Tour de Mont Blanc Hiking Trip

Tour de Mont Blanc Hiking Trip Claimed

5-10 days | July | Group of 12 Friends | Hiking

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Trip Overview

Hiking trip of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail with a group of friends

Full Itinerary

Tour de Mont Blanc Hike

The Tour de Mont Blanc is a bucket list item for anyone who likes to hike surrounded by fantastic scenery with the option of not having to carry your food/tent/bedding. 12 of us hiked half of the tour, over 5 days.  1 person in our group went on to do the whole tour which is usually spread over 11 days.  We were lucky enough to have fantastic weather, and everyone in our group felt it was one of the best trips they had taken given it was full of exercise, scenery, and friends.

Overview:

The full tour takes approx 11 days (depending on your speed, any days you take off, etc) and is 112 miles. There are 11 official stages. The ‘bible’ to read about the tour is The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide (Cicerone Trekking Guides) by Kev Reynolds which is highly recommended for anyone planning to hike.  Most people hike it counterclockwise, starting in either Chamonix, France, Courmayeur, Italy, or Champex, Switzerland.

There are a few different ways to hike the TMB. Once you choose which way you want to do it you can proceed with your planning from there. 

  1. You can plan it yourself and stay in hotels/refuges and carry your own backpacks. This is what we chose to do.
  2. You can plan it yourself and camp, or do a combo of camping/reguges/hotels. You would need to carry tent/food etc if you camp.
  3. You can have a tour operator arrange and book it for you, but you self-guide the hike -. This option also gives you the choice of having your bags brought from location to location so you are just carrying a small daypack. (One couple we met on the trail recommended a company called Pygmy Elephant who did their tour planning this way)
  4. You can join an organized group hike. This may also give the option of having your bags taken from location to location, depending on the hike you join. 

You also need to decide on the accommodations you are comfortable with, as this will dictate your route and which towns/places you hike to. If you only want hotels vs if you camp vs if you stay in refuges will impact your route. 

What/How We Hiked:

– We had a group of 12 friends and opted to plan it ourselves. 

– We hiked the southern par, starting in Chamonix, France (actually in Les Houches just outside of Chamonix), and walked counterclockwise, finishing in Courmayeur, Italy. 

– Total distance was just over 45 miles and nearly 12.5K elevation gain. 

– We stayed in a combination of hotels and refuges. 

– We took some liberty a couple of days, splitting one stage into two days in order to start our easier, taking a gondola a couple of times to remove steep and less beautiful sections, and going ‘off TMB trail’ when we felt it was better for us (day 1 we had two route options, and day 2 we went off the TMB trail to get a longer hike with better views). 

– My husband and 2 friends continued on for 5 more days to complete the entire TMB, finishing back in Chamonix. 

Our day-to-day route details for our 5-day hike:

DateRouteMilesElevation GainAccommodation
Friday, July 15travel to Chamonix / Les HouchesMercure Chamonix Center Hotel
Saturday, July 16day 1 hiking: Chamonix (Les houches) to Les Contamines (took gondola up first part out of les Houches) – split into two groups, one doing 1 (Col de Voza) and the other 1A (Col Tricot)8.371640 ft.Chalet-Hôtel La Chemenaz hotel in Les Contamines
Sunday, July 17day 2 hiking: Les Contamines to Refuge de la Balme via Col Joy and Col Fenetra, in Contamines Mont Joie. 7.50 mi 2800 ft.Refuge de la Balme
Monday, July 18day 3 hiking: Refuge de la Balme to Les Chapieux7.443000 ft.refuge Auberge-Refuge de la Nova (5 mins off trail for hikers) as hotels too far
Tuesday, July 19day 4 hiking: Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabeta8.683500 ft.Refugio Elisabeta
Wednesday, July 20day 5 hiking: Refugio Elisabeta to Courmayeur (took the ski lift down last part)8.091300 ft.hotel Chalet Svizzero in Courmayeur
Thursday, July 21day in Courmayeur/or move on to next locationhotel Chalet Svizzero in Courmayeur
TOTAL45 mi12,500

Planning:

We decided what mileage/elevation gain was good for our group and planned the days accordingly. We knew we wanted to stay at a combination of hotels and refuges and that we were going to carry our own packs. The refuges are more rustic and remote, where you need to bring a sleep sack but are given a bed/bunk, pillow, and blanket and they prepare a set meal of dinner and breakfast. They also can make a to-go lunch as needed. You usually do not have in-room sinks or showers. 

