Torres del Paine National Park encompasses mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers located in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region of southern Chile. The park is named after the three iconic granite spires that rise out of the heart of the Paine Massif. Few places on Earth tell their geological story more clearly than the bare, vertical cliffs of these mountains, with a layer of pale gray granite sandwiched between dark rocks of sedimentary stratum. Typically glaciers grind away any sedimentary rocks leaving only the granite, but in this case, there is still a clear layer of sedimentary rock at the top. Please click on the link below for a good description of the geological forces that created the Paine Massif.
The most famous hiking trails in the park, the W Trek and Paine Circuit, draw more than 250,000 visitors a year from Chile and abroad. Due to time constraints, we chose to hike the Short W Trek which is a 5-day version of the typical 7-day trek. We would be joining up with 10 or so other hikers for this W Trek.
EcoCamp Patagonia is located in the heart of Torres del Paine with views of the majestic granite towers and surrounding mountains. EcoCamp is the region’s first sustainable lodge with upscale camping in domes. It is a one-of-a kind experience especially since we booked a 'suite' dome which included comfortable twin beds, a wood stove, electricity, and a private bathroom. Here are a few pictures of our dome and EcoCamp.
The walk each day from our dome to the central complex.
The central dome complex where the restaurant and bar were located.
The route for our W Trek.
Day 2: French Valley (15 miles)
After a hardy breakfast at EcoCamp, we drove to Pudeto dock, boarded a catamaran to cross Lago Pehoe and began the first leg of the W trek.
As soon as we departed the catamaran, we were greeted with amazing views of Paine Grande, the tallest mountain in Torres del Paine.
The first few miles of the trail is through mixed grasslands that hug the shores of the lakes. As we got closer to the valley entrance, the trail entered a light forest with evidence of a recent fire.
Stopping at a stream to fill up water bottles. Although the guide told us the water was safe to drink we decided not to test his statement.
About 4.5 miles into the hike, we approached the hanging bridge over the French River marking the start of the French Valley. Lots of confidence in the integrity of the bridge after reading the warning sign! Look how 'relaxed and excited' Dave looks.
To the west were the Cordillera Paine mountains. It was difficult not to focus solely on these mountains as they came into view.
But just as amazing were the views of the opposite side of the valley. We began to appreciate the massive size of Cuerno Norte and Cuerno Central. This group of spiky granite peaks are collectively referred to as Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), all of which stand at over 6500 feet high.
Finally to the south and directly behind us was the startling blue of Lago Nordenskjold. Now is the time, to explain that 'Paine' means 'blue' in the native Tehuelche language; it's easy to understand how they came up with the name for this national park.
These 3 views help to explain why many people consider the French Valley the most scenic portion of the W trek.
The spiky granite peaks of Cuernos del Paine are even more impressive up close. The sheer walls of yellowish granite capped by reddish-brown sedimentary rock.
Full view of the hanging French Glacier and Paine Grande, the tallest mountain in Torres del Paine with an elevation of approximately 9460 feet.
Even though the weather seemed to be turning for the worst, our group decided to continue hiking higher to the mirador (lookout).
Finally, after hiking almost 8 miles of which 3.5 miles were in the French Valley, we reached the mirador and the stopping point for this hike. It was really windy, so we stayed just long enough to admire the views and then we walked down a short distance to stop longer and take in the views.
Los Cuernos del Paine from the mirador.
A close up picture of the glacier clinging to the mountain.
Just as we started to hike back, there was an incredibly loud bang and cracking sound. We turned around quickly enough to catch an avalanche caused by ice calving from the upper glacier. What a way to start our trek out of the valley.
It was a long walk to Refugio Paine Grande where we spent the night. Here's our final look back at the French Valley. What a great day of hiking!