Summer is now nudging into autumn, days are getting a bit shorter, temperatures are getting a bit cooler and the trails are getting a lot, lot quieter.
Autumn is one of the nicest times of the year to explore the Chamonix hiking trails. The weather is still warm, the colours are glorious and you can have even the most popular routes almost to yourself.
A couple of days ago I revisited a Chamonix classic, the Petit Balcon Nord, from Le Tour all the way along the valley back to Chamonix. In the height of summer this can have more traffic jams and hold-ups than the M6 but at this time of year the only thing likely to be blocking your path is a grazing cow.
The trains are all out of service for maintenance reasons at the moment but there are replacement buses, as well as the regular bus service. So, we hopped on the 02 outside the Galerie Alpina and rode the bus up to Le Tour at the northern end of the valley. From the car park we cut left past the closed-up cafe and turned onto Chemin des Clusettes, strolling amongst the pretty little stone chalets and old farmhouses that make up this traditional hamlet.
At the end of the cluster of houses are a couple of hiking signs, we picked up the route for Argentiere and headed into the forest. The incline is gentle but it doesn’t take long for you to get high above the village - look back over your shoulder for a beautiful views of the alpine meadows of Le Tour, perfectly framed by the trees. The path is quite narrow and well-shaded, climbing gently up at first by about 100m and then winding back down again all the way to Argentiere.
About halfway between Le Tour and Argentiere we were ambushed by a covert herd of ninja cows. Now that winter is just around the corner, farmers have started bringing their cattle down from the higher pastures to lower ground. You’d kind of expect them to be hanging out in a field, but these had chosen to precariously balance amongst the ferns on the steep mountainside, peeking out at us from between the trees as though they thought we might not have noticed them. The loud clanging of their bells gave the game away though, as did the odd cow that had chosen to “hide in plain sight” by parking itself stubbornly across the path. We skirted round them and continued on our way, leaving the undercover cows to whatever their important mission was.
Just before the path brings you to Argentiere there is a small clearing with a clear stream running through it and a children's play park shaded by the trees. The sun was just warming up and drying out the grass, so we stopped to have a picnic lunch and enjoy the tranquility. From here it only takes a few minutes to walk into Argentiere town, through the lovely wooden houses of the old part of the village, so we popped in for a quick coffee before we carried on.
From Argentiere, the Petit Balcon Nord is clearly signposted, as is Chamonix, so it is very easy to find your way back without need of a map or directions. There are a number of little detours that you can take along the way, if you want to make the hike a bit longer or more challenging.
The section between Argentiere and Le Lavancher is one of my favourite routes in the valley; undulating gently up and down along springy pine trails, the sunlight streams through the trees and their branches part every now and then to give you fantastic views of the villages below and the mountains on the opposite side of the valley.
Tree roots and rocks make the path loads of fun for mountain biking and there seem to be more bikers than hikers out on the trails at the moment, so stay alert and step to one side if you see anyone coming your way. It’s safer and easier for you to move out of their way than the other way round.
Coming out through the trees brings you into the wide open meadows of Lavancher; one of the most beautiful spots in the valley no matter what time of year. Wild flowers and long grasses fill the meadows on either side of the path, Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi tower in front of you and the forests on either side rise up to meet the mountains that frame this amazing view. The path ends in the village of Lavancher, a quiet little place where the residents all seem to take a lot of pride in having the prettiest gardens and most well-tended vegetable patches.
Take a left when you get to the end of Chemin du Crozat and turn onto Route du Chapeau - look out for a little row of houses on your right and follow the hiking path behind them. The path is very narrow and it feels a bit as if you’re walking through people’s back gardens but it’s great for having a peek at some lovely old cottages.
The path climbs up slightly and crosses over a road to continue on a wider path on the other side. After you’ve passed the Hotel Jeu de Palme on your left, look out for the path back to Chamonix which drops down from the road on your right, taking you back into the forest.
From here it’s downhill pretty much all the way, unless you decide to take a little detour up to the Source de l'Arveyron like we did. It’s not far at all but is a short sharp climb of a couple of hundred metres to see the crashing waterfall that keeps the River Arve gushing. If you follow the main track back to Chamonix you’ll see signposts for it on your left.
Coming back to Chamonix along the flat expanse of the Desert Blanc is a beautiful way to end the day, with the river rushing along beside you and the last of the summer flowers swaying in the breeze. If you’re lucky you might get to see a helicopter taking off or landing at the PGHM mountain rescue base.
From here there are a few options for returning to Chamonix, we carried straight on past the Hotel Arveyron and ducked under the little tunnel to cross the road and pick up the riverside path on the other side. This take you to the tennis courts and sports centre from where you can stroll along the promenade into Chamonix centre and, if you’re anything like us, straight to the Vagabond for a cold beer while there is still sun on the terrace.
This hike is about 13km and has a grand total of just 230m of ascent - it is mostly downhill all the way. It took us a leisurely 5 hours, with plenty of stops along the way. The trails at the moment are in excellent condition and the weather looks set to stay fine for the near future, so get out there are make the most of it before the snow comes!
- Hiking / Walking