A favourite trip here was to see the 'Mer de Glace' (Sea of Ice) by taking a train from Montenvers. It departs from it's own station next to the main station in Chamonix. This old furnicular climbs a steep track to a stunning vantage point above the Mer de Glace. From here, views of Les Grandes Jorasses and the Les Drus are spectacular. Mer de Glace is the largest glacier in Fance, 7kms long and 200m deep.
From the top station at Montenvers you can walk down to the glacier and into an ice grotto. There are also many walking tracks down to valley floor and traverses along the mountains to Plan de l'Aiguille. We didn't do this - maybe another year.
Gear for changing weather and outdoor sports
day pack and back pack if you plan to hike hiking boots, walking shoes, rain jacket (gore tex), wind proof jacket, gloves, hat, water bottle/bladder, thermal bottle if you are going up high available in town - first aid kit if you are doing any mountaineering or ski-mountaineering available in town lots of stuff is available to rent, but bring your own if you want a good fit ropes, carabiners, crampons, ice axe, skis, avalanche beacon & probe, snow shovel, stiff soled hiking boots, harness that will fit OVER your clothing, quick draws, ice screws, touring skis/bindings, etc. for your adventure. Anything you forget, you can buy or rent at local sports shops. Lots of mountain huts, so tent not required but bivvy sack recommended in case of emergency.
Tour du Mont Blanc
The Tour of Mont Blanc is a classic and famous walk that brings you through three countries and circumnavigates Mont Blanc. Chamonix, Les Houches, St Gervais, Courmayeur, Praz de Fort, Champex, Triente, Vallorcine and Argentiere are some of the towns you pass nearby on your journey through France, Italy and Switzerland. It can be done in a complete loop taking 5-11 days or in separate sections. Many of the towns have either train or bus service and along the route there are manned huts allowing you to travel light in your backpack and have hot meals and even showers in some of the huts or to take a real luxury break and stay in a hotel and explore a mountain town for a day on your way around the circuit.
The scenery is magnificent and the route is generally high (with some easier and harder variations) allowing gorgeous photo opportunities (and certainly if you are not in shape before the hike you will be afterwards).
You can do the hike yourself if you are an experienced mountain walker or there are many guide companies which have Mountain Leaders (Accompagnateur en Moyenne Montagne in French) qualified to lead your hike, and who can also tell you about the local wildlife and wild flowers as well as the history of the region to make a more meaningful and enriched experience out of your journey.
The huts do not start to open for tourists until mid June. Before then a few might be available as unmanned ski huts. If you start too early or late, there will be avalanche danger on some of the high cols, besides the difficulty of passage w/o crampons, ice axe ropes etc.. Therefore trekking season for most tourists is mid June until mid September to have a staffed hut to hut travel with cooked meals etc.; otherwise it is wild camping with high mountain exposure and dangers of avalanche to be aware of. The weather can range from broiling hot in the day time (40C in some recent summers) dropping to near freezing or even below zero at night at altitude, and you can even have snow in August.
All huts will speak French, even in Switzerland and Italy. English is also widely spoken, however it is best and most polite and will get you a better welcome if you at least greet and thank people in their own language and ask if they speak English before prattling off at them in English (French is the native language in France and the part of Switzerland you will be travelling through and of course Italian in Italy).
A comfortable medium sized backpack is usually sufficient to hold required gear unless you are camping. Bring only one main change of clothes and rinse your clothes out at the hut in the evening as soon as you arrive at the hut, and let them dry outside and then on your backpack during the next morning (as long as rain is not forecast!). Bring enough layers to allow you to survive a night outdoors in -10C (in case of emergency bivvy). It's not a fashion show so honestly - don't carry more clothes than absolutely required or you will suffer!
Do NOT forget your camera and plenty of disk space on your digital media, or plenty of rolls of film if you still shoot film. It is a good idea to bring many some waterproof bags which can be used to keep your camera dry.
Ensure your passport and other personal papers are kept in a waterproof bag or sac and if you do not have a rain cover for your backpack, be sure to have a plastic liner for the entire contents of your backpack. Some essentials are: a waterproof and windproof jacket, long underwear, trousers which can unzip into shorts, two to three pairs of walking socks, two or three changes of underwear, two sports bras for women, synthetic long sleeved shirt, synthetic short sleeved shirt base layer (2), medium fleece, a woolly hat, medium gloves, thermal vest or duvet jacket (light weight and easy to roll and stow) and an emergency blanket or emergency shelter (very thin material, for sale in camping stores) and a camp towel should suffice.
A sleeping bag is not required if you are staying in refuges, but a sleeping sac liner (cotton or silk) will ensure your personal hygiene in the group sleeping arrangements. If you do not want to pay to sleep in the huts, you can bring a sleeping bag and bivvy sac to sleep outdoors, and purchase meals in the huts separately.
The huts provide slippers/clogs so that you can let your hiking boots air and dry until the morning. Normally you are not allowed to wear your boots indoors.
Poles are highly recommended to help knees and balance on the frequent uphill and downhill sections. A hat with sunshade and good sunglasses are essential, as is plenty of suncream as the sun is very strong at altitude.
A small MP3 player or ear plugs for sleeping in group accomodations in the huts is also very handy if you are a light sleeper.
Be sure to carry some snacks in your pack while walking (often candy bars can be stocked up at the refuges, which by the way take cash, not credit cards!) and do not forget basic first aid remedies and a Swiss army knife type of tool.
A 2 L water sac is useful to avoid having to constantly stop to get out your water bottle to drink. You can find clean water from spigots often enough on the route to not require carrying more than 2 L at a time, and in some sections where refuges are spaced close together on the map you will only need to carry 1 L of water before the next fill up spot.
Transport Options in the Valley
See my other tip for getting 'to' Chamonix from the Geneva airport.
Once in town be sure to get a 'Carte d'Hôte' from the tourist office or from your hotel or host, which gives you the right to free public transport in the whole valley.
There is a small 'Mulet' mini bus that travels around Chamonix town center. This is good if you leave your car in one of the outer car parks and want to get into town and don't like to walk or are injured. But frankly, if you are a hiker or mountaineer you should not need the Mulet - fit people can walk across the central part of Chamonix in under 5 minutes. In any case, this bus is free to all, with or without a special card.
The SNCF train goes up and down the whole valley from St Gervais to Les Houches to Chamonix, Argentiere and Vallorcine to the border of Switzerland. With your Carte d'Hôte it is free to travel between Servoz and Vallorcine on the SNCF train. The train stops are normally in town center, close to tourist attractions and ski lifts. The only exception I will mention is that the stop in Les Houches is not particularly convenient to town center, and Les Houches is a long stretched out town. Check with your accommodation provider to see how far you are from the train stop - buses are often the easier option in Les Houches. Trains run about once an hour depending upon the season. You can check the time table on the Office of Tourism site most easily or if you like frustration, try the SNCF site at http://www.sncf.fr under 'TER' (regional trains).
The Chamonix Bus runs between Les Houches and Argentière (it does NOT serve Servoz or Vallorcine). If you do not have a Carte d'Hôte the price is €1.50. There are several bus lines serving all the major tourist attractions and small hamlets - see the website below for the maps and time table. Generally they are 20 minutes apart in 'high season'.
The bus timetable is on the Office of Tourism website (http://www.chamonix.com) -- the main shortcoming is the night service is limited.
If you want to do a day-trip where it seems a car is best there is a Europe Car rental office in Chamonix center just across from the train station (though I recommend advance booking) and you could hire the car for 1-2 days if you felt you needed to. Be sure to inspect the car carefully before taking it!
Hiking on the Mer de Glace is a very interesting experience if you have never been on a glacier before.
Be sure to go prepared - this means crampons, ice axes, harness, ropes and with knowledge of crevasse rescue techniques! (Or hire a mountain guide).
Beautiful hikes are accessible from here, to reach the Grand Jorasse, the Dru and other famous mountains in the Alps.
Comfy mountain refuges such as the Couvercle Hut can be booked in advance for accomodations, or you can bivvy outdoors.
See further details under Sports tips and photos in the Travelogue section.
Recommend a mountain guide take you if you have no experience, as inexperienced people can and do die on this glacier every year.
A list of qualified guides can be found on the link below on the Chamonix.net website.
You will need to negotiate several ladders to get down. Where there are 2 ladders side by side one set is for ascending and one is for descending - don't muck up the system or you will be glared at or yelled at (likely by me! :-)