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The hike to the French Valley in Torres del Paine National Park is a scenic route that takes in plenty of quintessential Patagonia scenery, from glacier-fed turquoise lakes to distinctive mountain peaks.
Valle del Frances, as it’s known locally, is home to the French Glacier (Glaciar Frances) and several points for admiring Cerro Paine Grande, the highest summit of the Cordillera Paine mountain range.
While the mountains and glaciers of Torres del Paine’s French Valley are a highlight, the hike to get there is just as beautiful.
About the French Valley Hike in Torres del Paine National Park
The French Valley (Valle del Frances) makes up the central arm of Torres del Paine’s famous W Trek. A portion of it, along with the western connector trail, can be done as a day hike if you don’t want to do the full W.
To experience the French Valley on a day hike, you need to take a ferry to the trailhead. Having to adhere to its schedule creates some time constraints, but most people should be able to make it to Mirador Valle del Frances (or close) without too much worry of missing the ferry.
The first segment of the French Valley day hike passes through rolling hills and along the shore of Lago Skottsberg before arriving at the French Valley. The trail then continues towards the French Glacier and Mirador Valle del Frances, a little less than half way into the valley. Mirador Valle del Frances (also called Mirador Frances) is the recommended place to turn around on the French Valley day hike, but the trail doesn’t terminate until Mirador Britanico.
The French Valley day hike to Mirador Frances in Torres del Paine is a little over 18.5 km/11.5 mi round trip and takes about 7- 8 hours to complete. It’s rated moderate and has an elevation gain of 549 m/1801 ft.
The French Valley Day Hike- Our Experience Hiking to Mirador Frances
The French Valley hike was the second segment we tackled in our attempt to hike much of the W Trek as day trips.
Our day hike to the French Valley started with a ferry ride across Lago Pehoe from Cafeteria Pudeto to the Paine Grande refugio, where the trailhead is.
The 30 minute boat trip offered fantastic views of some of Torres del Paine’s most notable peaks, including the unique Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns) and the glacier-covered Cerro Paine Grande. It was a stunning introduction to the two mountains that are prominently featured on the French Valley hike.
After we arrived at Paine Grande, we eagerly set out on the trail heading east towards the Paine Grande ranger station. We were prepared to show our park pass at the ranger booth, but no one was there to check it so we continued on.
After the ranger station there was an intersection with a sign directing us to continue east along the shore of Lago Pehoe. This path would eventually take us to the Italian Camp (Campamento Italiano), at the entrance to the French Valley.
As the trail gradually gained elevation we had wonderful views of the vibrant turquoise water of Lago Pehoe. We’ve seen a lot of glacier-fed lakes at home in Canada, but that striking colour never gets old!
After Lago Pehoe, the trail carried on across rolling hills covered in golden grass and green shrubs, delivering us to some beautiful mountain views.
As we proceeded towards Lago Skottsberg, Torres del Paine’s famous horns were ahead of us making quite the impression. The brown tips of the peaks inspired me to nickname Cuernos del Paine the “chocolate-dipped mountain”.
The trail continued to gain visual interest as it approached Lago Skottsberg, another photogenic lake. We crossed over small streams, saw bright red flowers, gazed up at snow nestled on a mountain top, and passed by some twisty, barren trees rising up from the bushes.
There were many stops for photos, but after an hour and ten minutes of hiking we made it to Mirador Lago Skottsberg. From this lakeside viewpoint we could gaze across at Cuernos del Paine as we sat on the rocks and enjoyed a snack.
The next leg of the trail followed along the shore of Lago Skottsberg before arriving at a small “forest” of dead trees. It was an interesting change of scenery to be surrounded by these narrow, white trunks and their thin, crooked branches. The scenery was haunting in a way, making it one of my favourite parts of the trail from Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano.
The closer we got to Valle del Frances the better the views became of Cerro Paine Grande and the French Glacier gliding down its slope. One of my favourite scenes from our French Valley hike was of the rocky river bed leading towards the snow-covered mountain.
Just before the Italian Camp we had to cross over the Rio Frances via a rickety old suspension bridge that could only handle one person at a time. If the trail is busy, you may need to wait to cross the river. From the bridge, there is another fantastic view of Cerro Paine Grande and the French Glacier with Rio Frances in the foreground.
Campamento Italiano, on the other side of the river, marks the start of the French Valley and second part of this hike. This last leg is more difficult than the first because the trail is much steeper and very rocky with boulders to maneuver around.
Soon after leaving the Italian Camp (about 0.5 km), the trail emerges from the forest and opens up to a rock-covered slope with uninterrupted views of the French Glacier.
Mirador Glaciar del Frances is a great place to sit and enjoy the scenery if you don’t want to hike all the way to Mirador Valle del Frances. I thought the views were just as good as at the higher lookout. Mike opted to wait here while I quickly hiked to Mirador Frances and back.
From this point on, the trail gets even steeper and terrain more challenging. Since the landscape was covered in rock, the path itself was not always obvious, but the route was marked fairly well with orange arrow signs and red circles painted on rocks.
As I traversed across the rock-strewn landscape, I remained captivated by the French Glacier and valley surrounding me. Once the trail re-entered into the forest, I was eager to get to the viewpoint so I could see the glacier again.
The final approach to Mirador Frances was the steepest part of the trail. I didn’t want to rush too much and risk slipping and falling on the rock, but still managed to make great time, arriving at Mirador Valle del Frances an hour after leaving the Italian Camp.
At Mirador Frances there were close up views of the French Glacier and a beautiful panorama of the valley and surrounding area. Off in the distance I could see the Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold.
The glacier was quite active and every so often I’d hear a loud crack followed by a piece of ice tumbling down from the mountain. Mike was even able to witness the glacier calving from the lower lookout at Mirador Glaciar del Frances.
I didn’t hike any further past Mirador Frances, since continuing to the end of the valley was a 4.5 km steep hike over rocks. Tacking on approximately 2 more hours one way (1.5 hrs to Campamento Britanico then 0.5 hrs to Mirador Britanico), would have made us miss the last ferry back to Pudeto. For that reason, we don’t recommend going past Mirador Valle del Frances if doing the French Valley day hike.
The return hike to the Paine Grande refugio was on the same trail we came in on. It was nice to be able to take our time and enjoy the scenery from a different perspective.
We arrived back at the trailhead at 5:30 pm, which gave us enough time to use the bathroom and have a snack before the 6:30 pm ferry to Pudeto, where we parked our car.
Final Thoughts About the French Valley Day Hike
The French Valley hike just might be our favourite day hike in Torres del Paine National Park.
The trail was continuously beautiful (no dull sections as far as scenery goes) and there was a high reward to effort ratio, especially in regards to the section between the trailhead and Campamento Italiano.
We liked that the French Valley day hike could be done at a relaxed pace without worry of missing the last ferry (unlike the Grey Glacier hike). There was only one strenuous section at the end, which I felt could be skipped without missing out on too much. For the effort involved hiking up such a steep, rocky trail to Mirador Frances, I was expecting significantly different/better views compared to the lower viewpoint.
Another reason we liked the French Valley hike was because the trail was only moderately trafficked and far less busy than the more famous hike to Mirador Las Torres.
Pleasant hiking conditions mixed with a variety of attractive scenery make the French Valley hike a must-do when in Torres del Paine National Park.
Pictures of the Valle del Frances Hike
Here are some more photos of our hike to the French Glacier in Torres del Paine’s French Valley.
French Valley Hike Guide- Tips for Hiking to Mirador Frances
Trail Details: Here is some more information about the trail to Mirador Frances so you can prepare for your hike.
- Type of Trail- Out and back
- Start and Finish Points- Paine Grande refugio
- Distance- 18.5 kilometres/11.5 miles
- Elevation Gain- 549 metres/1801 feet
- Difficulty- Moderate (with one hard section)
- Time Required- 7- 8 hours
According to my GPS recording, the French Valley day hike took us 7 hours and 21 minutes at an average speed of 2.5 km/hr. We walked for 6 hr 23 min and rested for 58 min. Our average moving speed on the trail was 2.9 km/hr (max of 5.2 km/hr) and our pace was 23.35 min/km. It’s important to keep track of your pace so that you know where/when to turn around in order to make it back in time for the last ferry.
Best Time to Hike: The best time to do the French Valley hike in Torres del Paine National Park is in summer (December to February) because of the warmer temperatures and long daylight hours.
Getting to the Trailhead: The French Valley hike starts on the west side of Lago Pehoe in the centre of the park.
- To get to the trailhead at the Paine Grande refugio, you will need to take a 30 minute ferry ride across Lago Pehoe. The boat leaves from the dock behind Cafeteria Pudeto.
- The ferry schedule changes throughout the year and an up to date itinerary and rates can be found here. To hike the French Valley as a day trip, plan to catch the earliest ferry leaving Pudeto in the morning (9:00 am in high season) and the latest one leaving Paine Grande in the evening (6:35 pm in high season).
- Ferry tickets are paid for with cash once you’re on the boat. The ferry’s website gives prices in U.S. dollars for foreigners but we were able to pay in Chilean pesos. I suggest coming prepared with both currencies, just in case.
- The first and last ferries of the day are the most popular and people start lining up before the departure time, so it’s best to arrive early.
Park Pass: You must have a park pass to hike the French Valley and there are ranger stations where you could be asked to show it. Buy your park pass at one of the park gates and make sure to bring it with you on the hike.
Facilities: There are public washrooms at Paine Grande and an outhouse at the Italian Camp. Paine Grande is the only spot where you can buy food and drinks. There are streams along the trail where you can fill your water bottle up if you want.
Gear/What to Bring: You will need proper hiking shoes because the trail is rocky and uneven in places. Hiking poles came in handy for the ascent and descent from Mirador Frances.
- Dress in layers because the weather in the mountains can change quickly. Patagonia is notorious for its strong winds, so keep that in mind when deciding what clothing to bring.
- Bring enough food and water to last the day.
- There are large portions of trail without shade so wear sun protection.
Safety: Take your time when navigating the rocky trail in the French Valley.
Information was correct at the time of publishing, but can change without notice. Please confirm directly with service providers.
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