This article provides a detailed account of the Refugio Frey Hike from Villa Catedral and an Overnight Stay at the Refugio Frey Mountain Hut. See the “Related Posts” section for additional posts about Bariloche and Patagonia.
This article contains the following sections:
- About Bariloche and Trekking the Area
- About Refugio Frey and Mountain Hut Refuges
- Booking your Stay at Refugio Frey
- Refugio Frey Trail Description
- Getting to the Refugio Trailhead and Villa Catedral
- What to Bring
- My Gear
- Related Posts
- Picture Gallery
The vision of the half-frozen lagoon laying out before us leads our eyes sweeping up the slopes to Frey’s dramatic western granite pinnacles against the sky, and all thoughts of the trail melt away.– exploringwithbruce.com
About Bariloche and Trekking the Area
Bariloche de San Carlos, Argentina, or simply “Bariloche,” is commonly referred to as the Gateway to Patagonia. The area around Bariloche has some of the prettiest and most accessible scenic hiking trails in all of the region.
Almost every hike in the Bariloche area will provide opportunities to view some of the best Patagonia has to offer. The Refugio Frey hike, however, is one of the most varied, tranquil and rewarding of them all. This is why most locals simply call this hike, “A Must.” And, why my Son James and I make this make this trek at the urging of local friends that live in Patagonia.
Hiking trails in proximity of Bariloche are known for being particularly well-marked with both Government trailhead billboards and several rustic signs along the way. There are a number of options that include lakeside strolls, refreshing forest walks, solid moderate-level hiking trails to world-class free climbing and some technical routes. In this magical part of Patagonia, with a little elevation gain and a ledge to look out from, you can access some of the planets most breathtaking landscapes all within a few minutes or hours of the center of Bariloche’s charming streets.
Refugio Frey is referred to my many global trekkers as “The most famous mountain hut in the Western Hemisphere.” And rightfully so. This special place provides those of us who are not professional alpinists, technical mountaineers or insanely fit power-trekkers the opportunity to see with our own eyes views that we normally can only witness through images shot by professional back-country photographers on nature shows. The expansive lakes and valleys, steep gorges, blended forests and majestic peaks are like carved works of picture perfect art.
The Frey Mountain Hut, or “Refugio” as they are called in Spanish, was designed by its namesake, Emilio Frey. Built and first opened in 1957, it has been continuously operated my the legendary alpine climbing club, Club Andino Bariloche (CAB) since its inception. Refugio Frey and other local Refugios are based on the Mountain Hut Refuge systems located in Europe. While this system of rustic accommodations has been emulated throughout the world, it can be argued that nowhere outside of the Alps has any culture embraced and defined this highland sanctuary model more than Patagonia.
The wide appeal of Frey was self-evident upon our arrival. On the day we visited, the guest included international travelers and local trekking and climbing enthusiasts made up of solo-travelers from around South America and Canada, couples from Germany, New Zealand, Scandinavia and my Son and I from the United States rounded out the crowd. I thought I may be the oldest person staying at the Refugio that day, having just turned 61 years old. However a 65 year-old woman had made the trek to Frey along with her trail-experienced daughter, her husband and their 18-month old baby in tow.
The quality and comfort of individual refugios are in direct correlation to their remoteness to civilization. In Refugio Frey’s case, its proximity to the beautiful town of Bariloche means that it often has fresh food, keg-craft beer and sometime wine and spirits available for purchase and consumption in the downstairs kitchen / dining area.
The internet is awash with loving descriptions of Frey’s rugged charm. The two story brick and stone structure provides substantial protection from the wind and seasonally cold climate. Frey’s first floor is a multifunctional check-in, kitchen and group dining / gathering place all wrapped into one. Its rustic wood interior is adorned with antique Patagonian climbing gear, and its shelfs are lined with books and resource maps in multiple languages.
