Torres del Paine is without a doubt one of the most recognizable and admired destinations in Patagonia. It is also undeniably among Patagonia’s best landscape photography locations. With its iconic peaks, world-famous hikes, and stunning views, there is a lot to explore and photograph. However, one place that really impressed me in Torres del Paine is the French Valley hike. Heading deep into the national park, it is definitely a long and demanding trail. But those up for the challenge will be rewarded with some of the most remarkable vistas in Torres del Paine.
Valle Frances (the French Valley) is a beautiful valley located on the southern side of the Cordillera Paine mountain group. The vale splits the range in between the peak of Cerro Paine Grande to the west and the Cuernos to the east. The hike through the French Valley is part of the famous Patagonian multi-day trail W-Trek. Most people would normally attempt it on their third day into the W-Trek.
The route takes you through the beautiful forests and mountains, terminating at Mirador Británico – its highest viewpoint. The viewpoint signifies both the end of the valley and the middle tip of the W-letter the W-Trek is named after. The visitors then retrace their steps to camping Italiano and continue to either Paine Grande or camping Frances, depending on the direction they do the W-Trek.
French Valley As a Day Hike
Fortunately, the French Valley can also be explored as a standalone day trip from Torres del Paine or Puerto Natales. This is a perfect option for anyone interested in landscape photography or seeing more of the park but not too keen on completing the W-Trek. The logistics become a little more involved, however.
As a first step, you will have to get to the Pudeto Station within the national park. You can do so by bus (it is a frequent stop for various lines) or, if you have a car, simply drive there. From Pudeto, a boat will take you across Lake Pehoe to the Paine Grande station where the hike begins. From here, you need to make your way to camping Italiano and then further into the French Valley. After completing the climb, you return the same way and catch the catamaran back.
This makes the journey significantly longer compared to when doing it as part of the W-Trek. Mirador Británico is 13 kilometers from Paine Grande. With a return hike, you are looking at a whopping 26 km distance to cover in a single day. And because you want to make it to the last boat, you are on the clock too.
Planning Your Trip
At the moment of writing, all the necessary schedules can be found here. The earliest bus to Torres del Paine leaves Puerto Natales at 7 am, arriving in Pudeto around 10:30. If you go with an 11 am catamaran, you should start the hike at approximately 11:30. With the last boat departing from Paine Grande at 6.35 pm, that leaves you about 7.5 hours to complete the French Valley hike.
If you have a car, you can save some time by taking the 9 am catamaran instead. This brings you to the trail by 9:30, allowing you to do it in a much more relaxed manner. You have a long hike ahead of you, so those two extra hours will surely come in handy. Even so, making it all the way to Mirador Británico and back will be a tough undertaking.
That is why most visitors coming for a day trip only venture as far as the viewpoint Valle del Francés (9.5 kilometers from Paine Grande). This is deep enough into the valley to see most of its highlights and capture some marvelous views. Meanwhile, 19 km is a more reasonable distance than 26 km. You can take lots of photos and actually enjoy the experience rather than just rush to the destination. Unless you are an experienced and fast hiker, this is what I would suggest aiming for.
Sunset Obsession Photography Guide to Patagonia
In my Landscape Photography guide to Patagonia, I have included an entire section devoted entirely to French Valley. There, I go into subtle details about each and every shot and photo location along the route. You will get tons of useful information and examples to help you plan the trip more efficiently.
Annoyingly, it is not possible to purchase or reserve the tickets for Pudeto Catamaran in advance. You can only do so aboard. It is a relatively large ship, and there is usually enough room for everyone. But, just to be on the safe side, I suggest arriving slightly in advance.
The boat ticket costs 23,000 pesos (approximately $32) per person one way. A pure robbery, if you ask me. Throw in the bus ticket or hotel transfer, and seeing French Valley starts to feel a little pricy. Not much to do about that, unfortunately. The only consolation I can offer is that it is still cheaper than the organized tours. Those follow the exact same route but charge two or three times more.
The tickets are sold during the sail at a small counter in the lower deck. I suggest buying them early on. Surely do not wait until the end of the journey, thinking you can slip off the boat unnoticed. You will have to show the ticket to disembark. When those who hoped for a free-ride realize it, they rush to the counter, forming a huge line. You don’t want to get stuck in it, losing precious minutes. Just bite the bullet, purchase the pass and enjoy the rest of the ride. Important: you can only pay with cash! Make sure you have enough of it to avoid getting into a rather awkward situation.
The cruise across lake Pehoe lasts less than 30 minutes, and the landscapes are fabulous throughout. As the ship hits the open waters, you will be treated to a lovely view of the Cuernos peaks. It is a gorgeous sight indeed and the first sign of the things yet to come.
