Patagonia's Glaciers

Visitors to Patagonia can see, photograph, and even hike across several different glaciers. Some are hanging glacier, some feed into lagoons; some are advancing, sadly most are receding.  Nearly all are fed by the Patagonian Ice Cap, the third largest mass of ice (and fresh water) on the planet.  Here we help you choose the glaciers you'd like to see, find out how to get to them, and learn a little bit of glaciology and history.

8 Ways to See the Glaciers

With so few places in the world in which to see a glacier, visiting one in Patagonia is often high on travellers' list of priorities. Home to so many, there are many ways to experience the glaciers of Patagonia as part of your journey.

1. Hiking to Patagonia's Glaciers

There are two main national parks where keen hikers (up for hikes of 6 to 8 hours) can get up close to some of the glaciers in a wild and remote setting:

In Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, those hiking the 4-5 day W Trek will hike up the Valle Frances to see the dramatic French Glacier, a hanging glacier. You'll also hike towards the Grey Glacier which is a 14 km (!!!) glacier fed by the ice cap filling the wonderful Lago Grey. You can even ice-hike on this glacier, and Swoop's Harriet did just that in March 2015 'Everyone should add Ice Hiking onto a trek in Torres del Paine!'. Read Harriet's Review.

Those hiking the longer 'Full Circuit' or 'O' Circuit will also see the Perros Glacier in the north of the national park and enjoy the incredible views of the Grey Glacier and out to the Patagonian Ice Cap from the Paso John Garner.

The Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, as the name suggests, is home to dozens of glaciers. For hikers, the best of these are accessed from the small mountain town of El Chalten which sits at the base of Mount FitzRoy. There are some wonderful day hikes up to the Torre Glacier and Glaciar Grande.

Those setting out on a multi-day trek can even get up to the wonderful Paso del Viento with its views out across the Patagonian Ice Cap itself.

In Northern Patagonia, hikers can see the hanging Tronador ('thunder') glacier, so named because of the sound of the ice falling and crashing into the natural amphitheatre hundreds of metres below.

2. Adventure Cruises to Glaciers

Many of Patagonia's glaciers are simply inaccessible by land and can only be witnessed on a 3-4 day adventure cruise on expedition vessels. There are 3 or 4 of these boats and they vary in size and style, but the largest capacity is under 200 passengers. The best glaciers to see are in two areas:

The Magellan Straits and Tierra del Fuego: These waters are at the southernmost tip of Patagonia and home to the so-called "Glacier Alley". Many of the adventure cruises in the area take you through this part of the Beagle Channel - the same one that Darwin sailed many years ago. These trips give you a chance to get up close to the glaciers on small zodiac boats, and hike to the very best viewing points for them and the mysterious environment.

Chile's Coastal Fjords: A littler further north and a slightly more pleasant climate, navigation of these fjords is broken up by gentle hikes to great panoramas and a chance to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region.

Patagonia Cruise Ship CRUC p-p

3. Day Trips

There are several glaciers near to the hikers' haven of El Calafate, near the mountains of Los Glaciares:

  • Glaciar Perito Moreno is the best known and most popular glacier in all of Patagonia.  On top of its distincive brilliant blue, it's a relatively easy journey to make from El Calafate, just 80 km away.
  • Glaciar Upsala is even larger than Perito Moreno and can be visitied together with a nearby Patagonian estancia from which you can go for a guided hike or 4x4 adventure into the mountains to panoramic viewpoints
  • Glaciar Spegazzini is accessible only by boat, visiting several of the glaciers of Lago Argentino - you'll weave between the moving icebergs of the waters as you make your way to Spegazzini - an impressive sight if for no other reason than the sheer size of its wall, which can tower as high as 135m!

From Puerto Natales you can visit the glaciers of Torres del Paine - the most popular national park of Patagonia:

  • Glaciar Grey offers visitors all manner of ways to experience it, whether on boat excursions right up to its face, ice-hiking over the top with crampons, or you want to remain on terra firma and trek around it and its viewpoints
  • Glaciars Tyndall, Serrano and Balmaceda offer a fantastic welcome to the national park, admiring them as glisten in the sun whilst you pass them by kayak or boat
Perito Moreno Tour Cropped SWX p-p

4. Remote Glaciers

For those wanting to get deep into the Pataonian wilderness and witness glaciers that few have seen, there are some lesser known:  the Glaciar O'Higgins, witnessed as part of the wonderful O'Higgins Crossing and the spectacular and wild glaciers of the northern ice cap from the Aisen region in Chile.  For more details about how to visit these remote glaciers, get in touch.

5. Ice Cap Expeditions

Ice Cap Expeditions: The world's second largest extra-polar ice sheets, trekking and living on them is a truly unique, and at times bleak, experience. Whilst you don't need technical expertise or experience you'll want plenty of resolve to face the extreme conditions that the Patagonian weather will throw at you.  Either base yourself out of El Chalten, in Los Glaciares, Argentina, or head out onto the Northern Ice Field.

6. Ice-Hiking on Glaciers

7. Kayaking to Glaciers

8. Ski Touring Amid Glaciers

Swoop's Glacier Google Map

This interactive Google map of Patagonia shows Swoop's top 15 glaciers, as well as some of our other recommendations for a trip to Patagonia:

Glaciology & Facts

Types of Glacier

Mountain Glaciers

These glaciers develop in high mountainous regions, often flowing out of icefields that span several peaks or even a mountain range. The largest mountain glaciers are found in Arctic Canada, Alaska, the Andes in South America, and the Himalaya in Asia.

Valley Glaciers

Commonly originating from mountain glaciers or icefields, these glaciers spill down valleys, looking much like giant tongues. Valley glaciers may be very long, often flowing down beyond the snow line, sometimes reaching sea level.

Hanging Glaciers

When a major valley glacier system retreats and thins, sometimes the tributary glaciers are left in smaller valleys high above the shrunken central glacier surface. These are called hanging glaciers. If the entire system has melted and disappeared, the empty high valleys are called hanging valleys.

Ice Fields

Like the Northern and Southern Patagonian Icefields - Icefields are similar to ice caps, except that their flow is influenced by the underlying topography, and they are typically smaller than ice caps.

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