Backpack Full of SunshineA travel blog of a boy following his dream and embarking on a four year backpacking sabbatical around the world

Top 5 Self-Guided Treks for Beginners

A few years ago, I stumbled upon this quote by a seasoned climber, “If you are making a list of the most beautiful mountains on earth, there are the Himalayas, and then there is everywhere else.” He is probably right. There is indeed an indescribable grandness and mystique in those tall peaks of Asia. But not everyone has the time, means, skills, and the physical attributes to make it to top of southern Tibet or northern Pakistan. And trekking is so much more than conquering an awe inspiring summit. It’s about napping in a field of wildflowers, mingling with the village people, sipping on a coffee off the edge of a glacier, and all those small moments in between. In my humble opinion, the best trekking experiences were the ones where you push yourself to a reasonable limit, while still able to have a little fun. Here are my personal top 5, most scenic self-guided (aka, you-don’t-have-to-be-a-pro), affordable treks in the world. 

1. Walkers’ Haute Route

From the shoulder of Mount Blanc to the foothills of Matterhorn, the 200 or so kilometers of once-upon-a-time trade route stretches from Chamonix to Zermatt, while passing through some of the most magnificent vistas in the Alps. Glorious peaks, pristine lakes, lush forest, and barren terrain, this challenging alpine trek has it all. And did I mention duck confits and cheese fondues you could indulge along the way? It is truly one of my fondest memories in the hills.

Best season: July – September

I went in early September, and the weather was sublime. I caught 1 tiny snow storm in 12 days. Half the time I was trekking in a t-shirt and some shorts, and a fleece was all I needed for those high passes. Plus, you get to catch the Oktoberfest right after. Not bad for an autumn getaway, no?

Distance: 200 Kilometers

Duration: 11-13 days

Starting Altitude: 1060 m (3478 ft)

Highest Altitude: 2964 m (9800 ft)

Difficulty: Difficult

Nowhere during the trek was the altitude ridiculous. But the sheer frequency of passes and long duration of the journey makes this one of the most difficult excursions I have embarked on. There were 11 passes en route, with big ascents and descents each day… get ready for some sore knees 🙂

Cost: $$

There were no park fees. And I restocked my supplies every couple of days in small villages along the way. I also slept mostly in my tent. You do have the option of semi glamping it and lodge in cabins. I believe most of the huts offer “half board” of dorm style shelter, dinner, and breakfast at around €70-€120 per person per night. In that case this trip could get $$$$$ in a hurry.

 Scenery: 10

The Haute Route pretty much covers all the best hits of the French and Swiss Alps. Make sure you take on the fairly manageable climb from Cabane des Dix to La Luette. The peak offers an incredible scene of the Cheilon Glacier, as well as a clear view of most of the ~4000m peaks in the region.

Track Condition: 8

The Swiss and French Alps are pretty first world. The whole route was very well marked. This would have been a 10/10 if not for the “holy-shit-I-can-die-any-minute” Europaweg, which you probably should just skip. It was literally a multi-hour boulder hop, all the while under constant danger of rock falls and landslides.

Getting there/Facility: 10

I took a Bla Bal Car from Lyon to Chamonix, and a train (hella expensive) from Zermatt to my friend’s village near Laussane. Again, transportation was widely available, as this part of the world is pretty first world.

Solitude: 7

The handful of nights in the cabins were a bit noisy. But once I was on the road, I brushed past less than ~50 people the whole time.

Cheilon Glacier
Morning coffee at Cabane des Dix
The view from peak of La Luette

2. The O, Torres Del Paine

Soaring vertically more than 2000 meters above the Patagonian steppe, the granite pillars of Torres Del Paine dominate the landscape of what in my view the best national park in all of Latin America. And the Complete Paine Circuit definitely belongs in the ranks of world’s greatest treks. One of the longest and wildest routes in all of Patagonia, the O follows the course of Rio Paine to Paso John Gardner, descends along the ridge by the immense Glacier Gray, and skirts several of park’s spectacular landmarks. It was the highlight of my 3 months journey through Patagonia, and a magical wonderland I can’t wait returning to.

Best season: December – February

I was there mid-November. There were more than a few nippy nights. Looking back, I would wait another month or so till heart of the summer.

Distance: 110 Kilometers

Starting Altitude: 152 m (500 ft)

Highest Altitude: 1160 m (3800 ft)

Duration: 7-9 days

Difficulty: Moderate

There weren’t any extremely exerting days. But the weather in Patagonia was very unpredictable, and it was very windy once we got up the tree line. The pass up John Gardner was probably the toughest stretch. But if you go in the summer, you probably won’t have to make the climb in knee deep snow like we did.

