“The mountains are calling and I must go.” -John Muir
I’d long dreamt of doing a long-distance hike and I figured if I was going to spend two weeks on a hike I may as well start with one of the world’s best- the Tour de Mont Blanc. Europe’s most popular hiking trail, it’s a 170 km loop that goes through France, Italy and Switzerland and offers hikers endless variations to make it longer, shorter, easier or harder using different paths or even other modes of transportation depending on your time constraint and physical limitations. Not only that but the wonderful mountain hut network allows hikers to stay in comfortable dorm-style accommodations along the trail, even providing three-course meals (and wine!), electricity to charge your phone and (lukewarm) showers. Thus- you can go hike in the mountains all day without needing to carry anything more than a water bottle and a change of clothes!
Of course I didn’t do that- choosing instead to camp most of the time and stay in the mountain huts only where camping is forbidden by law. But I took advantage of being able to eat my meals in the refuges so I could keep my pack weight light and enjoy all the French pastries, Swiss fondue and Italian wine that was available. It was a weird mixture of luxury and roughing it and I loved every minute. Truly one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and I recommend it to nearly anyone on account of the personalization options along the route.
Tour de Mont Blanc Quick Facts
170 kilometers (more or less for variations)
Elevation Gain and Loss: Around 32,800 feet (it was hard)
Stages: The classic route has 11 and goes anti-clockwise from Chamonix
Days: 8-10 though I highly recommend a rest day or two. You will need it.
Starts and Ends : Normally in Chamonix, France
Languages Spoken: Mostly French, then Italian and English
Accommodation: Huts, Hotels, Campsites all available. Check local rules for camping. Book refuges well-ahead of time.
Water/Food: Resupply is available along the entirety of the route. I carried 2 liters or less at a time and never ran out.
Money: Bring plenty of euros. We ran out one day and that was a sad and hungry day. There are no ATMs along the way and credit cards are almost never accepted. You can use use euros in Switzerland too though you may get change in Swiss francs.
When to Go: June- September though there was some snow even in early July. I’ve heard the trail gets miserably crowded in August but while I’d braced myself for many people when I was there (in early July) the trail was blissfully empty.
Navigation: Signage is super clear all along the route. I had service for most of the entire journey but I wouldn’t rely on it.
Guidebook: Tour de Mont Blanc Two-Way Guide
Before the Tour
Before beginning the TMB I spent a couple days in the gorgeous town of Chamonix, France. I arrived a day before Carson so I decided to get a bird’s-eye view of the trail that I would spend the next two weeks on by jumping off a mountain. (With a parachute).
When Carson arrived we took the (very expensive) world’s highest vertical ascent cable car to Aiguille du Midi to rub shoulders with Mont Blanc itself. Honestly, it was pretty but overcrowded and I wouldn’t recommend it. Plus Carson got altitude sickness. Take any of the other cable cars in the area for nice views for a fraction of the cost and some peace and quiet.
We splurged by spending the night at Le Hameau Albert which was truly amazing. The next day the hotel drove us to the Bellevue cable car where we began our trek.
Bellevue Cable Car- Col Tricot Variant- Lunch at Refuge du Miage- Ate Dinner in Les Contamines- Camped at Le Camp Pontet
Les Contamines- Great lunch at Refuge Nant Bolant- Col du Bonhomme- Free camping at Refuge du Croix. Crazy hail storm right after we got our tent set up. Ate at the Refuge. About 19 euros a person so definitely not a budget option. But it still is nice to have hot food cooked for you after a long day of hiking.
Backtracked to Col du Bonhomme and took Col du Fours variant. Really spectacular day. Lots of wildflowers. Out of money so we ate snacks all day. Coming down Col du Fours we slid down on our butts and I had a smile on my face for hours after. Crossed into Italy. Stayed at Rifugio Elisabetta. Dinner with seven old Japanese people.
Breakfast at Rifugio- Went High Route- Col Checrout had nice views- Descent into Courmayeur was rough, would have been nice if cable car had been open for the season already- Town of Dolonne charming.
Courmayeur Rest Day
Stayed at a really charming bed and breakfast. It was nice to have a proper shower, bed and toilet (though I burned my butt trying out the bidet). We ate so much gelato, pizza and pasta in town and we were able to do some much needed laundry.
Up out of Courmayeur was steep and crowded. At Refugio Bertone we decided to take the high route- Saxe crest. It was awesome. Ridge with panaromic views and not a single person the whole time. Descent was punishing but the views were worth it. Got to Rifugio Bonatti early for the night. This rifugio was the best we had.
Crossed into Switzerland. Easy day but long. Camped at Camping des Glaciers. Oh, and at campsites along the TMB you can request freshly baked croissants for the next morning. How amazing is that?
La Fouly-Champex Switzerland is more pastural than the dramatic mountains of the previous two countries- walking through little hamlets and small villages. Lots of cows.
Champex- Col de la Forclaz. Camped at Relais d’Arpette. The only day where it rained a tiny bit and it was only for a short time and not so heavy.
Really fun stage. Interesting and varied terrain. Camped at Tre-le-Champ.
Had to use some ladders today. Had fun watching rock climbers. Got to campsite early so we hung out in the refuge staying warm and having beer. Fantastic camp spot above Lac Blanc.
Woke up to massive ibex all around us. The morning was foggy and I was worried we would miss the panoramas that this stage is famous for however it cleared up and was an amazing highlight to an already really high trip!
Could we have done it faster? Yes! Did I want to? No! I wouldn’t have changed anything about this trip! It was honestly one of the highlights of my entire life. It’s made a monster out of me though because now all I want to do is go on long hikes! There is something about the simplicity of waking up and not having to make any decisions- simply to put one foot in front of the other until you get to where you want to sleep that night- nowhere to get to, just places to be- that was so healing and beautiful for me this summer. Go hike it! You won’t regret it!