Torres del Paine National Park

The Spectacular Landscape of Torres del Paine National Park

Tom Sharpe|July 7, 2017|Blog Post

Tom Sharpe is a geologist originally from Glasgow, Scotland, who has spent the last 35 years as a geology curator in the National Museum of Wales. He is a Chartered Geologist, a Fellow of the Geological Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, as well as a member of a dozen other geological and polar societies. Here, Tom shares his excitement about one of his favorite places on the planet. 

 

It’s always exciting to catch that first glimpse of Torres del Paine National Park on the drive north from Punta Arenas, Chile. The mountains are so distinctive, they’re immediately identifiable rising above the low terrain around them. And, late in the day, if the weather is fine, the mountains take on a golden hue as they catch the light from the setting sun; there are few more spectacular places to watch the ever-changing light on the mountains as the sun sets.

Few places, too, tell their geological story more clearly than the bare, vertical cliffs of these mountains, with a layer of pale gray granite sandwiched between dark rocks above and below. Erosion by glaciers during the last ice age has opened up cracks and weaknesses in the rocks to cut deep, steep, narrow valleys and create the isolated mountain pinnacles for which Torres del Paine is so famous. The Torres del Paine massif is a discrete mountain block lying to the east of the main Andes chain, measuring about 11 miles east to west and six miles north to south. The highest point, Cerro Paine Grande in the western part of the massif, is about 9,500 feet high and a spectacular mountain in its own right—but you can’t help but have your eye drawn to its neighbors, Cuernos del Paine, or the Horns of Paine, and peeking out from behind, the Towers of Paine, or Torres del Paine.

The Towers, which give Torres del Paine its name, are three narrow, bare, vertical granite spires about 8,000 feet high—their exact heights aren’t known—in the eastern part of the massif, and only really visible from that side; but the Cuernos dominate the view from the south and display the geology for all to see. Like the Towers, the sheer rock faces of the Cuernos are made up of a pale gray granite; though here the granite is capped by a black sedimentary rock. The same black or dark gray sedimentary rock forms the low ground around the base of the mountains. It’s mainly shale or mudstone, a rock unit that geologists call the Cerro Toro Formation. It was deposited as slurries of mud and sand swept down into the deep water of a sea that covered this area 86 million years ago. You can see these rocks along the roadside and along the edges of the lakes at the foot of the mountains.

About 12.5 million years ago, molten rock pushed its way up a crack in the earth’s crust just to the west of Paine Grande. It never reached the surface, but instead spread out sideways to the east, prising apart layers of the black shales of the Cerro Toro Formation. As the molten rock cooled, it solidified as a sheet of granite. This happened not just once, but three times, with each successive granite sheet pushing in below the one before it. This took place over a period of just (to a geologist!) 90,000 years and at a depth of about 2.5 miles below the earth’s surface. Together, the three granite sheets are about 6,500 feet thick, and their full thickness is exposed in the cliffs of the Cuernos. So, the black rocks you see at the top of the Cuernos were once continuous with the black rocks at the base of the cliffs. Although the rocks at the top are sedimentary rocks, they are sometimes described as metamorphic because they have been affected by the heat from the cooling granite.

Since then, this part of the crust has been lifted up and erosion has worn away the many thousands of meters of rock that once lay on top of the granite to expose these rocks at the surface.

We have the ice age to thank for the wonderful rock exposures we see today, and that make this place a geologist’s dream. Ice has exploited lines of weakness such as natural cracks (joints) or faults in the rocks to cut deep U-shaped glacial valleys like the Valle del Francés which separates Paine Grande and the Cuernos, or the narrow defiles that isolate each of the Towers. Glacial erosion along two sets of faults is also responsible for the deep valleys now occupied by the azure-blue lakes in the lower ground around the mountains. It’s a truly spectacular landscape, and without doubt, one of my favorite places on the planet.