Paine Grande to Camping Italiano
The French Valley day hike can be largely divided into two distinct sections. The first one is from the Paine Grande station to Camping Italiano. The second – from there to Mirador Valle del Francés (or Mirador Británico if that’s your target).
The initial stretch is the longer but also easier of the two. At 7.6 km long, it is mostly flat with only 155 vertical meters. There are a couple of minor inclines that shouldn’t be an issue for most people. The path takes you through breathtaking Patagonian landscapes towards lake Skottsberg. After passing a haunted-looking forest of dead trees, you begin a moderate ascent towards camping Italiano.
There are both muddy and rocky sections, but mostly the trail is easy to follow. You can almost think of it as a leisurely stroll through the charming Patagonian wilderness. There are plenty of opportunities for landscape photography, especially if you are lucky with the weather. Then again, it is Patagonia, and the sun can change to rain in a matter of minutes. So you will likely be able to take photos in a variety of different conditions.
Italiano is a very basic campsite with the bare minimum of amenities. It is not recommended or equipped for an overnight stay and thus cannot even be officially reserved. Some folks still camp there, but for most, it is merely a place to catch some breath and leave the heavy backpacks while hiking the French Valley.
The French Valley
From here on, the path gets steeper and more difficult. Over the remaining 1.9 km, you will gain another 160 m in elevation. The terrain becomes rocky and uneven, making it harder to negotiate. Good hiking boots and stamina are definitely advisable.
Officially, Torres del Paine authorities estimate close to 1.5 hours to climb to the viewpoint. We did it somewhat faster, but it’s a good target to have in mind. Also, the route through the French Valley officially closes at 3 pm. That shouldn’t generally be a problem, but if you are a photographer hoping for a sunset shot, that’s something to consider.
Difficulty-wise, I believe this section is still very doable for almost anybody who is reasonably fit and agile. For some reference, it is far less demanding than the neighboring hike to Base las Torres or Fitz Roy in Argentina. That said, for older people, it may turn out quite challenging. Personally, I wouldn’t call it strenuous, but you have to understand your own abilities and decide for yourself.
What I can say for certain is that the views are absolutely striking. As you get deeper into French Valley, you will witness all sorts of stunning landscapes. There are waterfalls, there are glaciers and mountains, but above all, there are incredible panoramas of both Cuernos and the hills and lakes of Torres del Paine to the south.
I sincerely hope that as you reach Mirador Valle del Francés you still have a bit of time left. Because honestly, this is not a view to glance over and rush back. Have a seat and allow yourself to enjoy and admire it the way it undoubtedly deserves.
A Hike to Remember
Our adventure started at 9am in Pudeto, and by 5.50pm, we were back at Paine Grande, exhausted, but happy. We made it to the Valle del Francés viewpoint and took plenty of pictures. With 45 minutes remaining until the last departure, we even had enough time to sip a beer in the station cafe to celebrate our achievement. And I hope you will too.
It is no accident that many consider the French Valley their favorite part of the W-Trek. It is truly a kaleidoscope of extraordinary Patagonian views, incredible nature, and endless photo opportunities. Whether you are a landscape photographer or a more casual explorer, French Valley is an area I think you need to see with your own eyes. Believe me, you will not regret it.
Below, I include a shortlist of the most important things to know about the French Valley. Other than that, I hope you enjoyed the article. If you are a passionate photographer interested in photo locations around Patagonia, be sure to check out my guide. In it, I give various tips and advice for landscape photography in this wonderful region.
I also have other articles about Patagonia that you might find useful and even a YouTube series about the region. One of the videos there is specifically about the French Valley. Other than that, come and say “Hi” on Instagram or Facebook, and I hope to see you again soon!
French Valley Day Hike Packing List
Here is a quick list of the things to remember when venturing into the French Valley:
- Total distance: 19-26 km, depending on how far you go.
- Total time required: 7-9 hours of walking plus commute
- Difficulty: moderate to demanding.
- Clothes: wear layers. The weather in Patagonia can change rapidly. I recommend a rain jacket and waterproof pants. Even when it’s sunny, light rain is very likely in Torres del Paine at some point.
- Shoes: comfortable shoes are a must. Don’t put on new boots, wear something you fully trust.
- Other items to consider: sunscreen and sunglasses, a hat, (optional) hiking poles, cash for the boat tickets and snacks at the Paine Grande cafe
- Provisions: bring food and some water. Don’t pack a ton of water – spring water in Patagonia is perfectly drinkable, and you will have plenty of opportunities to refill.
- For landscape photographers – pack a camera and an all-around versatile zoom such as 24-105. It’s a long hike, so try to not bring additional lenses. Same with the tripod. The only thing you might want it for is the occasional water streams. Personally, I wouldn’t carry extra weight just for those.