After removing your hiking boots out of courtesy, those with reservations for the hut are permitted to go upstairs to the sleeping area. The warm, closed-off second story loft is a different sleeping configuration than most dormitory style hostels. Two levels of long bench-like shelving are installed along the entire length of the second story floor, and they and thick padding that lines the shelves serve as your sleeping platform. A small isle runs down the middle to provide access. To ensure personal space for each guest, a loose marker system on the edge of the platforms identifies were each guest lays and sleeps during the night. To be clear, you are laying side-by-side in proximity to other people, but there is enough space for you to sleep comfortably. It helps that the people that are drawn to the refugio culture generally are exceedingly polite and thoughtful. People organize themselves and their belongings well to keep noise and movement to a minimum, and chatter was virtually nonexistent after quiet hours began. For those that may hesitate to stay at this or other refugios because of this type of communal sleeping arrangement, I strongly recommend you reconsider. Day hiking to the gorgeous Frey area is great, but the opportunity to experience a world-class refugio overnight and to see the sunrise on the pinnacles of Frey’s up-thrusting granite bowl should not be missed.
One of the beauties of refugio hiking is that you often have far more options when it comes to gearing-up and packing in provisions. For example, Frey has limited camping equipment for rent. While some may be a little hesitant to bed in communal camping gear, I guarantee that in the last kilometer of the climb to Frey the thought that you could’ve made this ascent without the weight of your tent on your back will sound like a pretty good option. Check with the CAB or send a note through Frey’s reservation site to check on gear availability before you go.
The other opportunity for packing flexibility is the refuge’s small kitchen, which hut guests and campers can use for a small cost. Or even better, purchase some of the simple but hearty meals the staff prepares and serves for sale.
We had packed-in some food not knowing what to expect. But when we learned about the meal options upon our arrival, we elected to go with the beef stew and noodle dinner option that evening, and had a solid breakfast the next day. I believe they have vegetarian options too. Hot coffee in the morning was a treat, but the real unexpected pleasure was the affordable mugs of stout beer offered that day at Frey.
Like many Refugios, hikers not wishing to pay to sleep inside the hut are welcome to make a reservation to camp outside of the refugio for free amongst small rock-surrounded camp sites. The free camping reservations are limited too, so plan accordingly. The outside campers are permitted to come into the group dining area (after the paying hut guests have eaten their dinners), and sit amongst the remaining guest to visit, play games and to warm up before returning to their tents when the suggested “quiet time” period begins.
The on-site staff consists of a few friendly outdoor and/or climbing enthusiasts that are happy to chat about the local area when they are not hustling to cook and check in guests.
An unheated outdoor unisex latrine with running cold water and flushing toilets is located about 30-meters away from the Frey hut, and what chilling late night cold you may experience while making your way to the commode is offset by your getting a peak at the incredible star-filled night sky that is not visible from Bariloche’s light-filled city center.
The hike up to Refugio Frey and my overnight stay at the Mountain Hut was one of the top highlights not just of my visit to Bariloche, but also of my multi-month tour of Patagonia as well. It is beyond recommended. It is, as the local’s say, “A Must!”.
Booking your Stay at Refugio Frey
Due to the popularity of Frey, an on-line reservation System was created to book your stay in advance of your arrival. The link to the reservation system is below and it’s fairly straightforward*. A credit card prepayment is required, and you can receive an acknowledgment of your booking.
* NOTE: The website is currently in Spanish only, but just use your translate app and you can easily navigate the simple functions.
Important note: Weekend stays are often booked well in advance, but during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, weekday availability may look fairly wide-open. You may assume (and locals may comment) that because 15 or 20 hut bed spaces may be available on a given day, that you can wait until a day or two before your date to book. I falsely thought this too after seeing 25 bed slots open 3 days before my trek date, so I waited overnight to book. Unfortunately, waking the next morning I found all 25 bed spaces were booked, causing me to scramble my itinerary. I learned that there are many groups, including activity camps for teenagers and local social clubs that review Refugio Frey’s availability regularly for large-group last-minute midweek outings. I recommend that, after checking the weather forecast and trail conditions, you play it safe and book the time you want when you first see it. You’ll be thankful you did.
Sample Refugio Frey costs:
- Rates: AR$ 700 per night (bring your own sleeping bag)
- Use of the kitchen: AR$ 150 (per person)
- Use of the toilets: AR$ 100 (per person per day)
- Dinner: AR$ 480
- Canned drink: AR$ 80
- Camping: Free!
