Ever since two English explorers, William Windham and Richard Pocock, first discovered the Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”) in 1741, it has become one of the world’s most visited natural sites and is a huge draw of visitors to the Chamonix Valley. The area became accessible by mule from 1802, but it was the opening of the Montenvers Train in 1908 that really opened the site up to the masses.
As well as enjoying the unique experience of the Montenvers train itself, the main draw for visitors to this site is the Mer de Glace. At 7km long and with a surface area of 40km2, it is also France’s largest glacier, extending from an altitude of 3900m, at the point where the Leschaux, Le Tacul and the Talèfre glaciers converge, down to 1400m, just below the Hotel Montenvers. The width of the glacier varies between 700m to 1950m and the depth of the ice averages around 200m but is as much as 400m thick in places!
Up until 1820, it was still possible to see the Mer de Glace from Chamonix, but since then it has steadily retreated out of sight as the vast rocky moraines along its edge will testify. However, like all glaciers, the Mer de Glace is constantly being renewed by snowfall and is permanently “flowing” under the effect of its own weight. Although this movement isn’t perceptible to the naked eye, it advances around 120m per year on the upper, steeper part and 90m per year lower down by the Montenvers viewpoint.
The most obvious evidence of this movement can be seen at the entrance to the ice grotto – an impressive cave that is carved out of the ice, enabling you to pass right into the heart of the glacier. For more than 50 years the grotto has been meticulously sculpted each year, shaping the ice into scenes depicting mountain life from the early 19th century. Inside, the light reflects off the beautiful blue ice to create a wonderfully eerie, sub-glacial atmosphere.
You can access the caves from the Montenvers train station by a small gondola lift (or via a footpath for the more energetic) and then a flight of approximately 300 steps. Entrance to the cave costs a few euros for holders of a Mont Blanc Multipass or Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass or it is also possible to buy a combined ticket for the return train and gondola trip, plus entrance to the caves for €21. Wear sturdy footwear and take warm clothes with you (even in summer) as inside the caves the temperature remains at a cool 8 degrees.
During winter, one of the highlights for many visitors to the Mer de Glace is to watch skiers returning from the Vallee Blanche which ends just above the entrance to the ice caves. Thousands of people each year ski this legendary high mountain itinerary usually in the company of a mountain guide due to the glaciated nature of the terrain. It is also a great spot to watch mountaineers coming and going from their high mountain adventures on some of the classic peaks in the area – Les Drus (3754m), Les Grandes Jorasses (4208m) and the Aiguille du Grepon (3482m). In the summer, you will often see groups of people out on the ice practicing crevasse rescue techniques, ice climbing, glacier walking and a whole host of other skills that come in useful in Chamonix all year round. If you fancy learning any of these activities yourself, then contact some of the mountain guides and guiding schools via the above link.
Winter Walking Trails in Chamonix
The Chamonix Vallley is a walker's paradise throughout the year; with lifts giving access to the higher ground and a network of groomed trails in the winter, it's very easy to discover the resort on foot.
As one of the valley's highest points, the Grands Montets in Argentière has some truly incredible views. There is a pedestrian trail that links Plan Joran to the Lognan mid-station, a walk that takes around 2 hours for the round trip. You'll get a good view of the action on the pistes and there are restaurants at either end to stop for lunch or soak up the sun in a deck chair.
A little further up the valley is the Le Tour / Vallorcine ski area where you will find a wonderful pedestrian trail from the top of the Vallorcine gondola that takes you to Les Posettes. From here you will see some lovely scenery along the French / Swiss border.
Closer to Chamonix centre, La Flégère is a very pretty area and you can walk for about 45 minutes along the Libellues piste. You can also take the Montenvers train up to the Mer de Glace and follow the signs for the walking trails up there.
If lifts and trains aren't your thing there is plenty of walking to be done along the valley floor. The Bois du Bouchet is beautiful after a snowfall and you can walk along the River Arve all the way from Chamonix to Argentière. Be aware of signs warning which paths you can and can't walk along, as some are reserved for cross-country skiing only.
