Hiking Patigonia’s W – French Valley


Hiking the Middle Leg of the W – French Valley

Make no mistake, if you are going to hike to the end of the trail into French Valley (the middle leg of the W hike in Torres del Paine) you will need joints that can take a pounding. The trek from Refugio Paine Grande, up the French Valley, and then on to Refugio los Cuernos has it all. The trail offers up sweeping vistas across Lago Nordenskjöld and the open country to the south, the Andes Mountains to the West, and the rugged cliffs, peaks, and hanging glaciers that make this part of Patagonia so spectacular. All on a scale that defies description. It is this middle leg of the W hike, from Camp Italiano north into French Valley and back that is the most dramatic, and also the most punishing of the three hikes that make up the W.

If you happen to be reading this as you are researching and planning your own trip to Torres del Paine to do the W hike, then you will likely see that there are any number of recommended itineraries. Plans for where to hike and camp on day 1… 2… 3… etc. If a person is not camping, but rather staying in the Refugio bunk houses or cabins like we were then this middle section of the W will make for a pretty solid day. It can’t be judged just by distance  because there are sections of the trail that are very steep. Steep sections of high step rock that must be climbed and, even worse, descended. Bone and joint crunching drops at awkward angles that will soon uncover any weakness that you might have brought with you to the park.

It is not my intent to scare anyone off of doing the French Valley hike, the spectacular views from the boulders at the end of the trail make it worth every punishing step. However, if you have been training for your hike by putting in daily walks in the paved suburbs, or interurban trails,  you might not be as ready as you think. If you want to prep for French Valley I would recommend that you add  stepping onto and off the tailgate of a truck on hard pavement for several hours straight to your training regimen. Most trail guides recommend leaving your pack at camp Italiano and doing this section of trail with nothing more than a light day pack. It is good advice and there was a good sized pile of packs leaning against the ranger’s shack at the base of the trail. My wife unloaded everything but our lunches from her pack and stashed them in a plastic bag at Italiano, she is the smart one. But I was packing heavy camera gear that I needed to keep with me and I didn’t think it would make any real difference to keep ‘light weight’ items like my clothing and toothpaste in my pack so I kept my pack full. In hindsight I should have shed every possible ounce of weight before heading up French Valley. By the time we made it back to Camp Italiano I was ready to sell my tripod… cheap… anything to take some weight off of my aching knees before walking the final miles to Refugio los Cuernos.

Enough about the pounding…

The highlights –

From Paine Grande to Italiano.

The first section of this leg of the W from Refugio Paine Grand to Camp Italiano is wonderful. The trail rolls through open areas of grass, low shrub, and trees along the flank of the rugged peaks.  It is nice to be able to dip a water bottle into one of the many crystal clear streams and have a drink while admiring the many hanging glaciers from where the water just came. To the south there are lakes. They form an emerald necklace around the southern slopes of the rugged mountains and make a beautiful foreground to the seemingly endless and barren hills in the distance. Stopping on occasion to look back to the West there are views of the southernmost peaks of the Andes mountains. This is not a section of trail that has a single viewpoint as its highlight, but rather the entire trail is beautiful both in its immediate surroundings and the wide open views.

French Valley –

It was in the French Valley that we first heard the sound of glaciers calving. Sounding just like distant thunder, at first we thought we might be in for a storm. There is an excellent viewpoint along an open ridge where one can admire the hanging glaciers. At the time of our visit in early March there was quite a bit of calving going on. Looking just like a bridal veil type waterfall we would see the ice cascading down the face of the distant cliffs. A few seconds later we would hear the thunderous sound echoing across the valley, giving some indication of how massive the chunks of falling ice must really be. We noticed that for many people this ridge and the view of the calving glaciers was the entire reason they had made the trek. They had no intention of going further up the trail, but rather had made themselves comfortable and spent the day enjoying the ice show.

