The Tour du Mont Blanc is honestly one of the most incredible hike we’ve ever experienced. That’s saying something since we’ve done some really incredible hikes in Alaska, the Rockies, the Cascades, Glacier National Park, Yosemite, New Zealand, and Hawaii, just to name a few.
What makes this experience so unique and incredible in comparison to other hikes around the world is the combination of easy access to refuges, going in and out of towns and cities, and the stunning beauty of all the snowcapped mountains and glaciers.
When I first started planning the Tour du Mont Blanc, it was overwhelming to say the least and it was hard to find the right information to help me plan my itinerary, especially when it came to camping. In our blog, Planning a Tour du Mont Blanc, I’ve included everything you need to know about getting to Mont Blanc, how long it is, how many stages, safety, and so much more.
If you don’t know much about the Tour du Mont Blanc, it might help to read the Planning Guide first (blog coming soon) to orient yourself and then use this to help you plan.
But, if you are just looking for some inspiration, want to find out how you can hike this incredible trail in only 7 days, or want to hear our story of how epic the Tour du Mont Blanc was then please, read on. And for pure inspiration, you’ll want to check out Our 35 Favorite Photos From The TMB.
Hiking the TMB was certainly a life changing experience for me.
For starters, it was way more strenuous than I expected and like always, I tend to bite off more than I can chew. This meant that we ended up combining stages, which made it even more exhausting. That’s not to say I’d do it differently. I just want you to make sure you plan accordingly.
I’ve broken up my account of our hiking experience with tips and recommendations for those planning on trying to fast track this wonderful trek.
If I skipped something or left any stone unturned or question unanswered, please, ask us in the comments section below. I want to make sure you can have the best possible experience hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.
I found it interesting that while hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, so few people knew what a travel blog was. While I guess originally blogging was a means of journaling your experience along your travels, in the past few years it has turned into a highly detailed description for travel and thus I want you to know that this blog here that you’re reading is meant to help you have the best possible travel experience possible.
I’m not here to talk about my story, I’m using my story to help you have an epic Tour du Mont Blanc trip. Let’s get started!
Just a heads up, I will be using the abbreviation TMB on this blog occasionally. It’s kinda self explanatory but TMB stands for Tour du Mont Blanc.
Also, if you don’t have time to read this whole blog (or even if you just want to save this blog for later), you can save any one of the photos on this blog to your Pinterest boards. All you got to do is click the Pin it button in the corner of each image (if you’re on a mobile device, click on the photo first then the Pin it button will appear.)
Day 1 on the Tour du Mont Blanc: Le Brévent to Refuge de la Balme
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 10 mi/6 km
- Total elevation gain: 800m/2600ft
- Total elevation loss: 1500m/4900ft
- Stages covered: Half of Stage 11, bypass Stage 1, partial Stage 2
Hiking Times + Distances
- Brévent to Refuge de Bellachat: 1 hour
- Refuge de Bellachat to Les Houches train station: 2 hours and 45 minutes
- Public Transport from Les Houches to Notre Dame de la Gorge
- Notre Dame de la Gorge to Refuge Nant Borrant: 40 minutes
- Refuge Nant Borrant to Refuge de la Balme: 50 minutes
Chamonix Mont Blanc
We chose to begin our TMB journey at the summit of Le Brévent.
Traditionally you would start and finish the TMB in Les Houches so that you get the most dramatic views of Mont Blanc for the grand finale, stage 11.
The weather forecast was predicting overcast with a chance of rain for the day we’d be finishing the TMB projected and the day we woke up to start the Tour, the weather was perfectly clear and too gorgeous to pass up. We decided to take the good weather when we could get it so we could guarantee amazing views on the iconic 11th stage.
In addition, we happened to be in Chamonix at the same time as the UTMB (the Ultra Tour Du Mont Blanc race). The race follows the very same TMB route hikers follow so it can get crowded on the trail. We were beginning our trek two days before the big race started and we wanted to get out ahead of the runners if that makes sense.
