Chamonix Valley, in the French Alps near the borders of Switzerland and Italy, is world-famed for its year-round sports. In winter there are ski runs for all levels of experience, from beginners’ slopes to 20-kilometer-long Vallée Blanche, which is unmarked, unpatrolled, and not to be taken by any but experts. Visitors can snowboard, paraglide, snowshoe, ice skate, ice climb, sled and heli-ski.
Then comes summer, with weather more to my liking than snow and ice. I’d rather admire the peaks from a distance while I walk a winding trail above pastures of grass and wildflowers. Along the way I’ll stop to eat a picnic lunch brought from a deli in town, or continue to a chalet for a hot meal. The fresh clean air, the chance to see alpine flowers and wildlife, and most of all the spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif and the valley below make these rambles, as the French call them, exhilarating.
I might see edelweiss, purple and blue gentian, snowdrops, rhododendron, and wild strawberries. I could even spot, on a distant rock, chamois or ibex. More likely are squirrels, rabbits and marmots. I will certainly see sheep and goats that are led every summer to graze on mountain pastures.
Here are three great half-day hikes out of Chamonix:
Grand Balcon Nord
One of the most popular rambles begins at Plan de l’Aiguille, the mid-station for the gondola ride up to Aiguille du Midi. (Take the ride to the top for breathtaking views, and on the return trip, walk from the midway point.) This hike is not as steep as some on the mountainsides, though it does have ups and downs. You’re descending about 1,000 feet as you head toward France’s longest glacier, Mer de Glace, and Montenvers. The walk overlooks the valley and Arve River to Brevent and Aiguilles Rouges rising on the other side.
In Montenvers you can go down to the Mer de Glace and visit the Ice Grotto, a carved-out cave with a collection of ice sculptures. The grotto is dug out every summer, since the glaciers move 70 meters a year. It’s closed for two weeks in spring (usually early June) to allow for new ice-carving.
The Grand Hotel du Montenvers, built in 1880 and the oldest hotel in the valley, has a restaurant with traditional dishes served on a terrace overlooking mountain peaks. There’s a small museum in Montenvers with displays of local flora and fauna.
From the station, a little cog rail train departs every half-hour or so for a short ride to Chamonix. (Check departure times before you start, unless you want to hike back to town.)
Grand Balcon de Sud
On the other side of the valley, this hike starts with a cable ride from Chamonix to Planpraz. The path contours around the hillside, with views that are even more spectacular than the Grand Balcon Nord walk, because you’re looking across at Mont Blanc, Aiguille du Midi, and the other craggy peaks that form the massif. A wide trail narrows, ascends through pine trees, and continues on to Chalet de la Flégère. A téléphérique (French for the cable-hung gondolas that make mountain ascents so easy in the Alps) goes from here down to La Praz. It’s a short bus ride back to Chamonix.
Le Tour to Col de Balme
Take the bus from Chamonix to the end of the line at Le Tour. There, catch the télécabine (yet another gondola term, this for a type of bubble car) to Chalet de Charmillon. A connecting chairlift carries you to a stopping point where the walk begins.
A clearly marked track shows the way north to the Col de Balme, where there’s a stone refuge. You’re at the head of the valley, at the France-Switzerland border, which is marked by boundary stones. This is more open, barren country. Take the path up to Tete de Balme, and you’ll have magnificent views of mountain peaks, the valley, and into Switzerland. A blue lake in the distance seems suspended in its steep valley.
Walk southwest on the loop trail toward Col des Posettes, and as you continue you’ll have views of grazing land and shepherds’ huts. Watch for a marker to the path that turns down to Le Tour and hike a rather steep descent to the place where you started. After a stroll through the pretty village, take the bus back to Chamonix.
Buy a lift pass at any station and you ride free on the Chamonix bus system. Be prepared for a mountainous environment—take a jacket, water, and a hat. Wear sturdy boots, sunglasses, and sunscreen. It’s easy to buy picnic food in Chamonix, and there are restaurants at some spots on the way.
A few recommended lodgings: Chalet Blanche, a British-owned B&B with 8 rooms, gardens, and a hot tub; Les Balcons du Savoy, a hotel with some kitchen apartments, beautiful mountain views, a pool, and flower-filled window boxes; and L’ Oustalet, a pleasant, small hotel with an alpine atmosphere. Set in the heart of town, it has 15 rooms and suites and a pool.
The nearest airport to Chamonix is Geneva, Switzerland, 88 kilometers away. The best way to get there from the airport, if not driving, is by bus, as taking the train requires three changes.
To catch a glimpse of the astounding French Alps, check out these films: Blizzard of Ahhhs, Touching the Void, The World is Not Enough, and The Aiguille Rouges. They’re all set in the Chamonix area. The valley is also mentioned in the novel Frankenstein.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com