Self Guided Tour du Mont Blanc Hike

by Mike Still
Self Guided Tour du Mont Blanc Hike

The Alps are known around the world for their mountain majesty, famously home to year-round adventures at ski resorts on well-maintained trails.  When Elizabeth and I pieced together an itinerary for our summer 2022 European trip, we thought it would be fun to explore the Alps but didn’t know where to begin.  It wasn’t until our friends Cody & Mariah mentioned their self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc in 2019 that we even heard this kind of hike was an option.  After a quick Google of Tour du Mont Blanc hike, we immediately agreed that this trek from Chamonix, France, into both Switzerland and Italy and back to France was right up our alley.

This post is going to be larger and longer than usual as I try to encompass both our experiences and also guide others trying to go on their own Tour du Mont Blanc.  Please make use of the table of contents to jump to your relevant section and bookmark this page to finish reading later.  It may take more than one sitting to read it all!

Tour du Mont Blanc tips

Officially the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) takes between 8-12 days covering 170km (105 miles) with 10,251 m (33,632 ft) of elevation gain/loss.  The fastest times that we heard of were a trail runner completing the whole ultra marathon in roughly 18 hours!  Elizabeth and I had other European plans with a nephew to meet beforehand and a wedding to attend after so we realized squeezing in 8+ days to do the entire Tour du Mont Blanc wouldn’t be possible.  Thankfully the tour company recommended by Cody & Mariah, Altitude Mont Blanc, offered a 4-day and 6-day self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc hike that was exactly what we needed.  They arranged all our hotel accommodations and transferred luggage so all we hiked with was a day pack!  The ~$915 price tag included dinner, breakfast, and the rooms for our entire hike making us feel like we got a steal of a deal.

More days will be more expensive since you need more food & accommodations while shorter hikes are cheaper.  We picked the 6-day self-guided hike Mont Blanc because it fit perfectly in our schedule and let us hike through 3 different countries seeing all sides of Mont Blanc.  There were a handful of public bus transfers that aren’t included but totaled less than $50 each.  A few tour company transfers were included in the price.  

Book your Tour du Mont Blanc hiking tour as early as possible!  We booked our TMB 3 and a half months beforehand and were told that space was already filling up.  We had to hike around Mont Blanc clockwise, rather than the traditional counterclockwise, and paid an extra fee for a taxi transfer to one of our hotels since the typical city people stay in had no vacancy!  

Download Google Maps for the entire region.  This will help you get to each hotel and get around the villages in between trails.

Getting to Chamonix and Les Houches proved to be a longer and more frustrating experience than we expected.  Although France and Germany (where we departed from) are connected with countless railways we still had to zig-zag with 4 different transfers over the course of 14 hours to get from Homburg train station in Germany to Les Houches, France.  The ride from Les Houches to Paris only about 6 hours with 2 transfers.


Self-Guided Tour du Mont Blanc Packing List

Read the fine print about your luggage transfer!  We were only allowed 10 kg (~22 lbs) each.  That wasn’t an issue for us since our checked bags didn’t arrive until after we finished hiking and we had minimal outfits to choose from.  We hope that Condor reimburses us for the gear we purchased in order to do this trip but it made us realize that we can get by with a more minimalist approach.
Some hikers that we met shipped their gear separately and it arrived 3 days before them.
All Mont Blanc hiking tours will be different but you can generally plan using this packing list.  

Mont Blanc Packing List

  • Good hiking shoes (we used Salomon Trail runners)
  • Hiking long pants
  • Hiking shorts
  • 2-3 Hiking shirts (we washed ours in the sink a few times)
  • Enough underwear and socks for your whole trip.
  • 2-3L of water capacity
  • A lightweight backpack (we used Salomon running packs)
  • Book/journal/laptop
  • Wind/rain layers
  • Trail snacks (trail mix, bars, etc.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat/sun visor
  • sunscreen
  • A camera (phones work great but I had my DSLR)
  • Basic first aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Cash (Euro & Swiss Franc)
  • Hiking Poles (optional)

Tour du Mont Blanc Blog

Below you’ll find the day-by-day journal that I kept while hiking and am publishing as a Tour Du Mont Blanc Blog.  All the photos and videos below were taken by Mike Still or Elizabeth Knapp.  For clarification, the term “self-guided” means that we did not have a guide with us but we paid for a tour company to plan our route, book our hotels and ship our bags between.  The tour company sent two maps and two guidebooks to Saint Antoine Hotel in Les Houches, where we stayed the night before our trek.  We also paid $25 for an app with our personalized route that helped us navigate, it was WELL worth the cost!  Both of us were allowed to download it for one price.  Despite all these gear, apps, and maps, we mostly just followed the trail signs to the next landmark.  The trails are well maintained and easy to follow for anyone with hiking experience. 