After grabbing pastries and cafe in town, plus some snacks for the way, we walked north out of town center to the cable car.
The price to ride the cable car to Brévent one way was €25 adults and €20 kids under 15.
I was a bit reluctant to pay so much and contemplated just hiking up to Brévent but was so very happy that I spent the money as it is an extremely steep ascent and would have trashed our legs for the descent from Brévent to Les Houches that we were about to do.
Taking the cable car up provides you with amazing views and it’s super easy to find the gondola from the center of Chamonix. Just follow the signs.
Taking the cable car up is a two part ordeal. The first part is a gondola ride to Plan Praz, which is at 2000 meters. From here you get off the gondola and follow the signs with the picture of the cable car that in the winter, takes you to the black diamond runs in the resort. It’s very simple.
There is a cafe here if you want to grab a coffee while taking in the views or you can wait to get panoramic views from the smaller cafe at the summit of Le Brévent after the second cable car ride.
The cable car ride from Plan Praz to Brévent was interesting as it is a larger car that fits 30 + people standing in it and takes you all up together to Brévent at 2525 meters. It was exhilarating!
After you take in the views, which do tend to be clouded in from this high of altitude, it’s time to start the hike down to Les Houches. Remember, if you choose to do this the traditional way, this will be your final push of the tour and it is steep, so leave a little in the legs for this part.
Le Brévent to Refuge de Bellachat – Stage 11
The first section of trail was a rocky but a gradual decline. You’re above treeline here and get incredible views of not only Mont Blanc but also the mountain ranges far in the distance.
The views at Refuge de Bellachat are some of the best on the entire tour. If it fits into your itinerary, I highly recommend staying here. It was a little to early in our day to stop and eat here, but like all the refuges along the way, it did serve coffee, drinks and food. There are toilets here but only for paying customers.
Refuge de Bellachat to Les Houches – Stage 11
Just a bit after leaving the refuge the trail gets steep. Very steep.
There isn’t a lot of exposure so fear of heights isn’t a huge worry but the amount of single leg squats you feel like you are doing is hard. Our legs were shaking most of the way down, which is rare for us.
Hiking sticks would probably be a good idea if you have any past knee issues. Keep in mind, the trail remains steep pretty much the entire way down to Les Houches.
20 minutes after leaving the refuge, the trail winds into the forest and provides a nice respite from the intense sun rays. Eventually you arrive at a fence and follow along the outskirts of it until reaching the entrance to the Zoo, Merlet.
After Merlet, we followed the yellow TMB signs left, winding down the Zoo’s access road until eventually turning left on the TMB trail about 30 min down the road again.
According to the book, when you get to the zoo, there was a road to the right that put you on the TMB trail right away, however, we totally didn’t see it and walking the road for awhile was a nice break for our feet. There were also picnic tables on the road where we walked that provided a nice place to rest and eat.
The trail puts you out right at the train station and if this the end of your trek as a traditional Stage 11, it’s super easy to hop on the train back to Chamonix. If you choose to fastback as we did, you may want to hop on the train here to skip Stage 1.
Les Houches to Les Contamines – Skipping Stage 1
Since stage 1 of the TMB, which goes from Les Houches to Les Contamines, isn’t as gorgeous as the other stages, we decided to skip it, but mostly because we wanted to get ahead of the UTMB runners who would be starting their race the next night, which meant we needed to get to Les Contamines so we could enjoy beautiful stage 3 without crazy crowds.
I don’t necessarily recommend skipping stage 1 but we did because we weren’t going to be able to take the alternate/high route.
The traditional path of stage 1 involves a lot of road walking and didn’t seem worth it for us since doing Stage 1 would set us back a day.
Plus, there is a variant to Stage 1 that takes you up higher and closer to the glaciers but isn’t recommended early in the season or with inclement weather. There was a chance of thunderstorms that afternoon so we chose to take it easy and ride the train/bus to Contamines.
