Establishing the Lagunas Altas Trail

This summer, trail building is a hot topic at the future park: the time had come to make our first official trails.  During this stage of the park’s development, we’re constructing three networks of trails in different areas of the Chacabuco Valley, giving visitors to the park a range of opportunities to explore its marvelous landscapes.

Wildlife Director Cristian Saucedo leads a group, including Kris Tompkins and board member Rick Ridgeway, on a hike.

The Lagunas Altas Trail makes a loop from the park headquarters up towards Tamangito peak, along the ridge, around half a dozen alpine lakes, and then down the ridge back towards home.  The first part of the trail, leaving from the future Los Alamos campground, heads up an old dirt track towards the Tamangito peak.

After a few kilometers of switchbacks on the shrubby hillside, the trail enters the forests–a dramatic change from wide-open views to mossy tree trucks.  The forest opens up here and there to give views of the valley below.  At this elevation, you begin to see over the various ridges in the valley down to the Chacabuco River.  Where the forest has remained intact, it creates a lush green sanctuary for hiker and wildlife alike.   Further up the hillside, however, the trail winds through a patch of dead tree trucks, some still standing, others creating a jungle gym of logs–a reminder of land clearing practices that often resulted in wildfires decimating entire hillsides.  Restoring this landscape will accompany our trail building work.

Bright blue alpine lakes lie on top of the ridgeline, a perfect reward for the hike up with a tremendous view towards the Jeinimeni Range.   From here, the trail re-enters the forest, heading slightly downhill and around several more lakes, some more marshes than swamps, others deeper and more lake-like.  After reaching a great lookout over the valley, the trail winds back downhill towards home.

It took dozens of discussions—largely conducted on hillsides and lookouts, not in the office—to decide on the route and construction process for the first long trail, Lagunas Altas. Turns out making a scenic, accessible, durable, and ecologically responsible trail takes some thinking, and some walking around, seeing how the map actually compares to the terrain.   A GIS specialist and veteran trail builder joined us for several months, thanks to the enthusiasm for trail building of our long-time partner Gilbert Butler.  Along with Luigi Solis, head of trail building, and Doug Tompkins, they formed an opinionated and experienced team for jumping into this trail project.

Some key players in the trail building effort: Sebastian, Bruce, Gil and Luigi

Once the process began in earnest, however, los senderistas, aka the trail builders, have been cranking out kilometers of trail at a shockingly fast pace.  To create the trail, they are removing a layer of grass and topsoil to reach a base level, which they compact a bit to form a stable surface for walking.  Carefully designed switchbacks up the steeper sections of the trail work to minimize erosion.

During these months of trail building, los senderistas live and work out of a shady base camp halfway up the slopes of Tamangito.  The five-man team, all from the nearby town of Cochrane, wakes up early so that they can share maté and make a big breakfast before heading up the hill.  Evaristo Jara, son of park guard Delmiro Jara, heads up the team, which includes his younger brother Rody.  When asked about their experience on the Lagunas Altas project, they remark on the beauty of their surroundings and the positive spirit of their comrades.  They joke around and laugh as they work, but take pride in the effort they make to minimize the impact of trail building.  If you hike the loop once on Monday and once on Friday, you’ll get to walk on a whole new stretch of trail at the end of the week that did not exist at the beginning—and can marvel at the hard work of this impressive team.

Although not entirely complete, the Lagunas Altas has proved itself a big hit in the future park.  Many of the various visitors to the park this summer have enjoyed spending a day making the circuit, not a short hike but very rewarding.

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