Tour du Mont Blanc Itinerary

There are plenty of options for a Tour du Mont Blanc itinerary.  You can stay in theTour du Mont Blanc refuges or hike down into the villages every night like we did. Trips can by anywhere from 4-12 days and you should work with your tour company to arrange something that fits your travel plans.  People do everything from hiking to running, biking or even a camping tour du Mont Blanc.  Our hiking Tour du Mont Blanc 6 day itinerary was as follows:

Day 0: Arrive in Les Houches by Train
Day 1: Take a gondola and hike from Chamonix to Argentiere
Day 2: Tour company bus transfer to Trient and hike to Lac Champex
Day 3: Public Bus transfer to La Folly and hike to Arp Nouva for a public bus to Courmayeur
Day 4: Take a Gondola and hike from Courmayeur to Ville des Glaciers for a tour company transfer to our hotel.
Day 5: Tour company transfer to Les Champeaux and hike to Les Contamines
Day 6: Hike from Les Contamines to Les Houches  

Day 1 Chamonix to Argentiere

France via Aiguilles Rouges Trail
Tour du Mont Blanc Self Guided

Public bus to La Flégère Cable Car & Cable Car to trailhead
TMB Night 1: Hotel La Couronne in Argientere

I never would have guessed that the French Alps make the perfect honeymoon destination until we started our trek around Mont Blanc.  Elizabeth and I booked a tour with Altitude Mont Blanc almost exactly 1 year after our wedding.  We spent our first week in Europe with Ben, Jenae & Lukas, before venturing to Chamonix, an “outdoor enthusiast theme park,” as Elizabeth eloquently labeled the valley.  

Our journey began with La Flégère, a gondola ride to the Lac Blanc trailhead.  It was a beautiful, bluebird day after an alpenglow sunset the night before.  The Flegere cable car was a short bus ride from our hotel in Les Houches through the Chamonix valley to Chamonix center.  I kept thinking how beautiful everything was from down below only to be blown away by the view at the top!

Hiking began with a slow and steady climb along a wide gravel road.  There were countless other hikers out on this beautiful day which prompted Elizabeth to say “Chamonix feels like an outdoor lover’s Disneyland.”  Countless shops for hiking, skiing, and biking down below only solidified that description, especially since she followed it up with “every single one of my favorite stores are here!”  We opted NOT to shop focused on the trail.

The trail to Lac Blanc enters Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve and eventually narrows to a walking trail full of rough-cut stone steps intermixed with natural ledges.  There are countless viewpoints and as the trail narrows, it grows steeper.  I found myself huffing and puffing in my usual chasing Elizabeth style of outdoor adventure.  But, this time she commented on shortness of breath too!   The gondola ride brought us 842m (2762ft) above Chamonix, which was already well above sea level, and we’d been hiking uphill for the better part of two hours already.

Our past few years of hiking in Alaska got us in shape for steep trails, but most of the time we start near sea level.  The Alps and Alaskan mountains have a lot in common geographically but hikes in the Alps start much higher up.  We weren’t worried about altitude sickness but we did take frequent breaks, draining our water flasks daily.  It was a godsend that we only had a daypack with us and that alone was reason for us to sing the praises of booking a self-guided hike.  

These light packs were my saving grace for reaching Lac Blanc, no sweatier than I was, but unfortunately, we were greeted with signs that said “please, no bath”.  Instead of continuing my Alaskan summer streak of swimming in trailside lakes, we took in the view on a rocky precipice debating an early lunch. It was only 11:30 so we nibbled and let our sweaty shirts dry off while taking a few photos but decided to wait for the full meal.  

Before leaving we reviewed the map and happily discovered that the day’s ascent was over!  From Lac Blanc our trail descended roughly 4,000 feet over the next 6 miles. There were steep downhill sections with one wrought iron ladder and a waiting line of hikers.  At other points, wooden steps were anchored into slippery rock faces.  We were tempted to skip the skirt around a traffic jam using our Alaskan skills to descend a rocky gully but were deterred by signs reminding tourists to stay on trail.

After a few more traffic jams we came to the first of three tarns, or mountain lakes.  Our guidebook suggested swimming here with a view of Mont Blanc and I happily obliged.  The cool water refreshed me but I couldn’t convince Elizabeth to join me.  We ate our baguette picnic while I dried off and a handful of other tourists enjoyed the cooling water.  

I sent Elizabeth around to the far side of the lake to model in some telephoto shots using a perspective trick to make the mountains behind her seem closer.  Our modeling sessions worked perfectly, except for all the tourists who got in the way of a broader shot.  Elizabeth worked the angles as I snapped the shutter and then we met on the outgoing trail.

From here on out, the trail gently descended keeping panoramic views of Mont Blanc, and its neighboring spires.  Glaciers rest high up between the mountains while picturesque villages busied below.  It was mid-afternoon when we decided to take the longer detour out to Col de Montets chalet, an historic home of the founder of the Aiguilles Rouges Park.  The trail was easy to follow and took an extra 2-3 hours of hiking.  It was nice to spend the whole day in the sun but if you wanted to cut your day short, this section is not as picturesque as the first half of the day.  We enjoyed the fact that there weren’t any more uphills and we were happy to spend the afternoon walking in the beautiful sunshine rather than checking into the hotel early.

By this point, the number of other hikers was drastically different from the easily accessed trails by Lac Blanc and the gondola.  We took our time meandering along, stopping frequently for water, photos, a pack break and a shoulder massage or two.  Eventually, we came to a steep section of switchbacks that promised to take us down to the valley floor and the roadside museum dedicated to this alpine region.

The roadside trail diverted through the trees and passed a green-filled brook.  I glanced through the woods and was reminded of the stark contrast between valleys, foothills and the alpine habitat we were just in.  Lush forest filled the valley where roads and houses did not.  Before we knew it the village of Argentiere was upon us.  We followed our GPS past a picturesque graveyard with Mont Blanc as a backdrop.  A local market sported dried, pressed flowers, local paintings, photographs and handicrafts but none of it was the souvenir we were looking for so we checked in and reminisced on a wonderful first day of our tour de Mont Blanc! 

Day 2 Trient to Lac Champex

Switzerland via Fenetre d’Arpette
Self Guided Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour Company transfer from Argentiere to Trient (saved ~8 hours of hiking)
TMB Night 2: Hotel Splendide in Lac Champex, Switzerland

The second day of our Tour du Mont Blanc began with a quick drive from Argentiere across the Swiss border to the village of Trient.  We had two options for today’s hike, stroll through mountain pastures on the Bovine route or take Fenetre d’Arpette, a steep mountain pass that gets close to the glacier du trient.  After some deliberation, Elizabeth and I decided this would be our best chance to get a high mountain view since most of the other trails laid out in our guidebook had a view of the mountains rather than actually passing through them.

Elizabeth’s friend Maridel reached out asking if we would hike in Switzerland after seeing our first social media post about this trip.  The pair met at music camp as kids and hadn’t seen each other in over a decade so what a great stroke of luck that Maridel now lives in Basel, Switzerland, and took a 4.5-hour series of trains to meet us in Trient!  It was great getting to know Maridel throughout the day and watching Elizabeth and Maridel reminisce.

The three of us set out from the “pink church” in Trient and followed a series of switchbacks through the forest before coming to a T.  We had all agreed on doing the harder mountain pass, but until this moment we could change our minds so we had one last round of discussion before agreeing to push ourselves and take the harder trail.  Turning right and following signs for Fenetre d’Arpette, we enjoyed a mile or so of flat forested trail.  

The Trient Glacier quickly appeared through the trees and motivated us to hike onward.  The trail gradually grew steeper adding switchbacks and pseudo staircases to take us higher up.  At one point there was a rope to steady us while the path narrowed.  

The steeper it grew, the more scrambling we had to do using hands to steady ourselves on the rocks.  We were undeterred and enjoyed the mountain air with glacial katabatic winds cooling us down in the summer heat.  We stopped for many photos with the glacier in full view and a lush river valley below eventually making it to the ruins of Vesevey.  We took our first pack break sitting on the deck of a shelter built into the ruins and dated 1894.  Enjoying the view, we decided to wait for our baguette lunch until we reached the pass above us.

From Vesevey onward the trail grew ever steeper as switchbacks gave way to boulder fields.  The trail felt vertical at times and Elizabeth’s Garmin watch later agreed with that assessment by saying we only had a few hours of “moving time” because our path kept going UP instead of across!

Beautiful views and lunch can be equally motivating and we eventually made it to the top of the pass.  As difficult as this climb was, I happily reported that I felt much more comfortable on this pass than last summer’s Backdoor Gap in Hatcher Pass.  The Fenetre d’Arpette remains in my memory as a difficult hike with great views but nowhere near the hardest trails that I’ve been on.

Maridel ate a smaller lunch and opted to get a head start on the downhill; despite being a literal ironwoman, she feared her pace would be too slow for Elizabeth and me.  The truth is she had just come off of two days of 20+ kilometer trail runs and her legs longed for a rest day, but in true Elizabethan fashion, Elizabeth convinced her to come on a grueling hike anyway!

The way down felt steeper and sketchier, but perhaps that’s because we were staring down the mountain the whole time.  Our route had a lot of loose gravel on the trail but we were all able to keep our balance and make way to the large boulders down below.  Elizabeth and I were both surprised to see trail signs painted on these rocks; she even exclaimed that “this trail is like an Alaskan one, but ours would just be boulders and no markings!”

By now we were hours into the day and Maridel felt like an old friend.  We talked about various mountain adventures, some that she and her husband Georg, had undertaken in Switzerland and others that Elizabeth and I enjoyed in Alaska.  We discussed the different types of skis and discovered that our garage has no less than 15 pairs of skis in it (that’s for two people!)  Biking, marathons, triathlons, video games, drones, and evolutionary biology (Maridel’s PhD specialty) were all welcome topics as our legs begged for a distraction.

Somehow the path leveled out revealing huge swaths of fireweed before emptying into a pasture-filled valley.  At the far end stood a few homes and a road that connected us to civilization.  That meant we could refill water, shower off the grime, and eat a delicious meal.  But it also meant that Maridel would have to leave us for the last train home.  We hustled along a riverside trail with forest canopy overhead, stopping only to admire the gnomes and their trailside gnome houses.

To save a few minutes we found a bus that took us the rest of the way to Lac Champex where Elizabeth and I were staying and could take Maridel all the way to her train station.  A quicker goodbye than we would have liked renewed the friendship between Elizabeth and Maridel and excited me at the idea of Zooming Maridel in to talk about animal adaptations for our upcoming science unit.

Elizabeth and I checked into Hotel Splendide and found our 2nd-floor balcony view to be splendid indeed.  We enjoyed a 3-course meal giving us high hopes of processing the day’s photos and journaling before bed.  But alas, exhaustion took hold and I’m writing this the next day in Courmayeur.

