The Alps are one of the largest and highest mountain ranges in the world, stretching 1,200 kilometres across eight different countries: France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
Most ranges within the Alps lie entirely within one of these countries but the Mont Blanc massif crosses from France into neighbouring countries Switzerland and Italy.
Mont Blanc, which translates literally as ‘White Mountain’, is almost 5,000 metres high, making it the highest mountain in Western Europe.
The Alps offer various short and long-distance trails but the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the most popular treks in the region.
The circular route takes up to two weeks of continuous hiking around the infamous Mont Blanc Massif.
The high-altitude loop crosses three borders and climbs over six passes, traversing beneath glaciers and meandering through Alpine villages. Needless to say, the walking is sustained and strenuous, often at high altitude.
Around 120 million people visit the Alps each year, drawn in by its magnificent scenery – from mountains and forests to lakes and waterfalls.
For outdoor enthusiasts, adventurists and nature lovers alike, the Alps are the ultimate destination with a huge variety of winter and summer activities on offer.
- The route includes some of the best and most densely located peaks in Europe.
- Meander through fields of flowers, pine-scented woodland and over the top of glaciers.
- Cross from France to Italy to Switzerland, then back into France for a climactic ascent to the beautiful Lac Blanc.
- See everything from butterflies and marmots to wild boars, golden eagles and even wolf packs or lynx.
The Mont Blanc Circuit typically starts and finishes in the French town of Les Houches, which lies six kilometres from Chamonix.
If you are coming independently, rather than part of an organised tour, the most popular way to access the circuit is to fly into Geneva International Airport.
From here you can reach Les Houches via a 3.5 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.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is 165 kilometres long and is usually trekked in 11 daily stages. For most people, breaking it down over 11 days allows for a manageable daily average of 15 to 20 kilometres.
For hard-core hikers, the route can be done in a four-day trip. This itinerary follows in the footsteps of the Ultra Trail race and can only be done with a light day pack, eating and sleeping in huts and is basically the run/walking version of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The route involves a variety of terrains underfoot so definitely requires good footwear. The difficulty of the hiking lies in the altitude and gradient of the route.
The magnificent yet punishing procession of forest, rock, crags, scree and snow undulates with the mountains and involves 10,000 metres of ascent in total. For reference – that is a kilometre more than climbing Everest from sea level!
It is important to have both a good level of fitness and some previous trekking experience to ensure you are able to cover prolonged distances in cool, thin air.
The good news is that there are no permits required or fees to pay to trek in the Alps. This means that you can make your trekking trip as cheap or as expensive as you like by choosing your accommodation and villages according to budget.
Guided or Self-Guided
From a safety perspective, going with a guide means that you will always have access to a radio or satellite phone should anything go wrong and you wipe out your chances of getting lost in the mountains.
It will take the hassle out of planning your itinerary, airport transfers and accommodation en route. Guides can also show you where to spot wildlife and explain the geology and history of the features you will see on your walks.
Going it alone provides more flexibility over your itinerary and can help you to keep costs down, as the trail is very well marked. If you go on your own, you can choose whether to carry your own gear or hike with a day pack whilst using vehicle support and also decide whether to sleep and eat in the refuges or carry a tent.
Self-guided groups or individuals should carry a compass and the two waterproof 1:25,000 IGN maps that cover the route.
From late spring through to autumn there are good trekking conditions in the Alps but the weather does get particularly cold in the morning and at night, especially during autumn.
The weather is also subject to changing quickly. One minute you may be enjoying a clear sky and another your range of sight could be reduced to zero due to fog and low clouds.
Mont Blanc Tour mountain huts are open through the summer months from mid-June until the first or second week of September. At the end of August the trails are exceptionally busy due to The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Unlike the lower trails, the route has a shorter season due to the altitude.
Early in the season is the quietest and most beautiful but also colder, meaning that higher paths can be icy and dangerous. If trekking during this window an ice axe and mountaineering knowledge are essential.
It is important to plan your itinerary according to your fitness and ability. A nine to eleven day trip allows time to take in the outstanding scenery along the way and veer a little off the path.
Below is an outline of an 11-day trip, but it would be easy to knock off the first and last day as they are mostly dedicated to trekking in the Chamonix Valley.
Les Houches to Les Contamines – 16km
Les Contamines to Les Chapieux – 18km
Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta – 15km
Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur – 18km
Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti – 12km
Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly – 20km
La Fouly to Champex – 15km
Champex to Col de la Forclaz – 16km
Col de la Forclaz to Tre-le-Champ – 13km
Tre-le-Champ to Refuge Flegere – 8km
Refuge Flegere to Les Houches – 17km
The Tour du Mont Blanc has a variety of accommodation options along the way, ranging from hotels to simple mountain huts, with vehicle support add-ons so that you can walk each day with just a light pack.
If you go unguided and carry your bag instead of having it transported it is possible to save yourself a small fortune, meaning that you can treat yourself to the odd hotel or a charming B&B.
Most hikers spend the majority of their trek in refuges that dot the route but when the trail dips into villages and hamlets there are also cheap hostels for those on a budget.
When looking at accommodation you will see the word ‘refuge’ or ‘refugio’ pop up a lot as your only option on the mountains. A mountain refuge is by definition a “hut” and hikers use these to stay overnight, have a meal, and meet other hikers.
They are generally inexpensive but depending on their size and amenities, can book up in advance. It is always advisable to reserve a bed before setting off, particularly in the high season of mid-July to mid-August. Many of them offer clean, if simple, sleeping arrangements but spine-tingling views.
Refuges, hotels and hostels along the way can provide picnic lunches and weather reports.
Outside of trekking and taking in the scenery in the Alps, there are plenty of amazing things to do. In the Chamonix valley alone, activities range from ice skating and 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 slack-lining 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||74310 Les Houches, France|
|Finishes at||74310 Les Houches, France|
|Length of route||165 Km|
|Average time to complete||8 - 11 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||2532 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, walking boots|
|Countries visited||Austria, France, Switzerland|