Hiking French Valley, Torres del Paine – or – LAKES, GLACIERS AND THE HORNS OF PAIN

A snow-capped mountain ridge towers far above, a glacier gliding down a slope.  In the distance is a bright turquoise lake, dotted with tiny islands.  Above the woods around me, the horizontally striped, sweeping pinnacles of the Cuernos del Paine loom high above behind me. In between, another mountain ridge makes a swooping valley wall.  I spin around, view after view taking my breath away in a 360° panorama that is truly one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen.

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INSPIRATION: Hiking French Valley, Torres del Paine

I am doing the French Valley (Valle de Frances) hike.  Torrres del Paine National Park is the jewel of Chilean Patagonia and this hike is brightest, shiniest of the jewels!  The main reason to visit Patagonia is the scenery.  And the best way to see the scenery is to hike into it.

I had been in Torres del Paine years before, but had had to leave early before seeing much, so I was super excited to head back.  I had actually seen the eponymous Torres (Towers) del Paine on my first visit, but had missed the Cuernos (Horns) del Paine, which are the classic postcard view of the park.  The French Valley, Chile runs right alongside the Cuernos, so this hike is one of the best opportunities to see them, plus there are incredible views of French Glacier and bright aqua blue alpine lakes.

The most famous hike in Torres del Paine is the legendary “W” hike.  I love hiking (read more hikes I have done here), but wanted a little more comfort than trekking for days carrying a tent and food, so I had decided to do a modified version of it and:

  1. hike the left arm of the “W” as a day hike (taking a catamaran across Lago Grey/ Grey Lake and hiking above Glacier Grey),
  2. do the French Glacier hike (the middle arm of the “W”) as another day hike
  3. do the right arm of the “W’ to the actual Torres del Paine as an overnighter.

Here is all you need to know about the Torrres del Paine French Valley day hike.


How to get the start of the French Valley Patagonia day hike: Pudeto to Paine Grande

The hike starts at Paine Grande Refugio.  To get to Paine Grande, you need to take a ferry across the brilliant turquoise colored Pehoe Lake from Pudeto.

We stayed the night before in the Rio Serrano area, so it was about a 40-minute drive to Pudeto.

Drive from Pehoe Island to catamaran across Lake Pehoe

Ferry Pudeto – Paine Grande

The ferry between Pudeto and Paine Grande is a small catamaran run by “Catamaran Hielos Patagonicos” (Patagonian Ice Catamaran).  The trip takes about half an hour.

Catamaran to go across Lake Pehoe to start of French Valley Hike
Ferry from Pudeto to Paine Grande Refugio
  • 9:00am (take this one for the full French Valley day hike)
  • 11:00am
  • 6:00pm
Ferry from Paine Grande Refugio to Pudeto
  • 9:30am
  • 11:30am
  • 6:30pm (this is your return boat if you did the full day hike)
Time schedule to leave from Pudeto to Refugio Paine Grande

The trip costs $50USD/ 30,000 pesos return ($30/ 20,000 pesos one-way).   There’s a ticket booth inside the boat that opens after the boat sails.  You need a ticket to get off the boat. 

The boat arrives right at the Lodge Paine Grande.

Catamaran used to cross Lake Pehoe

If you are doing the “W” hike, this is a popular place to stay.  Even if you don’t, you could choose to overnight here.

Paine Grande Refugio - start of French Valley Hike

The first part of the Valle de Frances, Torres del Paine hike: From Paine Grande Refugio to Camp Italiano

The first part of the hike is a 2.5-hour walk, 4.7 miles/ 7.6 km (from 9:45am to 12:15pm stopping frequently to take photos) to Campamento Italiano.  This is at the bottom of the middle part of the “W”.

The blue Lago Pehoe is soon left behind.

Start of French Valley HIke - view back to Refugio Paine Grande

It’s a very pleasant walk; the trail goes up and down fairly gentle hills. There are open areas, rolling hills.

View of Cuernos del Paine near start of French Valley HIke part of the W HIke

There are also bushes that are dotted with bright red flowers in November when I was there.   The Cuernos del Paine tower in front.  There is a small stream at one point that we crossed over a tiny wooden bridge.

Lake Skottsberg on French Valley Hike

There are sensational views of Skőttsverg Lake with the Cuernos del Paine behind it.  The trail skirts around the lake through a forest of dead trees.

Lake Skottsberg and Cuernos del Paine on French Valley Hike

And more red flowers.

Lake Skottsberg and Cuernos del Paine on French Valley Hike

And more dead trees.  Did I mention I took a lot of photos? But how crazy beautiful is this?

