How to Hike the Tour du Mont Blanc

Circumnavigate the Massif du Mont Blanc
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The Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) is one of the most famous long-distance treks in the world—and for good reason. Every year, thousands of people complete the 105-mile-long trek, which has an impressive accumulated elevation gain and loss of around 32,800 feet. The TMB circumnavigates Mont Blanc, a glaciated massif that commands attention whether you’re climbing on it, hiking around it or gazing at it from the streets of Chamonix.

At 15,777 feet, Mont Blanc is the tallest peak in Western Europe and is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. The whole Massif Du Mont Blanc extends for about 25 miles and has 11 summits. The TMB will give you spectacular views of them from every angle.

There are many ways to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc—you can make it shorter, faster, luxurious or rugged. But for the sake of brevity, this guide will focus on the classic 105-mile section and will cover:

A group of hikers head for a hut after a long day on the TMB.

A group of hikers on an REI Adventures trip head for shelter after a long day on the TMB.

Not only does the TMB circle around the birthplace of modern mountaineering, it traverses three entirely different countries. So, get ready to go from saying “Bonjour!” to “Buongiorno!” as you navigate your way through France, Italy and Switzerland, climb up at least six mountain passes, and top out on high points like the Col des Fours in France, and the Fenêtre d'Arpette in Switzerland.

According to Garin Carpenter, an avid hiker who did a 13-day Tour du Mont Blanc trip with REI Adventures last summer, “You really feel like you’re in each place. You’re in France and you can feel it, then you’re in Italy and it’s amazing, then Switzerland knocks your socks off. When you hike the TMB you will have all these micro-experiences in each country that make the trek unforgettable.”

Why Hike the Tour du Mont Blanc?

The Tour du Mont Blanc is bursting with epic alpine scenery—glaciers, mountains, rivers, lakes, meadows and wildlife. In addition to the physical demands of the trip, the TMB also doubles as a living, breathing history lesson. You’ll see churches still intact from the 18th century and walk the same paths that Roman soldiers used 2,000 years ago.

And should your feet grow weary (which they will), the TMB has an extensive hut system (huts every 6-10 miles) stocked with food, water and many other creature comforts. Seventeen towns—and many smaller villages—dot the route, so there are many options for vehicle support and finding a warm bed to sleep in at night. Plus, you can take on the circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif supported or unsupported, as so desired.

A trail marker offers alternative route directions on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

A trail marker offers alternative route directions on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

But perhaps what makes the TMB most appealing is the cultural smorgasbord you’ll experience as you go from country to country along the way. Instead of using roads, you cross borders via alpine passes—and with each country comes a whole new ambiance.

When you hike the TMB, you get to enjoy croissants in France, espresso in Italy and cheese in Switzerland. It’s true: You can easily travel to those places without walking from country to country, but what would be the fun in that?

How to Choose Your Itinerary

The Tour du Mont Blanc can be completed in as little as three days (if you're going for speed) or 13-plus days, depending on how many miles you want to cover per day. During the hike you can stay in mountain huts, tents, hotels—or a mixture of all of the above. As a whole, the route can be traversed clockwise or counter-clockwise.

To add to the complexity, there are many different starting points available, including Courmayeur, Les Houches, Chamonix, Les Contamines, Saint Gervais, Les Chapieux, Orsières (Champex, La Fouly) and Trient. The traditional route starts in Les Houches, a 10-minute bus ride from Chamonix, and goes counter-clockwise, leaving the Col de la Forclaz-to-Argentiere portion for the end, which is often regarded as the route’s grand finale.

It’s possible to undertake the TMB solo, but many travelers choose to go with a guided group. The plethora of itinerary options and inter-country challenges associated with hiking the TMB mandate a lot of complex logistical planning, especially with the potential language barriers.

Carpenter really appreciated how having guides maximized his enjoyment. “Going guided allowed me to really lose myself in the scenery and culture while not having to think about logistics,” he said. “The guides were like historians and the service was incredible. By the time we got to our lodging, our duffels were already in our rooms and they just handed us keys.”

So, while there’s no right way to do the TMB, just be sure to grab your favorite blister protection—and don’t forget the trekking poles!

Top Destinations Along the Tour du Mont Blanc

The TMB is a multi-country adventure with a plethora of alpine scenery, charming villages and mountain serenity along the way. It can be a lot to take in, so here are some of the top destinations you’re likely to stop at during your circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif.

France

Chamonix
Elevation: 3,402 feet
Best for: Year-round adventure
Road Access: One hour from Geneva airport (50 miles)—bus, shuttle, train available

Internationally known as a skiing and mountaineering hot spot, Chamonix is also one of the top stops along the Tour du Mont Blanc (for many, it’s where the adventure begins). Like Whistler, British Columbia and Jackson, Wyoming, Chamonix is a year-round destination for outdoor adventure.

In the winter, skiers and snowboarders enjoy Chamonix Valley’s 10 different ski resorts. Additionally, backcountry skiers, riders and mountaineers use the lifts to access the bigger peaks and alpine zones deeper in the French Alps.

When the snow melts, Chamonix is world renowned for hiking, biking and rock climbing. It’s also famous for trail running, too, and hosts the popular 106-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc trail race every year. Paragliding, hang gliding, base jumping and other extreme sports are also popular in Chamonix, and on clear days the sky is often dotted with the colorful parachutes of happy pilots on an afternoon flight.

Les Contamines
Elevation: 3,819 feet
Best for: A hike and a tennis match
Road Access: From Geneva—bus, shuttle, train or car (48 miles)

December through April, the small village of Les Contamines-Montjoie is a bustling ski town. It also boasts opportunities for cross-country skiing, tobogganing, ice climbing and dog-sled rides.

In the summertime, folks of all ages and interests can enjoy the 100-acre Patrice Dominguez Park, the largest leisure park in the Mont-Blanc region, where they can swim, play tennis or mini golf, go horseback riding, pedal boats, climb or practice archery.

A cow lounges amongst the alpine in front of an old stone structure.

Hearing the sound of cowbells singing throughout the alpine is a common experience on the TMB.

For less-structured playtime, explore the nearby 13,590-acre Les Contamines Nature Reserve, the highest-elevation nature reserve in France and the only protected area in the Mont-Blanc Range.   

Over the years, Les Contamines has kept true to its traditional roots—its farms, chalets and alpine heritage are preserved by the town’s 1,200 residents. To this day there are Swiss-style farmhouses and baroque churches, like the church of Notre-Dame de la Gorge, which was rebuilt in 1699 and still serves as a place of prayer for travelers hiking the Col du Bonhomme mountain pass. For art lovers, Les Contamines is home to Samivel’s Garden, an outdoor museum which showcases the work of the famous watercolorist, Samivel.

Les Chapieux
Elevation: 5,085 feet
Best for: Unplugging
Road Access: There is a daily shuttle service between Les Contamines and Les Chapieux during the summer

Surrounded by mountains, Les Chapieux is a small hamlet that really comes alive in the spring and summer. The roads to Les Chapieux aren’t plowed in winter, but come spring, the village transforms from a few dormant, snow-covered structures to a basecamp for backcountry skiers, and in summer a popular rest and resupply stop for TMB trekkers.

Les Chapieux has a few small shops, a tourism office with a campground and two inns. The Auberges de la Nova, which opened in the late 19th century, is more like a hostel with basic amenities. Right down the road from the Nova is the Chambres Du Soleil, which over its 150-year lifespan has provided refuge to those from all walks of life, including soldiers, skiers, hunters and hikers.

Italy

Courmayeur
Elevation: 4,016 feet
Best for: Skiing, heli-skiing, spa days, high-end shopping
Road Access: Turin, Milan and Geneva airports are all options. Find the best one for you and schedule an airport transfer

Located in northwest Italy, Courmayeur is the halfway point on the Tour Du Mont Blanc (if you’re hiking the normal circuit) and is a popular spot for a rest day. The town center is car-free and paved with cobblestone. Here you can find everything from high-end Italian brands, like Balenciaga, Fendi, Lanvin, Balmain and Prada, to little local boutiques with many family-owned restaurants in between.

If shopping is not your priority, check out the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car which travels 6,500 vertical feet to the Punta Helbronner stationrotating 360 degrees along the way. Or check out the Duca degli Abruzzi Alpine Museum which chronicles the history of the region’s mountain guides and their epic expeditions.

And whether you’re hiking the TMB, or just in Courmayeur for a visit, make the trek to the Rifugio Walter Bonatti, a hut named after one of Italy’s most revered alpinists. Chat with other hikers and enjoy a home-cooked traditional Italian meal with a glass of wine straight from the Valle d’Aosta.

Switzerland

Champex-Lac
Elevation: 4,921 feet
Best for: Fishing, swimming, playing in the sun by the lake
Road Access: Trains run from Geneva to Martigny; then take a bus or taxi to Champex-Lac

Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, or states, and Champex Lac is nestled in the largest of these, the Canton of Valais, known for its delicious food and for having some of the best wine in Switzerland.

Situated on the shore of an alpine lake, the small village offers hotels and a few small shops and convenience stores. There is a ski hill in Champex with 15.5 miles of downhill trails, but Champex-Lac truly comes alive in the summertime.

Rent a boat and angle for trout, take an ice-cold plunge or simply walk around the lake. Just 12 miles away, in the larger town of Martigny, visit a world-famous art center, Musee de La Fondation Pierre Gianadda, plus an old Roman amphitheater and more.

A small building bearing the Swiss flag sits below soaring peaks and rock walls.

An idyllic alpine setting greets hikers amidst the stunning peaks and pleasant valleys of Switzerland.

La Fouly
Elevation: 5,250
Best for: Cheese and peak-bagging
Road Access: Once in Martigny, take the Martigny-Orsières train, changing at Sembrancher. In Orsières, take the bus to La Fouly/Val Ferret

Like many of the alpine villages listed so far, La Fouly has a ski area, a few places to stay, and a small number of cafes and shops. The village sits at the base of famous mountains like Tour Noir, Aguille d’Argentière and Dolent, a 12,533-foot monolith that dominates the skyline.

In La Fouly, four alpine pastures still produce cheese in a traditional Swiss manner, so trying raclette or fondue in this town is highly recommended (or maybe just buy a few blocks for the trail).

Eat at the Auberge des Glaciers or Café-Restaurant du Dolen, where the owners make sure to buy ingredients primarily from local producers just a few miles away.

Highlights Along the Tour du Mont Blanc

1. Cable car to the Aiguille du Midi

From the top of the Aiguille du Midi (12,680') there are views of the entire Mont Blanc range. On a clear day, you can also see the Matterhorn, Monta Rosa and the Grand Combin. Order an espresso and take it all in from a balcony perched on a mountaintop with exposure in every direction.

2. Chamonix pub/cafe culture

For baked goods, try the Patisserie Richard. It’s local and you’re likely to find that the croissants are hot out of the oven. Book dinner well in advance at La Flambée and feast on some seriously tasty French cuisine. Try the tartiflette, a dish made with bacon, potatoes and melted cheese, followed by the “gorgeous chocolate cake.” Les Caves is a cool little underground (literally) bar and nightclub with really gracious owners and a delicious dinner menu.

The resort town of Chamonix.

The resort town of Chamonix and the nearby village of Les Houches are popular start/end points for TMB hikers.

3. Cogwheel Train

Ride the 100-year-old cogwheel Montenvers Train up to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), one of the largest glaciers in the Alps. The glacier was only accessible by foot or mule before the Montenvers Train was built in 1908. The funicular train crawls slowly up for 3,280 feet to the station, where there is a gondola and restaurant. Check out the 330-foot-long ice cave (be warned, there are 440 steps from the bottom of the gondola to reach the ice cave) and follow it up with a negroni at the Panoramic restaurant.

4. Col de la Seigne

Upon reaching the Col de la Seigne (8,250 feet), you’ll be standing on the border of France and Italy with views of both countries sprawled out before you. The sweeping and spectacular Vallée Blanche on the French side and the Val Veni and the Grand Col Ferret on the Italian side are vistas not to be missed. The Col de la Seigne is located in between Champieux, France and Courmayeur, Italy and can be reached going either direction on the TMB. Rifugio Elisabetta is nearby (about 3 miles) for those who wish to stay overnight.

5. Beaufort Cheese Dairy and Aging Cellar

You will not regret getting a tour of this cheese sanctuary in France. “We visited a French cheese-maker who makes this really regionally exclusive French cheese,” says Carpenter. “The milk comes from the most beautiful cows you’ve ever seen. You watch the cheese-maker at work, then go down into the basement of the barn and get hit with an amazing stench. The smell of over 100 years of cheese curing.”

6. Refugio Bonatti

Do it for the patio! This Italian refugio is located on the south side of the Val Ferret. “You are having a cold beer in the sun and you put your boots in a boot room and they give you wool clog slippers,” says Carpenter. “Then if you stick around until the nighttime, you can see the headlamps of the alpinists across the valley on these granite faces.”

7. Cowbells

You’ll hear the clanking of cowbells as you make your way through the various meadows and forests of the trek. While that sounds like it could be annoying, it’s not. According to one hiker I talked to, the cowbells were one of his favorite parts. And the only souvenir he bought in Europe was an old, hand-pounded bell from an old bell-maker in Chamonix because the calming sound brings him right back to the TMB whenever he rings it.

8. Swiss Raclette

Raclette gets its own section here. Raclette is a luxurious cheese, usually melted and served over potatoes, tiny pickles and dried meat. “We had the most epic raclette session I have ever had in my entire life,” says Carpenter. “They bring out these baskets of steamed potatoes and veggies and charcuterie straight from heaven. You make your plate then head over to a table where the Swiss raclette master has half a cheese wheel under this melting light and right when it starts to get brown and bubbly they scrape it all onto the top of your plate. You’re in Switzerland where this cheese comes from, and you are doing it the way it’s supposed to be done. Those are the kinds of experiences I’ll never forget.

How to Prepare for the Tour du Mont Blanc

The TMB is a serious hike and most people shouldn't attempt it off-the-couch. It takes proper preparation. You must be physically fit and equipped with the right gear and clothing. Whether you’re trekking with or without a guide, it’s also a good idea to have first-aid certification, or better yet, a wilderness first-responder certification. Yes, there are many towns along the way and lots of people on the trail, but it’s always good to know how to read a map and have some wilderness medicine experience before taking on this famous trek.

Best Time to Go

The best time of year to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc is from mid-June to early September. Late June is the more beautiful and quiet time of year but you may have some snow leftover up high to deal with. July and August are the peak months because of the weather. The trail will be less busy in September, but the weather is less reliable.

Huts, Hotels or Both?

You can sleep and eat in the mountain huts, carry a tent or stay in one of the many hotels along the TMB. The beauty of staying in huts and hotels really lies in your lighter-weight pack—you won’t need to carry a tent and cooking supplies. Plus, adding a few nights in town provides for opportunities to do laundry, see the sights and eat some amazing food.

An REI Adventures guide briefs her group about the days' route.

An REI Adventures guide briefs her group about the day's route.

The mountain huts are generally open from mid-June until the first or second week in September. Make sure to reserve a bed well in advance if you are going during the peak season.

What to Bring?

How to Train

It’s safe to say that you’ll probably be sore no matter how you prepare for the TMB. There’s no way around 100 miles and your knees will be feeling it by the end. That said, get in shape. If you’re going to do something this epic, you’re going to want to be energized and taking everything in instead of looking at your toes and grunting your way through Europe.

The best way to train? You guessed it: hike! For at least six weeks to three months before your trip, get out on the steepest local trails (or long stairways) you can find, two to three times a week, wearing a progressively heavier pack. Work up to a 30-mile week, then take a week off before you leave. Some strength training in the gym (low reps, heavy weight) and yoga on top couldn’t hurt.

Useful Phrases

Learn some French and Italian. Although many Europeans speak English, it’s not their first language, so communicating food allergies or preferences can be difficult. Plus, the locals generally appreciate it when you try.

French

Hello: Bonjour
Goodbye: Au revoir
Thanks: Merci
How much?: Combien?
Can I have… : Puis-je avoir…
Do you speak English?:  Parlez-vous anglais?

Italian

Hello: Ciao
Goodbye: Addio or ciao
Thanks: Grazie
How much?: Quanto?
Can I have… : Posso avere…
Do you speak English?: Lei parla inglese?

Swiss

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch (1%). Below are a few German phrases to learn.

Hello: Hallo
Goodbye: Auf wiedersehen
Thanks: Danke
How much?: Wie viel?
Can I have…. : Darf ich haben...
Do you speak English? : Sprichst du Englisch?

See REI Trips on the Tour du Mont Blanc
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