We booked our hotels/refuges as soon as they were open for booking – the refuges open for booking approx 9 months ahead of time. The summer is busy and they do fill up and since we had a larger group we planned/booked early. For the hotels I used booking.com but learned that it’s hard to change the number of rooms on a booking with them so I recommend booking direct if possible (plus the places make more money that way). Some take deposits, others don’t. Some take credit cards and some cash only – so be sure to keep track of that and bring enough cash. 

Training:

There were a variety of fitness levels in the group. Many of them were strong mountain trail runners who needed little to no training. I, however, started training a couple of months ahead of time by hiking with my backpack full of gradually increasing weight (you can use bags of rice, water bottles, watermelon, or whatever works for the weight you plan to carry). 

Tour de Mont Blanc Packing List:

LOTS of discussion about packing. As my friend Joanne says…’ Ounces make pounds’….so every little item matters in terms of what you bring as it all adds up to weight on your back. 

Pack Type: 

Bring the lightest backpack available. Many of us used Osprey packs that ranged in size from 20-liter to 45-liter capacity (around 35 liters seemed the norm). Make sure it’s properly fit to your body (I had REI do the fitting for me). 

Clothing: 

Here’s the list that our group followed for packing for a 5-day trip. We did wash out/hang dry items during the hike as needed: 

For the Trail:
1 Hiking Shorts (quick dry)

1 Hiking Pants (quick dry)  NOTE: Most people hiked in shorts given warm weather. Some didn’t bring pants. I hiked in pants almost every day.

1 Long Sleeve Hiking/Sun Shirt with Hood (quick dry. Patagonia makes a good one)

2 Short Sleeve Hiking Shirts (quick dry)

2-3 Socks (wool)

Rain Jacket

Rain Pants

Fleece jacket (on thinner side that packs down well)

Thermal top and bottoms (lightweight kind)

Sun hat with good brim, or cap with flaps that protect you from the sun on your neck/face

Neck buff or bandana

Hiking shoes

30-35L Backpack (or bigger if camping)

Backpack rain cover

Telescopic Hiking Poles (A MUST)

Sunglasses

Water bottle or bladder (at least 2 liter)

Guide book/map (1 per group)

2 Bars/snacks for emergency food/hunger (you can get more on the trail as needed)

Sun gloves (optional but give good protection)

For Staying in a Refuge:

Sleep sack / sleeping bag liner (you sleep in this and have blanket/pillow they provide as well)

Sleeping attire (can use thermals or tshirt etc)

Puffer jacket (good as a pillow as well)

Beanie/gloves

1 Set of clean clothes for post hike each night (I had light sweats that doubled as sleepwear)

Flip flops or crocs (you take off your hiking shoes in refuges and need lightweight shoes for walking and showering).

Head torch (we didn’t end up using ours as phones worked as well)

Ear plugs/eye mask (optional, but if you are in a bunk room would be good)

Toiletries (bring minimal/small bottles)

Phone chargers (all refuges we stayed in had a few communal outlets for use)

Power bank (esp if camping)

Small travel towel 

Other:

First Aid Kit (one person carried most of the items for the group)

Map

Whistle

Pen Knife

Phone charging cord and adaptor, as needed

Ziplock bag

Our Typical Day:

Wake up 6:30ish

Breakfast 7ish

Packed and on the trail by 7:30-7:45ish

Some days there are refuges en route where you can stop for coffee or snacks or even world-class pastries. Some days have refuges where you can stop for lunch (if not then you need to get a packed lunch and bring it that day). 

Reach final destination by 3ish. 

If there is a stream nearby (tends to be!), soak your feet for a while

Have a beer, and rest. 

Dinner at 7 

Asleep by 9 or 9:30.

The Nitty Gritty Day by Day Details (probably only interesting for someone planning a trip!)

Each day was different in terms of landscape, type of trail, etc. Overall, there aren’t a lot of rolling hills or flat walking except during the segments in Switzerland, however – it tended to be a lot of up and a lot of down (these are the Alps after all!). Below is a day-by-day summary of what we did for those who want a more detailed look:

Day 0:

Arrive Chamonix. 

Stayed at the Hotel Mecure which is modern and super well located near the (very beautiful!) train station and the downtown area with all the restaurants etc. Chamonix is surrounded by the mountains and feels like the ski town that all US ski towns try to emulate., but fall a bit short on the beauty! 

Dinner in Chamonix

Day 1:

Hike: Chamonix (les Houches) to les Contamines (took gondola up first part out of les Houches)

Breakfast at the hotel

Check luggage that we weren’t needing at the hotel as we were coming back to Chamonix at the end and could pick up these items at the end of the hike. Small fee to leave the bags.

Take a local bus to Les Houches, about 10 minutes away, where Stage 1 begins.

We took the cable car up the mountain instead of hiking up. It’s a brutal hike up a ski mountain (my husband had done it a few years beforehand and did not recommend it as a way to start the tour!). 

At the top, we divided into two groups. We recommend doing Hike 1A (re: Cicerone book) via Col Tricot which did have more elevation but also had better scenery. 

Hike 1 leaves Col de Voza (Col is the name for a saddle which is often the destination to get to the next valley) and heads down the mountain via a few small towns and a fast-moving river. The latter part traverses a valley before heading up into Los Contamines.

Hike 1A moves upward to Col Tricot bringing you very close to the glacier. You descend past Refuge Miage which has the best food (gourmet) in all of the refuges if not along the entirety of the tour.

We all ended in Les Contamines, which is a medium-sized mountain town that has restaurant/hotel options. We stayed a bit out of town at Hotel Chateau La Chemenaz which has a pool, is near the river and has a small grocery store next to it. We had dinner there and the staff was very helpful and nice. 

Day 2:

Hiking: Les Contamines to Refuge de la Balme

Breakfast at the hotel and hiking by 8 am. 

Hiked out of town but went up a ski lift to the Les Contamines ski area to get a more scenic view, including a view of the Southern Alps that is only visible from this spot for TMBers. Some of us walked up the ski slope and others took one more additional cable car to Signal. We then hiked to the top of Col Joly and had lunch at the top (not friendly staff!). Spectacular 360 views of two valleys and the Alps (including the aforementioned views of the Southern Alps). We then followed the signs to hike across the top of the mountains towards Col Fenetre, followed by a long downhill hike (on lots of scree) to Refuge de la Balme. The Refuge has a dorm room as well as 4 private rooms (that sleep about 6 people each in bunk beds). Hot water in the shared showers/sinks and the upstairs rooms have a toilet for rooms to share. Downstairs room and bunk room have to walk outside to toilet/sinks. Limited shared outlets in the upstairs hallway for charging phones. Limited wifi.

Dinner at the refuge. 

Day 3.

Hiking: Refuge de la Balme to Les Chapieux

Breakfast at the refuge 7am

On trail by 7:45am

Long, steep up to start the day for a couple hours to Col du Bonhomme, followed by great view/rest at the top.

Then traverse up and down across the mountain, including scrambling on some rock areas, to the Bonhomme Refuge at the top where we had lunch. You can stay at this Refuge as well, although they were having water problems when we were there and if they didn’t figure that out they were going to have some issues. 

At this point, you can choose to do the ‘shortcut’ that cuts off the bottom southern portion of the TMB, which many opt to do. If you do this you take the cut-off towards Refuge Montets. We did the southern part however so did not take the cut-off and did the long downhill to Les Chapieux.  If you cut off this bottom section via the shortcut you do cut off a long downhill, followed the next day by part of the  uphill, but you have only one sleeping option (Refuge Montets) versus a few options in Les Chapeieux 

Les Chapieux is a little town that has a couple of places to stay, a bus station, a pizza spot, and a little goat cheese shop where you can also buy internet time. Our hotel Auberge-Refuge de la Nova has a bunk room as well as various other room options – some have sinks and/or showers in the room and some do not. They have a nice beer garden/restaurant and a nearby stream is great for soaking tired feet.  We had dinner at the Refuge. No wifi but you can buy a few minutes at the cheese shop. Outlets for charging in some of the rooms.

Day 4.

Hiking: Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabeta

Breakfast 7am and picked up the packed lunch they made for our hike that day as there was no good midday stopping point for lunch.

The bus station does offer the option to cut off a few kilometers of the hike via a bus. We opted to walk along the road, and then the trail, instead to Refuge Mottetes where we stopped for coffee. Had we taken the shortcut the day before this would have been the Refuge we would have spent the night in, which is a pretty basic one in terms of accommodation with a very large bunkroom, amongst other options. This is a great place to stop for a coffee or pastries before the next long uphill. Views are incredible as you are surrounded on three sides by amazing mountains.

After the Refuge an uphill climb begins which continues for a long time! Finally at the top as you leave France and enter Italy you are rewarded with another great view and a good place to take a lunch break. Then continued on downhill until we got to Refugio Elisabetta, making a brief stop at a museum on the mountain that has a good topo map of all of Mont Blanc. This downhill path also has bikers coming up it (mountain bikes and e-bikes).  

Elisabetta is perched on the mountain with a great view of the valley below. It has a restaurant that offers Italian food and the deck is a great place to enjoy a beer. There are two large dormitories which pack sleepers in like sardines (avoid if you can! – one is three levels high bunk beds…) as well as rooms with bunk beds of various numbers. Shared shower (need tokens for the 4 minutes of hot water showers) and sink for everyone. The public areas are nice and the bathrooms/bedrooms are less nice than other places we stayed. Lots of travelers here to chat with though which is always enjoyable. Limited outlets for charging in the dining room. Wifi available.

Day 5:

Final hiking day for most!

Hiking: Refugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur (took ski lift down Refugio Maison Vielle into Courmayeur)

Left after breakfast and headed down the valley, starting with a nice flat walk on an old Roman road. Then you can head towards a bus if you want to avoid the up/down and save time to get to Courmayeur, or take a right up the TMB trail and start the big uphill of the day. It’s beautiful as always…and a long uphill climb. After a few hours up, and a couple of false summits, there is a bit of a leveling off, and then finally you get to the ski lift at Maison Viellewhere you can have a drink or a bite and then take the ski lift down to Courmayeur. You can also walk down if you want a few miles of steep downhill walking down a ski slope to finish the day…which we did not! We highly recommend the ski lift down, which most everyone seemed to take.

Once down in the town of Courmayeur, which is a lovely ski town nestled in the valley, we walked to our hotel, checked in, and then headed out for a great late afternoon pizza lunch! Our hotel, the Chalet Svizzero was terrific – beautiful decor, great location, and just very nice. Ask for a room facing the river and you will hear rushing water all night vs traffic on the other side of the hotel!  

Afternoon shopping and wandering along the main street followed by cocktails outside the hotel and dinner at La Terrezza which was highly recommended by a few sources. The ordering was a bit tricky with the Italian waiter but the food was delicious and had a fun atmosphere. 

Days 6-10 hikes described below were for husband, and two other friends who joined him in Courmayeur, who continued on to do the second half  of TMB route from Courmayeur to Chamonix. This section was written by my husband John who did these additional days.