Train and Bus Passes
The Carte d’Hôte pass allows you to ride any bus or train between Servoz and Vallorcine.
We received one of these passes for free from staying at Camping Des Arroles. I’m pretty sure all of the campgrounds in Chamonix provide these, some hotels also offer them free of charge, or you can get one for 2 euros from the tourist office in Chamonix.
The train runs about every hour, click here for full schedule. We took the train west to Saint Gervais where we then hopped on Bus 84 to Les Contamines. This bus is not included in the Carte d’Hôte pass and tickets were €5.50 per person. It was a very nice bus ride in an air conditioned tour bus and the incredible views along the way made what little guilt I had for skipping a section of the TMB quickly disappear as I stared out the oversized windows at the rolling green French countryside.
The tourist office in Les Contamines has outlets to charge your phone and free WiFi which was nice.
We also picked up food for our dinner (we weren’t eating diner at the refuges since we were camping) at the small grocery store across from the tourist office in Les Contimines: a baguette, arugula, salami, and butter to make sandwiches for dinner as well as a yogurt and a pastries each for dessert, plus a chocolate croissant for breakfast the next morning.
There is a bigger grocery store in town and plenty of restaurants to eat at. I highly recommend the ice cream (glacée) at the bakery directly across the street from the tourist office.
Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge – Free Shuttle
We chose to skip the first 45 minutes of hiking stage 2 since it’s mostly near the road and while the scenery is pleasant, it was nice to just cut out this section of town. There is a free shuttle bus that takes you from the tourist office in Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge, a beautiful church in the middle of rolling green countryside. There is food here and the church is worth taking a peak inside of.
Notre Dame de la Gorge to Refuge de la Balme – Begin Stage 2
Leaving Notre Dame de la Gorge the trail immediately begins to climb and doesn’t let up all the way to Refuge de la Balme, where we chose to camp that night.
It actually doesn’t let up until the next refuge, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme and if I had started earlier, not combined stages, or wasn’t camping, I would recommend to stay at Refuge du Bonhomme mainly so that you don’t have to start with such an intense climb the next morning when you leave Refuge de la Balme.
We were camping though and not only was the camping free at Refuge de la Balme, but the views were some of the best and reminded me a lot of being in the Dolomites.
Eating at the Refuges
Since we were not guests at the refuges (we were tent camping, remember) we were able to order drinks at Chalet Refuge de la Balme but not dinner.
If we had needed dinner, Refuge Nant Borrant looked like you could just walk in and order but for Refuge de la Balme, we would’ve had to call ahead to request dinner since they only make enough food for the people paying half board.
According to people I asked on the trail, they said the food wasn’t very good at Refuge de la Balme anyway. Refuge Nant Borrant supposedly has incredible food but while it’s a location is quaint and lovely, the views at the refuge and 2 nearby camping areas aren’t the best.
Having camped at the stunning camping area at Refuge de la Balme, we got coffee at Refuge du Balme the next morning but I do not recommend it. The coffee was horrible, overpriced, and we had to wait until the guests were served before getting a cup of coffee which put us on the trail much later than I had hoped.
Overall Tips for Day 1
To fastback like we did, take the cable car from Chamonix to Brévent, hike down to Les Houches, hop on train from Les Houches to Saint Gervais and then a bus from Saint Gervais to Les Contamines.
Total public transport costs per person is about 33 euros per person
Use the free shuttle (picks up right in front of the Tourism Office) to go from Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge.
If you time the trains and buses perfectly, it is possible to get to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme within a day but you’d have to hustle and if you aren’t camping, I’ve heard that Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme is pretty bad.