Note: There are also a few snack options that vary in price. The food costs are reasonable considering somebody hauled the provisions up a mountain for you. I recall keg beer being around AR$ 80 but I may be wrong …. (sorry, I was more focused on imbibing a cool one after the long hike than documenting the price!)
NOTE: There is a maximum number of people that can be included on a single reservation for the mountain hut stays or camping sites. Check the site for more details and current pricing.
Note: Be sure to scroll down on the reservation page and click on the button “Chequear Estado De La Senda” (which in English means Check the State of the Path). A pop-up will give you periodically-updated information on the path’s condition along with some other helpful tips.
Additional information is available from Club Andino Bariloche (CAB) (see their contact info at the end of this post).
Refugio Frey Trail Description
There are several possible approaches to Refugio Frey, but the most popular hike by far starts at the trailhead in the parking lot of Villa Catedral. Considered the top skiing area near Bariloche and one of the largest in the Country, the commercial village-like complex of Villa Catedral can be a virtual ghost-town during weekdays in the Spring, Summer and Fall Seasons. Remember to buy most of your water and trail provisions elsewhere, as it is possible that the lone retail shop that has stubbornly stayed open durning ski off-season may be closed when you’re arrive or are leaving. (Quick appeal here: If you do wander over to the Villa complex to use the restroom or check it out, please do buy something from the little shop or two that stays open during the off season. They have saved many a trekker that forgot water, trail snack or sunscreen, and supporting them so they stay open is a benefit to us all.)
The trail has 4 basic sections: The Long Wrap-Around Cerro Catedral (Catedral Hill); The Canyon Trail Away from Lago Gutierrez to the Meadow; The Meadow and Trail to the Last Kilometer; The Final Elevation Gain to Refugio Frey; Arrival at Frey
Getting to the parking lot of Villa Catedral is easy by following “ the Getting to Refugio Frey Trailhead” directions below. Note the special instructions on how to find the trailhead once you arrive at the huge parking lot of the ski resort.
The Long Wrap-Around Cerro Catedral (Catedral Hill)
From the Trailhead sign, you walk up a small incline and then begin walking on a graded access road. When the road veers off, the well worn fairly-flat trail continues and is a good warm-up stroll for the incline coming up. The vegetation is a bit scrubby and dull through this section, but not long into the hike you will notice some nice vistas off to your left. Your elevation is low at this point, but you can still enjoy views of the expanse of wooded foothills and distant mountains rolling out to the Northwest. The few sightings of civilization you can see now will be behind you quickly. The hike only gets better from here.
As you walk away from Villa Catedral in a Southernly direction, the hillside to your right sweeps upwards at an angle that allows you to see the cresting ridges of the foothills and further peaks you will circumvent in the coming hours. The trail remains easy as you leave the low brush of this dry hillside and enter a more protected area with small creeks that support more growth. The path crosses a few pretty spots that include a few log-wood bridges over some small rushing streams. In a few minutes the trail begins to veer South-East to the right, and the change of direction begins a return to a landscape of dry / brush conditions. You are slowly and steadily gaining elevation now as you enter the Lago Gutierrez basin. You’ll also notice your new orientation to the mountain may bring immediate temperature changes depending on the seasonal wind’s movement through this wide valley. As you walk this section, it is interesting to see such parched hillside conditions combined with a number of small spring-fed waterfalls tumbling down the rocky hillsides. The further South you travel, the more the Lago Gutierrez comes into view to your left.
Before the trail turns in a North-Easterly direction away from the lake it becomes slightly less defined. At one point there are a couple of offshoot paths that go higher or lower, and it’s hard to determine which is the main route because there’s no signage. Stay on the middle path as that will provide the most consistent trail quality.
A fun thing about the path is that it crosses over a few small crevices in the hillside, often with small but solidly-flowing seasonal waterfalls. Although the trail disappears at the crevice, you can easily pick a few boulder stepping stones to cross these small fishers. You are right next to the small waterfalls here, so its a popular photo spot.
Two other entertaining parts of the path to mention is where the trail stops and you must move over outcroppings of rock to get to where the trail restarts on the other side. It’s fairly easy as the 3-meter stone faces provide some natural footings where you can step up, over and then down like a stepladder. After this the path will be smooth sailing for a while.