 

To see this stunning national park for yourself, join our upcoming Patagonia by Land & Sea expedition. 

Related Blog Posts

  • Milford Sound, New Zealand
    Blog Post

    20 Intriguing Christmas Traditions Around the World

    November 20, 2017 | Blog Post

    Christmas has become an almost ubiquitous celebration found all around the world. Nearly every country—even those not traditionally steeped in Christianity—acknowledges the holiday in some fashion.

    Read More

    Gorillas of the Congo
    Blog Post

    How to Plan a Trip: Tips from an Expert Travel Itinerary Planner

    November 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    Jon Nicholson, Zegrahm’s Director of Operations & Itinerary Planning, was becoming an expert on how to plan a trip before he was even old enough to drive.

    Read More

    Zebras at Sunset
    Blog Post

    Why Overland Adventures Rock

    November 13, 2017 | Blog Post

    The best travel adventures do not happen in a flash of instant gratification. Instead, they are the long, meandering journeys that give us more immersive, interactive experiences to savor. Sure, jumbo jets might get you to your destination faster; but once you arrive, I believe that overland adventures are the key to truly exploring the heart and soul of a place.

    Read More

  • Island Sky
    Blog Post

    What Are Expedition Cruises? Proof That Not All Cruises Are Created Equal

    November 10, 2017 | Blog Post

    Cruises have gotten a bad rap lately, and some would argue that’s justifiably so.

    Read More

    Grimsey Island
    Blog Post

    Tips for Surviving a Long Layover

    November 7, 2017 | Blog Post

    Ah, the dreaded long layover… We all love the convenience of direct flights to our destination. But there are times when long layovers are simply unavoidable, especially when you’re traveling internationally.

    Read More

    Tortuguero Canals, Costa Rica
    Infographics

    Costa Rica's Wildlife [Infographic]

    October 23, 2017 | Infographics

    The Wildlife of Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

    Read More

  • Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda
    Blog Post

    The 10 Best Places to See Animals in the Wild

    October 4, 2017 | Blog Post

    I’ve been a nature-lover my whole life, but I began traveling specifically to see animals in the wild back in the early ’90s. Still in my early 20s then, I was fascinated by watching wildlife. My passion grew exponentially as I took up photography and became more adept at spotting hidden animals.

    Read More

    Isla del Caño, Costa Rica
    Blog Post

    After the Storm: How Responsible Tourism Can Help Caribbean Hurricane Recovery Efforts

    October 3, 2017 | Blog Post

    Virtually every explorer dreams of traveling to the Caribbean at least once in their lifetime.

    Read More

    Portobelo, Panama
    Blog Post

    Portobelo - A Tale of Plunder and Privateers

    October 2, 2017 | Blog Post

    Guests joining our Canal to Cuba journey spend a day exploring the colonial town of Portobelo, including its UNESCO-designated San Jerònimo (Geronimo) Fort and Castle of Santiago de la Gloria.

    Read More

  • Isla Coiba, Panama
    Infographics

    Endemic Birds of Cuba [Infographic]

    September 20, 2017 | Infographics

    According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities. A 2011 survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that around 18 million people each year take trips exclusively for birdwatching, with many participating in competitions to spot as many species as possible.

    Read More

    Raja Ampat, Indonesia
    Blog Post

    25 Fascinating Facts About Coral Reefs Around the World

    September 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    If you’ve spent any time snorkeling or scuba diving in places like Australia, the Galápagos Islands, or

    Read More

    Who was Ferdinand Magellan?
    Blog Post

    Patagonia Glaciers: An Icy Wonderland at the Edge of the Americas

    September 14, 2017 | Blog Post

    Glaciers account for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on the planet. There are glaciers on every continent on Earth; but the most impressive are usually found in polar and high alpine regions, where cooler temperatures allow them to grow to colossal sizes. The Patagonia glaciers are among the most iconic scenes of life in southern Argentina and Chile.

    Read More