The trail up French Valley is rugged and continuously beautiful.

The French Valley trail is continuously beautiful. (I have hiked many trails where the end destination is spectacular while the trail to get there is not) Waterfalls, streams, forest, rocks, glaciers, rugged peaks… the scenic beauty is varied and continuous. We found ourselves continuously stopping and doing 360 turns to try to take it all in. As I mentioned above, the trail is rough, but certainly never boring.

The last pitch up to the end of the French Valley trail doesn’t really resemble a trail at all. It is a steep scramble up a boulder/rock field that will at times have you using your hands to help you along the way. The reward for the effort is the opportunity to stand atop a large set of boulders that sit just above the tree line and affords a 360 degree view of the valley and the rugged peaks that surround it. The size of the valley, the peaks, and the glaciers sitting like so much frosting on top of the ridges all defy description. There is nothing I can compare it to and that is what makes it so unique and wonderful. One would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful spot on earth to sit and have lunch.


12 responses to “Hiking Patigonia’s W – French Valley”

  1. Wow, great description. We are 4 60yo in good shape, have been hiking rocky trails but this sounds like it will be our toughest day. Will get an early start from Grande refugio. Thanks for your advice

    1. Thank you for taking a moment to comment.
      Best wishes for your trek.

      Safe travels.

  2. Your description is brilliant 🙂 We are planning this december with 2 kids. My husband and I are in good shape, but, am worried about my 9year old and 14 year old. Do you think this is risky with kids? Please advise.

    Thank you

    1. I would have to guess that your kids will be fine. Depends on the kids I suppose, but there is nothing on these hikes that would cause me to say that they are not ok for a healthy couple of kids.

    2. Steve Gordon Avatar
      Steve Gordon

      Really curious about this hike as my bf and I are in our mid 60’s but in what we consider good shape. Walk, bike, windsurf, gym, pilates etc. But from what I read the hike may be much more difficult than hiking on squaw valley etc. we plan on staying at a hotel in the park and going with a guide. Figure if we run out of gas quit and turn around.

  3. Judy Ann Burgos Avatar
    Judy Ann Burgos

    Thanks for this articulate piece.

  4. Eliot J. Alba Avatar
    Eliot J. Alba

    Great Description. Please comment on this plan: We would be coming from Refugio Grey to Italiano and set up camp at Italiano. The following day we would hike up the Valley and back, pick up our gear at Italiano and hustle to Los Cuernos. Is it a go or wishful thinking? We are long time hikers but are also cognizant we are not 45 y/o any longer. What say you?

    1. My apologies for being so slow to get to your comment. I do hope you have gotten the information you need about your plans. Sounds like a good plan to me. Breaking into two chunks will certainly help. You can expect that the second day (coming down French Valley and then going on to Los Cuernos) will be the harder of the two. Best wishes and safe travels.

  5. Rod MacLennan Avatar
    Rod MacLennan

    Is it possible to hike from Paine Grande to Britanico and all the way back in one day i.e. arriving on the first boat from Pudeto and returning before the last one leaves?

    1. I do not have the ferry schedule handy so I don’t know what that window of time would be. If the question was can it be done in a single day then the simple answer would be yes, but “possible” is entirely realative to what you are capable of.

  6. Hey Dominic, beautiful description! A quick question, how long did the hike take you from Paine Grande to Britanico? We are going to do an out and back from Paine Grande to Britanico and return with just day packs – just wondering what time frame it would take to do this, as I saw you mentioned lunch at Britanico, so wondering how long you guys took to get there?

    1. Hello Nicola,

      It has been a few years since I did this hike so I really don’t recall the exact timing. The trail from Paine Grande to Italiano is smooth and “fast” while the French Valley is rough/steep and “slow”. We also stopped often on both the way up and back in the French Valley to take in the sights.

      Is it doable as a day hike? Certainly.

      I would recommend starting as early as the morning light will allow to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the valley.

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