View of Cuernos del Paine on French Valley Hike

This section of the trail ends at a footbridge over a river, the Rio de Frances.

First view of French Valley

The river bed is pebbly, and there are views of the cliffs behind Glacier Frances that are even better as you go into the valley.

Bridge across river on French Valley HIke

If you are there in peak season, you may need to wait to cross the river, as only one person can cross at a time.  (Something to keep in mind for your way back).

Sign for bridge on French Valley Hike

The second part of the French Valley hike: Up Valle de Frances from Camp Italiano to Mirador Valle de Frances

The second part of the hike is 1 hour and 15 minutes (about 1.3 miles/ 2 km from Campamento Italiano) (12:15pm – 1:30pm) up French Valley from Campamento Italiano to the Valles Del Frances Mirador.

River and French Glacier

The Italian Campground is across the river.  This is another popular place to camp.

French Valley Hike_sign

The campsites are scattered among the trees.

French Valley Hike_sign
French Valley Hike_near Italiano campsite

The trail goes alongside the river.

French Valley HIke trail by river at start of valley

Through the woods.

Trail in woods French Valley HIke

After about 20 minutes of uphill walking, you will arrive at Mirador Glacier del Frances (French Glacier Lookout), where there are your first uninterrupted views of the glacier.   Stop and take photos, but it gets even better.

French Valley Hike sign

The next section is more uphill.  It’s pretty steep here, so take it slow.  If you aren’t very fit (or even if you are), this can be hard going.  Take it slow.

This section ends at Mirador Frances Valley (French Valley Lookout).

Note that on the sign, the end of the valley is scratched out where it says “Mirador Valle del Frances”.  The place marked “Usted este aqui” (You are Here) is the Mirador Valle del Frances.  The end of the valley is actually Mirador Brittanico.

Mirador Frances

From here, there are incredible views of the glacier, the valley, the Cuernos and turquoise lakes, Lago Pehoe and Lago Nordenskjold.

French Glacier

The lookout is spread along a ridge with sensational views of the entire surrounding area.

Panorama French Valley Hike

Don’t stop at the beginning of the ridge – it is worth going another couple of minutes for even better views.

Frances Valley sign

It is common to hear loud cracks as the glacier calves.  If you hear a loud noise, look up to see broken chunks of glacial ice cascading down the slope in a spray of ice and snow.  Very cool!

French Glacier French Valley Hike

The views of the lakes almost get overshadowed by the mountains, but they are just as incredible.

View of lake on French Valley HIke

The third part of the French Valley day hike: From French Valle Lookout back to Paine Grande (and the boat back to Pudeto)

The trail continues uphill to Mirador Brittanico, but we turned back, as we didn’t want to rush too much.  If you are doing the French Valley day hike, this is the furthest recommended place.  Going to the end of the valley is too far to get back in time for the last boat back to Pudeto.

If you are on the “W” hike, you could continue even further uphill to the end of the valley (it’s a very steep uphill scramble over rocks).  It is a total of 4.7 miles 7.5 km from Campamento Italiano to the end of the valley (each way): 2.5 hours/ 5.5 km to Campamento Brittanico then 0.5 hours/ 2 km to the final lookout at the far end of the Valle de Frances.

French Valley Hike furthest point I went to

It’s another 6 miles back, of course.

Waiting for catamaran at end of French Valley hike

We took our time going back – the weather had gotten even better and the views of the Cuernos del Paine behind us were nothing short of spectacular, so I stopped and turned around a lot.

Final view near catamaran pier

I got back to Paine Grande Refugio about 5:45pm.  This was enough time to go to the loo and get some more water to drink at the refugio before the 6:30pm ferry back to Pudeto.

Catamaran ready to leave French Valley Hike

The verdict

TOTAL TC SCORE90
Authenticity of experience 19
Quality of interaction with culture/ environment 19
Engagement level 20
Enjoyment18
Difficulty to arrange14

PRACTICAL TIPS: Valle de Frances Day Hike

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French Valley day hike distance

The French Valley day hike from Paine Grande to the French Valley lookout is 12 miles/ 19km round trip.  The first and last parts are about 4.5 miles each way.  When I was heading out, I thought this was pretty flat, but on the return leg, I realized it was actually quite a bit hillier than I had initially thought.  The last mile or so was pretty tough and I was definitely ready to be done.

The actual French Valley hike from Campamento Italiano to the final lookout after Campamento Brittanico is 4.7 miles/ 7.5 km EACH WAY, so this is too far to do all this in a day trip that includes the ferry.  I went as far the as the Valle de Frances Mirador (Lookout) – a bit over an hour (1.3 miles/ 2 km) each way from Campamento Italiano.