Day 3 La Folly to Arp Nouva

Switzerland to Italy via Grand Col du Ferret
Tour du Mont Blanc Hiking

Public Bus Transfers from Lac Champex to La Folly & Arp Nouva to Courmayeur (saved ~12 hours of hiking)
TMB Night 3: Hotel Maison Sant Jean, Courmayeur, Italy

The third day of our Tour du Mont Blanc began with more blue skies and a bus ride from Lac Champex to La Folly, Switzerland.  Despite starting at a roadside river we saw huge mountains on either side.  At first, I worried that like yesterday, it would be beautiful, but the landscapes wouldn’t hold a candle to the Chamonix valley where we began.  Boy was I mistaken!

This was our second-day hiking in Switzerland but since we opted to go over a mountain pass and NOT take the bovine trail, we hadn’t seen or heard any cows yet.  Cowbells foretold delicious cheese and added a novelty bringing arrhythmic music to our hike.  The green mountainsides shone in the sun and rang with domestic free-range herds bringing a smile to our faces.  Naturally, Elizabeth and I joined in with our own mountain song with everything from our favorites to totally made-up tunes.  

Opposite the cows were rocky mountaintops which hid a few hanging glaciers and captured my attention at every turn. These cirque and hanging glaciers reminded me of home in Alaska, but somehow captured an entirely different essence of mother nature. The view evolved as we went further down the trail as rocky precipices played hide and seek with the ice.  

We passed a handful of villages before the trail diverted us across the river and into the woods then back onto the road again.  This happened again bringing some variety to the relatively flat start to our day.  As we approached the next bridge we saw a sign signaling the trailhead for Grand Col du Ferret, our highest point for today’s hike.  

This trailhead took us up the eastern slope and past green pastures switchbacking along a dirt trail which proved to be a dirt “road” when a tractor hauled past us. Purple monkshood, pink fireweed, and beautiful mountains tried to capture our gaze but we kept stretching skyward towards ominous clouds looming behind nearby peaks.  Today’s weather forecasted thunderstorms by 2:00pm. We were prepared with rain gear but didn’t want to get caught in any kind of storm, let alone one with thunder and lightning.  Our plan was to be on the far side of the mountain heading downhill before any ill weather arrived.  

As the white clouds billowed together into larger formations a few of them shifted shade to an ever darker grey.  We talked about lightning safety and had recently been scared straight by a National Parks in the Dark podcast about a lethal lightning strike in the Grand Tetons.  We didn’t really have a backup plan for getting to our next hotel in case of a storm so decided to kick it up a gear!

Powering onward and upward, we were grateful for switchbacks on this side of the mountain as we gradually gained more elevation.  Our cameras stayed stowed for most of the uphill, and despite looking forward to delicious cheese we only stopped for a snack and to catch our breath at the first refuge, Alpage de la Peule.  Everything was still going to plan, we enjoyed a raclette-style cheese-covered ham & toast looking forward to a similarly cheesy lunch on the downhill refuge.   Still darker clouds lit a fire beneath us so we powered onward yet again.

The first sign said it would take us 1 hr 30 min to reach the Grand Col du Ferret, a mountain border between Switzerland and Italy.  Our guidebook on the other hand said it would take more like 2.5 hours, either way, we knew not to dilly dally too much with our cameras.  

The incline was what really took my breath away.  As the switchbacks grew longer, my breathing became more labored.  I forced us to take a few breaks so I could catch up but happily recuperate for some flat stretches and we decided to jog a bit and shave off a few minutes from the journey.  On one of the first bends after we began jogging, a massive black and brown marmot let out a warning squeak before scurrying back to it’s den.  I only captured a blurry photo but can clearly remember the marbled pattern in his fur, a stark contrast to Alaskan marmots that I’ve seen which are camouflaged with a single earthen tone.

We didn’t watch the critter for long and our minds quickly went to the singular goal of reaching the precipice BEFORE any storm opens up.  The trail petered out a bit and we jogged a little more before one last gentle uphill.  Upon reaching Col du Grand Ferret we were immediately awestruck with the first view of the Italian Alps!  A unique river valley paralleled the road to Courmayeur while we stood among peaks and glaciers.  Mont Dolent was the most prominent with a cirque glacier sitting in it’s upper bowl framed by Punta Allobrogia and Aiguille de Triolet.  A second glacier hung near Aiguille de Talefre as the gray clouds created a moody backdrop for the panoramic ridgeline.  

Aiguille translates to “needle” in French and is the surname for many of the spires in the Mont Blanc region.

Posing for a photo at the sign indicating country divide we coincidentally bumped into an American trio, two of whom lived in Rockaway!  With all the incline behind us, relief washed over both Elizabeth and me as we traded small talk with the other hikers and ventured to another lookout for Italian glacier photos. 

By the time we were ready to start hiking down it felt like the storm threat had passed.  Any hint of blue skies were replaced with clouds but they grew lighter and didn’t hint of lightning anymore.  Even so, we decided not to wait too long and opted to jog sections that weren’t too steep.  By now we were looking forward to a late lunch at the Rifugio Elena (Refuge Elena) And kept a steady pace letting us pass many hikers but still maintaining control of our footsteps.

