Field Guide: Chamonix

A spiritual basecamp for the outdoors-obsessed for generations, Chamonix - or Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, to give this French town its Sunday name - is a must-see destination for anyone remotely interested in outdoor adventure.

4th December 2017 | Words by Fiona Russell

The numerous high peaks.. as well as naturally created pinnacles, needles, enclosed valleys and long glaciers - provide stunning scenery and a world-famous outdoor playground.

Spectacularly located at the base of Europe’s tallest summit, Mont Blanc, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France, Chamonix is a bustling pilgrimage site for outdoor enthusiasts, athletes and families alike, from the first snows of the ski season to its sun-drenched trail races.

The French Alps take the form of a mountainous 350 km arc from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. The numerous high peaks - including the tallest summit of 4,810 m, as well as naturally created pinnacles, needles, enclosed valleys and long glaciers - provide stunning scenery and a world-famous outdoor playground.

Chamonix Le Lac Blanc - Chamonix Field Guide
A vibrant alpine community with over 250 years of mountaineering history, the town is also bustling with cafés, shops, restaurants and features a lively music scene.

Although nestled in the foothills of the Alps, the town sits at a lofty 1,035 m above sea level in a valley that is 24 km long. There are 16 villages and hamlets that make up the wider commune of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, and each boasts its own atmosphere, attractions and facilities.

The Chamonix valley offers an extraordinary choice of sports activities, be it for tentative beginners or keen enthusiasts, with 1,000 km of ski pistes, 350 km of marked hiking trails, 40 km of dedicated mountain bike tracks, rock climbing, mountaineering, rafting, canyoning, paragliding and an 18-hole golf course.

Chamonix Field Guide

You don’t have to be a sports fanatic to enjoy Chamonix, though. A vibrant alpine community with over 250 years of mountaineering history, the town is also bustling with cafés, shops, restaurants and features a lively music scene. Even if you’re not interested in climbing mountains, sitting with an espresso surrounded by towering peaks is an experience in itself, and an impressive one at that.

Field Guide: Chamonix

How To Get There

Many travellers from the UK arrive in Chamonix by plane, via the airports of Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble and Turin. The drive of around an hour from Geneva and two hours from the other airports is fairly straightforward thanks to the French Route Nationale 205 (RN 205), nicknamed the Route Blanche.

Another French access point for those living in the south of England is through Calais and then a drive of about eight hours, through some stunning scenery as you near the Alps.

Field Guide: Chamonix

It’s a popular tourist destination so there are plenty of private and group transfers on offer from the main airports. For example Mountain Drop-offs has a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for customer service.

An alternative is to go by SNCF train to Chamonix on the St Gervais-Vallorcine Line, which holds the record for the steepest gradient on any standard railway.

Field Guide: Chamonix

When To Go

Chamonix has a thriving outdoors scene all year round, so the best time to go will depend on what you want to put on your feet. For skis or snowboards, the winter season usually spans from December to April - snowfall fluctuates but Chamonix and its surrounding resorts sit at high altitude, so they are usually fairly snowsure.

If you’re taking running shoes, hiking boots or a mountain bike, the summer season runs from June to September. Temperatures range from a maximum of 14 C to 18 C and it can be pretty wet, although the driest months are July to October.

The months between these seasons - April to June and September to December - will be quieter, but you take more of a chance with the weather. Frankly, though, that doesn’t really matter in Chamonix.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Really Don't Miss:

It’s hard to choose a few must-do activities because there are so many, depending on your aspirations. However, whatever your experience and ability, a cable car ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi lift at 3,842 m is a spectacular highlight.

The exceptional variety of ski terrain and epic descents.. attract some of the world’s best skiers, but Chamonix also caters for beginners and intermediates.

This is the highest peak served by an aerial lift system and once there you are treated to a 360° view of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. Visitors can also step into the void – a glass box with a drop of 1,000 m beneath your feet.

Another great trip is to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), which is the largest glacier in France at 7 km long and 200 m deep. The attraction, which includes an Ice Cave and Glaciorium is reached by train from Chamonix to Montenvers.

