Torres del Paine French Valley
The French Valley (Valle Francés) is located in the hearth of Paine Massif and is probably the most beautiful valley of Torres del Paine National Park. It's a classical example glacial valley with the steep and sheer walls of the Horns and Bader's peaks on the east, while on the west the imposing figure of Cerro Paine Grande, highest peak in the park. The glacial trough is 1,5 to 4km wide and approximately 8km long having at its end an incredible glacial cirque wich can be observed only when reaching the British lookout (mirador Britanico).
French Valley can be hiked entirely while trekking Torres del Paine W Trek or by organizing a day hike if you're hotel-based inside the national park or in Puerto Natales during your traveling in Patagonia.
History of the French Valley
The First Settlers
During the late decades of XIX century the province of Ultima Esperanza started to experience the arrival of the first settlers who were mainly european immigrants looking for fortune and a new life. While the first wave of Germans, English and Spaniards took the lands near the fjord of Last Hope, those who arrived a little later found nothing left except the areas around the big lakes and rugged valleys of Paine Mountains; among them there was a French colonist, Adrian Bader. Bader settled on the northern shore of Nordenskjold lake, at the foot of Cuernos del Paine and the head of a broad and lush valley; in the area he begun to be known as the French man and therefore the valley where he had settled became known as the French Valley!
Becoming a National Park
Originally the lands nearby the mountains and lakes had been given to the first pioneers in concession from the governement; typically state concessions lasted 20 to 25 years and if in some cases were renovated to the same concessionaire as the mid XX century approached the governement begun the creation of what it is nowadays Torres del Paine National Park. Starting from 1959 the area managed by chileans Santos brothers which encompassed Pehoe lake northern and southern shores was converted into the first attempt of a National Park. From that year onwards step by step the protected area got bigger and bigger encompassing the French Valley in it and reaching the actual size as last as 1977 with count Guido Monzino donation to the state of estancia Rio Paine.
It's worth mentioning that a man provoked fire burned more than 17.000 hectares of the park between 2011/12 affecting part of the trail that connects Paine Grande with campamento italiano and if you approach the French valley from there you're going to notice and feel the sad effetcs of this dramatic event.
Hiking the French Valley
Given its location in the middle of Torres del Paine National Park the French Valley is accessible via two differnt paths. You can approach it from the east via the trail that follows Nordenskjold lake northern shoreline or if you decide to come from the west a trail from CONAF rangers station Guarderia Pehoe leads you to the head of the valley, Campamento Italiano. Either way this is a place not to be missed during your trip to Patagonia.
French Valley as part of the W-Trek
Walking with us our Torres del Paine W-Trek program means getting to the French Valley during our third day. Whether we stay at Los Cuernos mountain lodge or at the French Domes, we are going to walk from east to west along Nordenskjold lake till reaching campamento italiano. The hike to italiano takes approximately 2,5 hours from Los Cuernos and 30/40 minutes from the French Domes/Campsite. Campamento italiano is a basic campground with only toilette pits and a small shelter hut; however it becomes strategical for us since we can leave part of our equipment here thus continuing our hike to the valley with less weight.
From italiano to the French lookout (sometimes we call it the French Plateau) takes about 60/70 minutes; covering in this first 1,5km stretch most of the elevation climb of the French valley. In fact if you decide to continue further towards the British lookout you'll still have to cover other 4km (approx one and a half hour) of which most of them are ondulated and done inside a beautiful native forest. If the weather and visibility is good it's worth hiking this extra distance since the view of the glacial cirque amphiteater is stunning, otherwise getting to the French lookout would be sufficient.
French Valley as a Day Hike
In case you decide to visit the French Valley on a day hike you'll have to make a round trip from to CONAF rangers station guarderia Pehoe which is located near Paine Grande mountain lodge and can be reached by taking a 30 minutes catamaran ride across Pehoe lake. The trail which connects Paine Grande with campamento italiano is the easiest of Paine Massif trails; it stretches for 7,5km bordering turquoise-colour Pehoe lake and the blue-cobalt-colour Skottsberg lake leading you to the foot of Cuerno Principal. It takes approximately 2 to 2,5 hours to cover this section; once you reach campamento italiano then you can start the second part up to the French lookout. Take into account that you need to check the catamaran's schedule in order to get onto the last boat ride for the afternoon, giving a regular hiking pace this allows to get as far as the French lookout.
So far there is only one trail connecting Paine Grande with Italiano, however park rangers have been working in the last couple of years on a new alternative which runs on the easter shores of Skottsberg lake. When this new trail will become official there will be an opportunity for an interesting circular route. We'll keep you updated on that!!
Andean Fox (Lycalopex culpeus)
The Mountain Fox or Andean Fox is one of the two species of the genus Lycalopex that can be found in Torres del Paine National Park, being the smaller cousin, the Grey Fox or Pampa Fox, more common in the neighbouring areas of the park.
The Andean Fox is the second largest hunter in Torres del Paine, commonly being an opportunistic predator, its diet is based on hares, rabbits, small rodents and birds as well as wild berries such us chaura and murtilla. It is in fact quite common to observe in the feces of the Andean fox remains of those berries. Many times these animals have been seen patrolling the trails between French and Italiano Campsite and roaming around them looking for the leftovers of the trekkers; nonetheless the upper French valley is a great area to spot these animals during spring and summer.
Huemul Deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus)
For somebody the Huemul can be just "a deer" atlhough it's something more than that. This skittish and Critically endangered Andean deer has seen in the last century its population wiped due to hunting activity, desease from livestock and loss of habitat; therefore a sight of this wary herbivore has to be taken as something special.
Huemul's habitat is the native Nothofagus forest, thus a close encounter with them can be possible in the quiteness of our off-the-beaten-track programs especially aorund Pingo valley in the western sector of Torres del Paine. However in the last couple of years sights of this elusive animal has become increasingly frequent in the upper French valley where huemul can roam freely in this beautiful native woods.
Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus)
The Magellanic woodpecker is the largest of the genus Campephilus and among the biggest of the world. It's endemic of the Southern hemisphere living in southern Chile and southwestern Argentina in which it's a permanent resident of its natural habitat, the Nothofagus forest.
Feeding on wood-boring grubs and beetles this species of woodpecker is normally spotted in pair or small family group. Sexual dimorphism allows to distinguish males, characterized by a bright crimson head and crest, from females which are mainly black with a small red spot under the bill. While walking the French valley forest stay alert from their typical loud vocalization sounds or their peaking noise on the trees.
Chimango caracara (Milvago chimango)
Known locally as Tiuque, this small bird of prey of the family Falconidae is very common thorughout the entier Southamerican continent. It's a very adaptable bird which can be found in the Patagonian steppe as well as at the edge of the forest normally closer to water courses.
Chimango caracara typically has a pale brown to cinnamon striped chest and a darker brown coloured head and back as well as feathers; bill is pale azure. It's quite an intelligent species that feeds on small vertebrates, insects as well as carrions, and use to live nearby settlements and humans. That's why it's quite easy to approach it and can commonly be spotted in campamento italiano as well as along the trail of Skottsberg lake.
Patagonian Sierra Finch (Phrygilus patagonicus)
An attractive and friendly bird, the Sierra Finch is actually a tanager found in wooded and humid forests and shrubland of Southern Chile and Argentina. Males are characterized by a distinctive golden back and breast with a grey hood, whereas females tend to be more paled coloured with a brownish head and back.
These birds are normally spotted in pair or small group actively foraging from on the ground or in the trees; their diet consist mainly of seeds, flowers nectar as well as insect. Commonly observed in the forest approaching campamento italiano as well as on the trail which ascents to the French lookout.
How to Get to Torres del Paine French Valley
During a trip to Patagonia there are two ways to reach Torres del Paine French valley and in both case you need to drive from Puerto Natales to the national park either by taking the nacional route 9 via Villa Cerro Castillo and later Y-150 or Y-156, or alternatively the provincial route Y-290 which grants you access to the park via Serrano entrance.
If you're trekking in Torres del Paine during more days and you're planning to follow itineraries such as the W-Trek or Patagonia Full Circuit then the French valley would be in your schedule. The easiest access to this multi-day programs is via public buses from Puerto Natales bus station to the main gate of Laguna Amarga, from which you can take an inbound shuttle to Torre Central and Camping Central facilities which are often use as starting point of the previously mentiones programs.
Torres del Paine Catamaran
If you're planning to hike the French valley as a day hike then you should drive early in the morning to Pudeto, located approx 100km (60 miles) from Puerto Natales or 25km from the southern entrance (Serrano) in case you're staying in the park for a night. In Pudeto you find a spot to park your car and get on the catamaran which brings you to the other side of Pehoe lake where you can start your hike to the French Valley.
The catamaran operates two to four times a day (depending on the season) with the earliest trip at 9:00am (Pudeto to Paine Grande) and the last one at 18:30 (Paine Grande to Pudeto). Tickets are sold on board, no need for reservation.
Pudeto can also be reached with the public buses, however it'll be later than the first catamaran trip, therefore we recomend if you decide to take this option to spend a night in one of the refugios or campsite of the park.
Accommodations in the French Valley
At the moment we're writing (August 2020) the only accommodation option in the French valley is the basic campground of campamento italiano managed by the park rangers. In the previous season a new area for camping was under construction at about less than 1km south from the actual spot, although it's still not clear who's going to manage it.
Regarding the possibility of setting up a tent at the campamento britanico located in the upper part of the valley, the place has been closed for the last three years for hikers and can only be used by rock climbers with a special permit.
Camping italiano Torres del Paine
Campamento italiano is located at the beginning of the French valley, connected with Paine Grande to the west (7,5km - 2,5hrs) and to Los Cuernos (5,5km - 2,5hrs) and further to Torre Central (17km - 7hrs) to east. Italiano is a basic campground runs by CONAF thus you'll need to carry your own equipment (tent, sleeping bag, matresses, etc..), where you find a couple of dry toilette pits and a quincho (wooden hut) to cook and prepare your meals.
Despite being free of charge it does require a reservation that you can make via this link: