If trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc is not already high on your bucket list of treks to nail this year then it most definitely should be. Right up there with the likes of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit and Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash trek, but much closer to home, the Tour du Mont Blanc is among the most iconic multi-day treks in the world, and for very good reason.
Not yet convinced? Here’s all the need-to-know info, on why to go and how to go about doing it…
The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the oldest and considered one of most beautiful treks in the world, often featuring in ‘Top 10 Hikes in the World’ lists. The trail circumnavigates Mont Blanc (4810m) crossing through France, Italy and Switzerland on a whirlwind tour of captivating views, delicious food and genuine alpine experiences. Think big snowy peaks, huge glaciers, wild rivers and green valleys; and that’s just day one.
The trek follows a circuit along more than 170 kilometres of remote trails that traverse anti-clockwise around the Mont Blanc massif.
The history of the Tour du Mont Blanc
The hiking trails were originally formed by shepherds moving their cattle from valley to valley many centuries ago but it was the Swiss geologist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure who made the trek public knowledge in the mid-1700s. He was searching for a way to climb Mont Blanc and ended up walking the entire circumference of Mont Blanc looking for the best route. The exact path Saussure took is unknown, but he returned time and time again, desperate to find a way to the summit.
After failing on a few occasions, he offered a reward to the first person to reach the yet un-climbed peak, and two Chamonix locals, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, reached the summit of Mont Blanc in 1786, claiming the first ascent. Saussure would later follow the same route and became the third person to summit the infamous mountain.
Going way back, Celtic tribes and Roman soldiers used the Col du Bonhomme as one of their many trade routes through the Alps. You can still see remnants of the Roman’s to this day, look out for an ancient Roman footbridge bridge, which is remarkably still standing.
Where does it start and end?
The trek begins and ends in Chamonix, a lively mountain town, and popular ski resort at the foot of Mont Blanc in France. Access is quick from Geneva Airport making it one of the easiest to reach mountain towns in the Alps.
Chamonix is often called ‘the adventure capital of the world’ due to its buzzing atmosphere, the multitude of adventures on offer and breath-taking mountains on its doorstep. Take a day to enjoy the shops, restaurants and mountain views, or take the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi for impressive 360-degree views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.
The trail, for the most part, is not technically difficult. You can expect everything from wild forests, barren rocky terrain, snowy peaks and vast green valleys. You will be greeted by a real mix of wild landscapes, each day different to the next.
Most stages on the trek follow a familiar pattern of hiking up and over a col, or mountain pass, before descending to a mountain hut or hotel for the night. Expect to start the day strong with a rewarding ascent to find a scenic lunch spot, before a final descent down to a warm dinner and a cold beer.
Watch out for Ibex with their big horns, and steer clear if two males begin a fight on the trail, it’s not worth getting involved.
You’ll start in Les Houches, a small town at the entrance to the Chamonix Valley. After taking the Bellevue cablecar up to 1800m and enjoying the panoramic views of Mont Blanc, the Chamonix Aiguilles, the Aiguilles Rouges and the Chaine des Aravis, it’s time to head towards the Col du Tricot, passing over the famous suspension bridge that crosses the Bionnay Glacier and down into Les Contamines for the first nights’ accommodation.
The following day sees the trail take you up and over the Col du Bonhomme (look out for that Roman bridge) with horizon views of the Vanoise National Park, before descending to the small hamlet of Les Chapieux. Be prepared for a very sketchy phone signal in Les Chapieux, but the views more than make up for it. Everyone can get away with one day off the grid, right?
After Les Chapieux the trail crosses the Col de la Seigne, which straddles the French-Italian border, and stands at 2516m above sea level. You can almost smell the freshly ground Italian coffee as you cross the col and you’ll be lured down into the Val Veny, a magnificent green valley with the south face of Mont Blanc dominating the skyline on your left.
Possibly one of the trail’s most breathtaking sections hits you as you trek towards Courmayeur. At the path’s crescendo, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best panoramas of the range’s famous 4000m peaks, with spectacular and unique vantage points of the Grandes Jorasses, Mont Dolent and the Grand Combin.
You’ll eventually start to make your way back towards Switzerland via the Italian Val Ferret, tackling the 500m climb to the Grand Col Ferret on the Italian-Swiss border before making your descent to the small mountain village of La Fouly.