Cost: $$

The park entrance was about 30 bucks, cash only. We did the trek in 8 days, and brought our own food (I was going to write “enough food”, and then I remember the unpleasantry of my starvation those last day and a half). The refugios along the way offer half board of food and a bunk for about 25 bucks, and tenting near the facilities was about 10 bucks per night. My friend and I mostly pitched our tents in free sites away from the crowd. So our expense for the trip was very minimal.

Scenery: 9

Tall peaks, vast steppe, glittering lakes, emerald forests, roaring rivers with rickety bridges, and one immense, radiant blue glacier. No two days offered the same scenery. It was a visual feast of alpine theatrics.

Track Condition: 9

The routes were very clean and well-marked.

Getting there/Facility: 8

The bus to and back from Puerto Natales was pretty straight forward. (in the 20 dollar ballpark for a round trip ticket). The facilities at refugios seemed to vary quite a bit depending on how popular the camp was. But in general, they were more than adequate.

Solitude: 6

The back-country was pretty quiet. But there were decent crowds whenever we intersected with the W or the day treks. Not so bad overall considering this is the trekking mecca of Patagonia, and a must stop from casual travelers to professional mountaineers.

Two climbers ahead of us before they tackle the massive granite pillar.
The iconic Torres.
Glacier Gray, one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

3. Villarrica Traverse

Crowned by the snowy dome of volcano by the same name, the Villarrica National Park features a stark lunar landscape crafted of lava flows, scoria, beautiful highland araucaria, lush lenga forests, and serene alpine lakes. The incredibly scenic, high level Traverse takes your through virtually the whole length of the park, giving constantly changing views of green, blue, yellow, silver, and white. The route first leads around Volcan Villarrica’s glacier-shrouded southern face along a complex plateau of alpine lakes and small calderas, and eventually extends down lush forestry as far as the foot of Volcan Lanin.

Best Season: November – February

I started the trek the day after Christmas, and I couldn’t have asked for more pleasant weather.

Distance: 81 Kilometers

Starting Altitude: unknown

Highest Altitude: unknown… I couldn’t find this anywhere, but the average attitude was around 1500 m (~5000 ft)                       

Duration: 3-5 days

Difficulty: Novice – Moderate

Length and elevation wise, it was a fairly easy walk in the park. But the trail wasn’t so well marked, especially over those giant lava hills/fields. I got lost a couple of times for brief stretches… probably a good idea to bring a map and a compass.

Cost: $

There wasn’t any park fees (at least I wasn’t aware of any). I hitchhiked to the entrance of the trail, and got lucky with another ride back in town. It was pretty easy to carry enough food the 4 day trek. I doubt I spent more than 30 bucks for the whole journey.

Scenery: 8

Although not as jaw dropping as those high peaks and massive glaciers in high alpines, I still found this national park very beautiful. From araucaria forests to luna-like crater and lava fields, the scenery here was like nothing I have seen elsewhere. All the while, you are graced with a front row view of a handful of the most beautiful volcanos in the world.

Track Condition: 6

“Road less traveled” is probably an understatement. Once above the tree line, marks and sign posts were very sparse. I had to rely on cairns left by fellow trekkers. So be very careful and always look far ahead to make sure you see a couple of cairns in advance, and are following the trail. There were also a few occasions when I needed to wade across snow-melt streams. It was definitely one of the more challenging, but fun treks I have been on as far as route recognition and self-preservation goes.

Getting there/Facility: 6

There weren’t any public transportation from Pucon, so getting there could be a little tricky/expensive. The park itself had 0 infrastructure, which added to its magic.

Solitude: 10

It was incredible that I ran into 3 trekkers in 4 days.

A condor taking flight with Lanin in the backdrop.
Not bad for a breakfast spot, no? Streams like this one were rare. Not sure if it’s best practice, but I drank mostly snow water.
Laguna Azul
Volcan Lanin
Volcan Villarrica
This is Copahue perhaps?

4. Huayhuash 

(Guest written by Brent Ho)

A pretty high, very cold hike in the Andes. Mountains are pointy and were the backdrop for the unfortunate alpine adventures depicted in the book “Touching the Void”. Also has hot springs!

Best Season: May – September

I hiked in late August. Nights were quite nippy but that’s what you get for camping at 4000 meters plus every night. Warm enough for tshirts when the sun shone. Most afternoons it hailed at around 2 or 4pm, which made dinner preparation often somewhat uncomfortable.

Distance: 130km or so

Duration: 8-10 days

The trail is broken up by pass crossings so it’d be difficult to add/remove days.

Starting Altitude: 3300m (10827 ft)

Highest Altitude: 5000m (16404 ft)

Difficulty: Difficult

The main difficulty is the whole breathing thing as the air is very thin. I would advise spending a couple of days acclimatizing in Huaraz and hiking the occasional dayhike beforehand. As always, go slow and drink lots of water and you should be fine. I imagine that matters would be much harder if you carried all of your own stuff, but that’s what donkeys are for.

Cost: $$-$$$

Depends on how it is done. Inescapable are the bribes that you give the locals for “protection”, which will amount to about 200 Sols (~$60) per person. The story behind this is that some hikers got killed once for some reason, and the villagers have since begun to extort all hikers for “safety”.

Otherwise, if one hikes self-supported then monetary costs will be quite low, as transportation and food are very cheap. Physical costs would be high, as hiking 10 days of food around the mountains sounds heavy. There are also arrieros to be had and bargained for. We chose this option and settled on the price of 80 Sols per day, which amounted to 7 dollars per person per day. Note, however, that there are not as many arrieros hanging about at the starting city as we had expected. In fact, there was only one, and I found him through chance. Thus, trying to arrange before you leave Huaraz could be more secure. Finally, there are complete package tours, which I imagine will cost an arm and a leg.

Scenery: 10

Pretty epic.

Track Conditions: 8

The trail was very clear the whole way but there were few if any signs. Bring a map and compass and learn to triangulate if you want to be extra safe.

Getting there/facility: 7

We took public buses to/from the starting point for the trail. These were not the fastest nor the most often or on time, but they did come and take us to the places that we wanted to go.

Solitude: 8

Most people seem to do the same route in the same amount of days, so we saw very few hikers in the opposite direction. The first day we were completely alone, but in all the following days we hiked with a pretty large Israeli group. We saw them only at campsites, however, and hiked essentially alone in the mountains every day (except for the daily “security checkpoint” manned by locals).

It’s hail outside the tent.
I took a bottle from the high point down to sea level.

Paso San Antonio

5. Mardi Himal

Capturing the imagination of countless explorers, the Annapurna region in north central Nepal is home to some of the world’s most iconic peaks. This alpine paradise is also crisscrossed with some of the most spectacular treks in all of Himalayas. Officially opened in 2012, Mardi is a hidden gem just east of one of the most popular treks in the world, the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek. The trail goes along small winding paths, through magical rhododendron forests until you climb out to an elevation around 3300 m. The landscape then changes quite abruptly into the high mountains, with clear vistas of Mardi Himal, Machapuchre (Fish Tail), Annapurna South, and Hiunchuli. Few trekkers make their way here, and I was lucky enough to stumble through after sharing a taxi with a French climber. With sparse foot traffic and incredible scenery, this is easily one of the best treks in the world.

Best season: March – May, September – November

I was there in late November, and the weather was ideal. There was not a cloud near those peaks. The lower valley was still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts, and any down jacket will do for the summit day.

Distance: 50 Kilometers

Starting Altitude: 1800 m (5900 ft)

Highest Altitude: 4500 m (14763 ft)

Duration: 4-6 days

Difficulty: Moderate

For how much you are able to see, this is really quite a gentle route. Mostly due to the high altitude, the later days seemed a bit more rigorous than your usual ramble in the hills.

Cost: $

The park entrance and TIMs card costed a total of 4000 rupees (~$37). My lodging and meals for the whole trip averaged out to be $10 a day. I know. It’s quite affordable.

Scenery: 8

Make sure to arrive in High Camp early in the afternoon so you could enjoy rest of your day there. I napped in the sun, took in the view from the lush lower valley, and got to admire the floating cloud forest; it was probably one of the most pleasant days I have spent in the hills. The sunset view of Annapurna South and Machapuchare was nothing short of spectacular.

Track Condition: 9

Since trekking and tourism are driving forces behind Nepal’s economy, the locals do a very good job of marking and maintaining the trails.

Getting there/Facility: 7

I went during an election year, and there were constant strikes. We really had to negotiate for private transportation since buses weren’t running. But once you get to the base of the hill, it was really quite painless. There were stone raised villages every 3-4 hours or so. The lodgings were rustic, and the meals were basic, but they more than sufficed.

Solitude: 8

The first day of the trek shared the same path with the famous Annapurna Base Camp trek, but afterwards, you pretty much have the whole trail to yourself.

Gorgeous fall view of lower valleys.
Myself, the boy running the High Camp, and my French companion Nick.
Annapurna South
The view from base camp.
High Camp during sunset.
The famous virgin peak of Machapuchare

 

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