Backpacking,  Camping,  Hiking,  Travel

Hiking the W Trek: A Recap

Earlier this year, we had the fortune of hiking the W trail in Torres del Paine over the course of 5 days and 4 nights. It was an incredible experience – many things went right, and some went humorously wrong. I hope you find this detailed day-to-day recap helpful for your own planning efforts!

Day 1: Entering the Park

Bright and early, we wake up at 5:30am to finish packing up and prepare to catch our taxi to the bus station. When we arrive at 6:30am, there’s a ton of activity from trekkers as many buses are scheduled for 7 – 7:15am. After a quick two hour ride, we arrive at the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park, also known as the Laguna Amarga stop. Everyone gets off the bus to check in with the rangers – this is where they will check your reservation confirmations before allowing you into the park.

Note: if you booked any of the CONAF camps online (as you most likely did, if you are reading this post), you will have already paid the entrance fee. So you can skip the line and find a ranger to instead quickly look at your entrance ticket and reservations, which you should have printed.

We re-board our bus (after making sure it’s the right one – there are at least 10 buses at the park entrance) and head on to Pudeto to catch the catamaran. Once we arrive, we find another line waiting for the 11am catamaran. Unfortunately, we miss the cut-off for the catamaran and have to wait two hours for the next one at 1pm.

Catamaran for Lago Pehoe

Lesson learned – we should have taken the 7am bus instead of 7:15am, those 15 minutes cost us two hours! We hunker down and snack while we get a sneak preview of the crazy winds Patagonia is known for. Once we board, it’s about a 40 minute ride to Paine Grande. We briefly venture to the top of the catamaran for dramatic views of the Paine Grande massif – this is the only time on the W you’ll get to see it in its full glory.

Above: Stormy view from behind the catamaran. We’ll be hiking through there soon enough!

Hiking to Glacier Grey

Once we land at Paine Grande, we’re eager to finally get started on our trek. We hike past the refugio and campsite dotted with colorful tents, onwards to Glacier Grey. The trail starts out by winding through a small valley with impressive views back towards Lago Pehoe. As we ascend and get within view of Lago Grey on our left, the winds start to pick up.

The Lago Grey area has its own special microclimate – wind literally lifts water up from the surface of the Lake and carries it over the trail, resulting in showers every 15 minutes or so. We eventually learn that this isn’t real rain and stop taking on.. and off… and on… our rain gear and simply leave it off.

Once we start descending into forested territory, we know we’re close to the refugio and campsite. After we arrive, we check in and pick out a campsite that is more sheltered in the trees. As cool as it looks out open in the meadow, we know that our tent will get crushed by winds overnight in that space.

We finish setting up camp, grab our daybacks and head out to hike to the first suspension bridge, about one hour north of the camp. Had we arrived earlier, we would have gone to the second bridge, but we still got a good view from the first one! We then head back to cook dinner in the camp kitchen and head to sleep.

View of Glacier Grey from Suspension Bridge

Day 2: Glacier Grey to Camp Italiano

At 7am, we wake up to a layer of fine dirt covering everything in our tent. We made the mistake of not guying out our tent fly – which allowed the wind to contort the fly, sweep dirt underneath and into our tent’s mesh doors. After 15 minutes of shaking dirt off everything in the tent, and then out of the tent itself, we cook breakfast and then start breaking down camp.

Today, it takes us almost 3.5 hours to hike back to Paine Grande – we’re pretty sore from the previous day and our packs are still heavy. We enjoy a bit of sunshine peaking through the clouds, along with the slightly different view as we hike in the opposite direction. We take a quick lunch and nap break at Refugio Paine Grande, which is the largest Refugio in the park (aside from Torres Central and Norte). They have the nicest campsite bathroom facilities, which is pleasantly surprising.

After lunch, we continue onward to Camp Italiano. We’re treated to warmer temperatures and sun, and enjoy the hike in our short-sleeve shirts. We’re also treated to the legendary Patagonian winds. It’s an eerie sensation – you can hear the wind coming from a mile away about a second or two before it slams into you like a wall. Our trekking poles came in handy here to stabilize against the wind.

Above: View of Los Cuernos as we hike towards Italiano.
Above: So many water sources!
Above: The French River, below the hanging French glaciers
Above: One last swinging bridge before arriving at camp.

We arrive at Camp Italiano, one of the free sites operated by CONAF. We check in with the ranger and start hunting for the optimal campsite. Ideally one that is on higher ground, not too close to the pit toilets, but also not too close to the kitchen structure.

Above: Weather forecast for the next few days, the wind is no joke

After asking a ranger to direct us to the water (he points directly at the river raging next to the camp – should have guessed), we cook one of our couscous dinners and start getting ready for bed. We make sure to guy out our tent to adjacent trees, and we double-garbage-bag our food and hang it up from a tree. Unfortunately, Camp Italiano and Frances have had a mice problem for the past few seasons, and to add to the excitement, a condor problem as well. We weren’t sure if the garbage compactor bags would be thick enough to survive a condor attack, but we’d much rather prefer destroyed food vs a destroyed tent.

The weather is still warm as we get ready for bed – as I sweat in my short-sleeved t-shirt, I kick myself for carrying the additional weight of insulated layers. However, between 9 and 10pm the temperature quickly drops at least 30 degrees, and the rain and wind pick up. Between the rain, wind, and nearby crashes of avalanches from the nearby Frances glacier, it takes me some time to fall asleep.

Day 3: Mirador Britanico

It is strangely silent when we wake up – we hear some bustling around the camp, but the rain has stopped. We prepare breakfast and are very thankful that we brought our water filter on the trip. The overnight rainstorm has made the river muddy, so we’re able to filter the brown water back to clear. We also lucked out with our camping spot – the spot we almost picked had a stream of water running through it from the rain. Choose your campsite wisely!

We take advantage of the break in storms to quickly pack up and head out for Britanic Mirador. There is a pile of backpacks in front of the ranger station, and we add ours to the pile before taking off with our daybacks.

Above: At Mirador Frances, looking back at Lago Nordenskjold

After 45 minutes (much sooner than expected) we arrive at Mirador Frances with sweeping views of the valley behind us, the glaciers on Frances and the steep faces of Los Cuernos. We take a quick snack break and continue onwards for another hour and half to Mirador Britanico.

The trail takes us through more forests and over smaller streams, opens up into the very windy valley floor before the climb up to the viewpoint. We’re rewarded with a clear, 360 degree view of the valley. We enjoy our lunch here before heading back to Camp Italiano, just in time. After about 20 minutes on the trail back, it started pouring. Luckily, the wind was blowing the rain against our backs – we passed many folks in the opposite direction, and couldn’t imagine hiking directly into the rain.

Above: Part of the sweeping view from the Mirador Britanico lookout point

Onwards to Cuernos

We get back to Italiano as a soggy mess, and grab our packs before continuing on to Cuernos. The hike is supposed to only take 2.5 hours, but takes us closer to 3 hours because of the rain. This was our first experience hiking in extended rain and we definitely moved slower because of it. The last stretch before Cuernos involves hiking on the shore of Lago Nordenskjold, which was still mystically beautiful despite the rain.

When we arrive at Cuernos, almost everyone is struggling. We are thankful for our easy velcro rain skirts as we watch others slowly peel themselves out of their soaked rain pants. After checking in, we’re taken to our cabin or cabana – one of our biggest splurges on this trip. When I first learned about these cabins from this blog post, I knew we had to book one!

An employee helps light the cabin’s fireplace, which also acts as a heater for the room. We learn that he’s worked in the park for three years, but has never seen Vallée del Frances from Mirador Britanico. The valley is notoriously cloudy, so we feel extra fortunate for our good weather luck earlier in the day.

We bask for about 5 minutes before spreading out all of our gear onto the floor of the cabin in an effort to dry it out. Our packs are not waterproof, so we use garbage compactor bags to contain and keep our sleeping pads, clothes, toiletries, etc. dry. For my sleeping bag, I used the Sea to Summit eVent dry bag that worked perfectly.

Note: The cabins are located separately from the refugio, about a 3 minute walk away. While the privacy is appreciated, we also have to don all our rain gear each time we want to go to the refugio for our meals and our shower. Normally, the cabins have their own set of bathrooms and showers nearby, but they are unfortunately broken at the time. We opt for both dinner & breakfast at the refugio and take a quick, hot shower that feels glorious.

Day 4: Cuernos to Chileno

We wake up to a rainy morning – it seems the storm has not let up. Breakfast at the refugio is simple but a welcome change from our oatmeal and instant coffee routine. It takes us a little longer to head out as we re-pack our somewhat dry gear, and we’re on the trail by 9:30am towards Chileno.

Not too many photos from this section, as it was rained out and the scenery was obscured by clouds and mist. After a few hours into the hike, we run into a group moving in the opposite direction – they ask if the trail is closed, because we’re the first folks they’ve crossed since the morning. No, not to our knowledge, but we realize that the trail has been pretty light in traffic today. We swap tips on stream and marsh crossings ahead before parting ways.

Above: What our entire day 4 looked like

This is the day in which I appreciate my hiking boots the most – I had debated between trail runners (my usual hiking shoes) and waterproof boots, and am glad I went with the boots. We had no less than ten stream crossings on this stretch, mainly due to the rain storms, and my feet would have frozen if I had to do them in trail runners.

