The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the most iconic and spectacular mountain treks in the world, and it is also arguably the most accessible in its class. There is no need for a five-legged flight to Patagonia, or taking donkeys 100 miles from civilization in the high Andes, or fighting to get a visa and guide to trek in remote Pakistan. A flight to Geneva and a one-hour bus ride to Chamonix is all that’s needed to start the 110 mile life-changing journey around the glacier-crowned “Monarch of the Alps.” First climbed in 1786, Mont Blanc reigns as the tallest mountain in Western Europe at 4,808 meters (15,774 feet). It sits astride the magnificent Mont Blanc massif range around which the Tour du Mont Blanc takes place. The route officially begins and ends in Les Houches, just south of Chamonix, though the loop has many possible entrance points.
A pedestrian trek around the Mont Blanc massif can be traced back as far as 1767, when Horace Benedict de Saussure and friends set out with guides, porters, mules from Chamonix and completed the tour over Col du Bonhomme, Col de la Seigne, Courmayeur, and Grand St Bernard Pass, much of which reflects the Tour du Mont Blanc as it still stands today. He eventually made three tours around Mont Blanc, staying in beds where available and resorting to hay in farmhouses and chalets when needed, undoubtedly driven by the love of the mountains and imbued by the powerful beauty and serenity of the Alps.
Today, despite going through the three separate nations of France, Italy, and Switzerland, the national language of the Tour du Mont Blanc remains distinctly French. In fact, the Aosta Valley in Italy was the first municipal entity to make French an official language, several years before France herself! Many people on the TMB speak English, as it is becoming more and more of an international endeavor, but learning some key French phrases and the occasional Italian greeting will go a long way toward garnering goodwill on the trail and in the refuges.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is around 168 kilometers (105 miles), but this ends up differing from person to person due to the number of choices to do different variations for each stage. Based on the standard stages, this 168 kilometers comes with a vertical ascent and descent of around 9,000 meters (30,000 feet), which translates to approximately 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) and 832 meters (2,730 feet) of climbing and descending per day. This is of course just an average; the variations you choose can range from the easiest at 8 kilometers to the toughest at almost 27 kilometers. A detailed treatment of the route possibilities at each stage is available below.
The possible high and low route variants offer a different experience and are part of what sets the Tour du Mont Blanc apart from other long distance trails of the same caliber. With mountain huts, chalets, refuges, hamlets, and villages spread across the entire trek, there is an incredible array of options to choose from when determining the walking itinerary that is right for you. The weather can also necessitate some change in plans from high to low variations to avoid exposure to lightning and high winds. You may find a planned easy day turns into hiking the high variant if the weather and your legs cooperate better than anticipated. Since most variants start and end the stage at the same place, you can usually make a game-time decision that morning based on conditions.
When planning your tour, the first thing you need to choose is what direction and from which starting point you intend to walk it. There are advantages and disadvantages to both directions. The classic counter-clockwise route begins and ends in Les Houches. Depending on the season, you may constantly be in view of other people, since most people walk this way, or it may be less crowded. This route saves arguably the best views for last, and it allows you to get to know your fellow trekkers in the refuges each night since your itineraries will likely line up with a lot of others.
If that doesn’t sound like the right fit for you, walking in the clockwise direction will keep the company mostly different each night, giving you the chance to meet more people or completely ignore them depending on how you want to experience it. The crowds will also be more concentrated, as each morning it will be much more quiet until a horde of people is encountered coming the other direction, followed by an afternoon calm until you reach your lodging for the evening. Camping can also moderate how much social interaction you wish to have during your trip.
In addition to the different variations to modulate the strenuousness of each day, there is also ample opportunity to take public transport in the valleys or cable-cars up and down many slopes to shorten the trip. There are many reasons you may want to do this: Bad weather or illness may cause you to skip a stage but catch up to your booked lodging, or your legs may refuse to cooperate and some of elevation gain/loss may need to be removed in order to reach your destination on time. These methods can also be used in case your trip needs to be shortened for time or cost reasons while still hitting the main highlights of the TMB.
