10 days, 3 countries, 170 km, 11 passes, 11,000 meters of up, 11,000 meters of down, and more cheese and charcuterie than you can poke your trekking pole at! Could this just be Europe’s finest alpine trek?
As the highest mountain in the European Union standing at an impressive 4807metres, Mont Blanc continues to lure adventurers with dreams of conquering its summit and circumnavigating its commanding mastiff via the magnificent valleys that extend into France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Typically beginning and ending in the vibrant French alpine village of Chamonix, the 10 day Tour du Mont Blanc trek takes you on a 170 km circuit around Mont Blanc, passing through several picturesque alpine villages, each with their own quirky style and regional food specialties.
For us Australians, who usually have to lug a tent around everywhere we want to hike in Australia, the fact you can do this trek with no camping required is absolute gold! It really is ‘nature the way you want it’, with numerous accommodation options ranging from high-end resorts, small boutique family run hotels to mountain refuges with dormitory-style rooms. However you choose to visit, you’ll be guaranteed breathtaking scenery and challenging terrain. This is a trek of epic proportions!
The standard route has many variations depending on your fitness level, but we chose to push ourselves by often taking the more difficult routes - after all, the more challenging routes arguably offer the best views!
Being a circular route, it can be trekked clockwise or counter clockwise, starting and finishing at a number of different places. Instead of starting in Chamonix alongside hundreds of other hikers and day trippers, we opted to start and finish our trek in the pretty village of Les Houches, a short train ride from Chamonix and easily accessible by shuttle from Geneva Airport.
How you choose to undertake your trek may be dependent on accommodation availability. Only accessible for hikers from mid-late June to mid-September, this is a popular trek, so be sure to book way in advance. A bit more on that later, but first, here’s our route:
Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines
After spending the night at the gorgeous Campanules Chalet Hotel in Les Houches, which we must say punches well above its weight with stellar views of Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi, we made our way to the start of the trail for a quick cable car ride from the village and up to Bellevue to start the trek. Being our first day, we opted for the tough route via the Chalet de Miage, which provided jaw dropping scenery as we passed just beneath the Glacier de Bionnassay, before descending into Les Contamines. From glaciers to alpine meadows, this was a beautiful first stage of the trek, even the moo’s had fabulous views here! Dinner and overnight was at the classy Hotel Chemenez in the small village of Les Contamines.
18km, 7.5 Hours, 1500m ascent, 1300m descent
Overnight Les Houches: Campanules Chalet Hotel
Overnight Les Contamines: Hotel Chemenez
Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge des Mottets
The start to today’s leg was relatively gentle with the first 5km seeing us meandering along the valley floor to the gorgeous chapel at Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here however, a murderous climb took us through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve towards the Col du Bonhomme. As we approached the rugged landscape of the high peaks the weather turned violent with relentless wind and horizontal rain. The trail was a sea of ‘Gortex Ninjas’ as those on the trail found more and more gortex to put on! We stood at the top of the Col du Bonhomme (2329 m) and ate a piece of wet soggy Quiche Lorraine before climbing a further hour or so on rough and rocky ground up to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. Continuing our climb in the pouring rain and thrashing wind over the Col des Fours (2665m), the commanding views of Mont Blanc we were expecting on this stage of the trek were non-existent as the rain and fog continued. After a long day with only the Marmots to entertain and keep us company, we finally made the steep descent to the idyllic mountain Refuge des Mottets, where a hot shower and hearty meal waited for us.
20km, 1600m Ascent, 900m Descent, 8-10 hours weather depending
Overnight: Refuge des Mottets
Day 3: Refuge des Mottets to Courmayeur
With the rain and fog still looming, we began our trek to the sophisticated and gorgeous Italian village of Courmayeur. After a steep hike up to the Col de la Seigne (2516m) we left France for my home country of Italy. It’s here for the first time that we could see the sunshine and the steep southern side of the Mont Blanc Massif, with its jagged peaks, momentous glaciers and dramatic waterfalls. The weather continued to clear as the trail descended through the high alpine meadows past refuge Elisabetta and into the Val Veni. After the previous tough and wet day, we chose to take the standard route past the snout of the Glacier du Miage to Visaille, rather than the tough option via Col Chécrouit.
As we made our way into Courmayeur we were welcomed by more sunshine. An impressive and sophisticated village, Courmayeur is not only a popular winter skiing destination and key hub for the Tour du Mont Blanc, but also an important staging post for two other iconic long-distance hiking trails: the Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2. This year it was also the starting point for the Tor des Geants, a 330 km endurance event through Italy’s Aosta Valley. That evening in Courmayeur was heaving; hikers like ourselves, a sea of trail runners with their long compression socks, and the locals doing their traditional ‘passeggiata’ – all promenading in the streets before dinner.
17km, 750m Ascent, 800m Descent, 5 – 5.5 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss Courmayeur
Day 4: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti
With the weather now totally clear, today’s walk was to be a treat and was one of the highlights of the trek. We decided to take the high trail via Col Sapin which although doubled the climbing the views were spectacular. Drama unfolded at every turn with the dramatic icy panorama of the Mont Blanc Massif and Grand Jorasses revealing themselves across the valley. We left early that morning and arrived at Rifugio Bonatti just in time for some wild mushrooms with polenta for lunch! Unfortunately, Rifugio Bonatti was totally booked for the night so we took a steep trail down to the valley floor of the Val Ferret and hopped on the regular local bus service back to Courmayeur for the night.
12km, 1600 m Ascent, 1400m descent, 6 hours.
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss Courmayeur or Rifugio Bonatti
Day 5: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly
The day began with a short bus ride from Courmayeur to the Val Ferret, where we had descended from Rifugio Bonatti the previous day. From here we made the tough climb to the Grand Col Ferret and left beautiful Italy behind for Switzerland. From the Col Ferret we gently descended through picture book scenes of chalets, grazing cows (with their bells of course), and fabulous alpine views. A highlight of this stage was the random dairy café that appeared, complete with their own cow’s fresh chocolate milkshakes! While the intimacy of the big mountains was now lost for a day or so, the idyllic alpine village of La Fouly with its wooden chalets overflowing with flowers boxes and Swiss flags warmly greeted us. Overnight at La Fouly’s Hotel Edelweiss was the perfect stop for the night.
Walk: 20km, 895m Ascent, 1410m Descent, 6 – 6.5 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss La Fouly
Day 6: La Fouly to Champex
The easiest stage of the trek, this stage took us on some of the quietest trails through the small village of Les Arlaches, with its traditional wooden Swiss Chalets and gnome gardens to the lake side town of Champex. Champex with its lovely lake was the perfect way to soak up the afternoon sunshine over a beer or two. Overnight at the family run Hotel Belvedere was a cosy and quirky affair.
15km, 4.5 Hours, Ascent: 450m, Descent: 550m
Overnight: Hotel Belvedere
Day 7: Champex to Trient
After the previous days gentle trail, we decided to take the more demanding route via the spectacular Fenêtre d’Arpette to the Trient Valley. Climbing to 2665m this was a challenging, slippery and exposed trail, but worth every step with magnificent views across the mountain and surrounding valleys. After a tough day we descended to the valley floor and the small village of Trient. Overnight at the simple Auberge Mont Blanc.
15.5km, 1200m Ascent, 1450m descent, 7 Hours
Overnight: Auberge Mont Blanc.
Day 8: Trient to Tre Le Champ
From Trient, we started our climb back to the French border at Col de Balme (2191 m). From the top of the col, you can see the entirety of the Mont Blanc Massif as it stretches far ahead of you. Alongside it is the Chamonix Valley, the summit of Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles, the Mer de Glace and the Argentière glaciers! This is one of the most spectacular stages of the trek. The route continues via the Col des Posettes and Aiguillette des Posettes, with jaw dropping scenery throughout, before descending into the Chamonix Valley at Tré le Champ. Overnight was at the gorgeous Refuge La Boerne, where the dorm room we were expecting was upgraded to a new private double room set amidst a gorgeous garden. Oh, and boy was the home cooked Osso Bucco with tagliatelle a treat.. yes, even in France!
Walk: 11.5km, 1050m Ascent, 950m Descent, 5 Hours
Overnight: Refuge La Boerne
Day 9: Tre Le Champ to Planpraz
The next two days were a huge highlight of the trek as the views across the Chamonix Valley to the Mont Blanc Massif are spectacular. From our refuge, the trail climbed steadily via Aiguillette de Argentière to the Grand Balcon Sud of the Aiguilles Rouges. The fixed ladders and ropes in this section were fun, although may be challenging for those not fond of heights. Now in the Aiguilles Rouge Nature Reserve, the area was full of friendly Ibex and Marmot who were a real treat to photograph.
The climb onwards to Lac Blanc, delivered an idyllic refuge and the perfect spot for lunch. Descending down to the cable car station at Le Flégère we were soon rewarded with the 'Balcon Sud', a part of the trail that traverses across the mountain side with glorious views of Mont Blanc before finally arriving at Planpraz where we took the cable car down to the centre of Chamonix for our first overnight there.
11.5 km, 6-7 Hours, Ascent: 1300m, Descent: 530m
Overnight: Hotel Vallee Blanche
Day 10: Planpraz to Les Houches
After a fabulous evening wandering the gorgeous streets of Chamonix, we began our day by catching the cable car back up to Planpraz for our last day on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
While there are several options here, we took the toughest and most rewarding, after all – we had made it this far, so what was to stop us now? Our trail to Les Houches was via the Col du Brevant & the rocky pedestal of the le Brévent (2525m). At this stage of the trek, Mont Blanc is almost in touching distance on the opposite side of the valley. Unfortunately though, the morning was dense with fog, so the views were intermittent, hence the lack of photographs below. The steep descent to Les Houches past Lac Brevent and Bel Lachat certainly gave the knees one final work out. After descending into Les Houche we caught the train back to Chamonix and settled in to celebrate. Trek complete!
11km, 430m Ascent, 1530m Descent, 6 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Vallee Blanche Chamonix or Campanules Chalet Hotel Les Houches
How to get there
The most convenient way to access the Chamonix Valley is via Geneva Airport, with an easy 1-hour shuttle taking you from the airport to a number of locations throughout the valley. Bookings can be made by visiting Chamexpress or Mountain Drop Offs.
When to go
The only time to trek the Tour du Mont Blanc is between the middle of June to the middle of September, weather dependant. Often at the beginning and end of the season some passes can be covered in snow, so be sure to check weather conditions and book at least 8 months in advance as this is an epic walk which is very busy. We began our trek on 4 September and enjoyed fabulous weather for most days.
Experience and fitness
This is a strenuous trek with average ascents and descents of over 1000 meters per day, so an excellent level of hiking fitness is necessary. If you choose to trek self-guided, you will be responsible for navigation. While the trails are marked quite well, the depth and breadth of trails in the region can find you taking a wrong turn, so be sure to pick up good contour maps of the Chamonix – Mont Blanc region and the Saint- Gervais -les Bains region.
There is a variety of accommodation throughout the trek from basic dormitory rooms in mountain refuges to lovely resorts and hotels in the valleys. The accommodation recommended in our itinerary provided a nice level of privacy and comfort for a couple with private rooms and bathroom facilities most nights.
Planning your trek
The Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc guide book published by Cicerone is a great reference and includes each stage of the trek, along with details of the more challenging variants. Be also sure to visit the trek’s official tourism website Au Tour Du Mont Blanc where you can book accommodation based on your route and availability. If its all too hard, Macs Adventure can book it all for you alongside a bag transfer for the ten days, meaning all you have to do is turn up and navigate. They will also provide maps and an ap to assist with navigation and can tailor the best route for you based on your level of fitness, time and accommodation availability.
So would we do it again? Absolutely. This is a challenging trek in a very beautiful part of the world. What’s not to like?