Torres del Paine National Park is a moderately sized national park (just less than 1,000 sq. miles) that nevertheless encompasses some of the world’s most spectacular mountains set in an UNESCO biosphere of remarkably diverse ecosystems.
This far south (approximately 1000 miles north of the Antarctic Circle), the tree line is very low, between 6-7,000′. Everything else is compressed, too, so that in the course of a morning’s walk you can traverse a rain forest, glacial massif and Andean desert.
The park was created in 1959 and grew immediately popular. It is one of Chile’s most visited national parks, and managed fabulously. Hikers are not allowed off the many cut trails, for example, to preserve the fragile flora and fauna found here at the end of the world, including 7 species of endemic orchid.
The landscape of the park is dominated by the Paine massif, which is an eastern spur of the Andes located on the east side of the Grey Glacier, rising dramatically above the Patagonian steppe. There is a huge ice field in the southern portion of the park where most of its great glaciers can be visited.
In this unusual environment the wildlife is limited but impressive. Guanacos are common, and cougars and foxes are occasionally seen. This is the principal home of the endangered Chilean Huemul, a beautiful high altitude short-legged deer. Particularly impressive are the great world raptors that breed here, including the Chilean Condor and Chimango Caracara. There are 13 other birds of prey that spend their summers here. A variety of rare nonraptors are also found here, including Darwin’s Rhea, the Magellan Goose and Coscoroba Swan.