Beneath us lay a glacier river and a few Italian villages on the outskirts of Courmayeur.  Sunrays pierced the clouds and highlighted rocky cliffs, a forested valley and so much more.  As the descent continued we still stopped sporadically for photos with fireweed, a nice view, or just to take a silly selfie.  Our trail run brought us to the refuge in under an hour but sadly we were literally minutes too late to order food from the kitchen.  They rang the bell signaling no more food when we walked in and settled for white bread toast with cheese and ham.  At least the cheese was fresh, but it was our least favorite meal of the trek.

We met many other hikers at the refuge and one mentioned that the bus to Courmayeur leaves in 45 minutes.  The stop was just a few kilometers from the refuge and if we missed it, the next bus wasn’t for another hour after that.  Elizabeth and I read each other’s mind and went for one last bathroom break and then a trail run brought us closer to the cows and eventually our Hotel Maison Sant Jean in Courmayeur, Italy

Day 4 Courmayeur to Ville de Glaciers

Italy to France via Checrouit Pass & Col de la Seigne
Tour du Mont Blanc Hike

Tour Company Transfer from Les Champeaux to Roselend (no change in hiking)
This was an extra expense since there was no vacancy in Valle de glaciers or Les Champeaux
TMB Night 4: Chalet de Roselend, Beaufort, France

Today was another epic day on the Tour de Mont Blanc and after 4 straight days of hiking my legs are jelly.  We’re staying in a beautiful penthouse overlooking Lac Roselend in Beaufort, France after hiking from Courmayeur, Italy to the Valle des Glaciers.  A thunderstorm that threatened us the past two days is finally here but we’re enjoying the rolling thunder from the comfort of our balcony.

After our concierge in Courmayeur told us the southern view of Mont Blanc is “fantastik!” we decided to take add a 2 hour detour from the original plan.  It began with a quick Gondola ride before we hiked up a Courmayeur ski slope to the Checrouit Pass.  The ski resort made us want to visit in the winter as we passed countless chairlifts and discovered that there were slopes and lifts on the far side of the mountain too!  But today, the massifs beyond were what captured our attention.

Mont Blanc’s southern face is full of craggy fissures with multiple glaciers descending between.  Morning light shone beautifully on the mountain’s lower half while clouds obstructed the peak.  Below us was a forested river valley sporting pastures between scant villages.  The two hour detour was full of panoramic views as we hiked westward offering new dynamic views of Aiguille des Glaciers, a massif with a red rocky precipice that taunted us with even more glaciers descending down its side.

The trail gradually ascended above the treeline and past the ski resort boundaries leading way to mountain pastures.  Before passing a sheppard and his flock we met countless other hikers heading the opposite way on the first few days of their own Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB.)  

Elizabeth and I were concerned that the detour would take too long so we decided to start jogging the downhills again.  Altitude Mont Blanc (our self-guided tour company) arranged for a 4PM taxi pickup that we estimated we would just make if we kept up a good pace.  Plus, we are crazy and enjoy some mountain runs.

Switch backs took us down into the valley below where we passed the Refuge Combal and joined a hiking highway toward Elisabetta Refuge and today’s highest elevation, Col de la Seigne; the Italian border with France.  Aiguille des Glaciers came closer into view as a massive waterfall melting off the glacier appeared.  Simply put, we were awestruck!  We’ve seen plenty of mountains and glaciers in Alaska, but this unique landscape in the Alps filled us with a new kind of magic.  

Back home reaching a point like this would require considerable mountaineering but here the trails are well maintained and well marked.  We jogged much of this straightaway before coming to a set of switchbacks beneath Elisabetta Refuge.  Fireweed came out in full bloom along the hillside and we mixed road hiking with the overgrown trail skipping switchbacks through the brush.  By now my legs were ready to quit but the thought of a delicious Italian lunch kept me going.  That, and Elizabeth.

Relaxing on the balcony was a welcome respite and I selfishly took my shoes off while we ordered a large local beer, deer meat in polenta and the best damn ravioli I’ve ever had!  We wanted to linger longer but had another 900 feet of elevation to gain before we crossed into France at the Col de la Seigne so we refilled our water, reapplied sunscreen and pushed onward.

The trail maintained a gradual uphill for the next mile before giving way to steeper hills and switchbacks through the pastures.  A cowherd serenaded us as we passed when suddenly we heard our first thunderbolt!  Pausing momentarily to evaluate whether we needed to seek shelter or push onward, we realized that shelter would mean missing our taxi.  There were just a few ominous clouds but no rain and much of the sky was still a healthy mix of white clouds and blue sky.  We hiked past the Cassermetta, a stone fortification reminding hikers of darker days in Italy’s past, when they fought against France and the Allies during World War II.  This whole region was a theater of war with remains like the Cassermetta here to remind us.  We hadn’t heard any more thunder and only paused momentarily at the shelter before agreeing to make the push over the pass.

Now past the two main mountains, our views were filled with lesser rocky precipices and we thought the day’s majesty was behind us.  But when we crossed into France at the top of Col de la Seigne a stunning new valley opened before us!  This time a rocky shield had mountain grains detailing ancient forces with sharp peaks and reflective greenery shining in the distance.  

Each pass that we take on this Tour du Mont Blanc offers unique views and we have struggled to pick out favorites.  Today, as I write this, I declare it to be the best day of hiking with differently dynamic views throughout the day.  But who knows what tomorrow will bring or how I’ll feel when I review photos from the tour.

We half walked half jogged down the switchbacks through a French Valley to Ville des Glaciers.  Elizabeth and I posed in each other’s photos and ran side by side enjoying every moment of this downhill stretch.  Our legs were happy for the change of pace and the extra speed gave us time to stop and watch a red falcon dive bomb for voles.   Multiple marmots hopped in and out of their dens while we paused frequently to take in the view.  We passed Refuge Des Mottets snapping a photo before our last mile to Ville des Glaciers where our taxi to Chalet de Roselend quickly arrived.  Altogether we covered roughly 14 miles and enjoyed countless views on our fourth day of the Tour du Mont Blanc! 

Day 5 Les Champeaux to Les Contamines

France via Col du Bonhomme
Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour Company Transfer from to Roselend to Les Champeaux (no change in hiking)
This was an extra expense since there was no vacancy in Valle de glaciers or Les Champeaux
TMB Night 5: Chalet-Hotel Gai Soleil, Les Contamines, France

Our fifth day of hiking began at Les Champeaux with a steady switchbacking road but, naturally, we opted to take most of the footpaths cutting through the pastures.  After four days of hiking 10+ miles with thousands of feet of elevation gain, my legs were tired even before today’s trail carried us nearly 3,000 feet up.  We were surrounded by rolling green hills sporting a mountainous backdrop.  Jagged ridgelines framed the landscape and as the clouds parted, aiguilles, or mountaintop needles, revealed themselves.  Many of these peaks were still snow-capped in August and we had a hard time telling if they were the same mountains we hiked by these past few days.  Either way, two things were certain, the scenery was gorgeous and my legs would have preferred an off-day.

Elizabeth marched onward encouraging me to fight through the heavy breathing and burning muscles.  I kept thinking about how great this trip has been to help me train for a half-marathon in the fall, but then remembered all the spectacular scenes and quickly forgot about training.  As with most hikes, I eventually found myself in a rhythm.  My breathing stayed heavy, but was in a deliberate cadence as sweat trickled down every inch of my exposed skin.  I focused on bringing one foot in front of the other and enjoyed frequent breaks.  As Elizabeth came to a trickling stream she paused waiting for me then suggested I splash the cool water on my face.

Frequent breaks at stream crossings, particularly stunning viewpoints, or just because I was tired were the key to making it to the top of today’s hike.  Our first stop was Refuge et col de la Croix du Bonhomme and we enjoyed a pack break with a view.  Normally we’d look for some food at the refuge but it turns out that we made such good time that neither of us were hungry yet!  We arrived around 11:00AM after just two hours of hiking (even though the signs said it would take us 3 hours!)   With the whole day ahead of us we happily realized the majority of vertical ascent was behind us, just a few hundred feet of slight ups and downs before we came to the Col du Bonhomme and truly started descending.  

Instead of descending straight away we paused for some photos when Elizabeth spotted two animals with huge horns on the ridge above us!  Sure enough, a male and female ibex posed while we stood in awe.  We decided to sneak up the Col des Fours to get closer to these magnificent beasts and managed to snap a few photos before a hiker on their ridgeline spooked them.  The ibex ran from this random man and his dog as Elizabeth and I commiserated over poor dog owner etiquette remembering that plenty of Americans struggle to maintain a healthy distance with wildlife.

As we hiked down from the Col we managed to catch two more glimpses of ibex seeing 5 different animals.  They were far off on the rocky ridge alternating between camouflage and silhouetting themselves with the sky.  Elizabeth and I and just been discussing today’s view and agreed it was nice, but nothing compared to the last few days of snow capped peaks and glaciers feeding lush valleys.  Then we saw these unique wild goats with recurve horns and had to reconsider.  We went on this hike expecting not to see any wildlife, were were here for the views and knew it would be more crowded than we were used to.  We expected wildlife to be scared off but were gladly surprised by the ibex.

The Alps filled our eyes with beautiful mountains as we descended hundreds of feet from the Col du Bonhomme to the next refuge.  We jogged sections of the well-maintained trail and walked when rocks were scattered underfoot.  

Before we knew it the Refuge de la Balme was upon us and we ordered the “mountain pie” with a cheese plate.  Cheese on this trip has been indescribably delicious and with such a variety that many of them were entirely foreign to us.  On more than one occasion I asked the server to name all the cheeses on our plate and recognized only one or two, but ate all of them nonetheless.  The French mountain pie was a savory meat pie with perfectly cooked potatoes and the perfect blend of spices. 

The last stretch of today’s hike was another half kilometer of descent into the trees passing a raging gorge.  The temperature dropped to a comfortable level between the shade and water spraying up from the river.  It helped that we weren’t going uphill anymore so our muscles finally got the chance to relax.  

We stopped for a bathroom break in the middle of the Les Contamines-Montjoie playgrounds.  There were zip lines, pools, an archery range, biathlon course, roller ski course, ski jumps and so much more!  It looked like fun for a whole family, but we were really just there for the bathroom.  As soon as we got back to the road a bus pulled up Harry Potter style, opening the door and beckoning us in.  We didn’t know we were at a bus stop, nor that it was the bus we wanted.  But when I poorly pronounced “Les Contamines” we eventually were told it was the right bus.  Fast forward a few moments when I’d finally figured out what route we were on and realized we passed the bridge leading to the center of town and were already a mile north of our hotel.

Elizabeth and I decided to jump off at the next stop and resolved to walk the 30 minutes back towards our hotel meaning the busride actually added 5-10 minutes to our day!  We were sure the bus was going another 3 stops further away and started walking when a passenger waved us back on the bus.  We told them to go without us and it turns out our lack of French really did us in,  because the bus skipped the final stops and made a turn back towards the city center all too late for us to jump back on.

Walking back to Les Contamines was fine.  It wasn’t good, we were both a bit grumpy about it especially since the bus actually went where we needed to go and we had to continue uphill on foot.  But, eventually we made it to the center of town, did a little souvenir shopping and arrived at the incredible Chalet-hotel Gai Soleil ready to take off our shoes, rinse off the day’s grime and eat a delicious meal.

Day 6 Les Contamines to Les Houches

France via Col du Tricot
Tour du Mont Blanc Hiking Tour

Bonus night after hiking: Saint Antoine Hotel in Les Houches

Last night we’d decided to take the longer, steeper alternate route past Col du Tricot and were in store for a predicted 7-hour hike.  But, before I even got out of bed I was debating asking Elizabeth if she wanted to reconsider.  Boy was I glad that she insisted on sticking to our original plan because the 6th day brought even more epic views and we had blue skies all the way until dinnertime!  The last day of our Mont Blanc hike tour proved to be one of the highlights of the whole trip.

After another delicious French breakfast we departed Hotel Gai Soleil and followed the asphalt upward to the trailhead.  It was a good warmup for the day and also our earliest start since we literally started hiking right after breakfast.  Both of our stomachs would have preferred a little time to digest so we joined the nearby cows in a belching chorus.  The trail led into the woods and continued alternating between switchbacks and steep steps.  

Behind us the low fog covers most of Les Contamines with blue skies above the cloudy sea as the sun remains hidden behind mountains.  Hiking in the shade for the next hour is a pleasant change of pace from the previous ascents in the hot sun. The sun peaks over the mountains by the time  we reach Chalets du Truc and stop for a few photos.  Elizabeth took this moment to put on sunscreen realizing that she’d left her earrings back at the hotel!  Thankfully we had cell service and called the hotel concierge, who quickly found the earrings and promised to get them to our tour company who could put them in the post.  (There wasn’t time before leaving France so we hope they’ll be in our Alaskan mailbox!)

We hiked past this refuge and instantly were greeted with mountain vistas.  A snow capped peak stood in front of us while verdant foothills filled in the panorama.  Turning back the low clouds swam above the valley as far as the eye can see.  Despite the earring faux pas, today was promising to be an excellent day.

The next corner revealed a glacial massif looming overhead when suddenly an enormous boom came from the cliffs high above.  The mountain rumbled like thunder yet there wasn’t a cloud in sight.  It didn’t look like enough snow for an avalanche this late in August, could there be a hidden storm on the far side?  We froze in place listening to nature’s freight train as I pulled out my phone for a video and the two of us tried to identify the source of this raucous.  We weren’t that close to the mountain yet and didn’t think we were in any danger, but it was certainly one of those “damn nature, you scary!” moments.  

The cacophony continued for a solid minute before we noticed any sign of movement.  It resembled glacier calving that we were familiar with in Alaska, but this was a hanging glacier, not a tidewater one.   It’s possible for a serac or other glacial feature to tumble down the mountain.  Both rockslides and landslides occur in these ever changing landscapes.  Elizabeth spotted a dust trail and then a giant object rolling down at the mountain wreaking havoc on everything in its way.  The house-sized boulder jumped ravines and crashed through trees for over two minutes demonstrating just how massive this mountain is.  Finally it ended in an explosive splash spraying debris through a distant river.  I honestly don’t know if that was a rock, summer avalanche or a landslide but hope it’s the closest we ever come to one!

It turns out we were in the perfect spot for that thunderous moment because once we started hiking again the forest engulfed us.  We descended down to the Miage alpine pasture with a gorgeous refuge in full view of the glacier and mountain.  

Up until then we had been making good time and it was only 10:30 so we decided not to eat here.  I would have lingered longer to give my legs a rest but Elizabeth was ready to push onward.  We consulted the map and got ready for the steep 1,800 foot climb to Col du Tricots.  

Signs predicted it would take us two hours to reach the Col du Tricots despite it only being a mile or so away!  Steep switchbacks appeared before us after crossing a brief alpine pasture.  There was nothing I could do except put one foot in front of the other taking as many breaks as needed.  I picked arbitrary points up the mountain promising myself water, a quick breather or even a chance to sit down on a choice rock at each landmark.

Somehow we made it to the top of the col in just over an hour!  We celebrated with the last of our Trader Joe’s trail mix and dried mangoes while enjoying the view.  I noticed that my phone wasn’t in airplane mode after calling about the earrings and I somehow had full service in this mountain pass.  Naturally, I used the opportunity to go live on Facebook and Instagram!

We took a moment to explore a nearby stone arch with Himalayan prayer flags and discovered a number of hikers using the spot for a shady picnic.  They didn’t speak English and didn’t get the hint that we wanted to take a photo of this landmark WITHOUT them in it.  We decided it wasn’t worth waiting for them and began our final descent of the Tour du Mont Blanc!

The valley on the far side was full of alpine meadows and forests below while needle-like peaks alternated between snowcaps and rocky precipices.  Another glacier loomed between two noticeable summits, each holding a mountain of snow.  As we hiked onward, the glacial river mimicked our earlier percussive serenade.  The dull rumble stayed with us while switching back, pausing for a photoshoot and then hustling down into the forest.  

I paused a handful of times to take pictures of the mountains before us, sunrays filled the bowl with light that reflected off the glacier as shadows painted a beautiful picture.  Each time I stopped, I tried to capture a panorama in hopes of recreating the majesty before me.  Then I walked a few more meters and found the view even more stunning.  Perhaps I knew that it was this hike’s last truly spectacular view from high in the mountains.  Before long we noticed signs saying we were less than two hours from the Bellevue cable car which would take us down to Les Houches and end our Mont Blanc hike.

From this point the descent grew steeper with rocky steps mixed betwee scrambles and brambles.  Our Alaskan hiking background helped Elizabeth and me pass many other hikers on the way down.  We followed the signs and easily made our way to the next landmark, a Himalayan style bridge hanging above the tumultuous glacier river.  The bridge swayed with each step and hikers patiently waited for the person ahead of them to finish before crossing.  There wasn’t too much of a backup but we waited for one couple on the other side only to watch them get halfway across, take a photo and turn around! 

Elizabeth decided to go first and wanted me to film her from this side, but NOT step on the bridge while she was on it.  She held both wire railings and decided not to look down, making it safely across in no time at all.  As she pulled her phone out to film me walking across I decided to film my feet and watch the river gush beneath me.  I kept a steady pace and enjoyed the butterfly-inducing view so much that I didn’t realize my lens cap bumped into the railing and fell off!  When I got to the other side Elizabeth pointed to show me I lost something and at first I thought it was my phone, only to realize that it was still firmly in my grip.

The rest of the way to the Bellevue cable car was graciously uneventful with a brief ascent and descent scrambling up rocky inclines that reminded me of the final stretch of Flattop in Anchorage.  We were hungry by the time we got to the cable car, having not stopped for a meal before ascending to the Col du Tricots and having no other opportunity to eat besides our trail snacks.  Rather than jumping on the cable car here for what promised to be an hour-plus ride down the mountain, we followed signs for Col de Voza, another 25 minutes away and offering food according to the sign.  

We got to Col de Voza and quickly found out they don’t speak English! Somehow I managed to ask one waitress the name of a cheesey dish she was delivering. I heard her say “croute” and was able to find it on our menu before we practiced ordering an omelet and one croute using Google Translate.  Thinking we had the accent close enough, we finally ordered only to have the waitress respond with a plethora of words we couldn’t understand!  I remembered the countless times this happened in Korea and switched to pantomiming which successfully let us order beer along with lunch.

The food came and energized us for the rest of our descent.  Despite my hoping we would take the cable car down, it was nowhere in sight and Elizabeth really wanted to walk all the way to the end so I obliged.  The last two hours of our Tour du Mont Blanc wound between ski slopes, bike paths, pastures and the occasional front yard.  By the time we reached the bottom our legs were cooked.  Well mine were, something tells me Elizabeth could have kept going many more miles!

All told, our self guided Tour du Mont Blanc covered 65 miles in 6 days with 20,000 feet of ascent and another 20,000 feet of descent.  We loved every minute of it and continued to be impressed at the variety of mountainscapes found at each corner.  If we had more time we might have hiked the whole thing in 9 days, but were happy to have taken a few buses and still see every angle around the beautiful Tour du Mont Blanc.  

We spent one final night in Les Houches at the Saint Antoine Hotel and would highly recommend spending a night somewhere nearby before taking the train to your next European destination.  We were bound for two nights Paris before 3 nights at Chateau du Courtemer for Kierstan and Jeff’s wedding in Normandy.  I hope you found this tour du mont blanc guide helpful.  If you’re planning your own tour feel free to reach out and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you’ve got!

Tour du Mont Blanc Map

Our tour company provided a Mont Blanc map but frankly, they messed up and labeled it with incorrect spots in the wrong order.  We barely used the map they provided and found the TMB map below to be helpful.  Combine it with the Tour du Mont Blanc refuges below and you’ll be able to follow all the signs to get where you need to go.  Google Maps was also very helpful when getting to our hotels each night and I recommend downloading the region onto your phone.   When looking for a Tour de Mont Blanc map, you may want to go with the following IGN maps.

IGN Maps of Tour du Mont Blanc on Amazon

Tour du Mont Blanc Refuges

We stopped at countless Mont Blanc refuges on our 6-day tour.  Most of them have dorm-style bunks available that can be reserved ahead of time by a tour company.  If you are planning your own tour du Mont Blanc you can find the names and phone numbers of all Tour du Mont Blanc Refuges in the photo below.

Tour du Mont Blanc Cost

The most expensive part of a self-guided tour du Mont Blanc was getting to the French Alps by plane and train.  All together Elizabeth and I spent very little money while on the Tour du Mont Blanc self-guided hike.   The majority of the Tour du Mont Blanc cost was paid ahead of time to our tour company, Altitude Mont Blanc.  They used the $915 per person to pay for all of our hotels, breakfasts, and dinners.  We spent roughly $100 total on the extra transportation and about $10 each per day for lunch foods.  Booking a guide Tour du Mont Blanc is a great idea for anyone without a lot of mountain hiking experience but will cost significantly more.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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