24 Sep 5 spectacular day walks in the Chamonix valley
With jaw-dropping views around every corner, there’s no denying that Chamonix is an incredible location to explore on foot. Just back from a week exploring this iconic part of the French Alps, I’m sharing my five favourite day walks in this Chamonix valley in this post.
Arriving in the Chamonix valley for the first time, my eyes were drawn to one thing only – the magnificent Mont Blanc, standing proud above the valley floor. With so much to take in, I’d barely glanced at the surrounding mountainsides as we swept past on the road. It wasn’t until we’d spent a few days in the mountains here that I started to realise just how diverse and truly spectacular this valley is.
It takes a while to sink in, as there’s simply so much to see. We were here to walk, and every route brought new surprises and delights – hidden alpine villages, crashing torrents, glacial encounters and stunning panoramas. We found cafes where you’d least expect them, suspension bridges that took your breath away, mirror-like lakes and llamas masquerading as alpine cattle. The Mont Blanc massif more than earns it’s enviable reputation as one of the beautiful parts of the French Alps.
It’s perfect walking country here. Aside from the scenery, there’s an enormous variety of trails, from gentle valley paths to high-altitude breath-takers. They’re well-signposted, easy to follow and surprisingly often punctuated by charming mountain cafes and restaurants.
In this post, I’m sharing the most memorable routes from our week walking in the Chamonix valley (I’ve not included those that didn’t quite work out as planned!). We tackled these five hikes in glorious late August sunshine – perfect weather for exploring this part of the world. Most start and end in the village of Les Houches just outside of Chamonix, where we stayed. But never fear, if you’re not based here like us. You can easily reach Les Houches by public transport from elsewhere in the valley, or park at the Bellevue or Prarion lift stations. I’ve also offered suggestions for shortening some routes, where there’s easy options to do so.
An introduction to walking in the Chamonix valley
Before I get started, here’s a few things to know.
Walking routes in the Chamonix valley, on the whole, are really well signposted. You find the mountainsides peppered with discrete but helpful signs indicating walking destinations and the approximate time it will take to reach them. Provided you know where you want to head to next, this makes navigation pretty easily.
That said, never rely just on signage or descriptions of a walking route like those I’m sharing here. Always carry a detailed map of the local area and/or use a GPS mapping app designed for hiking. IGN is the national mapping agency in France and the best place to start. The IGN Rando app and 3630 OT Chamonix-Mont-Blanc map provide a good level of detail for hiking and trail running in this area.
The golden rules
Don’t forget the golden rules of alpine hiking either. Make sure you’re well-equipped and dressed for the season and length of time you’ll be out. Trail shoes or walking boots are a must for many of the paths here. Check the forecast and don’t take any risks or head out on unfamiliar paths in poor conditions. And be prepared for the weather to change quickly in the mountains. Always carry waterproofs and warm clothing even if the day starts out fine. Last of all, be aware of your own limitations and don’t push yourself beyond your level of comfort and fitness. Difficult weather and routes can be risky, so stay safe – there’s plenty of gentler and lower-altitude options that I’m sure you’ll love just as much.
Oh, and don’t forget to check-in with the Chamonix Tourist Office to see if any paths are closed during your stay – and where and when cable cars are running. In August 2019 we found a couple of popular trails and one cable car out of bounds due to preparation for the winter ski season. It’s no big deal, but it’s far better to know before you arrive at a closed lift station! Always check when the last lift heads down at the end of the day and allow plenty of time to get there if this is part of your plan.
For more resources to plan your walks, check out the Chamonix Tourist Office website.
Exploring Col de Voza and Bionnassay
Distance: 10 miles / 16km (approx.)
Climb: 1,200m (approx.)
Route: Les Houches (or top of Bellevue lift) to Col de Voza, on to the village of Bionnassay, up to the farmstead of La Charme and back to Col de Voza via the Prarion Hotel.
This walk is a great introduction to the Chamonix valley and one that we enjoyed on our first full day. You can choose to start and end your route in Les Houches, like we did, or take the Bellevue lift up or on the return. The initial climb to Col de Voza is steep but the path is wide and well-made. We loved the unspoilt beauty of Bionnassay and the variety of viewpoints on this walk.
The path up from Les Houches starts on tarmac, snaking up and out of the village. As you head uphill and away from the main road, chalets become fewer and further between until you reach the foot of the Maison Neuve ski lift. Here you leave the road behind in favour of a wide, gravelly trail that winds quickly up alongside the piste. You’re in the dappled shade of woodland, with lush green meadow marking the piste to your left.
Depending on your pace it’ll take one and half to two hours to reach the Col but it’s well worth it. All of a sudden the path takes a sharp turn, and you’re looking down on the surprising combination of a small hotel, beautifully rustic chalet restaurant and the small, smart station of the Tramway du Mont-Blanc. It’s a good place to pause, with public toilets and drinking water tap (perfect for topping up our water bottles!), before heading onwards.