The traditional counter-clockwise circuit from Les Houches is done over 11 days, and this article focuses on the planning for that. With some minor tweaking, the most common clockwise circuit is typically done in 10 days beginning and ending in Champex in Switzerland. The alternate starting location allows you to build up the stamina required over the first few days before the bigger climbs are tackled. Climbing 1,500 meters to Le Brevent on your first day (if you're doing the clockwise circuit from Les Houches) would discourage all but the most experienced walkers and is not recommended. See the resources at the end of the article for more details on planning your clockwise circuit if this is a better choice for you.
The best way to get to the standard starting point for the TMB in the Chamonix Valley is to fly into Geneva and take a car or shuttle to your chosen hotel the night before you begin. Since you won’t be driving while enjoying your walking tour of the Alps, the most efficient method is usually arranging a shared private transfer from the Geneva airport to your custom destination. Many reputable companies exist for this purpose, as many other hikers during the summer and skiers in the winter will be doing the same thing.
There is also public transport, including busses and trains. While cheaper, these usually take a very long time, but they are available in case this is a better fit for you. Once in the Chamonix metro area, a free bus allows easy movement from Les Houches all the way beyond Argentière. Private or public options are also available in case you are trying to get to Champex for the counter-clockwise circuit starting location.
A common question while traveling to trek the TMB is what to do with your bags and other gear while on the trail. There are many accommodation options at both starting locations, and typically they will hold your bags for free in a storage room without any issues. To be safe, it is recommended to call or email the hotel in advance to confirm this service is available.
There are three primary factors that will determine the best time to walk the TMB: Lingering snow, weather, and crowds are just a few. To give the briefest possible answer, the best timeframe to hike the TMB is the first two weeks of July or the first two weeks of September. August has excellent weather, and the snow will be mostly gone, but the crowd levels are high, and it may not be as enjoyable as the previously mentioned windows.
The snow on the high passes of the circuit will be mostly settled by late June, though depending on the snowfall in late spring and your abilities to traverse snow safely, you may be able to start in early June. Starting early can be a joyously remote experience with low crowds, though there is also typically more rain in the forecasts until mid-June. At the other shoulder, fall can sometimes be delayed until mid-October depending on the year, and some refuges may be closed depending on how the weather looks. Note that there is a world-famous ultra marathon during the last week in August that may either be amazing to watch or wise to avoid, depending on your aversion to crowds.
Flowers start to bloom as early as late May, and this can keep color in the high country varied and strong well into August, though this always depends on how hot and sunny the summer is. A delayed summer means delayed flowers. If you are there at high bloom, a dazzling array of colors contrast the green fields and white mountains very well. Some of the more common varieties you’ll be able to find are simple white alpine pasqueflower, yellow globe flowers, light red alpenrose bushes, and tall blue lupine.
In summary, July to September is the main season, avoid the August crowds if you can, and keep in mind that June or October can be an amazing time depending on your luck with the snow and rain that year.
As much fun as it is to walk in the Alps, at some point you have to stop and sleep. There are three main kinds of lodging that you will find on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Your lowest cost option, which is most familiar to many backpackers, will be to simply camp. There are sometimes campsites adjacent to the mountain huts; these are inexpensive, often come with access to the facilities at refuges for a small fee, and are easy to plan for because there are more options. At times the only camping requires additional walking, so knowing ahead of time what your options are can help you know what’s coming. Camping also means you have to carry a heavier pack, and you don’t get to experience to the fullest extent the magic of trekking through the Alps by staying in the mountain huts.
Depending on your budget and your desire for privacy, your two room options will be between a shared bunkroom and a private room. Depending on the season, you may be able to get away with hiking up to a refuge and getting a shared room without a reservation, but during the summer the private rooms will almost entirely require reservations. This is especially true for some of the more iconic and recommended refuges including Les Mottets at the end of Stage 2, Rifugio Bonatti at the end of Stage 5, and Refuge Lac Blanc in the middle of Stage 10. Many of these can only be booked via email, so fire up Google Translate or find a friend that knows French, because they usually don’t take reservations through their website. In addition to mountain huts, there will be several villages and towns to trek through with many hotel options for every budget that are easier to book and have nicer accommodations. Where you’ll be staying will depend most on how much distance and which variants you wish to cover each day; for almost every couple of hours of hiking there is a place to stay.
Where you wish to stay will also depend on what kind of amenities you want for your trip. Not everyone wants to rough it every night, and you may be wanting to convince a friend to join you with the promise of hot showers and warm beds where possible. As a general rule, any hotels in the city will have a varied breakfast buffet, packed-lunch for purchase, and a sit-down dinner with a few options. You can also expect a modest hotel room with a comfortable bed and all the hot water you want.
The mountain huts are a different story. The breakfasts will be a bit simpler, though the packed-lunches are about the same. The dinner is a community style, where everyone either has assigned seats or sits together in a large dining area. The dinner won’t have a menu and won’t wait for you before starting, but after hiking all day it is virtually guaranteed you will be immensely happy with dinner. Some mountain huts have private rooms and shared bunk rooms, while others only have the bunk rooms. Check their website and reviews to be sure. Bathrooms are shared, and showers will usually consist of some amount of limited hot water that is either fed by a coin or simply is heated so slowly that you can expect only a few short minutes. The hotels in the towns will have reliable Wi-Fi, but the mountain huts usually will not have it, and those that offer it will usually be very slow due to overuse by other guests.
If cost allows, it is highly recommended to utilize the food options at the refuges and towns because the hot varied food every day does wonders for morale. In addition to ordering from the menu where you are staying, you can easily stop at other refuges or towns during the day for coffee, snacks, or lunch depending on what stage you’re on and what stops are available. If your trip is cost sensitive and you don’t mind carrying the extra weight, you can always bring your own food to cook outside the refuges. Resupply for this and to top off snacks can be done at several towns along the way, primarily Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Champex, and finally at Chamonix.
The cost of the Tour du Mont Blanc can vary wildly depending on a number of factors such as whether you are booking everything yourself or going through a company, the quality of your lodging, transportation to and from the trailhead, and what you decide to do for food. At the bare minimum (camping every night and cooking your own food), you can get away with as little as $600 (2017 prices); if you’re going with a company that arranges everything for you it can go up as high as $5,000 per person. If you take the time to make all the bookings yourself, you can actually have very nice accommodations for not too much money. On average, with self-booking private rooms (where available), eating breakfast/lunch/dinner at the refuge/hotel, and including transportation (not airfare), it is possible to spend as little as $1,700, a huge savings over the guide companies.
Although this is an incredibly well-trafficked hike and there are many hotels, huts, refuges, and towns to pass through, this is a serious endeavor that requires strong fitness, some experience trekking, and preparedness for mountain conditions. As described in the section on the route above, the average mileage and elevation change per day is not insubstantial, and keep in mind that this is also on rocky alpine terrain and potentially in less than favorable weather. It is important to build in extra time for breaks, stopping at refuges throughout the day for snacks, enjoying the scenery, and unexpected delays. This is not just to make it to your lodging on time: Many of the refuges serve dinner precisely on time, and nothing would be more demoralizing after a long day than missing your hot dinner.
In addition to the strenuousness of the trek, it is important to be prepared for the challenge of navigating your way through several countries in at times very remote areas. While dealing with the unfamiliar location, keeping track of the weather so you can bail out of exposed areas and know when to hike the low variant is a vital aspect of keeping your Tour du Mont Blanc experience an enjoyable one.
For additional coverage of the Tour du Mont Blanc, check out the following articles: