Chamonix Mont Blanc - A Destination Guide for Trail Runners, Walkers and Families
Chamonix. This mythical Alpine town is home to Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, which has captured the hearts of mountain lovers for generations. Located on the Eastern border of France, right in heart of the French Alps, Chamonix marks the border with both Italy and Switzerland. Steeped in Alpine history and home to some of the world's best hiking and running trails, skiing tracks and climbing routes, Chamonix is an adventure lover's perfect playground.
Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, sits proudly at 4810m (15,776ft), and presides over this dramatic valley, surrounded by steep spires and tumbling glaciers. Chamonix - or as it used to be known - Chamouny, has been attracting visitors to explore the slopes or simply look on in wonder, since the mid 1700s.
Chamouny was first 'discovered' by two English explorers, Windham and Pococke, in 1741. They stumbled upon a small, rural community and were in awe of the breathtaking mountain scenery, and the Mer de Glace glacier. The two men returned home to recount tales of incredible spires and enormous ice fields.
Their adventures were published in literary journals, which sparked the Chamonix craze for exploration, and so the Chamonix obsession began!
Today, Chamonix is an international Mecca for extreme skiers, climbers, wing-suit fliers and trail runners, drawing in athletes around the world to test their limits. But at the 'mere mortal' end of the scale, Chamonix is a beautiful place to visit and explore - for all ages and fitness levels. It is impossible not to feel inspired by this natural landscape and the huge variety of activities and entertainment on offer.
The mythical mountain town of Chamonix has been drawing in crowds since the 1800's.
ABOUT MONT BLANC
Mont Blanc towers over the Chamonix valley and is visible from everywhere. You always know where you are if Mont Blanc is in view! This spectacular mountain was first summited in 1786 by two French men, Paccard and Balmat. Their climb was legendary, described by Eric Shipton, a British Himalayan mountaineer, as, "an astounding achievement of courage and determination, one of the greatest in the annals of mountaineering. It was accomplished by men who were not only on unexplored ground, but on a route that all the guides believed to be impossible."
Today, hikers can explore Paccard and Balmat's first bivi point (a large rock) on the way up the beautiful 'Jonction' hiking trail and look up at the route that these two brave men climbed to the summit. This first successful climb earned Paccard and Balmat reward money, donated by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in 1860 for the first climbers to reach the summit.
La Compagnie des Guides was established in 1821, and until the end of the 1800s, mountain guiding was the biggest economic force in the valley, as explorers flocked to the region to try their hand at ascents of the surrounding peaks. From the early 1900s, more mainstream tourism took over, with a main carriage road to Geneva and a new railway in 1901, which meant winter accessibility.
Many new hotels opened and Chamonix became not only a climbing destination, but a skiing one, hosting the Winter Olympics in 1924. Nowadays, Mont Blanc is climbed by over 20,000 people per year, with over 5 million visitors to the valley between winter and summer seasons. Mountain Guides are still celebrated professionals.
GATEWAY TO MAJOR HIKING ROUTES
For keen hill walkers and hikers, Chamonix marks the starting point for two major high mountain hiking routes. If these two are not yet on your bucket list, read on for why they are absolute must-do's.
Tour Du Mont Blanc
One of the world's classic walking trails, this 166km (104 mile) route crosses through 3 countries, with Mont Blanc always in the centre. Walking on well marked trails, you'll traverse high mountain passes, enjoy beautiful valley scenes and trek through remarkably different terrain as you hike through France, Italy and Switzerland. Each day brings a different view of the iconic Mont Blanc.
There is no greater sense of achievement than when you pop back over into the Chamonix Valley on the last day, completing the loop and finishing up where you started walking 10 days previously. Tracks and Trails offer classic Tour du Mont Blanc trips over 10 days, with luggage transfers provided, staying in small, characterful hotels for the ultimate authentic Alpine experience.
The unforgettable Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the world's top multi day walks
Walkers' Haute Route - Chamonix to Zermatt
Linking the two most well known mountains in the Alps - Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn - the Walkers' Haute route is a fabulous mountain traverse for experienced hill walkers. Connecting the French Alpine capital of Chamonix with the iconic Swiss resort, Zermatt, you'll be treated to some of the Alps' best and wildest scenery.
The full Walkers' Haute Route is approximately 150km (94 miles) and takes 10 days. The trail stays high in the mountains, crosses passes at nearly 3000m (9840ft) as well as glacier traverses - making this high mountain trek a true 'wilderness' adventure. Tracks and Trails offer guided Walkers Haute Route trips, staying in remote mountain huts for 2 nights, as well as boutique hotels with luggage delivery.
The walkers' Haute Route links the two most iconic mountains in the Alps - Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn
WINTER ADVENTURES IN THE CHAMONIX VALLEY
Chamonix's appeal is as much about winter sports as summer activities. The town became world famous when it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1924, and Chamonix has been welcoming snow sports lovers ever since. Today, it's popular among 'extreme' skiers and snowboarders who are drawn to Chamonix's impossibly steep terrain. But the Mont Blanc range is just as incredible for snow shoeing and cross country skiing.