Crossing over the tramway you’ll spot signs to Bionnassay. This next part of the route takes you downhill towards this delightfully pretty alpine village. The trail becomes a paved road when you first reach chalets but remains very quiet. Meandering through the woodland and little fields leads you eventually to the petite village centre, about 45 minutes from the Col. Aside from being beautifully unspoilt here – high up in the valley, there’s very little traffic or signs of modern life – you’ve also got incredible views of the Bionnassay glacier that cascading down from Mont Blanc.
You could head back to Col to Voza the way you came, but we threaded our way through Bionnassay until we reached a small path on its far side. Here, you head rapidly uphill through the dense green woodland which occasionally opens up to offer spectacular vista. After crossing the Tramway about halfway up, it’s not long before you hear an orchestra of small bells – you’re almost at La Charme. Rising out of the woodland you’re greeted by a pasture that’s home to a large herd of dairy goats (hence the bells). You can stop by the farmhouse to taste and purchase their cheese if you’re feeling peckish.
Follow the signs beyond the farmhouse to the Prarion Hotel, an unexpected destination. But after strolling through hummocky ski slope terrain for twenty minutes or so, it’ll all make sense. The Prarion Hotel is a perennial favourite of skiers in the winter, who stop by for the lunch on the terraces. But it’s worthy of a visit at any time of year thanks to its panoramic view of Mont Blanc. Stop for a moment to take it all in.
From here, Col de Voza is back in view, and you can pick your way home however you prefer.
Col de Tricot via Bellevue and the Bionnassay glacier
Distance: 14 miles / 22km (approx.)
Climb: 1400m (approx.)
Route: An out and back walk starting in Les Houches. From Col de Voza, the path takes you to Bellevue, then the Bionnassay suspension bridge and finally Col de Tricot – the turning point.
If the previous walk has whet your appetite for discovering the glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif, the route is for you. It takes you much closer to the Bionnassay glacier without much more climbing. The paths are a little more technical as they’re narrower and more rocky between Bellevue and the torrent de Bionnassay, but it’s a popular and well-marked route.
We started this walk with the climb up from Les Houches to Col de Voza, but you could join at the top of the Bellevue cable car. At Col de Voza, the route deviates from the previous day’s and you’ll want to follow the gravelled trail towards Bellevue (a short walk of about fifteen minutes). Here you’ll peel off onto a path sign-posting Col de Tricot and say goodbye to the panoramic views for a moment. After plunging into lush woodland for a short distance, you emerge from the trees onto a rocky path that skirts the hillside, high above the village of Bionnassay.
You’re now heading towards one of the gems of this route (and one of my favourite experiences in this valley), the Bionnassay suspension bridge. It crosses the torrent that crashes down from the foot of the glacier, now not far off. You’ll hear it long before you reach it. As the path winds down into a wide alpine meadow you’ll hear the rumbling roar of water, getting ever louder as you clamber down a steep, rocky section of path. Take a moment to enjoy the powerful beauty of the place, then make your way across the impressive bridge.
The path rises steeply again on the far side but only for a short time. You quickly emerge into another meadow – even more beautiful than it’s predecessor. Here the glacier seems close enough to touch, just a stone’s throw away across the alpage. It’s a little further than it looks in reality, but it doesn’t take away from the majesty of the place. Although you’re continuing to climb here, it’s gentle as you follow the paths that wind their way across the meadow, around alpine flowers and low-lying shrubs.
Col de Tricot is on the horizon here, at the far end of the meadow. Reaching the top you’re greeted with two stunning views – one looking back to Bionnassay and the other looking down into valley beyond, and the Refuge du Miage. Point to point walkers can continue from here to Les Contamines within a day, but we were happy to head back the way we came. It’s an option that’s well worth it here, with such varied and extraordinary views, following the same path in a different direction can reveal completely different landscapes.
Les Grands Balcons Sud
Distance: 4 miles / 6km each way (Brevent-La Flégère)
Climb: 300m each way (approx.)
Les Grands Balcons Sud is one of the most iconic walks in the Chamonix valley. Stretching from Les Houches to Col de Montets near Argentiere, this a high-altitude route with phenomenal viewpoints. Snaking along the mountainside at around 2000m, you’ll find jaw-dropping panoramic views of Mont Blanc and the Argentiere glacier all along this route. It may not be one of the longer paths in the valley, but it certainly packs punches and is enjoyably easy to follow.
This is one route where I’d really recommend making use of the cable cars to maximise your time up on the mountain. Both the Planpraz and La Flégère gondolas provide access to this route, but with La Flégère closed during the summer of 2019 we opted for an out and back route from Planpraz.
Les Grands Balcons Sud is well-signposted from both lift stations. It takes approximately two hours to follow the route between the two, but there’s options to extend your walk at either end. We continued towards Col des Montets a little way for more views higher up the valley.
Whilst the route might look simple on paper, this really is one of the most popular walks in this valley for good reason. The landscape is a spectacular, lunar-like one – all rocky outcrops and scree, with just a little low-lying vegetation peppering the surface. Close to Planpraz, you can see signs of the ski slopes that dominate in the winter, a hint towards the colder season. As you head towards La Flégère, the path becomes narrower and narrower, and the drops to the side steeper and steeper. But it’s a well-maintained and well-used route, so there’s nothing to unsettle seasoned walkers, provided you don’t mind the odd scrabbly bit.
Whilst the views are special in every direction here, the horizon is dominated by the ever-growing Argentiere glacier as you follow the path towards La Flégère. Taking the path in the other direction rewards with some of the best views of Mont Blanc and the Mer du Glace in the valley. For this reason, taking the same path home did not at all bother me – in fact, I’m glad that we did, as the views in both directions are worth two hours of anyone’s time. If the paths are open, taking a detour from La Flégère to Lac Blanc and back to Planpraz on a higher path would be a great choice that yields similar views.
Les Petits Balcons Sud
Distance: Depends where you join the path
Climb: Gently undulating – most climbing is up/down from the valley floor
Route: Les Houches to Argentiere. However, there are multiple options to join and leave the path en route. Make it a circular walk by connecting to the trail following the Arve River in the valley bottom.
Les Petits Balcons Sud puts pay to any myths that you need to head up high to find jaw-dropping views in the Chamonix valley. Meandering along the mountainside some 300m above the valley floor, it’s challenging enough to be worth getting out of bed for but at the same time, it’s friendly enough for families to enjoy. It’s also easy to join and leave at numerous point that you can adjust the length of walk to suit you.
The sandy path skirts its way through dense woodland that regularly breaks to reveal views of Mont Blanc, the town of Chamonix and other sights in the valley. We didn’t follow this route in one go but enjoyed dipping in and out of it on other walks – something I’d really recommend.
Whatever option you choose, be sure to make a detour to Chalet de la Floria. This charming little cafe is hidden amongst the trees towards the Argentiere end of this path (look out for the nearby signposts), and really shouldn’t be missed. Occupying a rocky outcrop facing the Argentiere glacier, this hundred-year-old stone chalet serves up cold drinks, coffee and home-cooked lunches on the most beautiful, flower-filled terrace. Add into the equation the quite outstanding views and you’ll wonder why it’s not heaving with people. Then you’ll breathe a sigh of relief as you realise it’s not. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the Chamonix valley – a reward for those in the know.
(P.S. I’d normally share a link to the website of a great spot like this – but they don’t have one. You’ll have to remain in suspense until you get there)
Le Prarion from Les Houches
Distance: 11 miles / 18km (approx.)
Climb: 1,000m (approx)
Route: Les Houches to Charousse, then to Le Prarion via Col de la Forclaz. A circular route takes you back into the valley via La Charme and Col de Voza.
This is a much quieter route from Les Houches that’s as varied as it is rewarding. Starting in the valley, it meanders it’s way through Les Chavants on quiet roads, before plunging into heavily-scented pine forest. Before long you arrive in Charousse, a picturesque hamlet that feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the valley. The traditional wooden chalets aren’t lived in year-round, but are still used and loved by local families during the summer months, when cattle graze the foothills of Le Prarion.
From Charousse, a little woodland path leads you on a series of tight switchbacks and hairpins up the mountainside towards Col de la Forclaz. You can stop for a moment and have a pastry if you’re like us (there’s no viewpoint here), or head straight on to the path to Le Prarion.
It’s been relatively easy walking until now, but the path gets steep – quickly – beyond the Col. You gain height pretty fast, but thanks to the rocky path and a few hairy hairpins (none with any great drops to the side, so nothing to worry about) you almost don’t notice. The route weaves back and forth across the mountainside, so you’re treated to views in both directions. All of a sudden you emerge above the trees and the path rises into a scrubby mountainside of myrtille bushes and rocks, a pretty contrast to the woodland below. A few more twists, turns and clambers around rocky corners and you’re at the top.
Le Prarion occupies almost unique position. At the watershed between the Chamonix and St. Gervais valleys, you’re treated to a 360 degree panorama of this part of the French Alps. Ahead lies the Mont Blanc massif, with the river Arve and silver roads snaking their way down the Chamonix valley to the left-hand side. Spin around 180 degrees and you can spot the Bionnassay glacier and look towards Les Contamines, Megeve, Albertville and the Chaine des Aravis. It’s a great lunch spot if you want to take a little time to soak it all up.
There’s a gentle route down to the Prarion cable car from here, but you can extend your walk by taking a deviation towards La Charme and back in the direction of Col de Voza. Here’s it’s downhill on foot to Les Houches.
This is a great walk for the end of a trip to the Chamonix valley. Not as challenging as some the other trails, it’s a little kinder to tired legs. But best of all, the top of Le Prarion is most enjoyable when you’ve got a feel for the local geography. There’s something hugely satisfying about being to spot other places you’ve explored from here.
So that’s a wrap. Five day walks in the Chamonix valley that made our trip extra-special.
Don’t forget that you can discover more about our stay here in August in Summer in the Chamonix valley: A week in Les Houches. Plus look forward to two more posts coming soon – A guide to Chamonix on a budget, and more about the world’s most famous trail running race – Ultra Trail de Mont-Blanc – which took place on some of these paths whilst we were here.