Nearly a third of Chile is protected parkland, making this small South American nation one of the best places on earth for active adventures. On a thrill-seeking trip to Chile, you can hike up volcanoes, skirt fjords and glaciers or navigate the wilds of the world’s driest desert.

There's only one problem: with 42 national parks to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin. To take away some of the guesswork, here's a look at 10 national parks you won’t want to miss.

Discover: Chile's Atacama Desert

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Best park for overnight treks
 
Easily the most famous park in Chile, Torres del Paine is the Patagonia travelers dream about, with a unique location tucked between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian Steppe. The five-day "W Trek" and eight-day "O Circuit" are the most popular hikes, with epic scenery and well-run campgrounds and comfy refugio lodges along the way.

You can also sleep in five-star adventure lodges on the park’s periphery and tackle day hikes atop glaciers, around moraine lakes or up to the park’s namesake granite spires. Visit in winter to search for pumas and enjoy a respite from both the crowds and the reserve's driving winds.

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Parque Nacional Archipiélago Juan Fernández

Best park for naturalists
 
Lying 670km (416 miles) off the coast of Valparaíso, this little-visited archipelago is home to 213 species of native flora, of which 135 are endemic. This gives Parque Nacional Archipiélago Juan Fernández a higher percentage of endemism than Hawaii or even the Galapagos Islands.

There are a dozen trails on the main island – appropriately named Robinson Crusoe – crisscrossing primordial forests of perky tree ferns and giant rhubarb (really). Most routes start from the archipelago’s only true town, San Juan Bautista, where lobster dinners are practically obligatory, taking advantage of the abundant crustaceans hauled from local waters.

Female hiker walking on rocky ground near Salto Grande Waterfall
The Cuernos del Paine are some of the most striking peaks in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine © sharptoyou / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces

Best park for mountaineering
 
Hardcore mountaineers flock to Nevado de Tres Cruces each year to acclimatize for trips up Ojos del Salado, which is both the highest active volcano in the world and the second-highest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. Not only that, the crater lake on this muscular 6893m (22,615ft) peak is the highest body of water anywhere on earth.

Those who don’t have the time, money and willpower for a summit expedition can still enjoy hiking to the blue and green lagoons, arid Andean peaks and blindingly white salt flats of this stunning stretch of the Chilean high plains.

Parque Nacional Queulat

Best park for waterfalls

Picture a lush forest sliced in half by a river of blue ice that runs to a jagged clifftop, spilling out in waterfalls that thunder into a turquoise lake below. That's what you’ll find on the 3km (2 mile) Mirador del Ventisquero Trail to the hanging glacier of Parque Nacional Queulat, one of the best kid-friendly outings in Patagonia.

Most visitors sleep in nearby Puyuhuapi, a small town on the edge of a fjord with homey restaurants, steaming hot springs and distinctively German architecture thanks to its earliest settlers. It's a great hub for family-friendly outdoor adventures. 

Parque Nacional Patagonia

Best park for wildlife

Wildlife watching doesn’t get much better than this! Formerly occupied by large cattle ranches, the section of Patagonian steppe along the Chacabuco River near Cochrane is now home to one of the most ambitious rewilding projects in the world. Pumas prowl the grasslands of Parque Nacional Patagonia hunting wild herds of lama-like guanacos, while 10% of the world’s remaining huemul deer enjoy a rare oasis.

Then there are the birds, including massive condors, blushing flamingos, Magellanic woodpeckers and ostrich-like ñandús. The fantastic infrastructure built by Tompkins Conservation and Explora makes the national park well suited for families, with the promise of a comfortable bed at the end of a busy day of wildlife spotting.

A woman photographing statues at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
The moai at Ahu Tongariki are what most people imagine when they think of Easter Island © David Madison / Getty Images

Parque Nacional Rapa Nui

Best park for history and mystery
 
The great mysteries of Rapa Nui – Easter Island, to those unfamiliar with the local name – have perplexed mankind for centuries. How did one of the most isolated islands on earth give birth to such an advanced civilization? How did it rise so fast and collapse so dramatically?

And how did the ancient people of Rapa Nui build the 887 monolithic human statues known as moai, and transport them all across the island? This park offers some clues, but no definitive answers, making it ripe for an inspiring family adventure. Administratively, Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory in the Pacific, and is best reached by plane from Santiago (or circuitously, from Tahiti).

Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini

Best park in Southern Chile
 
One of Chile’s largest and least-visited national parks, Alberto de Agostini is a great option for those who like to view raw nature and abundant wildlife from the comfort of a cozy, well-heated boat. Expedition cruises depart from Punta Arenas for the glacier-capped Cordillera Darwin in Chile’s extreme south, popping into narrow fjords filled with whales, penguins and barking elephant seals.

Many outfitters carry kayaks on board so you can have up close and personal encounters with the southernmost animals of the Americas. This far south, the climate is cold all year round, so the best time to visit is the austral summer.

Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins

Best park to visit in summer
 
This heavily rainforested park is named after the late Douglas Tompkins, an American philanthropist who purchased vast swaths of Patagonia to restore the land to its natural state, and then donated it back to the Chilean government. In the heart of the Chilean Lake District, Pumalín was his crown jewel; it’s modeled after the US national park system, with a spectacular trail network, a well-thought-out visitor center and simple lodging.

Rains are less frequent during the summer months (December to March), making this the best time for hikes to thundering waterfalls, montane lakes or the caldera of the Chaitén Volcano. Access the park from the region's main transportation hub, Puerto Montt.

Llamas eating grass in front of a snow-capped volcano at Parque Nacional Lauca
Wildlife and volcanoes set the scene at Parque Nacional Lauca © Andrew Clifforth / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Lauca

Best park in Northern Chile

Travelers hoping to experience the Andean altiplano (high plains) invariably head to the parks near San Pedro de Atacama, but the reserves near the indigenous Aymara hamlet of Putre in Chile’s extreme north, are even more spectacular. Lauca is the most accessible park, with twin volcanoes and a vast area of puna (montane grassland) filled with alpacas, llamas and their wilder cousins, vicuñas and guanacos.

The greater Lauca Biosphere Reserve includes two more parks that can be reached via unpaved roads to the south – Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas and Monumento Natural Salar de Surire. Both include glistening salt flats, wilderness hot springs and turquoise lagoons filled with fluffy flamingos. Visit in winter to avoid summer rains that can make roads impassable.

Parque Nacional Conguillío

Best park to visit in the winter

There’s something about the appearance of the araucaria trees in winter that makes this park seem to shine during the coldest months of the year (June-August). These ancient conifers – a species that has hardly changed in appearance since the age of the dinosaurs – pop up above the thick snow on the Llaima Volcano like arboreal fireworks.

You can ski in their midst at the Ski Araucarias resort and then rest your weary bones nearby in a thermal hot spring. Hikes in the park take in dense forests, crystalline lakes and vast lava flows from the 37 eruptions registered here since 1852.

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