Day 6

Amazing breakfast at the hotel, sitting overlooking the river. Then said our goodbyes as some took off for the second half of the TMB hike (summary of that below), some left for the Sky Tram to take the AMAZING gondolas over the alps to Chamonix (HIGHLY RECOMMEND- book the ticket for the earliest one possible to avoid the crowds. It is weather dependent, however.) and a few of us spent the day in Chamonix resting, have a massage at the hotel, shopping, etc. and then left the following day. 

After a steep uphill covered mostly in forest, hikers are rewarded with the one of the flattest (ok, it is nice rolling hills) sections of the TMB. It also has stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif across the Val Ferret that are so close at times that you feel like you can touch it. Before you start on this section though, stop for a coffee and pastry at the Rifugio Bertone near the top of the climb. The views back at Courmayeur as well as the mountains around Val Ferret are breathtaking, and the apple cake itself is worth the climb.

The 5th segment of the TMB is supposed to take you to Rifugio Bonatti. This is at the end of the mostly level walk described above. Grab a great, hearty lunch there with tens if not hundreds of fellow hikers. Our team did not have reservations at Bonatti, and needed to push on to Rifugio Elena. The hike to Elena is beautiful, but requires a section where you drop to the Val Ferret floor and climb back up to Elena, the first part of a long ~4000 ft elevation gain to the top of Col Ferret. Our team made the bold decision to stop only briefly at Elena because they did not want to stay in the dormitory. 

So, the team marched the rest of what would be a 21 mile day with close to 6000 ft of elevation gain to La Fouly in Switzerland. The climb up to Col Ferret is beautiful but steep and exposed most of the time. You get an incredible sense of accomplishment at the top of this climb, but there is no Rifugio and no refreshments so make sure you bring your own. The downhill walk to La Fouly is long (7 miles) but you are amply rewarded at the restaurants in the small skiing town of La Fouly. Our team stayed at Auberge Les Glaciers which has a nice restaurant with good food and appropriately good beers!  The rooms are sparse but clean with a sink in room. 

Day 7

After a hearty breakfast, the team had a relatively short hike ahead of ~9 miles but with a large uphill at the end to get to the beautiful town of Champex du Lac. The first part of the journey is a delightful mix of forest and river walks interspersed with picturesque Swiss villages. There is food along the way – including a great coffee, omellette and pastries in Issert.

The team got to Champex in time to eat lunch (Boulangerie), swim in the lake, paddleboard, do laundry. It is a beautiful spot to get organized for the last segments. We recommend trying to get to a reservation at Hotel Alpina which has tremendous views of the Rhone Valley, Verbier and north of Mont Blanc. If you cannot get in there, go to Mimi’s and make sure you spend some time talking with Mimi’s daughter who runs the place. Mimi’s is an institution that has been around for at least 40 years. Our team stayed in a nice Airbnb at Au Vieux Champex, but there are several nice places around town.

Day 8

Eat another hearty breakfast for the hike to Trient. There is food along the way – including the best pastries on the TMB, so no need to pack bars or a lunch.

The hike out is through rolling Swiss landscape, friendly and hospitable… we even had a yoga retreat happening in a cow pasture. But then you climb and climb and climb for another 3000 ft of elevation out of the valley. The reward is Refuge Alpage du Bovine. Great coffee, but seriously awesome pastries. Peach tarts, apricot crumbles need to be consumed surrounded by hundred ++ hikers and an equal number of cows all equipped with the stereotypical Swiss cowbells.  The dowhill is mostly nice, and you are again rewarded when you near the bottom with an awesome restaurant at Col de la Forclaz. You can go French with the food, or you can dive deeply into a burger and fries. Truly awesome. 

You will need to complete the downhill into Trient where there are several accommodations. Ours at Auberge Mont Blanc was clean, but the food was mass produced and meh. The conversations at the group tables makes up for it. Our fellow hikers at the slightly pricier Hotel Grand Ourse had similar things to say about their place. There is a nice bar at the Grand Ourse and the view of the pink church against the glaciers behind are fantastic.

