The Tour de Mont Blanc is one of the great treks of the European Alps, guiding hikers on a 170.0km circuit through three spectacular countries around the Mont Blanc massif. The gorgeous, well-travelled trail grants unparalleled views of staggering mountain faces and hanging glaciers. Relatively fit parties should be able to complete the trek in eleven days (including a rest day), working through the breathtaking views at a moderate pace of approximately 15.0km each day with 1000m elevation gain. Expect five to seven hours of hiking each day.
This tour passes through France, Italy and Switzerland – so you’ll need your passport and potentially visa(s) to complete the trek depending on your country of origin. English is widely spoken throughout the route, as is French and Italian. Most bank and credit cards are accepted (make sure to let your bank know you will be traveling to avoid having your card declined by fraud suspicion), but it’s also useful to have cash, especially for the mountain refuges.
We love this tour simply because the days are so wonderful. Prepare to wake up in one of the many campsites, mountain huts (more commonly known as refugio) or hotels along the route and begin your morning with a incline – a steady hike up past the tree line. Continue along the excellently marked trail, take the rolling hills in stride, stop frequently to ogle at the views and definitely take a much deserved respite on a scenic patio for lunch or a snack. Finish off the journey by descending down again to your next town, finding a much-needed spot to rest up for the next day.
When to go depends on the weather and when the lodging you’re planning to stay in is open. As a rule of thumb we check when all the refugios along the way open for the season while still in the planning stage.
In low snow years you can do this trek starting in early to mid-June, however in years with heavy snowfall it may be better to wait until late June. July and August are the busiest times of the year, with many lodging options full most nights. One of our favourite times to visit is September and early October, when the weather isn’t as hot and the crowds not as large. Just make sure to check out when the accommodation is closed for the season.
A common theme throughout the Tour de Mont Blanc (or TMB as it’s called by trekkers) is options. Firstly, you’re given a vast variety of places to sleep. If you want to hike on the cheap you can camp, or you can opt to stay in the many refugios or hotels. A refugio is essentially a mountain hostel, with relatively basic interiors but typically fantastic food! Note that some have private rooms but many just offer shared dormitory-style accommodation. If you want a private room be sure to book in advance!
Along with the variety of accommodation options, there are also many ways to arrange the tour. Many opt to do the planning themselves – booking the hotels and carrying all their clothes with them – but it’s also nice to have a little help. We have done both, and in peak season (July and August) it may be better to have someone arrange the accommodation bookings for you, as well as the luggage transfers. Making reservations is not without challenges, however, as it commits you to a route and doesn’t account for health issues – most often muscle strains or blisters.
Outside of peak season we typically make reservations day-to-day. This allows us to listen to our bodies and plan each day based on how we feel.
Something else TMBers are quick to mention is the food. No need to even pack a lunch here! Make sure to stop at any one of the numerous refugios along the way for an espresso and a croissant – or maybe even a gourmet meal and a glass of wine! It is hard to overstate how wonderful it is to be sitting outside on a sunny summer’s day with a cold beer, a freshly baked margarita pizza and staggering views of sheer cliffs and pointed peaks. One of the real treats of the trek.
Most refugios offer the option of half-board or full-board. If you opt for the latter, in many cases all three meals will be provided for you. And one of the biggest culinary benefits of walking through three different countries is that your meals will each reflect the unique cultural and regional gastronomy. We always love staying at the high Italian refugios and getting good red wine and hearty, delicious pasta. After this we come down to Switzerland and steaming pot of delicious fondue.
The TMB is incredibly well marked and there are loads of trail options for each day. In low season you can plan your day as you walk, showing up in towns to see if there is space for the evening. We love doing this as it gives a sense of adventure and lets us go at our own pace.
Along the way, we recommend using a physical map and a smartphone GPS (GaiaGPS.com) as the best way to plan your route. It should be noted as well that at points along the TMB, you have the option of using gondolas to save a taxing ascent (or in some cases save your knees on the downhill). You heard us right! You’ll have the option to take a gondola or a chairlift right to the alpine several times throughout the trek to save those tired legs!
Total Gain: 705m
The typical TMB starts in Chamonix and works counter clockwise. Instead of starting in Chamonix, we take a bus to Les Houches and both begin and end the trek here, as it’s a gentler ascent. This also saves the views across the valley of the Aguille Verte and Mont Black to the finale of the hike. It also saves the knee crunching decent down the Les Houches, which has stopped many hikers on Day 1 with blisters and knee pain.
Our favourite route, which combines refugios and hotels, starts from Les Houches to Les Contamines for the night, then onto Refuge Les Mottet, stopping at Refuge de Bonhomme for lunch. Then proceed to Refugio Elisabetta – a wonderful stop for the night, even if it’s a short day. Usually we make sure to pick up some cake at Refugio Elisabetta en route to Courmayeur for a rest day. We definitely recommend for you to spend an entire day in Courmayer, roughly halfway through the trek, as it gives you time to do laundry, relax, and soak in some Italian culture (and maybe a relaxing bath!). Also, did we mention eat?!
Continue over a few more passes to Refuge Walter-Bonatti then head into Switzerland to La Fouly. Be warned: prices in Switzerland are incredibly expensive! Nights in Switzerland will be spent in Champex and Trient, so prepare to have you wallet emptied! Don’t worry – you will be rewarded upon entering France over the famous Col De Balme by a fantastic refugio with delicious snacks and coffee. Some people finish the trek down at Argentière. For us though, one of the highlights is getting up high above Chamonix and looking back at the Mont Blanc Massif and then finishing back in Les Houches.
After Les Houches, head back to Chamonix and spend a few days enjoying one of the world’s greatest mountain towns. There are great local hikes, a trip up the Aiguille de Midi and a ride to the Mer de Glace.
The Tour de Mont Blanc is rightfully one of the best trekking experiences you can have on earth, especially if tackled outside of peak summer season.