Day 2: Refuge de la Balme to Refuge Elisabetta via Variante Route
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 19.5 km/12 mi
- Total elevation gain: 1400 m/4600 ft
- Total elevation loss: 1000 m/3300 ft
- Stages covered: Stage 2 w/ Col de Fours Variant + Stage 3
Hiking Times + Distances
- Refuge de la Balme to Col du Bonhomme: 1 hour and 30 minutes
- Col du Bonhomme to Col de la Croix: 40 minutes
- Col de la Croix to Col des Fours: 1 hour and 15 minutes,
- Col des Fours to Refuge des Mottets: 3 hours,
- Refuge des Mottets to Col de la Seigne: 1 hour and 15 minutes,
- Col de la Seigne to Refugio Elisabetta: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Refuge de la Balme to Col de la Croix – Stage 2 Ascent
We left Refuge de la Balme at 8 a.m. on the dot with a dozen or so fellow hikers on our tail which pushed our pace quite a bit. It’s a fairly steep and consistent climb from Refuge de la Balme to Col du Bonhomme and quite a shock to start your morning with such a hard exertion. Little did we know that that was just going to be a warm up for us.
From here the signs point you left and it’s another 40 minutes of easier climbing to get to the Col de la Croix. The views are nice on this section and a good warm up for the spectacular views that are coming ahead.
Col de la Croix to Refuge des Mottets – Col de Fours Stage 2/3 Variant
When you reach Col de la Croix you are also at the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. If you are contemplating staying here these are the things I’d consider.
- Sometimes it’s not safe to take the Col de Fours variante which is what I’m going to explain in a minute.
- This alternate route does provide a nice view of Mont Blanc and Aiguille des Glaciers, but there are way better views ahead in my opinion and you get to see the Aiguille des Glaciers for a long time from Mottets to Col de la Seigne.
- The descent down from Col de Fours to Refuge des Mottets is steep. Doing such a steep descent on back to back days destroyed Gabi’s knees and so if you go this way, don’t forget hiking sticks.
- Your odds of having clearer weather are much better earlier in the day so if you really want to do this variante, then starting from Refuge de la Croix might be a smarter option.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you can skip the Col de Fours variant and hike downhill to Les Chapieux and then catch a bus from Le Chapieux to Ville des Glaciers (which is only a 30 minute hike from Mottets) or directly to Mottets parking lot. It’s cheap and runs often throughout the day in July and August.
Since the weather was so clear, we chose to skip Chapieux and took the variant which was another 30 minutes of steep climbing, but the views of Aguilles de Glaciers and Mont Blanc made it quite worth the over 2.5 hours of climbing we had just done.
The TMB guidebook and signs mention that it’s a 20 minute detour to get to the Tete Fours, a summit to the left, but it didn’t look worth it to me. We had already climbed so much and had great views from the Col de Fours.
If you were only walking to Mottets from here and it’s a clear day, then it may be worth the extra push to Tete Fours.
Now, the rough part. The descent down from Col de Fours is brutal. It’s a very steep descent that takes 2 and a half hours. You do get nice views of the glaciers which is wonderful but you spend most of the time watching where your next footstep will be.
The bottom of the descent puts you at a car park with toilets. Use them if you aren’t planning on stopping at Mottets (which would be almost a sin since the food at Mottets is so delicious) since the toilets there are only for paying customers.
Getting to Mottets requires a 30 minute climb that is fairly gradual but still quite hard, especially after the five and a half hours we’d already walked that day.
Refuge des Mottets
I had in my mind that Mottets was going to be a mediocre pit stop for us and was completely wrong. It’s in a gorgeous location sitting below glaciers and waterfalls and looks down into the valley heading toward Chapieux. We stopped and had lunch here and the food was amazing.
We were under the impression from other blogs we read that you could camp at Mottets however it’s not a suitable place to make camp before sunset. They people that run the refuge probably don’t mind if you set up camp late in the day up just past the refuge out of sight from the guests BUT there is a sign that says no camping on the refuge property.
Since it was early in the day we decided to push on but doing so was definitely biting off more than we should’ve chewed as the next 4 hours of hiking is grueling.
Refuge des Mottets to Col de la Seigne – Stage 3 Ascent
Hiking from Mottets to Col de la Seigne is steep even with fresh legs, but we had already climbed up 1500 feet and down the same so this climb of over 2000 feet hurt.