French Valley day hike difficulty

The hike is strenuous.  The hike up the French Valley is uphill the entire way.  The leg between Paine Grande and the valley is rolling hills, but you will notice the ups and downs on the way back!

French Valley, Torres del Paine elevation

Start of hike: 121 feet/ 37 meters
Lago Skottsberg:  351 feet/ 107 meters
Campamento Italiano:  748 feet/ 228 meters
Valle del Frances:  1,814 feet/ 553 meters
Total Elevation Change: 1,693 feet/ 516 meters

French Valley Torres del Paine Map

French Valley Hike Map

How to get to Torres del Paine National Park

There are two main gateway cities to Torres del Paine – Santiago on Chile (read about a food tour and winery tour here) and Buenos Aires in Argentina (where you have to see tango – read about it here!).

You can fly from Santiago to Puerto Natales and drive or get a bus from there, or fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate and drive or take a bus from there.

Compare prices on flights with Skyscanner

How to get to Pudeto for the French Valley hike

There are buses from Puerto Natales to Pudeto, but they get to Pudeto at 10:00am, which misses the first boat to Paine Grande.  So for the full day hike up French Valley, you will need a rental car.  You can rent a car at most major towns, including Puerto Natales.  Rent a car here.

Note that there is no gas/ petrol for sale in the national park, so top up your tank in Puerto Natales and consider taking a canister with additional fuel if you plan to drive much.  Try to limit driving to the essentials.  We filled up in Puerto Natales, then drove in the south entrance and made our way north, then drove out the north entrance a week later with gas to spare.

Cuernos del Paine last view

Where to stay in Torres del Paine for the French Valley day hike

There are several hotels in and near Torres del Paine National Park that are close enough for easy access to the Pudeto Ferry for the day hike. Puerto Natales is possible, but makes a long day, so I would recommend staying closer. The best options are those in the central area of the park. The closest are Hosteria Pehoe, Pehoe Camping and the Explora Patagonia Hotel Salto Chico. However, hotels to the north (Torres region) and south (Rio Serrano region) are also viable options.

Hotel Salto Chico
Explora Patagonia Hotel Salto Chico

For a complete guide to ALL of the hotels in Tores del Paine and nearby, check out my guide on Where to Stay in Torres del Paine.

Hosteria Pehoe
Hosteria Pehoe

Best time to hike the French Valley

The weather in Torres del Paine changes frequently.  Chances are fairly small that you will have great weather the entire you are there, which makes this a bit of a crap shoot.  We met someone who had hiked the French Valley a couple of days before us in sleet and hail and had seen absolutely nothing and was utterly miserable.  We went on a gorgeous sunny day and the views were absolutely incredible.  So definitely try to choose a good weather day if you can.  Otherwise, it’s really not worth it.

The best time to visit Torres del Paine in general is late spring.  The snow has mostly melted, the flowers are in full bloom and things are not too crowded.  However, it can be visited in Spring, summer or fall (winter is also possible, but not the French valley hike).
·   Spring (September – November): Mostly clear skies; warm days and cold nights, wildflowers in bloom, not TOO crowded
·   Summer (December – March): Mostly clear skies, high season with the most visitors.  Warm days, but nights can still be cold (it snowed near the Torres del Paine on Christmas Day when I visited the first time).
·   Fall (March – June): Fall color is beautiful, fewer visitors, but cold weather.

Planning and packing for Torres del Paine

There is so much to see in Patagonia, you will want to plan your trip carefully.  I used the Lonely Planet and Moon travel guides, in addition to the Internet.  Buy the Chile Lonely Planet here and buy Moon’s Patagonia guidebook here.

When you are ready for your trip, check out my Essential Packing List.

Where is the French Valley, Torres del Paine and what is the currency?

Torres del Paine is in Chile.  The currency is the Chilean peso (which is different from the Argentinean peso).  The symbol for pesos is the same as for dollars – $

Check out the current exchange rate here.

Visa requirements for Chile

Check visa requirements for Chile here long before you plan to travel in case you need to get a visa.

Additional consideration: Travel Insurance

You need travel insurance, especially when you are hiking.  Check out  World Nomads.  You can book it right here.   Unlike many insurances, it covers a range of adventure sports and activities (check their website here).  But double check to make sure that it covers emergency repatriation so that you can be rescued and taken to hospital if you need to be.  Just in case.


Happy hiking!

Do you have any stories of Patagonia ? I’d love to hear them. Comment below. 

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About the author

About the author James Ian at Travel Collecting

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