To see the impressive glacier of Mont Blanc from on high, take a flight in a small plane or a helicopter in the summer. It’s the stuff of long-lasting memories.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Adventures On The Doorstep

Chamonix is regarded as France’s oldest ski resort and in winter the valley, mountains and villages throng with skiers and snowboarders. The exceptional variety of ski terrain and epic descents, such as the legendary 20 km Vallée Blanche or the Grands Montets, attract some of the world’s best skiers, but Chamonix also caters for beginners and intermediates. Some 90% of the valley’s slopes are located above 2,000m, which makes it a good snowsure choice throughout the season.

Other winter pursuits include ski touring, snow shoeing, ice climbing, dogsledding and ski jeering. For something different join a Paret and Wilderness Soiree for 45 minutes of pure adrenaline under the stars on a traditional wooden sled, arriving at a forest yurt for a traditional supper.

Field Guide: Chamonix

In the spring and summer, hiking is one of the most popular pursuits, especially on a wide network of waymarked trails. There are walks at valley level or at altitude and, for ease, you can use the lifts to gain height.

Both trail runners and mountain bikers are well catered for in the mountains around Chamonix

Suggestions for superb hiking routes in the Chamonix commune, Les Houches to Les Contaimines via the Col du Vosa and Argentiere to Trient via the Col du Possettes.

The rewards for a muscle challenging hike from Les Gaillands to the Aiguilette des Houches and then to Le Brevent at 2,525m include fabulous views, a chilled beer and the lift back down again.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Both trail runners and mountain bikers are well catered for in the mountains around Chamonix; the former with ‘reserved’ routes between Servoz and Vallorcine, the latter with both cross-country and downhill riding routes. The valley has six separate lift systems and boasts a rideable vertical range of more than 2000 m. Lifts for mountain bikers are usually open from June to September.

Try heading to the top of the valley at Le Tour where, in addition to the purpose-built bike trails, a vast network of paths snake over from the Tete du Balme and into Switzerland.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Open water swimming is increasingly popular and, with crystal clear lakes and majestic mountain backdrops, it’s easy to understand why. The nearest and largest is Lake Passy where swimming is just one of the activities to enjoy, as well as windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding and fishing,

Lake Annecy, an hour’s drive from Chamonix, is breath-takingly pretty and a great place to swim. It’s possible to swim the 14.6 km length of the iconic lake as part of a SwimQuest trip. For “chill swimmers” there are smaller lakes at altitude, such as Lac Blanc, Lac Noir and Lac Vert.

The famous Tour du Mont circles the Mont Blanc Massif, covering a distance of 200 km and including 10,000 m of ascent and descent. The long-distance trail passes through France, Italy and Switzerland and can easily be started from Chamonix. The Tour can be completed on foot, whether walking or running, or by mountain bike, staying overnight in mountain huts or hotels, or you could choose to walk a few sections rather than the full distance.

Why not drive through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Courmayeur for a hike to the Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, or head to Switzerland to hike up to the Grand St Bernard Hospice, where St Bernard dogs come from?

Field Guide: Chamonix

Some mountaineers and climbers will have a summit of Mont Blanc on their bucket list - and rightly so - but there are many other rock climbing possibilities near Chamonix, from have-a-go to once-in a-lifetime. Many people hire a climbing guide or else you could attend the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy for various free clinics. For more information visit

To survey the picturesque valley from the sky, book a tandem parapenting (paragliding) flight or hot air balloon trip (they operate in winter and summer when conditions are calm) and for a bigger adventure you could learn to fly yourself.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Try a Race

The Triathlon International du Mont-Blanc in August offers a choice of mountain-based triathlons, from sprint distance to half ironman. For those with more ambitious goals, there’s the Evergreen Endurance at different distances. You could get up to speed with a triathlon training camp based at Blackrock sports lodge in Les Houches.

Field Guide: Chamonix

There's no shortage of classic cols (mountain passes) to cycle locally for those who want to recreate moments from the Tour de France. Try your legs on Montet, Aravis and Joux Plane.

For runners, a stable of challenging races, including the Marathon du Mont Blanc, the UTMB Ultra - regarded by many as the pinnacle of the competitive trail running calender - the Maxi Race Annecy and Trail des Aiguilles Rouges might well entice.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Anything Else To Do?

Take a train journey on the Mont Blanc Express, from St Gervais le Fayet, to see the beautiful Chamonix valley or board the Tramway du Mont Blanc for a spectacular view of Chamonix Aguilles. The “petit train touristique” is hop-on train around town, and well worth experiencing.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Families are well catered for in Chamonix valley, including an adventure park, summer toboggans, daredevil rides, rock climbing, pony trekking or hiking with donkeys or husky dogs.

On a rainy day there’s a sports centre with swimming pools, an indoor climbing an Olympic sized ice rink and a cinema complex showing English-speaking films.

Chamonix is a vibrant alpine town with a wonderful natural and architectural heritage that bears witness to a wealth of history. The Priory, alpine farms, museums, such as the Musee des Cristaux, baroque churches, art deco buildings and palaces from the Golden Era are some of the many things to see and do. For those in search of a little retail therapy, Chamonix's pedestrian centre offers a wide selection of attractive boutiques.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Flora and Fauna

Reptiles such as snakes and lizards enjoy sunbathing on the warm rocks in summer and insects, especially butterflies, are common sightings.

Look out for chamois, mountain hares and marmottes as you roam the mountains or see a range of native Chamonix animals in their natural habitat at the Merlet Animal Park in Les Houches.

There is a surprisingly wide variety of vegetation, from the valley to the highest peak. Deciduous trees grow lower down the slopes, with spruce and larch usually seen a little higher and, finally, conifers at altitude. In spring and summer, alpine flowers flourish, especially in forests and mountain pastures. June is recommended for the best displays of alpine flowers.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Where To Stay

The choice is immense and includes camping, from basic to luxury, guest houses and hotels, mountain refuges (huts) and to suit every budget.

For something very different how about staying overnight in a bubble beneath the stars? The transparent cocoon is suspended from trees in the forest of Les Mottets overlooking the mountains.

Alternatively, earn your rest with a hike to a high mountain refuge for a get-away-from-it-all couple of days. Suggestions include the Plan du Midi Refuge in the Chamonix valley and Moede d'Anterne in the Aiguille Rouge Nature Reserve (accessible via Col du Brevent). Also see Chamonix accommodation for a wealth of choice.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Where To Eat and Drink

In the ski season in Chamonix, classic après ski can be enjoyed at Chambre Neuf with its resident Swedish house band from 5pm, six days a week, Year-round. Enjoy excellent Italian food and a very warm welcome at the town’s Restaurant L'impossible.

Les Vielles Luges in Les Houches is a wonderful gem of a mountain restaurant. The property has been in the same family since the 1400s and today offers a cost place to dine and a menu of traditional local fare. It is open daily in winter and on request for groups of 25 or more in the summer

The ski and mountain guides eat in Elevation 1904 in Chamonix so you can be sure this is a great place for good value food, while Moo Bar is another top tip from locals.

Other places that have good reviews include MBC, Elevation, Bard’Up, La Yaute in Argentière, as well as the restaurants: Beurre Noisette, Le Fine Bouche, le Maison Carrier, Munchies and La Pointe Isabelle.

Field Guide: Chamonix

Fiona Russell, better known as Fiona Outdoors, is a Scotland-based outdoors journalist and blogger.

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Images: 1: Kushnirov Avraham / 2: Le Lac Blanc macumazahn / 3: Bruno Magnien / 4: Tomasz Zajda / 5: Joelle-Bozon / 6: pierre-raphoz / 7: Compagnie du Mont-Blanc / 8, 12, 14: Monica Dalmasso / 9, 13, 19: Fiona Russell / 10: camihesse / 11: Kushnirov Avraham / 15: Golf de Chamonix / 16: Huskydalen / 17: Christian Martelet / 18, 19: chamonix1537

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