Snowshoe-ing in the Chamonix Mountains
Surrounded by accessible peaks and beautiful tree lined balcony traverses, snow shoe-rs of all abilities can experience the magic and tranquility of the Chamonix Valley in winter, well away from the crowds. Tracks and Trails run two Chamonix snowshoe trips: Chamonix Snowshoe Adventure and Snowshoe Long Weekend.
Chamonix also has an excellent network of cross country skiing tracks, with 4 different cross country ski sites around the valley - Chamonix, Argentiere, Vallorcine and Les Houches. The network of trails totals around 60km and ranges from wide, flat green runs to steep narrow blacks through the trees. There's plenty to keep everyone occupied on both classic and skate skis, from beginners to experts.
Synonymous with 'extreme', Chamonix has become the world's capital for trail running. Host to the legendary UTMB - Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which started in 2003, every year thousands of long distance runners descend on the town at the end of August to be part of this incredible race. Following the same route as the Tour du Mont Blanc, above, the UTMB race starts and finishes in Chamonix.
Leaving the centre of town at 6pm on the last Friday of August, crowds line the 171km (106 miles) route to cheer the racers on as they run around Mont Blanc, climbing over 10,000m (32,800ft). While 'normal' folk may take 10 days to complete the route, the fastest in the world make it round in less than 24 hours. Racing through the night, the first 'super human' runners arrive back in Chamonix on Saturday afternoon to huge cheers.
The start of the UTMB: Runners leave Chamonix to begin their 171km (107 miles) lap around Mont Blanc
The whole Mont Blanc region - in France, Italy and Switzerland - comes alive with an incredible sense of community as the participants pass through three different countries. An army of volunteers keep them going, manning aide stations for 48 hours. The elite are long home when the final runners limp back into the centre of town on Sunday afternoon, having spent two sleepless nights out on the trails.
Today's UTMB event is a series of 7 races, ranging from the locals' only 40km (25 miles) 'dash' to the 300km (187 miles) team event, called the 'Petite Trotte a Leon'. But it's the original UTMB course that continues to inspire trail runners from all over the world.
a trail running paradise
Trail running in Chamonix doesn't have to be extreme, in spite of its reputation. The natural shape of the valley lends itself to cruisy traverses and learning the technique of trail running. It's the perfect place to make the transition from road runner to trail runner, with a lifetime's worth of varied trails to explore.
Trail running Chamonix doesn't need to be extreme; there are beautiful trails to suit all abilities.
Check out our Guide to Trail Running for everything you need to know - from technique to kit and more. Learn how you can transition from road runner to trail runner and if you're worried about not being 'good enough', don't be! Watch our 'how to' video, below, so you can practice your skills at home before you hit the trails.
a slower pace: Hiking & nature
For hill walkers of any ability, 'Chamonix Mont Blanc' has it all. From the original 'balcony walks', which contour both sides of the valley at about 300m (984ft) above town, to the family friendly river path which lines the route from Chamonix to Argentiere. Whatever your walking experience and fitness level, there is a hike available to satisfy your desire to experience the mountains, and leave you craving more!
Walking in the Chamonix valley is accessible to everyone. Lift access opens up a whole new world.
Once named 'Best Short Walk in the World' the well-trodden trek from Flegere to Lac Blanc is a must do. You can take the brand new Flegere cable car to start the route. It takes around 2 hours at a mellow pace, on mountain trails with a few rocky steps; poles are recommended. The trek itself and the destination are each wonderful, but the main attraction is the view, which is simply spectacular.
At Lac Blanc itself, you can dip your toes in the glacial waters, look out for marmots and ibex, as well as enjoy a drink or ice cream on the terrace of the nearby mountain refuge.
Well earned refreshments after a day's hiking in the Chamonix mountains
Experienced walkers can avoid using the cable car by starting their hike from the Col de Montets, which is a more challenging route and involves some 'via ferrata' sections with ladders and metal steps. Whichever way you choose, be sure to keep your eyes out for the wildlife which inhabits the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve.
Marmots are common - but sometimes hard to spot. Listen out for their high pitched whistle as they play in between the rocks
a family adventure in the chamonix valley
Chamonix in summer is just magical for families. Children of all ages will find their own special spot in the valley. Little ones will love Paradis des Praz with its adventure playground, gurgling stream and donkey rides. The cafe will keep mums and dads happy too! Slightly older kids will love the range of bike friendly trails around the valley as well as the summer luge.
Family friendly hikes in the Mont Blanc range
Older kids have so many options to choose from! They can try their hand at rock climbing, give mountain biking a go, test their head for heights at one of the adventure tree parks or take to the river and see what white water rafting is all about. There are so many options for family friendly hikes that make use of the lift and train network. For a family adventure holiday, Chamonix really is unbeatable.
Taking a break and getting to know the locals