The Canyon Trail Away from Lago Gutierrez to the Meadow
Leaving the arid hillside and the panoramic view of the Lago Gutierrez basin, you turn to the right and hike Northwest into a canyon. The slopes close in on you as the canyon narrows and vegetation is far more abundant. Shielded from the sun, the Canyon provides a cool and moist break from the heat and wind of the prior trail section.
Mountaintop views are obscured now, but the flora and fauna are pretty and more intimate. You may need to pull a long-sleeve layer on as the temperature can drop significantly once out of the sun. The mostly dirt path here can be moist or even muddy at points due to micro-springs and watershed run-off from the hills above. While mostly in good shape, there’re still points where you need to watch your footing as the Trail Narrows along the canyon ledge. You’re steadily gaining elevation here, but the good news is you have shaded spots up ahead to stop for a water brake and to catch her breath.
A fun little bonus near the beginning of the canyon is the wraparound metal bridge hikers must take to move past one steep rocky ridge. The bridge’s sturdy supports are well-anchored in the mountainside below, but what makes it fun is that you can look down through the bridge’s the grated-metal floor to get a better perspective of your now higher elevation and the changing landscape around you. It’s another popular photo location.
You will continue to tackle regular moderate elevation gains along this pretty route until you enter the meadow area. You will feel your effort was worth it when you arrive.
The Meadow and Trail to the Last Kilometer
One of the most enjoyable things of a lovely walk in nature is the opportunity to move from one topographic natural setting to another. The juxtaposition of the different types of landscapes and microclimates reminds us both intellectually and somewhere in our hearts that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. The highland meadow area of this Cerro Catedral Refugio Frey trail delivers that experience.
At this higher elevation you’ll notice the tree density has markedly increased, and entering the Meadow area the trail levels out and meanders slowly as it winds its way through tall growth trees and some bamboo stands. It is warmer here than in the canyon below as the sunlight streams through the forest canopy. Depending on the season, the whistling wind that blows through the trees and the moisture in the air from the streams that cross the meadow invoke a stroll through a high Alpine glen.
If you’ve packed a lunch or a snack, the meadow is a good place to break for a rest and to take in the beauty. Some goal-oriented trekkers power through their hikes. Meadow’s like this reminds us that it’s actually more impactful to periodically stop moving and to take time to soak in the unique natural space around us. It is especially true here because in just a couple of hours you will be treated to an entirely different natural terrain.
Moving on through the Meadow, your trod over the pine needle and leaf-covered earth is only interrupted by your crossing small creek beds on makeshift log-planks or the more substantial bridge over the larger undulating mountain river. Bird life is abundant here, and the rich smells of the vegetation make this meadow a memorable sensory experience.
You’re nearing the end of your meadow walk when you reach a structure called Refugio Piedritas. Some treks are confused by its name, because this is not an operating religion like Frey, but instead is a survival hut (click here to read more about Refugio Piedritas). The structure itself is interesting, because it is built in tandem with a large Rock outcropping behind it as part of the support structure. Its history is even more curious. Locals say this survival shelter was build on the spot where a climber perished due to exposure. Next to the hut is a large Christian cross and a memorial to a controversial Slovenian Bishop on a religious alter-like installment next to the structure about. Locals mentioned that some people come to this place to meditate or pray while en route to Frey.
The area outside of Refugio Piedritas is one of several good options for your meal break in the Meadow, as there are shaded seating areas with benches, logs and some flat rocks scattered about.
The Final Elevation Gain to Refugio Frey
Rested and refueled, when you leave the meadow you’ll find the trail changes rapidly. You’re now steadily ascending up along the right side of a ridge. The exposed mountainside does not have the protection of the meadow, and neither do you. You intermittently move from shaded to full-sun sections of the trail and temperatures flip quickly, so have your layers handy. As you’ve entered this final valley of the hike, the forest canopy is left behind and jagged peaks across the gorge come in to view. This is the backside of the ridge that frames the Cerro Catedral vista when looking up from the Villa Catedral ski resort. You’ve made solid hiking progress by wrapping around Cerro Catedral and its 2388m imposing mountain wall, and trekkers comment that the narrowing gorge makes the peaks seem visually closer than they are.
And then there is the final Kilometer:
After a period of moderate incline, the most challenging part of the trail shows up without fanfare. “Is this the way we go?”, upward travelers often ask those they meet on a downward decent of this final kilometer of the trail. “Sí, up there”, the descending hiker replies as they point up at what looks to you like it could be a 35° degree incline. The path isn’t always ascending at this pitch, but enough of it is to where many those carrying packs stop for regular breaks, especially during the mid-day when the sun has a direct hit on this slope. The good news, there are a handful of shady spots along the way to rest. A few points on the trail have larger step up/down distances that require three points of contact, especially where spring waters trickle over the rounded boulders you’ll use for stair steps on the trail. Speaking of water, depending on the season (we hiked in late Spring) the glacial runoff sometimes flows down the middle of the path for several meters and you’ll be trekking upward through an inch or so of flowing water under your boot (not an issue, just a bit slippery).
As the tree-line begins to recede and rolling rocky crests appear before you, hikers report a slight sense of “how much further can this be?” But in a few minutes after finishing the last section of the steeper incline, you spot the beautiful sight of Frey’s dark-gabled roof, and possibly a glimpse of the bright red shutters that frame the second story windows.
But two more bits of fun await you before arriving at Refugio Frey.
In the last 150 meters you may experience 1) the trail disappearing into a short rocky field that you will navigate on an incline, 2) a stream crossing where people with bad balance like me can have the joy of tiptoeing on rocks to cross water that is shallow enough not to be dangerous, but deep enough to soak and embarrass the hell out of you should you fall in, and 3) a short but fun 20 meter scramble up a shaded part of the hill that can be covered with snow late into the season just at the base of the Refugio. We were treated to all three when we visited. It was fun!
Arrival at Refugio Frey
Stepping up from the last few feet of the trail, you now have a full view of the small glacial bowl that cradles Refugio Frey. Built next to La Laguna Tonček (named after an adventuring Slovenian skier who died here), the Hut is nestled between some of the most delicately beautiful granite spire formations in the Patagonian Andes.
Each season provides different impressions, be it a snow-laden rugged alpine crest, or a barren rocky otherworldly landscape. The shoulder transitional seasons provide a bit of both, with the Tonček lagoon beginning its summer thaw or winter freeze, and ascents of snow dusting the pinnacles.
The “About Refugio Frey and Mountain Hut Refuges” briefly captures the warm and welcoming vibe of this world-renowned destination. But the experience is different for everyone. For my son and I, it was a chance to decompress in a place of immense beauty after two weeks of active travel. For climbers, it’s a launch pad for top free climbing experiences where you can chat and swap stories with other rock lovers from far away. Trekkers passing through to other Refugios on the trek route will sometimes sit quietly in the hut studying maps for their next stroll, but other times they find themselves standing outside just staring at the spires and the predator condors that circle effortlessly in the Catedral’s deep blue sky as the sun sets, contemplating if they could stay at Frey for just a few more nights.
About Checking In
When you arrive at Refugio Frey you check-in with a member of the small host staff. During reasonable daytime hours they can generally be found in the downstairs dining / kitchen area. The staff is notified of the online reservations for each day in advance, so checking in is relatively easy, but do bring your reservation confirmation number just in case. They cover the house rules which are straightforward and ask if you’ll be buying a meal for their planning purposes. After that, you have all day to get yourself settled inside, hike around or just kick back.
Note that all transactions at the Refugio are cash-only, so bring some currency with you. Your backpack, trek poles and other large belongings will remain outside the hut due to space constraints, so just grab your valuables out of your gear and keep them next you while you’re sleeping.
FYI – There’s an old beat-up guitar on the premises available to anyone who wants to bang out a tune, which I did while taking in the majestic spires over the lagoon (see the video here). Passing the guitar around with other guests is a wonderful experience in this extraordinary place.
Getting to the Refugio Trailhead and Villa Catedral
Before covering the transportation options below, finding the trailhead in the expansive lot of the Villa Catedral ski resort can be a challenge. To find the trailhead, after entering the resort parking area, instead of going straight ahead to the large resort complex, looked to the far left to a distant corner of the lot where a small group of cars are parked off by themselves. These are the autos of your fellow hikers. As you approach the area you will see the wooden sign identifying the Frey trailhead.
Locals will tell you the best way to get the most out of your visit to the Bariloche area is to rent a car. With the exception of some confusing one-way street layouts in the City of Bariloche, driving is easy in good weather in this part of Patagonia, especially from the city to Cerro Catedral. Enjoy the drive too, because this approximately 18 Killometer stretch of road to the resort is scenic.
From the city of Bariloche, drive West along Avenue Exequiel Bustillo (Route AU237) toward the peninsula on Lago Nahuel Huapi and Circuito Chico. Before the Circuito, turn left on Ruta Provincial 82, or if you are enjoying the pretty drive, continue on a few minutes more and turn left onto route 79. Both merge together up ahead, and just follow the signs to the resort.
Wether or not you are charged to park depends on the season and if there are any events scheduled at the resort. Although it is reportedly safe, it is recommended that you do not leave items in view inside your car and that you lock the vehicle.
Following the same driving route from Bariloche to Villa Catedral, the road is mostly flat and an easy 18 kilometer-ish ride for experienced cyclists. With the exception that the roads generally do not have wide shoulders and it can be crowded with touristy-types that are staring at the scenery while driving instead of watching out for you on the road, it should be a good ride. I did not see cyclists parking bikes for an overnight hike to Frey on my visit, but if you want to take the ride, there are un-monitored bike racks throughout the resort area. There are several bike rental shops in the town of Bariloche and along Circuito Chico. Be sure to ask the local shop operators about their tips or restrictions regarding parking your wheels overnight in the area.
For those that opt not to rent a car, the local bus #55 provides reliable service from limited stops in central Bariloche to the Villa Catedral parking lot. While its very cost effective at around $1.00 US, the route does takes about 40 minutes one way, which could impact you should you want to get an early start. Click here to the #55 bus map (in Spanish only).
I always recommend stopping by the local official Tourist Information center in town, where you can receive the most current bus schedule and route information, an explanation of fares and usually a hand-highlighted mapped of the current bus stops. The Municipal Tourist Office is located in the Centro Civico in Plaza Ciudades Hermanas right in the center of Town (almost across the street from the Historias de Bariloche and near the Museo de la Patagonia. It’s in a cute cultural center of the city just South of some of the best Breweries in town, so you’ll likely be in the neighborhood anyway.
Other bus options include taking one of the “Colectivo” services from Avenue of the Pioneers or Bustillo Avenue. Or you could take the long route on City Bus #20. Discuss all your options with the Tourist Information center and also get flyers on the local happenings in the city while you are there.
Virtually no one in the developed world would recommend that someone, especially a solo traveler, should hitchhike due to the obvious potential dangers. Yet, when you travel around the Bariloche area, you will see young and older people alike from all over the world thumbing a ride. I personally did not do it, but I spoke to about a dozen people who did, and they said they either “gave it a try for the first time” or they planned in advance to hitchhiking regularly as part of their daily cost saving strategies. They said that they had heard (or felt) it was relatively safe to hitchhike here in Bariloche, or at least safer than anywhere else. Its your call, and I am not advocating here, just reporting that some consider it a viable option in this idyllic retreat. Note that unlike the Circuito Chico roads next to Lago Nahuel Huapi, the traffic on the route to Villa Catedral dies down in the evening hours, especially in the off season. If you do hitchhike there in the morning, play it safe and have an alternative plan like a return bus option scoped-out in advance.
What to Bring
- Multiple layers and gloves
- Sun screen
- Coverage hat
- Rain poncho or other jacket (weather dependent)
- The best camera you have
- Good day trek shoes or better
- Hiking poles if desired
- Meal and snack options for along the trail and other meals (in case you choose not to buy Dinner or Breakfast food from the Refugio).
- Sleeping bag (and tent and other gear if you choose to camp outside)
Click here for a list of gear I took on this outing
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- Club Andino Bariloche Contact information: Phone: (0294) 4422266/4424579 email: INFO@CLUBANDINO.ORG – The check out their CAB website,
- If you are a rock climber, summitpost.org good site with some additional climbing info on Frey.
- Bariloche’s Department of Tourism has a good website in English as well.
I used the reference material available to me when writing this post. If you have some additional maps or reference material available and would like to share them, please contact us here.
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