The Haute Route is a cross-border route with several variations that runs from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland.
The reason it is not typically referenced as a trail is because it can be undertaken on foot or on skis.
It was first completed as a summer mountaineering route in the mid 1800s by members of the English Alpine Club, long before being successfully undertaken on skis in 1911 by the French.
Originally dubbed “The High Level Route” in English, the French name became popular and has prevailed since.
This multi-day, hut-to-hut alpine tour is both spectacular and demanding in equal measure. Traversing below the summits of 10 out of the 12 of the highest peaks in the Alps, the route crosses several passes, the highest of which is 2964 metres.
There are many versions of the route, including the Ski Touring Haute Route, the Classic Summer Haute Route, the Classic Winter Haute Route and the adapted Low-Level Route. Below we will focus primarily on the the Classic Summer Haute Route which is an alpine hiking trail, following a network of well-marked and signposted paths.
This route stays below 3000 metres and takes advantage of the popular mountain huts and small inns and hotels in the villages along the way. Completing the route over 12 to 14 days in basic huts will cost around 800 euros without transport.
As mentioned, there are several other ways to complete the Haute Route Circuit including cycling, walking over the glaciers or skiing. The ski tour is one of the most famous and coveted in the world. It utilises the mountain huts to allow skiers to stay high and winds through some of the most dramatic peaks of the Alps – including Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
Unlike the Summer Haute Route, it is completed in winter and requires skill and favourable snow conditions. Almost half of the skiers who attempt the tour do not complete it.
- Considered one of the 10 best hiking circuits in the world.
- Contrasting landscapes covering everything from glaciers and towering, snow-capped peaks to green alpine valleys and flower-covered meadows.
- Passes through the centre of the French and Swiss Alps, both stunning but distinctive in their language, culture, architecture and food.
The Haute Route starts in the French valley of Chamonix. If you are coming independently rather than on a tour, the most popular way to access the town is to fly into Geneva International Airport. From here you can reach Chamonix via a 3-hour hour train ride, a one-hour drive or by public bus.
Alternative international airports are Grenoble, Marseilles, Nice or Lyon. Many airports offer shuttle options into the mountains during peak season.
No cars or buses are allowed to drive in Zermatt, so the only way to get out at the end of your trek is by train. It’s easy to travel to the main Swiss cities, such as Bern, Geneva and Zurich in just a few hours. From here you can take onward trains or international flights.
Depending on the route variation and accommodation you choose, the Haute Route is 180 to 200 kilometres long. An average day will see you walking 10 to 15 kilometres over the course of six to eight hours with elevation gains of about 1,400 metres.
If you are a fast walker or opt to skip some sections by taking the cable car or train then you could complete it in under 10 days.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The Summer Haute Route is definitely at the top end of difficulty in terms of Alpine trekking, with a total elevation gain of over 15000 metres.
The biggest challenge lies in its ascents and descents but is achievable by any hiker in good physical condition.
In the spring, summer and fall, the classic summer trail is non-technical and requires no ropes, crampons or protection devices – unlike the actual Haute Route.
The original Haute Route has large portions of glacier travel and suitable mountaineering gear and experience is necessary for this.
There is no rock climbing or glacier walking, so as long as you are able to hike up to 20 kilometres a day and climb 1200 metres unaided then you will be fine.
Note that the air is thinner with reduced oxygen, so start slow to acclimatise. If you are completing the ski route in winter, it is crucial that you are a confident mountaineer with plenty of experience and a high level of fitness.
No permit is needed to trek or ski the Haute route.
Guided or Self-Guided
Tackling the summer walking route self-guided is safe and very doable. The paths are well marked, well cared for and delimited.
Most of the circuit is uniformly marked with with red and white blazes although it is worth looking out for the occasional white and blue bars, which indicate an alpine trail of greater difficulty.
During the peak season, other hikers can help you in case of an accident but always carry a map and phone in case. Cicerone’s guidebook, Trekking Chamonix to Zermatt, is dedicated to this route and regarded as the bible of the circuit.
If you’d prefer not to do it on your own, many people hire the services of a guide on arrival or go with an agency that organises all transport, accommodation and a seasoned mountaineer to guide you.
Huts along the route are open from mid-June to mid-September – with light snowfall expected at each end of this window but not enough to need crampons.
In the warmest months of July and August the highest passes are easier to cross, which ultimately means you’ll have to contend with a more crowded trail. It also means that huts can book up faster and hotels raise their prices.
A typical 14-day itinerary for the summer walking route is below.
Chamonix to Argentière – 9 km
Argentière to Trient – 12 km
Trient to Champex – 14 km
Champex to Le Chable – 13 km
Le Chable to Cabane de Mont Fort – 9 km
Cabane de Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri – 14 km
Cabane de Prafleuri to Arolla – 16 km
Arolla to La Sage – 10 km
La Sage to Cabane de Moiry – 10 km
Cabane de Moiry to Zinal – 14 km
Zinal to Gruben – 14 km
Gruben to St Niklaus – 16 km
St Niklaus to Europahut – 18 km
Europahut to Zermatt – 18 km
On some days you will pass through small towns connected by bus or train to the rest of the country (whether it be France or Switzerland), meaning that you can shorten the route using public transport.
There is also an option of taking the cable car to avoid steep parts.
For experienced skiers, the purest line and the most frequently completed route would be:
Argentière, France, over the Col du Chardonnet and the Fenêtre du Saleina to the Trient Hut.
Champex-Lac via the Val d’Arpette. Bus or taxi to Verbier and the Mont Fort Hut.
Over the Rosablanche to the Prafleuri Hut.
Around Dixence reservoir and up to the Dix Hut.
Over the Pigne d’Arolla to the Vignettes Hut.
Over the Col de l’Evêque, Col du Mont Brulé and Col de Valpelline, descentding to Zermatt under the shoulder of the Matterhorn and Dent d’Herens.
Optional extension to Saas-Fee over the Adler Pass.
The Haute Route is a remote trek that requires you to sleep on the mountain for the most part. Accommodation options are primarily mountain huts and refuges or camping, with one or two nights in valley hotels if desired. The huts offer dinner and breakfast, but this is optional and you may be able to cook for yourself instead. In high season you should reserve a bed well ahead of setting off.
If you choose to camp, you will save a considerable sum but will have to carry your tent, a sleeping bag, pad, etc. – something that you may regret as you ascend steep mountain passes. In France, wild camping is forbidden but allowed in Switzerland as long as you camp away from populated areas.
When the stage ends in a village you will have different options including hotels, B&Bs or campsites and access to restaurants and a grocery store or mini-market. Some towns have ATMs but most do not, so consider taking out enough money in Chamonix.
Regardless of the time of year that you go, it is worth tagging on a couple of days in one or both of the start and finish points.
Zermatt offers everything from skiing, curling and ice skating during the winter, to swimming, mountain lunches or helicopter sight seeing tours year-round. For something a bit more low key, relax and unwind at a spa in town, get your cultural fix at the Matterhorn Museum or fill up on divine swiss chocolate.
In the Chamonix valley, activities range from movie nights to paragliding and food festivals. The Alps (particularly across France, Switzerland and Italy) are well-known for their outstanding skiing and snowboarding opportunities (with snowshoeing, sledging and impressive apres-ski) and alternative summer activities to hiking include mountaineering, biking and rock climbing.
For something a little different, head to the Les Deux Alpes resort, which recently launched a new outdoor festival. Visitors can tackle 100 kilometres of mountain bike tracks, three trail running competitions and an obstacle race.
If you would prefer to watch than take part, you can witness slacklining above the lake as participants attempt to break the highline world record or check out some aerial acrobatics at The Paragliding Pre-World Cup that takes place each June.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Mountaineering (if completed outside summer months), Walking|
|Difficulty||3/5 - 4/5|
|Starts at||74400 Chamonix, France|
|Finishes at||3920 Zermatt, Switzerland|
|Length of route||180 - 200Km|
|Average time to complete||10 - 15 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||2964 metres|
|Equipment needed||Crampons and ice picks (if completed outside summer months), Specialist climbing gear, Trekking gear, walking boots|
|Countries visited||France, Switzerland|