You could alternatively head off in the opposite direction, down the valley, and walk as far as Les Houches via Lac des Gaillands and the climbing wall which looks quite magical when covered in snow. There is a nice woodland path that follows the river to Les Houches where there are a number of pleasant walking trails that are shared with snowshoers and cross country skiers. In Les Houches you can set off on your snowshoes from the departure point and the top of the Bellevue cable car or at the top of the Prarion cable car. Servoz too has four Nordic trails, a map of which can be found at the Tourist Office.
Don’t forget to check the weather forecast before you set out as conditions can change rapidly in the mountains. You do not need any particular equipment, just a pair of sturdy boots and layers of warm clothing that you can take off or put on as necessary. A pair of walking poles will come in handy for extra balance on icy patches and for checking snow depth before you go striding forth! Top tip: buy ‘grippers’ for your walking boots to prevent slipping, all of these items can be bought from most local Sport Shops.
Click here for prices of pedestrian lift passes. The Chamonix and Argentière cross country ski map has winter walking trails marked on it in yellow.
Ski joering is the original drag-lift. Before Pomas, chairlifts and cable cars were installed in the mountains the only tow to be found was either behind dogs or horses. Although the mechanisation of ski lifts has meant that we can now easily move around our resort of choice if you are looking to get back to grass roots, or if you fancy a trek through the woods away from the queues and ski schools then ski joering might be for you.
Ski joering hails from Scandinavia, indeed the word ski joering itself means ski driving in Norwegian. In France the preferred style is to use a rider-less horse which is controlled by the skier. A rig with reigns is connected to the horse’s bridle and the skier is towed along behind the horse on skis, holding onto the rig. The skier steers with vocal commands and by pulling on lines connected to the horses bit.
Competitive ski joering is practiced all over the world. In France the skier guides the horse around a slalom course or takes on another skier in a head to head race. In North America a rider guides the horse while the skier negotiates a series of jumps and obstacles.
Away from the competitive scene ski joering is a sport that is suitable for all ages and rides can be tailored to suit any standard of skier, from a gentle hack to a gallop through the snow.
For the true mountain enthusiast, why not scale an amazing frozen waterfall or glacier? This is a fantastic sport, not just for experienced mountaineers. Chamonix has a multitude of ice-falls and gulleys where you can experience the thrill of ice climbing with a guide. Beginners can start off at La Crémerie in Argentière, while the more experienced can sample some of the many other sites around Chamonix, Servoz, Les Houches and Argentière. The ice climbing season peaks between December and March.
Although it sounds like a very specialised sport, ice climbing is suitable for everyone - from complete beginners to experienced climbers. Some knowledge of ropes and basic climbing skills will give you a head start, but if you are a complete novice then your guide should be able to teach you from scratch.
Safety is important, so it is advisable to take an experienced mountain guide to instruct you on the use of crampons, ropes and ice picks.
Chamonix is quite simply the Mecca of Alpine Climbing. Whether you are a rock climber, ice climber, ski tourer, or just enjoy being in the mountains, Chamonix really is the place to be. The glaciers and icy slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif offer a massive number of climbing routes for alpinists, while the world famous Chamonix Granite is extremely popular with rock climbers. For beginners, or those in need of a practise, there are the indoor climbing walls in Les Houches or the sunny rock face of the Les Gaillands outdoor wall. Argentiere is the place to head for a spot of bouldering.
Sit back and admire the mountains from even higher up! Daily panoramic helicopter flights are available (weather permitting) with a number of local flight companies or some mountain guide companies. Relax and enjoy the stunning views as you fly over the snow-capped mountain tops, glaciers and alpine forests of the Haute Savoie.
Unfortunately, heli-skiing is not permitted in France, however some of the ski schools and mountain guide companies will offer a pick-up/drop-off heli skiing service for you where you will be taken over the border into Italy or Switzerland. It is expensive, but definitely a once in a lifetime experience!
Husky sledding in Chamonix
Traineaux a chiens
Be in charge of your own sled and team of excitable husky dogs, driving them along forest paths. After a brief explanation of how to make your team stop and start (you shout "mush!"), and strict instructions not to let go of the sled if it turns over (the dogs would disappear for hours...), you set off following the guide’s team. Your huskies want to keep up with their doggy mates, so the next hour is a breathless scramble to keep the sled upright, trying to control the speed downhill, and hanging on for dear life when you tear around corners. Going uphill you have to help push the sled, so this is hard physical work.
