Chamonix, the Cheap and Cheerful Way

Chamonix (France), at the foot of the highest mountain in the European Alps, is the perfect base for all kinds of outdoors adventures. Hiking, mountain biking, paragliding, and mountaineering in summer, and skiing, snowboarding, sledging, and snowshoeing in winter. Even the less adventurous can have a full view of the Mont Blanc, with its peak at 4810m altitude, from the center of town. Add to that the many cable cars that take you more than 1000m up above the valley floor in just a few minutes, and you have a complete adventure package, for every level of interest and ability.

All these adrenaline inducing activities come at a price, though. Hotel rooms, cable cars, mountain guides, and organized tours are certainly not cheap in Chamonix. But I really wanted to spend a few days there and do some hiking in the area. So, to get by on a low budget, I rented a private room for three nights through Airbnb, and traveled around mostly by local bus. This allowed me to enjoy the comforts of the town itself, while also getting out on some of the many trails in the surrounding mountains, without burning a hole in my pocket.

A view of the Mont Blanc from the center of Chamonix.
A view of the Mont Blanc from the center of Chamonix.

On the first day I took a bus from Chamonix to the village of Montroc, just north of Chamonix, and hiked up the slopes of the Aiguilles Rouges to beautiful Lac Blanc. A long climb up, but with rewarding views of the Mont Blanc and the many Aiguilles next to it. “Aiguille” means “needle”, due to the sharp and spiky shape of these mountains. From Lac Blanc I walked all the way back down to Chamonix, following a part of the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170km long distance trail that circles the Mont Blanc Massif and that passes through three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland.

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A panoramic view of the Mont Blanc (right) and Aiguilles from Lac Blanc. Click the pic for a full-size view.

The next day I took a little mountain train up to Montenvers, just above the foot of the Mer de Glace, one of the many glaciers in this area. From there I hiked up to Signal Forbes (300m uphill), from where the view of this glacier is even better. From this viewpoint you can either return down the same way to take the train back to Chamonix, or you can continue hiking along the Grand Balcon de Chamonix over to Plan de l’Aiguille. This trail follows the side of the mountain range directly above Chamonix, more than 1000m above the valley floor, and with the peaks of some of the Aiguilles still more than 1000m above it. If you only have time for one hike while in Chamonix, I’d suggest to do this one! From Plan de l’Aguille it is possible to take a cable car back down to Chamonix. But I decided to walk the 1200 vertical meters down along a steep trail through the forest.

A panoramic view of (part of) the Mont Blanc (left), Chamonix down in the valley, and the Aiguilles Rouges on the other side. Click the pic for a full-size view.
A panoramic view of (part of) the Mont Blanc (left), Chamonix down in the valley, and the Aiguilles Rouges on the other side. Click the pic for a full-size view.

Having saved the best for last, on the third day I took a bus to Le Tour (north of Chamonix), from where I hiked 1300m up along the very steep trail to the Cabane Albert 1er. One section of this trail required quite a bit of rock scrambling where I needed all the hands and feet that I happened to have with me. Then the trail followed along the narrow ridge on top of an old moraine wall, straight up to the ice fall at the bottom of the Glacier du Tour, and continuing up to the hut perched on a big piece of rock above it. The views were simply stunning. The hut was already closed for the season, and so was the chair lift at the bottom, which could save you from having to hike up the first several hundred meters, so not many people come up here this time of the year. As a consequence, I was all alone right next to this massive glacier, which made the whole experience even more impressive. On the way back I took the longer but less steep trail via Charmillon and back down to Le Tour.

A view of the Glacier du Tour and its ice fall from halfway up.
A view of the Glacier du Tour and its ice fall from halfway up.

Overall, Chamonix is a bit too touristy for my taste, with its emphasis on package tourism and canned (although adrenaline-filled) entertainment. If you have enough money to spend, and like an artificial thrill (or two, or three…), then the sky is, quite literally, the limit here. But if you time your visit right, and pick your destinations carefully, it is actually possible to avoid most of that and really enjoy the beautiful nature and mountains in the area, without all the hype. So yes, I had a wonderful time in and around Chamonix, the cheap and cheerful way 😉

(You can view more pictures of this three-day hiking trip, with more impressions of the mountains and glaciers around Chamonix.)