed of a movement that just recently has ballooned into a massive series of connected parks and reserves extending north and south along the entire length of the Chilean fjords. 

We had absolutely perfect weather for exploring Pumalin National Park, the result of efforts primarily by Kris and Doug Tompkins. Pumalin is a temperate rainforest with exceptional biodiversity—partly because it rains almost 100 inches per year. We were fortunate to visit when there was a rare sunny day.

Three activity options were presented to us. Earliest to depart the ship was a small group driving along the Austral Highway to the base off the Chaiten volcano for a strenuous hike, and only a small group of hardy explorers chose to climb to the auxiliary cinder cones of the larger volcano.  Chaiten last erupted in 2008, destroying a swath of surrounding forest as well as a village. 

The second option was to hike an inland trail through thick forest along a fast-flowing stream and past cascading waterfalls. Many people chose this option in order to experience the forest and the alerce trees—as well as burn off some calories. Ferns and mosses grew all over the trees and sprouted from the forest floor. Spring had arrived and many of the plants were beginning their period of activity.

The third option was a short, easy walk through a beautiful section of forest. After finishing the various hikes, we all returned to the main park compound where we enjoyed some sweet snacks and warm drinks. We compared experiences and impressions of the sights and sounds and smells of the morning. It was a fabulous end to the day, and everyone agreed that we greatly appreciated the foresight of Kris and Doug Tompkins and the many locals and conservationists who have helped protect Pumalin, the alerce trees, and the forest for generations of people and of course, for the flora and fauna of the region.

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About the Author

Bud Lehnhausen

Naturalist

Bud received an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology at Colorado State University. He then immediately went to Alaska where he worked and lived for 30 years. At the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Bud studied wildlife biology and received a master's degree conducting research on four species of alcid seabird nesting on a remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.

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