Day 9

Do your best at breakfast because you have another huge 3000 ft climb to start the day to get to Col du Balme. You march through many different micro-climates and ecosystems and end with the best saddle of the entire journey. It is really a combination of 4 saddles and also includes your first view of the Chamonix Valley from the opposite end of the valley as Les Houches. The refuge is good, but nothing is going to live up to your pastries from the day before. On the downhill side to Chamonix, you are actually in the ski area for Chamonix, so there are likely a few ski lifts running in the area that could get you to the Valley floor.  Our team walked down to Trelechamp. You go from an exposed, open, easy set of trails to rocky, rooty, covered trails during the journey. (Other hikers went to Vallorcine. The lift down to Vallorcine was running which would spare you the pounding on your knees).

After a great lunch at Auberge la Boerne, our team split up for the rest of the day. One made his way to the train to get to Chamonix, an easy ride down the valley which you can also pick up at Vallorcine. The other two double-downed and did the TMB Stage 10 from Trelechamp to Le Flegere. This was one of the more challenging sections of the TMB, especially when it gives you an additional 3000 ft of elevation. The terrain change is remarkable as well as you essentially spend the journey doing switchbacks up a rocky mountain face. At the top, you get to a section that requires you to climb ~10-15 ladders and hold on to some bolted in bars and steps… This is a new experience for most and requires some getting used to. There is a longer alternative route that avoids the ladders.

After summiting the climb, you are given the best views of Mont Blanc itself across the Chamonix Valley. You can also see the lifts you must still walk to exit at Le Flegere. Our team decided not to stay at the refuge at the top of Le Flegere lift, but to instead take the gondola down to Chamonix and stay again the Mercure Chamonix. Some purists may object, but the hotel and the food and ambience of Chamonix is hard to pass up. We had doubled down across two stages, 13 miles and 6000 ft of elevation and felt that justified the reward. We also saw many of our fellow hikers on the floor of the Valley, and got the chance to share some stories with them. 

Day 10

Last day! We awoke in Chamonix and had a great breakfast, and then made our way to and up Le Flegere lift. Any thoughts that this was going to be an easy day were quickly washed away. This was yet another 3000 foot day punctuated by a great climb to Col Brevent. You get some hard switchbacks, a few more ladders, some rock scrambling and even a box canyon. The views of the Southern Alps and a range West of Chamonix that looks like the Grand Canyon are new, different and fantastic. There is a gondola at the top that will get you down if you choose (as most seem to…) to avoid the 4 mile downhill into Les Houches that is supposed to the worst downhill stretch of the journey.  

Our team finished with a huge meal in Chamonix and some well deserved beverages! And another night with a comfortable bed at the Mercure!

Day 11

Bonus Day

If you haven’t gone up the Gondola to Aiguilles Midi or even-better, gone all the way to Courmayeur… this is your day. This is a must! Our team did an early, sunrise ride to Midi. Clouds were heavy up the change from the first gondola to the second. But, we rose above the clouds heading to Midi. The views are unbelievable. I know the readership must be getting tired of hearing that similar comment… but this is phenomenal. If you go early, you get to go up with climbers and then see them set out on their journey to climb Mont Blanc or to simply rock climb up one of the needle rocks. Stunning.

The rest of the team left that morning and I went back to get another day on the mountain. I took the train to Vallorcine and the lift partially up to Col du Balme. I then ran on the trails around Col du Balme where I experience one more day of  “epic run, one-of-a-kind views and great pastries”.

And that was the end of one of the best trips ever! Great exercise, great views, great friends and great memories!

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Time of year

July-Sept

Type of Trip

Adventure/Active, Nature

Duration

1 week

Who Went

Couple, Multi-family, Friends (45-65 yr old)

Accommodation Type

Hotel, Other

Budget

less than $200

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