Next up is a mellow stage through Swiss alpine meadows and small villages before reaching the Lac de Champex, a pristine alpine lake in a steep valley. Time for a dip maybe?
The finish line is now in sight and you complete the circle eventually making your way back into France over the Col de Balme, traversing the Aiguille du Midi and crossing into the Aiguilette des Possettes. One final push up to the Lac Blanc, over the Grand Balcon Sud for some more mega impressive views of the Mont Blanc range before a descent back to Chamonix for celebrations and a much-needed demi-peche.
How hard is it?
You don’t necessarily need to have any prior hiking or trekking experience, but you will need to be in pretty good shape, as it’s no easy feat. Expect to hike between 10 and 16 km per day with an average of 1000m of ascent and descent for 10 days on the trot. If in doubt it’s worth doing some practice hikes beforehand to make sure you’re prepared.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is 177 km long with approximately 10,000 metres of ascent and descent along the way. This may seem like a daunting amount of trekking, but it’s spread over several days which makes it doable for most keen hikers and even beginners with strong determination when the going gets tough. Think of it as an enjoyable stroll with some challenging days rolled in to make it a proper adventure.
Each day sparks a new challenge that will inspire you to make it to the finish line and before you know it you’ll be back in Cham, necking Genepi and Pastis with the locals.
What kit will you need?
Technical kit like crampons or ice axes aren’t required, but you will need walking poles and a decent backpack filled with a few essentials. Choose a comfortable and solid pair of hiking shoes, and bring blister plasters, waterproofs and a few warm layers to cover all weather possibilities (weather in the mountains can change very quickly). Sunglasses and a sun hat are essential, as is a water flask and a fully charged camera.
There are so many highlights to choose from. Crossing wobbly suspension bridges over roaring torrents and climbing up steep cols with panoramic alpine views are high on the list. Passing through alpine fields full of cows with their loud cow bells ringing is also a unique alpine experience you won’t find elsewhere.
It’s difficult to pin down just one highlight from the whole hike, but when pushed it would be hiking up to the pristine Lac Blanc (2352m) on the final leg of the hike with its photogenic reflections of the Mont Blanc massif visible in the lake. It’s a fitting view to end the hike and even the most amateur photographers among us can grab a cracking photo, and, for those brave enough, pop in for a quick swim in its icy waters.
What to expect on the trails?
Wildlife, beautiful mountains and remote mountain refuges. Watch out for Ibex with their big horns, and steer clear if two males begin a fight on the trail, it’s not worth getting involved. Look out for birds of prey circling above your lunch spot, they will have their eyes on your sandwich.
Traditional chocolate box chalets and small farming villages still exist and it’s worth appreciating the simplicity of the locals’ way of life. Ultimately it’s the views of the mountains that make the hike so spectacular and the views will inspire future adventures right then and there.
What’s the accommodation like?
You will stay in mountain huts on a few of the nights, and those nights will likely be the ones you remember over the guesthouses. Staying in an Alpine mountain hut is a wild experience for those who are more accustomed to AirBnB and hotels. Expect simple but delicious home cooked food, a cosy sleeping area and plenty of story sharing after dinner.
Remember to bring earplugs in case your neighbour snores. Mountain huts are often situated in areas that aren’t reachable by road, and Wi-Fi and phone signal is rarely available, which only adds to the remote feel of the trip.
Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc can be a logistical nightmare if you try and go alone, especially to get reservations in the huts, so for a hassle-free and authentic experience its best to go with a local guide who is passionate about the local area and knows all the best spots and detours.
So what are you waiting for?
The best time of year to do the hike is between late June and September when the snow has melted from the high mountain passes and the weather is stable and warm. If you love trekking in nature and taking on multi-day challenges, whilst learning about history and local culture along the way, this is the perfect hike for you so get planning for summer.
Want to get involved? Check out our unique 10-day trip to trek the Tour du Mont Blanc with our hand-picked local hosts and guides. Or, if you’ve not got much time on your hands you can also choose the whistlestop version and trek the Tour du Mont Blanc over a long weekend.
All that talk of Mont Blanc, left you hankering to reach the summit? Why not set yourself the challenge and conquer Mont Blanc itself.