If this all sounds a bit much you can opt for a less physical outing where you sit in the sled and the guide does all the hard work! Either way it is an exhilarating experience – you can find contact details on our Activity Companies page.
Glacier Walking in Chamonix
For a truly unique experience, clamp on your crampons and go hiking up the stunning Mer de Glace, Argentiere or Le Tour glaciers.
The Mer de Glace is one of the longest and deepest glaciers in the Alps, moving at a comparatively rapid 120 metres a year. To get onto the glacier you'll have to clamber down long steel ladders which are scary enough in themselves but you'll quickly forget about that once you start admiring the breathtaking views and spectacular crevasses below. (If you're quiet you can even hear the ice shifting.)
To read more about glaciers and the environment please go to our Glacier Meltdown article. We strongly advise booking a mountain guide for this activity.
If you’ve never tried paragliding before (…..or maybe you’re not entirely sure what it is!) then Chamonix is a great place to learn how to fly. Known as “parapenting” in France, today there are a great number of clubs and organisations in the area whose sole purpose is to get you flying. So, if it is something that you have always fancied trying, or if you would just like to know a bit more about what it involves and who can do it...
Ice Skating in Chamonix
Chamonix has an excellent ice rink that is open every day except Mondays from 2pm until 5pm (6pm during school holidays). On a Wednesday night the rink is open late from 9-11pm, and don't forget the regular ice-hockey matches that take place throughout the season, generally on a Saturday evening. Skates can be hired for €3.50 and entrance costs €4.60 for adults and €3.50 for children (cheaper with guest card).
Le Podium is the licensed bar, restaurant and lounge area with huge windows overlooking the rink, so you can watch the game in comfort - Chamonix's local team are Les Chamois.
In Les Houches you can skate for FREE.. yes that's free skate hire and free access to the rink! It's an open air rink with floodlights and music, and a few nights per week they're open til 11pm. Check out the times and dates here.
In Argentiere the access to the outdoor rink is free, and you pay 3 euros for adult skate hire and 2 euros for childrens. It's open every day from 16:30 - 19:00 and on Tuesday & Fridays from 16:30 to 21:00. Find the location here.
Snowshoe Walking in Chamonix
Raquette à Neige
Strap lightweight plastic snowshoes to your feet, and walk effortlessly through deep snow. Either set out on your own, or join a group led by a knowledgeable local guide and explore the hidden parts of the valley. On these half day group outings you will get off the beaten track to follow animal footprints, discover mountain flora and fauna and learn the history of the valley. Snowshoes and ski poles are provided. See activity companies for details of guiding companies who do snow shoe walks.
You can also hire snowshoes from most Sports Shops, grab a trail map from the Tourist Office and head off on your own adventure. Be sure to check the weather forecast before you go. This is a perfect activity for bad weather conditions or for non-skiers, and walkers and nature lovers will love these outings. Don't forget to take energy bars and wear comfortable (waterproof!) boots.
A familiar sight in Chamonix is Dr Zhivago and his finely dressed horse – snuggle amongst the blankets in the back of his sleigh and see the sights of Chamonix on a horse-drawn tour. Dr Zhivago can be found most days by the clock tower in the centre of town (outside Irish Coffee).
Hot Air Ballooning in Chamonix
Known as Vol en Montgolfiere in French
Hot air ballooning looks serene, but there are moments of excitement; once the creaking wicker basket rises off the ground you are uncomfortably reminded that you are suspended hundreds of metres above the ground in a small twig structure! The views are stunning, and as you glide over the forests you may see deer and other animals normally hidden from view. The pilot controls the height but the wind determines which direction you take, so the flight can take anything from one to two hours, depending on when a suitable landing site comes into view.
The take-off point is in nearby Praz-sur-Arly, less than an hour's drive from Chamonix. There are a number of local companies that can arrange your ballooning trip.
Although Chamonix does not have an official winter toboggan run, there are a number of places where it is allowed. You can take to the slopes of Le Savoy and Les Planards in Chamonix town, La Vormaine at Le Tour, La Poya in Vallorcine and Le Tourchet in Les Houches. Just be careful not to cut across paths or go onto the main pistes. Many Sports Shops hire out sledges in various sizes, or they can be bought fairly cheaply from sport shops, supermarkets, toy shops, etc.
Parc de Loisirs - Alpine Coaster
After more than 30 years of service, the summer luge has gone into retirement and been replaced by the next generation of rides: the Alpine Coaster!
The new attraction at the Chamonix Parc de Loisirs is a cross between a roller coaster and a sledge on a 1300m track featuring plenty of twists and turns.
Unlike the luge, the Alpine Coaster can operate in all weather conditions so it will not have to close on rainy days and it will even be open in winter.
Each car takes two people; children from 3-7 years old must ride with an adult.
Shopping in Chamonix
Many people would not automatically think of Chamonix as a place to come shopping, however the resort boasts a diverse range of stores that are guaranteed to suit sporting lifestyles. As you would expect from an outdoor sports Mecca, there's a choice of sports stores & high fashion labels that offer a good range of clothing in all shapes and sizes for all tastes.
The indoor pool at the Richard Bozon Sports Centre is 25m long and also features a seperate children's pool with bubble jets and a water slide. The outdoor pool is 50m long and surrounded by sunbathing terraces and a children's splash pool. There is also a large grassy area by the lake within the sport centre grounds, which has a snack bar and is perfect for sun-bathing or letting the children run around (swimming not allowed in the lake).
Normal opening hours are Monday to Friday 12pm - 7.30pm and 2pm - 7.30pm at the weekend, but this may vary according to the time of year and the outdoor pool is open during summer only. Please see this website (in French) for the latest opening/closing hours.
Entrance is €5.10 for adults and €4.10 for kids (guest card reductions available). Chaps of all ages have to wear Speedo style trunks which, rather disturbingly, can be rented at the ticket desk!
There are also a few hotels in town that allow non-residents to use their swimming pools for a small fee. Hotel Mont Blanc, by the Tourist Office, has a pleasant indoor/outdoor pool with sunbathing area. You can use the pool by buying a drink and paying a €4 admission fee at the hotel bar. Hotel Excelsior, in Tines, has a nice outdoor pool with sunbathing area and grassy play area. All you have to do to use the pool all day is book a table on the terrace for lunch (the lunches are very nice too!).
Another popular swimming spot is Lac du Passy, just 15-20 minutes drive from Chamonix. Popular with locals and tourists alike the natural lake has a children's play area, snack bar and toilet/changing facilities. Access to the lake is free but there is a charge for using the car park.
In 1997, the villages of Chamonix, Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine established a Guest Card system, whereby every visitor to the area is given a card on arrival. The normal method is to ask at your hotel reception, or request one from your chalet/apartment provider.
The card is valid in summer and winter (for the duration of your stay) and entitles you to free travel on the buses and trains between these resorts (with the exception of the Chamo’nuit night bus). If you wish to take the train all the way through to Martigny in Switzerland (which is well worth it) or down to Le Fayet and St Gervais, you just need to pay the difference from Vallorcine or Servoz.
The Guest Card also entitles you to various discounts throughout the valley, such as discounted entry to the swimming pool, Alpine Museum, cross country skiing and more. So, ask for one at the Tourist Offices of Chamonix, Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine if you do not receive one when you check into your accommodation.
Indoor Climbing Walls in Chamonix
The Chamonix valley is home to one of the largest indoor climbing walls in France. The Mont Blanc Escalade is located in Les Houches and is open all year, with 1250m sq. of climbing surfaces, and more than 100 routes to the roof, ranging from 16 to 21 metres in height. There is a beginners wall, a kid's wall, and even a cafeteria. All necessary equipment is available for hire. Complete beginners can make a first ascent of the indoor climbing wall with instruction from local guides from 35€ - book in advance. Open to adults and children 5 or over.
In Chamonix town, there is a good sized bouldering wall in the Sports Centre (Centre Sportif Richard Bozon). There is another climbing wall at the ENSA - you need to be a member of the local Club des Sports to gain access.
Language Courses in Chamonix
The INSTED language school in Chamonix work together with the Université Stendhal in Grenoble and offers high quality French language courses for all abilities. more »