There is a famous “Chileno Shortcut” that bypasses a small lake – it seems that this is now an official trail, and there are signed marking the fork in the path for Chileno vs. Central Torres. Unfortunately, after the fork, we take a wrong turn and end up bushwhacking up the mountain – there is no worse feeling than that of feeling lost, while cold and wet. It takes us 15 minutes to re-navigate to our last confirmed trail spot, and find a small orange “trail here” ribbon marking the right direction.

For the most part, the W trek is very easy to navigate – there’s one main trail along the entire route. But the rain washed a lot of sand and dirt away, creating small paths that looked like trails and were easy to wander onto. Additionally, the different park operators (CONAF, Vertice and Fantastico Sur) are in charge of maintaining stretches of the trail. The CONAF trails were most clearly marked with wooden posts along the trail and helpful signage, while the Fantastico Sur sections were barely marked at all.

To our surprise, we arrive at Chileno around 2:30pm, at least two hours earlier than expected. We check in and the receptionist gives us a bucket of rusty nails and a hammer so we can set our tent up on a platform. Thankfully, our spot already has nails from a previous tenant that match up with our tent shape, so we don’t have to add in our own. Instead of hanging out in our tent, we decide to relax indoors in the Refugio dining room.

What’s the news?

Because of the weather, there are only about ~40 people at Chileno in both the campsite and the refugio – which is far less than 50% capacity. It is a bit of an eerie feeling, as our previous sites were filled and bustling. We spend most of the afternoon and evening indoors in the main dining area, as there is plenty of space with the reduced guest count. Chileno has a drying room with one fireplace and many racks to hang gear. At night, this was the place to be – everyone was crammed into the room, rotating in their boots to dry by the fireplace and sharing stories about their trip thus far.

Most folks at Chileno are doing the opposite route from East to West, so this is their first night on the trail. We learn that because of the intense rain, the entrance to the park was flooded and closed. No one was allowed in or out of the park, which explains some of the empty beds in the refugio. There are a handful of people there who were there a second night, due to the poor weather. The trail to Las Torres had been closed that day due to flooding on the trail, though visibility of the towers would have likely been zero, even if the trail were open.

As the night winds down, people are debating whether or not to hike to Las Torres for sunrise. The forecast shows snow during the night, but there is a window of opportunity after 3am until about 9am. We decide to turn in early and prep for an early 4am departure.

Day 5: Las Torres and Exiting the Park

We wake up to our alarms at 4am… but unfortunately decide not to make the trek up. It turns out my husband’s headlamp batteries have died and we don’t have enough spares. In a normal weather situation I would have gladly ditched him and hiked by myself – but I am uncertain about conditions given the freezing temps, recent snow and darkness. On the bright side, we get two more hours of sleep before waking up before the sun rises.

From the campground, we can see two of the three towers and watch them change colors with the sunrise. We move inside and enjoy the sunrise from the dining room, which has a huge window with a view of the river and the towers. There are several folks running around excitedly getting ready to head onto the trail, amazed by the view that was obstructed for two days by rain and clouds.

Las Torres Sunrise view from Chileno
Above: Beautiful view of two of the Las Torres peaking out during sunrise

We debate hiking up to Las Torres after breakfast, but are concerned by the clouds coming in and the storm forecasted for later in the day. We know there will be delays in exiting the park based on the stories from last night, so we make the tough call of leisurely hiking down the last leg. As we hike back through the valley, we can literally see steam coming off the ground as the sun hits the mountain. Even though we hiked this trail the day before, the clear weather turns it into a completely new trail for us, with clear views of the valley and the river meandering through it.

Above: View looking back towards Chileno and a fresh dusting of snow on the ranges

When we arrive down to the Hotel Torres del Paine area, we have 30 minutes to spare – so we decide to take advantage of the sun and spread out our gear to dry a bit more. We then walk over to the welcome center to purchase our shuttle ticket to Laguna Amarga, and our bus ticket from Laguna Amarga to Puerto Natales. We wait about 15 minutes for the 1:30pm shuttle to pick us up for the 2pm bus.

After we get off the shuttle, we hilariously have to take a raft across the flooded park entrance to the bus area. Because there’s only one 8-person raft ferrying people back and forth, our bus ends up leaving before we’re able to cross over. Thankfully, we’re able to negotiate our way onto a different bus and are only out $8 from the original ticket. We nap for most of the hour and forty minute ride back and are excited to rest and relax at the Simple Patagonia for the next few nights!  

And that’s a wrap! I hope you find this helpful – if you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

For additional posts in this series, check out: