The Chamonix Mont-Blanc valley nestles between two sets of high mountains. The Mont Blanc Massif makes the south-eastern side of the valley with the famous Mont Blanc at its heart. The Aiguille Rouges ("Red Peaks") run along the north-western side of the valley, their green shoulders giving way to rocky peaks. The town of Chamonix (and the surrounding area) is famous as a hub for outdoor sports - particularly skiing and mountaineering - with the summer months providing a full range of activities. The valley is in the south east of France not far from Geneva which makes it convenient for travellers. The main natural feature is the Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco for the Italians) mountain, which is the highest in the Alps at 4,807 metres, with the Massif itself standing astride France, Italy and Switzerland.
While many come to Cham for the winter, they often stay for the gorgeous summers. There's a wealth of activities to do - as long as you like being outdoors. The weather is often good, and even when there's a heat wave it's possible to get some relief by using the lifts. It is a popular tourist area, attracting both domestic and international visitors. Although famous for winter sports the summer tourist season is busier than winter. The upside of being a busy tourist town is that there are also lots of restaurants, bars and even spas to enjoy!
One warning is that we are in the mountains and surrounded by peaks. Although the weather can be lovely for days, it can also change quickly. Clouds can build up unseen behind the mountains and then rush over the top bringing unexpected rain and thunder! Even when planning a short walk read the forecast closely and bring waterproofs for your trip - you can always decide on the day if you want to risk leaving them behind.
The temperature chart on Wikipedia gives average temperatures. Broadly, the winter season ends in April, increasingly a bit early. Often May is very rainy but it's changeable by year, the ground starts black and broken before blooming into growth as the snow recedes. Early June can still have showers, but with increasingly longer periods of sun - we're transitioning to full summer. Through July and August it's very sunny and the peak of the tourist season. September is often dry with an Indian summer feel to it as it goes on - the evenings start to get colder. By the end of September and then into October we're in Autumn: nearly everything in the town shuts down as everyone who worked through the summer season now takes their holidays (Greece or North Africa anyone!). There can still be good days for unsupported activities, but it's risky. The end of October and November are often awful with unrelenting rain - if we're lucky there's early snow in December.
+ Mont Blanc the tallest mountain in Northern Europe
+ Impressive glaciers and mountains that are easy to access using the extensive lifts
+ Every mountain outdoor sport possible - hiking, running, mountaineering, etc
- It's one of the most popular tourist locations in France. During the August peak season be prepared for lots of people in the town, and on the most popular trails.
- Lifts are expensive, hotels are expensive and cheap food (unless self-catering) is hard.
- Not many fashion shops or tiny dogs in handbags - that's Megeve.
Visiting Chamonix means being in 'the valley', so it's worth understanding the geography.
Travelling into Chamonix involves twisting and turning up through a set of lower stepped valleys that start close to Geneva. It's as if Mont Blanc hides itself, wrapped up inside surrounding valleys and peaks.
The Chamonix valley itself runs from the south west (Les Houche) to the north east (Le Tour). On the southern side there is the Mont Blanc massif, a series of high mountains with Mont Blanc itself as well as other famous peaks like the Dru. On the northern side of the valley is the Aiguille Rouges range which are greener and have lots of great lift access paths (and views of the mountains on the other side). The towns and villages on the valley floor are at 1000-1200 metres, with the main paths going up to xxxx metres.
The valley is very popular as a summer and winter tourist location, approximately doubling in population during the key seasons. The main villages around Chamonix join together into one area with chalets and hotels spread throughout them: as each one has its own history don't tell a local that it's all merged into one! As you move along the valley it bumps up to Argentiere which is a separate village, as well as Vallorcine. Finally, the valley drops down the other way from Vallorcine eventually winding its way to Trient where you've crossed the border into Switzerland.
We can also reach Italy by crossing south-east over the Mont Blanc massif. In fact the mountain is the border between the two - the Italians call it Monte Blanco. There a road tunnel that goes through the mountain range (30 minutes drive!), taking us to the town of Courmayer. The valley of Aosta valley is beautiful, with some of the most dramatic views of Monto Bianco and well worth exploring.
Lets look at each of the major villages of the Chamonix valley and surrounding area.
We start at the bottom (south west) of the valley in Les Houche. It's a town in two parts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Houches https://www.google.com/maps/place/74310+Les+Houchesemail@example.com,6.79529,12z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x47895052a70a7023:0x408ab2ae4ba9e70!8m2!3d45.890388!4d6.798735
There are a set of villages that aren't technically in Chamonix town, but are close enough you can walk or bike from them. Arbitarily within 30 mins.
From Chamonix as you move north there are a set of villages which merge together from Les Bossons, Les Gaillants to Lec Pecles. Then you're into the Chamonix town main area (including Chamonix Sud). As you move out of town up the valley there is Les Nants, La Frasse and Les Rosieres.
There's Les Praz itself and Les Bois. By the time you get to Le Lavancher you're closer to Argentierre.
Argentiere is the second major town-village in the valley, in winter people stay here and probably never go down to Chamonix. It's a long-thin village that walks along the road, but there's a supermarket and enough bars and restaurants for a week.
We're now at the top of the valley, and at the highest point (of the valley floor). This really is a mountain hamlet, which if you took away the road through would be quiet all day long. There's good climbing here and some interesting paths into valleys that don't see much traffic. You have to like your own company if your accommodation is here though - you probably have to drive for an hour to have a beer! The closest supermarket is in Argentiere.
From here you can drive over the pass and eventually into Switzerland via Trient and to Martiny-Combe. This is a great area, but for most it's too far out.
Through the tunnel and into Italy is the town of Courmayer. It's a lovely old town, and similar to Chamonix is famous for Alpinism and skiing. Worth visiting for some of that Italian je ne sais quoi.
Saint Gervais isn't in the Chamonix valley, it's at the bottom (after the flyerduct) and looks onto the western flanks of Mont Blanc. It's in the lift ticket though and lots of people like it because there's more sunlight there. Unlikely most people will visit unless it's a long trip. Of course, it's a quick step over to Megeve - so enough said!
The Mer de Glace is a glacier that is considered to be the longest and largest glacier in France. It's very accessible via the Montenvers rack railway which takes 30 minutes to wind its way up the sides of the valley. The views along the valley are spectacular, with snow covered peaks and ice-filled bowls. It's hard to take in the size of the surroundings until looking down you might spot ant-like mountaineers crossing the glacier. The railway and the viewpoint have a fantastic history from when it was inaugurated in 1910
For those interested in glaciers and the impact of climate change the path down towards the Mer de Glace is worth taking, as markers show the accelerating shrinkage.
The walk along Balcon Sud is much more recommended than the walk down. Many people forget that walking down is not actually that easy on your legs, so while you do get good views it can be surprisingly hard. The main upside of the walk down is that there are two nice places to eat. The first is Buvette des Mottets <https://www.facebook.com/buvettemottets/>, this has great views of the Mer de Glace and Les Dru and you can also sleep here in covered tents! The second one is lower and you have to look for a side path which will be on the left if you're coming down - it's called the Buvette of Caillet.
The Aiguille du Midi is a rock tower that looms over the cracked ice and granite blocks, at a height of 3810m a cable car goes all the way up. It’s almost beyond belief that anything could be built up there, and how they got the cable car cable up to it is a story in itself! It’s dramatic to look down onto the snow below, and see back into the Chamonix Mont Blanc massif. Probably the main tourist attraction in Chamonix - bring a warm coat and go early!
I'm going to repeat that - yes it's summer, but wear trousers, take jumpers, coats and even a hat if you have it. At the top of the season we have to book a lift and it's absolutely worth it to go early birdy!
The Panorama cable car goes across the entire Massif from the Aiguille du Midi to the top of the lift on the Italian side. From there it's possible to go to the Refuge and have lunch, before catching the lift back. This gives an unrivalled view of the wild mountains and glaciers - note that you have to take your passport with you! The TripAdvisor reviews.
The Mont Blanc Express is a modern train that goes from St Gervais all the way along the Chamonix valley, through Argentiere and then across down into Martingy. You can actually start from the main station in Chamonix.
OK, you don't want to do any mountaineering but what about some glacier walking - it's adventurous, unlikely to be something coworkers have done and utterly safe! The simplest trip is for a guide to take you up to the Italian side and then there's some beautiful walking using crampons along the glacier. This really is a once in a life-time opportunity.
It's child friendly as your Guide can change the itiniery depending on how everyone is doing (great for the adults as well). While safe because you have a professional with you, it's not cheap as training and an ice-axe collection are not cheap.
There are 'covered' tents at this Buvette which mean you can sleep with a view down into the Mer de Glace valley. If you want something a bit more swish there's also a nice hotel - but good luck getting a booking if you didn't do it last year.
For something a bit different get the train (or bus) down to Servoz and walk into this Gorge. It's not a complex path but pay attention with children.
This is an adventure park area which at least one local recommended as a good area to take children. It has a variety of activities including an alpine luge. Chamonet and TripAdvisor. If it’s interesting we can check it out further, I believe it’s within walking distance.
Les Gaillards with a guide
The Treetop adventures course is a specially created adventure park for kids at heart, from 2 to 102! You climb up and down through a course that takes you in amongst the branches, secured by cables attached to a harness. All equipment including helmets are provided. There’s a lower course for young children where adults can supervise closely. It’s in les Houche a 30-40 minute walk, or a bus ride.
There are, bars, nightclubs, spas and extreme sports adventures for adults in Chamonix! Some of the best options:
Elevation is an institution for apre-ski, apre-mountaineering, apre-extreme-sports … or just treating drinking as an extreme sport. There are better bars in Chamonix, but that’s so not the point. This time-lapse video, or this one give you a sense of the carnage - more civilised in the summer.
There’s a list on TripAdvisor, if any are of interest we can look into them. The Aiglon is probably the easiest option for a lazy lunch and just sitting on a sun lounger and enjoying the hot-tub. We know people who’ve done the day package and enjoyed it. I’ve listed a few of the options... Restaurant and pool at Aiglon (Spa) See in restaurants further down.
This spa is in Argentierre a bus ride from the flat. It’s in one of the premium hotels so I’m sure that it’s luxurious, and the reviews are pretty good. See Chamonet and Tripit.
Don’t know much about this, except it’s based in the luxury hotel right next to the Aigullet lift. See Chamonet and Tripit. Mont Blanc Hotel (Spa) Unknow, but Chamnet lists them.
Had enough hanging around in bars and getting massages. No more chillaxing, it’s time to get the heart pumping. Yup skydiving - a once in a life time experience, you’ll always remember - as long as you land well, otherwise it’s just once in a life time.
If that sounds a bit hectic there's lots of Parasending / Parapenting trips that give you a beautiful view from high up.
If I’ve been there I don’t remember, but l’Amnesia is consistently rated as one of the best nightclubs along with the bunker. Doesn’t get started until after midnight and ends just in time for you to get the first lift up the mountain! We’ll see you there?!
The Chamonix valley has very accessible hiking trails due to the range of lifts that we can use to immediately get to the heart of the ranges. There's also a series of balcon (balcony) paths which run along the two sides: running along Aiguille Rouge and looking towards the south and we have the Balcon Sud, while running along the Mont Blanc range and looking north we have the Balcon Nord. There are great for hikers and runners.
This hike takes us along from the Mer de Glace to the Aiguille mid-station. To find it come out of the Mer de Glace train station and turn left walking 'down' underneath the train track. This takes you to a nice hotel where you can have lunch. If you walk along a bit further you'll see a path that leads around and is signposted.
This is a hike along the Petit Balcon Sud which can be done in either direction, giving great views over towards Mont Blanc. If on a shorter trip do it from Flegere, so that you have enough time to get the cable car up to Brevent to fully enjoy the view.
Walk up the hill from the Chamonix Church to the Plan Praz lift, this can be oddly hard to find - use Google Maps and find Rue la Mollard. It's a steep hill to the Gondola, so take your time - phew! Now, take the gondola lift up.
The next part is to find the path - they all go to the same place - but here's how to get to the best option. Come out of the lift and walk into the large flat viewing area - turn left and walk around the back of the lift and up the gravel lane which is a ski run in winter. This means you're turning your back on the restaurant and viewing area. Often in the summer you can follow the Parapente's who are going to the take-off area.
The track carries on upwards past the Parapenters take off area on the left, and you'll see a lift station in front slightly on the right. Walk off the lane and trend over towards the lift station. Walk around the front of the lift station to discover the path. That's the hardest part done - now just follow this path and its signs for 3 hours to Flegere! When you've got the lift down to Flegere either take the bus back, or it's about a 30-40 minutes back alongside the river to Chamonix.
The alternative route is to get the bus (or walk along the river) to Flegere. The Flegere lift is at the far end of the village next to a Church. Get the lift up. When you come out of lift turn left and walk along the front of the building. There's another lift going upwards called Index - there is an alternative route from here, but that's another day! Walk up to the lift gate and trend just under it, we're going around the front of the lift - you often have to walk right through the gate. Go down the track for about 20 metres and then it's easy to find the path that takes us into the trees on the right. Now just follow that for 2.5-3 hours and you'll be in Plan Praz. Don't forget to take the Cable Car up to Brevent - enjoy the view and have a Crepe at the top!
Take the lift up to Plan Praz and get a taste of some vertical hiking and easy ladders. Takes about 2 hours. Safe for children of at least 11, they need to be self-confident and if there's any possibility of concern take a small confidence rope. For adults this is a great hike and the ladder section is really a scramble.
If you want to be lower down the mountain and out of sun, or you just fancy some forest walking then going from Les Praz to Vallorcine is very nice. We can take either the Petit Balcon Nord, or the Petit Balcon Sud - and from either side. Personally, I think the balcon nord is better, particularly if you're doing it as a loop because there's a good chance of getting shade if it's later afternoon.
The first section of this hike is very steep, but the eventual reward is a beautiful snow-fed lake. It's very popular but well worth it.
Start at Argentiere and explore the valley and waterfalls.
This is a great area to climb, and a worthy hike. Start at Vallorcine.
This is a very hard hike (over 1000m+ of vertical) but it takes you to the where the Glacier de Taconnaz and the Bossons glacier join. There is a pretty walk through the forest, then up through the alpine until you're finally walking through rock strewn slopes feeling the glacier right next to you.
This walk is not really suitable for children as it's far too long. Also note that there's very little shelter so make sure you have waterproofs and start early.
Get the train or the bus to Les Bosson. Keep going through the village towards Les Houches. You're looking for the small roundabout that is just after the school. Take this road and walk upwards going under the motorway - the road on Google is Route des Tissieres. You'll walk up to the Telesiege Glacier Des Bossons which only runs in the summer. I know you're quite tempted not to take it, but really do! Having got got off the lift there's just one path to follow up the mountain. There's Chalet des Pyramides which is great for lunch.
If you look up towards the Midi midstation then further along down the valley is the abandoned La Para lift station. It's possible to do this a walk upwards from Chamonix, or walk across from the Aigulle mid-station.
This is a very hard hike and could transition into mountaineering, while the ground is not super difficult there is weather risk. This is not suitable for children after the first part.
Get the bus to Le Buet. Walk up to the Cascade de Berard, and then up the river valley to the Refuge de la Pierre a Berard. After the hut take the steep path towards Aiguille de Salenton and from there to a lean to shelter called the Abri de Pcitet, finally to the top of Mont Buet. There are chains on some sections to assist in the scrambling - see this Mont Buet map. There are options to turn this into a round trip if you're very adventurous.
The best views of Mont Blanc are from the Italian side, where you get a great sense of a wild mountain with the crack and slide of ancient ice. The Bonatti refuge hut is about as civilised as a 'high mountain' hut comes, with hot water and a great terrace for having a beer and enjoying the view.
This trip is safe for children and will give them a taste of mountain hiking.
To get to the hut either drive or take a bus through the tunnel to Courmayer. Then walk up into the town to the main church where there are signs. After walking out of town the path turns upwards steeply as it zig-zags through the forest to the Refuge Bertone: while the path is good, if it's hot it can be exhausting so stop here for a drink! Then we get the benefit of the balcony views as we undulate along for a couple of hours until eventually getting to the Refuge Walter Bonatti. All the TMB books show the route, and there are a few different ones on WikiLoc (Ref Bertone).
Don't forget that the Alps gets all weather types and all temperature types as you move up in altitude: plenty of sun protection at the top, jumpers in the middle and don't forget the waterproofs!
The Walter Bonatti hut is named after the famous climber. It's equivalent to a two-star hotel, basic but clean. The rooms are dormitory style, with individual beds but in one space: there are also some family rooms. The dinner is a set meal in a main dining area. Last time it was lovely, but a bit low on carb - on the other hand we’d be walking for 8 days so by then I was eating the backs of chairs!
The next day there are two options. The first is to walk back to Courmayer. To make it a loop walk down the shorter path into the valley below - not back the way you came. This is a lovely walk down into the valley below and from there either walk back into Courmayer or get the bus back (these are a bit infrequent). Courmayer is worth exploring, there's good shops and fantastic pizza! If you're very fast it's possible to get the panoramic lift across the whole of Massif, rather than getting a bus back through the tunnel.
The alternative option means extending into three days as you walk up and over into Switzerland to La Fouly and beyond.
Both camping close to refuges but also camping out in the wilds. The rules are pretty strict, no pitching before it's close to sun down, and tents must be moved by sun up. I've actually seen Gendamerie! You're likely to be aware by 6 am so never much of an issue!
There's both road biking and an extensive set of mountain bike trails.
This trail is precisely 1 vertical km from the churn to Plan Praz.
This can be walked, but it's a much more interesting run. Go down to the lake and then over.
Either part of all of it.
The UTMB is a world famous festival of ultrarunning.
Les Houche, bus ride. Has kit for kids and instruction can be hired. Opening time varies depending on the weather, but always open in the afternoon and evening.
Haven’t been but it’s in the center of town and probably has enough in it to get a sense of the mountaineering successes and disasters as the puny humans have tried to conquer the ageless towers of rock and ice.
OR 2-day multi trip to Bonatti
There are restaurants for every budget size in Chamonix, Browse the options to see if there's something you'd love. Here are some good ones, in roughly cost order:
Great pizzas in an informal atmosphere. It’s very popular (because it’s good and not that expensive), so we have to book and/or go early. Trip Adviser says 7th best out of 170 restaurants!
Bartavel is a pizza and pasta restaurant right in the middle of town. It's sort of a neighbourhood restaurant, there's no flash but it does the job well and it's a reasonable price. It's also very family friendly and relaxed. There's a wide ranging 'tourist' menu, which means there's something for everyone (more limited for vegetarians) - the pizza and pasta are the strengths. In summer there's outdoor seating, which gets sun early. They serve quickly, and are generally easy to deal with. TripAdvisor has Bartavel at 73 of 179 which shows you that some people value
I think this one is a gem, but not everyone likes it. It’s a super informal, cheap with big servings of Italian: everything I want after a full day of activity. It’s solid quality (sometimes a bit salty) and fast with a good range of classic Italian pasta and pizza. There are only two servings, 6pm and 8pm in winter - not sure about the summer. Trip Advisor says Neopolis is 53 of 170 restaurants.
Bighorn is THE place to go for drinks in the evening and dinner - and the only place for brunch on a Sunday! It's an informal venue in Chamonix Sud - Chamonix Sud is the 'English speaking' quarter so easy to deal with. Very kid friendly with burgers, and very adult friendly with a great range of beers. I will grant you it's not a French menu - but steaks are an international language, and the owners are Vegetarian so this is the best place in town if you're starting to hear whining that bacon is not actually veggy!. Bighorn is rated 2 out of 170 on Trip Advisor
Chambre Neuf Might be OK in the summer as it’s in a lovely spot.
Maison Moustache Sophie’s notes say it’s ‘hearty and filling French dishes’, which sounds good. Reviews mention a good Savoyard menu - cheese! Trip Advisor and Chamonet.
Despite the name, it’s a lovely restaurant with an asian twist. Nice dining, not sure how child friendly it is. Sophie loves it, we like it but are too cheap to eat there regularly. Trip advisor says it’s the 8th out of 160 restaurants in Chamonix.
Fine dining in a beautiful wood interior restaurant. Soph’s notes say it’s her second favourite after Munchie, also has a Asian twist - and oddly they’re right opposite each other! T rip Advisor reviews.
In the Morgane. Sophs notes say it’s excellent but expensive - didn’t think much of it when we stayed in the hotel - we didn’t even eat there! See Chamonet review.
The Aiglon is a modern hotel with a nice restaurant and a spa. The restaurant is on a patio with a fantastic view up towards Mont Blanc: the food used to be fantastic, it seems to have dropped to ‘good’ in the last few years, but it’s still worth going to for the views during the day or evening. Call it a spa is a bit rich, it’s a small swimming pool and a hot tub - but lovely for an afternoon. There’s a lunch and two-hour offer for either 30 Euro or 70 Euros depending on whether you want a massage. Trip Advisor reviews.
If you have the misfortune of having a vegetarian with you and want fine dining then this is a good option. It’s in Chamonix Sud just down from the Aiglon hotel. About 25 minutes walk from the flat.