We just spent the last four days exploring Chamonix, the mountain town straddling the French-Italian border that I first visited on my very first trip to Europe in 2011. I remember staring upwards, transfixed by the snow at the top of Mont Blanc and the ponderous glaciers high overhead. Though I was only there for a little over an hour, that initial glimpse into this charming Alps activity Mecca was all I needed.
Last year, I returned here to hike for several days and was blown away once more by the startling quality of the air; by the starry heights I could reach so easily by foot. A long time climber, for whom the hike had often been a means to an end, I found myself enjoying this activity with new eyes as I got the chance to explore the trails surrounding Chamonix. I didn’t know that our travel plans were about to be set into motion, and my intent at that time was to gift Sheila with a week-long trip here for Christmas. I couldn’t wait to share this special place with her.
We originally intended to close our trip out with Chamonix, in order to see our friend Joe, and Špela’s mom and dad, run some of the toughest ultramarathons in the world during the UTMB - or the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This inspiring race at the end of August sees contenders gathered from all over the world descend on Chamonix to endure possibly the world’s most grueling race. Many top American runners have been humbled by the UTMB, though we also have had the occasional success - Rory Bosio, hailing from Truckee, CA won big on the world stage just a few years ago.
Looking at Chamonix on the map while we were in Paris, we realized it was going to be difficult (not to mention a financial investment) to get there unless we changed our plans and went straightaway. While it would have been amazing to be in Chamonix for the UTMB, there’s always next year.
Stopover in Annecy
By far the best way to get to Chamonix from Paris is to take the TGV (train) from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Annecy, and then hop on a bus from Annecy to Chamonix. It’s a scenic ride and the price is right!
Annecy is a picturesque town right on the lake of the same name. The town boasts of an impressive ecological victory, having put legislation in place to protect the purity of the water in Lake Annecy some decades ago; the townspeople enjoy water nearly rivaling that of Lake Bled in terms of serene blue-ness as a result. Sheila and I were lucky enough to meet up with a friend of mine, Yael, while in Annecy.
Yael has been of great help since we arrived in Paris, encouraging me to use my French, giving recommendations, and helping translate key phrases. As well, she’s done this though we haven’t seen each other in ten years (!) and have spoken only seldomly since the both of us said goodbye to each other when we met studying abroad in Tokyo. She treated Sheila and I to lunch - which was amazing! - and then topped that by getting us free admission to the castle / museum that she works at. Yael, thank you so much for your generosity and hospitality!
Chamonix - Charming Alps Town
Chamonix is home to a huge number of hiking trails that double (I’m sure) as the paths trod by skiers and the alpinists that flock here in winter. With exceptional alpine climbing and ridges still covered by late year nèvè (new snow that has frozen and then remelted but has not yet been assimilated into a glacier or survived a full season), the sheer number of hiking trails that emanate within the town of Chamonix itself make this place a sanctuary for the active-minded, year-round. As Sheila said in our last post, the mixture of people on the main street in Chamonix (Rue du Dr. Paccard) goes between people clearly just here for the view and then a mix of runners, climbers, and rafters all arraigned in a dazzling show of the best outdoor gear. Somehow it’s not flashy here. Everyone’s gear and clothing shows the sign of use; it’s being used for what it was intended, and as much of a fashion statement as it may be, there’s no doubt that function over form remains the rule here.
Hiking Aiguilles Rouges, Lac Blanc, Lac Cornu & Lacs Noir
There are two easy starts to hiking the Aiguilles Rouges range (or Red Needles, so-called for the red streaks of iron running through the rock) - you can either hike up the switchbacks below the lift line for the Plan Praz, or you can take the lift itself.
For simplicity’s sake, we got round trip lift tickets. This proved our sole hiking related expense while in Chamonix, and at scarcely more than 15 euro per person, one of the best deals you can get here. Plan Praz is the second highest lift station on the Aiguilles Rouges side of the valley, though you can also hike up to Brevent, the top station, most people opt to follow the much more scenic trail up to Lac Cornu and Col Cornu, a huge cairn marking the ridge line. To get there from Plan Praz, there are two different trails offering either a more steep incline or a set of winding switchbacks. Both trails are clearly marked!
We opted to take the switchbacks up, following red blazes across gravel strewn paths and stopping frequently to gape across the valley at the stunning Mont Blanc massif. With the Aiguille du Midi, Grand Jurasses, and Mont Blanc all an easy feast for the eyes; and with the (receding) Mer de Glacé glacier peeping out from behind the Montenvers mountain train; and with the constant presence of shadow-making paragliders circling overhead, hiking in the Aiguilles Rouges offers some of the best views of the valley below as well as the stunning vistas of the biggest mountain in Western Europe.
Upon arriving at the Col Cornu (1 hour hiking from Plan Praz), we laughed at the still frozen over Lac Cornu, and saw the first of the Lacs Noir - aptly named for their black, mirror-like veneers - in the distance. The Col Cornu also features a distinct sign post to continue hiking toward the Lacs Noir, with the path delineated by yellow dots blazed on the rocks.
From Col Cornu to Lacs Noir, we enjoyed a ridge line traverse with significantly less elevation gain. To the right, the Mont Blanc massif continually astounds; to the left, the ridge line is dotted with the Lacs Noir. Both times I’ve done this hike, some careful frontpointing (in hiking shoes) through nèvè has been required, even in late summer. The yellow dotted trail eventually leads to the Col de la Glière, with the last of the Lacs Noir secured by following the ridge line to its summit. There, it’s not uncommon to see people taking dips in the depths of the icy lake below. Enjoy a fresh bath!
We followed the upper trail back down to the Plan Praz, after tramping back to the Col Cornu. You can, alternatively, make a left and descend the trail leading downwards from the Col de la Glière, terminating in either one of the other Chamonix lifts, or another switchback trail down into town.
That trail also leads to other ridgeline trails granting access to the magnificent Lac Blanc. While I’ve never been, a friend of mine hiked there last week and, judging by the hiking info available on the official Chamonix website, hiking to Lac Blanc remains another popular destination within the Aiguilles Rouges trail network.
Goat Cheese Hiking in Chamonix
As Sheila mentioned, we ran into the Gottliebs while completing a stressful grocery checkout during our first night in Chamonix. They gave us a crucial tidbit of inspiration - that a goat farmer was selling goat cheese up on the trails below the Aiguille Blaitière.
I found limited info about how to successfully arrive at the goat cheese farm online, so hopefully this guide proves of use for future goat cheese hiking enthusiasts.
One can begin this hike from either the Grepon parking lot, right next to the Aiguille du Midi lift station, or from the Montenvers train station parking lot’s adjoining “Chemin de la Cascade” street. If you start from Montenvers, expect excellent wild raspberry picking on the way up; in the morning, this side of the valley is partially protected from the sun, but you’ll have to scramble upwards quickly to avoid sunburn because the hillside is fully exposed.
We hiked up from the trail at the back of the Grepon parking lot, enjoying shade beneath the forest canopy, soft dirt trails under feet and a few bubbling brooks and waterfalls as well. This trail contains extremely clear markings for the goat farm, and though it remains quite steep, it should take no more than 1.5 hours from the parking lot to emerge from the forest below onto the grassy Blaitière plateau where Pascal the goat farmer sells his wares. There’s a picnic table, fresh water from the mountains above (he has written on a sign by the water, in both French and English, the phrase “I do not know if the water is good, but I drink it”), and fresh goat cheese available for sale in small wheels at 3 euro a pop!
We had hiked up with a few extra pancakes from our breakfast, and the mid-morning snack of pancakes à la chèvre frais was an astounding meal - truly one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, and certainly the most unique since the Lazarus pizza I can be seen enjoying in our post about day tripping to Trieste. In both Paris & Barcelona we’ve enjoyed some truly gourmet meals, from vegetarian tapas to an excellent concept restaurant in Paris developed by a chef with 2 Michelin ⭐️ ‘s, but sometimes simple is best.
From Pascal’s farm, the endeavoring spirit can continue onwards towards the next plateau up, perhaps another hour, from which you can either rejoin the Aiguille du Midi gondola, hike for ~2 hours to the upper station for the Montenvers train, etc …
With rain once more threatening on the horizon, we chose to descend after only a bit more upwards hiking. I would highly recommend doing the goat cheese hike as part of a day exploring the meadows below Aiguille Blaitière!
Petit Balcon Sud Hiking
Another excellent hiking option, and also accessible from within Chamonix itself. Petit Balcon Sud sits on a ridge line between Chamonix and the next town over, Les Houches, and the two towns can be enchained in a scenic hike / walk, with plenty of options for varied trails.
From Chamonix town center, walk towards Les Houches (for reference, towards Mont Blanc) past Rue Dr. Paccard onto Route des Moussoux. The trail starts in the town on pavement, with a well signed post, and sees a fairly steep ascent into the hills of Les Moussoux, past several jaw dropping alpine properties before the path itself begins.
The Petit Balcon Sud and the interim walk offers several amazing vantage points from which to admire the Mont Blanc massif, and is an easy hike out of town. Alternatively, one can stick to the river-level streets in Les Moussoux to reach Les Houches by footpath, with several cool bridge crossings available. I ran this route (from Les Houches ➡️ Chamonix) and it took me about 45 minutes; signs indicate that walking it can take upwards of 2 hours.
Either way, you get a great view and plenty of constitutional exercise. Enjoy!
We capped our last night in Chamonix off with an awesome free yoga class at the Patagonia store. This was a great experience, and probably would have been one of the best yoga classes of my life, but halfway through savasana, Thievery Corporation’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” featuring David Byrne came on, and from that moment on I had to fight not to laugh at the absurd lyrics. 10/10, would recommend to a friend!